Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Moral alignment in fiction

Here’s a blog post Mike S sent me a few days ago: Moral alignment in literature

Interesting topic! The post starts like this:

What does morality mean in the context of a book? Is it better to have a heroic character whose morals remain firm, or an antihero who “does what it takes” even if it seems morally gray?

Of course, you’ll get wildly different answers based on who you ask. Some people consider objectively good characters to be a bit boring and think antiheroes are more relatable. Others think antiheroes are the product of a cynical viewpoint.

And I pause right there, because the fact is, I don’t think the contrast is between characters whose moral convictions remain firm over the course of the book versus “antiheroes” who are “morally grey.”

Morally grey does not equal an antihero. There are two kinds of antiheroes:

a) A villain who is also the protagonist of a novel; eg, Hannibal Lecter.

b) A protagonist who lacks typical heroic attributes in some other way.

Let me pause and rapidly think of some morally grey characters who are not antiheroes.

Okay:

Nicholas Valiarde in The Death of the Necromancer. He is a criminal mastermind; he’s devoted a large part of his life to setting up an enemy to be executed for crimes the enemy did not commit. He’s a ruthless master of deception and disguise who kills quite a few people without much of a qualm. But he’s not an antihero.

Nicholas Valiarde is not an antihero in either sense. Obviously he isn’t the villain; the villain is the necromancer. Nicholas also does not lack typical heroic attributes, even though he’s morally gray. He is quick witted, resourceful, and willing to sacrifice his own goals to protect other people. We saw that when Madeline explained how she met Nicholas and we certainly saw it when Nicholas gave up his secret identity and chance at vengeance in order to rescue Ronsarde.

Malcolm Reynolds in Firefly. He’s a small-time criminal, he’s okay with shooting people who get in his way —

— he’s not very nice to Simon or Inara or for that matter practically anyone. He’s definitely morally gray. But he’s not an antihero. Again with the quick-witted and resourceful; again with the willingness to sacrifice his own needs in order to help other people. We saw that in The Train Job and lots of other times.

I’m sure there are a zillion other examples.

True antiheros:

Hannibal Lecter, a vicious, sadistic serial killer whom the audience is supposed to sympathize and even root for in the movie “Hannibal.”

Jaime Lannister, a vicious, sadistic murderer whom the reader is supposed to sympathize with, somehow, in Game of Thrones. I understand the show toned down Jaime’s horrible character, but it’s perfectly clear if you read the books that GRRM is trying to get the reader to sympathize with Jaime long before the end of the series, even though he starts out trying to murder a child who saw him having sex with his sister.

Glokta in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series, who is a professional torturer and completely willing to cut the hands off people he knows are innocent of any crime because he just doesn’t care. By the end of the trilogy, the reader is supposed to sympathize with Glokta, who has managed to do one or two not-completely-horrible things over the course of the story.

Those guys are antiheros.

Back to the original post:

Flat character arcs, in which the character maintains their beliefs and morals they had at the beginning of the story, do not necessarily mean boring.

This is true, but I expect the characters in question may have arc-shaped character arcs in some other way, even if they do not compromise their moral beliefs at any time during the story. Let me see. All right:

Cordelia Naismith maintains her basic moral principals without compromise all the way through her entire story, from front to back in the Vorkosigan novels. But she doesn’t have a flat character arc. In Shards of Honor she has the typical romance character arc, moving from a belief she will never find love through rejecting a chance for love to accepting love. In subsequent books, her character develops in other ways.

Maia in The Goblin Emperor has a flat character arc in terms of moral convictions, but a high-vaulting character arc in terms of personal growth in confidence and acceptance of responsibility.

Kit in From All False Doctrine is a lot like Cordelia — his arc is a romance arc, with absolutely steady moral convictions throughout.

Again, lots of examples.

The post winds up this way:

I’m in hopes that culture is veering back to an appreciation for morally strong characters again. Maybe people are just tired of edginess after Game of Thrones, or maybe people are looking for hope in a very chaotic world. In any case, culture needs some appreciation for black and white morality…because everyone is governed by morals, even if they don’t call them that.

I share that hope because I also prefer morally strong characters, but I’d maintain that Nicholas Valiarde is in fact a morally strong character in a non-black-and-white way.

Overall conclusion: morally gray should not be conflated with villainous or evil; edgy is not the same as trying to persuade the reader or viewer to root for horrible protagonists; and moral ambiguity does not make a character an antihero.

If you have a favorite morally black-and-white or a favorite morally ambiguous protagonist, do some name dropping in the comments!

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BIG genre: historicals

So, obviously I’m still thinking a bit about genre and about essential subgenres. This is actually a slightly different take on the issue: I feel it would be quite defensible to create what we might call super-genres (or infragenres, or something like that).

