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Oh, the rest of the epic fantasy lists —

Naturally these have been there all week, but of course it took me forever to notice. Anyway! If you’re curious:

Liz Bourke’s list: The epic list of epicness. Of which I have read . . . drumroll — six! That’s right, only six, even counting tLofR movies as one even though Liz specifically mentioned the movies and not the books.

Which, it is indeed an epic set of movies. Every time anybody mentions it, I want to go re-watch that early scene when the Black Riders ride into Bree and slash up the pillows — very scary! Lots of great scenes. I actually got a chill watching the beacon fires light up, when Minas Tirath was under attack? Anybody else struck by that scene?

But back to the books! I really, seriously need to try some of Elizabeth Bear’s titles. And I will! This year FOR SURE.

Tansy’s list I’ve read ten of these, and I think I basically agree with her choices, which kind of means I might want to look up the rest of them some time.

Jared’s list.

Of these, I think the funniest comment is: Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series (2005 – 2008): This is a terrible series, terribly written with terrible things to say. So, yes, I’m trolling everyone, Twilight fans and epic fantasy readers alike. But, this is an epic fantasy told from the non-Chosen One point of view. Bella is the bride/reward, not the hero.

Hah! I haven’t read these and I don’t plan to; at this point I’ve read enough ABOUT them that I doubt I’d see anything in them that I haven’t already been told to expect. Plus, life is short, why read books that aren’t actually good?

I’ve read thirteen of the books on Jared’s list. Do you agree that The Sandman graphic novel series is okay to include? Does that work for you as an example of epic fantasy? I loved it, but I’m not sure it seems like a legitimate choice to me. Definitely more so than a nonfiction book of essays, though.

And finally, Justin’s list.

I’ve read twelve of these. Let me just add here that I think The First Law series by Abercrombie is clearly grimdark fantasy, which appeared on several of these lists, is to me the evil twin of epic fantasy and not the same thing. But I can see how it might instead be seen as off at the far end of some sort of axis of grimness, rather than a separate category.

Other random comments: I would have liked to see more books by Martha Wells appearing on these lists. Good to see THE WHEEL OF THE INFINITE on Liz Bourke’s list! Although I’ve read relatively few of the books Liz chose, the ones I HAVE read that she picked make me want to look up the rest.

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Party food

So, this past weekend, I had a party for everyone (in the general area) who has ever purchased a puppy from me, plus other friends who have Cavaliers. I think we wound up with about 20 dogs, all Cavaliers, and maybe fifteen people. Sorry, I was too distracted to take pictures of the crowd!

But I made (among lots of other things) a really great and very easy dish that I have used for parties at least half a dozen times, and since I still haven’t finished reading all the Hugo-nominated novellas and can’t post about that, I thought I’d take this post to share that with you. After all, I know some of you cook! And everyone can use a great party recipe, right? This is always popular, and if there isn’t any left over, I always wind up making it again right away just for me.

Szechuan Sesame Chicken, otherwise known as Szechuan Cold Noodles

12 oz angel hair pasta
1 Tbsp sesame oil
1 lb chicken breast
1/2 C tahini OR 1/4 C each tahini and peanut butter
4 tsp minced fresh ginger, and by the way the best way to store ginger is in a jar in the fridge, peeled, sliced, and covered with rice wine (or vodka). It lasts nearly forever that way.
6 tsp minced garlic
1 tsp Szechuan peppercorns, toasted and ground, or 1 tsp Szechuan peppercorn oil, optional — I get things like this at a place called Global Foods in Kirkwood, an eighty mile drive that is so worth it.
2 Tbsp rice vinegar
2 tsp chili oil (or more)
4 Tbsp sesame oil
6 Tbsp soy sauce (Kikkoman is always a good choice)
4 Tbsp sugar
1/2 C. sliced green onions
1/4 C. toasted sesame seeds, optional

Cook the angel hair al dente and toss with 1 Tbsp sesame oil. Set aside.

Poach the chicken — cover it with water, bring it to a simmer, simmer very gently fifteen minutes, turn off the burner and let set, covered, until cool enough to shred. Shred the chicken. Set aside.

Combine the tahini with the ginger, garlic, Szechuan peppercorns, rice vinegar, chili oil, sesame oil, soy sauce, and sugar. Whisk to blend.

Toss angel hair with chicken, sauce, green onions, and toasted sesame seeds.

This dish is supposed to be served at room temperature, which is one thing that makes it such a great choice for parties. One great way to make it is to poach the chicken and make the sauce ahead of time, and chill both separately. Then at the last minute cook the angel hair and toss the hot pasta with the cold chicken and sauce, plus the green onions and sesame seeds. Poof! The dish will wind up exactly the right temperature.

I also made a salad with wheat berries, garbanzos, and broccoli, and Israeli couscous with mint and lemon (it mellowed too much and I should have added a little more lemon juice, salt, and sugar, but I guess it was okay), and a smoked salmon roulade, and . . . um, what else? Well, a cheesecake and chocolate gingerbread, I know that. And dog biscuits!

We had beautiful weather (by some miracle), and it was SO MUCH FUN watching some of the dogs who live in homes with small yards really find their hunting instincts kicking in once they had an acre-and-a-half yard to explore. And of course I love seeing my puppies come back to visit! I’ll definitely do this again sometime.

Still involved with the Black Dog short story I’m working on, I figure two more days for that, but at some point I MUST read the other Hugo nominees! So far I love the Sanderson novella.

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Starting to vote on the Hugos . . .

Working my way up from short stories to novels, because obviously short stories are so much less of a time commitment.

