Best Historicals

From Book Riot: 15 OF THE BEST HISTORICAL FICTION SERIES

I love historicals! Not necessarily series as such, but the genre in general. I also have strong opinions about which historicals deserve to be on this list. I really can’t guess whether this Book Riot post is going to include the works or the authors I have in mind. Before I look, here are my picks:

  1. Hild by Nicola Griffith. I know, not finished! I realize that! Even so, unfinished as it is, this is the single work I’d put in the top spot. Griffith did an absolutely marvelous job with this book. She’s such a splendid stylist, and she’s wonderful with description and with bringing an era to life. I’m hoping we’ll see the sequel late next year, or if not that, then sometime in 2023.
  2. The Lymond chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett. I don’t think this series is flawless. I do think it’s a masterpiece. I have read it three or four or five times. Her other main series, the Niccolo series, I’ve only read once. It’s also good, but several things about it appeal to me less.
  3. Gillian Bradshaw. I’m putting the author on this list rather than a specific work because so many of her books are fantastic. I’m linking a post where I roughly sort out her titles into Best – Great – Perhaps Not as Good categories.
  4. Rose Under Fire and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. I haven’t read her other historicals, except the (also amazing) series that starts with an unusual twist on the Arthurian legend and then goes off in its own direction.
  5. Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series, though those are historical mysteries rather than historicals straight up. But this is my favorite historical mystery series, and that’s because of the historical setting, not because of the mysteries. Hambly does an amazing job with historical settings. I’m definitely including this series here.

As a significant bonus of writing this post, I see there are two more Benjamin January books out. That’s great! I’m picking them both up now.

That’s my top five. Let’s see if any of them appear on this Book Riot post. … Nope. Well, I’m turning my nose up at their inferior list, that’s for sure. How you can write a list like this and not include Dorothy Dunnett … phooey.

Hmm. Looks like the author of this post is emphasizing historical romances. Well, I like a good many historical romances, but that is not what I had in mind myself. Though all or nearly all of Bradshaw’s books do have a central romance, they are historicals with romance, not historical romances.

I’ve tried some of these … Outlander … I couldn’t get into it. Oh, Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister series; I did like those a lot. But fundamentally, I think historical romances should be a separate post from historicals. In fact, honestly, I’d break the category up like this:

–Historicals

–Historical mysteries

–Historical romances

–Historical fantasy

–Classics that are also now historicals — I’m thinking of The Count of Monte Cristo, which was written at pretty much the time it was set, but now reads like a historical novel.

–Great biographies, and here I’m thinking of the ones that read more like fiction, not the ones that read like history textbooks.

Any other categories? Those are the ones that leap to mind for me. It’d be perfectly reasonable to address them all separately. There’s lots and lots (and lots) of room in each category.

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Somebody kindly invent magic cloning at once

I have too much to do. Right now I’m feeling pulled in a lot of different directions, and the minute I finish the current project, that will get far worse. I would greatly appreciate a couple of magically-generated clones to help out.

What I’m actually working on right now:

I’m writing Grayson’s story for the Black Dog collection. I think I may have figured out how to make this story work better — by shoving some of the stuff I was putting into the story into backstory instead. In other words, by telling, not showing. If Grayson can explain that stuff to someone else in a paragraph or two, I don’t have to write thirty pages showing it all happening.

Hopefully this will work. I just started revising the forty pages I have with this in mind. This should let me cut most of that and get to the part of the story that’s the real story MUCH faster, with a lot less distraction. I think. The backstory part may then contribute complications to the real story. That might be okay, or even helpful.

What I’m not working on right now:

Tasmakat, which is going to be pulling at me until I actually write it.

— A story or novella from Tano’s pov, which takes place directly after the end of Tarashana.

— A story or novella from the pov of the neat character I cut from Tasmakat, and thank you, Kim, for the suggestion. I now have the basic outline plus the conclusion of that story in mind, so I could write it and might well do so. It couldn’t be published before Tasmakat, as it intrinsically contains spoilers for that book.

— The mostly completed SF novel that is still, sigh, sitting right here, now with notes about the Real Ending That Will Work (Probably). I want very much to get back to that and finish it up.

