Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Writing “echoes”

Here’s a post by James Scott Bell at Kill Zone Blog: Stir your echoes

A writing echo is the close repetition of a word or phrase:

Monica charged into the room.
“So there you are!” she said.
Harvey said, “You don’t understand.”
The girl in the bed elbowed Harvey. “I think she does.”
“See you in court,” Monica said as she charged out the door.

The obvious echo here is charged. The words occur in close proximity. The echo clangs on the ear of the reader. It’s what I call one of those writing “speed bumps” that, even for a brief moment, can take the reader out of a smooth, fictional ride.

So don’t put them in.

But an echo is easy for a writer to write and overlook when editing his own manuscript. It should be something a good editor or reader catches for you.

Bell is SO RIGHT that this kind of repeated word is “easy for a writer to write.” He does not go far enough in his comment. Let me rephrase it more forcefully:

These echoes are AN ABSOLUTE PLAGUE UPON US.

Bell suggests doing a search to find words you tend to echo. Well, that’s a peachy idea, except that there is no specific word that I personally “tend to echo.” I mean, sure, maybe, but that isn’t the problem. If there were specific words, I could do a search for them as Bell says and there would be no problem.

But, no.

The problem is with every dratted word in the dictionary. It’s like the back of my brain says, OH! Let’s describe this guy as “sauntering!” And then for the rest of that page, the back of my brain continues to consider “saunter” and variations the ideal word for everyone moving anywhere. Then I’m over it and don’t use “saunter” or “sauntering” again during that book.

This is incredibly hard to spot when revising.

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Mystery and Suspense Novels: revealed!

So, I’m currently listening to a Great Courses offering called (somehwat amusingly) The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction. I do get a kick of the use of the word “secrets” in this kind of title — LOOK! SECRETS! Obviously there are no secrets to reveal; how could there be? It’s just a set of lectures about the development of this genre of fiction, from Edgar Allen Poe on forward.

Thirty-six lectures. The lecturer is David Schmid of, let me see, Stanford.

I’m enjoying listening to these lectures, mostly. The topic is inherently interesting but low-key. I mean, when I listened to a Great Courses offering on terrible military blunders, I literally could not bring myself to listen all the way through some of the lectures because hearing all about the drawn-out tragedy crashing down was sometimes too stressful. Obviously this topic isn’t like that.

So far Schmid has emphasized three stories by Poe, then the Sherlock Holmes stories and Agatha Christie, then the hardboiled detective era with a lot of emphasis on the Maltese Falcon, and honestly he has barely mentioned any of the mystery authors I most would like him to bring up. He did discuss Ngaio Marsh, not too extensively. Not a word yet about Rex Stout, though I have some hope he will appear at some point.

But what I want to rant about here is Schmid’s take on cozy mysteries.

I really would like to be in his actual class so I could write a paper (I assume he assigns papers) tearing apart his view on this subgenre. Let me summarize his position as clearly as I can:

a) Cozy mysteries are criticized for their lack of realism given the lack of on-stage, dramatic violence and career criminals and the central presence of amateur detectives rather than police or private detectives, but it is that very lack of realism that appeals to readers, especially in trying times, and

b) Cozy mysteries are defined by the above characteristics and by their setting in a small town or suburb, and if we look closely at mysteries and suspense novels with those sorts of settings, we will see how many such novels push against the perception of small towns and suburbs as safe and comfortable. Just look, for example, at Gone Girl and various other novels, which show us the dark underbelly of these settings! Thus we see that human tragedy and terror lurk even where we should feel safe.

… and I listened to this lecture all the way through thinking, Good heavens, what are you SAYING? Have you never actually READ cozy mysteries?

I surmise that David Schmid likes noir detective novels and psychological suspense novels and so on and that he doesn’t like cozy mysteries, and probably hates cutesy mysteries (if he acknowledges them at all), and that’s all very well, but I can hardly see how he could be more wrong if he tried. I mean, he’s right about the small town setting and about the protagonist being an amateur sleuth, and he’s sometimes right about the lack of realism (though not always!), but he’s totally wrong about the heart of the whole subgenre.