That matters because I’m starting to work on my own stuff again now. I’m writing a short story/novella short story set in the Black Dog world, and in fact set after the second book. That’s to get in the mood, plus I had the whole plot in my head (very unusual for me). My goal is to pick up the second book on Monday and basically have a rough draft finished by the end of August. That should be very doable, since it’s roughly 75 days. If I write 4 pp per day (roughly 1300 words), that will be 300 pages, and since I have 100 pages sitting there already, that should get me there. Unless I overwrite by 100 pages, which has happened to me TWICE and is very annoying.

I’m pretty sure I know the whole rough plot for Book 2. I sure hope I do, because if certain events do not occur, then the short story I’m working on now is going to find itself orphaned for lack of continuity, which would be unfortunate.

Anyway! Hugos.

Of course there were only the three short story nominees: “Immersion” by de Bodard, “Mantis Wives” by Kij Johnson, and “Mono no Aware” by Ken Liu.

I’m putting “Mono no Aware” first, “Immersion” second — I genuinely liked both of these; I was particularly impressed by how Liu’s story strove to evoke a particular emotion or attitude that doesn’t really translate to English. I think it succeeded pretty well. It’s fundamentally a tragic story, of course, but actually the mono no aware attitude makes that more bearable.

Then I’m voting for No Award before “Mantis Wives,” which as you may recall, I loathed when I first read it. Still loathe it. Plus, hello, it’s NOT A STORY. It’s a series of images, which is not the same thing.

Okay, novelettes!

I actually disliked “The Boy Who Cast No Shadow” by Heuvelt so much I didn’t finish it. I hated the protagonist and that stopped me from caring about what was going to happen, and I just quit.

I am not very familiar with Seanan McGuire’s paranormal Toby Daye series; I read the first couple but didn’t really like them; that may be why I didn’t really get into her “Rat-Catcher“, which I also didn’t actually finish, though I didn’t hate it like the Heuvelt one.

I did finish “In Salt-Sea Tears” and I . . . sort of liked it, in a way. I could see the “twist” coming a mile away and I thought the relationship which that plot-twist depended on was kind of forced. And actually I didn’t believe in some aspects of Selkie society, and in fact the more I think about the story, the more trouble I have with this aspect. I don’t want to go into details that would spoil the story, but that’s how it was for me.

I enjoyed “Fade To White” by Valente. I thought it was an extremely clever and artistic story, but the way every possible sub-plot worked out in the most depressing way possible is basically designed to make me unhappy.

For me the pick of the lot is definitely “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi” by Cadigan, which was funny, clever, entertaining, SF rather than fantasy (which I think is a plus for the Hugo, though it’s not a dealbreaker for me), and at least moderately upbeat. Sorry, don’t see a link for it, but it’s definitely worth reading.

So for me, the novelette lineup is: “The Girl-Thing”, “Fade to White”, “In Salt Sea Tears”, and No Award.

On to the novellas! I have two more to read before I can vote on those. Also two more novels to read — a bit awkward when I need to be working on Black Dog Book 2, but I’ll manage. Too bad I didn’t have them on my Kindle when I was in Costa Rica, but on the other hand I can hardly regret reading all those books by Andrea Host. I think I may buy The Touchstone trilogy in paper so I can lend them.

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Here’s a list to check out —

Over at Kirkus, The Book Smugglers’ have a great post about fabulous fantasy titles for introducing younger readers to the genre.

Naturally I thoroughly approve of this list, since THE CITY IN THE LAKE is included. Yay!

But in fact, I REALLY REALLY love many of these books. Naturally you should click over and read Thea and Ana’s comments, but here’s a quick list of the titles they included:

The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper. OMG! I don’t mean to sound like a fangirl, but did I ever love these books when I was a kid! I still love them. I really need to re-read these one day soon.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia Wrede. Repeat the above comment here. Hah! I laugh every time I think of cherries jubilee. Wonderful books.

The Song of the Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce. I didn’t read these till I was older, and I think they’re best read when you’re younger, so I didn’t fall so hard for them as a lot of readers. But I did definitely enjoy this series. The girl-disguising-herself-as-a-boy plot is one that usually does appeal to me. I did prefer The Protector of the Small series, though.

Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith. I’m so pleased I have this duology on my Kindle. I’ve never read it, but if it’s on this list, I’m pretty sure I’ll love it!

Wildwood Dancing & Cybele’s Secret by Juliet Marillier.
Okay, this one I’m not super keen on. Don’t throw things, please! I love OTHER books by Marillier, especially Daughter of the Forest. I can’t comment on Cybele’s Secret — haven’t read it — but I honestly found the protagonist in Wildwood Dancing almost unbearably ineffectual. Sorry! It’s true! She kept seeing stuff going wrong and being unable to do anything to turn things around. I thought it was her job as the protagonist to come up with something brilliant to DO, rather than just hover around the edges of disaster wringing her hands.

Of course your take on this one may be completely different!

Deerskin by Robin McKinley.
As you might imagine, the inclusion of this title sparked some discussion in the comments. I did like this book very much (Ash! Yay for beautiful dogs!). But for me, when you mention McKinley, it’s The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown all the way.

The Books of Bayern by Shannon Hale: The Goose Girl, Enna Burning, River Secrets and Forest Born. I haven’t read these! I’ve only read The Princess Academy by Hale, and while I enjoyed it, it didn’t blow me away. I have heard very good things about The Goose Girl, though, so I think I really should try that one.

The City in the Lake
— as I said, yay!

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. I’ve put this one off mostly because I’m enjoying the anticipation. From most of what I’ve heard about this one, I really expect to love it.

