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Recent Reading: The Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell

Okay, so far Merrie Haskell’s written three books: The Princess Curse, which I really loved, Handbook, which I enjoyed but not as much, and Castle Behind Thorns, which isn’t out yet but which is the most unusual and I think my favorite of the three.

If you’ve read it, you know that The Princess Curse is a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses fairy tale, with a dose of Beauty and The Beast thrown in. It’s really charming and I definitely need to re-read it soon. I loved its protagonist, Reveka, right from the beginning; I enjoyed her thoughtfulness and how her view of the world expanded during the course of the story.

Castle Behind Thorns is a Sleeping Beauty retelling – did you see that coming from the title? – and a brilliant and unusual retelling it is, with exactly one character on stage alone for a third of the novel. I don’t need to tell you that the choice of telling the story this way put some unusual demands on the author. I loved the rough draft version of this story – seriously, on a scale of one to ten, I’d rate the rough draft as an eight and a half. I expect to rate the finished version, which I haven’t read, as a nine or nine and a half – practically perfect. (I don’t know when it’s going to come out, but I REALLY look forward to comparing the finished copy to the draft I read.)

Okay! In comparison to the other two, The Handbook for Dragon Slayers is fairy-tale-ish, but it is an original story, not a retelling.

Handbook pulls in plenty of fairy tale elements – the princess, the nasty villain who wants to take over her lands, magic horses, dragons, the Wild Hunt (I’m a big fan of the Wild Hunt). What an adult reader will notice that a kid would probably miss is the depth of research that went into the book: a pfennig for your thoughts, for example, and the stories of saints killing dragons with the sheer power of their holiness, and tidbits like the mistress of the land owing servants one new dress at Christmas. We get a real sense of time and place here, unusual for fairy tale retellings, which I think more often draw on a more generic setting. The plotting is nice and tight, with minor characters introduced early turning out to play more important roles than is immediately obvious. I mean, I didn’t see the bad guy coming at all, or at least I totally didn’t expect his plans to include, well, never mind, but it was nice to be surprised. I enjoyed the way Haskell catches the ends of all her loose threads and pulls them together.

The protagonist, Tilda, longs for peace and quiet to read and write, but is constantly interrupted to deal with her responsibilities as princess; worse, Tilda was born with a deformed foot, widely considered a sign of a divine curse, which makes it harder to discharge her obligations and in fact harder to want to. I mean, when the servants make the sign of the evil eye when you go by, it’s hard to care very much about their problems, right? These are the pressures that drive the story.

I took longer to connect with Tilda than I did with Reveka in The Princess Curse, and in fact never liked her as well (though I did like her just fine, so don’t get the wrong idea here). On the other hand, her handmaid, Judith, was a wonderful secondary character – and I appreciated the clever choice to make Judith rather than Tilde a kind of apprentice dragon slayer. The relationship between Tilda and Judith was, for me, the best part of the book. The male lead, Parz, is a perfectly decent foil for the two girls, but definitely secondary to the two female characters. There is only the faintest hint of romance in the story, which is after all MG rather than YA.

This story starts off slowly, which is normally not a problem for me and which I didn’t mind this time, either. I personally like a story to take its time setting the scene and drawing the world, but I know not everybody feels that way. Then, about sixty pages in, Tilde gets kidnapped and gets away and everything kicks up a notch. We get dragons, and the Wild Hunt, and the magic horses, which of course I enjoyed, because hey, magic horses! And more dragons. I loved the dragons, but I don’t want to give too much away about them, so I’m restraining myself here. I will just say that they don’t quite think like humans and that the difference is important.

Other opinions:

Charlotte from Charlotte’s Library

Thea and Ana from The Book Smugglers

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Oh, look, the Hugos

I am behind the times with this, but here’s how it worked out:

Redshirts by Scalzi took the novel category. While I enjoyed this one, I didn’t think it had the depth and ambition I look for in a major award recipient. As far as I’m concerned, only 2312 was actually a deserving contender. But whatever, I’m sure there’s no point in rehashing old this-is-the-lineup-seriously? issues now. And Redshirts is clever and fun.

“The Emperor’s Soul” by Brandon Sanderson took the Novella award, YAY because I thought it was BY FAR the best entry in the category. I am surprised but very pleased to see this outcome!

