Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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The human sacrifice diet: interesting in an appalling way

How did anyone even think of doing this study?

Scientists explore the lives of ancient human sacrifice victims by analyzing what they ate.

During the final two centuries of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE) in China, thousands of people were sacrificed at the state capital of Yinxu. Some were dispatched with great fanfare, buried with rich grave goods, while others appear to have been sacrificed with extreme prejudice and mutilated after death. Now, a new study sheds some light on these victims. Simon Fraser University bioarchaeologist Christina Cheung and her colleagues reconstructed these ancient people’s’ lives by discovering what they ate and when, based on chemical signatures left in their bones.

Human sacrifice was a common ritual among the people of almost every ancient civilization, from China and Europe, to Mesopotamia and the Americas. Though archaeologists have analyzed the graves of these sacrifices, they have many questions about the victims’ lives. Were they revered and celebrated before death, or were they outcasts? Were they prisoners from far away, or were they the sons and daughters of their executioners?

Cheung and her team answered a number of these questions with a chemical analysis of the bones of 68 sacrificial victims at Yinxu, which were compared with the bones of 39 locals.

So, okay, this *is* interesting. In a fairly disturbing way.

I knew human sacrifice was not really rare, but I wonder if it’s fair to say: common among almost every ancient civilization. If you’re up on ancient history, please weigh in.

Archaeologists typically find rensheng in mass graves that they divide into “skull pits,” “headless pits,” and “mutilated pits.” As you might guess, these are pits full of skulls, decapitated bodies, and partial bodies, respectively. … We can’t say for sure what was happening in Yinxu that made human sacrifice seem appealing. Were these early leaders of China trying to build a new state, based on their ruthless strength? Or were they worried that their control was slipping and offering sacrifices to regain an earlier greatness?

All we know is that the Shang Dynasty kept a prison full of outcasts readily available so that at any time the public could be witness to the public sacrifices of people their leaders called foes.

Well, I’m happier and happier to have given that particular society a miss. Along with basically all other ancient societies.

I can tell you that if mass human sacrifice takes place in one of my books, it’ll be just the bad guys doing it and they will ultimately be crushed by the good guys. Too bad the real world doesn’t follow the conventions of heroic fantasy.

Well, it is an interesting article, although after reading it you may want to check out something warm and fuzzy, like these police rescuing ducklings or these fishermen rescuing a dog from a freezing river.

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Good News Tuesday

Today, one tidbit that’s good and one that’s interesting.

Let’s start with the good news:

Gray seals are making a huge comeback

For nearly a hundred years, New England’s gray seals had a bounty on their heads. Maine and Massachusetts paid people to kill them, because they depleted fishing stocks. They were also hunted for their meat and pelts. By 1973—a year after the Marine Mammal Protection Act made it illegal to systematically kill the animals—a census estimated there were only 30 gray seals left along the entire coast of Maine….”Past surveys based on traditional methods of counting … counted about 15,000 seals off the southeastern Massachusetts coast,” David Johnston, a marine conservation ecologist at Duke University, said in a statement. “Our technology-aided aerial survey, which used Google Earth imagery in conjunction with telemetry data from tagged animals, suggests the number is much larger—between 30,000 and 50,000.”

I will add, this post should say “…paid people to kill them because they were suspected of depleting fishing stocks.” It’s so typical to find out after you’ve poisoned a lot of wolves / trapped a lot of otters / shot a lot of seals that actually the species in question never did have that great an impact on the prey species you cared about. This article makes that point too: “We know almost nothing about what gray seals eat, how and where they forage, and whether they interact in an ecological way with fisheries,” he says. “There is very little evidence that culling seals will increase fishery yields or provide positive effects on the local ecosystem.”

Which doesn’t mean they don’t, but let’s find out before leaping in with guns and clubs, eh?

Meanwhile, for something completely different:

Eerie sounds and new pictures prove Jupiter is completely different than assumed

Well, not completely different, I assume. Still really big. Still got a really big storm called the Great Red Spot. Still got lots of moons.

Apparently it’s got some surprises other than that, though:

…when you look from the pole, it looks totally different … I don’t think anybody would have guessed this is Jupiter.