I’m certain I wrote a post on cozy mysteries not so very long ago, but whatever, here again are the actual defining characteristics of cozies, which do not overlap in any substantial way with psychological suspense regardless of setting:

Cozy mysteries —

–Generally have a small town or village or rural setting, so that’s fine.

–Generally center a female protagonist who is a the owner of a small and quirky business rather than a cop or detective — Schmid did not mention either of the bolded characteristics, just left it as “amateur detective.”

–Generally or always involve an important romance subplot that unfolds over the course of the series, frequently though not necessarily involving a cop or detective as the male lead. Schmid does not appear to have noticed this at all! This is completely antithetical to “showing us the dark underbelly of village life,” which he considers so important to the best writers of cozy mysteries.

Let me go way out on a limb and say that if the central point of the story is to show the reader the dark underbelly of anything, that story is NOT A COZY MYSTERY. Why do you think the word “cozy” is in the name of the subgenre? The whole POINT of a cozy mystery is to center and develop positive relationships, not only romances but friendships, between the female protagonist and a bunch of supporting characters, while also involving a mystery plot. The emphasis on positive relationships and romance is the single most central feature of cozy mysteries. THIS is what appeals to readers who like the subgenre! It’s like you dropped romance novels, mystery novels, and chick lit in a blender and hit the “blend” button. That’s what cosy mysteries ARE — mysteries with much more emphasis on romance and relationships than you will find in any other subgenre within mystery and suspense fiction.

This is OBVIOUS.

And Schmid does not seem to have noticed.

And that is why I would love to write a paper in his class.

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Etymology

Here’s an article on the etymology of lots of words related to the Covid virus — LANGUAGE in a TIME of CORONA

The details here are really fascinating:

As with much of the early medical terminology, CRISIS migrated to English from Greece via Rome. The Greek word is krisis, and it was used in medicine by Hippocrates and Galen, but its general sense in ancient Greek was “judgment, the result of a trial, a selection.” It is from the verb krinein “to separate, decide, judge,” which probably is from a PIE root meaning “to sieve.”

To sieve or sift is, figuratively “to discriminate, to distinguish” (as when the police inspectors “sift through the evidence”). Sifting and winnowing were essential activities in agricultural communities, and their purpose is to separate that which is good or usable from that which is neither. Judgment is implied.

The Old English cognate is hriddel “a sieve.” Native English had the word only in a literal sense, and its best-known survival now probably is the derived verb RIDDLE“perforate with many holes.” (The other RIDDLE, the “word-puzzle” sense, is from a different root and is related to READand RHYME).

But beyond homely Old English the PIE “sieve” root has had a prolific sense development. In Latin it yielded both literal (cribrum “a sieve”) and figurative senses (crimen “indictment, accusation”), and words that had both: cernere “to sift, separate,” also “to distinguish.”

There’s lots more. Click through and read the whole (fascinating) thing.

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We live in a Science Fiction world

I know we live in a SF world, okay? I’m aware that this is The Future and we are living in it and new, wildly futuristic technology is everywhere, but still, this headline, which appears to be real (?) makes me blink:

KFC will test lab-grown chicken nuggets made with a 3D bioprinter this fall in Russia

The chicken chain has partnered with 3D Bioprinting Solutions to create a chicken nugget made in a lab with chicken and plant cells using bioprinting. Bioprinting, which uses 3D-printing techniques to combine biological material, is used in medicine to create tissue and even organs.

The 3D-printed chicken nuggets will closely mimic the taste and appearance of KFC’s original chicken nuggets, according to the press release. KFC expects the production of 3D-printed nuggets to be more environmentally friendly than the production process of its traditional chicken nuggets. The fall release will mark the first debut of a lab-grown chicken nugget at a global fast-food chain like KFC.

It’s not April 1st. I guess this is true?

Seems like a short step from this to Star Trek food replicators.

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Book cakes

Here’s a post at Book Riot that you can certainly sink your virtual teeth into: 19 UNBELIEVABLY REALISTIC BOOK CAKES THAT WILL HAVE YOU SIDE-EYEING YOUR BOOKSHELVES

I realize that photos of cakes that really, really look like books is … well, it’s a little hard to tell that they are actually cakes, rather than books. I’m taking their word for it that these are cakes. Although I wouldn’t be eager to slice into a super-fancy cake of any kind, I do feel a photo of a book cake would be improved by taking a slice out of it so that the viewer can tell for SURE that the thing is a cake, not a book.

