Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Recent Reading: The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Bradley

This is a straight historical MG story, not necessary something that would appeal to those who mostly read secondary-world SFF. I don’t recall where I picked it up, but it has been on my physical TBR shelves for ages, it’s short, and I guess I was in the mood for a MG story that I was pretty sure had a happy ending.

Ten-year-old Ada has never left her one-room apartment. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him.

So, The War That Saved My Life is enormously touching. Watching Ada adjust to the remarkably different life in the village is quite something. “This is a needle. See, it has a hole at this end for thread to go through, and this other end is pointy so you can stick it through cloth . . .”

I enjoyed it very much and I’m glad I picked it up. For a MG reader, it’s probably a great choice, at least if that particular younger reader likes history and/or overcoming-bad-childhood stories.

Good things that an adult reader might notice:

Wow, is it obvious that Ada is suffering from PTSD. Not by that name, which is appropriate because of the historical setting.

Ditto for Susan, who is obviously clinically depressed.

Ada, Jamie, and Susan are all well-drawn, with realistic problems stemming from their lives, that are handled well and with subtlety and without bashing the reader over the head with them. I mean, Susan and her deceased friend were pretty clearly in a lesbian relationship, but the author never quite says so and the children certainly don’t realize this, which is fine because Susan would certainly never have discussed anything of the kind with children.

Less-great things that an adult reader might notice:

a. Susan is pretty amazingly good at handling Jamie and Ada, considering her lack of experience with children. But some people probably do just have a knack. I thought this was handled in a believable-enough way, but I can see that some adult readers might raise a skeptical eyebrow.

b. The plot has a couple of unbelievable twists, including a too-pat ending. I didn’t notice this until after I finished the book, though, because I had no problem suspending disbelief while reading the story.

c. The mother is probably too evil.

I’m pretty sure that none of this would bother most young readers, though. All those concerns are things that, it seems to me, might strike an adult reader but not readers of the intended age demographic. Also, I personally found the story highly engaging regardless.

Plus, I read the whole thing in one evening after basically vaporizing my brain by spending the entire day making PowerPoints over evolutionary theory. This story was just about perfect for an evening where I could not have enjoyed anything as complex as, say, Pyramids of London.

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Recent Reading: Pyramids of London by Andrea K Höst

Sunlight picked out motes of dust and burnished mellow wood to match Arianne Seaforth’s hair as she strolled through the Southern Nomarch’s library. Heavy bookcases jutted from the inner wall, stopping short of the many-paned windows, and Rian walked along a corridor formed by the gap, watching a drama of wind.

I have put off reading Pyramids of London for years, partly because I don’t like reading the last new-to-me novel by an author and often delay reading a novel for that reason; and because I knew it was the first book of a series and thought it would be nice to wait for the sequel to hit the shelves. [It hasn’t yet, btw.] Anyway, while I bought Pyramids when it was released, it’s just been sitting in the AKH folder of my Kindle ever since.

But Andrea K Höst always writes novels that I will like even if I am not in the mood to read anything. There are a handful of authors like that for me, and AKH is one of them. This spring is all about comfort reads and re-reads for me, so I just re-read Hunting, which honestly, I think I like better every time I read it. (This was the third.) That made me one to read something else of hers, and Pyramids was sitting there in the folder, and I thought What the heck, who needs sequels? Anyway, I knew Höst would tie this one up pretty well. So I opened it up.

Now, I saw somewhere – her blog perhaps – that AKH considers Pyramids of London her best novel.

I agree!

It’s not my favorite; it’s not going to be the one I re-read the most often (that’ll be the Touchstone trilogy, which I also re-read this spring already). Nevertheless, Pyramids of London is imo Höst’s best novel. It is also a candidate for the list of “Books I Never Would Have Guessed Were by the Same Author.” Just as The Speed of Dark is (a) Elizabeth Moon’s best work, and (b) really, really different from all her other work, so Pyramids of London is for AKH.

Things that make Pyramids stand out:

Wow, it has the MOST BAROQUE alternate history EVER in the entire history of fantasy literature.

If you are into alternate history, read this and tell me I’m wrong.

I can think of exactly one other contender that comes close: Richard Garfinkle’s Celestial Matters. In Garfinkle’s novel, Greek natural philosophy is true for the Greeks and Chinese natural philosophy is true for the Chinese and so on. AKH’s world is something like that, but her characterization is better. For that reason among others, her story is substantially more gripping. And I literally can’t think of any other fantasy world where the worldbuilding is both sort of based on real history and yet tremendously different way down deep, with ramifications that echo all through history and through basic societal assumptions and individual psychology and … I don’t know, the ramifications echo through everything.

