Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Recent Reading: Paladin’s Grace by T Kingfisher

Okay, Paladin’s Grace is the second book in this low-stress fantasy romance series T Kingfisher/Ursula Vernon is writing. It’s not a direct sequel to the first (Swordheart), and an author’s note at the book explains that Kingfisher did mean to write a direct sequel, but got distracted by a different idea and wrote this one instead. A direct sequel is still on its way, we are assured, and that’s good to hear because I do want to go on with that other plotline.

In the meantime, the world is getting cluttered! In Swordheart, we encounter one possible magical threat – those horrible parasite things in the woods – that is not really very important to the story at hand, but provides a plausible plot hook for the future. In Paladin’s Grace, we encounter a completely different such threat: those horrible , . . not sure what to call them . . . don’t want to give too much away . . . those things that are responsible for the severed head problem. Not sure which if either of those elements is going to be important later. Both? Neither? If Kingfisher introduces a brand-new magical threat in every installment, count this world out as a potential vacation spot, that’s for sure.

Many more positive plot hooks too, like how about the two other sword-bound people and huh, I wonder if we’ll see Marguerite again, and how about the bird that screams curses in an inhumanly deep voice, and what did happen to Steven’s god anyway? Lots of little (and not-so-little) threads going off in many directions. The more immediate continuing villains in both books are the priests of the Motherhood, just as the Temple of the Rat God are the continuing good guys. A temple of holy lawyers is certainly an interesting twist on fantasy religions, I must say.

Okay: good things:

a) Fun writing style, including more than a little tongue-in-cheek humor.

b) A thread of grotesque horror. It’s getting easier to see the similarity between the T Kingfisher who’s writing these fantasy romances and the T Kingfisher who wrote The Twisted Ones. I like this because it’s one of the things that keeps the stories from being too silly.

c) A clever plot that has enough unexpected moments to be fun.

d) Characters that add enough depth to keep the stories above the level of pure froth. Again, that’s good for me since I don’t personally like stories that descend too far into silliness.

Steven, the paladin of the story, has this great backstory – his god died or at least disappeared, and all the holy berserkers that belonged to that order went crazy and started slaughtering everyone around them and couldn’t stop. Obviously some of them got stopped; seven are left and they’ve put themselves in service to the Temple of the Rat for various good reasons. That was three years ago. Now, in this story, Steven encounters Grace, a socially awkward perfumer whose unusually acute and highly trained sense of smell is central to the story. She has problems. Events unroll from there.

Many excellent secondary characters, particularly the Bishop and Istvan and Marguerite and Zale. I think the last is the only continuing character, but it’s pretty clear that Marguerite is most likely going to appear again, perhaps under a different name. I mean, surely Kingfisher has more in mind for her, given the peculiar revelations in this book? I hope the Bishop reappears too, preferably in an important role. And all the paladins, at least in minor roles. Just a great ensemble of secondary characters here.

e) I loved the technical details about perfumes and I loved how important the sense of smell was to the story.

Annoying things:

a) It would be nice to use the word “lie” as appropriate rather than unnecessarily using “lay.” Not to belabor the point, but I can’t be the only person who’s corrected that in enough student papers to flinch when I see the same mistake in published work.

b) A civet is NOT A WEASEL.

Just in case anyone reading this has any of the following animals in a WIP, let me just mention: Carnivora breaks into two suborders or superfamilies – subclades, anyway – called Caniformia and Feliformia. You can certainly think of them as the Dog Superfamily and the Cat Superfamily.

The Dog Superfamily diversified mainly in the New World and includes dogs, bears, raccoons and raccoon relatives (coati, oligo, kinkajou, cacomistle, ringtail), and the weasel bunch (weasels, wolverines, skunks, badgers, ratels, otters). Also all the pennipeds – seals, sea lions, and walruses.

The Cat Superfamily diversified mainly in the Old World and includes cats, hyenas, aardwolves, mongooses, meerkats, genets, linsangs, the fossa, and civets.