The first entry is … THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO! That’s so appropriate given recent posts here, such as this one and this one.

No way to copy the image and post it here, so click through and enjoy the image at Book Riot. The one with the roses is my actual favorite.

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Voice acting for an audiobook

In case you’re interested, the voice actor who’s producing the audiobook for TUYO, Patrick McCaffrey, has a Facebook page, here, where he’s doing video presentations about the process of creating an audiobook.

Here’s his post where he records a chapter of TUYO. (With the help of a charming young cat, I’ll add.) This isn’t the first chapter, so it would be hard to figure out what’s going on if you haven’t read the book. I will say, he’s given Hokino a very dramatic style compared to Ryo or Aras. Probably that’s part of the continuing effort to make every character sound different, but part of it is that he’s drawing out the vowels a little for Ugaro — because, if you remember, that’s something Ryo is told very early, that to improve his accent in darau, he should shorten his vowels.

Here’s a sample of the comments and queries I get from Patrick — I think you’ll be impressed by how thorough and careful he is when he’s preparing to record:

Did the script analysis for chapters 5-10, and read ahead to chapter 14. I think I was slightly wrong in Esau’s personality, he’s more than just a generic soldier, he has a bit of a bored tone in most of what he does and says. And a lot of Lord Aras’ tone will continue to be a very knowing and matter-of-fact. And Harana’s impatience/annoyance will be a little more obvious. For Chapter 6 – Ianan – pronunciation ‘EE-ah-nan’ (like naan bread). For Deracas Govis Taranat, is the ‘G’ in Govis the same sound as in Geras’ name? Chapter 7 – Aedani – is the pronunciation ‘AY-ee-da-nee’ ; ‘AY-da-nee’ ; or ‘ay-DA-nee’ or some other pronunciation? All of the other new names are pretty straight forward. Chapter 8 – Laraut – ‘la-ROWT’ – friendly voice, somewhere between Esau and Suyet. Lalani – ‘la-LA-nee’ – mischievous and cheerful. Sestaket – ‘ses-KA-tet’ Chapter 9 – Hokino inKera – Proud, Strong, not without guile. Longer speech patterns to indicate Taksu. The entire interrogation feels like horse trading/haggling. Chapter 10 – Primarily a monologue about all the inner turmoil of his thoughts; his conflicts about honor and oaths and sorcery and magic. If there’s anything that is important that I didn’t mention, please let me know. 

And here’s a post where he does “pick ups” — corrections — later.

The whole thing makes me (even more) glad that I never for one second considered recording an audio version myself. A lot goes into this! I’ve listened to the first four complete chapters so far and I can assure you that the final product is smooth, nothing like the somewhat stumbling and repetitive recording process.

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When writing back cover descriptions …

Here is the back cover description for Chaos, by Iris Johansen, a book that’s included with this month’s SFBC mailing:

When CIA agent Alisa Flynn flaunts the rules by breaking into a mansion in the middle of the night, she skillfully circumvents alarms and outwits guards only to find herself standing in billionaire Gabe Korgan’s study . . . busted by Korgan himself. This could cost her her job unless, in a split second, she can turn the tables and try to convince him to join her on the most important mission of her life.


In a ripped-from-the-headlines plot, schoolgirls in Africa have been kidnapped, and Alisa knows that Korgan has the courage, financial means, and high-tech weaponry to help rescue them. With so many innocent lives hanging in the balance, what she doesn’t reveal is that one of those schoolgirls is like a little sister to her. But when the truth gets out, the stakes grow even higher.


Calling in additional assistance from renowned horse whisperer Margaret Douglas, Alisa and Gabe lay their plans, only to see them descend into chaos as the line between right and wrong wavers before them like a mirage. Every path is strewn with pitfalls, each likely to get them — or the hostages — killed. But with the help of a brave team and a horse with the heart of a warrior, they might just get out of this alive.

Quick! Who spotted the problem with the above description?

This is actually the first time I’ve personally seen someone using “flaunt” when they mean “flout.” I’ve heard other people say this is one of the typos in their personal top ten most hated, but I’ve never noticed it and don’t think the words seem that same and kind of wondered whether this error is actually all that common.