Categories that pull books out of multiple classic genres to form a chunk of fiction that is cohesive, yet straddles ordinary genre boundaries.

One obvious choice for this kind of inclusive super-genre would be historicals. Here are the types of stories that ought to be included in this particular super-genre:

  1. Everything currently assigned to the historical genre.
  2. A lot of alternate history, but not the ones that most closely resemble modern life. Things like The Guns of the South by Turtledove.
  3. The most historical of historical romances. That is, novels in which the romance itself, while important, does not entirely overwhelm the historical elements. A fantastic example here would be Softly Falling by Carla Kelly.
  4. Alternate historical romances, such as Courtney Milan’s Countess Conspiracy. (This is probably a small group, but there it is.)
  5. Historical fantasy, such as Judith Merkle Riley’s wonderful Margaret of Ashbury novels, for example.
  6. Historical magical realism, like A Winter’s Tale by Helprin.
  7. Secondary world fantasy that feels historical, like Death of The Necromancer or One Night in Boukos.
  8. Certain kinds of time travel novels, like Island in the Sea of Time by Stirling, where modern people wind up way back in time somewhere. Or Black Out / All Clear by Connie Willis.
  9. Literary novels that involve time travel, like Kindred by Octavia Butler.
  10. Historical mysteries, like the Brother Cadfael mysteries.
  11. Historical narrative nonfiction, like The Boys in the Boat.

That’s ten categories that would belong to four different fiction genres — historical, romance, fantasy, and science fiction — plus one nonfiction category for good measure. They belong together in one super-genre because readers that like one of these categories are so likely to like every other type of story on this list. Not every individual book (obviously). That would be a little much to ask. But all the categories.

If a reader enjoys historical novels but doesn’t like romances, well, that reader is likely to enjoy the right romances. Doesn’t like fantasy? Rather than recommending one of the standard secondary world titles, however popular or classic, recommend a secondary world that feels like a historical and see how that works. Someone who says they’re bored by nonfiction might love a compelling narrative nonfiction work.

Imagine shelving books according to this supergenre — BOOM, readers would suddenly be invited to browse much, much broader categories of books they might well truly love. This would be especially great as a way of encouraging readers who may think they dislike whole genres to consider trying the kinds of books in those genres they are most likely to enjoy.

It would be super easy to do the same kind of list for romances. Does the story have romance beats, in addition to belonging to whatever genre? Throw it in the same super-genre.

  1. Historical-romances, as distinct from historical romances. I’m thinking of Gillian Bradshaw here, rather than Regencies. The story has clear romance beats, but spread out and embedded in tons of historical storytelling.
  2. Paranormal romance.
  3. Fantasy-romances, such as almost anything by Sharon Shinn.
  4. Magical realism romances, such as Sarah Addison Allen’s lovely stories.
  5. Science-fiction-romances, such as Komarr / A Civil Campaign by LMB or anything by Leanna Sinclair.
  6. Cozy mysteries, which are almost defined by including a strong romance plot as well as the mystery plot.

If someone mostly browses the “Romance” shelves at a bookstore, well, wouldn’t they be really very likely to like all of the above categories? I think they would.

You know, you could also break out a grim, depressing worldview super-genre that could include:

  1. Most or at least a whopping proportion of literary novels.
  2. Grimdark fantasy.
  3. Whatever the grimmest category of SF is called … is there one? Come up with a term for this category and include that in this super-genre.
  4. Lovecraftian horror where the basic idea is that everyone is dead or crazy at the end. Any other horror like that, whether or not it has specifically Lovecraftian elements.
  5. Mysteries or suspense novels where the bad guy gets away with everything and justice fails, like In the Woods by Tana Frence. Goes double if the good guys ruin their own lives through their own failures, which also happens in In the Woods.

Put all those together in one place and think how efficiently I could avoid the whole lot of them. That would be quite helpful. You could set up an Amazon search: Everything in this supergenre. Nothing in this supergenre. I’m liking this idea more and more. This kind of thing would be so much more useful than marketing categories such as “young adult” or “new adult” or even “chick lit.”

What other supergenres might be delineated that would help you efficiently find books you’d probably like and avoid books you’d probably loathe?

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Shocking twists

Okay, so, having damned Patrick Lee’s most recent title with faint praise (“It’s fine, I guess, but it doesn’t provide the shocking plot twists of his other books), I guess this post is topical: 13 SFF novels with shocking twists.

A good twist is always fun, no matter what genre you’re reading. But a head-spinning twist in a science fiction or fantasy novel is extra special. You might think twists are easier in these books because an author could just change the rules and make anything happen — but the opposite is true. Sci-fi and fantasy authors have to be careful not to destroy the “rules” of their world, lest they destroy readers’ suspensions of disbelief. This makes pulling off a twist is a huge challenge. Here are some sci-fi and fantasy books with the best twists.

