Okay, so, at the cost of letting other things slide a bit … but honestly not too much, considering long deadlines for other things I haven’t been working on … there’s plenty of time to get all this other stuff done … anyway:

I’ve finished the first draft of Keraunani, the next Tuyo series book. So, yay!

I shifted my attention to this because Tuyo series books are easier for me to work on than anything else when I’m distracted. Puppies were distracting. So I turned to Keraunani to kick myself back into a more productive mode, and that worked. That’s satisfying and it does make me feel like the year is under control as far as writing goes. It’s nice to think I hadn’t started this one at the beginning of the year and now it’s finished. That’s a real sense of accomplishment, even if I still need to do a certain amount of work to smooth this manuscript out before I send it to beta readers.

So, about Keraunani:

Yes, this is an offset book in the third person. It’s from Esau’s pov all the way through.

Keraunani, you may recall — or possibly you have forgotten — anyway, Keraunani is the woman about whom Esau casually said, sure, he’d marry her to get her out of trouble. He didn’t see why that would be any particular bother.

You may be unsurprised to find out that this decision created a certain amount of bother after all.

Like Nikoles, the other offset book, Keraunani is shorter than the main-series books. It’s going to be longer than Nikoles, though. That one was about 74,000 words, or novel-length if you pretend to believe that anything over 40,000 words is a novel, which is ridiculous in the real world. Or novel-length if you look at MG and YA novels. Or novel-length if you consider romances. (Short romances.) But it’s still very short. Keraunani is going to come out longer than that. This draft is pushing 90,000 words. I feel no particular need to trim it for the sake of trimming it, so it may lose a little length, but unless beta readers say No no, this section is boring, it’s probably going to keep most of the length it has right now. So this is a novel, not a novella, no matter how you define “novel.”

Nikoles is really two stories, as signified by putting Part I in front of the first 2/3 and Part II in front of the latter 1/3. I know that some readers didn’t like that, but honestly, I thought both moments were important to Nikoles — the initial part where he enters Lord Aras’ service and the second part where he confirms that decision after finding out that Aras is a sorcerer. I wanted to show both moments, so I butted them together within a quite brief period of time.

Keraunani is also two stories, but this time I handled that very differently. The first story is concurrent with Tarashana. The second story takes place eight or so years previously and involves other things, particularly Lalani’s early history with the talon, but from Esau’s point of view. I took both stories apart and braided them together, so chapters alternate. At the moment, I haven’t got the two different stories labeled; the chapters just alternate and there are cues in the first paragraphs to remind the reader which narrative we’re in at the moment. I might handle that some other way in the end; not sure. Anyway, the narrative with Lalani is not a romance and the narrative with Keraunani is. I’m really interested in the responses of first readers to all this. I like it myself. I think the two narratives support each other right now, and after I do a bit of fiddling, hopefully they will support each other even better.

It’s remarkable, by the way, how much of the ending of Keraunani’s narrative developed only within the last week and a half, two weeks. That always seems to happen — almost always — but it’s weird, as that stuff is really important, but I didn’t have any idea about it until I got to it.

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Novel openings: seven recent-ish fantasy novels

 Okay, one more look at the TBR shelves before I move on.

Now, these are different from the previous set. They’re all fantasy novels – pretty sure about that much – but these have all been published pretty recently, mostly in the past five years or so. The majority, I think I picked up at a World Fantasy Convention. The others – three – I picked up deliberately for one reason or another. I’ll sort them out in, oh, alphabetically by author this time. So:

1. Breath of Earth by Beth Cato, 2016

Ingrid hated her shoes with the same unholy passion she hated corsets, chewing tobacco, and men who clipped their fingernails in public. It wasn’t that her shoes were ugly or didn’t fit; it was the fact that she had to wear them at all.

In the meeting chambers of the Earth Wardens Cordilleran Auxiliary, she was the only woman, and the only one in shoes.

The men seated at the table wore fine black suits, most tailored to precision, and a few downright natty. If she glanced beneath the table, though, she would see two rows of white-socked feet.

Cloth fibers conducted the earth’s currents best; thick leather or rubberized soles dampened the effect. The wood floor was an excellent conductor, though plain ground was the best of all. Nearby double doors opened to the back garden. In the event of an earthquake, it would take a mere fifteen seconds for the mob of middle-aged and elderly men to bound outside for direct contact with the soil. Ingrid knew. She had timed the exercise more than once. As personal secretary to Warden Sakaguchi, she performed many vital functions for all five wardens – four in attendance today. A dozen senior adepts occupied the rest of the table.

Intriguing! Lively! This is very nice. Also, the cover is lovely.

2. Mystic by Jason Denzel, 2015

On the island of Moth, under a swollen moon, Pomella AnDone stormed out of her house, slamming the door behind her. She hurried, expecting Fathir’s yell to sound behind her. It was like waiting for thunder after a flash of lightning.

