Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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50 must-read fantasy novels by women

This is a Book Riot post, so I’m quite curious to see what fifty novels they’ve chosen from among the thousands and thousands of potential titles. I seldom overlap much in my personal tastes with Book Riot posts, so here’s what I’m guessing: very few older titles (say, written more than 20 years ago) except by LeGuin. Almost no overlap between the fifty I might pick and their list. Nothing that I’d personally place in the top ten.

To make those predictions fair, let’s see which ten I might actually put at the top, which I grant making selections is essentially impossible, but let me try real fast.

Okay. Fantasy, not SF. By women. Top ten of all time. Off the top of my head, in no order except how I thought of them, plus making an effort not to just list a bunch by Patricia McKillip:

  1. The Book of Atrix Wolfe by McKillip
  2. The Changeling Sea by McKillip
  3. The Goblin Emperor by “Katherine Addison”
  4. The Shape-Changer’s Wife by Shinn
  5. Beauty by McKinley
  6. The Lens of the World by MacAvoy
  7. Fortress in the Eye of Time by Cherryh
  8. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrill by Clarke
  9. Inda series by Sherwood Smith
  10. The Raksura series by Martha Wells

Gosh, that was … random. I feel like I could easily pull half the books (and series) off that list and replace them with others. I feel like I could do that half a dozen times with no trouble. I suppose for once I feel like fifty is not too long for a list and than ten is too short. But fine, I’ll go with the above just so I can move on, look at the Book Riot post, and see (a) if there’s any overlap between those ten and their fifty.

Also, I want to count:

b) How many of their fifty I’ve read;

c) How many of their fifty I’ve liked / thought were great even if I didn’t like them;

d) How many of their fifty were published more than twenty years ago.

And …. looks like ….

a) One book appears on both lists: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrill. I can’t say this was actually my favorite book of all time. I liked it, but I doubt I’ll ever read it again. Nevertheless, I think it is great literature and deserves to be a true classic.

b) I’ve read twelve books of their fifty.

c) I liked eight of those twelve; but I do think some of those are overrated.

d) The dates of publication aren’t listed, but offhand I’d say that zero of the works listed were written more than twenty years ago. Oh, I take that back. Mercedes Lackey’s title was published way before that. I think that’s the only one. Never read it myself (Arrows of the Queen). Everything else was published more recently, mostly much more recently.

Well, there, then. That’s officially my biggest problem with the Book Riot list: a near-complete bias against older works. It’s a real shame to see older authors forgotten and older titles ignored.

If you were going to put one “must read” title on this kind of list — fantasy, woman author — and the title had to have been published before 2000, which single title would you choose?

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Stimulants in fantasy worlds

Here’s a post from Marie Brennan at Book View Cafe: New Worlds: Stimulants

The post caught my eye largely because I just finished reading the Memoirs of Lady Trent series. Brennan says:

For whatever reason, I feel like I encounter chocolate only rarely in stories — books like Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s Sorcery and Cecelia(later subtitled or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot) being the exception. I’d also love to know if the depiction of tobacco in science fiction and fantasy has dropped off over time, as smoking becomes less acceptable in real life. As for chewables — coca leaves, betel nuts, and khat — I’m not sure I’ve ever seen them in a secondary world story, except for me putting an unnamed coca-type plant into Within the Sanctuary of Wings. Even chewing tobacco only seems to show up in things that are explicitly trying to feel like Westerns.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a chewable stimulant in any SFF novel either, except that one. Anybody?

Honestly, though, the reason chocolate is encountered rarely is probably that everyone knows cocoa is a New World plant. Right? People may not know that peanuts originated in South America, then were transplanted to Africa, then were transplanted from Africa to North America. But everyone pretty much does know that chocolate is New World. So if you put chocolate into a fantasy novel, that does odd things to the feel of the world.

Stuff that seems normal in a bog-standard fantasy setting: wheat, wild boar, wolves, beer (or ale), tea. Stuff that seems out of place: pronghorn antelope, elephants, potatoes, chocolate.

Incidentally, I’ll raise my hand as someone who needs caffeine to function — but I don’t like coffee or tea (or soda, for that matter). I take 100 mg of caffeine in tablet form the minute I get up every morning. It helps prevent headaches — and it does also make me feel more awake, so at least I understand why people swear by coffee.

