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The problem with gardening —

Is the sudden desperate need to find something to do with the pak choi, broccoli raab, the last of the snap peas, the first of the green beans, the amaranth (I tried amaranth last year — very easy to grow and self-sows EVERYWHERE, but the bean beetles love it and turn many leaves into lacework), etc, etc.

My favorite new vegetable? New to me, I mean? Daikon radishes. Love ’em! They’re turning out great! Way, way better than the little round red ordinary radishes, which didn’t work out at all this spring. The little radishes were too hard to cut with a knife by the time they were big enough to be worth picking! What gives? I may grow only daikons from now on.

The daikons are maturing right now. Here’s my favorite thing to do with them, so far. This is a fusion Thai-Sichuan recipe I made up, based on a recipe for spicy daikon slivers from Fushia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty.

10 rice paper wrappers
30 medium shrimp
8 oz daikon, grated
8 oz carrots, grated
1 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp Chinkiang black vinegar
1 Tbsp chile oil (Dunlop suggests 4 Tbsp! Much too hot for me!)
1-2 Tbsp sesame oil (Dunlop suggests 2 tsp)

Grate the daikon and carrot using a food processor. Place in a colander, sprinkle with salt, and toss. Leave for half an hour. Squeeze out excess liquid and place in bowl.

Combine the sugar, vinegar, chile oil, and sesame oil. Toss with daikon and carrots.

Peel and devein the shrimp, saute in butter or oil or whatever you like, and set aside.

Soak each rice paper wrapper in hot water for about 30 seconds, or until flexible. arrange about 2-3 Tbsp grated daikon-carrot mixture in a log shape near one side of the wrapper. Lay three shrimp on top. Roll up like a burrito. Set aside and repeat with remaining wrappers. You may have some daikon-carrot mixture left over. I’d say this is a generous but light lunch dish for two, or you could stretch the daikon-carrot mixture, add a couple more rice paper wrappers and a few more shrimp, and probably have enough for twelve rolls and three people.

I imagine crab or fake crab (surimi) or scallops or maybe even cooked chicken breast would probably work, too. I have lots more daikons in the garden, so I may try each of those in turn.

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The current WIP . . .

Has switched temporarily! Editorial comments on HOUSE OF SHADOWS have arrived! It’s been quite some time; I’m actually sort of looking forward to reading through the whole ms. (Alas, I’ll be bored with it again by the time it gets through the copy editing process.)

There’s no great rush, but I think I will take care of this first, THEN finish revising the new ms.

Here’s the book description Orbit’s using for HOUSE OF SHADOWS (comments below):


After their father’s death, two sisters must find their own fortunes. Karah’s seems secure as she has a place waiting for her in a glamorous Flower House. But Nemienne sees the world differently, as if on a slant, and no one will take her in until she meets the mage who will change everything in her life.

An apprenticeship means a home and survival, but can Nemienne trust the mage? And life in the Flower Houses turns out to be rife with unsuspected intrigue and subtle games of power. Now Karah and Nemienne find themselves at the center of a plot that threatens not only to upset the fragile futures they have found for themselves, but also to destroy their kingdom.

And then the arrival of a mysterious bard uncovers dangerous secrets that not even the mages suspect… even sleeping dragons must wake some day.


And you know what? There are actually three point of view characters in this book, and though the mysterious bard is one of them, Karah isn’t. You wouldn’t guess that at all from this, would you?

This gets at a whole huge topic: how to write back cover copy that sort of reflects what the book is about. Let me tell you, this is hard! It also isn’t actually the priority. The priority is trying to write something catchy. If it’s also accurate, that’s great! And if it’s more or less complete and doesn’t leave out somebody important, well, that’s icing on the cake.

From time to time, I’ve noticed a reader commenting that they were bothered because a major character didn’t appear in the back cover copy of a book. (This happens with THE CITY IN THE LAKE. Sorry! I wish it was possible to write perfect back cover copy!

Maybe when HOUSE OF SHADOWS actually comes out, I’ll hold a vote to pick the coolest character who doesn’t appear in the back cover copy . . .

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How far can you go in YA?

How grim can you be? How graphic? Can you kill important characters? Can you kill them in disturbing, gory ways?

Obviously, yes.

Should you?

After MOCKINGJAY came out, there was quite a lot of discussion about this. And then I happened to see a recent post over at Nathan Bransford’s blog, and that got me thinking about this topic again.

As it happens, I’m not personally too keen on authors who slaughter characters left and right for no good reason. Or set out to manipulate you and jerk your tears by introducing a very likable character specifically in order to kill them (I’m thinking of ALL Steven King’s recent books, here).

Or on authors who seem to be out to test your tolerance for gore, again for no special reason — just using gore as an end in itself. And, you know, this isn’t a YA thing as far as I know, but sometimes the torture scenes get so numerous the plot sort of disappears behind them? Which is kind of appalling, imho, because it actually winds up (for me) generating boredom with the torture, which is kind of not the reaction I prefer to have to reading about pain and suffering. I’m thinking of Laurell Hamilton here. But she’s very popular, of course, and fine! If lots of gore and sex and gore and violence and gore are what you like, great!