“The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi” by Pat Cadigan, won for Novelette, which also makes me happy because I was definitely my favorite in that category — humorous, non-grim, well-put-together, clever.

“Mono no Aware”, by Ken Liu, won the short story award, which again I am pleased about because I thought it was a pretty good story, better than “Immersion” which got more buzz (that I saw), and besides I utterly DETESTED “Mantis Wives”.

And it won’t surprise you to know that The Avengers won the long-form film category. Well deserved! Great movie! Now I really want to see it again and of course I don’t actually have it on DVD. A lack I must rectify one day.

Anyway, that’s as far as I read, but if you’re interested the whole list is here.

So overall I’m pretty pleased with how that all fell out. I don’t know that I’ll vote next year, but then maybe I will, because it IS interesting to see these outcomes and be familiar with all the stories.

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September releases —

I’m piggybacking on Chachic’s post here, but just wanted to remind you all that The Dream Thieves and McKinley’s new book Shadows are out this month — among other titles!

A new McKinley! Yay! You wouldn’t want to forget, right?

UPDATE: Another September list to blatantly steal, from By Singing Light. September is looking scary for book budgets everywhere.

I’ve never read anything by Holly Black. Maybe she is another author I really need to try?

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A Year of Discoveries

You know, this year and last year have really stood out for me for Discovering Prolific Well-Known Amazing Authors I Have Never Read Anything By.

I mean, Martha Wells, right? And then Andrea Höst. My two favorite authors for this year and I never read anything by Wells until last year or anything by Höst till this year. I mean, that just seems unbelievable. And yes, yes, of course you could argue that she is not all that well known, but she OUGHT to be.

And then Laura Florand. Who, I know, counts as semi-prolific so far, but she is clearly heading toward no-kidding-honest-to-God-prolific status at a pretty brisk clip.

And now Elizabeth Bear and Sherwood Smith. I mean, I know I’ve only read one novel by Bear so far. And I think I won’t actually read The Shattered Pillars until the third book of the series comes out, which means so far I’ve only read one book by her. So it’s a little early to judge, right? But Range of Ghosts was really, really good and I’m definitely picking up others of hers. I’ve got All the Windwracked Stars on my Kindle right now, in fact, and I have to say, what a great title!

Kristen at Fantasy Book Cafe recommended that series — anybody else got a specific Bear recommendation?

And now Sherwood Smith, and thank you, everyone who has recently recommended other Smith books, I definitely appreciate some pointers considering the wide variety of books she has evidently produced so far.

That’s five new-to-me authors, each with a big backlist, just since late last year. That’s kind of amazing. It also makes me wonder who else I’m missing, you know?

My brother made a great suggestion that unfortunately may never occur to Amazon staff: that it would be highly useful for Amazon to re-tool its recommendations like this:

If you loved these three books, you might check out these three book bloggers.

Wouldn’t that be clever? Because we all know discoverability is a big issue now and will only turn into a bigger issue in the near future. And for me, strong recommendations from other authors, personal friends, and particularly book bloggers whose personal taste I share is by far the number-one way I discover new authors.

Browsing online? Not at all. Browsing in a brick-and-mortar store? Not that either, because I live too far away from all bookstores.

Nope, for me it’s almost entirely recommendations. I mean, just today I added It Takes Two to Tangle by Theresa Romain to my wishlist strictly because it was recommended by Laura Florand on Twitter, in terms that make me think it’ll appeal to me. I hope I will read it pretty soon, in fact.

Though probably not, like, this week or anything, because I think I will be reading some more books by Bear and Smith first. Lotta backlist to get through for each of them!

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Recent Reading: Crown Duel, Court Duel, A Stranger to Command, by Sherwood Smith

So, you know, I’d never read anything by Sherwood Smith? I know, right? Actually, I think I’d got her mixed up in my head with another author whom I don’t like (I don’t remember who). But then I saw one or two or three references to her books by people whose taste I trust, so I asked for recommendations for what of hers to try, and the Crown Duel / Court Duel duology came up several times. A Stranger to Command is a companion novel, set earlier.

Okay, so – I enjoyed Crown Duel, I loved Court Duel, and I REALLY loved A Stranger to Command.

