Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Recent Reading: The Long Way Home by Sabrina Chase

So, what with one thing and another, I’ve been dipping into my TBR pile lately. I was in the mood for something science fictiony, so I opened up the first SF-looking kind of thing I came to on my Kindle. That was The Long Way Home by Sabrina Chase.

Sabrina Chase, I said to myself. That sounds familiar. What have I read by her? It turns out Sabrina Chase is the person who wrote The Last Mage Guardian, which was one of the better novels in the Noblebright fantasy bundle I got the other year. I liked that fantasy novel enough to put The Long Way Home on my Kindle after reading it, where of course it sat for a long time gathering virtual dust.

Well, if anything, this SF novel … which is really a trilogy … is at least as good as The Last Mage Guardian. Maybe better. Different, though, so not that easy to compare. This SF trilogy is more complex, slower-paced, contains almost no romance (though in the first book, there’s a little hinting about potential romance to come), and offers characters who are more subtle and more complex.

Moire Cameron is in trouble as the book opens. There isn’t much new or different about this kind of trouble. She’s in a battle, in space. She’s flying a little personal fighter craft of some kind. As I say, it’s a pretty familiar situation and I was not initially very interested. Even then, though, the reader does get hints about Moire’s complex backstory. She joined the mercenaries to avoid someone else, some dangerous enemy, who wants . . . something. She knows something important, but she apparently can’t just yell her secrets to the skies and get her enemies off her back that way because . . . reasons. She has to keep her past secret from everyone, and she never thinks about her past in detail, so the reader has to puzzle it out along the way.

So there Moire is, in a battle in space. She pulls off an impressive maneuver that gets her noticed and  events slowly unfold from there. Eventually the reader meets the secondary protagonist, a naval commander named Ennis, with a complex backstory of his own. Enemies arrive, Moire joins a mutiny to get away, and the plotlines of the story diverge rapidly, to come back together only near the end, and then separate again. It’s after Moire’s off the original ship and on the run that the story picks up.

So, non-spoilery stuff you might want to know about this book:

a) The first book is not self-contained. Just know that going in. The second and third books are available. I’m reading the second one now.

b) Moire becomes more interesting and engaging the longer you know her. The story also becomes more interesting and engaging as you get deeper into it.

c) We do have one mind-boggling coincidence to bring an important secondary character into play, but it’s not that hard to just go along with it, especially because the extremity of the coincidence is not apparent at first.

d) The writing is solid.

I’ve been re-reading all the Beverly Connor mysteries, which are thoroughly catchy and I like them a lot, but the difference in the quality of the sentence-level writing is underlined by going from one author to the other in quick succession. Although Connor’s writing is not bad, I experience constant low-level annoyance in her books because of her use of the simple past when the past perfect would be more appropriate and her use of “may” when it should be “might.” Those sorts of problems are absent in Chase’s writing. The prose in The Long Way Home is not poetic or lyrical or evocative – no descriptors of that kind come to mind – but it’s solid, correct, and easy to read. It’s the kind of prose that doesn’t call attention to itself or get in the way, which is well suited to the story.

e) The second book is immediately engaging. This is not unexpected because it opens almost where the first leaves off, so the reader is already involved in the story.

f) Wow, are the bad guys bad. They are SO evil, they might be a little bit over the top. I’m not having any trouble believing in them, however, partly because we spend only a little time in villain pov. Ordinarily I just detest villain pov, but these sections are so brief they don’t get on my nerves very much. It’s a little difficult to decide whether the occasional sections spent in the pov of minor secondary characters and / or villains are an asset to the overall story, but on the whole I do think the information given to the reader via those sections would be hard to dispense with. And they are brief, thankfully, so it’s not like the reader is pulled out of the main story for long periods.

g) The story is a little hard to place. A bit slow for space opera, particularly for the first third or so of the first book; and the fairly complicated braiding of pov is not necessarily typical for space opera. Definitely not a science fiction romance. Not military SF, though there are aspects that are like military SF. I think if this were fantasy, I’d call it epic fantasy. Since it’s SF, I’m not sure. Let’s say this is a more traditional science fiction adventure story, one that isn’t trying to push the edges of the genre but is simply aiming to tell a good story. I like it a lot, and the second book more than the first because I’m familiar with the setup.

