Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author


Star Trek: Discovery

Anybody watching “Star Trek: Discovery” so far?

Here’s a long post about Discovery, by Chris Barkley, at File 770: “Before we dive in here, I must say in full disclosure that I have purposefully avoided a great many critiques of the first season of Star Trek: Discovery to avoid copycatting anyone else’s opinion or views. I would like to think that as a fan of a certain age (sixty -one, for the record), and having watched every incarnation of the series since it started, I have a uniquely comprehensive view of the franchise.”

I haven’t watched it … I don’t have the ability to stream video, even in winter, unless the weather is especially cooperative. Plus I never feel like I have time. But Chris Barkley does make the show sound worth trying. I doubt his view is uniquely comprehensive, but it’s more comprehensive than mine. I grew up watching the Original series, then watched most of the Next Generation and part of Deep Space Nine and a little of Voyager.

Here’s how Barkley starts his description of Discovery:

Star Trek: Discovery however, dazzled me right out of the gate with its pilot episodes, “The Vulcan Hello” and “The Battle of Binary Stars”, as I recounted in my impressions from another previous column. At the end of these episodes that Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) of the Shenzhou is dead after a surprise raid on an enemy ship went sideways, the Federation is in an all out war with the Klingon Empire and that First Officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) was convicted of mutiny and imprisoned for life.

And then things got decidedly more complicated.

Six months into her sentence, Burnham’s transfer to another prison is delayed by an emergency “rescue” engineered by Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) of the USS Discovery. Lorca deliberately sought to have her diverted to serve on his ship under the title “Specialist” in order to help the Federation’s war efforts. (Or so it seems.) Burnham, who is still feeling quite a considerable amount of guilt about Georgiou’s death and her part in starting the war, somewhat reluctantly accepts the assignment.

This doesn’t sound quite like anything I would have expected. It does sound complicated and interesting. Have any of you been following this show, and what do you think of it? Are there any plans so far to put it out on a DVD set?

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Worldbuilding with birds

Just remembered I wanted to draw your attention to this Twitter thread by Lindsay Beth:

Hey so since you all seemed to enjoy my first NATURE AS WORLDBUILDING thread, I’m gonna do another BUT I’M GONNA FOCUS ON BIRDS


So here are some things birds do that’d make good worldbuilding inspiration!!

Click through if you have a moment! I kept a sharp eye out for the hoatzin on this thread because that is possibly the coolest living bird species in the entire world, and I’m glad to say Lindsay Beth put ’em on there, which made me happy.

Also, after reading this thread, I have a deep desire to put terror birds into my next book if at all possible.

Enjoy the thread!

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

In praise of negative reviews

Here’s a recent post by Rafia Zakaria: In praise of negative reviews

The general tone and tenor of the contemporary book review is an advertisement-style frippery. And, if a rave isn’t in order, the reviewer will give a stylized summary of sorts, bookended with non-conclusions as to the book’s content. Absent in either is any critical engagement, let alone any excavation of the book’s umbilical connection to the world in which it is born. Only the longest-serving critics, if they are lucky enough to be ensconced in the handful of newspapers that still have them, paw at the possibility of a negative review. And even they, embarking on that journey of a polemical book review, temper their taunts and defang their dissection. In essence they bow to the premise that every book is a gem, and every reviewer a professional gift-wrapper who appears during the holidays.

I don’t follow any newspaper-based professional critics, so I don’t know whether this is true. Every book a gem, every review an advertisement, really?

Does it matter, when participants in Goodreads and readers at Amazon leave plenty of negative reviews? Maybe it does. A thoughtful, critical review — I’m thinking here of the job Mari Ness does when reviewing Disney movies at tor.com, as for example here — is quite a lot more interesting and perhaps far more worthwhile than any one-sentence comment at Goodreads. But do that many people play that much attention to professional critics these days? Maybe libraries and so on when considering what to purchase, but ordinary people?

Not that I don’t prefer glowing reviews from the critics when I happen to get ’em.

Anyway, Zakaria’s post is possibly a tiny bit turgid…

Reviewers are neither arbiters of taste nor are they ushers doing the job of wheedling readers to get under a particular set of covers. Consideration of a book is an engagement with its context, and even more crucially an enunciation of the alchemy between its content and the inevitably subjective experience of reading it. In this sense, the unique subjectivity of every reader will inevitably interact differently with a book; this prismatic aspect of what individual readers “get” from literature is part of the intimacy of reading, its inherently individual aspect.

