Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Pippa Update

Three weeks since Pippa started on phenobarb!

Yesterday, I wasn’t super happy with her progress. She seemed disoriented or visually compromised (or both) all morning, though my mother says she seemed better in the afternoon.

Today, she seemed quite a bit better; some disorientation or visual problems this morning, but not nearly as much as yesterday; plus her eye was looking more fully open and normal; plus she plainly saw and responded to big objects. I don’t know if there’s going to be some fluctuation or if she’s doing plateaus followed by sudden improvements or what — both possibilities seem supported by some of what I observe.

She went for a walk with the other older dogs this morning; she’s capable of going for slow walks, thought not yet able to trot. We’ll see what another week brings! MOST dogs, my vet tells me, are fully acclimated to phenobarb by the time they’ve been taking it for a month. I don’t really know whether she’ll really recover to her former level or not, but, well, here’s hoping.

Pippa, as a young dog, extremely photogenic.

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Tuyo #2: NIKOLES

Well, I meant to have this out last week, but circumstances intervened.

However, I’ve just hit “publish” for the second book of the TUYO series, which is — you remember — actually a prequel. Although Amazon says it can take up to 72 hours to make a book available, in practice it never seems to be that long, so I’d bet this story is actually available tomorrow.

As you know, this is a prequel story. It’s a short novel, a little under 80,000 words, about half the length of TUYO. It’s also in third person rather than first.

The direct sequel to TUYO, in first person from Ryo’s point of view, will probably come out next year. The title is TARASHANA, and an excerpt from the first chapter is included at the end of NIKOLES. If you don’t recall, the Tarashana are the people who live north of the winter country, the people who are all mysteriously gone. Ryo refers to them briefly toward the beginning of TUYO. We are going to find out what happened there.

At this point, I can already say that TARASHANA will be another long novel. I have another direct sequel in mind that will let me show you all the summer country in more detail — and maybe part of the country to the south of the summer lands, the country with two Suns. I would not be surprised if I wind up with a series in which long first-person novels in a direct series are interspersed with shorter third-person novels from a variety of points of view.

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Sociological Fantasy

So, all those posts about sociological SF made me think about fantasy novels that have a sociological emphasis. Because some of them do! Sometimes it’s not just an emphasis on worldbuilding and developing the culture; sometimes a fantasy novel really uses the genre to consider social behavior and social development.

I’m not sure I can come up with a list of ten titles I think do this — though I bet you all can help fill in a top ten list — but I can think of some. In no order:

  1. The City and the City by Mieville. This is a great police procedural plus this weird social construct? aspect of reality? by which two cities overlap in space but, somehow, people in one city “unsee” features of the other city. This leads to strange social phenomena.
  2. Terry Pratchett’s social satire fantasy; ie Going Postal and Making Money and many others. No modern author was as successful at writing satire as Pratchett. If you consider satire about social norms to be sociological, well, there you go.
  3. The Dead River trilogy by Naomi Kritzer, which does SO MUCH with questions about the role of women and also slaves in society. Kritzer is dealing with questions like: is it right to demand that slaves seize their own freedom before welcoming them, as the Alashi do? What about freeing slaves who don’t want to be free? How do you define freedom anyway? What about killing a lot of people in order to free slaves, is that okay? This is a superb trilogy in every way, and also I think it fits to call it sociological fantasy.
  4. The Beka Cooper series by Tamora Pierce. This is such a good look at a society that is just developing ideas about the organization and role of police in society. Also the emphasis on forgery and how bad currency impacts society is interesting and unusual.
  5. The Inda series by Sherwood Smith. In some ways Smith is cheating here, by changing certain aspects of human nature and then building her societies and world. In other ways, it is just very interesting to see the kind of societies she builds after changing human nature. Plus, this is a great epic fantasy series, one of my favorites.

That’s five! What do you all think of the category “sociological fantasy?” Is that a thing? Should it be a thing? If it should, what are some other candidates for this sub-subgenre?

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Sale: TUYO

So, TUYO will be featured in a blog tour over the next week or so. I’m dropping the price to $2.99 for the duration. By the time you read this, that price should have gone live.

If you’ve been thinking of picking up a copy, this would be a good time. Or mention it to a friend! Or send it as a gift!

