Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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I hate feisty YA protagonists

I think the term “feisty” tends to be code for “stupidly impulsive.” Maybe your take on that is different, but that’s my impression. Therefore, when I see a post like this one at Book Riot, Five of the Best YA Fantasy Books with Feisty Princesses , I flinch a little.

I haven’t read any of the books they select, btw. The thing is, there are SO MANY YA books with feisty everything, it’s impossible to keep up.

Let me see, of those five …

Worst title: The Princess Will Save You

Wow, that is a terrible title. Why insert the reader into the title like that? How can that even work? It sounds like a choose-your-own-adventure book, not like a novel. How do you all feel about it? Thumbs up or thumbs down for this title?

The one here that looks most interesting to me is Decendant of the Crane. This one has a Chinese setting and a pretty good description …

Princess Hesina of Yan has always been eager to shirk the responsibilities of the crown, but when her beloved father is murdered, she’s thrust into power, suddenly the queen of an unstable kingdom. … Hesina turns to Akira―a brilliant investigator who’s also a convicted criminal with secrets of his own. With the future of her kingdom at stake, can Hesina find justice for her father? Or will the cost be too high?

Still, the “feisty” part is probably a translation of this bit of the descritpion: “eager to shirk responsibility.” I hate that in a princess. I greatly prefer responsible princesses.

Let me see. Tamora Pierce has a lot of good YA protagonists, some of them princesses, who are determined and/or responsible rather than feisty. Not sure how many hit the intersection of princess + non-feisty, but probably some.

Sherwood Smith’s A Posse of Princesses offers a pretty wide selection of princesses, mostly difficult to describe as “feisty.” The actual protagonist might fit that term, I suppose.

Jessica Day George gives us some excellent princesses in her fairy tale retellings, like Princess at the Midnight Ball.

One of the best, especially after she matures, is Princess Cimorene from Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest stories, starting with Dealing with Dragons.

And, of course, I specifically wrote Kehera, way back when I wrote the first version of this story, as a response to irresponsible, feisty princesses who run off and desert their people. She stayed responsible, thoughtful, and (relatively) calm right through the revision as the original trilogy got sliced, diced, and turned into two standalone novels.

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Useful tip?

It turns out that writing SOS in giant letters is indeed a useful strategy, if you happen to be stranded somewhere.

Here’s a useful tip: If you ever find yourself stuck on an uninhabited island in the Pacific, it turns out that writing SOS in giant letters on the sand works.

At least, it did this past weekend for three men whose small boat had run out of fuel and drifted off course among the hundreds of islands and atolls of Micronesia.

Short article, basically that’s the whole jist of it right there: ran out of fuel, got stranded, wrote a giant SOS in the sand, got rescued — sounds like it all worked out.

It makes me think of that bit in The Touchstone Trilogy where Cassandra makes it through that whole ordeal of swimming and running gauntlets of bad guys and then winds up in that desert and makes that huge flaming arrow. That was a effective series of scenes. Long, drawn-out crisis, but the whole thing was very tense, especially when Cass nearly got turned around in the desert at the last minute. That’s a good example of how to ratchet up the tension for an extended period during a story.

Anyway, the author of the post about the giant SOS starts it off with that “Here’s a useful tip” line, and I must say, I doubt many people will ever be in a situation where that tip is remotely useful. Fortunately.

On a (very) slightly related note, it occasionally passes through my mind, when I’m reading a lost-in-the-woods story, that if I’m ever lost in the woods with the right dog, I definitely won’t starve to death. Not that box turtles are probably particularly desirable as a food source, but I’m sure they’re edible, and many of my dogs are excellent at finding them.

This is a puppy named Jos who was just puzzled by the whole concept of “turtles.” I think it’s one of the most adorable expressions I ever captured for one of my dogs. But many of them go beyond puzzled to FANATICAL. This spring, Conner found FIVE turtles in less than ten minutes in an acre-and-a-half area. So, while looking for a good place to create a giant SOS or huge flaming arrow, I would also have plenty of turtles to sustain myself and my dogs as I waited for rescue.

