Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Sorting out Elizabeth Moon’s Oeuvre

So, do you even know how many books Elizabeth Moon has out there? I knew it was a lot, but it occurred to me again because I was thinking about The Speed of Dark and how enormously different it is from her other work.

She has nearly 30 novels out, that’s how many. Wow.

Also, she is one of the authors who is just all over the place when it comes to how much I like a particular book. Andrea K Höst? I’d rank all of hers from about seven stars to ten stars. Martha Wells? Again, about seven to ten stars. CJC? About seven to ten generally, but with a couple falling into the one- to two-star range. Barbara Hambly, just about the same, plenty I really like a lot and just a couple I detest.

Elizabeth Moon has several I just love, quite a few I like, and then a whole bunch I . . . sort of feel meh about. Essentially all the time (but not quite), the “meh” books are the ones where the pov scatters hither and yon, so that there is no real protagonist. I just have a hard time with those; I don’t care enough about the characters. When Moon sticks to just one protagonist, I get drawn in much more strongly, as a rule. So if you’re familiar with Elizabeth Moon’s work, I bet you can now predict pretty easily which books of hers will tend to wind up on top. There are some exceptions, though, both ways — books I just don’t like that much even though they have one important protagonist and books I like much better even though the pov scatters. The protagonist thing is a tendency, not an iron-clad rule.

Okay, so, let’s do this.

Right on the top of the whole genre:

Speed of Dark. Of course. This standalone near-future SF novel is a total masterpiece. The voice! The sentence-level writing! The storytelling! And yes, very most especially the voice, which is just flawlessly rendered. Have you all read this book? If yes, surely you agree. If no, what are you waiting for? (!!!???)


The original Paksennarion trilogy. A nearly flawless military fantasy story, starting when Paks is a new recruit and going all the way through to her ultimate assumption of the duties and powers of a paladin. A classic hero’s journey character arc in a story that’s told exceptionally well, from the sentence level all the way up to the broad strokes of storytelling.

Hunting Party, which is the first of the Heris Serrano space operas. This is one of novels that to me symbolizes the rebirth of space opera: adventure stories involving spaceships, but with perhaps more attention paid to characterization than the earlier space opera. Plus, in this case, horses.

Very good:

The other two Heris Serrano novels, Sporting Chance and Winning Colors.

The first Vatta’s war series, five books starting with Trading in Danger and starring Ky Vatta as the first and most important protagonist. This series moved fast enough, and the secondary protagonists held my interest enough, that when the pov began to branch out I continued to find them engaging. In some ways this series reminds me of the Chanur series by CJC, except all the characters are human, obviously. And the situation isn’t as dire. And, well, everything is different, actually, but in some ways the two series still seem alike to me. Feel, I suppose, and the sense of increasing urgency, and Ky’s relationship with the eventual male lead reminds me of Pyanfar’s relationship with one of the mehendo’sat — I mean the tension between trust and mistrust on both sides.


The Gird duology. For some reason, even though there is just one primary protagonist, and even though I liked him, I still never connected to this duology the way I connected to the Paksennarion trilogy. Too slow? But then I often like slow-paced novels. But these, well, not as much. I read them a couple of times, but not with any great enthusiasm. I don’t know why.

Okay, I guess:

The Esmey Suiza duology, the new Vatta’s Peace books, and the Paladin’s Legacy series.

The biggest problem with these is, yes, the proliferating number of pov characters. In some cases I just do not find most of the pov characters interesting.

For example, in the Paladin’s Legacy quintolgy, I didn’t care about Arcolin — I still can’t understand why Elizabeth Moon didn’t choose to focus on the wounded soldier Arcolin recruits as a new captain. I though he was by far in the best position to carry that plotline. I didn’t care about Phelan, except that the Lady of the Elves was acting like such a complete nitwit and she was right there in his sections of the novel, so I disliked many of his scenes. I liked Dorrin okay, but my favorite, hand’s down, was Arvid the thief, and he got very little time on stage compared to some of the others.

