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Recent Reading: Crown Duel, Court Duel, A Stranger to Command, by Sherwood Smith

So, you know, I’d never read anything by Sherwood Smith? I know, right? Actually, I think I’d got her mixed up in my head with another author whom I don’t like (I don’t remember who). But then I saw one or two or three references to her books by people whose taste I trust, so I asked for recommendations for what of hers to try, and the Crown Duel / Court Duel duology came up several times. A Stranger to Command is a companion novel, set earlier.

Okay, so – I enjoyed Crown Duel, I loved Court Duel, and I REALLY loved A Stranger to Command.

Meliara, the protagonist of the duology, is a good protagonist, but she initially annoyed me because she is emotional, hot-headed, naïve, and ignorant about the world. A kid reading this book would probably like Mel better than I did, because her intentions are good. But she gets caught by the bad guys fairly early on and she totally depends on luck and the machinations of the most important secondary character, Shevraeth, to survive and escape.

What becomes clear as the duology goes on is that Sherwood Smith knows perfectly well that Mel is naïve and ignorant – because Mel herself realizes this (eventually) and takes steps to learn about the world. And because though she totally misjudges Shevraeth in the beginning, she eventually figures that out and tries hard to correct her judgment. With, for a long time, mixed success.

What absolutely makes this duology is Shevraeth. Here Smith has taken the unusual choice of creating a wonderful, interesting (and uber-competent) character and never, ever showing us his point of view. We are strictly in Mel’s pov throughout, and we can clearly see Shevraeth’s quality long before Mel can. This structure reminds me of the way Dorothy Dunnett wrote the Lymond Chronicles and also her murder mysteries, separating the pov character from the true protagonist – because in a lot of ways Shevraeth is the protagonist. Every single reader is going to fall in love with him. I sure did.

And even though a lot more adventure / narrow escapes / wild rides and so forth take place in the first book? I thought the first book was pretty good, but loved the second. The second is all about Mel learning to navigate the world of the court, and about sorting out the relationship between her and Shevraeth, and though there is one wild ride and one scary confrontation, basically it is a much quieter and slower-paced book. But I loved Mel, who by the start of the second book has developed into a character I liked much better – and of course I loved watching her relationship with Shevraeth work itself out, because hey, Shevraeth, right?

Let me add here that if you love Crown Duel / Court Duel, and Shevraeth, then you definitely owe it to yourself to read Andrea Höst’s Touchstone Trilogy. Shevraeth reminds me VERY STRONGLY of Kaoren Ruuel, the male lead of the Touchstone story. I would say that Höst’s trilogy is more sophisticated and aimed at a somewhat older reader, and you will need to keep in mind that the true romance doesn’t really kick off till partway through the second book. But I confidently predict that any reader who loves Shevraeth will love Ruuel.

The other story that just leaps instantly to mind in this context is one you will unfortunately have a lot more trouble finding: An Alien Music by Annabel and Edgar Johnson. I have a copy, because I loved it as a kid when I read it as a library book, and read it over and over. As an adult, I tracked down a copy – this was before Amazon – and paid $40 for it, so that shows you how much I wanted it. There is no ebook edition, unfortunately, and I see that used copies are still pretty high on Amazon. But again, if you loved Crown Duel / Court Duel, I can virtually promise you will love An Alien Music.

If you normally read fantasy and not SF, do NOT let the SF trappings put you off either the Touchstone Trilogy or An Alien Music, or you will truly be missing out.

Okay! A Stranger to Command. You know how uber-confident Shevraeth is in Crown Duel / Court Duel. You know how he got that way? Not by sheer authorial fiat, it turns out. No. He got that way because of his background, which is covered in A Stranger to Command – which can be read either before or after the duology, but I enjoyed reading it afterward. It is a much slower paced novel dealing with Shevraeth’s years in a military school in a foreign country, and it is so interesting, because Smith totally deals with the day-to-day life of the school and has essentially nothing big and important happen in the entire book. The big important stuff happened in the backstory – did she hit this in a different series, and if so, what series? Because I would love to read it – and in the future. This whole novel is the in-between years after one bad guy has been defeated and before the next installment of serious conflict.