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YAY, another Foreigner book THIS YEAR

Okay, you may recall that the 20th Foreigner book, Resurgence, came out this past January. If you recall that, you may also remember that I really was not at all impressed by it, that I thought it was very much a low point for the entire series, and that I thought the biggest problem was a dire lack of continuity with the previous book. Then we had something of a discussion about that in the comments. That was this post here.

Now, having a serious problem — several serious problems — with Resurgence actually makes me MUCH more eager to read the new 21st book in this series, Divergence, which will come out in just about exactly a month. This is because I REALLY HOPE that CJC will rescue the situation in the previous book — that she will somehow recover and that THIS book will be much better.

If it’s not, then we’ll see. I could in theory back up a bit, get rid of the last few books of the series, and stop following the series entirely. But I don’t want to do that. I want the series to improve again, either the way I suggested in my comments on Resurgence or by CJC doing something else that works.

Okay, now, let’s check out the description of the soon-to-be-released book. Okay, here’s the relevant bit:

…since the aiji-dowager has also invited a dangerously independent young warlord, Machigi, and a young man who may be the heir to Ajuri, a key northern province—the natural question is why the dowager is taking this ill-assorted pair to Hasjuran and what on this earth she may be up to.

… Ilisidi is hellbent on settling scores with the Shadow Guild, and her reasons for this trip and this company now become clear.  One human diplomat and his own bodyguard suddenly seem a very small force to defend her from what she is setting in motion.

What this suggests to me is that at the very least more will happen in this book than the previous one. The continuity problems are not resolved, but CJC is apparently not going to try to resolve them. The best, maybe the only, way to truly resolve this problem where Nomari was absolutely confirmed as lord of Ajuri and now is absolutely still waiting to be confirmed, would be to go back to the scene, two books ago, where he is confirmed, de-confirm him by heavily revising those scenes, and re-issue the book. That isn’t going to happen, but I guess I will pretend it has been done.

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Cozy mysteries: another take

Here’s a post at Kill Zone Blog about cozy mysteries. Not quite like my take on the subgenre, but we overlap. Certainly this post offers another contrast to David Schmid’s lecture in the Great Courses course.

The author of this post is Leslie Budewitz, who must write cozies . . . yes, food-themed cozies, as of course so many are. I expect with recipes in the back, a touch I generally enjoy, but a lot of hers have puns in the titles, often a sign that the mystery is too cute for my personal preference.

Anyway, here is what Budewitz says:

Ultimately, the cozy is about community. The sleuth, usually a woman, is driven to investigate because of her personal stakes. She wants justice, for the individuals and for the community. The professional investigators—law enforcement—restore the external order by making an arrest and prosecuting, but it’s up to the amateur to restore internal order, the social order, within the community.

That’s not quite what I said — what I said was, Ultimately, the heart of a cozy mystery is the romance and other relationships of the female protagonist; a cozy is basically a mystery wrapped around a romance story. I stand by that, but I like this way of framing a cozy too.

Budewitz’s post is mostly about style and tone — the restraint with blood and violence, the clean language. Not all cozies avoid vulgar language, I will say, but in general the tone of a cozy will be on the warm-fuzzy side. I certainly agree Budewitz is right to suggest the benefits of clean language. This topic always makes me think of my mother, who reads a ton of mysteries, but absolutely detests bad language that makes it onto the page. From the author’s point of view, it makes no sense to alienate readers like my mother when you can so easily say, “He swore under his breath,” or whatever.

Anyway, good post if you have a minute and care to click through.

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Finished! — times two

Okay! So, busy weekend!

1.First, I’m really glad to say that I finally completed the entire Copper Mountain revision. It turned into significantly more work toward the end than I initially thought it was going to; I re-worked some of those chapters a fair bit, including cutting the entire last chapter and replacing it.

As a side question, I wonder how many of you prefer which pov character? The four pov characters we have had so far in the novels are: Natividad, Alejandro, Justin, and Miguel, pretty much in that order chronologically. I did not exactly do this on purpose, but Natividad and Miguel almost entirely split the narrative in Copper Mountain. I hope that’s all right with readers.