But I do think that there’s a tremendous difference in the TYPE of violence from book to book, and that this then makes a huge difference to the reading experience, and THIS hasn’t been addressed at all (that I know of) in discussions about violence in YA literature.

Let’s take only stories that include quite a lot of violence. One end of the spectrum, we have stories such as GRACELING which has plenty of violence, but it’s not going to hit too many “WAY TOO DISTURBING” buttons for most readers, I think. The main character, Katsa, is used by her king as a threat and a thug, but she loathes being used that way, rebels, goes off on her own, and winds up facing the REAL thug in the book. GRACELING is not going to give too many readers nightmares, and I think part of the reason for this is that the book’s underlying message are normative, prosocial, and not at all disturbing: It’s wrong to force your will on others, it’s right to go to the limit to protect the helpless. These are not challenging themes (not that there’s anything wrong with that! I *like* prosocial themes!)

DIVERGENT is a little more disturbing, but not much. The conflict between putting others first and putting yourself first sets up an interesting theme, which I expect to unfold through the sequel(s). The main character, Tris, thinks of herself as selfish, and in some ways she even IS selfish — and, as Thea at The Book Smugglers pointed out, that’s actually kind of refreshing. When Tris refuses to forgive that guy for trying to kill her? Well, hey, trying to murder a rival isn’t actually very forgivable, you know? There is quite a bit of cruelty in the story, but in DIVERGENT, I think the quick pace, the excitement, and the fundamental lack of realism offset both the cruelty inflicted on the characters and the cruelty they inflict on each other.

THE HUNGER GAMES is something else again. The slower pace draws you into a far more detailed and far more believable world, the society is just about the most oppressive EVER, and the situation into which Katniss is dumped is way more awful than anything in DIVERGENT or GRACELING. Interestingly, we get a conflict between selfishness / selflessness here as well, but overall we get far more challenging themes in THE HUNGER GAMES. For example, Suzanne Collins slams home (in MOCKINGJAY) the idea that although war is sometimes absolutely necessary, it is still awful and brutalizes everyone involved. I think the greater plausibility of the world and the greater complexity of the themes add a big impact and, to my mind, make the cruelty and violence in the book much more disturbing.

Elizabeth Wein pushes the limits of violence and cruelty on a much smaller scale in THE SUNBIRD, which is not a dystopian novel (it’s an adventure story, more like GRACELING than like DIVERGENT or THE HUNGER GAMES, although not much like any of the three). The setting (the African country of Aksum) is wonderful, and wonderfully detailed. The main character, Telemakos, is a contender for coolest-main-character-in-all-YA-fantasy. The writing is flawless. Oh, this is a great book! But some of the cruelty that Telemakos witnesses, and some he suffers, really push the envelope. It’s bad enough I hesitate to spell it out. But I don’t think this book got the buzz of those above (unfairly!), so probably many fewer people have read it, so here goes:

In one scene, Telemakos witnesses a slave boy, a porter, being whipped for clumsiness and dropping things. This is a boy who was in the wrong place and heard the wrong thing, and just a day or so previously his master cut out his tongue and cut off his hands, so he could neither speak nor write. THEN he was beaten for dropping things.

This is a historical novel (well, historical-ish). Is that level of, I don’t know, indifferent, thoughtless cruelty historical accurate? Probably. Is it okay in a YA novel? Well, I loved the book, and highly recommend it. Would I let my kids read it, if I had kids? Probably. These awful scenes are redeemed, for me, because none of the main characters take them lightly or find them at all acceptable — and also because they are all wrapped up with main plot (they are not gratuitous, they are not there just to shock the reader). Would I expect kids to have nightmares about this scene. Umm . . . wouldn’t be surprised.

Okay, one more: The TOMORROW series by John Marsden, starting with TOMORROW, WHEN THE WAR BEGAN and proceeding through six sequels. These aren’t dystopian, exactly, though people who love dystopias would probably love them. They’re adventure. Not fantasy, not exactly SF, the idea is that some unnamed (nonexistent in our world) country suddenly moved to conquer modern-day Australia, and a group of kids who were camping in the bush and didn’t get swept up with everyone else wind up on their own, doing guerrilla stuff to fight back. This series doesn’t have the horrifically oppressive Capital of THE HUNGER GAMES, run by the extraordinarily evil President Snow, nor does it have any individual scenes of such overwhelming cruelty as THE SUNBIRD (so far; I’ve read the first four). What it does have, in spades, is realism in the emotional reactions and interactions of the main characters. Like when an enemy soldier is going to rape one of the girls and another whaps him on the head with a rock and he dies, slowly, without regaining consciousness — the emotional reactions of the kids as they watch him die is SO VERY BELIEVABLE. This sort of thing happens over and over and it is ALL totally believable and feels totally true to life and just RIGHT. (How does Marsden DO this? I am so jealous!) And it is this quality of total believability on a human level which gives this series such tremendous punch.