Well, I guess maybe it is, if it got into the book’s description on Amazon and in the SFBC mailing and no one caught it.

I think this particular error has to occur for people who don’t subvocalize. The words do not sound very much alike to me, so I suspect those who do subvocalize don’t tend to make this mistake. What do you all think? Is this a typo that gives you trouble, and if so, do you or don’t you silently pronounce words as you read them?

I like the general sound of the story, but typo aside, the description does have a few problems. You can’t convince anybody of anything in “a split second.” Convincing somebody necessarily takes time. It’s not clear why the protagonist reserves the information that one of the children is special to her — what’s the reasoning there? I get why the person who wrote the description wanted to mention the horse — lots of readers like horses — but this “And there’s a horse!” type of mention seems weird to me. One sentence indicating why a horse is a useful in a rescue mission in Africa would have helped a lot.

I think what I actually like is my impression of what this story could be, depending on how the author wrote it. I like the idea of the story I would write if I were matching that description. Having never read anything by this author, it’s difficult to guess whether I’d like the story Johansen wrote. I know this isn’t SFF, but has anybody read anything by her? What did you think?

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Epistolary SFF Novels

Okay, related to the previous post about second-person and second-person-adjacent stylistic choices: I said, I hate this kind of style, except I don’t mind this sort of style if we see it in letters. So, The Tiger’s Daughter, which apparently places most of the story into a single letter, would perhaps work for me. More typical of epistolary novels is This is How You Lose the Time War, which evidently pours a lot of the story into a series of letters exchanged back and forth.

I actually DO like epistolary novels. This may be — I think it probably is — because the second-person-adjacent style of a letter is quite natural. There’s none of the deliberate consciousness of craft that pushes me away from a straight second-person narrative. Anyway, I definitely do like true epistolary novels and also novels written as journal entries and other variants on this theme.

So that obviously invites a second post: Top Ten (or however many) Epistolary SFF novels. I’m not placing these in any order, except I’ll start with the one which some of you were giving a thumbs-up in the last post and then see how many more I can think of:

  1. This is How You Lose the Time War by El-Mohtar and Gladstone

Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandment finds a letter. It reads: Burn before reading.

Thus begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents hellbent on securing the best possible future for their warring factions. Now, what began as a taunt, a battlefield boast, becomes something more. Something epic. Something romantic. Something that could change the past and the future.

Fine, so, I grant, I now remember having read that description before and thinking, Time travel, meh, but maybe I’ll try it. Given your comments, I’m now quite likely to try it one of these days. I don’t HATE time travel, I just don’t really like it.

2. Emergence by David Palmer.

This delightful story, told as diary entries, was first published a zillion years ago, but has since been republished and is available for Kindle. It’s one of the more optimistically framed post-apocalyptic novels, with a delightful, if not entirely believable, twelve-year-old protagonist, Candy Smith-Foster. And a macaw. The sequel, incidentally, is now also available in Kindle format. It’s just about as delightful, though possibly even a little less believable. If you’re into uber-competent protagonists, these are must-reads, especially if you also enjoy animal sidekicks.

3. Touchstone trilogy by Andrea K Höst

Of course we have all read this, right? If I were doing these entries from most-re-read on down, this one would be at the top. I never get tired of it, though I do re-read out of order and emphasize certain scenes and so on.

4. Sorcery and Cecelia by Wrede and Stevermer

I think the first book of this little trilogy is possibly one of the most delightful fantasy novels that has ever been written. It’s certainly the most charming epistolary fantasy novel you’ll find anywhere. I think the first book is the best, but you know, if you’re in the mood for something delightful but not too cutesy, you could not do better than picking up the whole trilogy.

5. Freedom and Necessity by Brust and Bull

On the south coast of England, London man-about-town James Cobham comes to himself in a country inn, with no idea how he got there. Corresponding with his brother, he discovers he has been presumed drowned in a boating accident.

Much, much heavier going. But very well put together. I’ve read it several times and enjoyed it very much; I liked it best the second time I read it rather than the first, because it is complicated and does weave multiple strands together at a rather slow pace.

