Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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The Sphere of the Winds

Okay, someone asked for a teaser from the sequel to The Floating Islands, so …

Actually, this was a bit difficult. Rather than showing you only a scene from Chapter One, I’ve chosen to show you a short piece from Chapter One and then another short piece from Chapter Two. Here we go:

1: Araenè

Araenè opened a door at random and glanced through it at the bare room thus revealed, maybe fifteen paces or so across, unfurnished except for a single chair and gauzy draperies blowing in the warm breeze. The room’s windows were narrow and numerous, so there was a lot of gauze. Pink gauze. The chair, carved with ornate swirls and ripples, had been painted pale violet. Its cushions were a deeper purple. The walls were a sky blue. The combination of colors in the small space was a little . . . well, it was a little . . .

Ceirfei, peering with interest over Araenè’s shoulder, murmured, “Sugar cakes.”

Araenè had to laugh. That was exactly right. The room was exactly like a plate of cakes rolled in pastel sugars, the sort given out to children too young to have any subtlety. She shut the door, gently, and looked up and down the wide white marble stairway upon which they’d found themselves. “This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind,” she admitted, glancing sideways at her companion, “when I said I’d show you the hidden school.”

“Well, we certainly are seeing some new parts of it,” Ceirfei said, in a very serious tone that was like a smile.

He wasn’t nervous. He didn’t mind being lost. Araenè was relieved. If Ceirfei wasn’t nervous, she didn’t have to be, either. Embarrassed at her inability to find her way to places she knew, maybe. But not nervous.

She opened the door again. The room was still filled with pink gauze and blue-painted walls and that ridiculous violet chair.

“Up?” asked Ceirfei. “Or down?”

They’d already explored a series of chilly, windowless rooms far underground: one with long shelves stacked with delicate porcelain plates and platters and bowls, far fancier than the ones anybody actually used; and one with all sorts of fancy scented candles shaped like animals and birds and fish and flowers; and one with, prosaically, about a hundred sacks of rice and bundles of noodles. Araenè had hoped that last one would lead them back to the familiar kitchens, but instead they’d found themselves entering a long hot gallery with dozens of high windows that let in the rich afternoon light and the sharp briny scent of the sea. Finally they had come out of that gallery upon this wide spiral stairway. The gallery seemed to have let them out right in the middle of the stairway, because from this landing, it coiled endlessly up and down a perfectly smooth shaft of white marble, with nothing visible above or below but more loops of wide, shallow stairs and the occasional landing. Looking down made Araenè dizzy and looking up made her tired, but the pastel-sugar room didn’t seem to hold much promise. And going back along the gallery would be boring.

Araenè had meant to show Ceirfei some of her favorite places within the hidden school: not just the kitchens, but also the aviary where the little birds flitted among potted trees and flowers, and the room of glass, and the hall of spheres and mirrors. But today she couldn’t seem to find any door that would cooperate at all. Not even the ‘friendly door’, Akhan Bhotounn, which was nearly always accommodating. Araenè might have called out to Master Tnegun for help, but if she did that, she would have to admit, not only to Ceirfei but also to her master, that she couldn’t find her own way back to familiar places. She didn’t want to do that. She was already slow to learn things the other apprentices all seemed to absorb as naturally as bread absorbs melted butter.

Besides, she wasn’t really nervous yet. And Ceirfei didn’t seem impatient. That made sense, actually. He was never very eager to return to his family’s home, though the Feneirè apartment in the palace was beautiful and filled with every luxury, with servants to do all the work and bring you things.

Araenè never commented on the way Ceirfei preferred to visit her at the hidden school rather than ask her to come to the palace. She knew all about needing to get away from your home and family, so you could be yourself instead of the person everybody else wanted you to be. And no one worried much about chaperones or propriety, so long as they stayed in the hidden school – Master Tnegun and the other mages being presumably capable of keeping track of one young apprentice and her visitor. Even if her visitor was a Feneirè and the son of Calaspara Naterensei herself.

Araenè glanced at Ceirfei again. He still had that particularly sober expression that meant he was actually thoroughly amused. If he wasn’t worried about his parents’ fretting, she didn’t see why she should be. Really, Ceirfei was lucky in his parents. Mostly. In some ways. Anyway, he was lucky just to have a home and a family to go back to. Not that she would ever say so.

Besides, if it got too late, so that Ceirfei’s mother might miss him or Master Tnegun might miss her, or if they stumbled across anything frightening, she could call out then.

“Up,” she decided, because she knew Ceirfei would prefer it. He was a kajurai, and kajuraihi always preferred heights to any kind of secret subterranean chambers. “Up would be better?”

Ceirfei looked at her, knowing exactly what she was thinking. The corners of his eyes crinkled. “Definitely up,” he said gravely.

Araenè couldn’t suppress a laugh. Embarrassing to be lost? Maybe; but if she had to be lost and wandering through unknown parts of the mage’s hidden school, well, there was surely no one better to be lost with than Ceirfei. “Definitely up!” she agreed, and ran ahead of him, taking the shallow steps two at a time.