This post is from BookBub, and I would lay out quite a bit of money that their list does not include the top five SFF novels with shocking (but believable, which not all authors can pull off) twists that leap to my mind.

Mine:

  1. The Breach and sequels by Patrick Lee. Marketed as thrillers, but definitely SF thrillers.
  2. And All the Stars by Andrea K Host
  3. The Demon’s Surrender by Sarah Rees Brennan
  4. The Queen’s Thief by MWT, but you could make a case for any book in this series.
  5. Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby

Now that I’ve picked out five, let’s see what the BookBub post includes on their list. Okay, yes, none of the ones above. They’ve got some good candidates, though. for example, they’ve got Ender’s Game on their list. Okay, yes, that one is a good choice.

Lots I haven’t read. Some I have. Childhood’s End — there’s a classic. I didn’t much care for it decades ago when I read it and I liked it less when I went back to it much later. Arthur C Clarke never was an author whose work really appealed to me.

Several others here I started but couldn’t finish — Three-Body Problem, The Fifth Season. Others look like horror more than SFF. Nineteen Eight-Four is here. That seems justifiable.

All right, if you were making a top-ten or top-five list for Great SFF With Stunning Twist, what would be on it?

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Breaking fantasy into broad subgenres

Of course everyone has done a post like this, including me, but I feel like doing it again, only this time trying to sort out the broadest possible subgenres that constitute the most essential subdivisions of the fantasy genre.

In a recent post, I wrote something like this:

I’m having a hard time imagining trying to judge the Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off contest … suppose you are the judge and you have hit two entirely different well-written fantasy novels that might as well be in different genres.

Commenter Megan then added:

[F]antasy has become such a BROAD category it does feel unfair to have one award/list covering “fantasy” instead of starting to break out some of the major categories. Because someone who likes epic fantasy may not be interested in urban or steampunk, and the conventions of each subgenre can be wildly different.

Which is absolutely true, of course. But what are these major categories? Let’s take a stab at identifying the basic, inclusive, big subgenres to which a fantasy novel might belong:

Essential fantasy subgenres:

–High fantasy, which I’m defining by theme and tone, and which grades into epic fantasy, which is bigger in scope and tends to have a larger point of view cast. Lots of books are high fantasy but not big enough to be epic fantasy.

–Heroic or adventure fantasy, which grades into sword and sorcery. I’m defining this category largely by plot and tone. Lots of books are adventure fantasy but don’t reach for the high fantasy tone.

–Contemporary fantasy, which I feel could be stretched out to include magical realism as well as a lot of urban fantasy and paranormals. Oh, and I guess zombie novels too. This is turning into a really enormous category of books that don’t feel the same at all, so now I’m thinking maybe I should pull it apart again. Okay, two subsets:

— Contemporary fantasy, which is no kidding more or less set in our recognizable world, and

— Alternate contemporary fantasy, in which the world might have recently looked pretty much like ours but now doesn’t.

–Historical fantasy, including gaslamp fantasy. It’s then a question of whether to include novels like Death of The Necromancer, which might as well be set in London, and One Night in Boukos, which might as well be set in Athens. I vote yes. Those are in the same essential subgenre as novels set in actual historical locations, because — and this is a key feature — readers who like historical fantasy are probably going to like these not-quite-historical-fantasies too. They hit all the same buttons.

–Fairy tale fantasy, either original or retellings, which grades into dark fantasy and eventually into horror.

–Low fantasy, which I see I am accidentally defining in a nonstandard way. I was not thinking of this as “magic intrudes in the contemporary world,” which is a definition I see all over when I google the term. I do prefer to use terms in whatever way everyone else agrees they should be used, but what I was actually thinking of when I used the term recently was nonheroic fantasy where the protagonist and other characters are not particularly admirable nor meant to be, but instead just getting by, maybe by blundering along or maybe in an antihero kind of way, in a fairly gritty setting. Jack Vance’s Cugel books come to mind. Low fantasy then grades into gritty fantasy.

–Grimdark, which for me is ultimately defined by a basic construction of the world that considers most relationships as zero sum, most trust as foolish and likely to be betrayed, and most striving as ultimately doomed to failure. That is, characters may strive to become better people, but fail; or may strive to make the world a better place, but fail. This is not the same as tragedy, but I guess probably grades into tragic epic fantasy.

Okay, now, is that everything? That’s about eight categories. I realize there would be tons of books that sort of fit in a couple different places (Arthurian retellings, high or fairy tale?) or really don’t fit anywhere (superhero novels). Nevertheless, as broad categories, how does that work?

And by “work,” I mean: would readers tend to prefer many of the books in one of these categories and perhaps really dislike many or most of the books in a different category? I think clearly yes.