Cool pictures at the link.

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Recent Listening: Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson

This weekend, I and two of the gang attended an obedience/rally show a couple hours from my home. Very nice venue in Wentzville: indoor, air conditioned, really excellent flooring, big enough not to be too crowded by the hundred or so dogs and their various owners, huge lawn area to walk the dogs. Beautiful weather too. Couldn’t have asked for a nicer venue for a small show.

Also, my dogs did pretty decently. Ish finished off his Rally Excellent title – he only needed one more qualifying score and got it on Saturday, so Sunday was just-for-fun for him. He’s not fabulous at the Excellent level, but he’s okay. He knocked one of the jumps down Sunday or he would have scored in the mid-eighties both days. We lost some points on the Stand-your-dog-Leave-your-dog-Sit-your-dog-Front-Finish exercise, which is just as complicated as it sounds, and a few points here and there besides that. If I were going on with him I would want a clearer understanding about the difference between the Moving Stand and the Moving Down and the long-distance signals for Sit and Down, and to tighten up his heeling around distractions like, oh, air conditioner vents and stuff. (He sometimes pauses to look at things). But he does okay.

Honey did REALLY well in Advanced, better than I thought she would. I’d sort of thought I finished that title years ago, before she earned her breed championship, but apparently not. So I worked with her a bit and put her back in the ring to get that Advanced title. I didn’t actually think she was necessarily ready, but she totally was. She would have scored a perfect 100 both days except she didn’t do the jump either day. She is fine jumping any weird obstacle I point her at, except in the actual ring, where she doesn’t seem to quite get that the thing is a jump. What we need is fifteen minutes in a real ring, training rather than showing, and I expect she would figure it out and be fine forever after. But she finished her Advanced title and I may not bother fixing the issue with the jump unless I decide to show her in Excellent.

Here they both are showing off their New Title ribbons.

Also, two hours each way for two days is a lot of driving time, so I finally finished Magic Marks the Spot. It’s a MG fantasy novel with magic! and pirates! and quests! And a gargoyle, and good friends, and bad fathers, and worldbuilding that is frankly a touch ridiculous.

I thought a MG novel would be perfect for audio – fast paced and perhaps not too serious. This one had good reviews, so I gave it a try. It was cute and fun, but it also turned out to be a little young for me, for a different reason than usual when MG doesn’t work out that well for me.

Hilary Westfield has always dreamed of being a pirate. But the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates rejects Hilary’s application because she’s a girl, and her father ships her off to Miss Pimm’s Finishing School for Delicate Ladies instead…

Generally my impression has been that if a MG novel doesn’t work for me, it’s usually the impulsivity of the main character, which grades into stupidity, and that is just so unappealing. There’s a certain slant in that direction here, but not too much, so that wasn’t actually an issue for me in this one. A secondary character was inexplicably stupid, which didn’t help, but I think this time it was the *very* light tone, which meant that some aspects of Hilary’s character and some aspects of the worldbuilding and also some elements of the plot did not ring true to me.

Hilary is an appealing protagonist. She’s impulsive, but not ridiculously so. She’s pretty competent in general. The gargoyle is a cute sidekick. Hilary’s governess is a very neat character, one of my favorites. Hilary’s friend Claire is quite charming; I liked her a lot. I liked the finishing school and how important it turned out to be. I sort of liked Jasper, the pirate who takes Hilary on as a crew member to help him find the important treasure everyone’s after.

Things that did not work so terribly well for me:

a) Character issue: Hilary certainly accepted her father’s villainy with surprising aplomb. I know they weren’t close, but there is essentially no emotional fallout from this discovery.

b) Plot issue: The way Jasper sets up his plan makes no sense at all. I mean, did he actually expect Hilary to apply for that position on his crew? He can’t have, and yet what he planned to do without her is completely baffling.

c) Second plot issue: I loved the idea of Miss Pimm, but whoa, that woman has apparently spent her entire career being dumb as a box of rocks, and she sure shows that quality in this story. I know one way to get the child protagonist to shine is to make the surrounding adults unbelievably stupid, but that is not something that works well for me personally. Also, having long ago committed to a really stupid idea, Miss Pimm’s mind is amazingly easy to change at the end.

