Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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One Free Trick

Here’s an article by Arkady Martine at tor.com to which one of the commenters here drew my attention: One Free Trick: How to Use the Writing Skills You Have to Learn the Ones You Don’t

When I went to the Viable Paradise writer’s workshop back in the distant dim year of 2013, the inestimable Elizabeth Bear, along with various other people who are cleverer than me, explained to me about the tricks a writer gets for free in their box. The writing-skill cards you drew in your first poker hand.

The magic of this idea is that it is a promise: everyone gets something. Every writer, no matter how green, has at least one thing they’re good at to start off with. It could be character, or prose rhythm, or pacing … Your One Free Trick is the skill you can build on. The skill you can lean on, while you learn the rest of the craft of being a writer. …

Plenty more at the link. Martine says her”one free trick” was setting, from which arose a certain talent for theme.

Theme, really? Hard to imagine. I fairly often don’t notice themes in my own work until a reader points them out to me. (Then they can sometimes be blindingly obvious.)

I would say … I guess I would say that if I have a “free trick,” it’s also setting. Was this important scaffolding for developing novel-writing as a whole? Not sure. Maybe! It’s interesting to me that Arkady Martine considers this an intrinsic skill of hers and yet she came into novels out of short stories. He says:

Novels are, for those of you who were not aware, really damn hard to write. Especially if you were, like me, a person who had been merrily writing short stories with some success for a good while before taking the plunge into longform narrative. Novels are hard for a lot of reasons … but for me, the most difficult part of writing one was that there were so many words in it. (Hear me out.)

That’s funny! Not that she’s wrong, except that I think of setting as something more useful for novels than for short stories. You have room to stretch out and show the world in a novel. Not, possibly, as much as you might like. But way more than in a short story.

I wonder if you provided the following survey to authors:

You consider novels:

_____ Really damn hard to write.

_____ Not as hard as short stories.

Whether they would all check the first choice. That is, I don’t really wonder. Obviously Martine would check the first option, but plenty of authors find novels easier than short stories [raises hand.] I have to say, I would check this other choice if given:

______ Shockingly variable in terms of how hard they are to write.

Anyway! Setting, description, worldbuilding, that’s the part I think I got as a “free trick” (if anything). If I got two free cards, then my second one definitely wasn’t theme. Maybe a feel for the rhythm of language.

Here is how Martine says she used setting to build her novel:

I let myself pick things to put in this book that aren’t hard for me, that make good use of my strengths. There’s a ton of lush visual description in this book—buildings and clothing and peculiar food items, everything having enormous symbolic weight … because I love that stuff, and because I’m good at it. And then I turned those lush visuals into weight-bearing parts of the book—plot-bearing parts of the book. I’ve even used my One Free Trick skills to get unstuck on transitions or scenes I’d paused on for a while: I’d describe, in detail and with precision, one of those important symbolic visual setting elements, but I’d do it from my POV character’s impressions and understanding of what she was seeing. Eventually I would see why my protagonist would be looking so closely at that thing—and I’d be in the scene, deep in the character’s voice, and I’d have done some thematic work to keep the story moving along.

Now that is fascinating. Describing stuff from the protagonist’s pov, that’s basic and important. Using that to “discover” why the protagonist is looking closely at a thing and get into the scene — that’s fascinating. I don’t think I do that …

… but, since I am moderately stuck on my WIP, I’m wondering if maybe I might consider taking a stab at some similar process to get it moving …

… although really I expect I just need to outline the rest of the plot …

… and wow do I agree with Martine about this:

The people who got the instructions to the Plot Machine are very lucky …. My Plot Machine instructions were incomplete and mostly made of those guys from the IKEA instruction manuals, gesticulating happily at a pile of incomprehensible parts.

Plotting, yeah, that is definitely not my “one free skill” either.

Arkady Martine’s debut novel is A Memory Called Empire.

The cover, you probably won’t be astonished to learn, is very dark and monochromatic, sigh. The description, let me see:

Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident—or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.

Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion—all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret—one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life—or rescue it from annihilation.