Meliara, the protagonist of the duology, is a good protagonist, but she initially annoyed me because she is emotional, hot-headed, naïve, and ignorant about the world. A kid reading this book would probably like Mel better than I did, because her intentions are good. But she gets caught by the bad guys fairly early on and she totally depends on luck and the machinations of the most important secondary character, Shevraeth, to survive and escape.

What becomes clear as the duology goes on is that Sherwood Smith knows perfectly well that Mel is naïve and ignorant – because Mel herself realizes this (eventually) and takes steps to learn about the world. And because though she totally misjudges Shevraeth in the beginning, she eventually figures that out and tries hard to correct her judgment. With, for a long time, mixed success.

What absolutely makes this duology is Shevraeth. Here Smith has taken the unusual choice of creating a wonderful, interesting (and uber-competent) character and never, ever showing us his point of view. We are strictly in Mel’s pov throughout, and we can clearly see Shevraeth’s quality long before Mel can. This structure reminds me of the way Dorothy Dunnett wrote the Lymond Chronicles and also her murder mysteries, separating the pov character from the true protagonist – because in a lot of ways Shevraeth is the protagonist. Every single reader is going to fall in love with him. I sure did.

And even though a lot more adventure / narrow escapes / wild rides and so forth take place in the first book? I thought the first book was pretty good, but loved the second. The second is all about Mel learning to navigate the world of the court, and about sorting out the relationship between her and Shevraeth, and though there is one wild ride and one scary confrontation, basically it is a much quieter and slower-paced book. But I loved Mel, who by the start of the second book has developed into a character I liked much better – and of course I loved watching her relationship with Shevraeth work itself out, because hey, Shevraeth, right?

Let me add here that if you love Crown Duel / Court Duel, and Shevraeth, then you definitely owe it to yourself to read Andrea Höst’s Touchstone Trilogy. Shevraeth reminds me VERY STRONGLY of Kaoren Ruuel, the male lead of the Touchstone story. I would say that Höst’s trilogy is more sophisticated and aimed at a somewhat older reader, and you will need to keep in mind that the true romance doesn’t really kick off till partway through the second book. But I confidently predict that any reader who loves Shevraeth will love Ruuel.

The other story that just leaps instantly to mind in this context is one you will unfortunately have a lot more trouble finding: An Alien Music by Annabel and Edgar Johnson. I have a copy, because I loved it as a kid when I read it as a library book, and read it over and over. As an adult, I tracked down a copy – this was before Amazon – and paid $40 for it, so that shows you how much I wanted it. There is no ebook edition, unfortunately, and I see that used copies are still pretty high on Amazon. But again, if you loved Crown Duel / Court Duel, I can virtually promise you will love An Alien Music.

If you normally read fantasy and not SF, do NOT let the SF trappings put you off either the Touchstone Trilogy or An Alien Music, or you will truly be missing out.

Okay! A Stranger to Command. You know how uber-confident Shevraeth is in Crown Duel / Court Duel. You know how he got that way? Not by sheer authorial fiat, it turns out. No. He got that way because of his background, which is covered in A Stranger to Command – which can be read either before or after the duology, but I enjoyed reading it afterward. It is a much slower paced novel dealing with Shevraeth’s years in a military school in a foreign country, and it is so interesting, because Smith totally deals with the day-to-day life of the school and has essentially nothing big and important happen in the entire book. The big important stuff happened in the backstory – did she hit this in a different series, and if so, what series? Because I would love to read it – and in the future. This whole novel is the in-between years after one bad guy has been defeated and before the next installment of serious conflict.

I loved this book. Loved it. I bet it gets more variable ratings on Goodreads than the duology (I haven’t checked, but that’s my bet). I bet younger readers in general do not love this book as much as older readers. But for a reader who loves a detailed school story where the protagonist starts off sympathetic and competent and only gets better and better as you go on – a story where you can put yourself right in the protagonist’s life – this one is hard to beat.

Telling the duology from Mel’s pov and leaving the reader to see Shevraeth from the outside was a great choice and made Shevraeth a great character. The bits at the end of the duology – adding scenes from Shevraeth’s pov – are okay, but not necessary. Telling the story of Shevraeth’s background from his pov was another great choice. These three books should definitely be read as a unit. Highly recommended, for readers from say, twelve on up.

I’ll definitely be looking for more books by Sherwood Smith in the near future; a big Thank You to all who recommended her to me and pointed me toward this set of books in particular.