— The fifth and probably final Black Dog novel, Silver Circle. I have only a few notes on paper, but I’ve been developing ideas about this book for some time, which is why the stories in the upcoming collection mostly include setup for the novel. Lots of dangling threads in those stories. Not with regard to the arc of each story, of course, but still, obvious threads that lead forward to the novel.

— The complicated fantasy in the baroque world, which is still barely started. It’s about eighty pages from three different pov and who knows where it might go. I won’t find out until I have a chance to actually work on it. Heaven knows when that will be. I would consider pursuing traditional publication for this one, but honestly, I’m starting to think I won’t seriously move ahead with it until the year after next. We’ll see.

It’s hard to decide what to prioritize, which is why I would appreciate a couple of magical clones.

I wrote Keraunani this summer to get out of a writing slump. If I have to get out of another writing slump, it’s an easy bet that I’ll use something in the Tuyo world to do that, regardless of what might objectively seem a more sensible project.

But that mostly finished SF novel, my goodness, that is driving me mad.

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Fantasy Novels That Sweep You Into a Strange World

Here’s a website, Beta Shepherd, that declares its goal is to “create an experience that is like wandering around your favorite bookstore.” Certainly a laudable goal! I do miss the bookstore experience, which nearly disappeared for me when I moved an hour and a half from any regular bookstore.

They asked me to write a post for them. I did, and here it is: The Best Fantasy Novels that Sweep You Into a Very Strange World.

I was trying to think of worlds that, like Tuyo, aren’t set on planets with normal geology and so on. It was tricky to come up with five.

If you poke around on the site, you’ll see some amazingly specific lists: The best books about 1939 Hollywood, for example. I wonder what was special about 1939 in Hollywood. I guess something must have been. Here’s one I’m much more likely to click into: The best young adult fairytale retellings. A lot more nonfiction categories than fiction, it looks like, so far; but on the other hand there are A LOT of categories. Tons. Scroll way down to F and you’ll find various fantasy categories, like The best fantasy books you’ve never heard of — there’s a perennially useful topic for blog posts.

Anyway, lots here. Let me see. Suspense Novels with Emotionally Intelligent Characters. Thucydides. Women in War. Zeppelins. Really, this is an entertainingly cluttered site. It’s definitely well worth clicking through and poking around.

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How Martha Wells came to write Murderbot

Here’s something I fortuitously saw on Twitter: Introduction to the Subterranean edition of The Murderbot Diaries

This particularly caught my eye because I was just wondering whether Murderbot was inspired at all by Breq in Ancillary Justice. Not that authors necessarily know what all got stirred together in their subconscious and resulted in a new writing project of their own, but let’s see what Martha had in mind when she first developed this character and world …

One of the questions I get asked a lot is what inspired the character. I think people want/expect there to be a crystal clear single moment where something tangible and identifiable sparked the idea. But there really wasn’t; or if there was, I don’t remember it. What I remember is a whole lot of things, all coming together at once.

It started when I was working on the ending of The Harbors of the Sun, the last novel in the Books of the Raksura series. It was the conclusion of the series, and I was sweating over it. This was the series that, with great difficulty and many setbacks, dragged my career back from the dead, and I loved it and wanted to do the finale justice.

I was having something like a creative surge, with ideas for new books, fanfiction, redecorating my house, digging up my backyard, all kinds of things. (My brain is what we call non-neurotypical and sometimes it goes very fast.) One day, somewhere in there, the plot idea popped up for an enslaved security person who had destroyed their governor module but would have to reveal that to save an innocent group of scientists. I had an image of a scene which turned into the moment in All Systems Red where Mensah knocks on the wall of Murderbot’s cubicle, an act of transgression which sets off the story.

A few comments:

A) Yes, Martha had recently read Ancillary Justice.

B) She originally planned a sad ending to the first novella! Aaaaah! I feel like we really dodged a bullet there. I’m so glad Martha changed her mind about that!

C) “I was sick of being told that if you’re not completely open and spilling your feelings for the approval of everyone around you then you must not have any feelings.”

YES, THANK YOU. No wonder I fell for Murderbot so fast and hard.