Sounds promising!

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My weekend disappeared into a blur of cuteness

This is Conner, who somehow failed to get Winners Dog on Friday, but did on the other two days. (To be fair, the dog that beat him on Friday was probably okay, but I didn’t really look at him, since my attention was on Conner.) The two points from Saturday were useless since he can’t benefit from single points, but on Sunday he also got Best of Winners and thus a major. One more major and he’ll have his championship!


The one in the front is Kimmie, who didn’t do all that well — she got reserve on Saturday, and best bred-by-exhibitor Cavalier once, but that’s it for Kim. A particular ruby girl beat her twice. Since that ruby is now finished, Kimmie won’t be facing her again in future shows.

This delightful puppy is Leda, who to my surprise beat her sister two days out of three! She got Winners Bitch on Friday, beating both Kimmie and the ruby. This means she earned her first major, so depending on how you look at it, Leda is now closer to her championship than Kim. Leda has only four points but three of those came in a major. Kimmie has 9 points but no majors. It is a whole lot easier to whittle down the singles than to find shows with majors.

I guess I will now start showing Leda much more seriously. I wish I had last year because she still looks rather puppyish in some ways and will have a harder time in the adult classes, probably.

Most likely the reason two out of three judges this weekend preferred Leda to her sister is that she is more compact, more solid, with more “bone.” She is shorter-coupled — Kim’s worst failing imo is that she is “longer cast,” which means longer in the body. Kim is unquestionably prettier, though. You can bet I will be adding notes about all three judges to my file where I keep track of these things. Friday and Sunday’s judges prioritize other things over the prettiness of the head and expression; Saturday’s judge the other way around. In the future, I will make decisions about which dog to show to which judge based on that presumption.

I took my laptop to the hotel, but I wound up barely touching it. Mornings vanished into a rush to shampoo each dog’s ears and feet, mist their coats with a conditioner, brush the coat flat and put on drying coats, blow dry the dog and start the next dog. Then zip to the show site and rapidly show each dog, switching out armbands hastily but (amazingly enough) without ever entering the ring while wearing the wrong dog’s armband.

After those intense mornings, the afternoons vanished into naps and reading and taking the three dogs on long walks.

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Recent Reading: The Sword Smith by Eleanor Arnason

It says on Amazon:

The Sword Smith tells the tale of Limper, a master sword smith running from an oppressive boss-king who forced him to make junk, and Nargri, his young dragon companion. Written in the early 1970s, and published in 1978 by Condor, The Sword Smith is an anti-epic fantasy. In a new Afterword written for this edition, Arnason describes the characters as “mostly fairly ordinary people, rather than heroes, wizards, and kings. Their problems are ordinary problems, rather than a gigantic struggle between good and evil. There is no magic. The dragons are intelligent therapod dinosaurs, and the trolls are some kind of hominid, maybe Neanderthals. In many ways, it is a science fiction story disguised as a fantasy.

This is only sort of true. I guarantee that some of the problems are not in the least ordinary. In fact, now that I think through the story, almost none of them.

Nor does this story read like anti-epic fantasy to me. Let me see, what does seem like an anti-epic story, where the problems are mostly ordinary and the people mostly ordinary . . . okay, The Sharing Knife series is anti-epic. (Mostly.)

I would say that The Sword Smith reads more like . . . hmm. Like a series of folk tales, kind of. Like Norse mythology, a bit. It’s very episodic and there is no real plot as such. You know Mark Twain’s famous dictum that “A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.” This one kind of doesn’t.

Limper is more interesting than likable, though I certainly didn’t dislike him (or I would have stopped reading the book). Nargri is a fine character too, but in fact given the description I would never have thought of her people as intelligent descendants of therapod dinosaurs. I get that this book was published back in 1978, and maybe we didn’t know yet that therapods were feathered, but I did not really get the impression that Nargri was fundamentally bipedal, and that really means that Arnason didn’t draw me a very clear visual image of her people. It’s true that her people make stuff and build stuff and use stuff, all of which implies bipedality, but the way everyone’s first reaction to Nargri is “a big lizard” and the descriptions of her running make me want to envision a big Nile monitor or something like that, which is not at all what any theropod ought to look like. Kate Elliot captured them much better in her Spiritwalker trilogy.