Steps and steps, white marble underfoot and white marble walls, with a cool breeze blowing down from above. At first, the spiral stair didn’t seem to lead anywhere at all. There were no landings for the first four or five turns of the stairway. Araenè dropped back to a more sedate pace, breathless and starting to feel the strain in her calves. She might have suggested they go down, but no, she’d selflessly offered to go up . . . Ceirfei caught up to her, gave her an amused sidelong look, and took her hand in his.

He wouldn’t have done that if they were where anybody could see. Araenè, suddenly breathless for a reason that had nothing to do with running up stairs, decided that getting lost had actually been a clever idea. Then she wondered whether Ceirfei thought she’d gotten them lost on purpose. Then she wondered whether maybe she had gotten them lost on purpose, without even realizing it.

Surely not. Anyway, too much thinking was definitely not good. She pointed ahead, to the upward curve before them. “There’s another door!” She wasn’t sure whether she was relieved to see it, or not. She wanted to get them back to the familiar parts of the school . . . didn’t she?

“That’s fancy,” Ceirfei said, looking the door up and down. “Shall I open it? Or do you want to?” He didn’t sound confused or uncertain or breathless. He just sounded interested in finding out what lay on the other side of that door. But he didn’t let go of her hand, either.

“I’d better . . .” You never knew what you might find, opening doors in the hidden school. Araenè touched the latch carefully. It was made of crystal, to match the door, which was all ebony and crystal and very fancy indeed. The kind of door that looked as though it really should open to something more interesting than sacks of rice. But the latch didn’t feel hot or cold, or shower her fingers with sparks, or do anything but click down.

Araenè opened the door, carefully, ready to slam it again if she found a basilisk or a coiled serpent or a roaring fire surging toward her or anything else alarming.

But the room on the other side didn’t match the fancy door at all. It was a tiny square room, which contained nothing but layers of dust and a single unstrung harp resting on a stool in the middle of the floor. Dust had poofed up as the door skimmed across the floor, and now settled again slowly. The air smelled of age and solitude, and somehow of darkness and silence.

“Hmm,” murmured Ceirfei, peering over Araenè’s shoulder.

The harp, framed in the bar of light that fell in through the open door, was extremely elegant, carved of some dark red wood with ebony inlay. There was no dust on the harp at all. Araenè suspected that it might actually be strung with the winds or with musical notes that played without strings, or maybe with the voices of the forgotten dead. It looked like that sort of harp, somehow.

She closed the door again and said out loud, in her firmest tone, but without a great deal of hope, “You know, the kitchens would be better.” But when she opened the door a second time, she found exactly the same dusty room and exactly the same stool. Only, disconcertingly, this time the stool was occupied not by a mysterious stringless harp, but by a little dragon, perched perfectly still, its silvery-dark wings half open and its fine-boned head turned toward the door, its yellow eyes glittering.

***

Then other stuff happens. Meanwhile:

***

2: Trei

Trei flew above layers of air lucent as crystal. He could see a cool, dense wind arriving from the north, shoving the warm southern air upward. He could see the swift rushing wind that skirled out as the winds mingled, carrying streamers of cloud that formed and coiled and stretched out and dissolved again. He flew above all that activity, so high that the air seemed as still and pure as glass and he barely needed to shift a feather to hold his position. He flew so high even Milendri looked small. The white towers of Canpra glinted like tiny chips of white marble at the eastern edge of the Island, and the pastures stretched away from the city in a featureless blur of green. A scattering of other Floating Islands were just visible in the distance, Kotipa nearest, the rest half lost against the unbroken sapphire haze of the endless sea.

Trei had never before flown so high. That had been the assignment: to climb above all the winds that touched the earth. All the novices had immediately wagered hours of tedious featherwork on who could fly highest. Trei thought he might have won, but it was hard to be sure. Away to the east he could make out the dark fleck of another novice suspended in the crystalline sky, but it was impossible to tell which of them was higher.

That speck was probably Genrai, but it might be Kojran. Kojran was sometimes annoyingly vain, but Trei had to admit that none of the other boys was as good at bending the winds as he was. Kojran might have coaxed a dense lower wind to follow him all the way up the column of the sky to support his climb. But Genrai was the strongest flier, and he wasn’t bad with windworking either. Trei wouldn’t mind losing the wager to Genrai, but if Kojran won, Tokabii would be jealous– he always ran after Kojran and tried to beat him, like a little brother after an elder. And Rekei would be angry if either of the younger Third City boys won. Rekei always wanted the Second City boys to do best at everything, and that meant him or Trei. It would be all right if Genrai won because he was so much older, but Trei wasn’t sure his rival was Genrai.

If Ceirfei had been allowed to fly today, he would have won. Ceirfei was always the best at everything. Nobody would mind Ceirfei winning. But Ceirfei’s family wouldn’t let him try anything that seemed dangerous. Obviously falling from the very vaults of the heavens was no more deadly than simply falling into the sea off the balcony of a First City tower, but people who couldn’t fly never thought of that. It was too bad. Everything was better when Ceirfei was allowed to join the rest of them. And every time his family refused, everyone had to wonder whether they were going to ground him permanently. Trei didn’t like to think about it.