If I were handed a lot of fantasy novels and told: Pick your favorite, then whichever one I picked would belong somewhere other than low fantasy or grimdark. If I were told: Pick the best, then in theory the one I picked could belong to any category, except that I am not sure I could bear to read enough of a grimdark or even low fantasy novel to assess its quality in any fair way. I might have to force myself into an analytical, distant frame of mind in order to read these novels all the way through.

If you were tapped as a judge, do you think you would have the same kind of difficulty with one or more categories? Would that be something you could overcome pretty easily, do you think, or would you just pick your favorite and let it go at that?

Or would you instead break down the list in a completely different way, like one of these possibilities:

— first person present tense, first person past tense, or third person past tense.

Or

Single pov, two alternating pov, large cast of pov characters.

And then so strongly prefer or dislike one of those categories that the actual subgenre steps into the background relative to these stylistic and protagonist choices?

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Top Ten Epic Fantasies

Undoubtedly I’ve hit this topic from time to time, but I’m coming back to it now because of my comment in yesterday’s post that Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series is one of my top-ten picks for epic fantasy. Obviously that leads to the need to do an actual top-ten list, so let me see how close I can come to that.

First: I’m defining epic fantasy thus:

— Multiple volumes

— Multiple pov protagonists

— Large scale, long-running overall story arc, high stakes for the world, not just the characters

— Secondary world setting

— High fantasy tone or something fairly close to that

And no doubt every one of those characteristics could be arguable and plenty of stories would wind up on one edge or another between epic fantasy and something else. Still, those characteristics are the ones I have in mind.

So, with that in mind, here’s a quick attempt at a top-ten list for epic fantasy. In no particular order:

1.The Shadow Campaigns by Django Wexler

Five-book series, hard to beat the first book, the first three or so are each self-contained but definitely not the fourth. Winter is one of my favorite protagonists of all time, and Janos is one of my favorite non-pov protagonists of all time, and well, there you go.

2. Inda series by Sherwood Smith

If you follow the link, you’ll see that I once just defined “epic fantasy” by pointing to this series and saying, There, this is what the term means.

A long quadrilogy. Again, some truly fantastic characters, great writing, really hard to beat.

3. Dead River trilogy by Naomi Kritzer

I’m not listing these series in decreasing order by number of books, it just sort of looks that way. Despite having only three books in the series, and despite perhaps not being quite as world-shattering in scope as some epic fantasy, I would definitely include this series in my top-ten list of the subgenre.

Also, it’s just a practically perfect story in every way. Really top notch.

4. Eternal Sky trilogy by Elizabeth Bear

Complicated, intricate, my biggest problem was that I really wanted the whole story to focus on just one of the many, many wonderful characters.

5. Fortress series by CJC, possibly excluding the fifth and final book. I’m linking a post here in which that some of us argued back in forth in the comments about Fortress of Ice and whether it should be ignored or read and so on. Personally I would treat the first book, Fortress in the Eye of Time, as a standalone, and then the next three as a linked trilogy, and then stop. Regardless, this is a great series — possibly excluding the fifth book.

6. Spiritwalker trilogy by Kate Elliot

The whole thing is in one point of view, so … epic fantasy? Yes/no? The scope is pretty large, we see a whole lot of the (very complicated) world, I’m leaning toward yes.

7. The Rain Wilds books by Robin Hobb

This is honestly the only series by Hobb I really liked. She’s a fine writer in a lot of ways, but protagonist stupidity is a real thing in some of her books and I have a really hard time with that. Anyway, this dragon series starts off rather small-scale, but the scope broadens as the series continues, especially as we find out that dragons are really a dominant species here and now they’re back.

8. ???

9. ???

10. The Lord of the Rings.

The LotR practically defines epic fantasy, so I’m putting it here. I feel no need to comment on its inclusion.

But I’m not sure what to include for the other two spots on this list. There are a lot of series where I read the first book but haven’t gone on with the series — I liked the first book but not enough, or I liked most of it but hated one aspect and didn’t go on with the series, or I admired the first book but didn’t actually like it, or I liked the first book but wanted to re-read it before going on and then just never have, or I don’t know, lots of things.

Here are some of the epic fantasy series where I’ve read only the first book. If you’ve read the whole thing, how do you feel about the work as a whole? Would you tend to include it or not?

— Dark Prism series by Brent Weeks

— The Dagger and the Coin series by Daniel Abraham

— The Fire and Thorns trilogy by Rae Carson

What else? Please toss any fantastic epic fantasy series that ought to be included in a top ten list into the comments.

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Recent reading: Dark Site by Patrick Lee

I think Patrick Lee has been writing just about the best thrillers out there. He has two trilogies complete now: The Breach series and The Sam Dryden series.

The former is a real no-kidding trilogy with an overall story arc. It is fantastic — not wholly flawless, but fantastic. My only two problems with it were: suspension of disbelief issues; and really-she-has-to-get-rescued-AGAIN? issues. But if you want a thriller with the most amazing plot twists, you cannot do better. Especially if you like uber-competent protagonists.