d) Worldbuilding issue: The crew of Jasper’s ship consists of him, one boy, Hilary, the governess, and that’s it. Who exactly is actually, you know, sailing the ship? Certainly none of them ever seem to do any activity remotely involved with sailing. I actually had real trouble with this. Carlson might as well have called the “ships” flying carpets. Then Jasper could have given his ship magic commands to go here or there with no need for fiddling around with sails and stuff. In fact, if Carlson had done exactly that, it would have worked much better for me. Except no matter what, this issue feeds into the problem with plotting. What in the world did Jasper need to hire another crewman for, if no one ever does any work aboard the ship?

e) Second worldbuilding issue: Not to make too big a thing out of this, but you know, in the real world, pirates exactly exist. They are horrible people. Hilary has this big reaction to her father sinking pirate ships, but any navy that sinks pirate is doing its job. Any pirates that drown, fine. Any pirates that survive are just going to be hanged anyway. And so this worldbuilding element, where the pirates are (sort of) good guys and a title like The Terror of the Soundlands is, apparently, meaningless, really raises questions. Do pirates here never actually kill anybody or pillage anything? They’re actually just treasure hunters with peg legs and parrots and a tendency to say Aaargh, matey? Then why is pirating, ie treasure hunting, against the law so that naval ships sink pirates? It kind of doesn’t make sense and, since this is a central plot element, it kind of sat there at the edge of my mind the whole way through the book.

Soooo . . . I kind of liked the story, which does have a good deal of charm. Also some fun plot twists here and there. The friendships between Hilary and Claire, and between Hilary and her governess, worked well for me. I enjoyed the correspondence between the pirates and Hilary, and the excerpts from the book of pirating lore. I can see why this book’s got a ton of positive reviews.

But the story’s extremely light tone also seemed to step back from emotional depth where depth would have been due, and treating the pirates as both bloodthirsty on the one hand and harmless scallywags on the other, created an ongoing feeling that the world didn’t make sense.

Overall rating: I don’t know, for me, maybe a three. If I had a paper copy I would now give it to a kid twelve or younger. I expect it would work better for lots of kids in that age range than it did for me.

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What one book most ought to have a sequel?

Via File 770, I see that Seanan McGuire posed this question on Twitter: If one book you love by a living author could get a sequel, what would it be?

Good question! Plus, it’s probably wise to limit this to living authors. However, for me it’s too easy:

1. The Goblin Emperor by “Katherine Addison”

So let’s make it more interesting and require a little more thought by reframing the question in a couple of different ways:

2. If one book you love by a living author, published prior to 2010, could have a sequel, what would it be?

I’m lucky because so many of the books I truly love *do* have sequels. I’m not sure, but maybe Martha Wells’ Wheel of the Infinite.

Here’s another:

3. If one book you love by a living author, published when you were in high school, could have a sequel, what would it be?

I don’t know that it *needs* a sequel, but I would kind of love to see a sequel to The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.

One more:

4. If one book you love by an author now deceased could have a sequel, what would it be?

I thought Octavia Butler’s Fledgling read as though it were meant to begin a series. I would love to see where she was going with it.

And the last iteration:

5. If one series you love by any author living or dead, currently unfinished, could be finished this year, what would you like it to be?

For me, though there is some competition and I could probably pick a top five without trouble, this would be The Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirstein. I leave in terror that authors I love will get struck by meteors without finishing some of my favorite series, and it would be sooooo tragic if this particular series were never finished!

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It’s possible to misread anything

Here’s a post at BookRiot: Is it possible to misread Octavia E Butler?

Of course it is. The author of the post demonstrates how:

The titular tale in Butler’s one and only short story collection, “Bloodchild” describes a future where humanity has developed a complicated relationship with a race of insect-like creatures known as the Tlic. The Tlic chooses one child from every family to be impregnated and “host” Tlic eggs inside their body. In exchange for this service, the Tlic “allow” the humans to live inside a special compound and ingest sterile Tlic eggs, which work as a kind of opiate, keeping the humans calm and happy. Oh, and the humans are banned from possessing any weapons, for fear of an uprising….The first time I read this story, I assumed Butler has written “Bloodchild” as an allegory for slavery in North America. It seemed so obvious: the Tlic are the white enslavers and their controlling humans’ bodies for their own benefit, all while insisting the humans are fortunate to be subjugated….But Butler had heard this interpretation many, many times before, and wrote in her afterward to “Bloodchild” that she was “amazed” people kept viewing her story through this lens. And although the story does includes a group of humans that are, in a literal sense, enslaved, this reading is a vast oversimplification of what Butler was doing with the characters and their motivations.