Here in Pyramids, we have a world where the Egyptian conceptions of the gods and the afterlife are true. Also Roman mythology and the Roman afterlife; that’s true for Romans, who are still around but not all that influential. Also Scandinavian mythology, which is true for the important Swedish Empire. Also who knows what else.

I gather that in many countries, when the people call on the gods, the gods may Answer, capital “A,” but the characters don’t spend a lot of time discussing or thinking about basic facts of history, so I’m not entirely sure exactly how all this worked, or still works. My impression is that once the gods Answer, that country is bound to that god forever, or as near as makes no difference.

There is nothing remotely like Christianity, but wow are there afterlives, and travelers may be in a pickle if they die in a foreign country. If they’re lucky their soul will move on to some nice-ish afterlife which applies in that country and if they’re not lucky I guess their soul … disappears, maybe? Or there are such things as “punishment Otherworlds” – Otherworlds being the term for afterlives. This is the sort of thing that changes how people behave. Do you really want to travel? Are you sure?

But the world is way more ornate than that. Because vampirism appeared in Egypt a long, long time ago, and is all tied up now with the way the Egyptian afterlife works. Extraordinarily long-lived vampires have ruled Egypt since basically forever.

Oh, and the vampire afterlife involves the possibility of becoming a star. Which is to say, a god. Because gods and stars are definitely linked somehow. In Prytennia – I guess the equivalent of Britannia, part of England anyway – the important god is definitely the sun. Who, by the way, sometimes sends down to the world solar entities that remind me of cherubim from A Wind in the Door – wings, no other familiar anatomy, heat, song, incomprehensible but not badly disposed to people. A whole different order of life.

And then there are the Night Breezes.

Also, the Forest Lord, the horned god of the eternal Great Forest, is an important figure.

Did I mention already that this world is incredibly cluttered and baroque and ornate? I said that, right?

Oh, by the way, France is ruled by creatures that aren’t human, that remind me somewhat of the Fae, but aren’t the same. They only come out at night and only in Paris, which is almost entirely under the shadow of the Court of the Moon, where gravity suddenly lessens dramatically at sunset. Oh, also, if you die in France, your soul has a very good chance of being re-incorporated into a flying creature in the Court of the Moon. There is, in fact, a Sun King – who is very much subordinate to the Court of the Moon. A lot about this is developed in an associated novella and I am actually leaving out a lot of the complexities of the situation in France. I would not want to live there, probably, depending on what the afterlife is like in other places, but probably I wouldn’t pick France.

There’s just so much, is what I’m saying.

Meanwhile, the actual story.

So, we have Rian, whose brother was recently murdered, orphaning three children for whom she is now responsible. Her goal is to find out who killed her brother, not so much to bring the murderer to justice but to clear his name of the carelessness that seemed responsible for his death, in order to help the children cope.

Her first step is to get herself bound to the service of a particular vampire, for reasons. This goes wrong and she gets bound to a much, much older and more scary vampire instead. After which everything gets complicated.

There’s no point trying to describe the plot. It’s a murder mystery set in a really ornate, unique world. The murder was committed for peculiar reasons that don’t have anything to do with ordinary motives for murder. The viewpoint alternates between Rian and one of the children. We meet a large cast of characters. The theme is, oh, let’s say the theme is the importance of being true to yourself, and the difficulty of knowing what that entails. The plot centers around the murder mystery. The characters are well-drawn, as you’d expect from Andrea K Höst.

Take-home message: this is a great book. Not my favorite of hers, no. But it’s a book I want to press on everyone. Pyramids of London belongs on everyone’s must-read list. If you haven’t read it yet, you have to go get a copy right now and read it and then let me know what you think.

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Yesterday —

I sent to the students in my General Biology class

–three short recorded lectures about genetics;

–two extremely detailed powerpoint presentations covering the same material;

–an associated genetics problem set meant to help them think about genetics correctly so they can do a good job on the real problem set;

–numbers to use to fill out three tables for Lab 10 so they can do this lab individually without actually being in a lab.

Today, I will send them:

–one more recorded video, this one over pedigree analysis

–another detailed powerpoint over that topic

–numbers to use to fill out a table for Lab 11

–the actual 50-point genetic problem set that will be due at the end of next week.

Today I will also:

–record two lectures over evolution and natural selection, to accompany

–complete powerpoints that cover those two chapters

I also need to:

–painfully convert the actual genetics test into the online format; it will probably be easiest just to type each question in by hand to the online test generator.

–write the test over evolution and natural selection, which I will later have to convert the same way.