The latter is not really a trilogy. The three books are each so separate that they might as well not bother having the same main character, except I guess having each of them feature Dryden prevents the author from having to establish three different protagonists as totally badass, so that’s probably a plus.

The three Sam Dryden books are Runner, Signal, and now Dark Site, which is the one that came out last year and I only just realized it was out and picked it up.

And it’s good. But, sorry, it’s the least good of any of Lee’s books.

Listen, if you have made your reputation with AMAZING plot twists, then that sets you up for a fall, because if you don’t pull that off in a book, the reader is probably going to notice. This is that book.

Here is the description:

On an otherwise unexceptional morning, Sam Dryden finds himself the target of a carefully planned abduction by a prepared, trained attacker. Dryden, however—a former Special Forces operative—manages to overcome his assailant, learning in the process that a woman named Danica Ellis is also being targeted. Desperate to find out what is going on, Sam Dryden races to her location, arriving just in time to save her. But the mystery only deepens. Dryden and Ellis have nothing in common, don’t recognize each other, and there’s no reason for either of them to be the object of such lethal scrutiny. The only clue is a heavily redacted, official-looking document given to Danica by her stepfather before the attack.

Dryden immediately recognizes it as a “scrub file,” a record of what a subject knew before their memories were chemically destroyed. The redacted document refers to witnesses and to a secret military site in Ashland, Iowa in 1989. Both Dryden and Danica Ellis lived in Ashland in 1989, when they were twelve years old, though neither of them has any memory of the town or of each other.

Dark Site interweaves two stories: the present day, when Dryden and Danica try to elude the forces that are after them, and the past in Ashland, Iowa, when both were children, making a discovery that would forever change their lives.

This is all perfectly fine. So the ultimate question is: What happened in that town when those kids were twelve? And, can we stop it from happening again? We’ve got a situation where a new and terrifying secret weapon was created; it was too scary to be developed and deployed; now somebody’s got control of it and this is a Situation.

Only … anybody who has been watching SF shows and/or reading SF novels for any length of time is going to think, “You know, it sure sounds to me like this super-scary secret weapon is probaby XXXXXXXX. Except would Patrick Lee do something that cliched?” Or maybe I mean horror. Or both, actually. I can think of SF and horror novels and movies and tv shows where this particular type of plot element was deployed. I would name specific authors and shows except that would constitute providing a direct spoiler, which I don’t want to do.

But basically, the answer to the reader’s suspicion is: yes it is and yes he would. In fact, Lee actually tones down this plot element to such an extent that it’s hard to see why everyone is making such a total fuss about the weapon. Well, it’s not clear to the characters how toned-down it is, I guess. But the reader is probably going to say, “Sure glad it’s not worse!” because in a ton of books and shows, it IS worse.

Anyway Dark Site is a fine book in many ways, I guess, but this crucial plot element is completely predictable and not that alarming (comparatively speaking) and that’s a real shame.

Best element: we do see Sam Dryden as a kid, and it’s really interesting to see the traits that eventually led him to become such a badass guy already developing when he was twelve. Basically he can assess situations fast, determine the best potential solution to a horrifyingly dangerous situation, and instantly commit to that solution. Very impressive as an adult, but perhaps even more impressive as a kid. The female lead is handled well too, but as is typical for Lee’s books, the greatest focus is on the male lead.

I hope Lee is working on something else, and I’ll be right there for anything he writes, but I’ll be hoping he knocks my socks off with his next one the way he usually has in the past rather than not quite pulling that off.

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Novel beginnings

So, recently I posted a quick snippet of the beginnings of seven recently acquired samples just to take a look at them. I do also have a good number of recently acquired full books near the top of the (vast) unread-book section of my Kindle, so I’ve pulled the ten nearest the top and taken a look at those as well. Here they are – let’s see which seem most appealing right off the cuff:

1. Shadow of a Dead God by Patrick Samphire

The called Missos the month of flowers. It was the first really hot month of the year, and the poppy anemones, clover, and waterclasp coated the slopes of the Erastes Valley with yellow, white, and red blooms – and, incidentally, set at least of the quarter of the population of Agatos to fits of sneezing and streaming eyes. It was also the month when, traditionally, the young people of Agatos headed out into the valley for picnics, sports, and a whole lot of frantic, unfulfilling sex.

Things were different for me. For the third night in a row, I was shut in a sweltering, dusty kitchen pantry watching out for ghosts that I was pretty sure didn’t exist.

Okay, full disclosure, I don’t exactly know Patrick, but I’m slightly acquainted with his wife, Stephanie Burgis, via Twitter and Facebook. You remember, she’s writing those delightful MG Dragon With A Chocolate Heart stories, among other things. Also, Patrick’s book is an entry this year in Mark Lawrence’s SPFBO, though it wasn’t assigned to the same initial blogger as TUYO, fortunately, because that would be weird.