… I’m having trouble getting through that unique subjectivity sentence, for example. Still, the point Zakaria is making is perhaps correct, depending on whether you consider professional critics very important or not.

In this context, I had to laugh when I read Emily St. John Mandel’s post on negative reviews:

Publishers Weekly doesn’t like my work very much. Before you roll your eyes and/or get all excited at the prospect of a classic “I can’t believe I got a bad review!” hypersensitive-author meltdown, let me hasten to add that I have absolutely no interest in refuting anything they’ve ever written about my books. I mean, I believe in my work, and “reads like a barely-dressed-up B movie screenplay” does strike me as being a bit on the harsh side, but I’m hardly an objective party here. (Also, I kind of like B-movie screenplays.) There’s no such thing as a book that every reader will like.

Oh, yes, Publisher’s Weekly! There’s a professional critic’s venue that is not always on my personal top-ten list. It depends. Obviously I was pretty happy with their review of Winter, rather less so with their review of Mountain. I said something snarky to a writer-friend about that latter review, and she pointed me to a Pub Weekly review of one of hers that made the Mountain review look like a paean of praise.

St. John Mandel — if you are trying to remember, she is the one who wrote Station Eleven. I loved that one and in fact Pub Weekly also rather approved of it, so her post about negative reviews was written before that and she may feel differently now. Anyway, she goes on:

The repeated experience of being swiped at by PW’s nameless ghosts has made me think, though, about the phenomenon of lousy reviews in general: the perils of responding to them, and the pressures they impose on our work, and how difficult they are to ignore, and whether or not they actually matter.

And then a long meditation on that theme, well worth reading.

I spotted both posts about negative reviews via The Passive Voice blog.

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And Cake! / Blog

A black cake for all your Fiftieth Birthday Party needs

Frankly it doesn’t seem to have taken 50 years to get to this point, but here we are, my twin brother and I, fifty years old yesterday.

Here is the cake I made to celebrate our semi-centennial:

Black Midnight Cake

I got this recipe here. I made mine blacker by using black cocoa powder rather than Hershey’s special dark cocoa powder. Believe me, the cocoa powder I used was very black.

In case you’re curious, it turns out that black cocoa powder is made by very heavily “dutching” regular cocoa powder. Dutch cocoa powder is much less acid than natural cocoa powder, which means it doesn’t react with baking soda, so any recipe using it must use baking powder, or both baking soda and baking powder, depending. As you can see, the recipe below uses both. The buttermilk should react with the baking soda, then the baking powder adds more lift. Dutch cocoa powder is milder in flavor but produces moister baked goods than natural,and in general I would suggest using both to intensify the chocolate flavor of the cake, but I wanted this cake super dark so I just used black cocoa powder.

If you read through the post where I got this recipe, you’ll see some of the people who try it say the cake turned out dry. I would bet they used natural rather than Dutch cocoa powder. When I made it with black cocoa powder, it was quite moist. The coffee and cayenne are not perceptible but serve to deepen the chocolate flavor. Anyway, here you go, the recipe:

2/3 cup dark cocoa powder
1 cup hot strong brewed coffee
1 pinch cayenne
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 cups sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder

Combine the cocoa powder, coffee, cayenne. Beat the oil with the sugar. Add the eggs and beat for 2 minutes to help aerate the batter. Add the buttermilk, vanilla, and cocoa mixture. Beat to combine. Clean up the very, very black spatters that might have appeared on your counter top. Combine the dry ingredients and beat in gently. Pour into two 9-inch cake pans lined with circles of parchment paper and bake at 350 degrees until done (cake springs back when touched, a toothpick in the center comes out almost clean, about 35 minutes but start testing after 30 and it may go quite a bit longer depending on your oven). Cool in pans ten minutes, turn out on racks, cool completely and fill or frost as desired.

I made a black icing by combining:

8 oz cream cheese
1 C semisweet chocolate ships
1 1/2 C. powdered sugar
1/2 tsp or so black coloring gel

This didn’t make enough icing, so I also made the following filling:

4 oz cream cheese
3 oz white chocolate
2 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp sour cream

I filled the cake with the white filling and frosted the top and sides with the black frosting. As you can tell, I prefer less sweet frostings that are heavy on the cream cheese. Naturally you could use whatever kind of frosting you like. This frosting is black and shiny, so a dust of gold powder across the top finished it off.

It was really quite tasty. I recommend it to you all, if for some reason you would like to make a black black black cake.

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I … am thinking … of going with KDP select

KDP select means

a) my books would be available solely on Amazon.

b) my books could be borrowed and royalties paid on a pages-read basis.