Yet for all that, I found the story surprisingly compelling. I blasted right through it. I liked the detailed descriptions about smithcraft, and the completely non-ordinary problems that Limper and Nargri got into were often very tense, and I whooshed right through the whole story nearly in one sitting, not counting breaks to take the puppies for long walks in this beautiful weather.

So, yep, ordered Woman of the Iron People. Looking forward to trying that one, and I expect to like it. I do wonder whether it will have been put together more like a regular novel, though.

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Ranking (a few of) Georgette Heyer’s Heroes

Okay, after the previous post ranking Jane Austen’s heroes, how about giving some thought to those featured in Georgette Heyer’s novels? The only flaw in this plan is that I haven’t read nearly all of them, even if you restrict yourself to the Regencies.

But hey, why let that stop me? Here then, is a temporary and no doubt soon-to-be-outdated ranking of a mere eight of Georgette Heyer’s heroes:

8. Powder and Patch — Philip Jettan

Philip is kind of a loser, if you ask me. Most of Heyer’s male leads start off confident in who they are. Not Philip. Reinterpreting himself as a fop to please a girl? Please.

7. The Grand Sophy — Charles Rivenhall

Charles is kind of a jerk. He may learn better, but it doesn’t speak well for him that Sophy had to sort out everyone’s problems because Charles couldn’t and didn’t.

6. Devil’s Cub — the Marquis of Vidal

Vidal is awfully casual about shooting people. Sure, he was drunk at the time, but still. And abducting women . . . seriously, Vidal? Good thing his dad appeared to sort things out, or who knows what would have happened?

5. Arabella — Mr Beaumaris

Everything’s a light joke to Mr. Beaumaris. He’s bored, he’s cynical, and he plays games. I like him anyway, but no one but Heyer could have pulled him off.

4. Frederica — the Marquis of Alverstoke

Alverstroke isn’t particularly admirable when he meets Frederica, but he sure does allow her and her siblings to impose, in a way that clearly suggests he’s a nicer person than is immediately apparent. I like the relationship that he allows to develop between himself and Frederica’s brother.

3. The Corinthian — Sir Richard Wyndham

Oh for heaven’s sake, Richard. Why on Earth were you planning to marry that woman and let her family leech off you in the first place? Just too bored to be bother saying no? What was WRONG with you?

On the other hand, Richard improved instantly when he met Pen and this turned into one of my favorites of Heyer’s books.

2. False Colours — Kit Fancot

The idiocy of the situation isn’t Kit’s fault. Every step of the way, his decisions seem reasonable. He’s just trying — responsibly and soberly — to sort things out for his spendthrift but charming mother and his possibly slightly impulsive brother.

a) Cotillion — Freddy Standen

Even when I read the rest of Heyer’s books, I doubt anybody is going to take Freddy’s place at the top of the list. I love his calm, easy-going nature and his perfect aplomb in every possible social circumstance. And the way he thinks of things and never drops a stitch. And that punch he landed on Jack when it counted didn’t hurt either.

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A definitive ranking of Jane Austen’s heroes

From Book Riot: A Totally Scientific and Definitive Ranking of Jane Austen’s Heroes.

I liked the title, I’m reasonable familiar with Austen’s heroes, so sure, go ahead and show me your take on ranking them all …

A few rules before we get to the list. Who counts as a “hero,” or love interest, to use a better term? For my purposes, any male character who begins one of Austen’s novels single and ends up married or engaged, unless they are a fairly minor supporting character like Emma’s Mr. Weston. My most important criterion is “this man is someone you would actually want to be with in real life.”

Sounds reasonable.

Oh ho, Mr. Collins is 4th from the bottom! Although I can’t actually argue with this ranking on logical grounds, he is probably my very least favorite male character in all of Austen’s work. Ugh.