And the TOMORROW series also works for me because once again the themes and underlying messages are positive: it may be totally necessary to kill somebody, in fact pacifism might be totally wrong, but it’s not easy, not okay, not something you’re going to recover from instantly. Or even at all. In that sense, the message of the TOMORROW series are an awful lot like like the ones in MOCKINGJAY.

For me, the more believable the setting and the characters, the more powerful the violence. And the themes. And the reading experience.

Appropriate, NON-gratuitous violence is part and parcel of all the books above; it’s inextricable not just from the plots but from the themes. It’s part of what makes them effective; removing it or even toning down the violence and cruelty from these books would make them not just sanitized, but also ineffective or even “unwritable”, as they really could not exist in such a form.

And that’s how it should be, I think, if an author answers the “Should you?” question with a “Yes, I should.”

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Last of the Hugo nominees —

Blackout, by Connie Willis.

You know, they only sent me an e-copy of Blackout? And it is really the first half of the book. I see why the actual nomination is for Blackout/All Clear: because Blackout has no ending — not even a vague gesture toward the idea of an ending.

Phooey. Now I need to buy a copy of All Clear, pronto, so I can find out what happens!

This is a time travel story, of course: historians go back in time to study things. I like the VERY NARROW studies they do, that seems so realistic! Like a tiny snapshot of evacuated children in one particular manor in the country, for example.

I liked this book a lot, though for me it was sloooow to get started. Normally I don’t mind a slow pace, but it took a while for me to start to care about the characters. It has a lot of point of view characters — five — two important, two medium, one minor — which would probably be why it was a slow-starter for me. But it also sets up an interesting contrast with The Dervish House. Why did the large number of characters work for me here (eventually) whereas I just quit reading The Dervish House?

I think the answer is simple: Willis gives each point of view character more space — that is, more pages in a row before switching to the next character. That gives me a chance to connect to one character before switching to the next. Also, she places each character in a small-scale, intimate setting: dealing with the godawful children in the manor, looking for a job in a department store during the Blitz, like that.

Each situation is easy to understand, and it’s easy to imagine yourself in the place of Eileen or Polly or Mike or whoever. And those places are stressful! You start to really WANT to know how Eileen is going to cope with the mother of those godawful children, how Polly is going to manage when she can’t get a black skirt — trivial, but it all seems to matter.

Willis ramps up the stress level with virtually every chapter. The kids have measles, so Eileen can’t get to her drop site. Now she finally gets to the drop site, but it doesn’t open! She has to go to London (encumbered by the godawful children) and find Polly, only she doesn’t know which department store to look in and SHE’S not the one who knows when and where each bomb will fall . . . and so on.

By the end, Eileen and Polly and Mike have at least found each other (whew!) but nothing has been resolved. I have some predictions!

I bet other historians from the future are thick on the ground. Marjorie, for example. The vicar, quite possibly. Sir Godfrey, definitely — I think he’s actually Colin. Anybody want to bet? No fair reading All Clear first!

So I’ve definitely got to buy All Clear.

Now, the Hugo?

Not sure. I’m going to glance at The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms again first, because it’s been awhile, but I think for me:

1. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
2. Blackout / All Clear
3. Feed
4. Cryoburn
5. The Dervish House

Now gotta think about reading the rest of the short-form nominees . . .

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Narrowing down the Hugo nominees

The books I really want to read are the rest of the Tomorrow series by Marsden. I’ve read the first two and three of the remaining five have arrived, but not the third in the series, so I’m stuck.


So I’m reading the other two Hugo nominees while I wait! A useful productive activity so I totally don’t need to feel the least bit guilty for reading instead of, say, pulling weeds. Right?

So! I’m liking Myra Grant’s Feed better after starting McDonald’s Dervish House (links below).

Feed pulled me right in, I was instantly attached to the characters and pulled forward by the plot and I had a hard time putting it down, and I definitely put the sequel on my get-to-it-soon mental list.

The Dervish House . . . none of those things. I was thinking about the difference, and I think the big one is characterization and focus. It’s not that McDonald’s book doesn’t have characterization — it does. And it’s got setting in spades, and that usually matters to me, too. The writing is fine — plain, invisible, doesn’t get in the way at all.

I think the problem for me is the great number of viewpoint characters and the extra-quick shifting from one to another. If we were sticking to the kid with the “monkey”? I’d probably be hooked. The woman who’s into acquiring rare, valuable items? Ditto. Any reasonably sympathetic, likable character would do, but there are so many characters!

I read fifty or seventy pages last night and just couldn’t get interested. I was skimming large blocks of print out of a mild desire to see what happened next, and so I quit, because a “mild desire to see what happens next” is not enough reason to spend time reading a book.

So I get why this got nominated, but it’s not for me.

Right now: choice number one — Hundred Thousand Kingdoms; choice number two — Feed; choice number three — Cryoburn.

Next and last of the novels — Blackout, by Connie Willis. I hope I like that better!