Of course the pov moves around a lot more in the shorter works. Let me see, who else has gotten pov stories … well, Thaddeus, Ethan, Keziah, Carissa, Tommy … anyone else besides the main protagonists from the novels? I think that’s it. The next Black Dog project will be another collection, so whom would you most like to see take the pov again? There will be another Ethan novella for sure — I wrote that last year some time — so who else? I have vague ideas for a couple more stories, but I’m not sure what I’ll be doing for those, so if you have preferences, this would be the time to let me know.

All right, next:

2.Second, did I mention that I’d written a long novella / short novel set in the world of Tuyo? I’m not sure I mentioned that, except to a couple of you whom I asked to critique it. It’s just about exactly 70,000 words, about 215 pages, so that’s roughly half the length of Copper Mountain but well within the typical length for a short novel.

Well, I got that revised this weekend and I think it’s in pretty good shape for, if all goes well, release later this month. It’s quite different from Tuyo. It’s third person, set 14 years earlier, from the pov of Nikoles Ianan. The story he told Ryo in Tuyo stuck with me, so this is that story. I hope you all enjoy it!

I’m ready for typo reads for both of these books, so if you volunteered to read something for me, thank you! You will be getting one or the other of these stories in your mailbox today.

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Recent Reading: To Ride Hell’s Chasm by Janny Wurts

You may remember that I mentioned this book recently and said ooh, I like the description. Here’s the description:

When Princess Anja fails to appear at her betrothal banquet, the tiny, peaceful kingdom of Sessalie is plunged into intrigue. Two warriors are charged with recovering the distraught king’s beloved daughter. Taskin, Commander of the Royal Guard, whose icy competence and impressive life-term as the Crown’s right-hand man command the kingdom’s deep-seated respect; and Mykkael, the rough-hewn newcomer who has won the post of Captain of the Garrison – a scarred veteran with a deadly record of field warfare, whose ‘interesting’ background and foreign breeding are held in contempt by court society.

As the princess’s trail vanishes outside the citadel’s gates, anxiety and tension escalate. Mykkael’s investigations lead him to a radical explanation for the mystery, but he finds himself under suspicion from the court factions. Will Commander Taskin’s famous fair-mindedness be enough to unravel the truth behind the garrison captain’s dramatic theory: that the resourceful, high-spirited princess was not taken by force, but fled the palace to escape a demonic evil?

Here’s the cover, one of several versions; this one shows a bunch of horses, so I prefer it to some of the other versions:

Those griffin-dragon things, called kerries, are MUCH BIGGER than implied in that image. They can easily pick up a horse, complete with rider(s), and fly off with them. They roost in Hell’s Chasm, in surprising numbers. There are other reasons why No One Has Ever Made It Through, plus for this particular attempt, besides having to run a gauntlet of kerries, the good guys are being pursued by demonic flying creatures, a problem that as you may imagine complicates the situation.

Okay, so, the story. It’s … um. It stands out in several ways, let’s say.

a) The florid style. This is nothing like the much more straightforward style I expected from author of the Daughter of the Empire series. Let me quote a snippet:

Commander Taskin bent his ice-pale gaze on the tearful maid who had last seen Princess Anja in her chambers.

“What more is left to say, my lord?” she despaired, her pink hands clasping and shaking. “I’ve told you all I know.”

Tall, gaunt, erect as tempered steel, with a distinguished face and frosty hair, Taskin radiated competence. His silences could probe with unsubtle, scorching force. While the distraught maid stammered and wept, he stepped across the carpet and bent his dissecting regard over the clutter on Anja’s dressing table.

Okay! That’s plenty to give you the idea. I was quite startled to discover how often Wurts uses words like “despaired” as dialogue tags. I mean, she does this A LOT. And those descriptions! Erect as tempered steel! Silences that probe! Regard that both bends and dissects!

And yet … I got used to this style surprisingly fast, just kind of reading over the dialogue tags and past the flamboyant descriptions and so on.

b) Villain points of view.