Well, I agree that “Bloodchild” is a powerful story. But this interpretation never once occurred to me. Not to brag, but here is what Butler said about this story:

As Butler noted, “Bloodchild” is a love story, a coming-of-age tale, and what-if scenario about a man becoming pregnant with a weird, alien, bug-creature. In the afterward, Butler states she wanted to explore a scenario where a man could become pregnant not by accident or out of curiosity, but by love. … In this way, Butler explores gender roles within the family unit and societal structures. Gan takes on the traditional role of female not only in birthing offspring, but making a powerful decision in a scenario where he has very little power to begin with.

And even when I was a kid, I thought that was *very very* clear. Reduce the story to a parable about slavery and you remove practically all its power.

This is a good post; click through and read the whole thing.

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Forgetting

Interesting post via The Passive Voice blog: Are you forgetful? That’s just your brain erasing useless memories

Most of us think “perfect” memory means never forgetting, but maybe forgetting actually helps us navigate a world that is random and ever-changing.

So say two neuroscientists in a review published today in the journal Neuron. The argument is that memory isn’t supposed to act like a video recorder, but instead like a list of useful rules that help us make better decisions, says study co-author Blake Richards, a University of Toronto professor who studies the theoretical links between artificial intelligence and neuroscience. So it makes sense that our brains would make us forget outdated, irrelevant information that might confuse us, or information that leads us astray.

Actually, I’m pretty sure that “most of us” would have assumed that perfect memory, where you never forget anything, is not actually a great thing. If it were, why wouldn’t we all already have eidetic memories? Or better than eidetic?

Look, for example, at this woman who remembers everything. Thus we know it is possible for a human person to remember everything. Given that it’s in the possible human range, I think we can assume if perfect memory carried a big survival or reproductive advantage, lots of us would have that kind of memory.

What problems does this woman experience? Well, she remembers unpleasant things as vividly as pleasant things. For those who tend to dwell on the negative, that might well be a huge disadvantage. Also, another woman with the condition says, “It’s a huge temptation [to stay alone in her room and recall nice things]. I could, if I didn’t have stuff to do all day, I could probably live in the past 24/7.”

Imagine people in a hunter-gatherer society, filled with a lot of tedious but necessary work to do, but faced with that temptation. Or worse, an agrarian society with A LOT of GRINDINGLY tedious but necessary work to do.

So this article unsurprisingly discusses the advantages that accrue to forgetting.

None of which makes it less annoying when you walk into your bedroom, pause, and say to yourself, “Wait, why did I come in here?” I yield to no one in my ability to forget what the heck I meant to do in less than the minute it takes to walk downstairs, multiple times, before I finally remember whatever it was I needed to get or do.

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Good heavens, where is the year going?

So here we are, nearly in July, the year half over, and in some ways I feel like the year’s just started. Instead, it’s just about time for a retrospective: What are the best books I’ve read this year so far? I do keep a list of books acquired and books read, though generally I get behind and then have to try to remember what all I’ve been reading lately. But let’s just take a look:

January: I must have been busy with something else in January, as I only read nine books . . . oh, right, the puppies were born January 4th. Yep, now I clearly remember which book I loved best that month: Crown of Bitter Orange by Laura Florand. I loved it partly because hey, Laura Florand, and partly because she very kindly emailed me a copy on January 3rd when I mentioned on Twitter that particular book would be perfect as a distraction from a tense situation and wasn’t it a shame it wasn’t out yet. I was right, it was perfect to while away the last uncomfortable day of Honey’s pregnancy, when nothing would stop her from having mild contractions but I knew the puppies’ heartrates sounded all right and didn’t want to rush into an emergency c-section. Of course that all turned out okay, but what a long day that was, and Bitter Orange made it much more bearable than it otherwise would have been.