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Reading the Hugo Nominees

I do TRY to read the award nominees if I’m going to be voting on ’em. I try hard! Especially the novels!

Luckily the Hugo people help with this by sending you an electronic packet with all the nominees in pdf form, if you’re eligible to vote. Yay!

The Hugo nominees are
The Dervish House, which I haven’t read yet.

BlackOut / All Clear, which I haven’t read yet.

Cryoburn, by Lois McMaster Bujold, which of course I preordered and read the moment it arrived. I enjoyed it, naturally, but it’s not my favorite of her Vorkosigan books and I won’t be voting for it.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which I loved loved loved and I will vote for it unless one of the others knocks my socks off even more than this one did, which I don’t expect but who knows?

And Feed, by Mira Grant, which I just read and liked a lot but will not be voting for. Here’s my take on Feed, which I just read a week or so ago —

The explanation for the zombies was clever, the zombies themselves well done. I’m not a zombie fan, but I really liked how Grant handled hers. Characterization and voice was excellent. It would never in a thousand years have occurred to me to write a book about bloggers covering a presidential campaign — whoa. Grant did a great job, a *fantastic* job, with the near-future tech and with the close-up of the political campaign. I had some problems with this book, but I will DEFINITELY be buying the sequel.

Here’s why I won’t be voting for it for the Hugo (spoiler alert!)

One — the main bad guy was VERY VERY obvious. The moment this guy walked on stage, I was like, Hello, here is the bad guy! And it kept getting more obvious until I decided that maybe Grant was pulling a fast one and REALLY the bad guy would turn out to be a shocking surprise. Well, no. That really was the bad guy. The protagonist of this book, Georgia, is supposed to be so very very competent, and that’s exactly how she comes across, except honestly, it makes anybody look stupid when something is so crystal clear to the reader and yet the protagonist doesn’t get it until it’s spelled out in flaming letters ten feet high.

And Two — look, I’m only a casually religious person, okay? But I am nevertheless offended by the stereotype of religious people as either useful idiots or else as narrow-minded bigoted crush-your-enemies repressive EVIL dudes. Frankly, the use of this stereotype made me simply not believe in the bad guy. I rolled my eyes every time he opened his mouth, and twice as hard during his big final speech.

So, doesn’t begin to kick The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms out of first place for me. But! I really really honest DID enjoy Feed very much, and I WILL be buying the sequel!

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Busy weekend!

Got the second rough draft of the current WIP done! That means I’ve done the first cut (I cut 47 pp) and also taken care of the 30+ notes-to-self to fix continuity etc, which added back about 6 pp. The story’s now about 123,000 words, which isn’t bad. I’m sure I’ll wind up doing a final cut and knocking it down a bit more, but this is good for now.

The accumulated clean-up notes are sometimes totally trivial: if somebody uses a knife in the last scene, she’d better HAVE a knife in some earlier scene. That’s easy: find a place to insert the knife, put it in, all done.

Then there are the trivial-but-annoying fixes: does everyone who’s supposed to have an accent have one all the way through the story? Checking this means reading over every single scene a character appears in all the way through. You don’t want to overdo the references to the accent, either, so you have to evaluate each scene to see if the references to the accent, if any, seem appropriate. Same sort of thing with physical description: too much? Too little? Does that character have blue eyes all through, is that one consistently bald? Same again with the physical description of the landscape: don’t want to bog things down, but I want to do enough description to put the reader in the scene.

This sort of checking is so VERY VERY tiresome. It’s this sort of thing that makes me bored with the manuscript by the time I send it off for a second opinion. Luckily I get un-bored as time passes, so when someone requests revisions, that’s not usually such a trial.

Then there’s the need for re-checking big, important aspects of the book. Oressa’s relationship with her father is not the same as Gulien’s. Relationships have to stay consistent, or change in appropriate ways, as the story unfolds. If I reinterpret one character toward the end of the book, then I have to go back through and smooth that out from the beginning — initial scenes with that character may have to change, everyone’s relationships with that character may have to be tweaked — lots of decision making and judgment calls. This is not as tedious, but it is hard.

At the end, I routinely wind up not sure whether the characterization works. This is a big, big reason I need another opinion. Like in the Griffin Mage, Book 2: I couldn’t tell whether the relationship between Gereint and Beguchren worked. It was supposed to be a subtle relationship, but it’s central to the story and very important and it was harder than putting in a romance because you know the reader understands how romances work and will “fill in” the appropriate emotions, but a subtle nonsexual relationship between two men? You have to do it all yourself because that relationship could take so many different shapes.

So the notes that are left? They are permanent notes about conflicts and relationships. Those notes never go away, because I refer to them over and over as I do the final revision. And then I hope my second readers tell me how great the characterization is. Always a relief when I hear that!

AND! Taking a break now, because I’m dying to read the rest of Marsden’s Tomorrow series! I hope the rest of them arrive TODAY!