Secondhand Charm by Julie Berry.

Dragonswood by Janet Lee Carey. I haven’t read either of these, but their inclusion on this list makes me pretty sure I’m missing out. I’m definitely adding them both to my wishlist now.

The Princess Curse & Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell. And I owe Merrie, because I don’t have time to keep up with internet stuff very well right now, and she’s the one who sent me a link to this post. So glad for her that The Book Smugglers loved Handbook. I’m avoiding reading reviews of it because I don’t want any spoilers; I have this one sitting on my coffee table right now. But I definitely loved The Princess Curse and I’m happy that her second book is finally out and getting good reviews.

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Fifty essential epic fantasies . . .

. . . is a kind of shared-blog challenge thing I’m seeing today. Check these out, if you like. There are four sets, including one by Liz Bourke, whose reviews I really enjoy. I’ll put her list at the end. [So far they’ve all just posted a list of 25 titles, with the other half to come on Monday.]

Here’s Tansy Rayner Roberts’ list:

TansyRR — with my comments. (Hers are very much worth reading! Click through and read them!)

1. The Empire Trilogy, Raymond E Feist & Janny Wurtz — this is the series that starts with Daughter of the Empire. I really enjoyed this series, actually, and go back to it more often than to anything else by either author, but I don’t think I loved it as much as Tansy did.

2. Legend, David Gemmell — um, I think it’s actually on my TBR shelves right this moment.

3. The Belgariad, David & Leigh Eddings — as far as I’m concerned, Eddings shows a knack for dialogue in this series, but those he was clearly striving for a high fantasy tone, I don’t think he quite made it. I particularly liked this comment from Tansy: “Belgarath was my first cranky elderly sorcerer, Polgara was my first motherly but eternally beautiful sorceress, Garion was my first farm boy, Silk was my first nimble thief . . .” You can see why she adds that this series was the work that showed her the shape of epic fantasy. Yes, I can see it would do that admirably.

4. The Chronicles of the Cheysuli, Jennifer Roberson

5. Mists of Avalon, Marion Bradley — I wasn’t as impressed with this as everyone else seems to be. Eventually I noticed that every single male character was either incompetent or evil and my enthusiasm for the book never recovered. (I had the same reaction to Gordon Dickson in reverse; eventually I noticed that all his female characters were flighty, naive, and not too bright and that ruined Dickson for me forever.)

6. The Swords of Lankhmar, Fritz Leiber — oh, to me, definitely not epic, definitely sword-and-sorcery, which was never my favorite subgenre.

7. The Adventures of Alyx, Joanna Russ

8. Dragonlance Chronicles, Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman — Tansy says, “Oh Dragonlance, the candied popcorn of epic fantasy” — which is hilarious, but I admit I never had the slightest urge to read any of these.

9. The Odyssey, Homer

10. The Aeneid, Virgil

11. Song of Sorcery, Elizabeth Scarborough.

12. The Black Company, Glen Cook.

13. The Green Lion Trilogy, Teresa Edgerton — I’ve never heard of it, but Tansy makes it sound really good.

14. The Fionavar Tapestry, Guy Gavriel Kay — I’m right there for this one! Yay! Up with GGK! Even though I did not much appreciate the inclusion of the Arthurian stuff in this series.

15. The Riddle-Master Trilogy, Patricia McKillip — I don’t need to comment about McKillip, right?

16. The Neverending Story, Michael Ende

17. Ozma of Oz, L. Frank Baum — isn’t that an interesting choice?

18. The Silver Chair, CS Lewis — Not sure I would have chosen this one — I’m more a Voyage of the Dawn Treader sort of reader — but Tansy’s comments on why she chose The Silver Chair are really interesting.

19. The Immortals, Tamora Pierce.

20. The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land, Diana Wynne Jones — fascinating choice, but it’s not a novel, so I hereby disqualify it from my personal epic fantasy list.

21. Incarnations of Immortality, Piers Anthony

22. Medea, Kerry Greenwood

23. Blood and Honour, Simon R Green

24. Sometimes The Magic Works, Terry Brooks — Tansy makes very interesting comments about this set of essays, which, I don’t know, is it fair to include nonfiction about epic fantasy in a list like this?

25. Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien

So I’ve read 15 of these 25. Now let’s compare that to Justin at Staffer’s Book Review:

Justin’s list, which was a LOT more chronological —

1. Epic of Gilgamesh

2. Iliad by Homer

3. Aeneid by Virgil

4. The Bible by Prophets — “So here’s the thing,” adds Jusin, “I’m not saying the Bible is fake, but it is pretty fantastical.” Okay, I guess I’ll let that pass.

5. Beowulf

6. Paradise Lost by John Milton

7. Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero by Henryk Sienkiewicz — Justin’s description here is really something. He says rather plaintively, “I’m not really selling this, am I?” No, I have to admit, you’re really not. At least I’m not planning to rush right out.

8. The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

9. The Once and Future King by T.H. White

10. The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander

11. Dune by Frank Herbert

12. Watership Down by Richard Adams

13. The Faded Sun Trilogy by CJ Cherryh — Now HERE is an interesting choice. Would anybody else like to agree or disagree that this is fantasy? Science fantasy? Science fiction? To me, this one seems like pretty straight SF (sociological SF), but yes, there are swords.

14. Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker by George Lucas — Justin suggests that this universe eventually becomes a parody of itself, which sounds plausible. Never read any Star Wars ties myself.

15. A Spell for Chameleon by Piers Anthony

16. The Stand by Stephen King

17. The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe (1980) — Oh, I hated the first hundred pages and quit, but I know it’s an important work.