I loved this book. Loved it. I bet it gets more variable ratings on Goodreads than the duology (I haven’t checked, but that’s my bet). I bet younger readers in general do not love this book as much as older readers. But for a reader who loves a detailed school story where the protagonist starts off sympathetic and competent and only gets better and better as you go on – a story where you can put yourself right in the protagonist’s life – this one is hard to beat.

Telling the duology from Mel’s pov and leaving the reader to see Shevraeth from the outside was a great choice and made Shevraeth a great character. The bits at the end of the duology – adding scenes from Shevraeth’s pov – are okay, but not necessary. Telling the story of Shevraeth’s background from his pov was another great choice. These three books should definitely be read as a unit. Highly recommended, for readers from say, twelve on up.

I’ll definitely be looking for more books by Sherwood Smith in the near future; a big Thank You to all who recommended her to me and pointed me toward this set of books in particular.

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An unexpectedly excellent Labor Day weekend —

People! I realize that you may not know very much about the world of show dogs, but I assure you, it isn’t often that a six-month-old puppy wins a major her first time out at an AKC show! Every single one of the other girls entered was a decent, quality entry, but Honey beat them all — including her own mother. It’s her movement: she has extraordinarily good movement, even though she has a couple cosmetic flaws. You can bet that this judge will be going on my list as a movement guy who will excuse cosmetic faults if the dog’s structure and movement are good enough. AND as a confident judge who will put a puppy right up front, over the heads of mature, quality adults.

Through a ridiculous oversight, I somehow neglected to have a win photo taken, and I don’t even have a current picture of Honey to post. She needs to win again in two weeks and then I will have a win photo taken, even though that is just a one-point show and not a major. (Of course, she may not win. I don’t mean to sound like it’ a sure thing.)

And! Though Honey’s win on Sunday was the unexpected win, on Saturday, her mother, Kenya, picked up her second major (and Best of Breed, yay!). That means Kenya is essentially guaranteed to finish her championship, because I can always enter her in one small show after another and pick up those points against minimal competition. But hopefully she will pick up those points fairly briskly. Like, this month. She is entered in four shows this month, so I’ll be crossing my fingers that she will win at least a couple of times.

So, yeah, EVEN THOUGH the show site was unairconditioned and horrifically hot, it was a great show.

Quick link — yeah, sorry, no pictures from this weekend’s show, but if you’re curious, here’s a link to my other site, with pictures. I have to admit that Kenya is now pudgier than when this photo was taken, and of course Honey is now six months old instead of eight weeks. But hey — pictures!

Anyway, I couldn’t connect to the internet because the hotel was out in the middle of the forest, but I did read a lot and write some reviews, though, so those will follow.

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A Sherlock Holmes Scientific Romance

I just wanted to share this with you all, because “Sherlock Holmes” and “crop circles” are entertaining when in the same sentence, don’t you think?

This is actually a novella, “The Adventure of the Field Theorems” available at Book View Cafe in pdf or mobi or epub formats. I thought the idea was funny, even though I’m not actually a Sherlock Holmes fan generally.

The Holmes novella is the third title down. Actually, if you scroll up and down, there are several titles that are kinda tempting. Now that I’ve read CROWN DUEL / COURT DUEL by Sherwood Smith — and I really enjoyed them, especially the latter — anyway, now her titles are jumping out at me. I didn’t know she ever wrote contemporary, but her novelette “Being Real” looks like fun, and hey, it’s only $0.99.

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Writing & Interruptions

An interesting post about dealing with interruptions in a writing career, over at Book View Cafe, by Deborah J Ross.

Then life handed me Interruptions. Non-negotiable Interruptions. The good ones involved having to drop whatever new project I was working on for reviewing copy edits, revising to editorial feedback, or proofreading a book in production. It simply isn’t professional to tell your editor, “Yes, I know this book has a tight deadline but I simply can’t set aside this on-spec novella so you’ll simply have to wait until the muse takes a vacation.”