February: Looks like I re-read The Goblin Emperor. Again. Other than that one, I really liked Grave by Michelle Sagara West. I notice I also bought The Cold Eye by Gilman. Huh. I still haven’t read that, mostly because I really want to re-read the wonderful first book before opening the second. Maybe I will do that soon now that I have reminded myself about this series.

March: I was revising this and that, and also writing fifty or so pages of this and the other to see if any new project seemed particularly inspirational, so just about the only fiction I read all month was a lot of the Shadow Unit series. I dipped into it all along the length of the series and then read the final book, the fifteenth, which had only recently come out. It was a brutal ending in a lot of ways, but it provided a good and appropriate wrap-up of the series. It’s a great series, btw, if you haven’t ever tried it. I think the first book is permanently free in ebook format if you want to test the waters.

April: Again, I barely read any fiction in April. I did read Silence Fallen, the latest Mercy Thompson book, and liked it a lot.

May: Ah, yes, in May I read a lot more books! More than five times as many as in April – seventeen compared to three. I concentrated on those from my physical TBR shelves, which had overflowed onto the floor and it would be nice to get the overflow whittled all the way down before the end of the year, though I’m not making any promises about that.

Let’s see, well, you know Thick as Thieves by Megan Whelan Turner came out in April. I loved it, although it practically drove me crazy that MWT never referred to Costis by name till right near the end. I was sure it was him, but I would have liked confirmation, especially after he gave a false name!

I finally read Railsea in April, and liked it far better than I’d thought I would. As is usual with China Mieville, I didn’t really believe in his world, but I enjoyed it anyway once the protagonist kind of grew up a little.

But I have to say, the standout for the month was Naomi Kritzer’s Freedom’s Gate trilogy. Excellent series, truly impressive, I’m sure it’ll go on my best-of-2017 list at the end of the year.

June: We’re only halfway through June, so it’s not really fair to pick out my favorite of the month yet, I guess. Especially when I can’t really because the month has been super-eclectic, filled with whipsaw transitions from sweet MG (Burgis’s The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, of course) to end-of-the-world apocalyptic military SF (Ringo’s Dark Tide Rising series. Historical romance (Carla Kelly’s Courting Carrie and a re-read of some of Bujold’s Sharing Knife books have been in the mix too.

So how about you? What books have you read this year that you particularly enjoyed?

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Groundhog Day, the Musical

“Groundhog Day” seems it would be hard to pull off as a musical, but hey, after “Hamilton,” I’m willing to believe that anything can work if it’s done well.

Here’s a review:

Over the past 24 years, Groundhog Day has proven itself to have a surprisingly long tail. When the film was released on Feb. 12, 1993, it was regarded as little more than a better-than-average Bill Murray comedy about an arrogant TV weatherman forced by the cosmos to relive the same day over and over…and over again. Since then, however, the film has taken on a strange (and I’d argue well-deserved) second life as a deceptively deep philosophical meditation on the meaning of life — a high-brow statement hidden in a low-brow wrapper. It may be the closest thing the 20th century gave us to A Christmas Carol and the myth of Sisyphus.

Now, the seemingly simple tale has been given yet another wrinkle of interpretation (Singing! Dancing! An Actor in a Giant Marmot Costume!) with the wonderfully inventive Groundhog Day: The Musical, a giddy highlight of the current Broadway season. Before we get into it, though, a word of warning about what isn’t in this Groundhog Day: There’s no “I Got You Babe” from Sonny & Cher driving you mental from the bedside alarm clock; there’s no live rodent on stage (too literal…and too feral apparently); and, of course, there’s no Murray. That last one, I’m guessing, might be a deal-breaker for some — a reason to walk in to the August Wilson Theatre with a skeptic’s cocked eyebrow. But the show’s star, Andy Karl, brings his own brand of smarmy charm to the role of meteorologist Phil Connors and makes it his own before the night is over. Where Murray was rumpled, Karl is pressed and blow-dried. Where Murray was toxically bitter with spiky edges, Karl has more of a slick smugness, his edges smooth and sanded down. Karl may not be as unpredictable as Murray (then again, who is?!), but he conjures his own breed of jerky egomaniac. His energy is oily cool whereas Murray’s was prickly hot. And yet it takes Karl all of five minutes to win you over completely (resist as you might). It’s easy to see how he earned back-to-back Tony nominations for 2014’s Rocky The Musical and 2015’s On the Twentieth Century.