This is the kind of situation that makes it hard to maintain interest in a story — too many characters I don’t care about, plus details I actively dislike (the Lady is an IDIOT), plus details in the worldbuilding that make no sense, and there we go, I lose interest, give away the first couple-three books of the series, and go on to some other series by some other author. I had similar problems with all the books in this category, though in Ky Vatta’s continuing series, the IDIOT role is played by various subordinates who aren’t that important except for their role in occasionally saying incredibly stupid things. (But surely you don’t think someone’s out to get you, just because your shuttle was shot down and your survival suit was sabotaged?)

Haven’t Read:

I actually turned out to have missed out on several of Elizabeth Moon’s books, including the Planet Pirates trilogy and Remnant Population. If you’ve read those, what did you think?

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Recent acquisition: Necronomnomnom, by HP Lovecraft (and Mike Slater)

One of my brothers found this, um, cookbook, at WindyCon last weekend and showed it to me. It’s wonderful, but the dealer was out of copies by the time I made it to his table – which is no problem, of course, since Amazon is always willing to ship. So here’s my copy, which arrived yesterday:

It’s a cookbook, obviously. Why else with the “nomnomnom” thing, right? It’s good looking on the inside too, all manuscript-colored with cursive footnotes in blood-red ink.

Some of the recipes are almost sorta kinda written in the regular way, but some are, ah, customized to fit the theme. Let me give you one recipe. Ordinarily I customize all recipes, but I’m not sure I would dare to mess with this one, which I’ll therefore give you verbatim:

Deep-Fried Deep One

Offerings to Vengeance

1 large egg of the fowl of the wood, as Sadogui doth favor

1 Tbsp of the best offering to be found in the Maze of N’yo

(Use the Eye of Azoth; it is dangerous to go in body! The Hunter will abide this small trespass. We know.)

1 tsp seasoning from the Old Bay of Elders

¼ tsp salt of the Sea

1 Tbsp finely chopped Herb of Mysterious Purpose

1 lb lump crabmeat, ritually cleansed and purified

½ lb fresh pink-fleshed fish of the river and sea

1 ½ Tbsp unseasoned crumbs of bread, more if needed

3 Tbsp unsalted butter, to ease the transition

Wedges of the Citrus in Yellow are always welcomed

Visitation of Wrath

Make ready an altar of flat metal, line this with the alchemical foil.

In a commodious vessel, join forcibly the egg, mayonnaise, spice of the Bay of Elders, salt, and parsley. Take the flesh of the sea dwellers, mingle them blasphemously in the eyes of their Sleeping Lord. Fold all this now together, with care that flesh can still be recognized. When this is done, raise the bowl high, twice, then sprinkle with crumbs. Lower the bowl to the Earth that the One Below may see what has been done in his name!

Shape in the old way, into eight disks, and place upon the prepared altar. Cast them into the darkness and cold for one twelfth of one of your numbered days. Heat the salve of transition in the proper implement and exult as the disks sizzle and brown! Brown them as the sun would the husks of our briny foe, turning them and cooking them on each side for 4 minutes. The are delicate – have care if you wish the center to hold!

Remember the Mongol and the Turk when they came to aid us in Averoigne. We remember our allies, and we shall serve together again!


Okay, is that clever or what? “Maze of N’yo” was clear after a second, but if the written recipe hadn’t translated Herb of Mysterious Purpose” as parsley, I would have had to guess. On the other hand, I would have guessed parsley. Plus after the fact, hello, parsley is often included for no obvious reason, in recipes or as a little sprig on the plate so “mysterious purpose,” sure. The author tried hard with the salmon, right? He never said “salmon,” but “pink-fleshed” is pretty clear and there aren’t many fish that spend time in both the rivers and the sea. He doesn’t say to poach it first or whatever, so I suppose you’re supposed to use raw salmon? It gets cooked in the patties, after all. I must admit I might use canned.

Also, these patties are not actually deep fried, as far as I can tell; they’re just pan fried. I guess “deep fried” is just a play on “deep ones.”