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Pippa is doing pretty well

Pippa update, and to those of you who expressed good wishes and / or asked how she was doing, thanks!

You recall she had two simultaneous problems: an eye injury that was not healing properly, plus being put on phenobarb so she was practically drugged unconscious.

The new antibiotic ointment and pills did the trick, and now her eye looks okay, so that’s a huge relief. We’re going to continue with the terramycin ointment for a week. She gets that in her right eye every eight hours and a different kind of eye drop in her left eye every 12 hours for the rest of her life (that is for dry eye). This means that four times a day, I say to myself, “Okay, which way is right?” and pretend to hold a pencil. Seriously, that’s the only way I can be sure I’m putting the correct eye stuff in the correct eye.

Meanwhile! Two weeks ago, this was Pippa’s condition: unable to walk more than two steps without falling over, plus asleep 99% of the time, plus falls off the bed and has to be crated at night, plus confinement makes her anxious so she is on Trazadone to help her tolerate that.

As of today, this is Pippa: able to walk 20-30 steps without falling, more or less able to move around on tile as well as carpet, starting to be able to cope with uneven ground in yard, sleeps more than usual but not remarkably so, able to sleep on bed. She’s also much more responsive and, of course, she can now open both her eyes, which has to help even if her vision is not great.

So … she is not back to her old self, but she has made a lot of progress and I think we’re starting to see the light at the end of this tunnel. I have some hope that by Monday she will not need constant supervision to keep her from potentially falling off furniture — and if not by Monday, then surely by next Friday.

Here is Pippa quite a few years ago, with a lot of qualifying ribbons she picked up at … let me see, this must have been a CKCSC show … for Rally or regular obedience, I don’t remember.

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Top Ten Sociological SF

Okay, following up from various recent posts: It’s almost too easy to pick out a top ten list of books. I could fill out half of it with CJC novels before I had to look elsewhere … in fact, let me do that:

  1. Foreigner
  2. Chanur
  3. Cyteen
  4. 40,000 in Gehenna
  5. Cuckoo’s Egg

Then I would have to think about books by other authors. Rather than filling out half the list with works by one author, maybe it makes more sense to go for authors in the first place and do a Top Ten List of Authors of Sociological SF. CJ Cherryh can then get just one spot, making the rest of the list more interesting, as well as more of a challenge.

Here, then, is that Top Ten list.

  1. CJ Cherryh — a huge proportion of her SF, as opposed to her fantasy, has a powerful sociological component to it. I’d put the Foreigner series in the top spot of all sociological SF ever and go on from there.
  2. Octavia Butler — all her work, except maybe Fledgling, is sociological SF. Maybe that one too; I’ve only read it once and don’t remember much about it.
  3. Ursula K LeGuin — obviously most of her work explored sociological themes and situations.
  4. Isaac Asimov — it’s been an awfully long time, and I never much cared for Asimov’s work myself, but surely Foundation and I, Robot both count as seminal works of sociological SF.
  5. Kim Stanley Robinson — the Mars trilogy could be read as hard SF, but I think it’s (far) more accurately characterized as sociological SF. Not just that one, either; a lot or all of Robinson’s work explores the development of future societies in response to technological changes.
  6. Connie Willis — Bellwether and Crosstalk are the ones I’m thinking of, but surely others of hers could also fit the sociological SF subgenre.
  7. Eleanor Amason — I’ve only read a couple of hers, but she’s written quite a few books. Very few SF novels are as thoroughly and explicitly sociological in emphasis as Woman of the Iron People.
  8. Ian Banks — the Culture novels are all primarily about envisioning a post-scarcity future and look at least as much like sociological SF as space opera.
  9. Elizabeth Moon — her space opera offers a strong emphasis on how longevity advances impact society; but more than that, The Speed of Dark is such an incredible book that I have to include her on this list.
  10. Your suggestion here — who have I missed?

I realize there are any number of classic sociological SF works, one per author, that would make most Top Ten lists for this subgenre. I mean: Fahrenheit 451; 1984; Brave New World. Probably others. But for the author to wind up on a list of top authors, I sort of think they ought to have a body of work with a sociological emphasis.