I can talk myself into thinking the characterization works or doesn’t work — I can talk myself into and out of both beliefs in a surprisingly short period of time — so it’s extremely helpful to have an objective reader tell me that Yes, it’s fine; or No, they can’t see that character acting like that in this scene.

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Preview —

Take a look at the current WIP, if you like. This should be just about exactly the final draft; I find that for me, the beginning doesn’t usually change much as it passes from my hands through my agent’s and an editor’s. Presuming it gets an editor’s comments, of course.

This one is a bit unusual, though, because it didn’t start out as the beginning. It started out as the first part of Chapter 3. Then I was so charmed by Oressa that I made her the primary point-of-view character, demoting the character I thought was primary, and moved her introductory chapter up front as part of this promotion. I think this works well; substantially better than what I initially had in mind.

Anyway — here it is:

* * * *

Chapter 1

They were talking about her.

Oressa, tucked up in the tiny space underneath her father’s chair, hidden by the silk draped over the seat, breathed soundlessly through her mouth, tensed and relaxed all her muscles in turn to keep from getting painful cramps in her legs and back, and listened.

Oressa had known her father and brother and Lord Meric and Magister Baramis would be talking about important things. Her father never sent all his servants and attendants away unless he was wanted to talk to his closest advisors about things that were important. Sometimes these things turned out to be boring, as when her father and Baramis spent an hour arguing about whether to compel the dyer’s guild to sell dyes and fixatives at a low flat rate to a favored merchant house that had just brought in a load of Markandan silk – Oressa had vivid memories of being stuck for ages, listening to that argument.

She had guessed that this morning’s topic would be more exciting, though. She’d suspected her father would want to talk about Tamarist, or actually the Tamaristan ships in the harbor. She’d been right about all that. But she hadn’t guessed that she would hear her own name appear in the ensuing argument, or in what context.

The Tamaristan ships worried a lot of people. Oressa already knew all about that. Everybody knew the king of Tamarist had suffered a stroke or seizure or something and was probably on his deathbed, and so of course everybody knew that the Tamaristan princes were all positioning themselves for the fight over the succession. In Tamarist, the succession was always exciting unless the king declared which of his sons was going to be his heir and had the rest killed, and this time the king had collapsed too suddenly to do either, and from what Meric had said at least three princes looked well-positioned and ambitious enough to try for the throne. So now everybody was worried about Tamarist. There were a lot more ships than usual slipping back and forth in the Narrow Sea, Meric said, and Oressa gathered that lots of them had the slim lines and swept-back prows of warships rather than merchanters, and lots of the sailors who came ashore swaggered like soldiers.

But from what she’d overheard this morning, Oressa gathered that Baramis didn’t agree with Meric at all. Baramis doubted Tamarist actually intended to attack anybody on this side of the Narrow Sea. After all, he pointed out, sometimes merchanters did use sleek-lined ships, and many sailors swaggered. Anyway, hadn’t Meric heard? All the Tamaristan ships had abruptly recalled their sailors yesterday and sailed out, so apparently they were going home. Which made sense because every Tamaristan prince ought by rights to be more concerned with the succession at home than with foreign adventures. If the king died and his brothers started fighting over the succession, any prince on this side of the Narrow Sea would surely forfeit his chance at the throne. Did Meric think any Tamaristan prince was both ambitious enough to attack Whetsee and yet not ambitious enough to fight for his father’s throne?

Oressa thought all that might be true, but she didn’t like Baramis and she thought he sounded especially condescending this morning, so she was on Meric’s side. And anyway, she thought it would be better to worry about Tamarist and be wrong than not worry and be wrong about that.

Meric said all the ships acting in concert that way was not reassuring; acting all together was characteristic of ships under military command, not merchanters. Just because they’d sailed out yesterday didn’t mean they couldn’t sail in back tomorrow. He said a Tamaristan prince might very well consider a foreign base useful as part of his strategy for the struggle over the succession, and if he did, he would certainly think of Whetsee, and especially Caras. Everyone in Tamarist would know the Whetseen guardsmen and militia had been weakened by the plague of the past spring. It wasn’t the kind of thing that could have been kept secret, and anyway nobody had tried to hide it. They hadn’t realized, then, that there would be any reason to keep it secret.

The spring plague hadn’t really been too serious. It hadn’t come as one of the creeping red or purple or black mists that got into everything – those were the worst – but as a three-day rain of crystalline cubes, pattering down like fine white salt out of the bright, hot sky. Like salt, the crystals dissolved in water. Unlike salt, anyone who touched the crystals or drank the water in which they dissolved got first fever, and then chills and a higher fever with hallucinations, and then went into convulsions. Finally they died. Lots of people caught it, especially once it got into the city’s cisterns. But it killed so slowly that almost no one had actually died of it. Only hours after the rain finally stopped, the Kieba had sent a great cloud of tiny biting black flies on a stiff wind from her desert.