–develop lab projects to take the place of the labs that would have been done in a normal semester.

So if you wonder why posting has been and will be light for a bit, this is why.

On the plus side, if you are interested in dinosaurs, here is a neat website. I’m going to use for a lab project for sure. I’m thinking of a set of questions like this: How many Neotheropods are listed for each period from the late Triassic to the Late Cretaceous? How many Sauropodans? How many Maniraptorans? Briefly describe each group.

Still working on it.

Also, neat little video here.

There’s another video I’m trying to find; black background, with various types of dinosaurs that appear …. linger for a second or 15 seconds … and disappear as they become extinct. It’s another good way to show that “dinosaurs” is a terrible term for the wildly different animals that are shoehorned into the category. However, I can’t find that one. I’d like to, so if anybody knows the one I mean or can use google-fu to find it quickly, if you’d post a link in the comments, that would be great.

Or, actually, any dinosaur-related reference you especially like.

My goal is to get my students to conclude that birds are NOT dinosaurs, but that birds ARE maniraptorans.

As far as I’m concerned, it would be nice to have fewer people say, Oh, no, birds are dinosaurs! Or worse, Oh, but birds are reptiles! I know taxonomic fads come and go, but please. Statements like that render the term “reptiles” as meaningless as the term “dinosaur” already is. Or wait, even more meaningless than that! There is absolutely no justification for saying that mammals are NOT reptiles, if you insist that birds ARE. The proper way of thinking about this, as far as I’m concerned, is to say reptile … reptile … still a reptile … this is still a reptile … here we have arrived at the reptile-derived group of maniraptorans, and over here the reptile-derived group of mammals.

Well, that was a digression. Anyway, if you have a dinosaur video, or a maniraptoran video for that matter, that you think is especially inviting, point me to it, please.

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Comfort reads do not have to lack emotional stakes

A post at tor.com: Comfort, Connection, and Community in Martha Wells’ Books of the Raksura

The author of the post, Kali Wallace, writes:

I certainly don’t believe that there’s anything at all wrong with seeking pure escapism in your reading and other media. (Example: When the world gets especially rough, I sometimes pass an evening helping a friend search for Korok seeds in Breath of the Wild, an activity which requires no effort and has absolutely no stakes.) But there is value in considering why certain stories comfort us during times of fear and uncertainty. 

Lonely heroes in search of connection and understanding are all over all literature, especially science fiction and fantasy, and there’s a good reason for that. There are quite a lot of good reasons, in fact, including the reality that it’s just plain fun to stick a loner into a variety of situations that require them to connect with, trust, and maybe even kinda sorta like other people. It works in everything from Artemis Fowl to Mad Max: Fury Road. We want the ragtag group of outcasts to find each other. We want the shy wallflower to make friends. We want the tragic warrior to reveal a bit of themselves to an unlikely ally. We want the samurai space bounty hunter to adopt the tiny baby alien.

My immediate response: Ooh, yes, by all means let’s have the samurai space bounty hunter adopt the tiny baby alien!

However, I really wonder about the idea that a comfort read should have, or often has, “absolutely no stakes.” I mean, seriously?

a) the Raksura are absolutely comfort reads for me. I don’t know how many times I’ve read the original trilogy. I mean, I’ve actually lost count. I’ve read the second duology twice.

b) Kali Wallace is quite right about the basic reasons Moon is such an appealing character in The Cloud Roads.

c) In my opinion, a comfort read should “feel like” it has a guaranteed happilyeveryafter ending, even the first time you read it. Lots of books do! A book may have that feel because it’s a romance, like LMB’s Sharing Knife series or Sharon Shinn’s Elemental Blessings series; or it may intrinsically have that feeling, like Andrea K Host’s Touchstone trilogy or (imo) the Raksura series; or it may have that feeling only because you’ve learned to trust that the author won’t do anything terrible to you.

d) In my opinion, a comfort read should not wind the emotional tension up too high during the course of the book, even if you expect and trust that the ending will be okay. In other words, Sarah Rees Brennan’s Demon’s Lexicon series is not a contender for “comfort read” for me, even though I love it and have read it twice.

It also should not put the characters through a grindingly horrible extended experience at any point in the book. Tough situations, sure. Tough situations where the protagonist is dragged through unrelieved awfulness for 300 pages, no. That is, Moon’s experience when he is hauled off to face his birth court in the third Raksura novel is fine. The reader sees what Moon doesn’t: that there is absolutely no way Jade and Stone will abandon him, period. Plus, intense as it is, this part of the story does not last that long. Plus Moon’s relationship with his mother is fraught for them, but surely the reader is pretty confident that they’ll begin to work out the tension between them before the end of the story. Malachite is such a fantastic character, let me add.