Toward the beginning, there are long stretches of villain points of view. I dislike that and just skipped those chapters. The only chapters I read for at least the first third were those that focused on Mykkail and Taskin.

Did something important happen in the sections I skipped? Not sure, but I have to say, I didn’t feel like I missed much.

At one point about halfway through, I was quite startled to find out this one thing about Prince Kelian, but actually that plot element worked great as a surprise. Probably it would have been a lot less surprising if I’d been reading the whole story, but who knows? Maybe the author managed to reserve that element even while lingering in the villain points of view.

c) Uneven pacing.

This story is like reading two separate books, a mostly slow-paced one about court intrigue, followed by a fast-paced one about a horrendous ride through Hell’s Chasm.

We take absolute AGES to meet Anja. I think we’re close to halfway through the book before Mykkael meets up with her. During the first entire half of the book, it seems like the central relationship is going to be between Mykkael and Taskin, as they circle around each other and develop trust in each other. Obviously this element appealed to me a lot. But once they separate in the middle, they never come together again. Taskin and everything in Sessalie recedes in importance — I mean, the fate of Sessalie is important to Anja, but it’s very much backgrounded as we move into the second part of the story. At that point the relationship between Mykkael and Anja becomes central.

Until the end, and then they’re thrust apart by events and everything gets tied off in a rapid-fire series of scenes that serves as an epilogue to let you know that everyone gets to live happily ever after. The threat is built up SO much and then bang! it’s over.

d) Animal character death

I’m not sure I’ve ever read a novel where so many animals were built into secondary characters with distinct personalities and then killed. Granted, it would have been highly implausible to get six horses and a dog through Hell’s Chasm. Still.

Just putting that out there, in case any of you appreciate the warning.

e) Now, having said all that … Wurts pretty much pulls ALL of this off. I’m not exactly sure how.

The style is consistently florid. Maybe that helps? I liked both Mykkael and Taskin quite a bit, despite the over-the-top descriptions. Mykkael, to be fair, was over the top in Every. Possible. Way. I liked him a lot anyway, but then I often like ubercompetent good guys.

I liked Anja, even though actually I’m not entirely sure why she COULD NOT LEAVE A NOTE. Not sure who to trust? Leave twenty notes, widely scattered! Good heavens, girl, use your head! But despite that, I did like her.

I liked a lot of the secondary characters — Jussand, for example, though I have NO idea what he was DOING in Sessalie, that makes NO SENSE, but he was a neat character. Honestly, lots of good secondary characters.

The situation in Hell’s Chasm is so dire, maybe that’s why the deaths of all those horses seems tolerable? Though not taking all the horses into Hell’s Chasm in the first place … not that there weren’t justifications for doing so. But still, the author can almost always avoid this sort of thing if she wants to. I can think of exactly how to have avoided it without changing a thing about the dangers the good guys face. I might have killed one horse. Not in that scene you might have just thought of. I have a different way to solve that problem. Oh! Two different ways.

The depth of stupidity of some of Sessalie’s court officials would have been super annoying, except I largely skipped or skimmed past almost all of that, so it didn’t get in the way. Anyway, toward the end, they mostly got their noses rubbed in the obvious fact that they were totally wrong.

So what I’m basically saying here is, I liked the story quite a bit, probably more than it deserves. The elements that appealed to me let me enjoy it despite (quite a few) elements that did not appeal to me at all.

If you’ve read this book, I’d love to know what you thought of it!

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Melting

As I’m sure is the case for lots of you, I’m not happy when the lows are over eighty and the highs over ninety every day for weeks on end, especially because our humidity in southern MO is permanently stuck on “sauna” from June through September.

Ugh, this weather! I walk all the dogs at six in the morning because it’s barely bright enough to read on my Kindle while walking them. I can manage three dogs on flexi-leads in one hand and hold a Kindle in the other hand, incidentally, without having to pause to untangle them more than a couple of times per walk, which takes considerable practice.