6. Illuminae trilogy by Kaufman and Kristoff

This morning, Kady thought breaking up with Ezra was the hardest thing she’d have to do. This afternoon, her planet was invaded.
  
Told through a fascinating dossier of hacked documents—including emails, maps, files, IMs, medical reports, interviews, and more—Illuminae is the first book in a heart-stopping trilogy about lives interrupted, the price of truth, and the courage of everyday heroes.

One of the most fun, and certainly one of the most over-the-top, space opera adventure stories I have ever read. You MUST get these in paper, because the text effects would be MADDENING on a Kindle. (I’m pretty sure. If you’ve read these in ebook form, well, what did you think?) I’ve heard of someone getting this in audio format and no no no do not do that. All the Ascii art and spiralling text and whatever, that would NEVER work.

Here’s my review of Illuminae from a couple of years back. Highly, highly recommended, but have your suspension of disbelief brushed off and ready to go when you open the first book.

7. Flowers for Algernon

Needs no description

8. Dracula

Also needs no descrption

And I’m out. Eight is all I can think of. If anyone’s got another good SFF epistolary novel in mind, drop it in the comments!

I’ll add: I also really enjoyed this non-SFF semi-epistolary romance:

Attachments by Rowell

So if you’ve got an epistolary novel in mind that’s not SFF, by all means, share that as well.

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Second person

At tor.com, this post: 12 SFF Stories Told From Second-Person Perspective

Interesting! I have to be in just the right mood to want to read something in second person … it is such a self-conscious mode! It screams: Pay attention to the craft of this story! Do not even think about being emotionally engaged! Emotional engagement is not the point! Or so it seems to me, at least.

Twelve! That’s a long list for this particular category of SFF stories. Let’s just take a look …

1.Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir.

2. The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie — oh, yes, I remember now, starting this book and thinking OH NO and closing it again.

“I first saw you when you rode out of the forest, past the cluster of tall, bulge-eyed offering stakes, your horse at a walk. You rode beside Mawat …”

I believe that’s as far as I got. Not in the mood! Do not know when I will be in the mood, if ever.

Would you call that second person, though? I’d call that … what? … interior monologue first person. It’s still incredibly contrived and self-conscious.

3. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

4. “The Girlfriend’s Guide to Gods” by Maria Dahvana Headley — this is a short story. A shorter form that’s using second person is MUCH more approachable for me than a novel. I’m much more willing to put up with the form if I know going in that the story is not that big a commitment.

5. Romeo and/or Juliet by Ryan North — oh, now, that’s just cheating. This is a fun choose-your-own-adventure . . . thing. Book. Book-like thing. Not a novel or a story. Lots of tiny little stories embedded in this . . . thing. Fun, though.

6. Emergency Skin by N.K. Jemisin

7. The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold

8. The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera — I have this one on my TBR shelves. Hmm. It says here that most of the novel, or a large part of it, is in the form of a letter someone is reading, so … let me see … okay, like this:

Shizuka, my Shizuka. If Grandmother Sky is good, this finds you sitting on your throne, eating far too many sweets, and complaining about all the meetings you must attend.

My apologies for the awful calligraphy. I know you are shaking your head even as you read this, saying something about my brushstrokes not being decisive enough.

That starts a few pages from the actual beginning of the story. Actually . . . this is a good technique. At least, for me it seems to counter some of the immediate recoil I otherwise experience when faced with second person, or monologue first person addressed to the reader, or whatever you’d call this. The point is, the conceit of putting the story into a letter that’s read after the fact does work better for me than not having this kind of framing. Interesting! I didn’t realize adding a frame would help me accept this style, but apparently it might.

Let’s see, what else —

9. This is How You Lose the Time War by Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar

10. Redshirts by John Scalzi — the codas at the end. True. I’d forgotten about those.

11. Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

12. You by Austin Grossman

A few of these sound sort of interesting. I’ve heard a lot about the Gladstone/El-Mohtar book, but (a) time travel is somewhat to moderately repellent to me as a trope, and now (b) self-conscious choices of second-person or second-person-adjacent styles are moderately to very repellent as a style, so … if any of you have read this book and love it, let me know. Otherwise no matter how much people rave about it, I’m unlikely to try it myself.

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Courage in Fiction

At Kill Zone Blog, this post by John Gilstrap: Courage in Fiction.