But feeling like the story will have a HEA ending and avoiding extended awfulness through the majority of the middle does not mean “no stakes,” or even “low stakes.”

Personally, I don’t find no-stakes stories work as comfort reads. Add too much fluff and avoid anything but the most trivial emotional stakes and I don’t care about the story. That’s why I don’t like “cutesy” mysteries, although I do like cozy mysteries.

How about you all? Do you find the emotional stakes must be low throughout the story for you to consider it a comfort read?

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Cliffhanger endings

There are basically five types of cliffhanger-ish endings I can think of. Here they are:

Type A: At least one main character is in a truly dire predicament and wham! The book ends. This is like The Silent Tower by Barbara Hambly, which is still the worst cliffhanger ending I have ever seen in a fantasy novel. In response to Elaine’s comment, I think I’d tend to put Frodo’s predicament here, and note that it took at least a decade for me to read the whole LotR trilogy rather than skipping forward to pick up Frodo and Sam’s plotline in the next book.

Type B: All the important characters are in an okay place and there is a natural pause in the action, but none of the big plot threads have been resolved.

Type C: The Big Bad is ascendant plus at least one important character is in a fairly dire predicament when the story ends. This is like Jinx by Sage Blackwood. Also perhaps like the 4th book of Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series.

Type D: All the biggest stuff has been resolved, but nevertheless, an important character has been left in a predicament of some kind when the story ends.

Type E: All the biggest stuff has been resolved, but there is at least one important plot thread that has been left hanging.

Vote, please! Which of the above types are really disturbing to you as a reader? Which, if any, are okay?

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Comfort reading this weekend

I’ve read this one a couple of times. It’s rather low-stress because (a) the big revelation that the protagonist is a young woman rather than a boy has startling few serious repercussions; and (b) there is no serious delay in working out the romantic relationship after that revelation; and (c) there is no doubt about the happily-ever-after ending.

One death of a character the reader has been led to like. Other than that, as I say, a low-stress, comfortable story. I like it enough that it was difficult to put down even though I’ve read it at least twice before.

So, after Hunting, I went on to read this one for the first time:

And good heavens, I had no idea what a strange, baroque alternate history we would get in this story. Wow. Very different from any other world Andrea K Höst has built. Ornate, cluttered . . . I hardly know how to describe it.

I guess I will say that the BASIC idea is that all the pantheons are real and that the question of whether you have your afterlife in order is as important as whether you have your actual life in order. But . . . wow. Lots of stuff layered on top of that basic idea.

If I’d read the back cover copy, I might have known that going in. Here is is:

In a world where lightning sustained the Roman Empire, and Egypt’s vampiric god-kings spread their influence through medicine and good weather, tiny Prytennia’s fortunes are rising with the ships that have made her undisputed ruler of the air.

But the peace of recent decades is under threat. Rome’s automaton-driven wealth is waning along with the New Republic’s supply of power crystals, while Sweden uses fear of Rome to add to her Protectorates. And Prytennia is under attack from the wind itself. Relentless daily blasts destroy crops, buildings, and lives, and neither the weather vampires nor Prytennia’s Trifold Goddess have been able to find a way to stop them.

With events so grand scouring the horizon, the deaths of Eiliff and Aedric Tenning raise little interest. The official verdict is accident: two careless automaton makers, killed by their own construct. The Tenning children and Aedric’s sister, Arianne, know this cannot be true. Nothing will stop their search for what really happened.

Not even if, to follow the first clue, Aunt Arianne must sell herself to a vampire.

It’s a great story so far. I’m about 2/3 of the way through. Arianne and one of the children are the protagonists, by the way; and right up front Arianne’s plans are upset when she accidentally gets bound to the wrong vampire. I cannot even begin to describe what happens next.

Anyway, it’s quite something, and shortly I will be waiting impatiently for the sequels to TWO of Andrea K Höst’s series.

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Pass

One of those ever-interesting posts about “reasons I passed on your query,” over at Janet Reid’s blog.

1. You’re using the memoir format to make a political or domestic point.
I’m not interested in being lectured to in any form, and particularly not in 300+ pages.

A good memoir is so brutally honest that it’s painful. That means you’re exploring yourself, not pointing fingers at someone else.

Wow, yes. I mean, definitely no. Cannot think of anything I want less, personally, than to be lectured at for 300 pages.

Not that I read very much memoir.

Let’s see, what else … okay, here’s another:

4. Misused/wrong words
I’ve steeled myself to overlook your almost universal inability to properly conjugate the verb to lie.
I’ve shut my eyes to consistent its/it’s errors.