Still, no matter how you handle this recipe, it sounds pretty good. I think I’ll try it. I’ll even lift the bowl high twice and lower it to Earth once. Wouldn’t want the One Below to miss what has been done in his name.

Let me quote some recipe titles for you . . . let me see . . . okay: Sacrificial Lamb. Pallid Bisque, I like that one. Tsathogguambalaja – which includes the instruction, “1/4 lb tuna or any unwary finned sea denizen; rend this offering to chunks.” Really puts one in the mood for a cozy supper. Here’s a recipe for “The Fate of the Elder Ones” that I believe uses star fruit. Without the drawings, I would be less certain. Ha ha ha, here’s The Cake in Yellow! That’s great, even though all I know about the King in Yellow is that there’s some sort of influential story by that name or something.

I’m definitely going to make some things out of this book, but should I with my hundred other cookbooks or put it somewhere by itself? Not sure.

This will probably be the craziest cookbook I buy this year. However, maybe not. It turns out that if you order Necronomnomnom from Amazon, they are happy to suggest other cookbooks you might like. Like, say, this Firefly cookbook, which does sound kind of neat. I’m a lot more familiar with Firefly than Lovecraft, too . . .

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Gritty fantasy versus grimdark

Continuing my recent effort to pull apart horror, dark fantasy, gritty fantasy, and grimdark — which means it’s time to define grimdark! Which, of course, I’ve done before.

My opinions about grimdark haven’t changed. As far as I’m concerned, grimdark = unrealistically grim and dark. This is a form that elides beauty, honor, love, and any sense of the ineffable. An important criterion is that both the protagonist(s) and the world wind up worse off at the end. A grimdark novel is probably also gritty because grimdark usually (always?) draws on the ugliness of the world to fit its themes about how awful everything is.

For me, the quintessential grimdark novel is Joe Abercrombe’s Best Served Cold. In this novel, we see:

a) A protagonist who is betrayed by her employer and left for dead, who sets out for revenge, but later starts to have doubts about the whole revenge thing, except she is pulled along despite herself. She is not permitted to reconsider in any real way, but she does find out she was actually betrayed much more deeply than she had at first thought, by someone she really trusted. Themes: trust is for fools, you are helpless clay in the hands of vicious fate.

b) A second protagonist who has resolved to be a decent person, but who is pulled along by the story in such a way that he cannot keep to this resolution and fails completely. Instead, he becomes embittered and a much worse person. Themes: It’s impossible for decency to survive contact with the world; sure enough, you’re helpless putty in the hands of vicious fate.

Reading this novel created my complete and apparently permanent distaste for grimdark. There were things I liked about The First Law trilogy, even though the bad guys win, and a character who is trying to become a better person completely fails and becomes a much worse person, and the character who was being set up to defeat the ultimate bad guy fails, and so on. The First Law trilogy is very definitely grimdark, but I did like two of the characters. Sort of. Even though they were awful people in nearly every way. I did finish the trilogy. But after Best Served Cold, I will never again read anything that seems like it’s heading in a grimdark direction.

In contrast to grimdark, gritty fantasy is not unrealistically grim; gritty can and does includes the beautiful as well as the horrible — see Locke Lamora’s relationship with Jean, for example. In dark or gritty fantasy, if the protagonist is worse off at the end, it’s because there’s a cliffhanger and another book is expected, because in the end the story will reach a satisfying (or no worse than ambiguous) conclusion. Of course, if the first book looks too much like grimdark, I won’t personally go on to the second; every now and then I encounter a book like that. Karen Lowachee’s Gaslight Dogs was like a book of that kind. One of the characters started off weak and ended up a monster. Was this supposed to be resolved in a second book? I don’t know and it doesn’t matter; I couldn’t bear to go on with this story even if a second book appeared.

So, to sum up:

In grimdark, if something is beautiful, it’s likely to be ruined, corrupted, or crushed.

Character arcs point downward. A weak character is probably going to be corrupted or ruined by the end. If he chooses to strive to overcome his flaws and tries to become a better person, he fails.