Ah, this list puts Captain Wentworth above Mr. Darcy! I can’t actually argue with that either.

Top place on this list goes to Henry Tilney from Northanger Abbey. I don’t know. I rather recently watched a movie version and was not impressed with the movie as a whole — the entire relationship between Henry and Catherine is sort of hinted at rather than visible on the screen. Maybe if I re-read the book I might agree. But Mr. Darcy stands out a lot more for me, along with Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon. In contrast I have apparently found Henry Tilney pretty forgettable.

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Recent Reading: Wings of Fire 6-10

Okay, so, finished the second Wings of Fire arc last night. Very enjoyable!

The books included are:

Moon Rising – pov protagonist: Moon

Winter Turning – pov protagonist: Winter

Escaping Peril – pov protagonist: Peril

Talons of Power – pov protagonist: Turtle

Darkness of Dragons – pov protagonist: Qibli

The arc starts off very strong. Because Moon can read minds, she serves as a wonderful way to introduce Winter and Qibli. The reader gets a very clear idea of what all three of these important dragons are really like. This is a real advantage, as Winter is not likeable on the outside – he goes beyond prickly behavior to overtly hostile. But because Moon has a much better idea of what he’s really like than he lets others see, the reader also gets this understanding.

The first book also sets up important overall plot elements: Darkstalker is introduced right away, plus we know that for some reason Moon can’t read Turtle’s mind, plus we know that mostly all she can see in Peril’s mind is an inferno. Plus, Moon is an engaging character in her own right.

Tui Sutherland either must work from a detailed outline or she is good at smoothing out the overall plot arc, because every book moves the overall story along while also giving the reader a more intimate look at a different protagonist. Winter is so sympathetic from the inside, even though he’s so unlikeable from the outside. The personal resolution he comes to at the end of his book is extremely satisfying. Ditto for Peril, who has a strong burn the world violence and hostility both inside and outside, but longs so much to belong and to be loved. Poor Peril! What a terrible life! Her background makes her personal resolution even more satisfying.

I can see why Sutherland had trouble with Turtle, but she did a rather good job with him in the end. No, he is not a typical hero. Yes, he is an understandable and sympathetic character, plus brave when it counts. The end of his book is the only cliffhanger in the set. I, at least, had a very good idea of how he would get to a more satisfactory ending in the last book, which he does. I’m guessing that any astute MG reader will also immediately see how he is going to recover from what Darkstalker does to him.

Qibli’s novel provides an fine ending to the arc. I will say, I saw the ultimate solution to Darkstalker coming way, way in advance. Somewhere in Turtle’s book it occurred to me that I could definitely think of one solution, so the big question left was, would Sutherland come up with a different way to solve the problem? Answer: no. I’m curious: for those of you who’ve read these, did you also predict the ultimate solution? Did you see a different solution than the one that was actually used?

Now, I don’t read books for the excitement of solving the puzzle, but for character and setting and style, so figuring out a good solution to the Big Bad Guy early did not detract from the reading experience. Qibli does a great job carrying the final book. From time to time, Sutherland reserves information that Qibli was thinking about so as to pull off a plot twist; this involved mild cheating since, as the reader is in his pov, really the information should by rights have been right there on the page. But she does it smoothly enough that it works pretty well. Just for a bit, the reader is left thinking, Can Qibli, who’s so smart, really be missing these obvious clues? The answer is no, he saw them and put them together, as becomes clear at the opportune moment.

Minor quibble: The love triangle plot element is SUCH a deeply cliched component of YA that it’s a pity to see it used unnecessarily in a MG series. Worse, it almost sets Moon up as a Mary Sue character in the most cliched fashion possible, as she winds up at the center of attention for so many male characters. Granted, this is a relatively minor element — this is a MG story, after all — but I wish Sutherland hadn’t included it.

Major pluses: Practically everything else. Such wonderful writing. Great characters, each one of whom grows and learns over the course of the story, but not in a heavy-handed way. Snappy, fun plots that are dark enough not to seem shallow or saccharine to adult readers, but not so horrifying that they should be an obstacle to most MG readers.