But honestly, words are your tools. When you get them wrong, it’s just painful.

Oh, no no no. I have definitely not steeled myself regarding misuse of “lie” versus “lay.” I don’t care how universal that error is. It’s a hill worth dying on. That’s before we get to the even more important hill involving “it’s” versus “its.”

Interesting to me that an agent would make herself read past that kind of error. I think that would be a dealbreaker for me, if I were an agent. It’s very nearly a dealbreaker for me as a reader. Not quiiiiite. But very nearly.

I’ll tolerate confusion about “may” versus “might.” And I will also tolerate, under protest, errors regarding “effect” and “affect.” Those two just about exhaust my tolerance of misused words, though.

Oh, fine. I can just barely stand to read a book where the author thinks that “alright” is a legitimate word. Ugh. Like fingernails on a blackboard. But if I really, really like the story, I will tolerate those awful scraping fingernails.

Click through to read the whole thing if you wish.

But before you click away, is there any misuse-of-words thing that you WILL overlook, if you like the writing in other respects? Or are you even tougher than I am on things like that?

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Finished!

I hope you all had a nice, relaxing, springlike weekend! Here in southern MO, we had freezing rain and little snow flurries, so that was . . . well, not ideal, let us say. I haven’t gone out to check on my magnolias. The saucer magnolia was just about to open its buds before the freezing rain started falling, so we’ll have a chance to see how much those flowers can stand.

It did give me a chance to stay in, where I finished the last powerpoint over pedigrees, gazed thoughtfully over the four chapters about selection and evolution I hoped to cover and considered how much work it will be turning them into real lecture-style powerpoints, and sighed.

I also finished the draft of Copper Mountain. At last! So next step: beta readers. No rush. I have in mind July-ish for the release date, which should give me time for revisions and so on. I have three (3) other things I would like to work on, so that, along with handling General Biology in an unexpected online format, will keep me busy for sure.

Big questions for beta readers this time:

Does the story start at the right place?

Does the story stop at the right place?

In between, is there any chapter too slow-paced where you lose interest?

I’m half inclined to stop the story two chapters or so before the current end and let it end on a cliffhanger-ish type of situation, but that would screw up the timing of a novella that is already written, so not sure what to do. I’ll be interested in the responses of beta readers, that’s for sure.

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Passing the time at home

I hear that this is the golden age of board games, and that kickstarter has produced a tremendous resurgence of interest in board games.

The dogs aren’t all that great at playing board games, but when I have company, we sometimes play one or another of the new ones, along with old standbys like Scrabble.

Here’s a game you might like to try, if you’re stuck at home and need something to do:

Many games strike me as too complicated or too demanding or just not interesting enough, but I had an opportunity to play this with my brother a week or so ago, when he visited for our dad’s birthday. I liked it a lot! It works just fine for as few as two players. I’m pretty sure kids would like it as well as adults. Maybe it would add to the fun to have a Firefly viewing binge first and then play the game. If you’ve got kids, they may never have seen Firefly, since it aired (this is hard to believe, I must say) eighteen years ago. Perhaps now’s a good time to introduce younger people to the show if they haven’t happened across it yet.

The game really does make one fall into the role of a small merchant ship. You really do think about fuel and distance and would this job pay for itself given you have to pay your crew and can you pick up a job you could do on the way to a different job that’s a long way away, to make the travel worthwhile. I was impressed.

Strategic tip #1: do not attempt high-value crimes or illegal jobs until you have a decent crew, guns, and transport. You will lose the game if you fail difficult illegal jobs before you can handle them.

Strategic tip #2: the game will take perhaps five hours from start to finish. To speed it up, you might consider giving every player two crewmembers from the original show to start with. That way everyone would get a jump start and be ready to handle difficult jobs much earlier.

Earnest suggestion for game designers:

LISTEN, YOU KNOW WHAT WOULD BE SUPER COOL?

Using the same mechanics to create a game based on the Chanur series. That would be soooo neat! Same small merchant type of game, but in this case the alien species would be fabulous game elements. You could include one human card with special features! You could have the knn zip through and cause random effects! Listen, if somebody does this, I’d buy the game for sure.

Another universe that would work great with the same basic mechanics would be the Liaden universe by Miller and Lee. Liadens, Yxtrang, ordinary humans for the basic characters. Clutch Turtles for random elements. Plenty of named characters to interact with — I would take Pat Rin for my team any day — and a broad, well-developed universe. Again, I’d be right there for that.

Okay! If you have a favorite newish game that maybe other people would like to know about, drop it in the comments, please.

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