“You’re not a jagged noble!” he finally screamed from behind the door. “Cut your hair and know your place!”

Pomella knocked aside a half-made barrel and strode away from the house, not looking back. She snatched up a wicker basket and carried it under one arm past her flourishing garden. The hateful man could choke on gunkroot for all she cared. She’d grow her hair whatever length she wanted.

All around her, the villagers of Oakspring prepared for tonight’s Springrise festival. A cluster of men fed a young bonfire to push back the darkening night. A swarm of children chased one another, leaving behind frazzled mhathirs trying to bundle them up. Pomella ignored everyone and headed toward the forest.

The bustle of village activity faded as she hiked to a nearby hill on the edge of the Mystwood. Comforting silence greeted her as she passed the tree line. The rushing flow of the Creekwaters sang to her from the far side of the hill, down in the thicket.

Not as good, in my opinion. Not as intriguing a setting, not as lively a voice – this is a good contrast between a lively voice in the first sample, versus lively action here. This woman is doing stuff – at least, striding along energetically rather than sitting at a table – but her individual voice doesn’t come through nearly as strongly. I’m not interested in her. There’s practically nothing of the world here either, whereas the worldbuilding was intriguing right from the start in the first selection. The sentences also aren’t as nicely put together in this one. Nothing’s incorrect, but it’s not a particularly appealing writing style.

3. Journey Across the Hidden Isles by Sarah Beth Durst, 2017

Don’t fall, don’t fall, oh no, I’m going to fall …

Crouching, Ji-Lin raised her sword over her head. She counted to thirty and then straightened to standing, without falling. Slowly, she lifted one foot to her knee. Her other foot was planted on the top of a pole, on the roof of the Temple of the Sun, at the top of a mountain.

Sweat tickled the back of her neck under her braid. She was supposed to be calm, like a bird on a breeze or a leaf in summer or some other very calm nature image she could never quite remember. But she felt too jittery, as if all her muscles were vibrating.

If she passed this test, she’d be one step closer to being like the heroes of the tales she loved.

She’s also be one step closer to her sister.

Tomorrow was her and her twin’s twelfth birthday, and if she passed this test, then maybe, maybe she’d be allowed to spend the day with her. They could steal a lucky orange from the palace kitchen and climb the spires and watch the gondoliers steer through the canals

I have to be in the right mood for a MG story. This child reads very young. She’s going to fail the test, I just know it. Storms of tears, then she’ll do something, probably something stupid. Trouble will ensue, and the story will proceed from there. (This is all a guess; I haven’t flipped ahead.)

On the other hand, this is actually a quite good novel opening. Some other very calm nature image she could never quite remember. That’s funny! Does that line read a little old for this girl? Even if it does, it’s a fun line. I love it. Plus I already know I like many of Durst’s books. Not all of them, and it’s hard for me to pin down why some of hers work for me and some don’t. But I’m usually willing to give anything of hers a try. Plus the flying lion on the cover looks wonderful. When I read this story, I’ll be waiting impatiently for the lion to show up.

4.  Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley, 2015

My history is hospitals.

This is what I tell people when I’m in a mood to be combination funny and stressful, which is a lot of the time.

It’s easier to have a line ready than to be forced into a conversation with someone whose face is showing “fake nice,” “fake worry,” or “fake interest.” My preferred method is as follows: make a joke, make a half-apologetic/half-freaky face, and be out of the discussion in five seconds flat.

Aza: “Nothing is really majorly wrong with me. Don’t worry. I just have a history of hospitals.”

Person in Question, “Er. Um. Oh. I’m so sorry to hear that. Or, wait, glad. You just said nothing’s really wrong with you! Glad!”

Aza (freaky face intensifying): “It’s incredibly nice of you to ask.”

Subtext: It isn’t. Leave it.

People don’t usually ask anything after that.

Very strong voice. This is the only first-person narrative in this selection of novels. It’s very engaging, though I’m not at all sure I like the protagonist. But maybe I will soon! She sounds very cynical, which is not necessarily a criticism, by the way. This is very easy to read. I’d definitely turn pages.

Also, that is a stunning cover. Just lovely.

5. The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera, 2017

Empress Yui wrestles with her broken zither. She’d rather deal with the tiger again. Or the demons. Or her uncle. Anything short of going north, anything short of war. But a snapped string? One cannot reason with a snapped string, nor can one chop it in half and be rid of the problem.

When she stops to think on it – chopping things in half is part of why she’s alone with this stupid instrument to begin with. Did she not say she’d stop dueling? What was she thinking accepting Rayama-tun’s challenge? He is only a boy.

And now he’ll be the boy who dueled One-Stroke Shizuka, the boy whose sword she cut in half before he managed to draw it. That story will haunt him for the rest of his life.

The Phoenix Empress, Daughter of Heaven, The Light of Hokkaro, Celestial Flame – no, she is alone, let her wear her own name – O-Shizuka pinches her scarred nose. When was the last day she behaved the way an Empress should?