I didn’t really notice this until COVID YEAR FROM HELL, and suddenly all sorts of people were declaring on Facebook, “If you don’t declare your opinion about whatever, I’M JUDGING YOU,” basically in those words. I kept thinking, “Oh, yeah, me too, I definitely judge everyone I know by the moral poses they strike on social media.” Ugh!

D) Martha and I were once on a panel together at some convention or other, and wow, was it obvious that our writing methods are very similar to each other and not at all similar to anyone else on the panel. I thought of that again reading the above selection of the linked post. I also think of complete scenes, embedded in the setting, first, and then write onward or outward from those scenes.

Anyway, interesting post, by all means click through and read the rest.

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A Specific Sort of Disappointment with a Sequel

So, someone recently reminded me of the quite wonderful book by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear, A Companion to Wolves. This is a book I read and loved a few years ago. I read the sequel immediately, then waited till the third book was out and grabbed it at once. And was somewhat disappointed in it.

Here, from my comments regarding the first two books, is my feeling about where the third book was probably going to go — and where I wanted it to go:

My personal prediction for the third book is that Otter, after rescuing one of Isolfr’s people from the Rheans and being herself rescued, is going to wind up bonding with a wolf – the first woman ever to do so – thus making the whole question of women’s proper role explicit not just for Isolfr, who is already thinking about this, but for his whole society.

Obviously Monette and Bear might have other ideas of what to do with Otter, but if I were writing the story, Otter would definitely have a wolf pup in her near future. For me, the only question would be whether to give her a konigenwolf pup (a queen) or a lesser bitch pup or a dog pup. The greatest subversion of Iskryner cultural norms would occur if she bonded with a dog pup who grew into a big, dominant, ambitious male, but we’ll see.

None of that happened. Otter was a trivial character in the third book.

Here are my comments about the third book, which is called An Apprentice to Elves.

Here’s the key bit: the third book focuses more on Alfgyfa, Isolfr’s daughter, who has become, as you might have guessed, an apprentice to the elves. She’s interesting, I guess, but stepping away from Otter as an important character means Monette and Bear chose not to set Otter up for a really interesting twist on what they’re doing with sex roles in this culture. That was so disappointing!

In addition, Monette and Bear didn’t do anything much with another character I thought was really interesting and promising, Fargrimr. Here’s what I said about that in my comments about the third book in the series:

Fargrimr is, as I said, a sworn-son. When his brother Randulfr bonded with a wolf and was lost as an heir, Fargrimr became an honorary son (instead of a daughter, see) so that she could be her – his – father’s heir and eventually lord in turn. Fargrimr is an excellent point-of-view character. But we don’t see all that much of him, because we are spending so much time with the other pov characters, which means mainly Alfgyfa and also Tin as well as Otter.

Yet another choice not to explore this culture from a pov I particularly wanted to see, and a character who had already been set up to give a fascinating perspective on sex roles in this culture.

I never got especially interested in the elves. I didn’t care much about Alfgyfa. The third book, for me, was … not quite a failure. But it was by no means the book I wanted it to be.

And that is a very specific way for a third book, or any sequel, to fail for a reader.

I’m not sure how often this has happened to me. In order for this kind of disappointment to occur:

a) I have to be thoroughly drawn into the first book(s) of the series;

b) There has to be enough of a pause between one book and the next that I have time to sort of start writing the next book in my head;

c) The sequel has to go in a direction I don’t especially care for, so that I’m reluctant to let go of the sequel I had in mind.

The author of course wants readers to be drawn in as much as possible. I’m really not sure how many readers kind of write scenes in their head for what they’d like to happen next, but my guess is, a lot. That’s got to be one of the basic inspirations behind fan fiction, right? That means that the risk of a sequel turning out to be a disappointment is probably significant for a fair number of readers … or that’s my guess. Have any of you had that experience? Of wanting a specific sequel that turns out not to be the sequel the author writes.

Anyway, this is one reason I was also disappointed by the sequel to another book I love by Sarah Monette, The Goblin Emperor.

The sequel, The Witness for the Dead, is not only from a pov other than Maia’s, but that also necessarily means that the story isn’t going the way I specifically planned it out in my head. I wrote quite a few scenes of the sequel I wanted — just in my head, but exactly the same way I’d write scenes in my head for one of my own books. The actual sequel is so far removed from that, it couldn’t begin to compete. Especially as Celehar is such a passive protagonist so much of the time.