18. The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks

19. The Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman

20. Chronicles of the Black Company by Glen Cook

21. Legend by David Gemmell

22. Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings – Justin notes, “I think this book kind of sucks, but it’s really a key text in the 1980′s farm boy fantasy. It’s one of the ‘faces’ that launched a thousand ships.”

23. The Empire Trilogy by Raymond Fiest and Janny Wurts

24. The Icewind Dale Trilogy by R.A. Salvatore

25. The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

Again, I’ve personally read 15 of the books on this list. Well, not the Bible straight through. And probably not the entire work for most of those classical works, either, like the Aeneid. Interesting to compare this list to Tansy’s. It’s so much more a “scholar’s list” than a “reader’s list,” don’t you think?

Moving on: Here’s Jared at Pornokitsch.

Jared —

1. Homer’s Odyssey.

2. Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur

3. Wu Cheng’en’s A Journey to the West — Well, doesn’t this sound interesting. Never heard of it.

4. The King James Bible

5. Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter

6. H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” — I never saw the appeal of Lovecraft.

7. Robert Graves’ I, Claudius

8. C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joey stories

9. C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia

10. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings — the funniest comment EVER, as Jared says, “Odd that the light-hearted story of a gardener’s voyage to see an elephant has been so badly misinterpreted over the years.”

11. Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth — A wonderful story, especially if you enjoyed The Girl Who by Cat Valente; I think The Phantom Tollbooth is better.

12. Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn

13. M. John Harrison’s Viriconium

14. 4Michael Moorcock’s Elric — Oh, I *loathed* my first Elric book and that was it for me. But, competing for HILARIOUS COMMENT OF THE DAY, Jared says of this series, “I subscribe to the theory that Elric began as an over-the-top pastiche of epic fantasy – and more interesting because of it. This demonstrates a self-awareness that won’t be seen in again in the field until, well, not for a while at least. (I also think Elric eventually jumped the shark. Then he made love to the shark. Then he killed the shark. Then he wrote poetry about the shark. Then he stared into the void, cursing the universe for a while.)”

14. Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence — I have to say, this is a wonderful series that blew me away when I was a kid. I expect it would really stand up to the test of time, and now that I see it on here, I feel an urge to re-read it.

16. Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea

17. Richard Adams’ Watership Down

18. Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax’s Dungeons and Dragons

19. Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall trilogy

20. Dave Sims’ Cerebus

21. Tanith Lee’s Tales from the Flat Earth sequence

22. Lyndon Hardy’s Master of the Five Magics

23. John Milius and Oliver Stone’s “Conan the Barbarian”

24. David Eddings’ Belgariad

25. Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series — Another one I’ve tried but simply detested. And I used to more or less like a lot of Stephen King. Less these days, because I find him transparently manipulative.

Once again, by some strange coincidence, I’ve read 15 of these.

And now — Liz Bourke’s list!

Liz —

1. Homer, The Odyssey.

2. Plato, The Republic — Liz points out something interesting, that “Plato’s ideal city is utopianist and dystopian at the same time.” Huh. I never thought of it that way.

3. Ovid, Metamorphoses.

4. Lucian of Samosata, The True History.

5. The Táin.

6. The Mabinogion.

7. Marie de France, Lais.

8. Snorri Sturlason, The Poetic Eddas.

9. Geoffrey of Monmouth, A History of the Kings of Britain — of this one, Liz comments, “History? Well, maybe. There’s some Arthuriana here.”

10. Margaret Cavendish, Duchess Newcastle, The Blazing World.

11. Poul Anderson, The Broken Sword.

12. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings.

13. Frank Herbert, Dune.

14. Barbara Hambly, The Darwath Chronicles.

15. P.C. Hodgell, Godstalker Chronicles.

16. Tamora Pierce, Tortall.

17. John M. Ford, The Dragon Waiting.

18. Elizabeth Moon, The Deed of Paksenarrion. — Oh, yeah, I’d definitely include this one, the first time we’ve seen it on these lists.

19. Robert Jordan, The Wheel of Time.

20. Janny Wurts, The Wars of Light and Shadow.

21. Terry Goodkind, The Sword of Truth. Liz comments, “…although now I can’t see what I ever saw worth reading in his first six books, at the time I first encountered them they contained elements that delighted me…” Fair enough.

22. Melanie Rawn, Exiles.

23. George R.R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire. — How odd that no one else included this. Or is that because the series isn’t finished?

24. Michelle West, The Sun Sword.

25. Joe Abercrombie, The First Law.

And of these, I’ve read 14 — mostly on the later ones; Liz is clearly better read than I am in the old stuff. (Not hard.)

All the comments on all these lists are worth reading. I would never ever read a book (much less a huge thing like the Wheel of Time) just because it’s important. But I do think it’s true that mediocre or even quite awful work can indeed be important to the development of the genre. I think I would like to attend a panel where these four argue about what was most seminal for the development of modern epic fantasy, and why. That would be really interesting!

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Recent Reading: Mostly Höst

So, Books I Read In Costa Rica!

I’m not going to discuss them all in exhaustive detail, because they kind of stacked up. I’ll just say that, for me, Martha Wells’ EMILIE AND THE HOLLOW WORLD didn’t really work. Emilie didn’t seem to have much of a personality, and the story just didn’t grab me. I think my expectations may have been too high because I really loved almost every other one of Wells’ books, and even when I didn’t really love one (CITY OF BONES), I thought it was really well-written. But for me, EMILIE was just kind of a meh kind of book. I think I would have liked it fine if I were about thirteen, but I’m glad it wasn’t the first book I ever read by Wells. Which, you know, if it WAS the first book you ever read by Wells, please go read one of her others!