I sort of like this and I sort of don’t. I like the first paragraph, but I have to say, I’m not immediately sympathetic to the poor, poor empress who is apparently also an amazing duelist and has such terrible troubles. I could find her more likeable depending on how this story develops, but my initial reaction is kind of: Get a grip. And also: Don’t be mean to that kid who challenged you.

Well, we’ll see. I feel like I saw comments about this title everywhere a few years ago when it came out. If any of you have read it, I’d be very interested in your reactions. That goes for all of these books, of course, but I think this one might have been higher profile than some of the others.

6. Dreamdark Blackbringer by Laini Taylor, 2007

The wolf tasted the babe’s face with the tip of his tongue and pronounced her sweet, and the fox licked the back of her head to see if it was so. For the rest of her life, when this child grew into a faerie with bright eyes and a laugh as loud and unladylike as a crow’s, that spot on her hair would never lie flat. And though she wouldn’t remember the night the creatures had gathered round to look at her and taste and smell her, she would call those unruly hairs her foxlick, without knowing why.

The branches overhead thrummed with birds. They would wait their turn but they wouldn’t be quiet about it. No matter. The creatures weren’t worried about being interrupted by faeries. The imp had smuggled the babe far from home, floating her down Misky Creek on a linden leaf so that this unusual starlight gathering would draw no unwanted notice. The creatures had her for the night, and by morning she would be back snug in her cradle with no one the wiser.

Oh, this is nice. Laini Taylor is an excellent writer. I really enjoyed her Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, even though it’s loaded with angst. This looks good. This beginning is just as good as the one by Charles de Lint in the earlier selection of older titles, even though it’s quite different.

I haven’t yet read Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer either. I really want to read that someday.

7. Heartstone by Elle Katherine White, 2016

I’d never seen an angry hobgoblin before.

If this one weren’t my friend, it might’ve been funny. Tobble was red in the face before I noticed him in the grass by the garden wall, and since hobgoblins have green skin, that in itself was quite a feat.

“Tobble, what’s wrong?” I asked in Low Gnomic, or what could’ve passed as Gnomic if I hadn’t butchered it with my Arlean accent. The earthy words used by hobgoblins and other garden creatures sounded heavy and awkward on my human tongue, and Tobble had often despaired of my pronunciation. Today, however, he was too distraught to notice.

“Lord Merybourne has hired Riders, Aliza. Five of them! Do you know what that means?” He said. His head, which was round and homely as a potato, came halfway up my shin and he clutched handfuls of his mossy hair as I knelt next to him. “We’re doomed! Doomed, I say!”

A bit tongue-in-cheek, don’t you think? That’s certainly my impression. If I remember correctly, I think this is supposed to be rather Jane-Austen-ish, but with dragons. And hobgoblins, apparently. I don’t get drawn in instantly, I’m not super interested in why everyone is doomed, doomed! But I’d turn the page, sure. This is nicely written, just not as immediately compelling as some of the others.

Out of this selection … hmm. I think I’m most likely to leave Magonia upstairs to hopefully read soon. That’s not exactly because of the beginning. I’ve just wanted to get to that book for quite a while.

I’ll probably read the first chapter of Mystic first, though, in order to move it to the give-away pile promptly if I decide I don’t really like it enough to read it.

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Creating villains


Fantasy villains. Either you love them or you hate them, but good villains are memorable either way. However, writing good villains is hard! I know. I’ve written two fantasy books out through Desert Palm Press and the whole time I was writing, I kept going back to the villains. Why was the big bad, the big bad? What were their motivations, and did they make sense? I struggled with it, honestly, and I feel like every fantasy writer has similar questions. Hence, this post!

…A villain can be anyone—the leader of a rival magical cult, a super smart dragon trying to stop your main character from getting to their destination, or an opposing character trying to destroy that specific magical artifact. It’s your job as the writer to make them interesting and unique. Make them believable. Your readers don’t necessarily need to like the villain, but you want the readers to understand them. 

This is interesting to me because:

a) I don’t usually find villains interesting.

b) I don’t generally focus on understanding the villain or getting my readers to understand the villain.

c) Yep, sometimes a review dings one of my books because the reviewer didn’t find the villain interesting either.

However, despite (c), I think it’s perfectly fine to go for a villain who is mysterious and creepy, like Lilianne in The City in the Lake. Anybody can see she’s after power, but mostly she’s just creepy. I think that works fine for her.

Also, sometimes I don’t really see the antagonists as villains. That can actually work a lot better for me, as when I set up the griffins as antagonists to humans in the second Griffin Mage book. Well, kind of in the whole trilogy. Not that the reader necessarily understands the griffins. They’re not human, after all. But when the king of Casmantium tries to annex a chunk of another country, everyone can understand that. I don’t exactly think of him as a villain. An antagonist, yes.