Probably that other novice was Genrai. Trei tilted his wings a minute degree, spreading the feathers of his left wingtip, sliding through the sky toward the other boy. He was beginning to think that other novice was above him. If he was, and if it was Genrai, Trei though he would just concede. He could go down, back to the novitiate. He could strip off his wings and have a hot bath and something hot to drink, everyday comforts after the grandeur of the heights. His wrists and arms were tired and his back ached all down his spine. And the other novice was close, now. Almost close enough . . . yes. It was Genrai. Trei recognized the older boy’s angular, bony build, so different from stocky Rekei or little Tokabii.

Then he looked again, staring through the layered wind with his crystalline kajurai eyes, and saw he had been wrong after all. The other novice was not Genrai at all. It was Nescana.

Nescana, Genrai’s sister, was the very first girl novice ever. She was fifteen – three months older than Trei. She’d been supposed to get married. Genrai had actually put off his own audition for years so she would be old enough to get married. But it turned out she hadn’t actually wanted to get married at all. She’d put it off and put it off and then the kajuraihi had announced the special audition for girls just in time, so she hadn’t had to after all. There was a lesson in that, though not the kind adults wanted you to notice.

Nescana said she’d walked all the way from Third City the day before the special audition and then sat outside all night waiting. Trei understood that perfectly, but then he wasn’t from the Islands. Kojran and Rekei were offended by the whole idea of girl novices and annoyed to have a whole third of the novice hall blocked off for a girl – not that they’d say so where Genrai could hear, of course. Trei thought that was ridiculous. Obviously anybody, girl or not, might be sky-mad, so why not let girls audition if they wanted to?

Master Anerii had been the ones to make the kajuraihi audition girls, after Trei had pointed out how ridiculous it was to refuse girls the chance. “If the dragons approved a half-blood Tolounese boy, I expect they’ll approve full-blooded Islander girls,” he’d pointed out. “Why not? Everyone says we need more novices. Well, then, don’t you think the dragons would know better than you whether girls would make good kajuraihi?”

Master Anerii had been gruff and sarcastic and impatient, but then he had argued Wingmaster Taimenai into allowing the special audition after all. Nescana hadn’t been the only girl to audition, but she’d been the only one to succeed.

“The only girl novice, and she would have to be my own sister!” Genrai had complained. “What use is that? I ask you!” But he had been proud when his sister had woken up after her audition with crystalline eyes that could see the wind. Trei had been surprised to find himself jealous of Genrai because his sister was a kajurai novice – because his sister was here. Alive. Obviously it only made sense to let girls be novices, but he had discovered he hated even looking at Nescana at first, because she made him think of Marrè.

But of course that wasn’t fair. Nescana was nothing like Marrè. Nothing at all. So he had made himself be nice. He would have wanted the boys to be nice to his sister, if it had been Marrè.

And Nescana did work very hard to catch up with the boys who had auditioned at the beginning of the summer.

That was the problem. Because Nescana was not supposed to be in the sky today. That was partly because she wasn’t supposed to try the advanced exercises yet, but mostly because she was grounded. Nescana was very bad at following rules. She’d slipped out six nights in a row to fly. Everybody did it, but not everybody made it six nights before they got caught. Nescana had been grounded for a whole senneri.

But here she was anyway. Breaking all sorts of rules. Again. And she was even a little higher than Trei. He could see the warmer air she’d coaxed to rise with her. She had a real gift for pulling the winds, but . . . she might not understand long and exhausting the flight down would be. She wouldn’t know the tricks for resting on the wing. She might be in a lot of trouble, and not know it yet. Trei arched his wings just a little, turning in a slow, climbing spiral to catch Nescana’s column of warmer air. She wasn’t stupid. Probably he could get her to listen to him.

And besides, he wanted to get above her because it wouldn’t be fair at all if she won the exercise when she hadn’t even been supposed to fly in it at all.

She’d seen him, though, and was laboring to climb. Trei was so close now he could see the strain in her tight wrists and the way she caught short, gasping breaths of the thin air.

Nescana really looked a lot like her brother. She and Genrai weren’t twins, she was three years the younger, but they looked almost like they might be twins. Even though she was a girl, Nescana was actually a little taller than Trei was, which wasn’t fair. That was probably another reason she’d gotten so high: she was too tall and too strong for a girl. Where Genrai was thin, Nescana was gawky, all knees and elbows, with hands that looked too big for her narrow wrists. She was much too bony to be pretty. Besides, her eyes were too wide-set, her nose too large, her mouth too wide, her chin too strong. Trei thought she would have made a far more convincing boy than his cousin Araenè had ever managed. Not that he would ever have said so to either girl.

But she wasn’t clumsy in the air. For a girl who’d just started flying, she was really good. Not that Trei was jealous, that would be stupid. But he wasn’t going to let her win, either. He gritted his teeth and put a little more arch into his wings.

Nescana ducked her head, looking for him. When she saw how close he was, she swore, her voice thin and breathless.