The flies had sparkled in the sun like black enamel and glass and their swarms had hummed in a descending chord of minor notes, so everybody had known right away that the Kieba had made them. Everyone had opened their shutters and doors to let the flies come into their homes. The insects had been especially attracted to anybody with a fever, but they bit everyone. The bites raised ugly welts that itched fiercely, but only a few of the flies would bite any particular person, and anyway both the welts and the itches faded in a few hours. The people that had been ill mostly got better after that, and anybody else who caught the fever mostly didn’t get so sick, and almost nobody died.

But even now, months later, the fever’s weakness lingered. People who’d caught it were slow to regain their full strength and endurance, and that meant the guardsmen and the soldiers and the militia, too. Whetsee was much less able to defend itself now than usual – especially in Caras, where the white-crystal rain had lingered longest. So with the sudden scramble of the Tamaristan succession added to the lingering effects of the plague, Oressa wasn’t surprised that Meric thought the Narrow Sea between Tamarist and Whetsee an inadequate barrier. She couldn’t tell yet whether he’d persuaded her father to be worried, too.

“It’s awkward for Tamarist to get a large force across the sea, but not that awkward, and if one of the princes wants to establish a foothold on this side of the sea, it’s a good time for him to get it done. And unfortunately all the Tamaristan princes have to know that,” said Meric, summing up half an hour of argument that had struck Oressa, in her cramped position, as unnecessarily repetitive.

“Prince Gajdosik is posturing,” said Oressa’s father, speaking for almost the first time since he’d sent away his attendants and told Meric to speak freely. His voice was worn, unmoved, flat with indifference. The chair creaked as he shifted his weight. “The desert is dry, the sea is wet, and Tamaristan princes posture. None of this is new. Gajdosik wants trade concessions so that he can show his supporters he is clever and would be a strong king, but it is unlikely he wishes to spend men and gold on this side of the Narrow Sea. Find out what he wants and offer him something he’ll settle for, and there’ll be an end to it.”

Gajdosik was the prince they all apparently thought was behind the appearance of those suspicious ships in Caras’ harbor. The king of Tamarist had a lot of sons and Oressa had never tried to keep them all straight. She knew Gajdosik wasn’t the oldest, but she was pretty sure he wasn’t the youngest, either. She dug her fingers hard into the muscle of her right calf, which was beginning to cramp after all, and wondered how much longer this argument would take.

“It’s not just posturing,” Meric said. “I’m sure it’s not, sire. What they want – at least Gajdosik and maybe one or more of the others – is a chance to pillage and maybe a foreign territory to exploit. You dead, their own man as governor, and our people hardly better than slaves: remember what Tamarist did to Haipastat, and that wasn’t so very long ago. Gajdosik’s an ambitious man: I don’t think he’ll settle for trade concessions.”

“In a year, in another month perhaps, our soldiers and militia will have regained their strength,” answered her father’s worn voice. “And the Tamaristan succession will be settled, or nearly so, I should expect. Perhaps we might consider ways in which we might delay an ambitious prince, if one or another of that brood indeed directs his ambition toward Whetsee. Gajdosik, yes,” he added, to Meric, Oressa assumed. “Or any prince. Well?”

“If Meric is indeed correct that a Tamaristan prince isn’t merely posturing, well, Oressa’s finally marriageable,” Baramis said smoothly. “Offer her to Gajdosik, or whatever prince it proves to be. I imagine that with such a prize promised to his hands, we’ll find a prince cares little about more general plunder.”

Oressa twitched so hard she rapped her head against the underside of her father’s chair, but luckily the sound was covered over by everybody else speaking at once.

Baramis was continuing, “Perhaps such an offer might help settle the succession, too, which would be useful. A token concession such as Oressa’s hand in marriage might be just the symbolic victory a prince such as Gajdosik could use to bring the Tamaristan armies under his banner. More than that, an offer of formal alliance with Whetsee, one gained without the need to spend men or gold, ought to be worth a great deal to any intelligent prince.”

There was a brief silence. Oressa bit her wrist to keep from making a sound.

“My sister is a token concession?” said Oressa’s brother, Gulien, speaking for the first time. Gulien didn’t ordinary say very much during these meetings: their father expected him to keep quiet and listen. Their father said: You should leave the arguing to your advisors, and decide, and then allow no more argument. But Gulien said now, “My only sister? We might think twice before giving Oressa away to any Tamaristan prince, intelligent or otherwise. We might also ask ourselves whether it is so wise to establish a formal alliance with Tamarist, however expedient such an alliance seems at the moment.” His tone was extremely mild, which Oressa knew meant he was furious.

“A signal honor, I should have said,” said Baramis smoothly. “But one that costs us, in practical terms, very little.” He turned to the king. “I’m sure you agree, sire, that there’s no benefit bestowing your daughter’s hand on any rich merchant from Carst or gilded Markand lordling. A prince of Illium might do us some good, but there’s no unwed Illian prince. No, sire, think on it: offering Oressa to a Tamaristan prince such as Gajdosik would be much more to our advantage. And the more aggressive the prince, the greater the advantage to us – so long as we are careful to channel that aggression. We have an opportunity to do that here.”