For me, many interruptions are provided by the natural world: gotta get these cuttings made right now or it will be too late. Gotta drop everything and take care of these premature puppies right now because, hello, puppies have priorty.

But! Unlike Debora Ross, I am comfortable writing fifty or a hundred pages of some project and setting it aside for months or even years. It makes me feel like that project is underway, like I have something to come back to. Which is true, obviously. Re-reading those pages usually gets me in the right frame of mind to pick up that project and go on with it.

I have two — no, wait, three — projects in that stage right now. Yay!

There’s a different kind of interruption that I hate, though. That’s when I have this GREAT SCENE in my head that I really want to write, but no uninterrupted days in which to work on it. That will make me just stop dead, waiting, because I want to enjoy that scene and I won’t be able to enjoy it if I have to work on it a mere hour at a time. So in this case, stopping is a kind of indulgence.

Deborah Ross also refers to a much more serious kind of interruption, though: interruptions forced on us by a real crisis.

The thing is that when we return to projects suspended because of crisis, we do so as a different people. Interruptions due to crash-and-burn deadlines may strengthen critical skills, but they don’t generally cause us to reach deep into ourselves and emerge stronger but scarred. I’m not the writer or the person I was when I drafted those shorter pieces or that fractured novel. I’m something different.

Yes, this would be so true. I’m hoping not to have too many really serious crises, but you know, I don’t imagine anybody gets through life without a couple.

Anyway, nice article! Click through and read it, if you like.

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Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

Okay, waiting to get THE SHATTERED PILLARS, which will probably arrive while I’m gone for this weekend’s show, which means I won’t get to read it till Monday. Which is unfortunate! Because having finished RANGE OF GHOSTS, I can tell you that the first book does not stand alone. I don’t know that the second book will, either, but hey, I’ll chance it.

The carrion-king: creepy, isn’t he? I actually sort of like scorpions, but I’m not keen on how he’s set up poor Edene as part of his Scary Plan, whatever that turns out to be.

Love Temur. Love his magic horse, who is handled far, far better than most magic horses in fantasy. It’s only toward the end that we become pretty sure that yes, she is magic. She is clearly an Akhal Teke, btw. That is plainly the real-world breed on which the steppe ponies are based. They really do often have a metallic sheen to their coats, thus:

See the long flat muscles, the lean build? The metallic sheen is in fact created by the structure of the hair; the opaque part of each hair is reduced, the translucent part makes up more of each hair; thus the sheen. This is a fascinating breed and it is so cool that Elizabeth Bear did her research and made the horses fit the landscape.

The dogs, too. The working dogs she described are matted, which in fact was an asset because the heavy felted or corded mats protected them from wolves and weather, but here’s what those big sheep-guarding dogs look like in the real world:

These are Tibetan mastiffs. Again, Bear’s description is perfectly clear; if you know this breed exists, you can recognize her dogs right off.

Plus the food and the clothes and the attitudes created by the nomadic lifestyle and the societal attitudes toward women — the steppes are a good place to be a woman; other places not so much — and the landscape, of course. All very nicely drawn.

And have I mentioned the moons? You should read this series just for the creative astrology!

Okay, more extensive comments after I read the second book. But one more Akhal Teke picture to end, because it doesn’t show the metallic sheen so well, but it’s a GREAT picture:

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Moving along with BLACK DOG —

Got my first email about the cover today — not that there are any rough sketches or anything, but they are starting the initial thinking-about-it phase. Exciting! And nice to be consulted, though I certainly don’t intend to try to shove my non-professional opinion down the artist’s throat, because really, that’s just silly.

Though there mustn’t be a real wolf on the cover. That’s important, because black dogs aren’t wolves and really don’t look like wolves. It’s like putting a dragon on the cover of THE FLOATING ISLANDS, and I was all like: IT MUST HAVE FEATHERS, and the artist wound up just not putting a dragon on the cover, which was FINE, as long as he didn’t try to put on a bat-winged dragon.