If you’d like a good, solid, traditional adventure story, then by all means give this one a try.

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Interesting! New version of Marta Randall’s Sword of Winter

Anybody besides me remember Sword of Winter? It was first published in 1983, I see. Wow, how time flies.

It’s a good book — I’ve read it a bunch of times. In fact, I learned a lot about writing action scenes from the scavenger hunt in this book. I mean, about the nuts and bolts of the sentences that go into writing that kind of scene — the effect of shortening or lengthening sentences and things like that.

Here’s the description from Goodreads:

In the cold and dangerous land of Cherek, emerging from an era of magic and confronted by technological advancements, Lord Gambin of Jentesi lies dying and chaos reigns. During his four decades in power, Gambin has wielded a tight and tyrannical hold over his province, and his four heirs jockey to inherit his vast power, the people of Cherek teeter on the brink of change and watch the passing of the sword in Jentesi. For if Gambin’s power passes intact to his heirs, Cherek could lose the promise of its bright future and tumble irrevocably into a dark and vicious past.

This is terrible back cover copy. Not that it’s false, but it’s completely misleading. Nothing whatsoever about the protagonist, Lyeth; or about the most important secondary character, Emeris, a boy whom Lyeth takes under her wing. Lyeth drives the story. I can’t believe she’s been erased from the description.

But here’s the interesting thing: Marta Randall must have pried the rights back, because she’s released an apparently heavily revised version under a different title: Mapping Winter.

Look at that, Book I of a series. One gathers that when it came to this story, Randall always had more in her head than made it to print. Here’s the description from Amazon:

In the frozen land of Cherek, Lord Cadoc Marubin lies dying and chaos threatens the land.

During his four decades in power he had held Dalmorat Province in an iron grip, for which his heirs now contend. Cherek is poised on the brink of new-world advancements in culture and technology, but Cadoc’s choice could deny his people that bright fate and seal Dalmorat in darkness.

Kieve Rider, sworn to Cadoc’s service, detests both the man she serves and the oath that binds her to his evils. Yet by that same oath it falls upon her to act as lynchpin in Cadoc’s naming of a new heir. Embroiled in the complexities of character, corruption and political intrigue, Kieve struggles to trust anyone, not least herself.

Interesting! The main character has either changed entirely, or at least changed her name. But she is mentioned here, though, rather than erased from the description. I can see the fundamental background seems about the same, or at least the two versions look like close cousins.

Despite the bones of the background showing considerable similarity, there’s nothing here about Emeris. If he’s not present in this story, that would change practically everything, so much so that Randall might as well have changed all the names and just said this was a different world, unrelated to anything else she ever wrote.

Well, we’ll soon see, because I did immediately pick up this new book. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what Marta Randall’s done with it.

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The keto diet is not my favorite thing ever, but —

So, I have pretty much been on the keto diet since January. I was driven to it by a sharp weight gain in 2018, which suggested a future trend less acceptable than the slower weight gain of the past couple of decades.

It reminds me of a comment I saw somewhere, actually: “I wish I could be the weight I was the first time I thought I was fat.” That pretty well captured my feeling at the beginning of 2019, except I would have settled for the weight I was the second time I thought I was unacceptably overweight. Well, now I’m getting close to that point, I’m glad to say.

Prior experience suggested that keto was the way to go for me. I am aware people don’t all respond to dietary changes the same way, but still, I had pretty clear evidence that this was the way I should go. Keto didn’t work as fast as I would have liked, though as far as that goes I didn’t stick to it with truly unfailing commitment either, so there’s that. Pretty tight commitment though, nearly all the time. Call it the keto diet with dark chocolate and very occasional complete backsliding.