I’m sure this happens fairly often, but I’m rarely so deeply engaged by the first book of a series that I get especially disappointed when the author takes the series in a direction I didn’t expect. Sarah Monette is definitely one author who can really pull me into her novels.

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Worldbuilding: Turns of Phrase, Aphorisms, and Slang

Okay, today I have a post over at Book View Cafe. This is my first post over there, and rather than mirroring a post from this blog to that one, I’m leaving it solely on the BVC blog.

So — Worldbuilding: Turns of Phrase, Aphorisms, Slang, and Metaphors

Click through and take a look if you wish, and by all means leave a comment about this aspect of worldbuilding if you feel so inclined.

I haven’t yet decided whether to mostly do posts about writing craft over there, or mix it up with dogs and stuff the way I do here. Regardless, I’ll probably largely write separate posts for BVC, but link back and forth from this blog to that one.

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Really Close Third Person Raises Questions of Personal Style

So, as you know, I’ve been working on Black Dog novellas recently. The one I’ve just finished — mostly finished — I’m going to go back and change a few details that impact the ending — ANYWAY, it’s from Thaddeus’ point of view.

Now, obviously, Thaddeus is not, for example, Grayson. Or Ethan. He doesn’t speak in the same way at all, which extends to his direct thoughts and, in very close third person, also to the overall style of the story.

Take a look at this:

1. Maybe Thaddeus should of expected that.

2. “You’re pretty sure your circle could of kept me out,” he observed.

3. That would of killed practically any black dog.

Now, previously, when I’ve written from Thaddeus’ point of view, I’ve used that should of / could of / would of locution. This is not a mistake. Regardless of how utterly annoying homonyms have become, this is not a mistake I would ever make. Every now and then someone contacts me and points this sort of thing out as a typo. Which is fine! I appreciate readers pointing out typos! But this is a deliberate choice.

But is it a good choice? Show of hands, please. When you see this in Thaddeus’ pov, does it sound right? I’m considering limiting this to solely dialogue and the most direct thoughts. That is, leaving it for the second example above, but not the first and maybe not the third.

Also, Thaddeus has been part of Dimilioc for just about two and a half years now. (How time flies!) I’m not sure how fast, or whether, speech patterns like this might change, but he’s been listening to people with a significantly more formal style for that long.

It would be relatively easy to alter this. Obviously it’s not practical to search for “of” in a document, but if you search for “ld of ” that takes care of that problem. I can therefore say that this “of” locution occurs eleven times in the story. I might take that back to half as many. Or I could not use “of” this way at all. Thoughts?

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The foundations of civilization

An interesting Twitter thread here:

“Cheese is one of the 5 things the Western book as we know it depends on. The other four are snails, Jesus, underwear and spectacles. If even one of these things was absent, the book you hold in your hand today would look completely different. I’ll explain why…”

This thread is at least moderately persuasive. It’s certainly interesting. By all means click through if you’ve got time to read through a long Twitter discourse.

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The Most Influential SF Books of All time

A Book Riot post: THE MOST INFLUENTIAL SCI-FI BOOKS OF ALL TIME

Well, what leaps to mind?

Dune.

Stranger in a Strange Land.

The Left Hand of Darkness.

Those are what occur to me first. Also, possibly classics such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and that bunch. Fahrenheit 451. Generally I think of those in lists of classics rather than lists of influential SF, though of course they’re SF.

What were the seminal works for space opera? EE Doc Smith, of course, with the Lensmen series and others. I never actually read any of those. I think space opera was reinvigorated with the publication of the Vorkosigan series. Probably there was some space opera being published all along, but it seemed to me that this subgenre was pretty much in eclipse for some time and then there was a resurgence of space opera, with LMB’s series either at the forefront or at least coming out at about the time that started. I should do a post on that, as I think I define space opera more strictly than some people — at least, I’m always seeing lists of space opera that include titles I don’t think belong to the category at all.

What was a foundational work for military SF? Starship Troopers, probably, and The Forever War. But I’d personally also say that Ender’s Game later became an influential work.

Let me see what the Book Riot post considers the most influential SF novels ever…

Ah! All the old classics. That’s almost this whole list. With their dates of publication — wow, did you realize Starship Troopers came out in 1959? (???!) I didn’t realize it was that old.