That’s a title that instantly catches my attention, as courage is such an important quality in fiction. That is, regardless of what other qualities the protagonist may have, he or she or it must have courage. Not necessarily gung-ho leap-upon-them do-or-die physical courage, but very definitely some type of courage.

So let’s see what Gilstrap has to say about this crucial protagonist quality …

Okay, there is a long intro about important vs commercial fiction — given that this post is at Kill Zone Blog, you can imagine the general tenor of Gilstrap’s comments on that topic. Then basically one paragraph about courage, at the end:

Every week, my DVR records episodes of “12 O’Clock High”, starring Robert Lansing as General Frank Savage. I remember watching it as a kid, but all I remember are the scenes of aerial battle. The stories are really very complex and often quite moving. When you consider that the series aired when World War 2 wasn’t yet 20 years in the past, and that more pilots died in the 8th Air Force out of England than did all of the Marines in the Pacific theater, the story lines are particularly courageous. Battle fatigue (PTSD), cowardice, reckless bravery, loss of friends and the futility of war are all addressed in those episodes. They entertain because they resonate, and they resonate because we care about these young men who are forced to take exceptional risks for the benefit of others. We see courage in action. And it’s inspiring.

Those last few sentences are where I sort of thought the whole post would linger, but not really. I find the post a bit disappointing because I don’t think it does enough with the suggested topic. Let me just poke around a little …

Here is a post at Stylist: Fifteen books that taught us to have courage and be kind.

That is probably a more satisfactory post. I imagine that you can hardly throw a dart at fiction without hitting excellent examples of courage. Well, maybe literary fiction. But basically you’re going to find courage absolutely everywhere. Kindness is probably only a little less common. Hard to imagine picking out fifteen books that particularly exemplify these qualities. I would say that to teach the reader to have courage and be kind, the protagonists who demonstrate those qualities should be ordinary people, not too overwhelmingly outside normal experience. That is, Frodo, not Aragorn. Almost anybody rather than the Count of Monte Cristo. Let’s see what books this post picks out of the infinite possibilities …

Ah! The Lord of the Rings, right at the top. For exactly the reason I suggested:

They are distinctly ordinary – and so, when the world cries out for a hero to rise up and fight against evil, Frodo, Samwise, Merry and Pippin initially worry that maybe they are not good enough, or smart enough, or strong enough, to make a difference. That an ordinary person, living an ordinary life, can never hope to do something truly extraordinary.

But over the course of the trilogy, they are proven wrong. Time and time again, they are forced to stare darkness in the face – and, time and time again, they prove that anyone can do anything, so long as their courage holds, their spirit does not fail and there’s a warm dinner to look forward to at the end of it all.

Yes, yes! I’m now feeling good about this post. What are the other fourteen books this post picks out? Okay, a bunch of stories I have read, some not very recently, like To Kill a Mockingbird, and some much more recent, like The Hunger Games. I see almost nothing here I would disagree with.

My favorite book on this list: Little Women. I wouldn’t have thought of that one! But it’s a very good choice for both courage and kindness. Oh, and Charlotte’s Web! Another surprising and excellent choice. By all means click through and see what other books on this list surprise and please you.

It’s practically impossible, as I said, to pick out anything myself given near-infinite choices. Let me see. Courage AND kindness. Hmm.

Okay. I’m thinking of specific characters; for me, that’s the easiest way to manage this.

Terry Pratchett’s Captain Carrot is a good choice for a character who exemplifies both qualities. I detest those stupid names Pratchett gave so many characters, so it’s all I can do to type the above sentence, but Carrot IS a great character for this kind of list.

Maia in The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison.

Paksenarrion in the titular series by Elizabeth Moon.

Cordelia in the Vorkosigan series.

And what the heck, I will end with one of mine:

Aras in Tuyo.

Aras Samaura may be the kindest important character in any of my books. Or I might say, the kindest protagonist. Although, I have to add, he is also one of the most ruthless.

If you were picking out one character in SFF who shows both courage and kindness, who would it be? Do some name dropping in the comments. Gold star if it’s a book I haven’t read, because this sort of character is exactly the kind who’s likely to lead to expansion of my TBR pile.

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