Sometime in June, I hit my first goal, which was to lose the 20 lbs I gained in 2018. At that point I lightened up a bit on the keto thing, but I didn’t loosen it up too much. I’ve now just about gotten to my second goal, which was to lose another 5 lbs. I wouldn’t mind dropping another 5 or 10 after this, though no more than that.

Anyway, I hate the keto diet, though I’ve gotten somewhat used to it. I really like carbs, especially bread, rice, and pasta. Sure, desserts too, but giving up bread is worse for me than giving up sugar. I used to bake all the time, and so far as I can tell, there are zero really great bread-substitutes for the keto diet. I have tried some pretty terrible bread-substitutes, believe me.

However, there are several semi-okay bread substitutes. I thought I’d start posting a few of those now and then. Here’s one I made this morning for the first time. It’s not bread, but it’s not bad. It’s actually pretty tasty and might be worth making even if you’re not on any kind of diet.

Black Seed Bread

  • 1/2 C flax seeds, whole
  • 1/2 C flax seeds, ground
  • 1/2 C poppy seeds
  • 1/2 C white sesame seeds
  • 1 C black sesame seeds (I actually had a lot of black sesame seed in the freezer, which is why I decided to try this recipe. I can’t see why more ordinary sesame seeds wouldn’t work if you don’t have black sesame seed handy.)
  • 6 eggs
  • 1 Tbsp tahini
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp kosher salt

Combine the seeds and set aside. Whisk the eggs. Whisk the tahini, olive oil, and salt into the eggs. Stir in all the seeds. Let rest 30 minutes to hydrate the seeds. Line a loaf pan with parchment paper, leaving an overhang of paper. Spray the pan and paper. Scrape the batter into the pan and smooth the top. Bake at 200 degrees for 1 1/2 hours or so, until the top is firm to the touch. Cool five minutes. Lift the loaf out of the pan and cool on a rack.

Now, this recipe is from Bon Appetit. The above is pretty much unchanged from their recipe, which you can see here. I did use just one tsp salt. I see the online version of the recipe calls for a full Tbsp salt, but I think the version in the magazine, which is what I was working from, called for just a tsp, which makes much more sense anyway.

The texture isn’t bad. The bread is obviously very heavy, but it’s also fairly moist and pleasant. The mouthfeel is different from bread, but not bad. The taste seems to me distinctly and surprisingly buttery. Pretty good plain, a slice would certainly be nice with cheese melted onto it, or to dip in the yolk of over-easy eggs, or beside a bowl of soup.

I will be making this again, though since I’m now nearly out of black sesame seeds, probably with white sesame seeds.

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Recent reading: Darkwood by Gabby Hutchinson Crouch

So, my laptop finally bit the dust. Took me four days to get a new laptop, which by the way, have I ever mentioned how much I HATE having to learn to use new technology? I do not care how intuitive computer people think a new laptop is: I don’t think it’s intuitive at all. I wish it worked exactly like my nine-year-old laptop that died, only better, instead of having all these new things to figure out.

Also, it won’t let me activate Word, which is quite a problem.

ANYWAY, while I sort out all that, I’ve had essentially no choice but to dip into my immense TBR pile. Picking a book basically at random, I read Darkwood.

Magic is forbidden in Myrsina, along with various other abominations, such as girls doing maths.
This is bad news for Gretel Mudd, who doesn’t perform magic, but does know a lot of maths. When the sinister masked Huntsmen accuse Gretel of witchcraft, she is forced to flee into the neighbouring Darkwood, where witches and monsters dwell.
There, she happens upon Buttercup, a witch who can’t help turning things into gingerbread, Jack Trott, who can make plants grow at will, the White Knight with her band of dwarves and a talking spider called Trevor. These aren’t the terrifying villains she’s been warned about all her life. They’re actually quite nice. Well… most of them.