“You’d better go down!” Trei shouted up at her. His own voice was thin, too, at this height. “You’re going to be in so much trouble!”

“Less, if I win!” gasped Nescana. “I can do it! I said I could and I can!”

“Down will be harder than you think!” Trei called. He closed up the last of the distance between them, his wingtip almost overlapping hers. He held the arch in his wings . . . and held it . . . and closed up the spread feathers of his wingtips . . . and he was above Nescana at last. She swore again, her language pure Third-City. Trei might have laughed at her except he didn’t have enough breath to laugh.

Nescana swore once more. “You should let me win!” she said. “That would be polite!”

“I won’t! Don’t be stupid! Give up, and we can both go down!”

“I won’t!” she called back.

Trei didn’t think it mattered, actually. He thought they were both going to run into the limits of the thin air, and it wouldn’t matter how good either of them were at rising in place or coaxing the winds to help them. But he could show her the techniques she would need to get down safely. She’d be all right. He was sure she would be. He let himself slip back down, or he let her catch up, until their wingtips once more nearly overlapped and he could talk to her without shouting. “Let’s go down!” he called. “I’ll say you got just as high as I did!” It was almost true. If they stayed high, that girl might make it true. She wasn’t going to stop.

“I can get higher!” Nescana’s jaw tightened as she tried, but Trei could see how her narrow wrists trembled and how the muscles of her neck and back clenched with effort.

“You really don’t know how much strength going down will take!” Nescana was so new to flying, she probably thought down was as easy as falling. “You’re going to overfly your strength! We need to go down!”

“You wouldn’t say that to Genrai!” said Nescana. “We can get higher! At least, I can!”

Genrai has more sense than to overfly his strength!” Trei snapped. “You overfly your strength and fall into the sea, you’ll drown! It’s really hard to get out of the water once you’re in! You haven’t learned anything about that yet! You don’t want to find it out the hard way!”

Nescana was too stubborn for a girl. Changing tack, he called, “I’ll show you a trick! A way to rest in the air!” Then he tucked one wing and turned the other and swung neatly over on his back, instantly taking the strain off his arms. He meant to rest just for a moment, surrounded by thin air and brilliant light. He meant to make sure Nescana tried this trick, too. Then he would talk her into dropping back toward the sea. He would stay close to her all the way down, in case she got herself into trouble. More trouble.

Instead, turning, Trei found himself staring into a twisting, layered complexity of barely-visible shape and movement, terrifyingly huge and close, so close he could have almost put out a hand to touch it.

He couldn’t breathe. He spilled air and dropped and barely caught himself. Beside him and now a little above him, Nescana cried out.

The dragon was transparent as ice, glittering with opalescent blues and golds around the edges. Its long body coiled and uncoiled, rippling in several directions at once until the whole sky seemed streaked with half visible movement and Trei was dizzy from trying to focus on it. The dragon’s great wings spanned the sky from east to west; the sunlight slanting across the feathers turned the quills and barbs to crystal and spun glass. Its head was as fine boned and delicate as a bird’s, but crystalline teeth longer than a man’s hand glinted within its narrow jaw. The deep-set chatoyant eye that gazed at Trei was larger than his whole head.

***

There you go, dragons everywhere, that’s a pretty good intro, I think.

Also, if you haven’t met Nescana yet, you might want to read her story before you read The Sphere of the Winds. Nescana is featured in the novella “Audition” in the collection Beyond the Dreams We Know. In fact, that may be my personal favorite out of the stories in that collection.

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Yet another new upcoming title

Okay! This year is going to be SO CLUTTERED with new releases from me, I can’t even tell you.

THE FLOATING ISLANDS came out ten years ago. Did you realize that? I actually did not until I just looked it up. Wow, it’s been a long time. As you may know, my editor asked me to write a sequel, which I did. Random House then merged with Penguin and, by the time the sequel was written and handed to my editor, their acquisitions process had changed so that the editor did not have full authority to take a sequel. Instead, I wrote a couple standalone novels for that imprint, while shelving the sequel.

Since I’m now moving forward with self-publishing in a much more definite way, this seems like a good time to bring out that sequel. It’s actually just a coincidence that this is the ten-year-anniversary, but hey, that does seem like an appropriate time to quit waiting around and just do it.

The title will be THE SPHERE OF THE WINDS, and as with everything else, I’ll release it as soon as it’s in shape; eg, proofed for typos and with a cover.

I wrote this book with an eye to eventually going on with a third book. SPHERE is self-contained, sure, but there is a looming situation in the world that, well, it would be just nicer to eventually resolve that. So we’ll see. I have a lot of other things I’m working on this year, and those projects are pretty likely to extend well into next year. But one thing seems very likely: If I ever do write the third book of this trilogy, I won’t wait ten years to do it.

This has always been one of my favorite covers. It’ll be interesting to see what an artist comes up with when I ask, “Can you match the tone and brightness of this cover?”