If the world (or some part of it) was ruled by a tyrant at the beginning, it’ll probably be ruled by a worse or more terrifying tyrant at the end. If people were oppressed at the beginning, they’re still oppressed at the end, though details may have changed around the edges. If they’re fool enough to celebrate, the reader can see how deluded they are.

In grimdark, the world is ugly. It’s not just uglier than the reader first expects. It’s ugly right to its core. In the spectrum that encompasses horror, dark fantasy, gritty fantasy, and grimdark, this is true only of grimdark.

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All time best SF novels

So, yesterday I declared that Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark is, in my opinion, one of the great science fiction novels of all time. Naturally I now feel I should place it in the context of a top ten list.

This is not a list of “most popular” or “most well known” or “most frequently considered great.” I’m not sure how far off the beaten track I’ll get with all these entries, but I’m pretty sure the discerning reader will notice that I admire sociological science fiction.

I’m not going to try to sort anything out within this list. All of these are great books, full stop. I don’t even care whether or not they had a marked impact on the genre; I’m judging the books solely in themselves. Also, I don’t generally like grim tragedies, so I haven’t read Hyperion or various others that often get picked out for lists of this kind. I’m sure it’s brilliant, but obviously I have to stick to books I’ve actually read. Not only that, but loved enough to read several times, so I remember them and appreciate them — unlike The Diamond Age by Stephenson, which I only read once.

In other words, like all lists of this kind, this one is a personal list, even though I’m trying to pick only objectively great books. These are also all science fiction because in this list, I’m steering clear of fantasy.

1. The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon.

2. Cyteen by CJC

3. Dune by Frank Herbert

4. The Mars trilogy by KSR

5. The Foreigner series by CJC — I know; it’s not necessarily okay to uinclude two works by the same author, but here we are.

6. A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

7. The Gaia trilogy by John Varley

8. Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie

9. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Heinlein

10. The rest of these are novels, but for my last pick: The collected short stories by Cordwainer Smith.

I realize that Ursula K LeGuin is a glaring absence. Unfortunately, though they may be great novels, I actually did not like and did not finish either The Dispossessed or Left Hand of Darkness. Beautiful, beautiful writing. But I didn’t connect with any of the characters.

Okay! So, given these lists are inherently personal, which science fiction, not fantasy, novels would you definitely pick for inclusion on a list of top ten greatest science fiction novels ever written?

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Fencing demo at WindyCon

I wasn’t actually aware the at the author guest of honor at WindyCon this year was Elizabeth Moon until I bumped into her. I hadn’t looked to see who any of the guests of honor were because I was going anyway, so what difference did it make, right?

Well, I actually do like many of Elizabeth Moon’s books, plus if you weren’t aware of it, she writes the best horse posts on Facebook. Very detailed posts about training and managing her horse — she has a handsome young new-to-her gelding called Tigger for his bounce. Anyway, yes, really good horse-themed Facebook posts.

Plus did you know she fences? So there were fencing demonstrations, both modern competition style (in which I have little interest) and historical style, which is much more what I’m interested in. The latter is the kind of fencing Elizabeth Moon does.

So, yes, that was a fun demo to attend.

Plus, as you may know, I’d personally put The Speed of Dark on a list of Best Ever Science Fiction Novels. I really would. So, since my copy is an elderly mass market paperback, I went ahead and picked up a nicer edition at the con and asked Elizabeth Moon to sign it for me. So that was certainly a nice plus for the weekend.

Oh, yes, and all my panels went well, plus I saw both my brothers and various friends, and it was altogether a great weekend, though I was happy to get home and pat the puppies.

Also, I picked up a cd by my now-favorite filk group, Vixy and Tony and listened to it for quite a lot of the way home. You can listen to their songs at the linked website. My favorites are Missing Part, Eight-Legged Blues, Dawson’s Christian, The Girl Who’s Never Been, Uplift, and now Emerald Green, Mal’s Song, Persephone, and Erased. That’s in order as I look down their songlists; it’s hard to pick a real favorite.