Has anybody read the early books of the third Wings of Fire arc? How are those? I’m not sure I like the idea of having to get acquainted with the dragons of a whole different continent, but say something positive and I’ll probably overcome that hesitation.

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AI generated poetry

Fascinating post by Scott Alexander: Gwern’s AI-Generated Poetry

GPT-2 is the language processing system that OpenAI announced a few weeks ago. They are keeping the full version secret, but have released a smaller prototype version. Gwern retrained it on the Gutenberg Poetry Corpus, a 117 MB collection of pre-1923 English poetry, to create a specialized poetry AI.

Extensive samples provided, with commentary:

This is all perfect iambic pentameter. I know AP English students who can’t write iambic pentameter as competently as this….It has more trouble with rhymes – my guess is a lot of the poetry it was trained on was blank verse. But when it decides it should be rhyming, it can keep it up for a little while. From its Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard fanfic …

Scott chose interesting examples to show how the AI can start off rhyming perfectly and then gradually the rhyming deteriorates; or how it can start off well and then deteriorate into complete gibberish.

Would you spot this as fake robot-generated poetry if no one tipped you off?

My heart, why come you here alone?
The wild thing of my heart is grown
To be a thing,
Fairy, and wild, and fair, and whole

Scott really, really liked this tidbit, and says:

That last line, with its ABAB structure, is actually brilliant even by the standards of human poets. “Fairy and wild and fair and whole”. I could say that all day. This has to be a coincidence. It’s not that good anywhere else. But even having something generally okay enough that it can occasionally blunder into something that good is great.

I have to admit, several bits of poetry worked out really well. I am now predicting that someone is soon going to start using this type of AI thing to generate lines and poems. I can see that working much better than using this sort of word-generator to write prose. Would it be cheating, to present poems as though you wrote them yourself, if whole quatrains or longer stanzas were generated in this way?

Click through if you have time. There’s a trick buried in the post, so do read the entire thing if you’ve got a minute.


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Five Books About Running Away to Join the Space-Pirates

Hah, what a great idea for a column. Here it is at tor.com: Five books about running away to join the space-pirates.

Here they are:

1) Jack Crow of Armor by John Steakley, running away from prison and various self-inflicted misfortunes to join a crew planning a research colony heist. I met him as he was plotting to kill somebody who didn’t need to die, and I was worried about the main character at the time, so I was not happy to see him in the book, at first. His alternative courses of action are all terrible, though, and he barely tolerates the legend that humanity has constructed around him. Because he’s an unlikable fellow, it’s fun to watch him suffer through everybody treating him as “Jack Crow, ferocious pirate.” 

Well, I don’t like watching unlikable fellows, suffering or otherwise, so I’ll probably give this one a miss.

2) Miles Vorkosigan gets his start at being a pirate in The Warrior’s Apprentice

Of course! Though he did not join the space pirates so much as re-create the space pirates in his own image, which is perhaps not quite the same thing.

3) Jos Musey of Warchild by Karin Lowachee his chance to do [run away and join the pirates] comes long before he’s ready for it. And after the pirates raid his family’s merchant vessel, there’s no home to go back to and the adventure doesn’t end. Jos has a hard life aboard his new home, the Gengis Khan, but eventually he accepts to become what is basically a tattooed space pirate assassin-priest. 

Yeah, I wound up not being crazy about this duology. Among other things, it was soooooo obvious who the overall bad guy was, and the good guys spend soooooo long dithering rather than dealing. I really thought the bad guy must be a red herring, he was SO OBVIOUS. Nope.

Other things also bugged me about this story, but that’s the one that stands out in my memory.

4) This is a line in the 2016 installment of the series, Babylon’s Ashes: “James Holden has just declared piracy legal.” That’s it. That’s the series. Holden and his crew are always sailing from one disaster to the next, and this is no exception. There’s been a radical change to the galactic political landscape, and Holden has backed the losing side because he has history with them. 