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A book review podcast

So, just pointing out this podcast, called A Good Story is Hard to Find. Long, thoughtful book reviews of a wide variety of books and movies, about an hour in length. Nice, calm podcast to listen to while walking the dogs.

Also, as you may have suspected, the podcasters (is that the term?), Scott and Julie, happened to have reviewed TUYO for their first podcast of the year. It’s a great review. You can bet I immediately downloaded various other episodes — including one that reviews Paladin of Souls and one that reviews Watership Down.

I’m particularly interested in listening to or reading good reviews of books I have already read and love — does anybody else feel that way? — But once I trust that a reviewer’s taste is more or less compatible with mine, I do go on to read reviews of books that I haven’t read. Or in this case, listen.

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Top Five List for 2020

I really, honestly read very few new-to-me books in 2020. I’m not sure exactly how few, because I didn’t keep track. If I were guessing, I would say I might have read as few as fifty books last year. That may be overstating how few, but way, way down from an ordinary year, no question about that. Since I read fewer than half as many books as I ordinarily would, I’m doing half of a Top Ten List for 2020; thus, a Top Five List.

As you know, when I did read new-to-me books, I was largely interested in stories where nothing terrible happened. That may bias the following list to some degree, but honestly, not too much. These are stories I would have loved in any year. I’m listing them in chronological order by when I read them.

1) One Night in Boukos.

The riotous Psobion festival is about to begin in the city of Boukos, and the ambassador from the straightlaced kingdom of Zash has gone missing. Ex-soldier Marzana, captain of the embassy guard, and the ambassador’s secretary, the shrewd and urbane eunuch Bedar, are the only two who know.

Here’s my review of this lighthearted story with a serious undertone. As an added note, nothing terrible happens in this story.

2) Pyramids of London.

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.

Here’s my review of this complicated murder mystery with the most incredibly baroque setting imaginable.

3. Network Effect.

When Murderbot’s human associates (not friends, never friends) are captured and another not-friend from its past requires urgent assistance, Murderbot must choose between inertia and drastic action.

Drastic action it is, then.

Here’s my very, very short review of this wonderful Murderbot novel.

4. From All False Doctrine.

Toronto, 1925: An ancient manuscript and a modern cult promise the secret to personal metamorphosis. An atheist graduate student falls in love with a priest. A shiftless musician jilts his fiancée and disappears. From All False Doctrine is a metaphysical mystery wrapped in a 1920s comedy of manners.

Here’s my review of this wonderful novel in which, by the way, nothing really terrible happens (at least not permanently). This is, as you may know, by the same author as the #1 entry above, though under a different name. I absolutely loved this book and read it straight through twice in quick succession. I didn’t care for the sequel as much, but I did enjoy that as well.

5. The Hands of the Emperor.

One day Cliopher invites the Sun-on-Earth home to the proverbially remote Vangavaye-ve for a holiday.

The mere invitation could have seen Cliopher executed for blasphemy.
The acceptance upends the world.

Here’s my short review of this novel, which was equally as wonderful as #4 (though very different) and which I also read straight through twice in succession. I know a lot of you have read this one recently and also loved it, and I hear the author is writing a direct sequel right now, so we’ll all want to keep an eye out for that!

So this Top Five list includes two long-time favorite authors — Andrea K Host and Martha Wells — but also two new-to-me authors. That’s fantastic. Nothing I love more than adding another name to my list of favorite authors! I discovered both Alice Degan and Victoria Goddard through commenters on this blog. Thank you so much for recommending them to me, and if any of you reads a book this year and thinks, “You know, this is just the kind of thing I bet Rachel would love,” by all means drop me a line about it! You all have the BEST taste in books!

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Finished!

So, today I finished what I will call the first draft of TARASHANA — meaning the first complete draft that I’m willing to show other people. I’ll be asking a few of you to take a look now and others later, after a round of comments and revision. Meanwhile, questions you might consider asking and anyway I feel like answering:

1) Is this a direct sequel to TUYO?

Yes. The story opens about a year and a half after TUYO closes.

2) Is TARASHANA as long as TUYO?

It’s even longer. I did quite a bit of trimming, after which it’s still 40,000 words longer.

3) Did you write it as fast as TUYO?

No. I doubt very much that I will ever again write a book as fast as I wrote TUYO. However, it was pretty fast, relatively speaking. Everything in this world is fast to write — so far — a trend that I certainly hope continues!

4) Does this story feature the same characters as TUYO?

Yes. To a remarkable degree. I managed to find fairly important roles for a bunch of characters I particularly like, although, I should add, by no means all of them. In fact, character proliferation presented a real challenge and I went to considerable trouble to reduce the number of characters as well. For example, in this draft, Esau moves entirely offstage after the first couple of scenes, largely to reduce the number of important characters.

5) But I like Esau! How could you?

I like Esau too. At this point, I’m planning a short, offset, third-person Book 4 that will show everyone some of Esau’s backstory and also what he’s up to during the events in TARASHANA. I can’t guarantee that’ll happen because every now and then I try to write a story that goes nowhere, but I am pretty sure I will write this one.

6) Are there important new characters?

Yes. I hope you like them.

