Book Launch Reminder

Reminder: the launch of The Forge, the fifth and final book in the Reforging series, will be held this weekend, on Sunday, 23 January, at 1:00pm New Zealand Daylight Time.

If you haven’t been following the series, here’s on overview:

In an alternate Europe, Charlemagne, the great Earth wizard and king of the Franks, turned north to conquer the British Isles instead of going south and east into Italy and Saxony. With Europe a roiling mess of conflict, he directed his wisest and most powerful witches and wizards to use their magic to protect the kingdom’s borders, enforce its laws, and encourage trade. Their response was the creation of four powerful magical entities named the offices, each working in a symbiotic relationship with the head of the corresponding elemental magic guild. The most powerful, the Fire Office, provided the country’s defences. The weakest, the Water Office, dispensed justice.

These four offices served the kingdom of Frankland well for hundreds of years, but a thousand years after their forging, the country is strangling in their iron grip. Frankland’s needs have changed, but the offices couldn’t adapt. In their haste to build the offices, the offices’ creators never considered that repairs might be needed.

The Reforging series follows a small group of Frankland’s most powerful witches and wizards, dedicated to rebuilding the four offices, and the challenges they encounter along the way: conspiracies and secrets, magical defences built into the offices that threaten to destroy anyone tampering with them, a rigid aristocracy that would rather indulge in civil war than lose any of their privileges, and a greedy neighbour planning to invade when Frankland’s Fire Office is out of commission for repairs.

The men and women involved in the Reforging effort are Frankland’s finest, but are even they enough to overcome mistakes calcified into stone a thousand years ago?

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The Forge Book Launch

The launch of The Forge, the fifth and final book in the Reforging series, will be an online event on Sunday, 23 January, at 1:00pm* New Zealand Daylight Time. Looking forward to seeing you then!

Reminder: IFWG Publishing Australia is offering the whole series at a reduced price until the end of January. If you don’t have copies already, this is an excellent deal. (It includes shipping anywhere in the world.)

Also, nominations for the 2022 Sir Julius Vogel awards (awards given by The Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of New Zealand to recognise excellence in science fiction, fantasy, and horror) are now open.

The Wordsmith, the fourth book in the series, was published in 2021, and is eligible for an award. If you read it and liked it, please consider nominating it in the Best Novel category. Anyone (Kiwi or not, in New Zealand or not) can make a nomination. The guidelines are here; the nomination form is here.

The Forge’s official release date was in December 2021, so it is eligible, too, but I don’t expect any of you have read it yet. If you feel that it deserves a nomination, too, then by all means, go ahead!

If you feel that some other New Zealand author’s work should get some attention, then nominate them, too. The awards are completely fan-based, so if you don’t speak up, who will?

Related to that, reviews, on whatever platform you choose—goodreads, amazonthestorygraph, your own blog, etc.—are always, always appreciated.

*If you’re not in New Zealand, here’s the time in a few other time zones:

  • Eastern Standard Time (New York): 7:00pm, Saturday, 22 January
  • Pacific Standard Time (San Francisco): 4:00pm, Saturday, 22 January
  • Australian Eastern Daylight Saving Time (Sydney): 11am, Sunday, 23 January
  • Or you can use this handy time zone converter.
Posted in A Writer's Life, Epic Fantasy, Kiwi author | Leave a comment

2022 Preview

My family are the best! They gave me books, chocolate, and a lovely large blank book for the next instalment in my reader’s journal. I’m all set. Between the books in the picture above, and several more on my e-reader, I have a half-dozen that I am looking forward to reading soon:

  • Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir: More science adventure in space by the author of The Martian.
  • The House in the Cerulean Sea by T. J. Klune: A fantasy billed as an uplifting story about found family.
  • The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu: More hard sci-fi about first contact with aliens, set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution.
  • The Hands of the Emperor by Victoria Goddard: The rave reviews this has been getting, with many people comparing it to The Goblin Emperor were enough to get me hooked.
  • Witchmark by C. L. Polk: Murder, magic, and romance, in a world supposedly similar to Edwardian England. Plus it has a gorgeous cover.
  • When the Tiger Came down the Mountain by Night Vo: Another novella set in the same world as The Empress of Salt and Fortune. If it’s anywhere close to the first one, it will be lovely.

This is, of course, just the beginning of the list for next year. My TBR pile never seems to shrink, but so what? I’ll always have something to look forward to.