I am aware that a lot of mongooses and other animals in that group look a lot like weasels in that they all have long bodies, flexible spines, and short legs. Many of the procyanids – the raccoon relatives – fit the same body type. It’s a highly functional design and animals of that basic type were ancestral to the whole Carnivore order. Basic appearance notwithstanding, calling a civet a weasel is exactly like referring to a hyena as a type of weasel, or for that matter it’s like referring to a cougar as a type of weasel. It makes people who know better flinch. Personally, I don’t think it’s soooo much trouble to google basic facts about civets at some point if you’re going to drop one into your novel.

This goes for every animal less familiar than, say, a wolf. If you’re going to make an animal important in your novel, please look it up on Wikipedia first. I remember some series or other that kept referring to otters as “rats” and that was even more annoying, since obviously the weasel family is not at all closely related to rodents.

Okay, moving on:

c) Probably much more important to 99.9% of readers, WOW, is it blindingly obvious who really poisoned the crown prince or what? I don’t care how unworldly Grace is, I’m telling you, blindingly obvious. As you all probably know, I have real problem with protagonist stupidity and I have to say, this was a stellar example.

This moment occurs late enough in the story that the reader is going to be invested and isn’t likely to throw the book across the room and quit, even if, like me, they simply detest stupid protagonists. Grace is soooo socially awkward that to a certain (limited) extent that excuses her failure to grasp the blindingly obvious even when it’s being hammered down on top of her with a sledgehammer. I’m actually more shocked that Zale didn’t twig well in advance of The Big Reveal, because there’s no possible excuse for that failure.

Overall:

A fun, enjoyable story that is generally but not entirely light. Heavy on the classic romance beats, which is excellent if that’s what you’re looking for. Plenty of technical details about perfume, which is great. Reminds me a bit of Imperial Purple by Gillian Bradshaw, though that one is of course not as light or humorous. I liked Paladin’s Grace quite a bit, though not as much as Swordheart, and I’ll be happy to go on with the series.

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Shakespeare retellings

From Book Riot: THE 10 BEST HAMLET RETELLINGS, RANKED

There are that many Hamlet retellings? I had no idea.

As always with Book Riot posts, I half expect to see Watership Down on this list, but I expect that will never happen again. Probably everything on this list is an actual retelling of Hamlet. But let’s see.

Okay, their first choice: Foul is Fair.

Jade, Jenny, Mads, and Summer rule their glittering LA circle. Untouchable, they have the kind of power other girls only dream of—until the night of Jade’s sweet sixteen, when they crash a St. Andrew’s Prep party. The night the golden boys choose Jade as their next target. They picked the wrong girl. Sworn to vengeance, Jade transfers to St. Andrew’s Prep. She plots to destroy each boy, one by one. And she and her coven have the perfect way in: a boy named Mack, whose ambition could turn deadly. Golden boys beware: something wicked this way comes.

That does not sound at all like Hamlet to me. In fact, “Foul is fair” is part of a quote from the witches in Macbeth, not a line from Hamlet. Same with “something wicked this way comes,” that’s from Macbeth as well. I have to say, this sure sounds like it’s supposed to be Macbeth-flavored rather than Hamlet-flavored. Nothing about the scenario really evokes either play. At least, I don’t see how that description fits either one. Except the vengeance thing. I guess that could fit Hamlet.

Well, without reading it, I don’t know.

Okay, the rest of them do look very Hamlet-adjacent. Several are movies, not novels, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Oh, Here’s the choose-your-own-adventure version by Ryan North! The Romeo and Juliet one he did was quite funny.

The Dead Father’s Club sounds pretty good, and also wow, what a similar title to The Dead Girls Club in the previous post. This one sure got a better cover design:

You can actually read the title quite clearly! Also, I like the ghosts-as-smoke thing and the whole cover in general. The description:

In this 2006 novel, the character of Hamlet is reimagined as Phillip, a young 11-year-old boy who is visited by the ghost of his dead father. Phillip’s father says that he was murdered by his brother Alan. Now Phillip must avenge his father’s murder and prevent Alan from taking over the family pub. If Phillip is unable to avenge his father’s death by murdering Alan within the next three months, Phillip’s father will fall prey to the Terrors.

Here’s one which gets pretty creative:

Nutshell by Ian McEwan.

 Ian McEwan’s retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is narrated by a fetus. This fetus witnesses a classic tale of murder and deceit from within the womb: Trudy has betrayed her husband John and is sleeping with John’s brother Claude. Together, John and Claude have hatched a plan to rid themselves of John forever. But what can a poor fetus do to stop the murder of his father other than kicking his mom from inside her womb every now and then?