Darkwood is a funny, playful story, one that deconstructs a bunch of fairy tales and has a tendency to break the fourth wall here and there. It’s a story to enjoy more on an intellectual level than an emotional level, I think — that is, it is a satire of fairy tales, and satire is something to be appreciated intellectually. It’s probably not going to grab a reader emotionally. The Darkwood and environs don’t feel like real places and the characters don’t have the depth of real people either, the way they will, or might, or should, in a different kind of story. That limits emotional engagement, at least for me.

I see Darkwood is being compared to Terry Pratchett in reviews. Well, I see why, I guess, because fantasy satire is a tiny subgenre. But Darkwood lacks the deeper level of insight I think you get with Pratchett (at least with his later books). The social commentary here is much more obvious and delivered without nearly as much actual story wrapped around it. Almost any character from Pratchett’s stories is a lot more complex and rounded than any character from Darkwood. Though Pratchett was writing satire, especially in his later books, the later Sam Vimes stories or many of the others feel much more “real” because of the depth and complexity of the characters.

Now that I re-read the preceding couple of paragraphs, that sounds fairly negative, which I don’t mean to be. I liked Darkwood quite a bit. It’s light and fun and clever and charming. I particularly liked the re-imagining of Snow White. Wow, that is quite a twist on the fairy tale. For playing with fairy tales and fairy tale tropes, this one is top notch. For a Middle Grade reader, even more so, I would bet.

It’s also interesting to consider the subgenre of fantasy satire, because I really had the impression that Pratchett had that subgenre almost entirely to himself. Now I’m thinking there must be more instances out there. I actually have three candidates for the category, now that I think about it:

a) The Diskworld novels.

b) Darkwood

c) Beauty Queens by Libba Bray — which is, however, only on the edge of fantasy, though solidly within the genre of satire. Or the edge of SF. So let’s open up the category to SF as well as fantasy, because why not.

Once you allow SF as well as fantasy, I have one more:

d) Bellwether by Connie Willis

Can anybody else think of SFF stories that fit into an SFF-satire subgenre?

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Anything can be made to seem plausible

Here’s a post by James Davis Nicholl at tor.com: Bad SF Ideas in Real Life: NASA’s Never-Realized Plans for Venus

I like the first couple of paragraphs:

Many readers may find the plots of some SF novels deeply implausible. “Who,” they ask, “would send astronauts off on an interstellar mission before verifying the Go Very Fast Now drive was faster than light and not merely as fast as light? Who would be silly enough to send colonists on a one-way mission to distant worlds on the basis of very limited data gathered by poorly programmed robots? Who would think threatening an alien race about whom little is known, save that they’ve been around for a million years, is a good idea?”

Some real people have bad ideas; we’re lucky that comparatively few of them become reality. Take, for example, a proposal to send humans to Venus. Not to land, but as a flyby.

Arguably, the author’s job is tougher than reality’s job. No matter how mind-bogglingly stupid a proposal might be in real life, an author has to tone the implausibility down in fiction in order to get readers to buy in to the story.

This post reminded me of the XKCD post about flying a Cessna through the atmospheres of the different planets in our solar system. Remember that post? It offers some vivid comments about Venus:

Physics calculations give us an idea of what flight there would be like. The upshot is: Your plane would fly pretty well, except it would be on fire the whole time, and then it would stop flying, and then stop being a plane.

The atmosphere on Venus is over 60 times denser than Earth’s, which is thick enough that a Cessna moving at running speed would rise into the air. Unfortunately, the air it’s rising into is hot enough to melt lead. The paint would start melting off in seconds, the plane’s components would fail rapidly, and the plane would glide gently into the ground as it came apart under the heat stress.

A much better bet would be to fly above the clouds. While Venus’s surface is awful, its upper atmosphere is surprisingly Earthlike. 55 kilometers up, a human could survive with an oxygen mask and a protective wetsuit; the air is room temperature and the pressure is similar to that on Earth mountains. You need the wetsuit, though, to protect you from the sulfuric acid. (I’m not selling this well, am I?)

The acid’s no fun, but it turns out the area right above the clouds is a great environment for an airplane, as long as it has no exposed metal to be corroded away by the sulfuric acid. And is capable of flight in constant Category-5-hurricane-level winds, which are another thing I forgot to mention earlier.