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2021 Recap

For this end-of-year review, I’ve come up with a baker’s dozen of books, or set of books—some old, some new—that were most memorable or most fun for me this year. There’s lots of engrossing fiction being published, so winnowing them down isn’t easy. In no particular order, the top thirteen were:

  • A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher: Fourteen-year-old Mona stretches the limits of what a bread wizard can do with dough in an emergency. Her defence of her city is at times darkly funny as she goes from naive optimism to weary acceptance of responsibilities that the adults around her have mostly avoided.
  • Ghost Bus: Tales from Wellington’s Dark Side by Anna Kirtlan: A collection of stories, ranging from dark to whimsical, that form a love letter to New Zealand’s capital city.
  • Night Sky by Clare Francis: A World War II spy novel/thriller, wth an unscrupulous Frenchman selling out his fellow citizens, and a young woman in the French Resistance, a non-sailor desperate to escape the Germans, taking to the seas in a small boat with her small son and an ill passenger.
  • The Interdependency series by John Scalzi: Starting with The Collapsing Empire, a three-part space opera involving a civilisation facing a calamity that has parallels to our climate crisis. The saga includes a properly hissable villain and a surprisingly likeable foul-mouthed, sex-crazed, egocentric protagonist.
  • Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger: A YA urban fantasy/mystery drawing on the author’s Lipan Apache heritage, with a protagonist who has a ghost dog and healthy, supportive relationships with her relatives and friends.
  • The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal: The third book in the award-winning Lady Astronaut series takes place mostly on the moon, as astronaut/politician Nicole Wargin races to uncover the saboteurs before they make the newly-established moon base uninhabitable.
  • The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo: An atmospheric and female-centred history of a rebellion, led by the scorned and apparently powerless wife in a political marriage.
  • The City We Became by N K Jemisin: A celebration of urban diversity and gusto, as avatars of New York City’s five boroughs fend off attackers trying to prevent the city from coming fully to life.
  • The Witchy Fiction stories: A collection of novellas by Kiwi authors and set in New Zealand, combining fantasy and sweet romance with an optimistic outlook.
  • These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong: An outstanding debut novel, this is a Romeo and Juliet retelling with monsters, set in 1920s Shanghai. Lots of gore, violence, and horror, so not really my thing, but it is certainly memorable, and I found the romantic tension in this version much stronger than in the original.
  • Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer: The first two of the four-book Terra Ignota series, exploring a possible 25th century with flying cars, non-geographic nations, and several other ideas that make them challenging, mind-boggling, and extremely ambitious. Fascinating, but you have to work to make sense of it.
  • Blindsight by Peter Watts: Superficially about first contact, this hard SF novel is more deeply about the complexities of the human brain and the nature of consciousness. Another quite challenging but memorable book.
  • Cotillion by Georgette Heyer: This Regency romance was just fun. It contains one of Heyer’s most appealing male characters: an apparently dim-witted clothes horse who turns out to be a good deal more than he seems.
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Reforging Complete

With the release of the The Forge, book 5 in the Reforging series, the series is complete! It has been a long time coming (I started writing the first book, The Locksmith, in 2010), and it feels terrific to see them all out there. All five of my little fledglings have flown the nest.

There will be an online launch in January, the weekend of the 22nd/23rd (1:00pm New Zealand time, Sunday 23 January); stay tuned for details.

Like its older siblings, The Forge is available from most online booksellers, including Amazon and Book Depository, and the publisher is offering a five-book package bundle, good until the end of January.

Posted in A Writer's Life, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Thanksgiving 2021

With the American Thanksgiving holiday coming up next week, I decided to share a few short stories I’ve enjoyed related to food and cooking. These are all online, to be read for free. Something to be thankful for! Bon appétit!

  • The Family Recipe by Alexandra Grunberg. A generations-old cookbook/grimoire brings continuity and experiences changes with each new owner. This is a lovely story of family connections forged in the details of everyday life; just beware that there’s a slightly disturbing twist in the very last line.
  • The Witches of Athens by Lara Elena Donnelly. Set in Athens, Ohio, it features two diners, two witches, and two boys in love who need a little help in opening up to each other.
  • Cooking with Closed Mouths by Kerry Truong. This is a story of love and dedication in a found family, with a pair of paranormal Korean immigrants trying to recapture home and childhood through food.
  • The War of Light and Shadow, in Five Dishes by Siobhan Carroll. Giving new meaning to the old adage that an army travels on its stomach, a captive chef works wonders, changing the course of a war.
  • So Much Cooking by Naomi Krietzer. In another story of a found family, a food blogger struggles to feed her husband and six children, none their own, in isolation in a too-small house, with a flu epidemic raging around them. Published in 2015, well before COVID-19, this is a timely story of grit and ordinary, everyday heroism.
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The Relentless Moon

In my last post, I wrote about The Calculating Stars, the first book in the Lady Astronaut series by Mary Robinette Kowal. That book had its good points, but I had some reservations about it. I liked The Relentless Moon, the third book in the series, much better. Science and technology are at the forefront in this one, and combined with a mystery and taut suspense—while still being character-focused, a neat trick—it added up to unputdownable. The action started fairly early on, and didn’t let up. The Relentless Moon “ruined” a weekend for me; all my other plans were trashed as I got caught up in this story.