Huh. I certainly wouldn’t have thought of that.

Personally, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Shakespeare’s tragedies. I guess I should look up retellings of the comedies! Except not The Taming of the Shrew. Wow, I have seen so many re-makes of that one — remember the one from the tv show Moonlighting? But I am not crazy about the original play and I guess I got tired of re-makes of it.

Anybody know of a good retelling of one of the other comedies?

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Cover design: Unreadable title edition

Observe this cover:

Who thought that breaking “inhabited” into two pieces and hypenating them was a good idea? Why did this person think that was a good idea? Why did the editorial staff sign off on this notion?

Is there anyone — anyone at all — who thinks this works well?

Here’s another:

Who took a minute to read this? I saw both “Glue” and “Glub” before I figured out the last word is “Club.” I wonder if the “G” in “Girls” paved the way for seeing a “G” in the third word of the title as well. Was that just me? Did anybody else stutter visually over this title?

Other than the title, I sort of like this cover, actually. I don’t like anything about cover of The Inhabited Island, but I like the colors and the jungly plant thing in The Dead Girl’s Club.

Here’s another:

Thumbs up or thumbs down on that one? Is it at all difficult to read the title? I found my eye stumbling over that thumbprint. I don’t immediately perceive that this is the word “Anyone.” Granted, it didn’t make me stumble as badly as The Dead Girls Club.

I personally think there’s a lot to be said for a completely readable title. There are plenty of ways to be artistic with the title without making the reader pause to figure it out. Like this one:

That’s simple, artistic, and instantly readable. Maybe cover designers should try for something more like this when they’re going for creative, interesting ways to handle the title on the cover.

All these are from the latest mailing from the Science Fiction Book Club. That “Inhabited Island” is so bad it made me pay attention to cover design in general throughout the mailing. Still a lot of black and very dark and monochromatic covers, I notice. But it was definitely title design that caught my eye this time.

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Things that get a pass

From Janet Reid’s blog: Query me for anything you want but these almost always are a pass

The reader’s version is of course: I’ll try any novel, but these almost always get a fast DNF.

For Janet, topics that aren’t going to work include: abuse memoirs, pedophilia, serial killers, vampires. Other things too; click through to see the full list plus comments.

There are plenty of things that get a pass from Janet Reid that generally or sometimes appeal to me. Vampires, say. Serial killers, sometimes. Apocalyptic pandemics, though perhaps that’s a bit to topical just at present to be attractive in fiction.

But there are several “pass” categories here that are “DNF” categories for me. The most definite:

5. The novel you wrote to prove a point.
I am entirely story-based. If you have a compelling story, you can make any point you want to, but I’m not going to read your novel to hear how global warming is a problem.

I’ll go further:

I am entirely story based AND I hate being bludgeoned over the head with a message no matter how compelling your story is.

If you have a message, kept it soft and bury it in the story and I’m fine with it. Whip out a club and whap me with it and I’m done, even if I agree with your message and even if the story is otherwise good. This doesn’t include things like “Hitler was bad and Nazis were evil.” That’s not a message; that’s just background.

However, that isn’t the kind of thing that usually stops me, or any reader, in the first chapter. It would be a very odd book if it whipped out a club in the first chapter, right? I can’t think of one that did that.

Let me see, let’s say specifically: Things that make me stop short and declare a DNF if they do in fact appear in the first chapter.

a) Too gritty. Fill the streets of your fantasy city with sewage and start out by dumping somebody in the gutter and I’m too grossed out to continue. Elisha Barber is the example that comes to mind.

b) Start me off with a protagonist, then kill the protagonist in the first chapter, and I’m probably done unless the story is a murder mystery.

c) Oh, here’s one — have the protagonist do something unjustifiably awful in the first chapter and I’m gone. I’m absolutely thinking of The Fifth Season here.

d) Things start off in too awful a place. If the protagonist is in a terrible situation, I may not be able to tolerate sticking around until she pries herself out of that situation. I wouldn’t say that’s always the case, but it can happen. I would prefer that horrible situation to be in the backstory. Let the author build up an understanding of that background slowly, after the protagonist is already involved in other things.

e) I’ve never seen this, as far as I can recollect, but I don’t recommend the author kill a dog or other pet in the first chapter. I doubt I’d get past that scene.