Read the whole thing; you’re practically guaranteed to wish you had tickets.

I wonder how it works just as a soundtrack? Cause it may be a loooong while before I have a chance to see it on stage.

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Here’s something fun —

Many of you, for one reason or another, probably do not follow the blog Math With Bad Drawings (although it is well worth a look). For those deprived souls, I offer this link to a funny and not too mathematical post:

Life, in Coordinate Planes

Here’s how the post starts:

Historians will look back at this period and ask, “What mass lunacy gripped these people, that so many of them sought pleasure in running long distances?” Their books will have titles like “The 21st-Century Illness: How Marathons Brought Civilization on the Brink” and “26-Mile Masochism: Had They Not Heard of Cars and Bicycles?” and “Running in Giant Meaningless Circles: You Were Right All Along, Ben.” Then they will go play dodgeball, because the future is a better place.

Ha!

The next coordinate plane actually does deal with books, about which you might have opinions. I, for example, would put Ulysses waaaaay over at the bottom left corner. (Any Ulysses fans can weigh in about it’s proper position in this plane, if so inclined). But the comments about marathons made me laugh, so that’s the section I copied here. Click through to read the whole post.

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Sumptuary laws: building an unfamiliar world

Here’s a post by Marie Brennen at Book View Cafe about an element of worldbuilding we seldom see authors use: sumptuary laws.

You know what those are, right? Laws about what kinds of clothes commoners can wear and made of what materials and in what colors, vs well-born gentlemen, vs the nobility. Stuff like that. Such a peculiar idea compared to modern sensibilities. But quite common historically, of course.

Historically speaking, lots of cultures have treated class as a matter of birth or achievement, and have frowned heavily on people trying to use money to buy their way into the upper strata.

Those cultures tend to have something called sumptuary laws. You mostly hear about these in the context of clothing, but they apply to any form of consumption: food, furniture, the size of your entourage, even the way you build your house. Such laws reserve certain types of luxury only for the “right” kind of people, and impose fines or other punishments for individuals who overstep their bounds.

Let’s start with clothing, since the examples there are so abundant. Sumptuary laws may govern the use of certain fabrics (no silk for the hoi polloi!), dyes (Tyrian purple was hugely significant in ancient Rome), garments (Heian Japan restricted hat types by bureaucratic rank), cuts (restriction of necklines or sleeve lengths or just about anything else), embroidery (limiting both quantity and subject matter), jewelry (Islamic sumptuary laws discourage men from wearing gold), and so forth. What’s interesting here is that the purpose of the law may be to maintain the power of the elite . . . but it may also be to keep the non-elite down. Banning native dress in a subjugated population, or requiring disfavored groups like prostitutes or members of religious minorities to wear markers of their status, also helps to maintain the structure of the society.

Brennen’s phrasing there seems to imply that it’s somehow a secondary feature of these laws that they effectively keep down the commoners. I doubt it. I think that was probably the main driver of sumptuary laws in most or all cases. There are other ways of recognizing the people that matter — details of etiquette spring to mind — but heaven forbid you should have any of the hoi polloi be able to pass as well-bred just by learning to ape a gentleman’s manners, right? So forbid them to wear anything but brown or something, with criminal penalties if they do, and there you go.

Guy Gavriel Kay includes this kind of detail in some of his books, not surprising because he pours such deep worldbuilding into each novel.

I’ve done it only once — remember? In House of Shadows, there are rigid laws about who can wear what, and foreigners like Taudde have to be careful not to put a foot wrong because breaking the sumptuary laws would indeed carry consequences.

I’ll have to keep in mind that stratified societies where wealth is not considered an adequate entry into the upper strata of society are pretty likely to have sumptuary laws. It’s a nice detail that says clearly to the reader: This Is A Secondary World And The Culture Is Not Modern American.

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