Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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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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First sentences: The World In a Grain of Sand

From PJ Parrish at Kill Zone Blog: Finding An Opening Line Is Like Seeing
The World In a Grain of Sand

… the first sentence is important. Don’t we preach that all the time here at TKZ? A great opening line is a promise you make to your reader that they are in for something special, a hell of a ride. No pressure, right?

One of my writing heroes, Joyce Carol Oates, says “The first sentence can’t be written until the last sentence is written.” That is not some Buddha-esque mumbo-jumbo. Oates is saying that a great opening line comes from you the writer having a complete understanding of what your book is about at its soul.  And usually that is something you discover not at the first step but during the journey.

The most interesting part of this post: the list of “qualities of a first line.”

–It can be vivid or suprising.

–It can be funny.

–It can presage something bad to come.

–It can introduce the voice of the protagonist.

–It can be a simple statement of fact.

–It can set the mood.

–It can establish the theme.

–It can be beautiful.

Parrish provides various examples for the above categories. They’re good examples; click through and take a look if you like. I’d like to complicate the question of first sentences in several ways:

First, I think lots and lots of opening sentences do more than one of those things. Here’s one everyone will recognize:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Just plain beautiful, sets the mood, establishes the theme.

Second, it’s pretty obvious that other first lines, perfectly good and successful ones, don’t do any of the above. Here’s the first line of Georgette Heyer’s A Civil Contract:

“The library at Fontley Priory, like most of the principal apartments in the sprawling building, looked to the south-east, commanding a prospect of informal gardens and a plantation of poplars, which acted as a wind-break and screened from view the monotony of the fen beyond.”

This is a case where the first line sets the scene. I wouldn’t say this is a statement of fact. I wouldn’t say it’s an example of particularly beautiful writing either. It’s not setting the mood — there’s no mood yet. Setting the scene is different from any of those, so this is an additional type of job a first sentence can do.

Third, here’s another first sentence that sets the scene. In this case, it also suggests the mood, or we might say the tone, or style. This might be a different category of first sentence or maybe not; it depends on whether you think “mood” is the same thing as “tone.” Anyway, take a look:

Morning light the sulphur colour of the mine dumps seeps across Johannesburg’s skyline and sears thorugh my window. 

This sentence immediately — I mean instantly, without needing to read the second sentence — suggests that the novel is going to be bleak, probably gritty, possibly nihilistic in tone. This is Zoo City by Lauren Beukes and, in fact, I DNFed it after the first couple of chapters because it was a lot too gritty and grim.

Fourth, How about this entirely different first sentence:

I had a sister once.

What does that do? It is vivid and surprising, but not immediately. It sets the mood, but not instantly. I think it takes just that tiny bit of a pause to process this sentence and realize what it means. This is from a dark fantasy novel called Bones of Faerie by Janni Lee Simner. Is this the same kind of category as the above, or is a kind of slow-motion creepiness something different?

Fifth, some sentences absolutely cannot be read alone. The job they’re doing is completely lost unless you consider the sum of several sentences in combination. Here’s an opening sentence that’s just a pure statement of fact, and perfectly boring:

It was snowing again.

You have to read that one in combination with the next few sentences to get a feel for the writing:

It was snowing again. Gentle six-pointed flakes from a picture book, settling on her jacket sleeve. The mountain air prickled with ice and the savor of pine resin. 

Including fragments in the first paragraph is generally the mark of either a great stylist or a real amateur. In this case, it’s the former: this is from The Silent Land by Graham Joyce, which I mentioned a couple of days ago when thinking about plot twists. Anyway, this is a way of noting that the first sentence is sometimes entirely unimportant because it’s not supposed to stand by itself, it’s supposed to be read as part of the first paragraph.

Here’s the entire first paragraph:

It was snowing again. Gentle six-pointed flakes from a picture book, settling on her jacket sleeve. The mountain air prickled with ice and the savor of pine resin. Zoe pulled the air into her lungs, feeling the cracking cold of it before letting go. And when the mountain peak seemed to nod and sigh back at her, she almost thought she could die in that place, and happily.

Wow! First, that’s a fine paragraph, beautiful writing, but also, once you’ve read the book and know where it’s actually going . . . wow. Have any of you read this one? Because I think you have to read this paragraph again after finishing the book to really appreciate it.

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Books that twist sideways

From tor.com: 8 Puzzle Box Books With Surprising Twists and Turns

Now, nothing is going to beat And All the Stars by Andrea K Höst. But sure, lay it on me: what SFF books are you thinking about that suddenly tilt the reader off the expected path?

The Magus by John Fowles

Slade House by David Mitchell

The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet

Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Of these I have read only the last book. When I saw this title, I immediately said ????? because this book does not contain anything that remotely resembles a shocking plot twist. Does it? Should I doubt my memory on this point? What does the author of this post say?