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ALL the Influences

So, I’ve known perfectly well from the beginning where some elements of TUYO came from. But I was startled, the other day, to realize that everything and its cousin was an influence for this book. Not that this is intrinsically startling, exactly, because of course we know that this pattern:

A lifetime of reading –> the book you write

is pretty much going to be inevitable for everyone who writes fiction, right? (Maybe even nonfiction, in a different way.)

I’m just not used to tripping over one element after another that looks like a distinct influence on a particular book, or at least looks like it could have been a distinct influence on that book. Yet here we are.

So, four possible identifiable elements (so far) for TUYO. Wait, five, though one was a negative influence. Here they are, starting with the ones I knew about to start with and winding up with the ones I just discovered. Re-discovered.

1. That really neat thing Elizabeth Bear did with the sky in The Eternal Sky trilogy. I loved that detail so much! You’ve read that trilogy? If not, this is the fantasy world where the sky literally changes depending on the polity. In one country, there’s a moon in the sky for every member of the royal family and when one of those people dies, his or her moon falls. But if some part of that country gets conquered by a country where the sky only has one moon, then poof! That’s the new sky in that area, just the one moon. Hard to picture how that could work! But such a fantastic detail! That’s what was on my mind when I drew a river down the middle of the map and said, Okay, over there, the country of the Moon. Over here, the country of the Sun. Obviously that causes much, much bigger differences in the TUYO world, but this thing Bear did with the sky gave me the idea for that worldbuilding element. I’m pretty sure we will see the starlit lands eventually. Also the land with two suns. Also the land of the shades, which I’m almost entirely certain is a real place that actually does lie below the land of the living. (In the TUYO world, you really want to take every casual comment someone makes about the metaphysics as very likely literally true. For example, when Ryo says at one point that very few people ever come back from the land of the shades, you should hear that as occasionally someone does.)

2. Honor’s Heir by Brightley. The first-person narrative from a boy’s pov, where he’s from a cold region inhabited by a nomadic people and gets taken as an apprentice by an older man, a high-ranking soldier from a much more civilized country. That made me want to do something sort of like that. Obviously I changed everything, starting with a still young protagonist, but not that young, and then giving his nomadic people a complete makeover. The Ugaro may be violent, sure, but they’re not nearly as brutal, as a rule. Plus I completely changed the way their society views women, gave that view a metaphysical context, and went on from there. Plus Aras is sort of a high-ranking soldier, but also a whole lot more. And the relationship is not an apprenticeship type of relationship. Still, this novel of Brightley’s is the one that first gave me the basic idea for my protagonists.

3. Telzey Amberdon from those stories by James Schmitz. You may remember, though it was a good while ago, I commented here that I was re-reading these stories and I thought Schmitz had failed to realize that Telzey is actually evil. He sets her up as the nice protagonist, he obviously expects the reader to like her and identify with her – and I did, when I first read the stories as a kid – but on re-reading them, it’s impossible to miss that Telzey is amazingly casual about changing people’s memories, manipulating them, and sometimes completely revamping their whole personality because the current personality doesn’t happen to suit her. Plus she is a genius and amazingly good at everything. Cute, too. But aside from the various eye-rollingly Mary Sue qualities she possesses, yeah, she’s also pretty much evil. So this was a powerful negative influence when it came to writing TUYO.

4. Now, this one I did not recognize until yesterday! And it may in fact have occurred de novo, but listen to this bit from “Blood” by Sharon Shinn and see what you think. This is Kerk, a young man, speaking to his stepfather.

“Your nephews both continue to be employed in your firm as well,” Kerk said.

Brolt nodded. “They are good workers and loyal to the business.”

“Perhaps Brolt Brazhan is more blessed than a man could wish,” Kerk said softly. “Perhaps he has an excess of young men for whom he feels he must fine a place in his company. Perhaps he is hoping that one of the young men under his care might look for a situation elsewhere.”

Doesn’t that sound a lot like Ryo speaking to his father? “I would never wish to do such a disgraceful thing. I ask my father not to put me to that test.” The above scene in “Blood” is my favorite scene in the novella, but I’d completely forgotten the style of that formal language. Then I re-read the novella and it jumped out at me. I don’t know, certainly the styles aren’t identical, just similar. Maybe it’s coincidence. I was trying to come up with a formal way of speaking that’s quite different from modern American and also quite different from even the most formal Lau style. Lau speech patterns are a lot more like American English – just as the indigo speech patterns are more like American speech patterns. Again, coincidence? Maybe so! Both Sharon Shinn and I were specifically writing about worlds where very distinct peoples almost side by side. If any writer wants to distinguish between two different cultures, speech patterns are an obvious way to do it. I don’t know, but I do know I’ve loved this novella for years. Maybe these speech patterns were just waiting in the back of my brain for a chance to flow out of my fingers onto the page.