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An unexpectedly excellent Labor Day weekend —

People! I realize that you may not know very much about the world of show dogs, but I assure you, it isn’t often that a six-month-old puppy wins a major her first time out at an AKC show! Every single one of the other girls entered was a decent, quality entry, but Honey beat them all — including her own mother. It’s her movement: she has extraordinarily good movement, even though she has a couple cosmetic flaws. You can bet that this judge will be going on my list as a movement guy who will excuse cosmetic faults if the dog’s structure and movement are good enough. AND as a confident judge who will put a puppy right up front, over the heads of mature, quality adults.

Through a ridiculous oversight, I somehow neglected to have a win photo taken, and I don’t even have a current picture of Honey to post. She needs to win again in two weeks and then I will have a win photo taken, even though that is just a one-point show and not a major. (Of course, she may not win. I don’t mean to sound like it’ a sure thing.)

And! Though Honey’s win on Sunday was the unexpected win, on Saturday, her mother, Kenya, picked up her second major (and Best of Breed, yay!). That means Kenya is essentially guaranteed to finish her championship, because I can always enter her in one small show after another and pick up those points against minimal competition. But hopefully she will pick up those points fairly briskly. Like, this month. She is entered in four shows this month, so I’ll be crossing my fingers that she will win at least a couple of times.

So, yeah, EVEN THOUGH the show site was unairconditioned and horrifically hot, it was a great show.

Quick link — yeah, sorry, no pictures from this weekend’s show, but if you’re curious, here’s a link to my other site, with pictures. I have to admit that Kenya is now pudgier than when this photo was taken, and of course Honey is now six months old instead of eight weeks. But hey — pictures!

Anyway, I couldn’t connect to the internet because the hotel was out in the middle of the forest, but I did read a lot and write some reviews, though, so those will follow.

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A Sherlock Holmes Scientific Romance

I just wanted to share this with you all, because “Sherlock Holmes” and “crop circles” are entertaining when in the same sentence, don’t you think?

This is actually a novella, “The Adventure of the Field Theorems” available at Book View Cafe in pdf or mobi or epub formats. I thought the idea was funny, even though I’m not actually a Sherlock Holmes fan generally.

The Holmes novella is the third title down. Actually, if you scroll up and down, there are several titles that are kinda tempting. Now that I’ve read CROWN DUEL / COURT DUEL by Sherwood Smith — and I really enjoyed them, especially the latter — anyway, now her titles are jumping out at me. I didn’t know she ever wrote contemporary, but her novelette “Being Real” looks like fun, and hey, it’s only $0.99.

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Writing & Interruptions

An interesting post about dealing with interruptions in a writing career, over at Book View Cafe, by Deborah J Ross.

Then life handed me Interruptions. Non-negotiable Interruptions. The good ones involved having to drop whatever new project I was working on for reviewing copy edits, revising to editorial feedback, or proofreading a book in production. It simply isn’t professional to tell your editor, “Yes, I know this book has a tight deadline but I simply can’t set aside this on-spec novella so you’ll simply have to wait until the muse takes a vacation.”

For me, many interruptions are provided by the natural world: gotta get these cuttings made right now or it will be too late. Gotta drop everything and take care of these premature puppies right now because, hello, puppies have priorty.

But! Unlike Debora Ross, I am comfortable writing fifty or a hundred pages of some project and setting it aside for months or even years. It makes me feel like that project is underway, like I have something to come back to. Which is true, obviously. Re-reading those pages usually gets me in the right frame of mind to pick up that project and go on with it.

I have two — no, wait, three — projects in that stage right now. Yay!

There’s a different kind of interruption that I hate, though. That’s when I have this GREAT SCENE in my head that I really want to write, but no uninterrupted days in which to work on it. That will make me just stop dead, waiting, because I want to enjoy that scene and I won’t be able to enjoy it if I have to work on it a mere hour at a time. So in this case, stopping is a kind of indulgence.

Deborah Ross also refers to a much more serious kind of interruption, though: interruptions forced on us by a real crisis.

The thing is that when we return to projects suspended because of crisis, we do so as a different people. Interruptions due to crash-and-burn deadlines may strengthen critical skills, but they don’t generally cause us to reach deep into ourselves and emerge stronger but scarred. I’m not the writer or the person I was when I drafted those shorter pieces or that fractured novel. I’m something different.