Anyway, as a reader, I … still mostly don’t care about the villains. That’s why I tend to skim through villain pov scenes and chapters. I don’t particularly want to know all about the villain’s backstory and motivations. Especially if those motivations are petty, selfish, and just generally unpleasant to read about. I don’t want to know all about the villain’s machinations either. I’m fine with being surprised, along with the protagonist, when a trap closes.

When I was reading some of the early Game of Thrones novels, I skimmed over Cercei’s pov chapters. Later, I began skipping Jamie’s pov chapters. After that I quit reading the books. I don’t know whether that’s because everyone started looking like a villain, but you know what, that could be why.

Let me see. All right, I’m going to use Kate Elliot’s (excellent) Spiritwalker trilogy to sum up how I feel about villains versus antagonists:

We have four antagonists in this trilogy. I mean, four main antagonists.

  1. Camjiata, who thinks he would make an excellent emperor.
  2. The master of the wild hunt, who is a scary, scary entity. Inhuman and casually cruel.
  3. The mansa of Four Moons House, who is certain that nobility, such as himself, are important, while the trivial needs of peasants need not be considered.
  4. James Drake, who is self-centered — actually just plain selfish to the nth degree. Cruel in petty ways. Outrageously unpleasant in a normal way.

Although Camjiata is important to the plot, we seldom see him and he leaves relatively little impression. I guess we might have found out something about his backstory, but I don’t remember it.

The Master of the wild hunt is like a force of nature more than a villain. There’s just no point talking about his motivations and backstory and all of that. That would be like talking about the motivations and backstory of a storm or supervolcano.

The mansa of Four Moons House is actually almost sorta kinda sympathetic. I mean, by the end. I liked him a lot. We don’t know a lot about his backstory; nor do we need to. He’s a great character who’s sketched into the story in economical strokes that let us understand him as a person without necessarily applauding his attitudes. I’d have been fine with more of him in the story. I didn’t mind spending time with him.

James Drake repelled me more strongly every time he stepped on stage. HE is the kind of villain I least want to spend time with. He didn’t get pov scenes — the whole thing is from Cat’s point of view. I would have skipped any scenes from Drake’s pov, that’s for sure. Ugh. Maybe Kate Elliot knows a lot about his backstory, but either she didn’t share that with the reader or she did but I skipped over it because I didn’t care. Regardless, you don’t need to know much about Drake other than what he’s doing and saying during the story. That’s plenty to know what kind of person he is. UGH.

For someone interested in creating villains, this would be a good trilogy to read because of how very different each of the four main antagonists is from all the others.

Also, the troodons. Those are really cool.

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Making Book Recommendations

Here’s a post at Book Riot that caught my eye:


That seems harsh. I mean, realistic, but still harsh. Let’s look at the context:

… small talk plus a reading hobby equals the inevitable question, “got any book recommendations for me?” or “read anything good lately?” And it’s meant well. It’s a natural progression of the topic of conversation. But, I can’t be the only one who dreads questions like that, can I?

Well, “dread” seems like a strong word. This looks to me like an invitation to continue the small-talk-getting-acquainted thing by saying, “Well, I don’t know, what do you like?” or “I read mostly fantasy and mysteries and romances, do you read any of those?” or, “Sure, I’ve got ten thousand recommendations — what’s a book you recently loved?”

If the person turns out to like fantasy and romances, there you go, recommend Sharon Shinn or whoever leaps to mind for that sort of story. If the person turns out to like only nonfiction, maybe you also like that nonfiction topic and can spend the next hour talking about, I don’t know, the Indus River civilization or whatever.

The worst that can happen is that the person tells you in detail about the plot of a book you hated, but whatever, this is small talk, just nod and smile and murmur politely and after a decent interval, shift the topic to work or hobbies or (generally my choice when possible) pets. Practically everyone with a pet is happy to talk about the pet.

Anyway, this post then goes on:

First, I’m one of those “bad” readers who can’t remember books after I finish them. Like, seriously! In my brain and immediately out. I can remember titles, usually, but there are countless books on my Goodreads that I can’t remember a single detail from. On many occasions, I read a book for a second time without realizing I had already read it. 

And I skidded to a halt.

Okay. Does anyone here have that happen? I mean, not a book you read 30 years ago and now you don’t remember anything except a vague impression that the protagonist was a thief and that the cover was blue. I mean, books you read, say, this past July. In your brain and immediately out. No memory of the book. Yes?

Because, no. This is one of those areas of human experience that I trip over and think, Seriously?

I stalled out at this point in the linked post and just thought about being an avid reader / who does not remember anything at all about a book immediately after having read it. I’m having trouble believing in this. Not that I don’t believe the author of this post. I’m just having trouble believing in it.

Anyway, that stopped me.

As far as book recommendations go, that does happen on Quora. Can you recommend a good book? What books do you recommend? Lots of people answer those questions. While it’s fine to talk up a book you love to random strangers, it does seem more practical to ask in return, What books do you already know you like?