One more:

5. Again, I was re-reading “The Scapegoat” by CJC just yesterday. Take a look at this bit:

The car lurched. The elvish driver made a wild turn, but the one who had gotten out just stood there – stood, staring up the hill, and lifted his hands together. … there was light enough to make out the red of the robes that fluttered in the breeze. And light enough to see the elf’s hands, which looked – which looked, crazily enough, to be tied together. …

The elf has voluntarily made himself a sacrifice, to be put to death in whatever way satisfies the enemy and so end the war. I bet that reminds you of someone. Again, I knew this, I hadn’t forgotten the plot of “The Scapegoat,” I have read this novella many times, but wow, I hadn’t drawn a straight line between this situation and the initial setup for TUYO until I re-read it yesterday. Again, as with “Blood,” this could be a coincidence. The roles are just about reversed; the elf is something like Aras and deFranco a bit like Ryo. But still, the similarities are so obvious. As I said in yesterday’s post, I find this a very powerful novella, intense and compelling. It’s something that could have reverberated into my story – I think it probably did. Maybe. Who knows!

What I have definitely had brought home to me by re-reading these two novellas is that

A lifetime of reading –> the book you write

I didn’t put a dedication in TUYO. It should have been dedicated this way:

For all the authors who have ever set their work deeply in my mind, so that their words echo and re-echo and finally inform my own writing, whether recognized or otherwise.

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Soft SF

Okay, so, given the previous post, I think I have now actually have seen no fewer than seven possible definitions proposed for “soft” SF. Many of them overlap, but I think each is distinctive. Here they are:

  1. Sociological emphasis rather than an emphasis on technology
  2. Far future setting with handwavy technology or super-advanced magic technology.
  3. Science fantasy
  4. Really a different genre, like mystery, but with science fiction trappings
  5. Poorly researched SF with handwavy, science-y stuff rather than actual science.
  6. SF where the author doesn’t make any attempt to explain the science behind the setting. I’m classing this as different from poorly researched background science.
  7. All SF where the author did not actually have to do math or physics calculations in order to write the story.

I’m with the rest of you: the term “soft” is useless when definitions are so wildly divergent. I mean, lots of the above definitions intergrade. Why does Pern seem like fantasy to so many people, including me? Because the science-y parts are silly and involve lots of handwaving. Those dragons can so fly! Time travel is totally plausible! To me, Pern is a great example, maybe the best example ever, of science fantasy rather than science fiction.

I wouldn’t say anything about Pern is poorly researched, which is why “handwavy” is not the same as “poorly researched.” Anne McCaffery didn’t do bad physics when she tossed her dragons into the air; she didn’t do physics at all. She did magic. She wanted dragons, so she wrote dragons. Her books are no more SF than the Temeraire series. They’re both fantasy, even though Pern has science-y trappings here and there. In fact, Temeraire is just as handwavy when it comes to science: Yeah, of COURSE there are enough cows in the UK to feed a lot of dragons. Absolutely! Oh, hey, actually, didn’t Naomi Novik put dragons in South America too? Yeah, no, the resource base for nearly the entire continent is dreadfully restricted because so much of the land area sits on top of either the Gayana shield or the Brazilian shield, which are extremely nutrient-poor rock formations. There’s no way you’d be able to support a lot of giant carnivores in Brazil. That’s definitely right out.

For years and years, when I mean “sociological science fiction,” I have said “sociological science fiction.” Even though “sociological” has six syllables and is not that easy to spit out in a hurry, there aren’t any other terms that distinguish this category of science fiction from everything else. As many commenters said, there’s nothing handwavy or soft about really solid sociological SF, such as Woman of the Iron People. There’s a ton of sociological SF, some of it great and some, of course, less well-researched or less good in other ways, so if you’re taking “hard” as thoroughly researched and carefully thought through and “soft” as poorly researched or badly understood, then this category definitely ranges from hard to soft.