(a) is a disadvantage, but I switched Black Dog to KDP select in order to make it free for five days back in December. And you know what? (b) is very decidedly making up for (a). Sales through all other channels have never been at all high. Pages-read in January and February was a lot more noticeable in terms of income.

I know I have one reader who comments here who buys from Kobo. No doubt there are a scattering of others. But … those pages-read royalties are definitely something to think about.

Comment, please. How many of you would even notice if I switched everything to Amazon exclusively?

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Buying and Selling Spouses

There’s an attention-grabber of a title, eh?

It’s a continuation of Marie Brennan’s essays about marriage, over at Book View Cafe: Buying and Selling Spouses

One of the ways to view a dowry’s function is that it “purchases” a husband for the daughter, and as with anything else, the more money you have, the better a product you can buy….The inverse of dowry is bride price or bridewealth: the groom or his family transferring property or wealth to the bride’s family. Sometimes this is again a form of financial security for the bride, but in other situations it’s very much not, depending on whether her family is expected to return the bride price in the event of the marriage failing. It also theoretically demonstrates the husband’s ability to support a wife….Then there’s dower — which, despite the similarity of sound, is not the same thing as dowry. It’s more akin to bride price, in that it’s a payment made by the groom, but in this case it goes directly to the bride herself, rather than to her family.

Much more at the link.

Of course we get dowries and other financial arrangements all over the place in historical novels, from, oh, Catherine Called Birdy to the very specific financial and property arrangements underlying Niccolo’s marriage to his employer in Niccolo Rising.

How often do we see that kind of thing in fantasy (pretty often, I’m sure — oh, sure, remember how Tremaine married Ilias in the Ile-Rien trilogy) or science fiction (seems less likely there).

Or I thought probably the trope was unusual in SF, until a moment of googling showed me that the “alien’s mail-order bride” is actually a pretty popular trope. Who knew?

This one — called, yes, The Alien’s Mail-Order Bride — actually sounds kind of charming:

Though still carrying the scars of his past as an intergalactic soldier, Emvor doesn’t mind the quiet of his chosen life as a farmer. He doesn’t even mind that most nights are lonely on remote Cassa, but he does need help around his farm. A mail-order bride from his homeworld seems like the perfect solution. She’ll be a tall, sturdy female to help with the chores and bear his children.

Unfortunately, the person that arrives is Nicola. She’s small, delicate … and human. She also knows nothing about farming, and she’s lied and deceived her way across the galaxy to get to Cassa so she can hide from those that would capture her. She’s a problem, and also the most enticing thing he’s ever seen.

Now Emvor has to decide … can he keep the woman who’s nothing like what he asked for but is everything he needs?

I gather from the first comment at Goodreads that this is the first book in a specific mail-order bride series shared among four different authors. Well, I wouldn’t have guessed this would be a thing, but I guess it’s a thing.

Obviously there are all kinds of unpleasant directions to take this idea of handling the financial aspects of marriage — that mail-order bride thing is only charming in the right kind of fiction — but one could certainly check out historical patterns of dowries and brideprice and so on, and then come up with something a little less historical and possibly a little more interesting. Like . . . I don’t know . . .

1) You can’t buy a spouse, but you can buy property and the spouse comes with the property. Like the way serfs were bound to the land, only different.

2) You can’t buy a spouse — buying people, no way! — but you and your wife have to bank a certain amount of money before you are allowed to have children. I assume potential spouses with that kind of wealth would be more attractive prospects.

3) You can’t buy a spouse outright, but you can buy an option. Remember how Kareen Koudelka wanted an option on Mark Vorkosigan in A Civil Campaign? Like that.

4) You can totally buy a spouse, but your spouse can divorce you by throwing the money back in your face and walking out.

5) Aren’t there customs where the bridegroom “kidnaps” the bride — one hopes just symbolically, but probably based on reality some of the time. That would be one way around too-rigid dowry customs.

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Top 10 Books I’m Still Looking Forward to in 2018

Okay, yes, I’ve already read Emergence by CJC. It’s not even March, yet that seems so long ago already!

Also The Infernal Battalions by Wexler, which finishes the Shadow Campaigns series and I will write a review any day now, probably. It took me a long time to read the whole five-book series. Very dense, plus I stalled out for a bit during the last book for no clear reason. Plus I was working on stuff of my own and that slowed me down a lot.