On the other hand, I really liked the second SHADOW UNIT book, the shared-world thing written by Emma Bull, Elizabeth Bear and Kyle Cassidy. I didn’t have internet access at the time I finished the second volume or I’d have immediately picked up the third and fourth and gone on with the series. (I got the third one as soon as I hit the Dallas airport and regained access to Amazon.) Since I couldn’t do that at the time, I looked over the other books on my Kindle and decided the try the Medair duology by Andrea Höst – THE SILENCE OF MEDAIR and THE VOICE OF THE LOST.

I really loved them! Such a relief when your second book by a still-new-to-you author is not a let-down from the first. I can see that Medair duology might not be for everyone – I’m curious now that I’ve read them, and need to go look them up on Goodreads. The main character is very introspective, and the main conflict in the story is her internal conflict (don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of stuff happening, but imo this is a novel that is driven by the protagonist’s internal conflict, not by external events). I can see that some readers might not be happy with this.

But. My God, the backstory is SO COOL. And the internal dilemma is generated directly from that backstory, and OF COURSE the protagonist is conflicted and introspective; given her history, she has to be! This duology is really a lesson on how to do internal conflict and introspection just right, so that the story is truly compelling.

See, five hundred years ago, the Ibisians fled their land (which was being destroyed by rogue magic) and invaded the Farrakian Empire. Because of their superior magic, they just swept through, rolling the native people up almost effortlessly. So Medair rode off on a quest to find the Horn of Farak, a mythical item reputed to allow a single person to defeat any army. And she found it. But when she returned, five hundred years had passed, and the war was long since over, and the two peoples had mingled (even though most political power is still held by people with mainly Ibisian blood), and there was no legitimate enemy left to destroy.

That’s the backstory. Höst really does a great job showing the complicated way two different peoples can interact and how the edges between Us and Them can blur. I mean, five hundred years is a long time, and Höst really makes you feel that. And poor Medair! Who lingered just a night too long outside of normal time and came back five hundred years too late to save the day. For her, the war was just yesterday, and yet she knows it’s wrong to blame the descendants of her peoples’ conquerors for a conquest which is long, long over and can’t be undone.

And then things happen. Anybody can see that Medair is going to be required to use the Horn of Farak eventually, on behalf of the very people she can’t help but still think of as enemies. That’s not astonishing at all. We have the nice smooth unrolling of a fairly predictable plot – though in a story well-enough written that we don’t necessarily mind its predictability – and then WHOA, DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING.

I shouldn’t have been so surprised, I guess, after AND ALL THE STARS. Höst took me by surprise several times in that one, too. But, yeah, totally didn’t expect that one major plot twist, so the whole back half of the story worked out in a way I hadn’t predicted.

This is a really good duology, with excellent writing and characterization. The story wouldn’t have worked at all if the characterization hadn’t been top-notch, because the strong romance subplot would have turned into an angst-filled cliché-ridden mess. But with great writing and strong characterization, it works just fine. The romance is actually critical to making the story work – Medair’s personal conflict would not have been nearly so sharp without it – and again, though we can see that romance coming a mile away, it’s handled extremely well and with a decided twist at the end.

So, after that, I was finally willing to try Höst’s Touchstone trilogy. I’d kind of hesitated to pick it up because the back cover copy didn’t make it sound all that appealing. I’m kind of more into fantasy than SF these days, and this is a portal SF story. Here’s the description:


On her last day of high school, Cassandra Devlin walked out of exams and into a forest. Surrounded by the wrong sort of trees, and animals never featured in any nature documentary, Cass is only sure of one thing: alone, she will be lucky to survive.

The sprawl of abandoned blockish buildings Cass discovers offers her only more puzzles. Where are the people? What is the intoxicating mist which drifts off the buildings in the moonlight? And why does she feel like she’s being watched?

Increasingly unnerved, Cass is overjoyed at the arrival of the formidable Setari. Whisked to a world as technologically advanced as the first was primitive, where nanotech computers are grown inside people’s skulls, and few have any interest in venturing outside the enormous whitestone cities, Cass finds herself processed as a ‘stray’, a refugee displaced by the gates torn between worlds. Struggling with an unfamiliar language and culture, she must adapt to virtual classrooms, friends who can teleport, and the ingrained attitude that strays are backward and slow.

Can Cass ever find her way home? And after the people of her new world discover her unexpected value, will they be willing to let her leave?


Plus, this story is written in a diary format, which is not one I always appreciate. But . . . Höst hadn’t let me down yet, right? So I opened up the first book (STRAY) and started reading.

It’s completely different from the Medair Duology: first person instead of third, SF instead of F, a diary format instead of a straightforward narrative, a contemporary protagonist instead of a straight secondary world type of story. And it is SO GOOD.

Cassandra has a very strong, appealing contemporary voice in an amazingly believable SF world that is complicated yet clearly drawn; her situation is tense and believable; and the narrative tension is maintained despite the diary format. Höst manages that format very well – it can be tricky, because the person writing the diary must have lived through the crisis being described, right? If you want to know how to create and maintain tension despite that drawback, well, read this book! We never forget it’s a diary, but we certainly wind up holding our breath over and over, through one crisis after another.