But I don’t like to use “soft” as a derogatory term! I guess I don’t really like to use it at all because the term is often understood as derogatory, and I don’t approve of that usage. I’ve got no problem with well-done science fantasy! I like Pern, and Sharon Shinn’s Angel series. I don’t grumble about bad science when I read stories like that. Grumbles about the square-cube law miss the whole point of those stories.

My personal conclusion: If you mean sociological SF, say so. Use “hard” when you mean real-world physics is central to the setting or the plot and don’t use “soft” at all. We have plenty of subgenre terms that are much better! Time to let that one die.

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Great Novellas

So, of course the Murderbot novellas really hit it big, deservedly so, and tor.com gets a lot of credit for providing a place for novellas to be published other than in rare collections of authors’ shorter works. Of course Tor priced those novellas high, no question about that; there aren’t many novellas for which I’d pay $9.99, though granted these are long novellas. Still.

A collection of the Murderbot stories is due to come out shortly, by the way, and I’m interested to note that this collection — hardcover only available for preorder at this moment — does not offer ANY price break. $17 apiece, $70 total, for four novellas! Wow. That’s priced for the serious fan, that’s for sure.

But this post is actually not about the Murderbot novellas and the prices thereof.

This post is actually about three other novellas that are worth paying a little more for, if you can find them at all. All three are embedded in books, so you have to buy the whole book, and in these specific cases, I’d say that’s more than worth it whether or not you particularly want to read the other stories in the books.

So, three novellas. I’ll start with the one that you’re perhaps more likely to have read and move from there toward the more obscure novellas you might have missed.

1. The Gorgon in the Cupboard by Patricia McKillip, which is found in the collection Dreams of Distant Shores, published in 2016, which is essentially yesterday. There are six other stories in the collection, most shorter and one longer. Gorgon is 65 pages long. It starts like this:

Harry could not get the goat to stay still. His model, who was an aspiring actress, offered numerous practical suggestions as she crouched beside the animal. In fact, she rarely stopped talking. Harry didn’t like the look in the goat’s eye. It wasn’t very big, but it seemed to him arrogant beyond its age, and contemplating mischief.

This is a funny beginning, but Gorgon is not as lighthearted a story as this opening may make it seem. Let me skip forward a bit and find another scene … how about this …

She was walking with her husband on the other side of the street. He was speaking fervidly, gesturing, as was his wont, probably about something that had seized his imagination. It might have been anything, Harry knew: a poem, the style of an arch, a pattern of embroidery on a woman’s sleeve. She listened, her quiet face angled slightly toward him, her eyes downturned, intent, it seemed, on the man’s brilliance. He swept fingers through his dark, shaggy hair, his thick mustaches dancing, spit flying now and then in his exuberance. Neither of them saw Harry, who had stopped midstream in the busy street, willing her to look, terrified she might raise her dark, brooding eyes and see what was in his face. She only raised her long white fingers, gently clasped her husband’s flying arm, and tucked it down between them.

Then they passed, the great Alex McAlister and his wife, Aurora, oblivious to the man turned to stone by the sight of her.

This story is about … it’s about the women men don’t see, as the phrase goes; about the projected images they may see instead, and about learning to see the actual woman behind the obsession. It’s a very good story, goat and obsessions and all, and hey, it’s Patricia McKillip. I will say that the longest story in this collection is Something Rich and Strange, which for whatever reason is one of the few McKillip stories I never really liked, I don’t quite know why. You might feel differently, and anyway, Gorgon is a good enough story to justify picking up the collection, especially if you generally like McKillip, which surely you do.

Next:

2. Blood, by Sharon Shinn, in the collection Quatrain, published in 2009. As implied by the title of the collection, there are four novellas in this collection, each one longish, each one set in one or another of the worlds of her novels. They’re all perfectly fine stories, but Blood is actually one of the very best stories Sharon Shinn ever published, way up at the tippy top of her oeuvre. (She thinks so too, btw; we had a conversation about that once.) It’s 88 pages long, but the print is small, so it’s long for that page count. It starts like this:

Finally the train stopped. Kerk stared out the window, as he had for the last four days, but there was less to see here in the underground city terminal than there had been along their entire route through Geldricht. People waved and shouted, men pushed carts, women urged their children out of harm’s way, and all the purposeful chaos took place under high artificial lights insufficient to illuminate the cavernous interior of the station.