How about you? What’s something that, if it appears in the first chapter, makes you put down a book at once?

Or, is there nothing? Are you’re the kind of reader who always finishes a book if you start it, even if you hate it?

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Great sentence from recent reading

So, I’m in the middle of T Kingfisher’s newest frothy fantasy romance, Paladin’s Grace. I paused to read that one while still in the middle of a much more serious military SF novel called Cry Pilot, by a new-to-me author named Joel Dane. I like that one a lot and I’ll definitely write a review of it later, but it’s more tense and I wanted something gentler for right before bed.

I don’t normally read two novels at once, but it’s getting to be a more frequent habit than it used to be. Out of curiosity, how many of you do that routinely?

Anyway, last night I came across a sentence from Paladin’s Grace that is so fantastic I must share it with you. I’ll give you the whole paragraph to set up the sentence.

The carriage had pulled into the formal quarters for visiting dignitaries, which resembled a cross between a small palace and a large hotel. It was in the formal style of Archenhold, all stone and arches and tall pillars. Grace was rather fond of how clean the lines were here compared to the style of Anuket City, which never saw a facade it didn’t want to ornament or a stone that couldn’t be carved into ten animals and an allegorical representation of Prosperity.

Ha ha ha! If that doesn’t give you a feel for the novel’s general tone, what could? And look, T Kingfisher is effortlessly using this really trivial moment of description to build Grace’s character as well as hold to the light tone of the story overall. So impressive!

Cry Pilot has offered some very nice lines as well, in a completely different style. I’ll have to make a note of the next such line and share it with you. I will try to make a regular thing of it, because it’s just amazing how one throwaway sentence here and there can effortlessly show off a writer’s skill.

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2000-year-old seeds

A Long-Lost Legendary Roman Fruit Tree Has Been Grown From 2,000-Year-Old Seeds

It’s not actually as neat as the headline makes it sound, because this is a type of date palm. Date palms are all very well, but there are about a thousand varieties of the fruit-bearing date palm known today. Three varieties are grown in California.

The name of the species is, admittedly, great: Phoenix dactylifera. I didn’t know that before I read this article, so that alone makes the article worthwhile. But from the headline, well, I would have liked a tree species that was extinct in the modern day, something unknown since Classical times.

Still, it’s pretty good to get 2000-year-old seeds to germinate. Six out of thirty-two germinated, which is 18% — not bad at all after that long.

Incidentally, not as scientifically interesting but more personally delightful, of the ten magnolia seeds I planted last fall, six are up.

Let me tell you all about my babies!

The 4 are Yulan seedlings, that is, seedlings of M. denudata, a hexaploid species, probably pollinated by M. x loebneri, a diploid, itself a hybrid of M. kobus x M. stellata. This is the only non-sterile magnolia I have that overlaps significantly in bloom time with the very early Yulan magnolia. The seedlings would probably be tetraploids, most likely perfectly fertile with many other species and hybrids of magnolias.

Anyway, here is the Yulan flower:

Here is the M x loebneri flower

I’m guessing M denudata x M x loebneri are likely to be smallish trees, probably with — this is a guess — fewer petals than the loebneri, but almost certainly in the white/pink range somewhere. I actually have two older seedlings of probably the same cross that are about four years old and getting close to my height. I hope they flower in 2021, as they don’t seem to have set flower buds for 2020.

Now, the other two seedlings are even more interesting!

These are hybrids with the seed parent being “Woodsman,” a fascinating, unusual tetraploid hybrid of M acuminata x M liliflora. It’s not unusual because it’s tetraploid; all sorts of ploidy conditions are normal for magnolias. The interesting part is the unique flower color. Here it is:

Isn’t that neat? The buds are purple-black and then open to this pink-green-tan blend that is, I will admit, not as eyecatching from a distance, but so different and interesting!

“Woodsman” blooms really late. I hand-pollinated it with Magnolia “Butterflies,” a yellow-flowering pentaploid hybrid of M acuminata and M denudata, which was the only nonsterile magnolia I had blooming at the same time. Here is “Butterflies:”

5n hybrids are not sterile, but their fertility is not great compared to trees with even ploidy numbers. I got six seeds and planted them all; these two germinated. These babies could be tetraploid or pentaploid or some weird ploidy in between.