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New options for authors whose publishers drop a series in the middle

Hanneke pointed to this, and I thought I’d pull it out so everyone would see it:

Michelle Sagara West has posted that DAW is not going to publish the final arc (4-6 very long books) in her Essalien/Averalaan world (so far consisting of the Hunter duology, The Sun Sword series, and the House War series, and a few self-published short stories), that they have published under the Michelle West name for the last two decades.

She has now started a Patreon to enable her to write them.

She will probably post an update on Patreon once a month at most, as she does on her blog, and hopes to keep to the usual DAW deadline of one book a year (barring unforeseen circumstances).

Good luck to Sagara / West! I hope this goes well for her.

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Tropes I have unaccountably never used myself

So, I commented the other day that I really like prison escapes.

Honestly, I love prison escapes.

I was thinking of the prison escape in Ann Maxwell’s Fire Dancer, which, by the way, was released as an ebook last year under the name Elizabeth Lowell, and thanks to @Sandstone on Twitter for that information.

The Honor Harrington series has its flaws, sure, but it’s still a fun series and of course my favorite book is this one, where Honor and others wind up on and escape from the prison planet Hell.

There’s a fantastic prison escape in the 4th book of Tanya Huff’s Valor series. What a great story that is! Practically the whole thing is an extended prison escape. It’s probably my favorite book in the series, and I enjoy all the books. I’m pretty sure this is my favorite military SF series.

There are innumerable prison escapes in SFF. If you’ve got a favorite, by all means let me know because I’m always up for this trope! I’m amazed I’ve never put a prison escape in any novel, except I guess this trope is actually a bit intimidating. You have to work out a clever escape in the same way that you’d work out a clever murder in a murder mystery. I don’t have a knack for that, so this sounds difficult to me.

The prison escape isn’t the only trope I have unaccountably never managed to hit myself.

A second trope I particularly enjoy but have never once used myself is The Bodyguard. I love bodyguard characters! I’m thinking here of trustworthy, competent bodyguards who, at least eventually, like or love the person they’re guarding. That’s the relationship I like and that’s how I would write a bodyguard myself. Several of you pointed out great bodyguards in this relatively recent post. I’m particularly planning to find Daughter of Mystery, which Irina pointed out and which I’m certain I have on my Kindle even at this moment. Every book that was recommended there is one I truly want to look at.

A third trope I’m very fond of is The Thief, particularly a character who is perhaps somewhat ambiguous, but when it comes down to it, on the right side. If you stretch the definition of “thief,” then Nicolas Valiarde might count. But I’m really thinking of more specifically thief characters. One reason Scott Lynch’s books work pretty well for me, despite being on the edge of too gritty, is that the protagonists and important secondary characters are thieves.

Oh, also Vlad, even though he’s an assassin as well as a thief. I like assassins a lot too, as long as they’re not embedded in a grimdark narrative. Assassins who aren’t evil. Vlad might have been pretty amoral for some time, but right from the first was willing to go amazingly far to support and protect people he cared about, which is why he works fine for me as a character. I think Vallista is the most recent book in the series, right? I don’t think I’ve missed any. Wow, fifteen books total so far. Fourteen if you pretend Brust never wrote Teckla, about which the less said, the better.

Anyway, amazingly enough, I’ve never put an important thief (or assassin) into any of my books. Or nothing that has been published. The original trilogy which I cannibalized to write both The White Road of the Moon and Winter of Ice and Iron actually did include thieves, and a thieves’ guild (more or less) and a king of thieves (again, more or less). I had to remove all that because there was just no room for any of it in the final versions of the books. I’m still sad about that. Who knows, maybe eventually I’ll find a place to put those thieves.

Granted, Oressa pretty much acts like a thief. In a way, writing her is a lot like writing a thief character. All the rooftops one could wish! She’s a smooth liar, and she’d steal something without a moment’s hesitation if she thought she needed to. I don’t think she actually does steal anything during the course of this story, but she certainly would.

One more: I’m very fond of kitsune. Not sure how I’ve never managed to work even one kitsune into one of my own books. The Black Dog series is already so cluttered, I don’t suppose it’s possible to cram a kitsune or two into that. Probably. Though it would be neat!

Of course, I have managed to write some tropes I particularly like. I’ve managed The Girl Who Disguises Herself As A Boy. I’ve always liked that one. But it’s amazing how many great tropes I have unaccountably never happened to put anywhere. Yet.

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words words words

Neat post here at Daily Writing Tips: Ten More Naming Words Ending in -nym.

Eponym, exonym, autonym … I knew that the Welsh call themselves Cymry, not “Welsh,” but I’d forgotten that.

What a great-looking language Welsh is. Or perhaps I should say, what a great-looking language Cymraeg is. Either way, that is a language that looks wonderful on the page.