This is the only SPFBO entry that I’ve actually taken a real look at so far. I’m about a fifth of the way into it, so I can say with assurance that this is a well-written, low fantasy story with a definite gritty-humor tone. The protagonist is pretty much a complete loser when the story opens. He’s a low-powered mage, he lives in a scuzzy apartment, he’s friends with a lowlife thief, he lets himself be persuaded to help out in a ridiculously risky theft, and things do not go well. That’s the basic setup. Oh, by the way, the sources of magic in this world are the rotting bodies of dead gods. Just throwing that out there.

I’m having a hard time imagining trying to judge the SPFBO contest now, because, well, let’s consider this book and Tuyo as two entries that a judge is trying to choose between. So, there you are: you are the judge and you have hit two entirely different well-written fantasy novels that might as well be in different genres and … where do you go from there? I expect that most people would probably have no trouble picking out five or so novels that were well written and then it would be largely a matter of taste and mood. What do you happen to prefer in general and/or feel like at the moment: high fantasy, low fantasy, male protagonist, female protagonist, one pov, large pov cast, adventure story, quiet slice-of-life story, third person, first person … what a toss-up that final decision has to be. That’s got to be the case even if the judge then moves into an analytical process and considers thoughtful questions about pacing and character arcs and the hero’s journey and whatever else in order to make a nod to objective quality right at the end of the decision.

Anyway, moving on:

2. The Initiate by James Cambias

“It wasn’t a bear, was it?” The voice on Samuel Arquero’s phone was reedy and precise. Whoever it was hung up before he could answer. Sam tried to call back, but got a recorded voice telling him the number was not in service. He tried again with the same results. Then he just sat there in the dark living room, looking at the fire in the wood stove. A half-empty pitcher of Bloody Marys stood on the coffee table in front of him.

That was how Sam spent most of his evenings, trying to drink himself to sleep without incurring a crippling hangover. He made his Bloody Marys with V8 juice, so they were almost good for him.

This book is definitely fantasy, you can tell because of the back cover copy, but it sure looks contemporary when it opens, doesn’t it? Also, this is not remotely the kind of protagonist who appeals to me right off. Guys who spend their evenings trying to drink themselves to sleep do not instantly strike me as sympathetic, just pathetic, full stop. However, the clear awareness that I have liked all of Cambias’ other work will definitely keep me reading past this point. Also, mild curiosity about the thing that wasn’t a bear.

3. Mercury Retrograde by Laura Bickle

No matter how decent Petra Dee’s intentions were, things always went to shit.

Sweat dribbled down the back of her neck, sliding down her shoulder blades and congealing between her skin and the Tyvek biohazard suit. The legs of the suit made a zip-zip sound, snagging on bits of prickly pear as she walked through the underbrush of Yellowstone National Park. She clutched her tool bag tightly in her gloved grip, the plastic of the suit rustling over the hiss of the respirator in her ears. Her breath fogged the scuffed clear mask of the suit, softening the edge of the land before her with a dreamlike filter.

“You don’t have to do this,” Mike said.

“Consider it a professional favor, okay?” she said. “And you said it was weird. Now I’m curious.”

This is actually the second book of a beautifully written, rather creepy weird contemporary-western trilogy. I liked the first book, recently realized I’d never gone on with the trilogy, and here we are. Not a bad beginning at all! What is the weird thing going to be? Practically anybody would turn the page, I expect.

4. Mindtouch by MCA Hogarth

“I’m here for my room assignment, please,” Jahir said.

The woman behind the registration desk glanced at him and barely concealed her surprise. He supposed not many people stood tall enough to look over the desk at her. Either that or it was because he was Eldritch.

Oh, right, this one. I remember why I picked it up. Yes, actually, this is exactly the kind of book I’m in the mood for, so this is the one I’m planning to actually come back to and read next, like actually next. I’ll start it tonight. With luck it will be calm, quiet, easy to read, pleasant, slice-of-life rather than exciting – I have lots of stuff I’m working on and do not really want anything too tense or exciting. Yes, I bet this will be just the ticket. Glad I picked it up. If all goes well, I’ll write a review for it in a couple of days.

5. Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine

The tent is draped with strings of bare bulbs, with bits of mirror tied here and there to make it sparkle. (It doesn’t look shabby until you’ve already paid.)

You pay your admission to a man who looks like he could knock out a steer, but it is a slight young man who hands you your ticket, printed on thick, clean paper, one corner embossed in gold ink with a griffin whose mechanical wings shine in the shivering mirrorlight.

TRESAUTI, it says, and underneath, Circus Mechanique, which is even more showy than the posters. Their bulbs are bare; who do they think they are?