All the seedlings are healthy so far btw. The damaged leaves you see in the picture resulted from the seedlings being unable to break open the seed coat, which in one case I cracked with pliers and ripped off. That is not great for the baby, but damage to the seed leaves doesn’t matter once they get real leaves.

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First new-to-me word of 2020

I don’t encounter new words very often, excluding medical jargon and stuff like that — also excluding new slang. I mean real words that I just have never happened to bump into before.

I remember the first time someone said something was copacetic. I blinked and went off and looked it up and every now and then I probably use it. That was in the nineties sometime, I think.

CJ Cherryh introduced me to chatoyant. She used it in her Foreigner series. Fabulous word, which I have taken considerable pleasure in using occasionally ever since. Very suitable word for high fantasy.

I remember bumping into antepenultimate — was that just last year? What a great word.

One new word so far this year, which I encountered in some article or other online over the weekend:

Velleity.

Did you all know that one? I didn’t get it from context, but looked it up:

A wish or inclination not strong enough to lead to action. “The notion intrigued me, but remained a velleity.”

I like it! That’s actually a word I could imagine using in conversation. Certainly a familiar situation or state of mind. A wish not strong enough to lead to action! Not as poetic as chatoyant, but a good, useful word.

If any of you have happened across a new-to-you word lately, drop it in the comments! But such a thing probably doesn’t happen very often to anyone who comments here.

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Oh, right, Valentine’s Day

From Book Bub, a helpfully relevant post so that I don’t have to write my own at the last minute:

9 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books That Double as Touching Love Stories

Yep, that’s a top-notch choice. I’m never going to read it because I am not remotely into lovers-to-tragedy as a story arc.

Actually, I’ve never read a single book on this list, though some are on my radar.

All right, fine. Surely I can do a very rapid list of SFF (or other) romances that I’ve read lately. 2020 is barely underway, but I have read a scattering of books that certainly qualify for a Valentine’s Day list.

Okay:

a) I’m re-reading the Touchstone trilogy right now, so: Cassandra and Kaoren. Particularly good slow-burn romance, as you all know.

b) I’ve read several more Heyer romances this year already, so Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer.

c) A great new find to start of 2020: A J Demas and her Classical-ish novels. I especially like this long novella / short novel, with startlingly well-developed romance considering the whole thing takes place during a long day and night.

If you’ve read a story with a good romance already this year, toss it in the comments!

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Astronomy continues to be surprising

‘Baby giant planet’ discovered just 330 light-years from Earth

“Baby” giant planets? And why is this interesting, anyway?

My first impression was that this was a very small giant planet, which didn’t immediately make sense. In fact — and you may all have caught on faster than I did — the headline is referring to a giant-giant planet that happens to be really young.

“The dim, cool object we found is very young and only 10 times the mass of Jupiter, which means we are likely looking at an infant planet, perhaps still in the midst of formation,” said the study’s lead author, Annie Dickson-Vandervelde

This is evidently one of the youngest planets we’ve found so far. It’s also a puzzle because it’s very far from its sun, and people are trying to figure out how it formed way out there, or at least how it wound up way out there.

I like this because I get a kick out of how very little we know about planetary science. I like how we trip over something weird and inexplicable practically every time we turn around. That makes the universe seem, I don’t know, bigger and more exciting.

Here’s another Astronomy one:

“Toffee Planets” Hint at Earth’s Cosmic Rarity

The concept of a planet made of toffee is entertaining, but I found this an easier headline to understand immediately. I figured it meant exactly this:

If these rocky super Earths have thick, Venus-like atmospheres or are especially close to their parent star, they might exhibit no familiarly brittle geology at their surface at all. Instead, … their surface rocks would be strangely malleable over long timescales, flowing a bit like the stretchy, sugary confections on offer in any earthly candy shop.

I like this one because it’s all wildly speculative. This particular suggestion — of how planets form and behave — depends on a tiny bit of data and a lot of mathematical modeling. The reason we trip over surprises all the time is first because we can’t get out there in space and look at stuff, and second because anything can be made to look plausible if you tweak the math the right way.

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