Moving on, I see there’s a word for something I’m familiar with:

Tautonym — this is the word for scientific names like Gorilla gorilla or Crocuta crocuta. A “tautonym” is the word for repetitious taxonomic names. I never knew that! That’s quite common. The second example is the spotted hyena, incidentally. Generally, one takes a repetitious taxonomic name to mean that historically, this member of the genus was considered to be “most representative of” the genus — it was named first or is by far the most widespread or something. All other species within the genus are probably defined at least partially in terms of their dissimilarities to the species with the repetitive name. This is true even if the species with the tautonym is really quite an outlier for the genus.

The red fox, for example, Vulpes vulpes, is thought of, at least in England and the US, as kind of the fox’s fox, the ur-fox, what a fox is like. When you pick up a kid’s book and it says “F is for fox,” the picture is of a red fox. Then we say, well, a swift fox, Vulpes velox, is smaller than the red fox and different in these other ways.

(The swift fox, once very seriously endangered, is now a species of least concern, by the way; a real success story for conservation. Just thought I’d throw that out in case you wanted a tidbit of good news today.)

Anyway, Linnaeus and other early taxonomists tended to think of the red fox first and describe the other Vulpes members in terms of the red fox, even though the red fox is the biggest Vulpes species and rather an outlier and not actually typical for the genus. But because a European came up with the system of Latinized binomial nomenclature, the red fox was named first and so it’s got the tautonymous name.

The spotted hyena is by far the most numerous and successful extant hyena species. As it happens, it’s also rather typical of the hyaenids, if you line ’em all up from earliest to latest. There’s a fair bit of variation, certainly, but Crocuta crocuta is reasonably typical of the family. Amazingly enough, here is a Youtube presentation about extinct hyaenids. Wow. I didn’t expect anybody to have made anything like that. You know, the hyaenid family makes a really interesting contrast with the canidae family … which I guess I’m drifting off topic. A bit.

Anyway, tautonym. Great word. I’m going to remember that one.

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Just letting you know that a blogger asked for an interview — this was when puppies were about to arrive or had just arrived, so I was too distracted at the time to point to it.

But: here, if you’re interested.

If you want to know my view on the burning question of whether pineapple belongs on pizza, here you go.

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The TBR Pile: Seven Novel Openings

Since I did this kind of post with mysteries a few days ago, I thought it might be good to do it again, this time with SFF novels. Say, a handful of the ones that have been on my paper TBR shelves for a year or two. Or three. For some time, let’s say. That applies to nearly everything on those shelves. Since I’ve got probably a hundred books or so on the physical TBR shelves, let me pick a theme … okay: these are all older titles – published before 2000. (That still seems a little odd to me, referring to stuff before 2000 as “older.” But here we are.)

Taking a good look at the opening paragraphs ought to show me which of these books, if any, I should leave upstairs on the coffee table, which can go back down to the TBR shelves in the library, and possibly which might go directly to the give-away pile. So, let’s take a look!

1. Name of a Shadow by Ann Maxwell, 1980

“Are you the Sharnn?”


“Come in.”

Ryth entered the room with the lithe grace of a dancer or a Malian assassin. Kayle watched, orange eyes hooded; few people had ever seen a Sharnn in the flesh.

“I didn’t know that Sharnn ever left their planet, said Kayle, gesturing to a sling for Ryth to sit in.

“Not much is known about Sharnn,” said Ryth, his face changing with what could have been a smile.

Kayle’s glance flicked over the tall man whose silver-green eyes compelled attention. Though Ryth was standing motionless, his floor-length cape seemed to stir subtly, twisting light into new shapes.

I picked this up at a convention relatively recently, which probably means at WindyCon in 2019, since it sure wasn’t last year. It was one of those surprising finds. I’ve got some other books by Maxwell, but had never even heard of this one. I won’t claim that those of Maxwell’s books I’ve read have struck me as flawless, but I do enjoy them and have read them all several times, particularly the first book of her Fire Dancer series. The first book of that series, by the way, resolves a particular plot point which Maxwell then pretends in the second book was never resolved, a phenomenon which particularly annoys me in a series. Nevertheless, I do like the first book, which is a delightful example of a SF romance with a bonus prison escape. (I love prison escapes. I should include one in a story of my own sometime.)

So, what about Name of a Shadow?

It’s been some time since I opened a novel and saw a beginning like this – dialogue with no setting at all. I actually can’t remember the last time I saw that. It’s certainly risky to open a novel that way. I think it rarely works. I don’t think it works here. The reader’s going to have to read a bit more to get any sense of the setting or the world or even the characters. This is a classic white room opening – people speaking to one another in a scene devoid of setting. Not a great choice as far as I’m concerned! I’d read a few more pages, maybe the whole first chapter, because I’m interested in seeing what Ann Maxwell does here compared to her other books. But right now this is reading like a pretty amateurish work. I expect it was one of her first.