Still, despite all the crises, there’s a lot of ordinary life in this story, too. In this trilogy, unlike the Medair duology or AND ALL THE STARS, I could see that some readers might have trouble with the pacing. Cassandra’s diary doesn’t cover every single day she lives through, but we do get a lot of details about her life and about the world she finds herself in and about the “psychic space ninjas” and everyone, and there is a day-by-day feel to the story. Think of Tolkien, and the way we got at least a glimpse of every day that passed. There’s nothing like, “And so, after two years of training, I finally learned how to blah blah blah” in this book, either. None of that “time has passed” stuff. I bet some readers probably feel like the pace is too slow.

Emphatically not me, though. I loved the unhurried way the story unfolded, with plenty of time given to Cassandra’s slow integration into her new society. That is exactly why the society felt so real. Without that level of detail, I think it would be impossible to capture that feeling.

Plus, Cassandra is just a great character. This is not the kind of story where Cassandra gets transported to a new world and finds herself with Awesome Kickass Super Powers and singlehandedly saves the universe from Evil while every eligible male character falls in love with her. I mean, Cassandra kind of does have Awesome Super Powers, but she is so not a kickass heroine. She is not at all a natural fighter, plus those are definitely not the super powers she would necessarily have chosen, plus those powers comes with a pretty high cost. Plus, the society she finds herself in is really complicated, and not just in good ways, and as you might imagine, having a computer interface in your head comes with certain privacy concerns. So does being really famous in a highly connected society – Höst really deals with issues of celebrity and privacy in this story, in ways that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in SFF before.

And Höst also manages something tricky: she doesn’t include a universal translator (well, sort of, but not really) and so Cassandra has real trouble with the language. And so she speaks with a very contemporary fluent voice while writing in English in her diary, but with a very broken phrasing when speaking in her new language. And since time passes over the trilogy, her fluency improves, until by the end her spoken language skills are much better, though still not perfect. I was really impressed by how Höst handled that gradual smoothing of Cassandra’s language skills over time.

Okay, one more comment: There certainly is a romance in this story, but it is very believable and slow. The first time Cassandra sees the man she will eventually fall in love with, she barely notices him — so different from the insta-attractions we see all over in YA today. Harking back to recent posts and comments about romances and relationships, let me add that this romance winds up with a long engagement and then marriage and a solid married relationship. Plus, there are important parent-child and sibling relationships that are very well drawn. To get all of this, you should definitely pick up the “Gratuitous Epilogue” once you’ve read the trilogy; it’s a separate short novel that lets the reader see all the various relationship stuff work out.

So this makes six books by Höst I’ve read now – six and a half, counting the “Epilogue” – and she hadn’t let me down yet. I was very pleased to buy the other three she has available. Many thanks to The Book Smugglers and Heidi of Bunbury in the Stacks, who brought Andrea Höst to my attention, because I would never have looked at a self-pubbed-only author if not for their reviews, and Höst is now on my auto-buy list.

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Costa Rica

So, San Jose is a pretty big city in a central valley completely surrounded by volcanoes. You might have known already how very very very volcanic Central America is, but I really didn’t. If I ever learned how Central America formed, I had forgotten.

Of course I have every intention of reading about Costa Rican history — including things like geology — before going on the trip, but I didn’t actually get to it somehow. I will blame the need to thin the fruit on the fruit trees and all that kind of thing, but I admit that possibly I also spent time reading fiction instead of history. And then I had no internet access most of the time in Costa Rica and couldn’t just look things up whenever I had the impulse, which was annoying. It is certainly easy to get used to modern conveniences!

The tour director obviously was prepared for complete tourist ignorance and spent lots of time talking about history, including geology — she made it really interesting, in fact.

I knew (because of SM Stirling’s IN THE SEA OF TIME) that William Walker was a guy who tried to carve out a chunk of South America as his own private kingdom, but actually that turns out to have been Central America, including Costa Rica, which I hadn’t known. They fought him off. A very dramatic episode, I can see why Stirling stole Walker from history and used him in his book, though possibly using a character with that exact name was, um, less than subtle.

So, anyway, lots of volcanoes.

Lots of the volcanoes are active, too, and you can see plumes of smoke or steam or whatever rising off them, like here at Poas Volcano, which we walked up the slope of and looked down into:

Caravan is very into tourist safety, as you might imagine, with a Be Careful Lest You Stub Your Toe On Uneven Pavement sort of attitude. I expect the whole country is into tourist safety in a big way, as tourism is, I think, something like the third-most-important component of the country’s economy. This results in a tendency to put up signs like this the one below:

Can you read that? It’s all: In Case of Eruption, Stay Calm. Very entertaining.

In fact, it was hard to tell what was really dangerous and what was all about keeping tourists from stubbing their toes. We got these warnings about don’t-trip-over-this-rough-pavement and you could NOT get off a bus or onto a boat without the tour guide taking your hand to make sure you didn’t fall on your face or into the river. Which was actually kind of useful sometimes, as sometimes I was carrying enough stuff that an extra hand was a good thing, but it was still funny.

My favorite volcano of the trip was Aranel, a real volcano’s volcano, the classic conical shape and plumes of steam rising from its higher crater. It’s also the third most active volcano in the world, if I remember accurately the description given by our guide. Here’s Aranel:

Oh, wait, no, here it is!

For a big volcano, Aranel was amazingly invisible whenever it rained, or whenever clouds and mist just closed in around it even if it wasn’t raining. We were lucky enough to see a lot of it, but unfortunately it was never clear enough after dark to see the famous orange glow around the top.

Costa Rica doesn’t just have volcanoes, it also has exciting wildlife! We saw this particular crocodile about one minute after starting down the river toward Tortuguero.