Oressa’s father said nothing. She imagined he had nodded or waved for Baramis to go on or looked at Meric – ah, the latter, because Meric said, “Well, sire, it’s true that a Whetsee princess might be just what Gajdosik needs to press his claim over his brothers.” From his tone, he actually agreed with Baramis. He never agreed with Baramis about anything. Oressa thought this was an awful time for him to start. But he said, “Getting Gajdosik away from Whetsee, getting him to go home and fight his brothers, would be perfect. The princess and an alliance might be costly, perhaps, but think of it as an investment. A civil war in Tamarist would give them a much better use for all their hot-blooded young men than sending them across the sea and against us!”

Gulien started to say something, his tone sharp, but then he stopped. For a long moment, no one spoke at all. Oressa thought probably her father had put up a hand for silence.

“Lord Meric, we will think over all you have said,” the king said. “Magister Baramis, we will consider your suggestion.” His tone remained flat, but it carried a finality that prevented anybody from trying to continue the argument. “Gulien . . . I will see you tonight. Later would be better, I believe. An hour before midnight will do. You will not speak of this before that time. To anyone.” There was a rustle as the king got to his feet. The chair creaked. “For the present,” said the king, “you may all retire.”

There was a murmur of acquiescence, followed by the low sounds of footsteps. The door opened, and the steps moved away. Oressa counted the steps and stayed where she was, bent low beneath the king’s chair, trying to ignore the sharp pain in her legs and the increasing ache of her back and shoulders and neck.

The door closed, a decisive little click. There was a pause. Then her brother said, his tone resigned, “All right, Oressa. Come out.”

Oressa crawled stiffly out from under the silk draping the king’s chair. She’d been too cramped for too long to stand up. She stretched her legs out gingerly, pounding her calves and thighs to unknot the muscles, concentrating on that so she wouldn’t have to look at her brother. She asked, “How did you know I was there?”

“Heard you. You little idiot.”

“Nobody ever catches me but you.” Oressa began to shrug, then winced and stretched her neck out to one side and then the other. Her neck hurt, her shoulders hurt – she was stiff all over, and angry. She glared at her brother. “Would you have told me? Or let them take me by surprise? ‘Oh, Oressa, guess what! You get to marry a Tamaristan prince! It’s so much cheaper than conceding fishing rights and he can wave you like a flag in front of his armies when he starts a civil war!’ Gods dead and forgotten!”

“Don’t swear, Oressa,” Gulien said automatically. But then he came to sit next to her. “If Father hadn’t given me leave to tell you tonight, I’d have written it out. Here, let me –” He came up on one knee behind her, and dug strong fingers into her shoulders.

“Ouch! Oh, that’s better. Thanks. Gulien –”

“It’s a stupid idea anyway. Marry you to Gajdosik? That’d be an act of war right there. He’d invade us just to force us to take you back.”

Oressa giggled. But then she said, “Well, it is a stupid idea. Anyway, I won’t do it. Marry a Tamaristan prince? I won’t marry Gajdosik or any of them. I’ll . . . I’ll . . .” A brilliant idea occurred to her. “I know! I’ll marry Kelian, quick before Father can stop me.”

Kelian was a young lieutenant in the palace guard. All the palace girls were determined to marry him, but so far he hadn’t shown special favor to any of them. But of course a mere lieutenant who fell in love with the only princess of Whetsee would be too shy to make the first declaration. Oressa knew he was just waiting for her to speak first.

But Gulien snorted. “You idiot. You will not.”

“He’s gorgeous and brave and nice to me and oh, yes, not a Tamaristan prince with a stupid name like Gajdosik! I’ll elope with him and then it’ll be impossible to marry me off to anybody.” She glared at her brother. “What? It’d work.”

“Father would kill Kelian,” her brother said succinctly. “He’d hang him and then he’d lock you up in the highest tower room until he could marry you off, which he would do so fast the gossip wouldn’t have time to get outside Caras. If not to Gajdosik, then to somebody else.” Gulien gripped her shoulders and shook her, gently. “Idiot. Probably Father will just dangle promises before Gajdosik for the rest of the year while we build up our strength and then marry you to some Whetsee lord at the last moment.”

“I don’t want to marry any Whetsee lord, either,” Oressa muttered. “I think Kelian is a much better idea.” But now that he’d pointed it out, she knew Gulien was right about her father’s response. She eyed her brother. “I’ll run away to Carst. No. To Illium. I’ll be a temple girl and carry the fire in the procession and dance around the sacred fountain every solstice and equinox – don’t laugh at me!”

“I’m not laughing at you.”

“You are. I can tell,” Oressa said darkly. She glared at him harder. “I won’t marry Gajdosik. I’m not joking. Get me out of this, Gulien. Get Father to see it’s really a stupid idea.”

Her brother looked at her.

“What?” said Oressa. “You agree with me it is a stupid idea, right? Gulien?”