Let’s pause here to just pull Fire Dancer off the permanent-book shelves and take a look at how that one begins:

1b) Fire Dancer by Ann Maxwell, 1982

Onan was the most licentious planet in the Yhelle Equality. No activity was prohibited. As a result, the wealth of the Equality flowed down Onan’s gravity well – and stuck. Nontondondo, the sprawling city-spaceport, was a three-dimensional maze with walls of colored lightning, streets paved in hope and potholed by despair, and a decibel level that knew no ceiling.

“Kitrn!” shouted Rheba to the hug Bre’n walking beside her. “Can you see the Black Whole yet?”

Oh, yes, that’s a far, far better opening! Also, I’m a little amused by the Black Whole. It makes me think at once of Jackson’s Whole, because of the “most licentious” thing. You can buy licenses to do whatever you want on Onan, just as you can buy whatever you want on Jackson’s Whole.

Anyway, I do recommend Fire Dancer. If and when I read Name of a Shadow, I’ll let you know if it improves. Or if any of you have read it and remember it, what did you think?

2. The Ends of the Circle by Paul O Williams, 1981

From the west wall of the Rive Tower in the city of Pelbarigan on the Heart, a young guardsman leaned out and yawned in the glare of the winter sun, now toward the west and glancing off the snowfields beyond the river. Far out on the river, a party of Pelbar was cutting ice, leaving large squares of dark water in the gray and moving the blocks toward shore, where they would be brought to the caves under the city for storage against the coming summer heat.

“Ahroe, you don’t watch,” said the guardsman. “Your husband has fallen four times now. He is tired. The Dahmens are too hard on him. He will never bend. I know him. He is a good man, but incredibly stubborn.”

Ahroe said nothing. She resolutely looked upriver, toward where the thin haze of woodsmoke had climbed above the trees on the bluff and lay like gauze on the still air.

“Ahroe,” said Erasse. She didn’t turn. He shrugged and looked away.

Lots of setting this time! However, I agree with Elaine T’s comment regarding the Bruno mystery: I truly dislike the stylistic choice of introducing a character, the first character the reader sees, as “the man” or “the girl” or, in this case, “the guardsman.” Like a white room setting, that strikes me as amateurish. This is true even if the author in question is by no means an amateur. I don’t know anything about Paul O Williams. He may have written a hundred novels. I still think this is an amateurish thing to do.

The sense of place is really good. I particularly like the line about the woodsmoke. But the characters we meet first are not very appealing. This is a rather distant, unconcerned exchange. Neither the guardsman nor the wife seems particularly worried about whatever is going on below. The society appears unpleasant. All of those first impressions might be off, but that’s how everything looks right now. Also, “You don’t watch” is a weird locution. “You’re not watching” would sound far more natural. Maybe Williams is deliberately using phrases that are off from normal phrases. I’m not sure I would suggest that on the first page of a novel – unless the phrase is so far removed from normal usage that no one could possibly miss that the author is deliberately choosing odd phrasing.

Offhand, I don’t think I would go on very far with this one, unless it gets a lot more appealing really fast.

Here’s one by an author you’ll all recognize:

3.  Yarrow by Charles de Lint, 1986

Old ghosts lived behind Cat Midhir’s eyes, memories that had no home until they came to haunt her.

They came visiting in dreams, a gangly pack of Rackham gnomes, with long skinny arms and eyes like saucers, dry-voiced like cattails rattling in the wind. Their tunics and trousers were a motley brown, their green and yellow caps pushed down unruly thatches of wild hair. Sometimes she sensed them outside of sleep, their wizened faces peering sharp-edged from sudden corners or, shy as fawns, soft stepping behind her through parks and vacant lots – shadow companions who capered in her peripheral vision and were gone when she turned her head, dry voices piping strange music that became only the wind when she listened closely.

I’ve never read anything by Charles de Lint. It’s immediately clear why some of you have mentioned him as a writer I’d like. This is beautiful writing. 

Here’s another writer I don’t think I’ve read anything by, even though I think she is, or perhaps was, pretty well known.

4. Mirage by Louise Cooper, 1987

Are you awake, in the dark and the silence?

Do you have eyes to see, and ears to hear? Do you have hands, to reach out and clutch at the emptiness?

Can you feel? Can you know hate, loneliness, love, despair?


Yes; you are alive. You can sense blood trickling through your veins, cunt the muffled beats of your heart; and you know that, after what might have been centuries of waiting, sleeping without dreams, without memory or identity, you exist. And although as yet there is nothing for your awakening senses to grasp, something is approaching you. It draws nearer, like a half-recalled nightmare, and it pulls and calls, demanding that the call be heeded.  …

“Wake up!”

The voice was light, crisp, demanding obedience. It spoke so close to his ear that he started; and his muscles contracted sharp with the unaccustomed movement. It took him a few moments to comprehend that the voice was female.

“Wake up!” The impatient edge was sharper.