Wow, that’s super-literary. I will be in the mood for something like this eventually, but definitely not right now. I don’t expect the whole thing is in a sort of near-second-person, but if so, even more definitely not right now. Present tense is also by no means my favorite thing. I have to decide to tolerate it and then read enough of the book to get used to it.

6. Singapore Sapphire by AM Stuart

“Hello,” she called, her voice vanishing into the dark bowels of the house. “Sir Oswald? Are you home?

“Damn it,” she swore under her breath. She needed the typewriter.

If no one was at home, perhaps she could retrieve her property and be gone, leaving a note of apology for her intrusion.

She stepped over the threshold, and as her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she caught her breath. Furniture had been overturned, cushions torn apart and valuable porcelain lay shattered on the rugs.

I have no real impression of this book yet. This opening suggests certain things about the style – short paragraphs – and the situation. Nothing particularly noteworthy in this first little bit.

7. Murder in G Major by Alexia Gordon

Gethsemane Brown leaned closer to the windshield. She could just make out a thatched cottage through the gray curtain of rain pounding southwestern Ireland’s coast. The whitewashed house perched a few hundred yards from an ominous cliff. Farther up the road a lighthouse stood sentry over the rocky landscape. She rested her head on the window’s cool glass, trying to ignore the sound of tires skidding on wet gravel, and reconsidered her any-job-is-better-than-no-job philosophy.

Very typical setup for what I presume is going to be a cozy mystery. Good writing. Great name for the protagonist. Now I’m regretting I’ve never had a chance to name a dog “Gethsemane.” I like this tidbit fine, though there’s nothing especially noteworthy about it either.

8. The Last Dragonhealer by HS Skinner

Not much could jolt her out of the cloud of pain and fatigue she existed in, but the exuberate cry of Dragons! had her staggering to a halt and trying to look up. Almost overbalancing with the effort, planting one hand firmly against the nearest wall, she stopped and scanned the skies just in time to see dragons swoop low and then disappear behind a line of mudbrick buildings

At last! Dragons!

Dragons are generally a good element. Who wouldn’t turn the page with an opening like this?

9. Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone

They came from all around the broken world to pay Vivian Liao homage on her birthday.

Oligarchs and video stars and billionaires and their daughters, princesses and actresses hoping for her notice, fresh-faced tech circuit darlings hungry to stand where Viv now stood but with only the vaguest sense of what that meant, people she’d sent invitations and people she’d let bribe or beg their way onto the guest list, they came. The Saint Kitts airport had hummed with Gessnas and Gulfstreams and Tesla Aeros for days before the party, and the long black glistening cars that wound up the driveway of the beach-front mansion might have been a funeral processions save for the passengers’ brightly colored plumage. A funeral, maybe, for a tyrant.

I am one hundred percent uninterested in celebrity culture in the real world. I expect this is partly because I don’t recognize most celebrities all that easily – moderately face-blind, remember – and it’s hard to care about celebrities when your first response to 99% of them is “Who is this again?” Also, there’s just nothing appealing about the celebrity-worship aspect of modern societies. Why do people care about the opinions of actors and singers and people who are famous for being famous? I honestly do not understand it.

So … I have heard lots of good things about Max Gladstone. Perhaps I should have tried a sample of a different book first, because I’m not remotely interested in Vivian or any of her hangers-on. In fact, I’m immediately somewhat repelled by this opening.

10. Ship of Smoke and Steel by Django Wexler

It’s time to get to work.

I move quickly, losing myself among the crumbling tenement blocks of the Sixteenth Ward. The streets smell of saltwater and rotting fish, piss and misery. Huddled shapes crowd against the pitted brick, fearful faces staring. This is my Kahnzoka, my filthy, stinking city, and these are my people.

I walk a complex route, to make sure I’m not followed. When I’m convinced there’s no one on my tail, I head to the building that houses my current bolthole and climb to the fourth floor.

I’m a big fan of Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series. I wouldn’t say it’s flawless, but I would say it’s easily one of the top ten epic fantasies I’ve read in the past decade. That will be a good thing to keep in mind as I read the first chapter of this book, because this beginning would put me solidly off if the author were someone I had never read before. First person present tense plus too gritty. If the author mentions piss and filth and misery in the first paragraph, well, that is not a great sign for the tone of the story.

Okay! Which if any of these beginnings especially appeal / do not appeal to you all?

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Angel of the Crows

So, you all know that Katherine Addison’s Goblin Emperor is a favorite of mine. You may know she has a new book out, just released, set in an altogether different world.

Here’s the description:

This is not the story you think it is. These are not the characters you think they are. This is not the book you are expecting.

In an alternate 1880s London, angels inhabit every public building, and vampires and werewolves walk the streets with human beings in a well-regulated truce. A fantastic utopia, except for a few things: Angels can Fall, and that Fall is like a nuclear bomb in both the physical and metaphysical worlds. And human beings remain human, with all their kindness and greed and passions and murderous intent.