But the year is young, and there are still so many books coming up in 2018! And so many that are sequels, or that for some other reason I already know I want to read. Here are ten that are pinging my radar particularly loudly:

1. Burn Bright by Patricia Briggs. It’s coming out in just a few days, but I probably won’t leap to buy it immediately. These much-anticipated releases are often so pricey at first. I’ll buy it when the price comes down or when I suddenly really want to read it right that moment, whichever comes first.

2. Obsidio by Kaufman and Kristoff, also coming out in March. Ooh, very exciting! What a page-turner of a series this is! Such wild use of fonts and other formatting techniques! Tons of fun. Really looking forward to it.

3. “Artificial Condition” by Martha Wells, the second Murderbot novella. Loved the first one, already read it a couple times, definitely see no reason whatsoever I won’t love this one just as much. It’s coming out in May.

4. Privilege of Peace by Tanya Huff, due out in June. It’s the last installment (I think?) of her Valor series. I can’t wait to see how she winds the series up.

5. Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, due out in July.

It looks like a companion to Uprooted. That’s one I loved more the first time I read it than I did the second time. Still, I’m very interested to see where this next book goes. It looks like it draws on Rumpelstiltskin — that’s certainly a new one in the family of fairy tale retellings. One doesn’t often see a moneylender as the protagonist:

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders… but her father isn’t a very good one. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, he has loaned out most of his wife’s dowry and left the family on the edge of poverty–until Miryem steps in. Hardening her heart against her fellow villagers’ pleas, she sets out to collect what is owed–and finds herself more than up to the task. When her grandfather loans her a pouch of silver pennies, she brings it back full of gold.

But having the reputation of being able to change silver to gold can be more trouble than it’s worth–especially when her fate becomes tangled with the cold creatures that haunt the wood, and whose king has learned of her reputation and wants to exploit it for reasons Miryem cannot understand.

Interesting, eh?

Okay, moving on:

6. Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers. A standalone companion to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. I very much enjoyed the other two titles in this loosely connected series. Looking forward to this one. It’s expected to come out in July.

7. Magic Triumphs by Ilona Andrews. The last book of the Kate Daniels series! I bet it’s great. It’s expected out in August. I think they have a related novel coming out before this one — featuring a bad guy — and although generally am not at all keen on bad-guy pov, I suppose I will at least look warily at that one. I do like redemption plots, so if that’s what this is, good.

8. Thief of Emberlain by Scott Lynch. It’s due out this fall. These are dense, gritty novels, but I’ve been really happy with each one, especially the most recent, Republic of Thieves.

9. Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor. Provided I’ve read Strange the Dreamer by then and really liked it, I’ll no doubt be waiting for this one. It’s due out at the end of the year, which is good, as that makes it more likely I will indeed read the first book.

10. I can’t stop at nine, right? So, though I don’t know what it’ll be called or when it’ll be released, I’ll add: Whatever romance Laura Florand brings out next, I’ll be snapping it up.

If I haven’t mentioned one or more titles you’re especially interested in for the coming year, drop it in the comments, please! I’d hate to miss out on something that I haven’t realized is coming out this year.

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Back Cover Copy Can Be Confusing

So, the most recent SFBC mailing arrived, and of course I always glance through it to see what all is included. A good many thrillers and other stuff these days, btw, which is an interesting trend. For example, in this particular mailing, I see the following:

SF – 13 titles
Post Apocalypse / Dystopia – 7 titles
Fantasy – 21 titles
Thriller / horror – 11 titles
Comics, graphic novels, and media tie-ins – 9 titles
Short story collections – 5 titles
Nonfiction – 4 titles
Literary fiction – possibly 1 title, hard to tell

Dystopias and post-apocalypse are subgenres of SFF, so about two-thirds of all the offerings are SFF titles, plus some of the horror (but not all) would probably count. About one-third of the titles in this mailing are something else. Then there are the comics and graphic novels and so on in beteween.

I don’t recall the SFBC offering thrillers and nonfiction even a decade ago, and a decade before that, I don’t think it offered many media tie-ins and comics and graphic novels. Of course I’m guessing about which category some of these belong in; for example, from the description, one book might be a thriller, a horror novel, possibly SF, conceivably fantasy – hard to tell sometimes! I assigned it to the SF category because it’s by Myra Grant – the book is Into the Drowning Deep. Here’s the description:

Seven years ago, the Atargatis set off on a voyage to the Mariana Trench to film a “mockumentary” bringing to life the ancient sea creatures of legend. The ship was lost at sea with no reports of survivors. Some cynics have called it a hoax; others have called it a maritime tragedy.