Kind of an Oops moment right there. I liked the first book of this series pretty well, but I didn’t go on with it.

5) I first heard of Neptune’s Brood (2013) as Charles Stross’s blog post titled “Books I will not write #4: Space Pirates of KPMG.” I am so glad he wrote it anyway. Aside from the economics, which are very interesting, the protagonist, Krina Alizond-114, is venturing forth to find her missing sister when one Count Rudi and his crew attack her ship. Rudi obviously recognizes skeletons in closets because he’s running from several in his own, despite his claims to being an “honest privateer.” I mean, he is a space pirate bat accountant, and have you read about bats?

Okay, that one sounds really fun! Space pirate / accountant, with bats! OTOH, Charles Stross’ work does not always appeal to me. Has anybody read this? What did you think?

Okay, we can definitely expand this list, because it’s not that hard to think of a handful more that belong:

6) In Corsair, James Cambias gives us a guy who ran off to join the space pirates some time ago. Now he might be involved in something he needs to get out of, if he can:

In the early 2020s, two young, genius computer hackers, Elizabeth Santiago and David Schwartz, meet at MIT and have a brief affair. David is amoral, out for himself, and soon disappears. Elizabeth dreams of technology and space travel and takes a military job after graduating. Ten years later, David works in the shadows for international thieves, and Elizabeth prevents international space piracy.

I liked this book quite a bit, which is saying something, because near-future SF is a pretty hard sell for me.

Incidentally, looks like Cambias has a new one out this year: Arkad’s World, which doesn’t look to me like exactly something I’d ordinary jump on, but what with A Darkling Sea and Corsair, sure.

7) Becky Chambers hands us a very definite space-pirate element in A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and especially in the sequel, A Closed and Common Orbit.

In the latter, Pepper’s story is so compelling I was not quite as engaged by Lovelace. But I did like both subplots, and one day soon I must go on to the third book. Anyway, very definitely space piracy going on in A Closed and Common Orbit. Also a definite element of running away. This is probably my favorite book on this list so far.

Not sure I can get to ten … okay, here’s one more, which may be a bit of a stretch:

8) I haven’t read this one, but it’s on my radar: Artemis by Andy Weir. I hear it’s not as good as The Martian, but still, I do want to try it one of these days.

Here’s part of the description:

Jazz Bashara is a criminal.

Well, sort of. Life on Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, is tough if you’re not a rich tourist or an eccentric billionaire. So smuggling in the occasional harmless bit of contraband barely counts, right? Not when you’ve got debts to pay and your job as a porter barely covers the rent.

Does smuggling count as piracy? Not sure about the running away to join the pirates, that may be a stretch.

That’s eight. Anybody have a candidate for this running-away-to-join-the-pirates theme?

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Things I Love: Really Smart Characters

So, I have no comments yet about the 2nd Wings of Fire arc, except that so far I do like it as much as the first arc, but I’m stuck for a couple of days waiting for the third and fourth books to arrive. At least it’s giving me a chance to go back to the first five-book arc and re-read those. I’ve forgotten plenty of details, so that’s fine.

But I did jump ahead to see who the pov protagonists are for the remaining books because I really, really wanted one of those protagonists to be Qibli. Yay! He is the pov character for the last book of this arc.

Now, why I like Qibli — from the title of this post, you know why. Because he’s really smart and perceptive and Tui Sutherland does a fantastic job making this clear in the first book of the arc, Wings of Fire 6, Moon Rising.

Really brilliant characters, I love them, and they’re fairly hard to write, so probably for that reason among others, we don’t see that many of them in fiction. I don’t mean geniuses like Archimedes in Bradshaw’s Sand Reckoner; I mean smart in a more general or tactical sense. I was trying to think of a top ten list and how the authors pulled off the trick of writing them. Not sure I can get to ten, but this has been a really good year for very intelligent characters, so let’s see:

1) Qibli from the Wings of Fire series — I’ll start with him because he made me think of this list. Sutherland does it by having him think of more things more quickly than any other character, and by having his thoughts chain together into rapid and coherent conclusions and perceptions. Very nice job! I loved him from Moon’s perspective and I expect I’ll love him when he gets center stage in his own book.