Wow, two white room openings in this small set of samples. That can’t have been all that usual in the eighties. This must be an unrepresentative sample. Also, second person! I skimmed past a page or so of that second-person introduction – sort of a prologue, though it isn’t called that – to where the third-person story begins. Most readers, I suppose, would make it that far, unless the second-person style pushed them away immediately. Which it might. I am seldom or never in the mood to wade into a second-person narrative. As a cute gimmick for a very, very short passage … I’m still not sure I’m in the mood. And as soon as the actual story begins, we see at once that “he,” presumably the protagonist, appears to be in a terrible position of servitude to the impatient woman. This is quite unappealing so far. I’d turn the page, because I almost never stop THAT fast, but this is not looking promising.

How about it? Has anyone read this, or would anybody recommend Cooper in general?

5. Blue Moon Rising by Simon Green, 1991

Prince Rupert rode his unicorn into the Tanglewood, peering balefully through the drizzling rain as he searched half-heartedly for the flea hiding somewhere under his breast plate. Despite the chill rain, he was seating heavily under the weight of his armor, and his spirits had sunk so low as to be almost out of sight. “Go forth and slay a dragon, my son,” King John had said, and all the courtiers cheered. They could afford to. They didn’t have to go out and face the dragon. Or ride through the Tanglewood in full armor in the rainy season. Rupert gave up on the flea and scrabbled awkwardly at his steel helmet, but to no avail; water continued to trickle down his neck.

Towering, closely packed trees bordered the narrow trail, blending into a verdant glom that mirrored his mood. Thick, fleshy vines clung to every tree trunk and fell in matted streamers from the branches. A heavy, sullen silence hung over the Tanglewood. No animals moved in the thick undergrowth, and no birds sang. The only sound was the constant rustle of the rain as it dripped from the lowering branches of the waterlogged trees, and the muffled thudding of the unicorn’s hooves. Thick mud and fallen leaves made the twisting, centuries-old trail ore than usually treacherous, and the unicorn moved ever more slowly, slipping and sliding as he carried Prince Rupert deeper into the Tanglewood.

While I don’t exactly like either Rupert or the scenery, I must say, this is a certainly lively as an opening. I’m enjoying reading this. It’s one I would certainly go on reading, at least for a bit.

6. Forbidden Magic by Angus Wells, 1992

Bylath den Karnyth, Domm of Secca, Lord of the Eastern Reaches, and Chosen of Dera, stared moodily from the embrasure, his expression saturnine, as if the breeze that skirled about the palace walls enhanced his naturally dour temperament. Fingers calloused by a sword’s hilt tugged at his leonine beard, the yellow streaked with gray now, like his hair, and fell in a fist to the stone of the sill. Below him, on the sanded practice ground, his sons worked under the vigilant eye of Secca’s weaponsmaster, Torvah Banul, the younger the object of the Domm’s dissatisfaction.

The younger son is too effete for his father’s taste, I see. Wow, that is a familiar situation from one million books. Wait, I bet the son turns out to be bookish and clever and probably has magic no one knows about.

I like lyrical prose, I can appreciate ornate prose. But the above has purplish tendencies that don’t appeal to me. Also, the the clustered dependent clauses are not working for me. Anybody else get a brief image of the beard or hair or something falling in a fist to the stone of the windowsill? Too much stuff between the fingers and the fist, as far as I’m concerned. I’m not sure this book is going to be anything that holds my interest past the first pages.

Moving on:

7. An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears, 1998

Marco da Cola, gentleman of Venice, respectfully presents his greetings. I wish to recount the journey which I made to England in the year 1663, the events which I witnessed and the people I met, these being, I hope, of some interest to those concerned with curiosity. Equally, I intend my account to expose the lies told by those whom I once numbered, rightly or wrongly, among my friends. I do not intend to pen a lengthy self-justification, or tell in detail how I was deceived and cheated out of renown which should rightfully be mine. My recital, I believe, will speak for itself.

A very mannered style, entirely different from any of the above. I don’t mind a style like this, necessarily – I enjoy Steven Brust’s Viscount series – but I prefer to like the protagonist. This guy sounds like he might be amusing, but not likeable.

This is a significantly more well-known title, I believe. It’s got a laudatory quote on the cover from The Sunday Boston Globe, and plenty of other quotes from other sources like that, so it must have been brought out as a literary novel. The quote says, “May well be the best historical mystery ever written,” so I think I was mistaken about this being a fantasy novel. I think the book was recommended by Jo Walton, which is perhaps why I had an impression that it was historical fantasy. Or maybe there are fantasy elements that are not obvious from the back cover description.

Regardless, this selection of older titles certainly provides a wide, wide range of opening, that’s for sure. I like the de Lint best (by a lot,) but I would put Green’s novel second without hesitation. It’s a great deal livelier than Iain Pears’ opening. That one will go back down to the TBR shelves, for me to actually try reading … later. Someday. When I am in the mood for something erudite and intellectually amusing, rather than actually engaging.

Several of these, I will probably try right away, just to be able to move them off the TBR shelves to the give-away pile promptly. That always gives me a sense of accomplishment, if not exactly satisfaction.

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