Anyway, as I say, I walk them at dawn, in sets of three. I need the exercise and they like to sniff around, though it’s not much exercise for them. Then we all stay indoors until dusk. At dusk, the puppies go out and run in mad circles for an hour in the immense yard, incidentally often finding burr plants even though I thought I’d gotten rid of all the burr plants last month. The older dogs think the puppies are nuts and remain indoors, lying in front of air conditioning vents.

None of this is actually a complaint. This year — knock on wood — we are getting significant rain rather than having a three-to-five-month drought, so YAY for that. It’s just, ugh, what unpleasant weather.

This is the time of year I want to read books with COLD, WINTRY settings. There are zillions of them. Let me see if I can put together a good list.

Science Fiction Winter Novels: I KNOW there are many, or at least some, that I am forgetting. What’s that one Poul Anderson wrote? With ice ships? Anybody recall? If you think of any other SF novels with frozen settings, drop them in the comments, please. The same goes for the other categories, obviously.

  1. Fallen Angels by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
  2. The Snow Queen by Joan Vinge, which of course has one of the all-time great Michael Whelan covers:

Fantasy Winter Novels: SO MANY. Here the trick is to stop.

  1. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, obviously.
  2. Mapping Winter by Marta Randall
  3. Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett
  4. Tuyo

Magical Realism Winter Novels: I can only think of one. But, wow, winter.

  1. Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

Mystery Winter Novels: Huge numbers, but here are a few. I particularly appreciate setting in mystery novels — setting and character — the mystery itself is not as important to me, but I do think these are good overall mystery novels too.

  1. In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming
  2. Winter’s Child by Margaret Maron
  3. Icy Clutches by Aaron Elkins
  4. A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny

Romance Winter Novels: Obviously a million trapped-by-the-snow romances, but here are a handful that come to mind.

  1. Snow Kissed by Laura Florand
  2. Season for Surrender by Theresa Romaine
  3. A Kiss for Midwinter by Courtney Milan
  4. A Rose in Winter by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss

Suspense Winter Novels: I don’t know quite whether to call this suspense or horror. I really liked it, either way.

  1. The Silent Land by Graham Joyce

YA Winter Novels: Obviously a bunch, but this is one I loved and read over and over when I was a kid.

  1. Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George

Please drop any favorite novels with winter settings in the comments, because I’m sure we could all use help cooling off here in the middle of summer.

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The intricacies of commas

Here’s an entertaining and possibly useful post about commas:

You win this round comma.

Did you immediately get the joke in the title? Like: You win this round, comma. versus You win this round comma. I have to admit, I didn’t get it at first. I just found that sentence confusing, full stop.

Turns out it’s based on this joke:

And then the punctuation jokes continue:

[Oxford comma laughing in the distance.]

[Vocative comma wondering what Oxford comma thinks it’s doing here.]

And okay, yes, I thought that was all pretty funny because what can I say? I appreciate punctuation humor.

Anyway, the post is largely about the somewhat subtle-ish use of commas in restrictive vs nonrestrictive clauses and why you really, really cannot just stick a comma in where you would breathe. I will pause here to wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve said to a student, “No, actually, you can’t just stick a comma in whenever you would take a breath. That is a completely unreliable method of putting commas into your paper. Sorry.”

Anyway, the post offers various examples, like so:

Restrictive—The bread that I bought yesterday is stale.

Not the bread I bought today, or the day before yesterday. The phrase “that I bought yesterday” is essential; it restricts the sentence to just that loaf of bread.

Nonrestrictive—The bread, which I bought yesterday, is stale.

The commas tell us there’s only one loaf of bread. That I bought it yesterday is informative but not essential, since readers just need to know it is stale.

The post also points out the [American English] use of “that” in restrictive versus “which” in nonrestrictive clauses, which I eventually internalized after three or so copy editors changed half my “whichs” to “thats,” or the other way around (I can’t remember my default before I started to follow the rule).

I never think “Is this clause restrictive?” by the way. I just put “which” after a comma. If there’s no comma, I put “that.” In order to use this shorthand, easy method, you have to have a feel for whether the comma goes there, so without that, I guess you can spend a lot of time asking yourself, “Uh, is this clause restrictive?”