Yes, this would be so true. I’m hoping not to have too many really serious crises, but you know, I don’t imagine anybody gets through life without a couple.

Anyway, nice article! Click through and read it, if you like.

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Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

Okay, waiting to get THE SHATTERED PILLARS, which will probably arrive while I’m gone for this weekend’s show, which means I won’t get to read it till Monday. Which is unfortunate! Because having finished RANGE OF GHOSTS, I can tell you that the first book does not stand alone. I don’t know that the second book will, either, but hey, I’ll chance it.

The carrion-king: creepy, isn’t he? I actually sort of like scorpions, but I’m not keen on how he’s set up poor Edene as part of his Scary Plan, whatever that turns out to be.

Love Temur. Love his magic horse, who is handled far, far better than most magic horses in fantasy. It’s only toward the end that we become pretty sure that yes, she is magic. She is clearly an Akhal Teke, btw. That is plainly the real-world breed on which the steppe ponies are based. They really do often have a metallic sheen to their coats, thus:

See the long flat muscles, the lean build? The metallic sheen is in fact created by the structure of the hair; the opaque part of each hair is reduced, the translucent part makes up more of each hair; thus the sheen. This is a fascinating breed and it is so cool that Elizabeth Bear did her research and made the horses fit the landscape.

The dogs, too. The working dogs she described are matted, which in fact was an asset because the heavy felted or corded mats protected them from wolves and weather, but here’s what those big sheep-guarding dogs look like in the real world:

These are Tibetan mastiffs. Again, Bear’s description is perfectly clear; if you know this breed exists, you can recognize her dogs right off.

Plus the food and the clothes and the attitudes created by the nomadic lifestyle and the societal attitudes toward women — the steppes are a good place to be a woman; other places not so much — and the landscape, of course. All very nicely drawn.

And have I mentioned the moons? You should read this series just for the creative astrology!

Okay, more extensive comments after I read the second book. But one more Akhal Teke picture to end, because it doesn’t show the metallic sheen so well, but it’s a GREAT picture:

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Moving along with BLACK DOG —

Got my first email about the cover today — not that there are any rough sketches or anything, but they are starting the initial thinking-about-it phase. Exciting! And nice to be consulted, though I certainly don’t intend to try to shove my non-professional opinion down the artist’s throat, because really, that’s just silly.

Though there mustn’t be a real wolf on the cover. That’s important, because black dogs aren’t wolves and really don’t look like wolves. It’s like putting a dragon on the cover of THE FLOATING ISLANDS, and I was all like: IT MUST HAVE FEATHERS, and the artist wound up just not putting a dragon on the cover, which was FINE, as long as he didn’t try to put on a bat-winged dragon.

I know, I KNOW, the purpose of the cover is to sell the book. That’s what it’s for! So there’s all this marketing stuff to consider. Do we want a girl on the cover? In a sexy, contorted pose? (Maybe to the first; and in my opinion, a decisive No to the second — to me, Natividad is pretty in a girl-next-door way.)

So you see I do have opinions, actually.

But then, to me, it seems like these days Every. Single. Paranormal/UF. Cover. has a girl in a sexy pose with a weapon in her hand and an animal in the background, and they all totally blur together for me. So there’s the question: do you want to signal to readers that this is a paranormal/UF? Or do you want to steer clear of the herd and chance missing readers who are actually looking for paranormal/UF? It’s even harder when you consider that BLACK DOG both is and is not a paranormal/UF title.

I mean, there is some romance, but it is not really front-and-center the way you expect in paranormal romance. It’s maybe more UF, except not urban. (Rural fantasy?) So it’s not clear what signals to try to send.

Plus these days a cover really has to look okay as a thumbnail on Amazon and wherever.

You know what I personally really like in a cover, though?

Landscape. Like, check this one out:

I just did a search for paranormal covers and this one jumped out at me — nearly all the rest had the girl taking up like 80 percent of the cover, usually in a sexy or bring-it kind of pose, all the elements that are so typical these days. This one is more interesting to me because it both sets the characters in the scene and evokes the title.

And I like a more artistic cover, too, like this one:

Which of course I mentioned to my Strange Chemistry editor. I can’t even tell you how much I’m looking forward to seeing what the artists and cover designers come up with!

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