Yes, I’m seeing almost all the ones I thought of, plus a few others. Oh, here’s Psion by Joan D Vinge. I liked that novel a lot. I wouldn’t have thought of it as particularly influential.

Recognized by the American Library Association as one of the Best Books for Young Adults, this 1982 release has inspired generations of young sci-fi fans to delve deeper into the genre.

I didn’t know that. Good for Psion. Hey, look, it turns out Psion is the first book of a trilogy! I didn’t know that either! I have the first two, but I must have missed the third, Dreamfall, when it came out. Vinge must have tied up the story enough in Catspaw that I didn’t really look for a third book. Well, how about that. I need to re-read Psion and Catspaw and see if I still like them enough to read the third book.

Okay, next on the list, let’s see … oh, it’s the Oankali series by Octavia Butler. I don’t know that I agree. This may be my favorite work on this entire list, but influential? I’m not so sure.

I was very, very impressed by what Butler did here with alien behavior and human behavior; with how she handled alien instinct and human instinct. I’ve always regretted not having a chance to talk to her about that, see if she was actually thinking about instinct and what instinct is when she wrote these books. I would love to know if she realized that the main difference between the oankali and humans is that the former have important instincts that are much more hardwired and inflexible than humans. Did she do that on purpose?

Regardless, not many other authors have ever tried to write something like this. Not that I can think of. CJC is in the same broad niche. Not many other authors are anywhere close. I wouldn’t say this work of Butler’s was influential. If anything of hers was, it’d be the Parable duology, which is squarely the dystopia subgenre. Parable of the Sower was first published in 1993. That places it before the recent massive flowering of YA dystopian SF. I don’t know if Parable was influential in that trend, but it could have been.

Returning to the Book Riot post …

Oh, interesting, here’s Ammonite by Nicola Griffith! By no means my favorite of her works. I think Griffith’s later books are much better than this one. Influential? I don’t know. Interesting, sure. In the tradition of The Left Hand of Darkness; that one was influential, while Ammonite — it seems to me — was one of the titles inspired by that influence.

I’m getting the impression that the Book Riot post has now shifted from Most Influential SF Novels to a list of SF Novels That Impressed Me Personally. It’s trying to stuff recent titles into the category of Influential, when really nothing recent can be considered influential. For example, The Imperial Radch trilogy may prove to be a seminal work, but it hasn’t been out long enough to tell, imo. Eight years since the first book. That’s not very long. I would therefore hesitate to include it on a a list like this. I’d put it down a step, in the last and perhaps most interesting category of this post:

Books which may become truly influential

I love predictions. I vote for the Imperial Radch trilogy. I’m not sure what works inspired by this trilogy would even look like. There’s a lot more going on here thandefault-female pronouns. That was a trivial component of this trilogy imo.

I haven’t read any of the books the post puts in this category except the Murderbot stories. I agree there. I think we may well see more robot/cyborg/construct stories that draw on what Martha Wells is doing in her series. I doubt I’ll like them as well. The Murderbot protagonist really hit a sweet spot for me. And for lots of other readers, obviously; hence the enormous popularity of the series. I suspect a lot of works will be inspired by Murderbot, but will mostly tend to be too gritty and nihilistic for me. Regardless, it’ll be interesting to pause and look back in ten years, or fifteen, or twenty, and see if we can parse out a subgenre inspired by Murderbot — and perhaps by the Imperial Radch trilogy.

In fact, now that I type this post, I could see Murderbot as inspired by the Imperial Radch trilogy. I never thought of that before. All Systems Red came out four years after Ancillary Justice. I wonder — I wonder very much — whether Martha Wells read Ancillary Justice before she wrote her first Murderbot story? Breq is no more a gendered person than Murderbot is. They’re both thoroughly nonhuman, even though they have human components. They’re even nonhuman in some ways that are sorta-kinda similar.

Now I’m imagining a line from the Imperial Radch series through Murderbot and on into the near future of a subgenre of SF. That will be extremely interesting to look back on in 20 years.

If you were going to pick out one recent-ish work that might prove to be thoroughly influential in the next couple of decades, what would it be? Anything leap to mind?

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