He kept staring anyway. So many of those people were blueskins. More than he had ever seen together in one place in his entire life. He had been told that the whole city was full of the indigo – far more blueskins than gulden like himself – but he had had a hard time making his mind form the images. He wondered how long it would be before he could stop staring at them.

“Kerk,” said a deep voice. He turned swiftly to see Brolt already on his feet, pulling luggage down from the wall racks, filling the small compartment with his height and bulk. “Watch the Tess and the children. Don’t let them stray.”

Reminded of a sense of duty, Kerk jumped up too.

This outstanding novella is about family. Although there are a zillion important relationships in the story and the ostensible focus is on the relationship between Kerk and an indigo woman, the best part is actually the relationship between Kerk and Brolt, so it’s good to see them both in this simple opening. The ending is first brutal and then, a breath later, redeemed. Both the crash and then the recovery are completely believable, arising naturally from the way the story is framed. Honestly, it’s a great story. The other three are okay too, but you should absolutely pick up the collection for this one.

And here’s the third:

3. The Scapegoat by CJC, published in a collection of three novellas called Alien Stars that came out in 1985. I’m still a little startled to realize that’s thirty-five years ago – a whole generation! The other two stories in this collection are by Joe Haldeman and Timothy Zahn, and I must admit I read those two only once and remember nothing about them. While not available in Kindle, this paperback is available on Amazon.

But The Scapegoat is the most powerful novella I’ve ever read, and one of Cherryh’s best works, even though it’s only 68 pages long. You can see her working with themes she developed in a lot more detail later, especially contact between humans and aliens and the disasters that can unfold because of deep misunderstandings at the level of instinct. It’s hard to pick out a sample. I’m going to give you some fragments from the beginning, including the first couple of paragraphs, with a little skipping around. I’ll add here that this story itself moves back and forth in time, not very far, but the situation starts almost at the end and then moves backward and forward. The story is set against a backdrop of a grinding war where humans have been far superior technologically from the beginning, but the enemy, the elves, will not stop fighting and the humans are unable to disengage, unable to end the war, deeply unwilling to commit genocide, and in a word the situation is just terrible.

DeFranco sits across the table from the elf and he dreams for a moment, not a good dream, but recent truth: all part of what surrounds him now, and true as any memory ever is – a bit greater and a bit less true than it was when it was happening, because it was gated in through human eyes and ears and a human notices much more and far less than what truly goes on in the world –

– the ground comes up with a bone-penetrating thump and dirt showers down like rain, over and over again; and deFranco wriggles up to his knees with the clods rattling off his armor. He may be moving to a place where a crater will be in a moment, and the place where he is may become one in that same moment. There is no time to think about it. There is only one way off that exposed hillside, which to go and keep going.

… and his second thought, hard on the heels of triumph, that there was too much noise in the world already, too much death to deal with, vastly too much, and he wanted to cry with the relief and the fear of being alive and moving. So the base scout found the damn firepoint, tripped a trap, and the whole damn airforce had to come pull him out of the fire with a damn million credits worth of shells laid down out there destroying ten billion credits worth of somebody else’s.

“You did us great damage then,” says the elf. “It was the last effort we could make and we knew you would take out our last weapons. We knew that you would do it quickly and that then you would stop. We had learned to trust your habits even if we didn’t understand them.”

“They sent me out there,” deFranco says to the elf, and the elf – a human might have nodded, but elves have no such habits – stares gravely as they sit opposite each other, hands on the table.

“You always say ‘they,’” says the elf. “We say ‘we’ decided. But you do things differently.”

“Maybe it is we,” deFranco says. “Maybe it is, at the bottom of things. We. Sometimes it doesn’t look that way.”

“I think even now you don’t really understand why we do what we do. I don’t really understand why you came here or why you listen to me, or why you stay now – but we won’t understand. I don’t think we two will. Others, maybe. You want what I want. That’s what I trust most.”

And the two of them work out a peace, and end the war, and it is absolutely devastating.

If any of you have read one or more of these novellas, what did you think? If you have a particularly favorite novella of your own, give it a call-out in the comments!

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