The first two books follow the original Lady Astronaut, Elma York. This book follows one of her friends and colleagues, Nicolle Wargin. Nicole has her own, different mental health issue, but it’s less obtrusive to the main plot, and with Nicole spending most of the book on the moon while her husband is home in Kansas, there’s none of the lame sex, either.

The plot can be summarised in one word: sabotage. A group calling themselves Earth First is determined to halt the space program. They are at work on Earth, attacking the planet-bound engineers and trying to prevent launches, but it soon becomes obvious that they have infiltrated the astronaut corps, and have at least one saboteur on the moon. As increasing numbers of people working at the moon base are incapacitated, it is up to Nicole to find the saboteurs and neutralise their surprises before they ruin everyone’s chances of survival.

There are several things I like about this story. One is the focus on real-world engineering problems. (Especially with 1960s-era technology. It’s amusing to contemplate a functioning moon base with a human switchboard operator handling their long-distance calls to Earth.) The book is full of reminders of how many different systems have to work together to create a liveable environment. Space is an unforgiving place, and the sheer number of things that can go wrong is astronomical. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

And that leads into another thing: I enjoy reading about intelligent people solving problems and not downplaying their own competence and worth. Especially women. Especially women who can hold their own in discussing engineering problems, despite the men trying to keep them in restrictive roles, like administrative assistant, that they have no aptitude for.

And finally, there’s the teamwork aspect. Nicole is the narrator, so the story is hers, but she relies heavily on the people she trusts most: the women and Blacks that the white men in charge never fully welcomed into the space program. Several of them play crucial aspects in this story. I love stories with decent, ordinary people working together without needing to question their obligation to the common good. The mix here of intelligence, competence, teamwork, and responsible behaviour makes a quite satisfying combination.

The only thing I didn’t like about The Relentless Moon was the Epilog. I just couldn’t buy into where Nicole lands back on Earth, not given the 1960s setting. But that’s a minor quibble.

I’ve reviewed the first and third books in this series. What happened to the second book, The Fated Sky? I skipped it—I wasn’t that enamoured with Elma York—but now I expect I will backtrack and read it, too. While connected, the books work pretty well as standalones; knowing the impetus for this alternate timeline’s accelerated space program and who the main characters are from the first book help with the third book, but I expect a reader can pick most of that up from context. Just be aware that this book does have a spoiler for The Fated Sky.

There is a fourth book, The Martian Contingency, due out in 2022. I’ll be looking forward to it.

Trigger warnings: grief, death, eating disorders, sexism, racism, infertility, epidemic disease, human excrement.

Posted in Alternate History, Mysteries, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

The Calculating Stars

3 March 1952. A large meteorite hits Washington, D.C., wipes out most of the East Coast of the United States, and deals massive economic and emotional shocks to the entire world. The amount of ejecta in the atmosphere also triggers abrupt climate change: first, a years-long winter to be followed by global heating so drastic an extinction event is almost guaranteed. The only way the human race can survive is to get off planet.

In the alternate history/science fiction novel The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, the meteorite strike jump-starts the fledging space program. Former ace World War II WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) Elma York itches to be an astronaut, but has obstacles put in her way by the men who don’t want women in the space program. (There’s plenty of racism, too, and the Black WASPs are dealt a double whammy.) Elma eventually wins her spot because not only is she a crack pilot, she’s also a math wiz—one of the female computers doing the behind-the-scenes work before electronic computers were developed.

The Calculating Stars, the 2019 Hugo award winner for Best Novel, is the first book in the Lady Astronaut series. I actually like the third book, The Relentless Moon, better, but more about that in some later post. The series takes us back to the early days of the United States’ space program, with social justice issues at the forefront. We are given a woman’s view of the overlooked computers and non-White/non-male pilots—all people who are given short shrift in books like The Right Stuff.

The book is at its best when focusing on the actual space program: in one particularly memorable sequence Elma has to practice an underwater escape from simulated wreckage in icy conditions, while being required to wear a bikini to keep the attention of the watching press corps. I wish the book had given us more of that (the training, not the bikini) and less of Elma’s personal demons; overcoming the real scientific and technological problems involved would include drama enough. The biggest beef I had with it was that by keeping a narrow focus on the main character’s mental-health issues, it didn’t engage with what could have been a much grander, more epic story.

It also dragged in the middle section, and I could have done without the wince-inducing romantic clinches with Elma’s too-good-to-be-real husband.

Overall, I wanted to like this book more than I actually did, but it’s still not a bad start to a series that improves as it goes on.

Trigger warnings: sexism, racism, lame sex scenes.