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Recent Reading: The complete Memoirs of Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan

I didn’t set out to read the whole series. I have recently been too distracted by real-life stuff . . . that is, by the puppies, of course . . . to work on anything of my own, so I thought this would be a good time to read the final couple books of this series, which had been on my physical-book shelves since whenever they came out. (Checking, I see the final book came out in 2017, so that hasn’t been so very long by my standards.)

So I went back and re-read the third book to get back into the series, since I’d only read it once. Then I went on to the fourth book. Only I didn’t have the fourth book, it turned out. Or if I did, it was buried somewhere in a pile of books, not on the shelf where it belonged. The fifth was right there, but not the fourth! How annoying, when you think you have all the books of a series and settle down to read them and then one is missing! So I had to order it, and while waiting, I went back and re-read the second and then the first books. So I read the whole series, only inside out, starting in the middle and then going backward before getting the fourth book and going forward.

And yes, I could have gotten the fourth book in ebook format, but (a) I don’t like to break a series up in different editions like that; and (b) the covers and artwork and physical appearance of this series are THE BEST, so I honestly wanted the hardcovers. Here they are, in all their naturalistic glory:

Which is your favorite cover? I find it impossible to choose. Perhaps the fourth. Or possibly the first. They’re all so good. The interior artworks is also excellent. So few books get to have interior art, yet it’s such a plus when one does. Or at least, I think so.

Now that I’ve finally finished the series, how do I like it?

I like it a lot — the overall story as much as the artwork and covers

Way back when I read the first book, I saw various criticisms of the ethnocentric attitude of the protagonist and also criticism of the protagonist’s attitude regarding killing the occasional dragon for the purposes of studying its anatomy. My own perception is very different from that of such critics because unlike them (I surmise), I have read actual nineteenth-century books by actual nineteenth-century naturalists, recounting their travels to China or wherever to acquire specimens for museums and so on. Let me tell you, Marie Brennan toned those kinds of attitudes WAY down to make her books more accessible to modern readers. WAY WAY down. She left just barely enough to capture the general “feel” or “tone” of that class of British naturalist, which she did with amazing success. This actually reminds me of Gillian Bradshaw’s historicals set in Classical Greece or Rome. There again, Bradshaw toned down various cultural attributes, such as the general compete indifference to the suffering of unrelated people, in order to make her stories accessible to modern readers. When you’re writing historicals – which the Memoirs of Lady Trent are, in a very real sense, despite the secondary world setting – then that is something the author is going to have to do.

Also, I think the critics were wrong in a more basic sense, as the Isabella, Lady Trent, becomes aware of her insular attitudes in the very first book and shows a great deal of personal growth very quickly – more quickly than is perhaps plausible – shedding ethnocentric attitudes left and right and becoming far more able to deal with highly diverse cultures. This stands her in good stead late in the series, when she –

Ah, never mind. Important spoiler there, if you have not actually read the full series.

Okay, so, spoiler-free comments below:

a) The whole series is excellent, with unusual consistency in quality throughout. My favorite may be the third book. Or maybe the fourth. Or possibly the fifth.

b) There’s a lot of intellectual enjoyment here. The nearest equivalent to this series that I can think of is the Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirstein. That is different in many ways (plus unfortunately unfinished as yet) but still very similar in, if you will, attitude. If you loved one series, you should certainly try the other, though the tone of the Lady Trent series is drier and, since it’s in memoir form, feels much less immediate.

Another comparison might be CJC’s Foreigner series. Again, very different in a lot of ways, and yet I do think it’s an apt comparison. Imagine the Foreigner series as told in memoir form by Ilisidi, and honestly you might get rather close to the Lady Trent series. That one would give you more of a focus on politics, of course, and no dragons, but still. (Wouldn’t Ilisidi’s memoirs make fascinating reading!)

c) Although I predicted some events (that were admittedly clearly forecast), I totally did not expect the big thing that happened in the fifth book. I was taken by surprise even though I suspected some aspects of that thing. Brennan set it up cleverly.

d) These are mostly slowish in pace, so the reader should ideally be in the mood to settle down and enjoy that kind of story. Because Isabella is, let’s say, not especially emotionally volatile, a reader who enjoys an intellectual journey rather than a lot of emoting will probably enjoy this series more than other readers.