Now a new crew has been assembled. But this time they’re not out to entertain. Some crewmembers seek to validate their life’s work. Some seek to experience the greatest hunt of all time. Some seek the truth. But for the ambitious young scientist Victoria Stewart, this is a personal voyage to uncover the fate of the sister she lost aboard the Atargatis.

Whatever the truth may be, it will only be found beneath the waves.

Now, this is interesting. I imagine anything by Myra Grant will probably sell pretty well, but this particular description doesn’t seem to me to be doing the story many favors. For one thing, is it a thriller, or SF, or horror, or fantasy? Do you agree it’s hard to tell from this description? I’m guessing horror-ish with an SF type of plot, but who knows?

I’m confused by several things in this description. For example, how can this real trip to really film real organisms in the Mariana Trench be expected to produce a “mockumentary?” Doesn’t it seem like if you go to all that trouble you’d really film real organisms and produce an actual documentary? If you wanted to entertain with a mockumentary, why not stay home and use special effects? I don’t get it.

I’m puzzled by other things too. The search for the truth about what? The greatest hunt of all time, for what? How can anybody think the disappearance of the ship was a hoax if people really disappeared, such as Victoria Stewart’s sister? When a ship actually disappears in the real world, does anybody leap to the conclusion the ship was a fake and it wasn’t really lost? A lot of this just seems strange to me.

This particular mailing includes more than one description that seems puzzling and unclear to me, rather than enticing. Here’s one of the featured selections:

Outpost by W Michael Gear

When Supervisor Kalico Aguila’s ship arrives on an alien planet called Donovan, she discovers its government overthrown and the few remaining colonists gone wild.

Talina Perez, one of three rulers of the Port Authority colony, could lose everything, including her life. For Dan Wirth, a psychopath with a death sentence, Donovan is a last chance. Captain Max Taggart is the Corporation’s enforcer. But is it too late to seize control of Donovan?

Then a ghost ship arrives with a dead crew, and reeks of a death-cult ritual that deters any ship from attempting a return journey. But it might be worth the risk, a brutal killer is stalking all of them, as Donovan plays its own complex and deadly game.

Ooookay . . . what?

Are Talina Perez, Dan Wirth, and Max Taggart all passengers on Aguila’s ship? Or were they on the planet when whatever disaster happened? In that case, why have they not “gone wild” like everyone else?

Who wants to seize control of Donovan? All of them together? Seize control from whom? If the government is gone and there are only a few colonists remaining, it doesn’t look like there’s much seizing to do. Is the Corporation a government entity? If so, is it subordinate to the port authority, so that Taggart and Perez are on the same side? How does Aguila fit into this seizing power thing?

A death-cult ritual, fine, but it deters any ship from attempting a return journey to where? The place the ship came from, I guess, but is that the same place all these people came from? Can’t they get back on Aguila’s ship and go wherever they want, leaving the dead ship to itself? Is this brutal killer that’s stalking everyone the planet itself? Is the planet an actual conscious entity?

Incidentally, shouldn’t that be a colon rather than a comma in the last sentence? Just saying.

Well, whatever.

I’m curious to know whether your mileage varies here. Does this description work for any of you?

This is not to say that every description in this particular mailing seems more puzzling than enticing. But for me, this time, the very brief one-sentence descriptions work better. For example, this thriller, End Game by Baldacci, sounds pretty interesting: “Assassins Will Robie and Jessica Reel search for their missing handler, Blue Man, in this breathtaking thriller.” Very simple. If you like assassin protagonists, here you go. In some cases, telling the reader just one important thing makes a description so much more enticing than trying to encapsulate the whole complicated situation in ten sentences.

Here’s another very short description that I think really does the job, for The Chimes by Smaill: “In a dystopian London, memory is outlawed and music is one of the only means of expression – and a tool for oppression.” We know practically nothing, but doesn’t that sound intriguing? Anybody who likes dystopias and would like to see a new and peculiar twist on the genre might well want to pick this up and just see how this idea is handled.

Well, as I think everyone agrees, back cover copy is hard. Mailings like this are an interesting way to see what works better and what perhaps less well.

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Martha Wells has a new job —

Via tor.com, I see that Martha Wells has been tasked with creating a new, updated, expanded Magic: The Gathering game.

I never played Magic: The Gathering. I heard some of the jokes about it (“Magic: The Obsession” and so on), so I knew it was there.

From the linked i09 interview:

As leader of Magic’s story team, she’ll be in charge of the story team, driving the fiction and building the lore around the newest expansion, which marks not only the game’s 25th anniversary but also a major event in the Magic franchise.

Very cool. I expect the storytelling will be top-notch.

Lots more at the links.

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