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The Empress of Salt and Fortune

An empire subdues a new acquisition. The conquered people must send their ruler’s daughter to the empire to cement their new “alliance.” When the girl arrives in the capital, she is condescended to by the courtiers who consider her an outlandish barbarian. She is given the title “Empress,” but she has no friends, no power. After she delivers a son, her usefulness is over except as a hostage. Her baby is taken from her and she is sent into internal exile, destined to live out her life alone in a padded and gilded cage, far from the centres of power.

Or so the emperor and his sorcerers think.

Empress In-yo’s story starts in a familiar place, but it doesn’t follow the more familiar trajectories. She is quiet, but not passive; alone, but not friendless; angry, but not rash. And when her moment comes, she catches the rulers of the empire of Anh by surprise, for how much trouble, after all, can a few women make?

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo, one of this year’s Hugo contenders for best novella, gets off to a slow and somewhat confusing start, with the entire first chapter (out of twelve, or about 15% of the total) establishing a framing device. The non-binary cleric, Chih, and their travelling companion, a talking bird (a hoopoe) named Almost Brilliant, come to the house where the empress lived in exile, and meet an old woman named Rabbit. Chih explores the house, cataloging the objects they find, and recording the stories Rabbit tells about them.

A dress triggers Rabbit’s memory of In-yo’s arrival at a court modeled on the imperial Chinese. A child of the north, she brings a fine dowry of salt, pearls, and whale oil, and wears the magnificent, one-of-a-kind sealskin dress, made from the pelt of the seal her brother—now dead in the war—had stalked across the ice on his first hunt.

Most of the book is a series of flashbacks, reminiscences. They seem at first to be rather random, disconnected, with no obvious connection to the event in the first chapter that piqued Chih’s interest. But a little patience pays off. The vignettes gradually fill in pieces of a puzzle, and near the end come together to create, in retrospect, a cohesive story arc. (The format is probably not for everyone, but I found it intriguing. I know how stumbling across a forgotten object can trigger a flood of memories.) In-yo herself is not the point-of-view character; her story is told through the eyes of Rabbit, servant first and later friend, confidante, and co-conspirator.

The story is rich and atmospheric, with stronger world-building and characterisation in less than 130 pages than I’ve seen in some much longer books. The emotions are subtle and understated, and the violence mostly happens off-screen, implied rather than articulated. It benefits from a close reading; a fast skim will miss many of the telling details.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune is the first in a series (The Singing Hills Cycle) following the cleric, Chih. I’m looking forward to reading the next, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain.

Trigger warnings: Violence, forced sterilisation, suicide.

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Banned Book Week 2021

The first headline to catch my eye this morning read “Pennsylvania school district reverses ban on books by authors of colour”. Excellent timing for the beginning of the American Library Association’s (ALA) Banned Book Week. Feel like celebrating? I don’t, not when the censorship involved should never have happened in the first place.

If you haven’t been following this story, here’s the short version: in October 2020 the Central York school board implemented a “freeze” on several hundred books and other educational resources while the board vetted them. The list of “frozen” titles was almost entirely by or about people of colour.

The children’s book I am Rosa Parks, in the Ordinary People Change the World series by Brad Meltzer, was on the list. I haven’t read the book; I don’t know whether whether it is accurate, age appropriate, or even well-written. I do know that Rosa Parks was a woman who looked out both for herself and for other people; a woman I can look up to, in other words. A woman lots of children, Black and White, would benefit from knowing more about.

I’ve written before about the difference between “banned” and “challenged” books. Most of the fights over books in the United States’ recent history have been challenges, not outright bans, but in this case, the materials have been prohibited from classroom use and yanked from school library shelves for over a year. This reads like a ban to me, despite the school board’s attempts to evade the term. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, then it’s a duck.

That applies to the blatant racism involved, too. Apparently, some parents feel that books addressing issues of race and social justice are divisive. Divisive to whom? To the white snowflakes that want to close their eyes and pretend that systemic racism doesn’t exist, and that American history isn’t chock-full of political, social, and economic divisions between the races? Surely not to the people of colour who are smacked in the face every day with reminders of how much race matters and how little social justice there is for them in the U.S.

The news articles on this story quote one parent saying, “I don’t want my daughter growing up feeling guilty because she’s White.” Well, I agree, a schoolgirl isn’t responsible for the mess the United States is in; she shouldn’t feel guilty about it. But if she grows up without any understanding of the doors open to her simply because of her skin colour, and no willingness to help open those doors for others, then yes, maybe she should feel guilty. She should grow up with enough understanding of her country’s history to know that sweeping problems under the rug doesn’t build a healthy society. Her parents should encourage her to stretch her sense of empathy by reading about other people’s lives; how can that ever not be a good thing?

Fortunately, there are still many more people who do want these stories told than are against them; despite the claims of divisiveness, most of the community came together to demand the ban be lifted. I particularly like the story about a couple of women asking for donations of books on the list to put in their Little Free Libraries. The response has been more than enough to fill every Little Free Library in town; any student in the district who wants a book on the list will be able to get it.

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