7) Do we see a lot of Etta?

That depends on what you mean by “a lot.” It’s really hard to make every character central. You can basically take almost any secondary character from TUYO, put their name in here, and this will be the same answer.

8) Do terrible things happen to Ryo and Aras?

Yes. Sorry.

9) Do they get over it?

Um . . . yes? Let’s say there’s still a certain amount of room for “getting over it” at the end.

10) But they don’t, like, die or anything?

Amazingly enough, no, even though we do get to tour a certain part of the land of the shades.

11) Will there be another direct sequel?

Yes. In that one, we will go far south and see both the summer country in a lot more detail and the country south of the summer country. I’m not sure what the border on that side looks like. A river of fire? Of molten glass? A volcanic chasm? Feel free to offer ideas if any occur to you, because I haven’t really thought of anything that seems perfect yet. Definitely Sahara-style sand dunes on the other side — with really ENORMOUS oases.

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Is your writer’s block actually indecision?

From Jane Friedman’s blog: Is Your Writer’s Block Really Writer’s Indecision?

My instant reaction: Absolutely.

I’ve been stuck at 80,000 words or so for a particular SF novel for, I don’t know, it seems like practically forever and is certainly more than a year. Two years, maybe. I’ve written five to ten thousands more words several times, then deleted them. I have … six? … different versions that go in those different ways, all of which are wrong. I know they are wrong because I kept getting stuck. I’m not sure what the heck to do. This is the definition of “indecision.”

I do plan to get unstuck eventually because it’s driving me mad to have this much of a manuscript and then lock up and not finish it. I will most likely try to do that by leaping forward and writing a cool scene or three from the ending and then coming up with anything at all that will let me connect the the ending with the middle, then smoothing it out after I have SOMETHING. This would be easier if I knew what the ending was supposed to be in anything but the very broadest, vaguest terms.

A good many things are opaque to me, unfortunately, including not only the specifics of the ending but also the details of the secret plan of the pov protagonist AND the details of the secret plan of the other protagonist. I do know everybody has a secret plan; that part is quite definitely true.

Wow, am I stuck.

Anyway, let me see what this post says …

Now I am convinced that two things can hold me back (for years on some projects) and they are:

–not knowing the answers to crucial questions, and

–not knowing which questions were which in the first place.

Yep, this is sounding familiar. Lotta crucial questions I need to answer. Pretty sure I know which questions these are in my case. Like: What is he actually trying to achieve, and why? And, What are they trying to achieve, and why? Those are obviously pretty crucial questions.

Unless I can answer this, I can’t make progress. This question is like a wall I can’t get over without a ladder. If you are similarly stuck with your manuscript, attempt to identify these unanswered crucial questions.

Good advice for sure! I totally need to do that!

Okay, back to the linked post. Lots of different kinds of questions are delineated:

Crucial questions — I would say these are the ones that have to do with big motivations and intentions and conflicts.

Questions about consistency — “These questions shouldn’t hold you back because you can sort it out in the revision” — quite true, and that is why I boldface for continuity as I get close to the end of a manuscript. I don’t want to pause and do any checking or fixing; at that point, my whole attention is on finishing the draft as quickly as possible, after which I will scan back through for boldfaced words and phrases and fix this sort of thing.

Decisions disguised as questions — “Should I use Character B’s point of view in this scene? This translates into: I want to write some scenes from Character B’s point of view so I need to look again at my plan with this in mind, but it’s going to take me several days and I’d rather avoid it.”

Oh yeah, I’m very familiar with that one as well. “Should I replace this minor character with this other minor character?” Yes, but it’s going to be a pain and I’d rather avoid it.

Yes, this is very common. I nearly always leave this sort of thing until after the first draft is finished, but sometimes a particular thing I KNOW I need to fix bugs me so much I quit with forward progress and fix it.

Indecision masquerading as decisions — things like, whose viewpoint should this scene be in? Or where should this scene be set? This post says “just decide already.” I think that’s true. If you make a mistake, you can fix it later, but it’s probably better to risk making a mistake than let yourself get bogged down.

Problem questions — she means, how to get the plot to work out the way you want it to work out. I outline for this purpose. “Outline” is probably not the right term. I brainstorm/outline for this purpose. I rapidly type notes about “He does this because of that, and then this other thing, or maybe he does this because of that other reason.” Generally (not always) a couple paragraphs of this will help me sort out a minor plotting question. Big plotting questions are harder.

Sometimes I take the dogs for a walk, barring terrible weather. An hour of walking dogs while thinking about plotting problems usually helps. I worked out how to do the battle near the end of Tuyo while walking the dogs. I remember that because I was quite stuck when I started walking them and then I knew pretty much how to handle that scene by the time I finished walking the last set of dogs. I actually had no idea what any of the twists in that battle scene were going to be until I got there.

A couple other kinds of questions, plus more discussion, at the link. Click through if you’re interested! It’s quite a good post, though I really did pretty much know exactly why I was stuck on that one SF novel already. USUALLY all that big-scale stuff about plans and intentions and motivations is clear to me long before I get to this point. I think the real problem is that everybody’s plans are in fact secret and no one is talking about them, so I could put off figuring that out way, way too successfully.