“I’ll think of some other idea,” Gulien said. “But I don’t think it’s exactly stupid. I think Gajdosik would probably use you to seal an alliance with us, use our support to take Tamarist’s throne, and then eventually, if he’s really ambitious and has energy left over, invade Carst instead of Whetsee.”

“Oh, well, that’s all right, then,” Oressa said.

“The worst practical objection to that plan is, even if we support him, he might lose the fight with his brothers and then who knows what would happen?”

“Gulien –”

“Father probably had every possible move in the game figured two hours after we heard about the Tamaristan king’s stroke. Seizure. Whatever.”

This was probably true. Oressa glared at her brother. “You’d better tell me exactly what he says tonight. Or –” she cut that off. Maybe it would be better if she listened to that conversation herself . . .

“If you try to sneak into Father’s private rooms, they’ll catch you for sure, and then he really will lock you up in the highest tower.”

“Would I try such a thing?” Oressa laid a hand over her heart to show how shocked she was at this suggestion. She didn’t tell her brother that she’d managed this exact feat once before, when she was eleven, just to see if she could do it. She’d pretended to be a servant boy, and actually she’d come pretty near being caught and hadn’t even learned anything worth knowing. She’d sworn to herself she’d never try it again. But now she didn’t know. She was afraid Gulien wouldn’t tell her what their father said or did or decided, not if he thought it was better she didn’t know, not if their father ordered him not to. She couldn’t dress up as a boy anymore, not very successfully anyway, but she’d thought of two other ways she might get in if she tried. But Gulien was too good at catching her. She said, “You don’t need to protect me, you know –”

“You don’t try nearly hard enough to protect yourself! You’ve got to stop sneaking around, Oressa. If you’re caught once – just once – you have no idea how seriously Father might take this.”

Oressa found herself beginning to get angry. How could he say that? Of course she knew how angry Father would be – how could she not know – she knew better than anybody, better than Gulien did –

Her brother put a hand under her chin, lifting her face to make her look at him. He said seriously, “The next time I catch you, I’ll call you out right then, in front of everybody.”

“You –” wouldn’t, Oressa meant to say. But her brother looked very serious and she wasn’t sure.

“I would. I will.” Gulien let her go, rose, and stood for a moment with his fists on his hips, staring down at her. “I’ll check the hall is clear, Oressa. But this is the last time I’ll help you. You’re not a servant’s brat. You need to start behaving with a princess’s dignity.”

Oressa didn’t protest that she already did behave with dignity, most of the time, when anybody was watching. She got to her feet, ignoring the hand Gulien held down to her. Then she brushed the dust off her skirt, straightened her shoulders, ran her hands through her hair, lifted her chin, and put on a proper royal attitude like a cloak, or a mask. “You may check the hallway, if you like,” she said, as regally as she could. And once he had, she strolled away from Father’s counsel room toward her own rooms as though she could imagine nowhere at all she’d rather go.

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The (next) end is in sight!

I’m kind of thinking I can finish the entire first clean-up and cut of the manuscript by Friday. Probably. Certainly by Monday even if things go slower than I expect.

I’m going straight through from top to bottom right now, editing and cutting as I go, trying not to keep moving forward rather than going back over and over a scene I’ve just altered. Let it rest, let it go, it’s fine for now, and I know I’ll have better judgment about whether the scene works better LATER.

You know what’s weird is when you’re approaching a scene and it occurs to you that of course you should change it in some obvious fashion — edit out a particular character, give an action or piece of dialogue to one character rather than another — and you get to that scene and LO! The change has already been made.

I have no memory of editing that scene before. If particularly friendly and specialized brownies are doing my job while I sleep, well, I hope they keep it up.

I’ve got it down to 388 pp now; that’s 125,000 words, more or less. Progress! I have to remind myself sometimes that cutting paragraphs and whole pages is still a good thing, I shouldn’t just concentrate on cutting words and phrases — that’s for later. I definitely mean to cut at least 5000 more words, that’s about 15 pages, but three times that would probably be better.

So, break time when I get it done! I don’t know about another quart of double-chocolate brownie chunk ice cream, because I try not to do that too often, but I definitely have a celebratory book picked out as a bribe to myself to get this revision done! Five books, actually: I just discovered the Tomorrow series by John Marsden. It’s a set of seven short YA novels involving the invasion of Australia by an unspecified nation.

I’ve read the first two and they are SO GOOD. I am so impressed by Marsden’s characters. He has quite a few and they are all distinct and well drawn and the way everyone responds to what’s going on — perfect! I love his plotting, which is tight and clean. And his writing is great, it just disappears so you can fall right into the story.

And I think it was so clever of Marsden to avoid specifying the bad-guy invader nation. Honestly, there IS no possible real-world candidate for a nation that both could and would invade Australia, and he totally side-steps this whole problem by just deciding up front not to try to shoehorn a country that couldn’t work into that role. That is so much better than trying to twist things around to make something work when it couldn’t.

So, anyway, I’ve got the other five books ordered and they should all be lined up in a row waiting for me just about exactly at the time I finish this revision. Can’t wait!

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