From the linked post:

But is it that big a deal if I mess it up? Most of the time, no. Most of the time, context will help readers autocorrect the mistake and infer what you meant. Other times, getting this wrong will create ambiguity, or worse, confusion. All of the time, it creates extra work, and if part of your reader’s brain is busy trying to decode syntax-level meaning, that part of the brain cannot fall in love with your protagonist, your plot, or your prose.

I agree with this. I think a lot of writers make errors in punctuation, grammar, syntax, and word choice that cause brief confusion and extra work for their readers and they should all do their best to learn better.

However, as we all know, there are many usage choices for commas that are genuinely a matter of artistic judgment. In particular, the copy editor for one of my more recent books … I guess that was probably for WINTER OF ICE AND IRON … took out a lot of my commas after introductory clauses.

I was following the general “put a comma after introductory clauses” rule.

She was following the specific “short prepositional introductory clauses do not need a comma” rule.

After consideration, I let most of her changes stand. What’s more, going over the copy edits for that manuscript shifted my general inclination. Now, unless doing so improves clarity or rhythm, I don’t put a comma after a short prepositional introductory clause. That is, I now prefer not to use a comma in sentences like, “At last the warleader dismounted.” or “In the winter country we can evade them and stay out of their reach.” I’m still a little surprised that one copy editor could permanently shift my preference, but apparently so.

Another context in which commas are pretty much a matter of artistic taste is acknowledgments, such as “Yes, sir.” I very strongly prefer including a comma there, but plenty of writers disagree, as quickly becomes obvious if you read space opera and military SF. Also historical military fiction, I presume, though I haven’t specifically noticed. The only time I wouldn’t is if a character, speaking very fast, slurs the words together into “Yessir.”

Similarly, I think it’s crucial to use a comma in “Hi, Bob” even though lots of people don’t bother when dashing off a quick email.

So the linked article is pretty good, and now I’m curious: do you even notice whether there’s a comma in “Yes, sir” in military fiction, and does it bug you at all when the author disagrees with your preference?

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Keyboard shortcuts

Okay, after writing WINTER OF ICE AND IRON, I have a lot of keyboard shortcuts memorized for accent marks. Like:

Control + shift + : = an umlaut on top of the next vowel you type, for example.

I can type vowels with accent marks almost as fast as vowels without, which is seldom useful in normal life, probably, but there it is, a skill that will probably stay with me for the rest of my life.

Yesterday what I wanted was the upside-down exclamation mark for Spanish. I have that sort of thing saved in a different Word document so I can open that document and copy and paste symbols without having to scroll (in vain, too often) through the “insert special character” list. Having the upside-down punctuation marks saved in a file has been my workaround for years, and it’s . . . a moderately convenient workaround, I guess.

Well, here is a super-useful post at Kill Zone Blog that tells me the keyboard shortcut for the upside-down exclamation point is:

ALT + 1 = ¡

I wish I’d known that yesterday! I have never taught myself the Alt shortcuts. There are heaps of them, apparently. The upside-down question mark is harder, and in fact the linked post does not appear to offer that one, so I googled it and it is this:

Alt + Ctrl + Shift + ? = ¿ 

I will never be able to do that on the fly, without looking at the keyboard. But on the other hand, it’s slightly more convenient than opening a different Word file to copy and paste the symbol.

The linked post offers lots more — too many, really — but those two above are the ones I need to remember.

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Falling down the rabbit hole

At Book View Cafe, this fun post by Phyllis Irene Radford: RESEARCH RABBIT HOLES

Back in 2000 I needed to know the name of the Bishop of Paris in 1558 for an historical fantasy Guardian of the Vision, Merlin’s Descendants #3.

A quick Google search provided me with a long list of names of every bishop of Paris since Rome appointed the first one back in the post Roman dark ages. Except there was an eight-year gap surrounding 1558. Blank. No name. Nothing.

This gap in the records eventually leads to the conclusion that beer is responsible for the rise of civilization. The rabbit hole that leads from the starting point to that conclusion is what makes the post fun.

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