Venus is a terrible place.

I believe in 2312 Kim Stanley Robinson placed floating cities in the atmosphere of Venus, didn’t he? That sounds like a better bet than a wetsuit. Or a plane.

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Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen, and the Silver Fork Novel

Here’s a post by Sherwood Smith: Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen, and the Silver Fork Novel

The first Regency novels were launched by Henry Colburn, who made his name in publishing by instituting such well-known works as Burke’s Peerage. He made a killing in fiction by schmoozing bored aristocrats and  aristocratic wannabes into writing novels. Since in those days most novels, especially by women, were published anonymously, he just had to let gossip get out that someone “high” was coming out with a roman à clef. Not only was that an assured sell for the middle classes, who apparently had an endless appetite for the high life and the low life, but it also assured sales among the beau monde who wanted to see who was caricatured in it—after they made sure their own name wasn’t there, either in easily penetrated cipher, or by the coy em-dash, as in Duchess of  D——e.

Silver fork novels might contain an element of satire—there were two novels about Almacks, both called Almacks, castigating it as nothing but a marriage mart for aristocrats—but underneath the caricatures was a sustained and unquestioning admiration for birth, riches, and exclusivity. The most risible satire is bestowed on instances of mauvais ton; otherwise, authors hadn’t a thing to say against flagrant consumption, as long as it was done with style.

Sherwood Smith then goes on to set Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen within this tradition. It’s a long post, but well worth reading — especially if you enjoy Regency romances, or historicals that are “Regency in form,” like the Brothers Sinister series by Courtney Milan.

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Best Star Trek tie-in novels

For whatever reason, I’m mentioned Star Trek tie-in novels several times recently. Well, since this seems to be a post I want to write:

Top Ten Star Trek Tie-In Novels:

1) The Final Reflection by John M Ford

I don’t even like Klingons, especially. Not only that, but I prefer tie-ins where the main characters of the show play a major role. And yet, this is my favorite of all ST tie-in novels. Ford did a fantastic job here.

2) My Enemy, My Ally by Diane Duane

I generally like Romulans better than Klingons. I’m going back and forth between (1) and (2) for which is really my favorite.

3) The Romulan Way by Diane Duane

Honestly, I think Duane’s ST tie-ins are actually her best novels. At least the Rihannsu series. Wonderful story. Dr. McCoy gets to shine in his secondary role, too. It’s tough to write Dr. McCoy really well, imo.

4) Ishmael by Barbara Hambly

This is the one that uses a fairly trivial frame story to throw Spock back in time and drop him into the Western “Here Come the Brides.” It’s wonderful.

5) Uhura’s Song by Janet Kagan

The Original Character who’s the foundation of the story — Evan Wilson — is a bit over the top. However, I enjoy over-the-top characters from time to time, so she worked well for me. Good job writing the series characters, too.

6) Doctor’s Orders by Diane Duane

Another good one from Duane. The frame story is a little unbelievable, but so what? The story that takes off from leaving Dr. McCoy in command is a lot of fun.

7) Dreadnaught! and Battlestations! by Diane Carey

This one and the sequel, below, made me resistant to The Next Generation when that series started. I liked the new young characters Carey created and would have been happier to see a series featuring Ensign Piper and her friends.

8) Fallen Heroes by Dafydd ab Hugh

This is one of the very few Deep Space Nine tie-in novels I’ve read. As you can tell from this list, I prefer tie-ins from The Original Series, which because of my age I will always think of The Real Star Trek.

But it’s a good one. I disliked Quark in the TV show — I always dislike comic characters — but I liked him here; the Odo/Quark subplot was my favorite part of the story.

9) The Wounded Sky by Diane Duane

The plot struck me as over the top and kind of silly, but the writing is good, so that was tolerable.

10) How Much for Just the Planet by John M Ford

Not exactly a Star Trek novel — this is actually more of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta disguised as a Star Trek novel. That’s why it’s down here in tenth place. For sheer quality and fun, it’s right at the top! For Star Trek, it’s … well, Ford is not exactly keeping a straight face as he tells this story.

