Recent Reading: in search of Emma Bull

You know what one book I forgot about when thinking of the all-time great paranormals/urban fantasies? WAR FOR THE OAKS by Emma Bull.

And of course the reason I forgot about this book is that Emma Bull hardly writes anything, and is that a shame or what? WAR FOR THE OAKS, FINDER, BONE DANCE, TERRITORY, and I think that’s it. Wait, also FREEDOM AND NECESSITY (with Steven Brust).

Now, W for the O is really, really good. I think it was her debut novel, which is just amazing, because it is flawlessly put together. Fey in Minneapolis / St Paul, right? I love Eddi, I love her relationship with the pooka, but really all the characters are beautifully drawn.

For me, BONE DANCE was ambitious and interesting, but not my favorite. It’s fascinating, though, to read it the second time and see if Bull played fair, hiding that big plot twist — she did, though. Only a really good writer could get away with what she pulls off in this book. If you haven’t heard of BONE DANCE and you’re intrigued, I strongly suggest that you avoid reading any reviews of it until after you’ve had a chance to read it cold. This is seriously a book you do not want spoiled. It would be like someone telling you, “Hey, you know, Bruce Willis is a ghost!” before you watch The Sixth Sense. (I hope you all knew that already! Surely everyone has already seen The Sixth Sense?)

That huge leap in time in FALCON bothered me a little and I’m not sure I ever really accepted that the two halves of the book belonged together, and I’m not sure I liked the ending. The writing, yes, two thumbs up, but the plot, I don’t know. Maybe I should re-read this one sometime, see how I feel about it now.

I believe I really liked TERRITORY, but honestly, it is only the first half of a story, and God knows when or if the second half is ever, ever going to come out. I don’t remember it that well; I always meant to re-read it when the second book came out, which may mean never, since it was supposed to be about ready at the end of 2011 and there’s no sign of it yet.

FREEDOM AND NECESSITY is a big, ambitious, difficult book — epistolary, with four protagonists. I don’t recall that it was up for major awards, but it should have been, honestly, it is way out of the ordinary. It’s set in 1850, in England, with a kind of is-there-magic-or-isn’t-there vibe. Everything changes, and changes again, as we shift viewpoints and learn the real truth (or is it the real truth?) about what’s going on. It’s excellent, but not a book for a cozy, comfortable evening with hot chocolate. Well, everything goes with chocolate, but seriously, you do have to stay awake to read this book.

But! When I was recently looking around to see if anybody on the internet had the inside scoop on the other half of TERRITORY, do you know what I discovered? That Emma Bull has been one of the movers and shakers behind a really interesting shared-world series called SHADOW UNIT.

If you don’t have a Kindle, then you can read these stories on the Shadow Unit website, here. Of course the formatting is more annoying, but on the other hand the stories are free. And the website does state that eventually there will be print versions, too.

Anyway, I read the first volume in bits and pieces during the show weekend, since it consists of four linked novellas plus little extras, ideal when you’re constantly being interrupted, right?

SHADOW UNIT is like reading novelizations of a TV show that was never made: like Criminal Minds crossed with The X-Files, kind of. The forward declares that it’s “The best TV show that was never made”, which made me smile, but also might be true, if you like this kind of TV show. Which I really did, back when I had time to watch TV.

Here’s the description of the first volume:

The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit hunts humanity’s worst nightmares. But there are nightmares humanity doesn’t dream are real. The BAU sends those cases down the hall. There, Stephen Reyes and his team pursue criminals transformed by a mysterious force: the anomaly. Welcome to Shadow Unit.

Contains four novellas:

“Breathe” by Emma Bull
“Knock On Coffins” by Elizabeth Bear
“Dexterity” by Sarah Monette
“A Handful of Dust” by Will Shetterly

Well, for a free volume of novellas by these authors, sign me up! And all the stories turned out to be good, too. There’s a complicated cast of characters, but every character is memorable, so you sort them out pretty quickly. There are more than a dozen volumes out (e-book); the first one is — clever if obvious marketing ploy — free. Now that I’ve read the first volume, I’ve bought the second, because I’m definitely planning to follow this series. I love how I can get a book in two minutes via my Kindle!

On the other hand . . . I’ve sworn to whittle down my physical TBR pile next. I have books piled on the floor again! Must get about ten book read to clear that pile out of the way. It’s a tough job, but we all have our crosses to bear, right?

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6 thoughts on “Recent Reading: in search of Emma Bull”

  1. Emma bull also wrote a picture book THE PRINcess and the Lord of Night.

    She’s one of those writers where I can see she’s good, but I usually can’t connect with the story. ThT was certainly my problem with TERRITORY. I do remember liking WftO.

    Yesterday (in intermittent rain) we tried to go to the world’s highest swamp – it seemed an appropriately damp excursion. The terrain we walked was fascinatingly alien in appearance – my husband said that it matched photos of Mars (except for the wet). It reminded me of other volcanic areas we’ve vacationed – that flowy look to the ground along with large boulders sitting on top, clearly carried there from elsewhere. Mostly the downpours have been at night, which isn’t,t bad. Daytime it,s been more of occasional gentle showers, not worth getting out the waterproof for.

  2. So where is the world’s highest swamp? I’m trying to imagine a swamp above terrain that looks like Mars. Sounds . . . different.

  3. KauI, Alaka’i Swamp. We did take pictures, but I don’t have them on this. if you go to and search for Pihea and Alaka’i Swamp trail you’ll find some (probably better) photos. #4 in set 2 ‘Trailhead and Pihea Trail’ is pretty representative. We didn’t make it to the swamp, alas. I did something that hurt a lot on a steep muddy section, and the teen wwearing out, too, so we turned back. What we did was interesting, though and the views, when the clouds cooperated, were spectactular.

  4. Emma Bull is awesome! I’ve loved her stuff for years, and Shadow Unit has filled the ongoing need for more Emma Bull. It’s been fascinating watching that series develop… I read Ms Bull’s blog pretty regularly (when I don’t mind feeling shallow and ignorant), so I was aware of Shadow Unit from the get go. I’ve not read the latest episodes; I’m waiting for them to come out in Kindle format. I’m also still trying to get past some of the really hard things that have happened to the characters – it can be painful reading.

    Did you know the series has all kinds of quirky dimensions? To include blogs written by many of the characters… I haven’t had much chance to explore or follow them, but if you’re sitting at home with time on your hands, it is amazing to see what a spiderweb they built in the internet.

    Anyway, just wanted to add my “Hurrah” for Emma Bull. It feels like she has written so much more,because each of her books is so different from the others. Here’s hoping she’s not done.

  5. The forward for Shadow Unit 1 mentioned extra content on the internet, but I haven’t tried to track any of it down. The character blogs do sound really interesting; it’s the time on my hands part which is tricky. I definitely look forward to getting into Shadow Unit 2 (and 3 and 4 etc), but I hope the things that happen to the characters aren’t TOO painful . . .

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