Jack the Ripper stalks the streets of this London too. But this London has an Angel. The Angel of the Crows.

And here’s a guest post about this book, plus a giveaway, over at Fantasy Book Cafe:

Jack is not the first serial killer, or even the first “modern” serial killer, but he’s the one we remember. There are several reasons for this, but one of the most important ones is his name. Not “the Whitechapel murderer” but “Jack the Ripper.” Someone was very cunning when they came up with that name. It’s short, punchy, imagination-catching. And the idea of a serial killer writing to the newspapers was new.

I will add, from the reviews on Amazon though in no way indicated from the above description, it’s clear that this is essentially a retelling of Sherlock Holmes stories, with renamed main characters plus supernatural elements plus a Jack the Ripper frame story. It’s also clear that WOW THE PUBLISHER SHOULD HAVE SAID SO UP FRONT. A large proportion of early reveiwers were taken by surprise, not in a good way. If you are a Sherlock Holmes fan and know going in that this is a Holmes homage, you will probably like the book much better.

I … am not actually a Sherlock Holmes fan. I read some of the stories in a desultory way many years ago and have never watched any of the modern adaptations. Since Katherine Addison / Sarah Monette wrote this, sure, I’m interested, to a degree, but not remotely enough to pick up the book at the currently high price. For Holmes fans, though, this may be something you at least want to drop on your wishlist.

Also, I have learned a new term: Wingfic is fanfic where important characters are given wings (for any reason). In this story, Sherlock Holmes is “Crow,” an odd type of angel; thus this novel actually started explicitly as Sherlock Holmes wingfic before being adapted into novel form and brought out by a publisher.

I can only think of one other novel that started as fanfic … doubtless there are others … but I am thinking of Barbara Hambly’s Star Trek novel Ishmael, one of my very favorite Star Trek novelizations. Does anybody know of any other novels that started that way?

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Penric and Desdemona

You may all have already known about this, but there’s another Penric and Desdemona novella out: The Physicians of Vilnoc. It came out in May, at which point I missed it; I just spotted it a couple of days ago and read it at once.

When a mysterious plague breaks out in the army fort guarding Vilnoc, the port capital of the duchy of Orbas, Temple sorcerer Penric and his demon Desdemona are called upon by General Arisaydia to resurrect Penric’s medical skills and solve its lethal riddle.

Wow, how … topical. I do wonder whether LMB had this plot in mind before the start of this year or not; and whether she thought about putting off its release or not. Anyway, fine, I said, I don’t mind a plague story, I guess. So I dove right in.

It is, I must say, not my favorite in the series. I understood why almost at once: there’s too little Desdemona in this story. What we have is a grueling medical ordeal in which Penric works as hard as he can and Desdemona sinks into silent endurance, basically. We get way less witty commentary than usual. Nothing new develops in the relationship between Desdemona and Penric, and nothing new develops in what Desdemona can do, and basically there is nothing new, period. Nikys is almost completely absent too, so there goes another chance to develop an important relationship.

There’s essentially no action either, other than grinding forward one day after another. No daring rescues or escapes, nothing like that. Pour uphill magic into one patient after another, collapse from exhaustion, repeat. I like the dog demon (of course), and I like the new sorcerer who accidentally picked up that little demon. But that element wasn’t enough to make the story sing. Not even close.

So … I liked it, obviously. It’s a perfectly fine story, in its way. But I’m hoping for something with a little more energy next time.

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Continuing characters

Here’s a post at Kill Zone Blog where Terry Odell points out that JD Robb / Nora Roberts has just published her 50th book in the near-future murder mystery “in Death” series.

Wow.

JD Robb has just published her 50th “In Death” book. The cast of characters has grown over time, but her two main characters, Eve and Roarke, have anchored every book.

Again, kinda Wow. That’s a long time to hang out with the same two characters.

I’ve read just a couple of the “in Death” series, which I didn’t dislike, but obviously didn’t like enough to go on with. It’s one of those setups where the male lead, Roarke, is smart and good looking and oh also the richest person in the world, and I think I had started to dislike the richest-guy-in-the-world-male-lead trope before I tried this series, so that did not help my level of interest.

But that’s not the point! The point is, fifty books in one series with the same two leads in every book! I mean … yeah, back to Wow.

I do not in general get tired of continuing characters, personally. I think CJC should move on to a different generation in her Foreigner series, for reasons forcefully expressed here, but if the quality of each individual book remains high, I am more than happy to keep reading one book after another featuring the same characters. If the next book in the Foreigner series is great, I will be cheering hard no matter which direction CJC takes.

But fifty books! I have never followed a series that long.

Are any of you fans of the “in Death” series? Have you read the whole thing?

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