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The Martian, 2?

Looks like Andy Weir’s been asked to help develop a sequel to the The Martian. Or maybe not a direct sequel, but something similar.

Via a short post at tor.com:

The Lego Movie directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller are developing an idea by Weir, described as “another problem-solving science fiction adventure.” …

It sounds as though it’s something along the same lines as The Martian, which saw astronaut Mark Watney stranded on the surface of Mars after his crew aborted their mission abruptly. 

Sounds promising! The Lego Movie was fun and innovative; The Martian was exciting and also pretty innovative in a different way. I’ll definitely be interested to see what emerges.

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We don’t understand anything

Something Strange And Unseen Seems to Be Causing Distant Galaxies to Synchronise

Galaxies millions of light years away seem to be connected by an unseen network of massive intergalactic structures, which force them to synchronize in ways that can’t be explained by existing astrophysics, Vice reports. The discoveries could force us to rethink our fundamental understanding of the universe.

Having recently listened to Niel deGrasse Tyson’s Great Course’s lectures on Our Inexplicable Universe, I find it really quite easy to believe that we don’t understand anything.

separate study, published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics in 2014, found supermassive black holes aligning with each other, despite being billions of light years apart.

Of course they are.

Yep, really, we don’t understand anything.

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I’ll be at WindyCon this weekend, so if you’re around, say hi if you get a chance!


Friday, 5:00 pm — new and exciting developments in our knowledge of dinosaurs. I am prepared with a powerpoint slideshow, but also with printed pictures in case technology isn’t available or fails. My favorites by a mile are the maniraptorans, so I hope someone else on the panel knows more about some other branch of dinosaurs.

Friday 6:00 pm — Worldbuilding in SF. Looks like planetary science is expected to be the focus, rather than worldbuilding in fantasy. We’ll see how the panel actually develops…

Saturday 7:00 pm — “Ask a Scientist.” I’m somewhat flattered to be included on this panel, since although I have a background in science, I’m not really a scientist. The plus: no way to prepare, so that makes preparation easy. The minus: no way to prepare, so that means the right (or wrong) kind of question might catch everyone at a loss. Perhaps the audience members can fill in the gaps in panelist knowledge. I, of course, would most welcome questions about animal behavior, genetics, and evolution.

Sunday 10:00 am — “Fannish Pets,” it says here. “Lead a discussion,” it says. Well, I am second to none in my willingness to talk about pets, mine or other people’s. This sounds like the kind of panel where everyone will be passing around photos, so I’m going prepared with a printed copy of this one, which is a professional job rather than a snapshot I took with my phone, as you might be able to tell:

That is Leda in the middle, with her brothers. She is two years old now. How time flies!

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Dark fantasy versus gritty fantasy.

Recently I said that dark fantasy is not the same thing as gritty or grimdark fantasy. Let me go on with that now, with an attempt to pull apart dark fantasy from gritty fantasy. I feel this is a useful distinction because if you just search for “dark fantasy,” a whoooolllle lot of the suggestions are either very gritty or grimdark, but are not by any stretch what I would prefer to call “dark fantasy.”

I said the other day that dark fantasy should have the following characteristics: It should have a high fantasy or mythopoeic tone, it should be atmospheric, the fantasy elements should remain largely or entirely unexplained, and the protagonist(s) should be heroic rather than helpless or ineffectual.

This is, of course, a personal type of definition. But if we follow it for a minute, then obviously gritty fantasy is completely different from dark fantasy. I like a certain amount of grit in fantasy — sometimes — if it’s well done, not overdone, and I’m in the mood — but gritty fantasy has almost nothing in common with horror and therefore is not very similar to dark fantasy either.

Let’s take a close look at gritty fantasy.

Gritty fantasy, in my opinion — and I think this fits everyone’s opinion — specifically does not have a high fantasy or mythopoeic tone. The worldbuilding instead emphasizes some or all of the following features of daily life: extreme poverty, filth, prevailing ignorance, selfishness, the misery and general ugliness of daily life. In gritty fantasy, streets are filthy, and we get a good look at the sewage. Beggars might have rotting fingers, and we get to smell the putrification. Poor families might sell a child to slavers, and they might not feel especially bad about the necessity, either.