Not to stereotype YA literature, but let us say that if a reader has mostly been into YA, this series might come as something of a departure. I’m tempted to recommend it just for that reason. Diverse in many ways, modern YA seems pretty uniform in preferring emotional intensity, immediacy of “feel,” fast pace, and teenage protagonists. I believe it’s regrettable that young readers today are essentially being told that they should only be able identify with teen protagonists and only enjoy highly emotional stories. This series showcases an entirely different style. I would have loved it as a teenaged reader – a naturalist view of dragons! – and I’m sure some of today’s younger readers would too, especially if they tend toward science and animal behavior, as I did.

e) The science behind the dragons is implausible, but delightful. I don’t buy that you could get, say, varying numbers of limbs in this way. Nevertheless, it’s fun to take environmentally induced lability of development – which of course is very much a real thing – and run with it. This book almost reads like science fiction rather than fantasy; hence the comparisons that come to my mind are not fantasy. The memoir format offers a great advantage, as Isabella is able to make offhanded comments about the state of scientific knowledge during the entire span of her life to date. That’s one of the (many) techniques Brennan uses to make the science in the series feel so real.

This series reminds me of my longstanding desire to redesign the high school science curriculum as a history of science curriculum, something that treats science as a process and an attitude and a type of thought and a mode of discovery, rather than the way it is actually taught, as a handful of Revealed Truths, or actually Revealed Science-y Factoids. I think the reason people today are so susceptible to magical thinking and pseudoscience is that we do not teach any science at all in primary or secondary school, or for that matter in college. We just teach Factoids of Science, as Revealed by the Teacher. Well, never mind, that’s a rant for another day.

Back to the Lady Trent series. Final thought: this series has to be in the all-time top ten for sheer beauty of the actual physical books. Major kudos to the Tor production team for every single design decision that went into this series. Just a fabulous job. There is hardly another series out there where I would deliberately choose to get the hardcovers – even though I now need reading glasses to comfortably read them! – rather than the ebooks. I hear the audio version is also very good, which is great, but again, hardcovers all the way for me for this series. I always keep one or another volume turned face-out on my shelves so that I can enjoy the covers every time I pass through my library.

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Puppies are distracting

Allow me to present the “twins.” Two singletons, due on the same day. I had one c-section done two days early, the other at term, for good and sufficient reasons too complicated to go into. This was July 10th and 12th.

The b/t puppy was 5.7 oz at birth, implying perhaps a poor uterine attachment because that is tiny for a singleton puppy. She took off fast and has hardly been a moment’s trouble.

The Blenheim was 10.4 oz at birth, much more reasonable. She was trouble free for 8 days, suddenly began nursing ineffectively, required tube feeding, aspirated milk into her lungs while asleep — which I have never heard of, but I was looking right at her when it happened — but is now recovering well. That was an exciting week ago. I am happy to report that she is doing much better. She will be on Clavamox for another several days, as aspiration leads generally to pneumonia and she was certainly showing symptoms of that kind.

As I said, doing well now. Nursing fine, but also starting on real food.

So! I feel secure enough at this point to consider names.

The b/t puppy’s father is Ch Snowbird Wicked Good Wizard, call name Merlin. I am thinking of sticking with an Arthurian theme for these puppies, which are my M and N litters.

That would suggest Anara Morgan Le Fey for the black puppy, and Anara Nimue Du Lac for the Blenheim puppy. I like the name Morgan as a call name, not sure about Nimue, though I do like that name. Shorter, one- or two-syllable name would be nice. Nim, Nym, Nymph?

Incidentally, it turns out Cavalier moms, at least mine, are quite willing to tolerate each other and take on mothering duties for both puppies. Kim made my life so much easier by taking care of both babies when Chloe’s mothering instincts took a couple days to come in properly, and now that Kim (like her own mother at this point, in fact) is less interested in motherhood, Chloe is happy to interact with the babies, who are just now getting playful.

So, that’s been my priority for the past few weeks. Barring (another) disaster, the babies should be far, far less trouble for the next little while.

Then… housetraining!

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Interesting new title from Becky Chambers

I didn’t know this was coming out:

This definitely sounds like a promising novella. From Goodreads:

In the future, instead of terraforming planets to sustain human life, explorers of galaxy transform themselves.

At the turn of the twenty-second century, scientists make a breakthrough in human spaceflight. Through a revolutionary method known as somaforming, astronauts can survive in hostile environments off Earth using synthetic biological supplementations. They can produce antifreeze in sub-zero temperatures, absorb radiation and convert it for food, and conveniently adjust to the pull of different gravitational forces. With the fragility of the body no longer a limiting factor, human beings are at last able to explore neighbouring exoplanets long suspected to harbour life.