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Recent reading: The Hands of the Emperor

Okay, so, this one is definitely going on my Top Two for 2020 list. In fact, I should take a stab at compiling a top ten list for 2020, just to see if that is possible. I read so few new-to-me books this year, it might be tricky. If I do a Top Whatever list at all, though, this book will certainly be on it. I read this as a reward for finishing the draft of Tarashana, and I am slowly re-reading it now.

900 pages, wow. And yet, I kept feeling mildly disappointed when the story skipped lightly over a couple years here or there. Definitely not too long. The pacing didn’t even seem slow, although actually I suppose it was.

Things to know about this story:

A) Nothing terrible happens. The story does become intense at times. Almost all the intensity has to do with relationships that are fundamentally becoming more solid over time.

B) The setting is superb. Want a story with a non-European setting? Here you go. Also, Goddard is magnificent with description.

C) No romance. Lots of friendships and lots (and lots) of family. Also, culture clash adds considerable complexity, another feature that is beautifully handled.

D) A fantastic main character. Cliopher is a genuine Great Man, who re-shapes the world over the course of the book. Unassailable integrity, diplomatic genius, vision, empathy, plus enough sheer nerve to invite the Sun-on-Earth to his home for a vacation.

E) A slowly unfolding backstory. A whole lot happened before this story opens. Cliopher is not a young man. We gradually hear more about his earlier life as we move forward in the main story. Goddard works all that backstory in so smoothly that it does not interfere with — in fact, enhances — the main storyline.

Overall conclusion: People, listen you have got to read this book.

Oh, fine, let me see. All right: if you love the Foreigner series, you have to try this. That’s the closest I can come. Except this one has fewer crises where anyone is shooting at anyone else.

Quibbles:

Suspension of disbelief gets a trifle strained here and there. In particular, Cliopher’s immediate family and closest friends remain unaware that he is the second most powerful man in the empire, even after:

  1. The emperor personally says, in their hearing, that Cliopher is the most important figure in the government.
  2. Cliopher’s nephew starts working for him, and knows with total clarity that Cliopher is this important. Even after that, the nephew’s mother, Cliopher’s sister, does not realize this.
  3. Halfway through the book, that sister and Cliopher’s mother and others are visiting and the sister says, in dawning comprehension, “Cliopher! Are you RUNNING THE GOVERNMENT?” And a friend whoops with laughter and says, “Are you just now realizing that?” Yet,
  4. Years later, Cliopher’s best friends back home still don’t have any idea he is important.

At that point, you just have to let this important, central, crucial relationship-building plot point go because there’s no way to believe it. A fig leaf is offered to explain this. That doesn’t make the situation actually believable (at all) but it helps a little.

Despite that quibble, this is definitely a wonderful book. After I finish re-reading it, I will certainly go on with others of Goddard’s books. In fact, I can’t wait.

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Giving Octavia E Butler the covers she deserves

A post at Literary Hub: How to Give Octavia Butler the Covers She Deserves

Then there were challenges specific to Octavia E. Butler’s Patternist series. I’ve already mentioned the staggering scope of the series’ content, but there was also the difficulty of positioning. 

And the author of this post then discusses that, but I will sum it up briefly with what I personally think is the accurate description of the difficulty of positioning Butler’s work: she was, at the time of her death, moving from science fiction toward literary. This makes it hard for readers to know quite how to approach her earlier books, which were absolutely science fiction, especially if those readers kind of think literary is “better.”

There are multiple versions of the new covers at the linked post. It’s quite interesting to see how the concepts evolved from version to version. Here are the final versions.

I think these are really quite good! Very literary, yet holding on to something evocative of the stories. I like the cover for Wild Seed the best of these, but actually I think they are all good.

It’s been quite a while since I re-read anything of Butler’s. I know Fledgling kept coming up in posts here not that long ago, so really, I do want to re-read that one of these days. Of these four … hmm. Wild Seed is far and away my favorite. Patternmaster is far an away the weakest — you can really tell Butler wrote it early in her career. My actual favorites of Butler’s are the Oankali series, what is that actually called? The Lilith series? Oh, Lilith’s Brood series. Anyway, amazing books. The short story “Bloodchild” is one I’ve always loved and always remembered, too.

I’ve always been glad I picked up Survivor when it was first published. I know Butler wasn’t happy with it, but I’m glad to have read it and glad I can re-read it and it’s nearly impossible to get anymore. Used copies on Amazon start at well over $200 and go way up from there.

I’m sure you’ve all read all of Butler’s work, right? What was your favorite? Or least favorite?

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Managing multiple points of view

Here’s a post at Jane Friedman’s blog: How to Effectively Manage Multiple Narrators in Your Novel

This caught my eye because I generally have multiple point-of-view protagonists, but I don’t really think too much about managing this, it’s just how I (tend to) write. Let me see …

Winter of Ice and Iron has a bunch — more than usual. But actually, the much simpler City in the Lake also had more than two. So does House of Shadows.