The Road is not a puzzle box book. It has no place on this list. It’s a terrifying dystopic journey, a post-apocalyptic trek of father and son, seemingly the last two good people in a world of char, ash, and soot in various forms

Oh, we have some other metaphorical kind of puzzle or plot twist! Well, that’s cheating, sorry. Having read the author’s explanation for including The Road, nope, still cheating. Click through and read the whole post if you wish, but in the meantime, what are some books that actually no kidding jerk the reader sideways into a plot twist?

Other than And All the Stars?

Well, here’s one:

Here’s part of the description:

In the French Pyrenees, a young married couple is buried under a flash avalanche while skiing. Miraculously, Jake and Zoe dig their way out from under the snow—only to discover the world they knew has been overtaken by an eerie and absolute silence. Their hotel is devoid of another living soul. Cell phones and land lines are cut off. 

The truth isn’t as shocking as the plot twist in And All the Stars, but it’s an effectively creepy story. It worked for me, anyway.

Let me see, what’s another example . . . oh, here’s one, solidly SFF rather than horror.

Sparrow’s my name. Trader. Deal-maker. Hustler, some call me. I work the Night Fair circuit, buying and selling pre-nuke videos from the world before. … But the hottest ticket of all is information on the Horsemen—the mind-control weapons that tilted the balance in the war between the Americas. That’s the prize I’m after.

But it seems I’m having trouble controlling my own mind….

What’s a really startling plot twist you can think of?

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Fun way to start an argument —

Create a list of the ten best English writers of all time.

Who’s on it, do you suppose? I haven’t looked yet; just saw the link at the Passive Voice blog and clicked through.

Shakespeare, Jane Austen and who else? Charlotte Brontë? Are we including poets? Let’s see . . . oh, they excluded Shakespeare as too clearly at the top to need inclusion. It’s the ten best who aren’t Shakespeare.

Yep, Jane Austen. Then William Blake — so poets are eligible — and Chaucer, Dickens — I should have thought of Dickens — John Donne, George Elliot, John Milton, George Orwell — interesting choice! — Harold Pinter, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Gosh, I’ve never heard of Harold Pinter, as far as I can remember. Oh, and I notice Charlotte Brontë isn’t there included. Well, I did not very much like Jane Eyre personally, so that’s fine with me. But who’s Pinter?

Ah, Nobel Prize for literature, a playwrite …

Harold Pinter was first and foremost a writer. The distinctive style and quality of his dramas inspired the epithet ‘Pinteresque’ to describe a use of language that expresses a strange and mysterious situation smouldering with underlying, indefinable, menace.

Interesting! But looking through a list of his plays, nope, none of them ring a bell. Well, he lived practically yesterday — just died in 2008 — not really time-tested compared to most of the others, is he?

I really sort of had the impression Orwell only wrote two novels. You all probably knew he wrote more than just Animal Farm and 1984.

So, anyway, I can think of some English authors I wouldn’t mind seeing on a list of this kind:

JRR Tolkien

CS Lewis

Georgette Heyer

And you know, I’m sort of wondering where Jonathon Swift is, now that I think of it. And Edward Gibbon, too.

Well, of course a list of The Ten Best anything is going to cause a lot of disagreement. If you’d like to check out the disagreement, click through and scan the comments. I don’t believe a single person mentions JRR Tolkien. Fantasy doesn’t count, no matter how important a work, I guess.

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Candidate for Worse Cover Ever

Okay, apparently this is for real? I literally thought it couldn’t be a real cover when Sandstone posted this on Twitter this morning. Take a look:

Have any of you — all of you — read this? Here is the original cover:

Let me provide the Amazon description of this book to you, if you aren’t familiar with it:

Plagued by guilt for failing to protect her king, Rider Wren has fled the city of Gilengaria and given herself the penance of a life of wandering, helping strangers in need. But when chance brings her to the great estate known as Fortune, Wren will find her fate, and finally confront the ghosts of her past.

Quite accurate. Let me add:

a) This is a really great book! The “fifth in a series,” this book actually stands alone just fine and is my favorite in the series. Highly recommended.

b) One of the greatest low-key romances I know of in all of fantasy.

c) Features some of Sharon Shinn’s best writing, including a lovely, possibly flawless ending.

d) Includes no jack-o-lanterns

e) Not the slightest hint of Halloween

f) Not in any way connected to anything remotely similar to Halloween

g) Not a horror novel

h) No, really, not the faintest echo of horror at any point

That cover! I can’t believe it!

Let me type “fantasy” into the search bar at Unsplash, a website that makes photos available for free. Okay, here is the very first photo that pops up in response to that search:

This castle is a thousand times more appropriate for Fortune and Fate than that jack-o-lantern cover! It’s all wrong, sure, but at least there is an important big manor house in the novel. A big manor house is sort of reminiscent of a castle. The concept “manor house” and “castle” are in the same general category!

There is not only no connection whatsoever between the story and that jack-o-lantern cover, there is actually an anti-connection! The cover is so extraordinarily misleading that throwing a dart at fantasy covers and picking one at random was truly three orders of magnitude — at least — better than that jack-o-lantern cover!

This is such a bad cover it would be funny, except that it really isn’t funny. What a terrible thing to do to a good author and an excellent book!

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