2) Jarrit from the Magic’s Poison series. Gillian Bradshaw does it by having him always be ten steps ahead of everyone else, even when he is in terrible physical shape and half-conscious; by giving him cutthroat political instincts; and by having his most important weakness be an inability to predict what really stupid antagonists might do.

3) Ben Ryder from the Extraction trilogy. Haywood does this by having him murmur a series of stream-of-consciousness thoughts at important moments as he figures something out, and by the way other characters react to him and he reacts to them. He just cannot believe Emily hasn’t figured out various important things; he is the only one Mimi more or less treats as an equal, and so on.

4) Bren Cameron from the Foreigner series. (Hey, where’s the next Foreigner book?) A great contrast to Jarrit, because it’s hard to imagine Bren ever doing anything to anyone that’s as vicious as the kinds of things Jarrit, when properly motivated, can do. Bren is so much quieter and less ostentatious, but his political instincts are also top-notch, obviously.

Anybody know anything about Foreigner 20? Because usually CJ Cherryh has brought a new one out about this time every year and this year, no sign of one.

5) Janos in The Thousand Names series. He’s terrifying because we never see inside his head, and it’s really hard to tell whether he’s actually a good guy, and of course things get really complicated with him at the end. By refusing to let the reader see inside Janos’ head, Wexler emphasizes his brilliance. The reader never has a clue what rabbit Janos will pull out of a hat till it’s right out in view.

6) Lymond from Dunnett’s series. Again with the killer political instincts. Also with never seeing anything from Lymond’s point of view. Very intense series. The first book can be read as a standalone; the second book is not the strong point, so if you go on with this series, don’t stall out on that one and quit. I don’t feel Dunnett really knew where the series was going until after that.

7) Miles, obviously, from the Vorkosigan series.

8) Vlad Taltos, from the Taltos series

In both of the above series, the authors pull off tactical brilliance and we have no idea how hard they had to wham their heads against a wall as they figured out how to get their characters out of the corners they painted them into. I would never be able to do that, or at least I hope I could, but wow, I wish it were easier to come up with brilliant tactical solutions to intractable problems after your protagonist is stuck.

And … that is not ten.

Who has someone to add to this list? Recommendations are very welcome, especially if the brilliant protagonist is also an admirable person.

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Inability to go back to a book

Here’s a post by Diana Pharaoh Francisat Book View Cafe: Reading and Hoarding:

My problem is that I can’t seem to finish a book. I find that am delighted with the story, but after I set it down for whatever reason, I can’t make myself pick it up. I have two really good books I’m reading now that I can’t seem to make myself go back to.

I have no idea why I’m having trouble. … I sure wish I had an answer, though. And a way to change it.

I don’t have an answer, but I do have an observation.

When this happens to me, it is almost always because:

a) The situation in the book is tense, I put it down because I was nervous about where it was going, and now I’m having trouble picking it back up because of that nervousness. I don’t really want to see the characters suffer through what I can see is probably coming up.

b) The plot looks like it might be heading in a really annoying direction, one that will involve an important personal pet peeve. I am worried about that and I don’t want to go on with the book because I liked the first part and I’m reluctant to see it ruined with a trope I hate.

c) A character in the book is petty, stupid, selfish, and completely unpleasant to read about. That character has walked on stage and I put the book down because I just don’t want to read about him or her. Even watching other characters have to deal with this character is just too unpleasant. If I could be sure this character would walk offstage again in short order, it would be easier to go on with the book, but as it is, I’m delaying.

In all three cases, the only real antidote is trust in the author, so all of these problems hit much harder with a new-to-me author. I do not experience any of this with a new book by Martha Wells or Andrea K Höst or, for that matter, Gillian Bradshaw.

Given a new-to-me author, it can take a possibly surprising amount of willpower to go back to a book once I set it down for any of the above reasons.

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