Black Dog just has two, I’m pretty sure. After that, I think every Black Dog novel has more than two.

Each of the Griffin Mage novels has two. Or more. Two main pov protagonists, but I believe each of them may in fact have one or two minor pov characters as well.

The Mountain of Kept Memory has just two pov protagonists, I think. I’m pretty sure. The Floating Islands has just two.

What does that leave? I think only three:

  1. The Keeper of the Mist has only one protagonist all the way through. I think.
  2. The White Road of the Moon definitely only has one protagonist.
  3. And, of course, Tuyo only has one protagonist.

That’s it. Three out of however many. My overall default is most definitely to switch from one character to another while building the early chapters and then braid their stories together until I get to the end. Obviously there are big advantages to having multiple pov protagonists. In particular, you can directly show the reader more stuff without having to invent far-seeing magic. I suppose there are disadvantages, in that the reader may not like switching from one character’s head to another or may actively dislike one of the characters, of find one of them boring. But I don’t really think multiple pov protagonists are hard to manage, as such.

Let’s see what the author of this post thinks:

This particular book, you see, was entirely first-person narration (“I did this, I did that, I thought this,” etc.) with a crucial tweak: multiple narrators. … But here’s the thing that kept bugging me: all the narrators sounded pretty identical. They didn’t have enough flavor to distinguish themselves, so I found myself continually flipping back to the beginning of the chapter to ensure I was imagining the right person telling the story in my head. That lack of distinct “voice” caused the multiple narrators to mix together.

Oh! Yes, that is indeed a problem. This can actually be a problem in third-person narratives too, if multiple pov protagonists use the same pronouns. It’s rather rare that someone actually calls someone else by name — actually, if you pay attention, you’ll see that this is surprisingly rare in real life in many normal social interactions, so making it happen in fictional dialogue often sounds strained. But I grant that this is (yet another) reason why first person narratives may present additional challenges.

I’ve read books where I had to flip back in the same way, and yes, I don’t like that either.

This post continues:

Everyone speaks a little differently—use this. For example, I say “ain’t” all the time at home, but not at work. I don’t have a huge vocabulary; I get by on a thesaurus way more than any professional writer should. On the other hand, my wife uses a lot more big words (she read a dictionary for fun once, so she’s got me beat there!). 

Again, this is true for third-person narratives just as much as first-person narratives. Very much so. It’s not just the protagonists who ought to sound distinctive; it’s everybody. Can you imagine a dialogue where you couldn’t tell whether it was Grayson speaking versus Thaddeus, even if there were zero dialogue tags? No. No, you can’t. Their speaking styles are tremendously different.

You know what this is making me think of, though? Not exactly a first-person narrative, but kind of. It’s making me think of Freedom and Necessity by Stephen Brust and Emma Bull. This is an epistolary novel with four different narrators, and the speaking (writing, whatever) style of each character is quite distinctive. I’d say this is a good example of do this. Also, it’s a really great book in a lot of ways, if you want a whole lot of historical context and a tiny, tiny bit of fantasy.

Okay, the post continues:

As if planning out chapters wasn’t hard enough to begin with! Now, you have to make an even more crucial decision: who tells this part of the story? A single mistake here can come back to bite you during revisions, potentially throwing off the entire novel! So what do you do?

And that made me laugh a bit, because what you do is: write the chapter. And then, every now and then, rewrite it from someone else’s pov. And then, hopefully even less often, sometimes rewrite it again in yet another character’s pov. Wow, can that get tiresome. I think I swapped one scene in Copper Mountain four times, which may be a record, but there were several pov characters present in that scene, so it could go one way or another.

This post finishes up in a way I appreciate: with five examples of novels that do a great job handling different voices. This is the one that I particularly noticed:

The Shadows Alex North switches between third and first-person narration at crucial points. While it may feel jarring at first, this is becoming a more commonly accepted form of narration, so it’s worth studying from the best.

I noticed that because I’ve started a big, complex, fantasy novel in which I do this, and I’m glad to hear that this is becoming more accepted, because I was pretty tentative about trying it. I hope I will have time to pick up this particular project in the coming year.

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Belief in Santa Claus

At Crime Reads, this post:

On December 20th, 1935, the sixty-one-year old novelist and big-time Catholic G.K. Chesterton published an open letter in The Commonweal, an English liberal Catholic magazine. His article, which ran for just two columns, was entitled “Santa Claus and Science.” It begins with a lament, a ruing that many young children fall into disillusionment following the discovery of the non-existence of Santa Claus, and it works its way to a surprising thesis statement, that Chesterton himself did veritably believe in Santa Claus.

The natural belief that children readily possess should not be snuffed out, he posits, but encouraged and developed. He concluded his essay with the following demand: “Cannot the child pass from a child’s natural fancy to a man’s normal faith in Holy Nicholas of the Children, without enduring that bitter break and abrupt disappointment which no wmarks [sic] the passage of a child from a land of make-believe to a world of no belief?”

Here’s a link to Chesterton’s full article, and Merry Christmas!

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