Costa Rican crocodiles are nothing like as big and dangerous as the monsters of the Nile, but they’re big enough. There are caiman, too, but those are smaller and basically pretty harmless, though I don’t know if I’d personally dabble my toes in a river that was home to a lot of caiman.

Tortuguero was my favorite place, I think. Kind of rustic accommodations, no air conditioning, but it was actually cool enough at night for that to be okay. And beautifully landscaped, though tropical plants look highly artificial to an eye trained in the temperate zone. I kept waking up at about four thirty, (because of the time difference that meant I was just waking up at my normal time.) So every place we stayed, I’d read until dawn and then wander around and look at flowers and birds. I really liked the kiskedee flycatchers, because they were everywhere, and pretty, and I learned to recognize their song, which made me feel more at home in the mornings.

Of course, like everyone else, I most wanted to see monkeys – I mean, there was basically no possibility of seeing a jaguar, and not much chance of seeing a quetzal, so after those two, I really wanted to see monkeys. Costa Rica has four species. Of those, squirrel monkeys are ultra-cute but rare and we didn’t see those, but we did see lots of capuchins and howler monkeys, plus even spider monkeys twice, which was exciting, because spider monkeys are not nearly as common as capuchins or howlers.

Capuchins are cuter and howlers are more impressive, but spider monkeys have a more interesting social organization than either. I’m sure you’ll be interested to know that spider monkeys have a “fission-fusion” system, where a larger permanent association of animals breaks up every day into highly variable sub-groups and then comes back together. Other than in spider monkeys, you get that kind of system only in chimps, bonobos, and some kinds of dolphins (as far as I can remember, anyway). In order to get that kind of system, you need scattered and patchy food resources, plus mobility, plus a general lack of serious predation – conditions which are fairly rare for mammals. Plus, spider monkeys are one of the few mammal species which show female dominance, always interesting – that implies that that food resources are not so abundant that females can afford to give way to males and still successfully reproduce.

I was mostly interesting in seeing the animals and birds and the general scenery, but the towns were interesting, too. Here’s the tiny Catholic church in the village of Tortuguero.

Isn’t that attractive? And the Costa Ricans are very good at landscaping everything that is the least big special, like even little bitty churches. I love those palms or whatever they are, which really do have bright red sections of trunk. I also took a picture of the inside of the church. The attractive design and pretty tile floor is characteristic of most every building we saw in Costa Rica – we saw few wooden buildings and even fewer carpets, I’m sure because of the humidity, but lots of lovely stone tile.

We traveled around a good bit and toured various plantations on the way from here to there. My favorite of the tours was of the Britt coffee plantation, even though I don’t like coffee (hilarious presentation!). Besides, they also make chocolate. My favorite was a dark-chocolate candy with guava-paste centers, not a combination I’d ever have thought of, but I bought a bag plus some tiny 1-oz samples to give away.

You know the way to a Costa Rican’s heart, btw? Establish a new tropical crop in their country! They will fling themselves into production with vast enthusiasm and make you almost a national hero. We heard all about the people who established bananas and coffee and pineapples and so forth. Not only was this all interesting (it really was), the whole forward-looking enthusiasm for new crops and new industry gives the whole country this great optimistic feeling. I honestly felt like all the tour guides and basically everyone in Costa Rica expects a bright future for their country. With an attitude like that, they may well build one. My personal vote for the next crop to try establishing: macadamias. As far as I know, no one has tried macadamias in Costa Rica, but if they can grow ‘em in Hawaii, why not Central America? And it’s plain the people of Costa Rica work very hard to make their crops a success. If I had an extra ten million dollars sitting around gathering dust, I might invest in that kind of venture, but alas, someone else will have to think of it.

Between tours and travel, we got to stay both on the Caribbean coast AND on the Pacific coast. Here’s my favorite part of the whole trip:

Those of us from landlocked states really find those oceans fun to play in. This beach had some volcanic rock, not fun to accidentally step on, but mostly it was sand and I enjoyed playing in the waves even though there was a huge and very attractive pool. And collected a few small volcanic rocks to take home, because hey, rocks! If I put them on a shelf with my extra 2000-colones bill (about 4 dollars), I’ll remember where they came from and why they’re special.

So that was Costa Rica! I’m leaving tons out, of course, but I did get some great photos even with my cheapo camera, and I’m sure various people will email me a selection of the pictures they took, too.

I’ve been in the tropics before – Kenya while I was in college, and I did research in Venezuela one summer – I was watching bearded sakis, which was a) fun in some ways, but, more importantly, b) a useful demonstration that I was never going to like research enough to make it my life. I mean, if you don’t truly love doing a behavioral study on monkeys in the tropics, you are probably never going to love doing behavioral research period. So I went in a different direction with my life.

Anyway, this was my first trip just for fun, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Though I missed my girls! Maybe for my next vacation – preferably in fewer than twenty years – I will google Amazing Vacations For You And Your Dog, and take a couple of them with me!

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I’m back!

Hi, all!

Costa Rica was beautiful and I will definitely be posting about it in a day or so. The trip was a packaged tour with my cousins Greg and Janet and their mother, Beth, and Janet’s husband, Larry. It was great hanging out with them all; I’d only ever met Greg and Beth once or twice, and I never had met Janet before (I have tons of cousins, but none that live in the same state I do.)

I also turned out to really enjoy the “packaged tour” setup, where the tour director took care of everything and there was nothing at all to worry about. The tour director was wonderful and knew everything about Costa Rica and totally kept everything perfectly on schedule, and the whole experience was almost completely stress-free and seamless (there’s always some stress about connecting flights, that can’t be helped, but in the event all the air travel worked out just fine, too). There was one guy on the tour who I started referring to as Complaining Dude halfway through, but it’s almost inevitable you’ll get one guy like that on a trip, I suppose, and it was sort of fun to be snarky about him, anyway.