——————

I haven’t tried a new Star Trek tie-in novel for a loooong time. If you have, and you’ve got a favorite, I would welcome recommendations. As you can see from the above, I haven’t read many tie-ins from anything but the original series, but I’d be happy to try really good novels from any of the series.

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Wow, cool

I guess 3400 years ago either the water level of the Tigris River was much lower, or the path of the river was very different, because look what drought in the region has uncovered as the water level fell:

Ancient 3,400-year-old palace discovered after drought reveals ruins

A team of German and Kurdish archaeologists reports that, in fall 2018, receding waters in the Mosul Dam reservoir unexpectedly revealed the remains in the ancient city, Kemune.

The Bronze Age palace was revealed on the eastern bank of the Tigris river in Iraq’s Duhok province. … The ruins of the palace, which in ancient times stood on a terrace overlooking the Tigris Valley, are preserved to a height of about 23 feet. The site was once part of the ancient Mittani empire, which encompassed much of modern-day Iraq and Syria from the 15th century to the 14th century BC.

Pretty snazzy find.

Experts are eager to gain new insight into the Mittani Empire by studying 10 tablets with Cuneiform writing that were discovered in the palace. One of the tablets indicates that Kemune was likely the ancient city of Zakhiku, which means that it may have existed for 400 years.

This reminds me of the lost Mayan cities discovered in Guatemala. Wasn’t that just last year? Remarkable that we’re still tripping over lost cities and palaces after all this time. Or perhaps not. Palaces beneath the Tigris . . . Mayan cities beneath the green ocean of the jungle . . . pretty hard to spot, either way.

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A Regency gentleman

As quirks go, this guy has a great one.

https://pictorial.jezebel.com/allow-this-man-who-lives-every-day-as-a-regency-dandy-t-1835907485

A brief video profile by the BBC of a 25-year-old man named Zack Pinsent has racked up more than a million views on Twitter, and that’s probably because he wears historical clothing full-time and manages to seem at least somewhat chill about it, even as he announces with absolute confidence, “I don’t own or wear any modern clothing.”

Not only does Zach dress like a Regency dandy every day, he specializes in historical tailoring: “Bespoke period clothing crafted with historical accuracy,” his website promises. Therefore he’s really a walking advertisement for his own business—and frankly, a fairly persuasive one. 

The corsets and wide skirts and so on aren’t as delightful to contemplate as the wonderful masculine styles. But if styles like this became fashionable for both men and women, well, I would not be sad about that.

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Space Chillware

So this review caught my eye: Space Chillware: Record of a Spaceborn Few. This is of course the third book in Becky Chamber’s series, though evidently disconnected from the other two books — a standalone in the same universe.

Here’s what the review notes:

The setting was really interesting and philosophically fruitful: a fleet of generation ships dating back to a time before contact with aliens who possess advanced technology that made generation ships useless.  Instead of traversing the inky depths of interstellar space, the Fleet orbits a planet.  Still, the people continue to live there.  Why? It’s complicated.  But it prompts the existential question: What are we, the readers, doing on a rock hurtling through space heading nowhere in particular, destined to die?  It starts off subtle but it all gets pretty deep (we’re talking meaning-of-life type stuff, some of it – damn it – coming from the angsty teen).  This really surprised me considering a lot of the novel feels pretty… light and fluffy.  You could totally read this as a light and fluffy space romp and enjoy it just fine, but there are depths if you’re willing to look into the subtleties.

Some reviewers have complained that “nothing happens.”  It’s true that nobody is saving the galaxy here.  But galaxy-saving is a bit overdone, isn’t it?  This isn’t Space Opera as much as Space Chillwave.  

I enjoy the whole concept of Space Chillware. Since the story has a rating of 4.2 on Goodreads, with nearly two thousand reviews, apparently a lot of readers kind of feel the same way.

I haven’t read it yet. If you have, what did you think?

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