All of these attributes were indeed typical of many (most) human societies, but I don’t personally want to read about a world where these features are brought front and center, even if the protagonists appeal to me and the writing is good and all of that. Some grittiness can be fine as long as the author also shows us the beauty in the world. The grittiness then becomes an additional layer added to the world, a layer that is more or less elided in high fantasy. I’m not always too keen on that layer, but it depends on the extent of the grittiness.

Here are some examples of gritty fantasy, lined up in descending order of grittiness:

Unendurably gritty: Dark Apostle series by EC Ambrose.

I tried to read this book. I like the idea of a surgeon in a fantasy novel; I’m fine with the historical surgeon-barber profession. Here is part of the back cover description of this book:

Elisha Barber is good at his work, but skill alone cannot protect him. In a single catastrophic day, Elisha’s attempt to deliver his brother’s child leaves his family ruined, and Elisha himself accused of murder. Then a haughty physician offers him a way out: serve as a battle surgeon in an unjust war.

The novel opens with that “single catastrophic day.” Not only is the day catastrophic, the setting also brings every gritty worldbuilding element into the forefront and dumps it all, like a bucket of rotting offal, over the reader’s head. I didn’t make it to the offer from the haughty physician.

Moving on to tolerable levels of grittiness:

Gritty: Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards series; the Night Angel serieby Brent Weeks. I read these and like them, but I have not gone back to re-read them. The one by Weeks, I gave away.

Somewhat gritty: Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series. Now we’re at a level I can appreciate. I love this series and highly recommend it to anyone as an example of outstanding epic fantasy.

A bit gritty: Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper series. Yes, really. This series is very different from Pierce’s middlegrade series. It’s much more sophisticated, much “bigger,” and much grittier — without being too much for (most of) Pierce’s young readers. But the focus on the street-level grime, poverty, crime, and daily life place this series firmly in the gritty category as opposed to the high fantasy side of the genre.

In this case, this is by far my favorite of Tamora Pierce’s series. Long and slow-paced at times, but I’ve re-read the whole thing a couple of times and will undoubtedly do so again in the future.

This all boils down to the essential difference between high fantasy and low fantasy, except it’s between a specific type of high fantasy (dark) and a specific type of low fantasy (gritty). I think this is actually a quite useful distinction, much more so than just lumping together everything with unpleasant or scary or grim aspects and calling it “dark fantasy.”

If you have a suggestion for a gritty fantasy — but not too gritty — drop it in the comments! Or if you’d like to redraw the lines of the definitions, then by all means, jump in and lay out where the lines should be between horror, dark, and gritty.

Next week sometime, I’ll try to separate grimdark from gritty. Fantasy can absolutely be extremely gritty, far too much so for my personal taste, without being grimdark.

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Viking warrior woman

Scientists Reconstruct The Mutilated Face Of A 1,000-Year-Old Female Viking Warrior

A skeleton found in a Viking graveyard in Solør, Norway has been identified as female for years, but experts weren’t sure if the woman was really a warrior when she was alive. Now, cutting-edge facial reconstruction appears to confirm her status as a fighter.

According to The Guardian, archaeologist Ella Al-Shamahi explained that this latter part was in dispute “simply because the occupant was a woman” — despite her burial site being filled with an arsenal of weaponry that included arrows, a sword, a shield, a spear, and an axe.

This does seem somewhat odd to me. What can a facial injury tell you that burial with an arsenal can’t? It seems to me like the number of nonfighter women murdered with swords and spears must be quite a lot higher, to put it mildly than the number of warrior women killed in battle. Nothing in the article suggests why a specific wound indicates death in battle rather than slaughter of a noncombatant. Personally, I think the arsenal is a lot more suggestive than the wound.

However, it’s always something to see the face of someone out of history.

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