The tour was well-designed, with visits to both the Caribbean coast and the Pacific coast, plus various volcanoes, many producing plumes of smoke — I really didn’t know how volcanically active Costa Rica is till this trip! This was a Caravan tour, btw, in case you’re curious.

Of course, if you’re going to drive around a country and see different sites, then you’re going to be on a bus a good bit of the time. I was endlessly grateful that I can read on a bus, even on the bumpiest roads. I got my Kindle specifically for this trip, and what with airports and buses (and waking up VERY EARLY every morning) wound up reading eight books:

Emilie and the Hollow World, by Martha Wells
Shadow Unit 2, by Emma Bull et al
The Medair duology, by Andrea Höst
The Touchstone trilogy, also by Andrea Höst
and, in bits around the novels, Writing Down the Dragon, a nonfiction analysis of Tolkein, by Tom Simon

And I will post about all of those later, too. I will say briefly that I was disappointed with Emilie, pleased with the second Shadow Unit collection, and very happy with everything by Höst. I’m going to go get everything else she’s ever written, next. I’m not even going to bother reading the descriptions; just buy ’em all. There, done — there were three on Amazon that I didn’t have. Now I do, with the touch of a button. Poof! The Kindle is a wonderful thing.

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Just a quick note —

That I will be out of town until June 3rd.

I’m going to Costa Rica with several assorted relatives, and I’m not taking my laptop. So, not sure I will have internet access till I get home!

I can barely stand to leave my dogs, and you know the magnificent Alba rose is going to bloom in just a few days, and . . . and . . . well, somehow I will manage to enjoy myself!

See you!

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Pure Romances, YA and otherwise

So, I was thinking some more about romance in SFF – about “pure” romances, where the romance is the point of the story.

I completely agree with a recent commenter that the romance in THE SCORPIO RACES (by, as I’m sure you know, Maggie Stiefvater) was really well handled. The reason it worked for me – and everything about this book worked for me – was because both Sean Kendrick and Puck Connelly were really focused on something other than the romance – on the Scorpio Races, in fact; and on getting other super-important aspects of their lives to work out. The romance in this story was more something that was waiting for later. You can see that it may well work out for Sean and Puck, in a nebulous ever-after that takes place after the book itself is over.

What worked particularly well for me was how both protagonists were so focused on getting other things in order that they really did not spend any emotional time at all dwelling on each other’s hotness and pining after each other and being all obsessive about their budding relationship. In other words, Stiefvater wrote them as complicated protagonists with real problems, and the romance was only tangentally one of those problems and definitely not the ultimate focus for either protagonist.

How about “pure” romances, where the romance is a central feature of the plot?

Oddly enough, considering how little contemporary YA I read, it’s contemporary titles that come to mind when I think about romances that really worked for me. Like, THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE by Jandy Nelson, which instantly became one of my top-ten favorite books of all time when I read it – was that just last year? Imagine, a contemporary YA winning a slot on my all-time-favorites list! Who would have expected that, right? And the whole story is about romance. Like this: Nothing has been like this, nothing has made me feel like I do right now walking up the hill to Joe’s, like I have a window in my chest where sunlight is pouring in.

Except the book really isn’t about romance – not really. It’s about grief and recovery. (Despite this, the story isn’t a downer. It’s really not. You should go read it! Seriously!) So maybe, given that the romance could be seen as central but isn’t really, this book isn’t a fair example?

So contrast that with, say, CATALOG OF THE UNIVERSE by Margaret Mahy. The romance isn’t the only thing going on in this little gem of a novel – we also have the standard theme (for YA) of figuring out who you are. But the romance is certainly more central to this one than to Stiefvater’s book. And CATALOG is completely charming all the way through, beautifully written with humor and life infusing every page.

But then, how about “pure” romance, if there is such a thing? Are there any that really and truly work for me? Of course there are. And here I find myself switching back to adult titles. For example, THE CHOCOLATE THIEF by Florand. This is a straight contemporary romance, and very charming it is; light and quick, a story you’re clearly not supposed to take too seriously, yet with (behind the humor) one or two serious themes. Plus, mmm, chocolate!

Or, speaking of charming, how about Sarah Addison Allen? Her novels may be adult rather than YA – though some protagonists are certainly YA protagonists. Certainly the themes – of finding one’s place in the world, of coming to terms with family – are very YA themes. And one thing we can expect from Allen is one (or more) romance that develops into a satisfying, mature relationship. It’s remarkable how much she can do in such a short novel, and how she can handle a quite complicated cast without getting lost. Really, she’s a writer to study. But you won’t be studying technique the first time your read one of her novels; no. You’ll just be enjoying the working out of the relationships.

We get that kind of healthy, mature relationship relatively rarely in SFF, it seems. I believe a commenter recently mentioned The Sharing Knife series by Bujold in this context. Because we may have Giant! Flying! Bats! and various other things to deal with, but the point of the whole story is the romance, which matures into a solid marriage. It is such a delightful series if you are pleased by watching a relationship work out and don’t necessarily need nonstop action. For me it is SUCH a comfort read, possibly my number-one series to reach for when I don’t want to start a new book and just want something to wrap myself up in and enjoy.

So there’s a short list of the kind of romance novels that really do work for me – romances that are amazingly angst-free and often build, or might be expected to build into the kind of relationship in which some normal, sane person might really want to be.

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