Ariadne is one such explorer. On a mission to ecologically survey four habitable worlds fifteen light-years from Earth, she and her fellow crewmates sleep while in transit, and wake each time with different features. But as they shift through both form and time, life back on Earth has also changed. Faced with the possibility of returning to a planet that has forgotten those who have left, Ariadne begins to chronicle the wonders and dangers of her journey, in the hope that someone back home might still be listening.

That last line gives the whole thing a wistful tone. I wonder if Chambers makes the slightest effort to justify somaforming, or whether she just handwaves past the science-y parts? I could see handling this either way. Given it’s a novella, probably the latter.

Has anybody tried this one yet? What did you think?

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Recent Reading: Mapping Winter by Marta Randall

You all recall that I mentioned Mapping Winter recently, because it is a new version of an old book, Marta Randall’s Sword of Winter. As I said, I really liked the earlier version and have read it quite a few times, so I was definitely interested in the new version.

Well, Mapping Winter is an excellent story. What has stayed the same: Most of the plot, but not the ending. What has changed, besides the ending and the names of the most important characters? Well, first, there’s a lot more depth to both the protagonist and the world.

Lyeth was a fine protagonist. But Kieve, though similar, is better. She is more complicated and deeper, more conflicted in various important ways. Her deep longing to see new places has been added in this version – part of the brand-new emphasis on exploring and mapping. Her relationship with her guildmaster is a lot more complicated as a result. In fact, most of her relationships are more complex. Plus the new ending grows out of that aspect of her character.

The world in Sword of Winter was perfectly fine, but the world has deepened in the new version of the story. The local political situation is fraught in both books, but the broader world in Mapping Winter is more important. Clearly that is going to increase in later books in the series.

How about that new ending?

Well . . . I sort of like it. The new ending arises naturally out of the new story. It’s not as pat or as convenient as the original ending. Some aspects of the new ending offend my sense of justice. Plus a character I like gets killed, which always makes me unhappy. Still, the nastiest villain meets his just end, so it could be worse. Given the new ending, the set-up for the next book seems clear. It’s possible the local political situation will be altered again by later events. Or that whole part of the story, central in this book, may fade in importance. That’s not nearly as clear.

Mapping Winter also offers lyrical prose and great description. I’m not sure whether the writing was this beautiful in the earlier version because I didn’t get Sword of Winter off the shelf to compare, but if the thirty-six-year gap between the two versions has made a difference, it’s a good one. Either way, the writing in Mapping Winter is just beautiful.

The alpine valley ended as sharply as though sheared away, leaving in its place a chasm falling in shattered steps into blackness before the land leaped up again in the distance, and up further to the head of a massive peak to the northwest. Flat sunlight struck the shoulders of the peak, flaring from snow and ice fields; it seemed in that moment that another world had opened before her, one so new that the colors had not yet been added.

And again, a single sentence that struck me as particularly beautiful:

Someone sat in a barracks window, playing a flute. Its crisp music decorated the chill air.

Its crisp music decorated the chill air. I wish I’d written that sentence.

So, then, should you buy this new book?

Yes, you absolutely should. If you loved Sword of Winter, you’ll probably love Mapping Winter. If you never read the earlier book, you’ll probably love Mapping Winter, especially if you like secondary-world fantasy with a heavy emphasis on politics. I will add, if you like my novels, you’re almost certain to like this one.

When Marta Randall brings out the next one in this series, I’ll be right there for it.

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Okay, we really DO live in an SF universe

Scientists produce self-healing gel made out of bacteria-killing viruses

It’s impossible to improve on that headline. It’s practically the ultimate medicine-related science fiction headline. Here’s what the article says:

Bacteria-killing viruses, called bacteriophages or phages, are the most abundant and diverse group of organisms on the planet, far outnumbering any other life form — even bacteria. …

In her lab, Hosseini-Doust grew, extracted and packed bacteriophages together at such a great density that they spontaneously arranged themselves into liquid crystals. When Hosseini-Doust added a chemical binder, the crystallized phages formed a gelatin-like substance that repairs itself when cut.

The new gel could be augmented for a variety of purposes. Because bacteriophage DNA can be easily edited, the viruses can be trained to attack cancer cells, eat plastics or counteract environmental pollutants.

Wow. Like the phage-related snake oil of the (possibly near) future.