I know, I KNOW, the purpose of the cover is to sell the book. That’s what it’s for! So there’s all this marketing stuff to consider. Do we want a girl on the cover? In a sexy, contorted pose? (Maybe to the first; and in my opinion, a decisive No to the second — to me, Natividad is pretty in a girl-next-door way.)

So you see I do have opinions, actually.

But then, to me, it seems like these days Every. Single. Paranormal/UF. Cover. has a girl in a sexy pose with a weapon in her hand and an animal in the background, and they all totally blur together for me. So there’s the question: do you want to signal to readers that this is a paranormal/UF? Or do you want to steer clear of the herd and chance missing readers who are actually looking for paranormal/UF? It’s even harder when you consider that BLACK DOG both is and is not a paranormal/UF title.

I mean, there is some romance, but it is not really front-and-center the way you expect in paranormal romance. It’s maybe more UF, except not urban. (Rural fantasy?) So it’s not clear what signals to try to send.

Plus these days a cover really has to look okay as a thumbnail on Amazon and wherever.

You know what I personally really like in a cover, though?

Landscape. Like, check this one out:

I just did a search for paranormal covers and this one jumped out at me — nearly all the rest had the girl taking up like 80 percent of the cover, usually in a sexy or bring-it kind of pose, all the elements that are so typical these days. This one is more interesting to me because it both sets the characters in the scene and evokes the title.

And I like a more artistic cover, too, like this one:

Which of course I mentioned to my Strange Chemistry editor. I can’t even tell you how much I’m looking forward to seeing what the artists and cover designers come up with!

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Finished! Plus, link to a celebratory recipe. Plus, what should I read now that I have time?

For certain generous values of “finished.” But, yay! First rough draft is in fact done! 118,000 words, which is an excellent rough draft length — I will do my best to cut a minimum of 10,000 words. That’s only 8 percent; how hard can it be? Right?


I celebrated by making this super-indulgent recipe for breakfast on Sunday. It should come with a warning: MAKE FOR A CROWD. YOU CAN’T EAT JUST ONE. Not that I was trying to stop at just one, but honestly, hard to stop after a dozen, too. I made half the recipe and it’s amazing how many coconutty-chocolatety little biscuit things you can devour in one day. Mmm.

The ganache would be totally gilding the lily, but I admit I didn’t bother with that part.

So, anyway. Tonight I want to switch one smallish scene to Natividad’s pov, since for some inexplicable reason I didn’t do that in the first place. I don’t know what the back of my writerly brain was thinking that I didn’t do it that way in the first place. Honestly, brain, get a clue.

Then I have a list of about, I don’t know, a dozen things that I need to fiddle with. Some are specific and therefore easy; some are the kind of tweak-through-the-whole-manuscript thing that is enormously tedious and annoying. Then there is always the difficult decision about whether everybody has a clear character arc and the fiddling necessary to make sure the answer is Yes. For this one, there is also the equally difficult decision about whether the two plotlines tie together well enough. (If they don’t, I’m sure my agent, Caitlin will tell me ALL about it, she has an invaluable eye for that kind of thing.)

But! I don’t intend to tackle the real revision until September, maybe even mid-September, because often these things work better with a little time to rest. So in the meantime, I will definitely be choosing some great books to read. But what?

On my physical TBR shelves, I have RANGE OF GHOSTS by Elizabeth Bear — you know, I have never read anything by Bear? Also UNDER HEAVEN by Kay, and NAMAAH’S KISS by Carey. Among a lot of other things, naturally. I would really like to whittle down the number of books on the TBR shelves, which are overflowing just a trifle. Maybe I could go on an Asian-setting kick and read the NAMAAH trilogy and UNDER HEAVEN and SNAKE AGENT by Liz Williams? That would help with the overflow problem.

Then on my Kindle, among many other things, I have CROWN DUEL and COURT DUEL by Sherwood Smith — another writer I have never read anything by, which I would like to correct. So many of the titles I am most enthusiastic about are on my Kindle, it can be hard to make myself look at the physical TBR shelves.

And even beyond the Kindle! On my Amazon wishlist, which I use pretty much as a subsidiary memory? On there I have some fabulous titles. I am so behind. I may be the only person on Earth not to have read CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein yet. Of course I will love it, but I’m not sure I’m in the mood for something that intense.

So many books! Can we have twice as many hours in the day, just for September?

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How much do titles matter to you?

Lotta good links from Twitter today, including this link to a post by Susan Morris on titles.

For me, covers matter a lot — I have bought a book strictly for its cover before, I have bought specific editions of a title because I like the cover. I have never refused to buy a book because I didn’t like the cover, but sometimes it’s a near thing.

Titles? Titles, not so much, really. Except! I have to say, I do love a beautiful evocative title like THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE. For me that’s a title that’s hard to beat. Or A FISTFUL OF SKY, to take another ‘sky’ title that I really love.

For me, any title that is just the main character’s name is dreadfully boring, which doesn’t mean I don’t have working titles that are exactly that. And any title which is more poetic is likely to appeal to me more than a title that is just a noun, even an interesting noun. For example, I prefer CATCHING FIRE to THE HUNGER GAMES (only with regard to the titles, though). Or closer to home, for me, THE FLOATING ISLANDS is merely an acceptable title, whereas the cover is the real draw. I truly admire a great title because experience has made it clear to me that great titles are not at all easy to come up with.

How about you? How important is the title to you, and do you tend to pick up / avoid books because of their titles?

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Oh, btw, book sale —

Starting Monday the 26th, Strange Chemistry is dropping the e-book prices of their first seven titles to celebrate the imprint’s birthday.

I’ll need to check my Kindle to see which of these I already have.

Not sure how long this sale will last, but hopefully long enough for you all to pick up a couple of titles if you like.

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YA is better than you think! But do we need it as a category?

I’m already on record as declaring that the quality of YA is, if anything, higher these days than adult SFF. And I know some of you feel the same way and probably most of you read both YA and adult SFF without making much of a distinction, same as I do.

So to you this “YA is actually pretty good!” idea is not a revelation.

But some people are only now finding this out. Which is the point of this article, which I found because of a twitter link, thank you twitter!

From the article, by Marisa Reichardt, “One of my biggest pet peeves is when Goodreads reviewers say things like, “I liked this book even though it was YA” — as if reading a YA book was a guilty pleasure.”

Which is actually not a phrase I’ve ever seen, as far as I can remember. How surprising it is to me that anyone still feels that way — like YA is for kids and adults should be embarrassed about reading it. I sort of feel it’s the other way around: I sort of think the YA category should be ditched, because it’s so plain that a lot of it is aimed at, or at least perfectly suitable for, adult readers.

I’ve been reading long enough that plenty of the books I remember finding in the ordinary SFF section would now without question be shelved in YA. Plus, these days, it seems like if a book has a young female protagonist, it’s going to be marketed as YA even if it is really not aimed at the teen audience.

Plus, aiming kids at YA as though they are OF COURSE not going to be the least bit interested in, say, a middle-aged woman protagonist? That is just wrong. It’s wrong because it’s wrong — I loved the Mrs Pollifax series when I was a kid, didn’t you? — but it’s also wrong because it’s misguided.

Separating YA from adult fiction encourages kids to believe their experience of life is so different from the adult experience that they won’t be able to relate to an older protagonist, and hello? Wouldn’t it make more sense to offer a multitude of coherent views of people who are NOT “just like me”? Exactly the way we want to encourage kids to read about protagonists who are diverse in other ways? I should think it is actually PARTICULARLY valuable to encourage kids to read about people in later stages of life, so they have more ways to think about what it’s like to be an adult.

And, yeah, turning that back around, there is certainly no reason to pretend that adults shouldn’t be interested in tightly plotted well-written coming-of-age stories. Last I noticed, every single adult in the world was once a kid; it’s not like the experience is totally alien. Plus, honestly, don’t almost all adults feel like they’re just pretending to be all grown up?

YA is going to continue to be a separate category simply because it’s a marketing tactic that works. But there’s no reason the rest of us outside of marketing departments should take that separation seriously.

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