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Recent Reading: The Sequoyah trilogy by Sabrina Chase

The three titles are —

The Long Way Home

Raven’s Children

Queen of Chaos

Okay, I said the first book, The Long Way Home, did not really fit as space opera because it was too slow paced. I hereby take that back. Only the beginning of the first book is slow. I’m not even 100% sure about that part, because I have not been in the mood to read new-to-me SFF much this year, so there might have been a hurdle to getting into this trilogy. If so, that wore off – as I think I indicated – about at the point that Moire left the original ship. I do think the story takes off at that point. After which it does not slow down very much or very often until the hard-fought but (naturally) triumphant conclusion.

Let me see. What to say about this trilogy. Okay . . .

1) It’s highly engaging once you get into it. Pacing is mostly fast, which the author achieves by snipping out almost all travel. Plenty of good guys to root for, plenty of bad guys to boo and hiss, lots of action. Friends, enemies, aliens. Family dynamics. The universe is tough in some ways, but the overall atmosphere is not gritty or grim; despite the occasional crime boss and so on, the story actually showcases a fairly optimistic view of human nature. If you like the term, you could call this noblebright space opera.

2) I like Moire a lot. She’s an interesting and engaging protagonist. Quick thinking, loyal, kind by nature. The aliens become important as the story progresses, and Moire’s basic kindness is crucial to get that subplot lined up with the broader plot. Also, I like the name “Moire.” That is not crucial for liking a book, but it doesn’t hurt.

3) Lots of neat secondary characters too, from Commander Ennis, the secondary protagonist, right down the line to minor characters like the engineering guy whose head is generally drifting gently through the clouds. There are a lot of secondary characters because this is a fairly sprawling story. Sabrina Chase handles them well, making nearly all of them seem like real people.

4)  The aliens are pretty alien. They don’t even breathe the same atmosphere, which is a nice touch, not to mention challenging for the author. Their psychology is not soooooo unfamiliar, so most readers are probably not going to have a difficult time believing in them. I thought they were reasonably plausible as well as suited to the overall plot. So, good job with the aliens and I’ll have to remember to add this trilogy to my “neat alien” list.

5) Wow, coincidences can be helpful. A couple in this story are at the “divine intervention” level. But in space opera, that works, imo. It’s even expected. Nice denouement. That’s important to me.

6) As I said earlier, the writing is solid, correct, smooth, and does not call attention to itself. There are a bunch of brief moments when some very minor character gets the pov, but these do not detract from the reading experience even for me, and I usually dislike that. This is because those scenes are handled well and because they’re so brief. Even the little tidbit from the alien’s pov is okay.

Overall conclusion: if you’re into space opera, definitely try this trilogy. If it seems slow to you at the beginning, keep going. (If it doesn’t, drop a comment here to say so; I’m curious about whether that reaction is just me.) I’ve seen one review that compared this trilogy to LMB’s Vorkosigan series. I don’t think that fits, for various reason, but I’m hard put to think of a better comparison. It reminds me a bit of the Illuminae Files trilogy by Kaufman and Kristoff, but despite the occasional mad coincidence, the Sequoyah trilogy is a lot more believable and, I would say, more sophisticated (which is not a criticism of the Illuminae Files, which I loved).

Now I’m going on to the sequel of The Last Mage Guardian, which is called Dragonhunter, after which I’ll undoubtedly go on to the rest of Sabrina Chase’s backlist.

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Keto crepes: a reasonably acceptable bread substitute.

Okay, you can just skip these posts if you’re not interested, but here’s a useful zero-carb bread substitute, completely different from the black seed bread I posted a couple days ago.

These are super-simple and more useful than perhaps may first be apparent:

Keto crepes

  • 2 eggs
  • 1 oz cream cheese
  • 1 Tbsp almond flour

Put all ingredients in a blender. It can help to warm the cream cheese up a bit in the microwave first. Blend until smooth. Add a generous dab of butter or whatever to a skillet, heat the skillet, pour the batter into smallish pancakes, and cook in the standard fashion for pancakes.

The typical recipe of this kind has twice as much cream cheese and no almond flour. Those are more difficult to turn and I got tired of dealing with it, so I tried altering the ingredients as listed above. That worked fine. These little crepes are much easier to turn.

They are fairly similar to regular crepes. Not as good, but that is going to be a continuing theme with all bread substitutes, I fear. These are okay. I am not interested in eating them with syrup, though I gather many people do. I am not that keen on pancakes drenched in syrup anyway, plus I’m suspicious of sugar-free syrup.

I use them more in the way you’d use chapatis, folding them around meat dishes, such as the pork shoulder I recently braised in coconut milk. Or rolled around various sandwich spreads. Used in that way, these are a decent substitute for bread.

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