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.
Posted in Seasonal, Short stories | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Alternate History, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in On Reading | 2 Comments

The City We Became

The City We Became, the first book in N. K. Jemisin’s Great Cities series, is a love letter to New York City, in all its exuberant, chaotic, contradictory glory. And to city life in general. The idea here is that when the conditions are right, with enough people packed into a small space, the city will come to life, literally, bestowing demigod-like powers on a resident chosen to be its avatar.

But the animation has unfortunate consequences. There are forces at work that don’t want new cities to come to life, and that will attack to prevent their birth, with disastrous results. Think Pompeii, Atlantis, New Orleans. The conflict is millennia-old, but in recent times the enemy has changed tactics, catching New York City’s midwives flat-footed.

The City We Became starts with a bang, following a young, homeless, Black graffiti artist painting throats so his still unborn city can breathe. And then he and the city become one, the city is in its birth throes, and the enemy strikes. They battle across the city, New York blocking eldritch tentacles with steel girders and bedrock. The Williamsburg bridge breaks, flinging commuters into the East River. The enemy takes a beating, but so does the city; its avatar is in a coma, easy prey when the enemy recovers.

But he is not alone in this fight. New York City has five boroughs, each with its own personality and chosen avatars, several women and one man who don’t particularly like each other. Will they be able to understand what the stakes are before it’s too late? Will they be able to overcome their differences and work together to protect the primary avatar? What will the others do when Staten Island tells them to get off her lawn?

This is a story, told with passion and humour, about NYC as a spicy, lumpy stew, celebrating all its various flavours, not as a melting pot enforcing homogeneity. I like that the characters are mostly decent, intelligent people trying to work together, trying to do the right thing. Even the villain has plausible reasons for her actions. Plus there’s an excellent send up of H. P. Lovecraft’s racism. But as much as I enjoyed The City We Became, I admit to some strong ambivalence towards it. It has a few problems:

  • People of colour good, white bad: The recurring motif pitting multicultural/multiracial diversity against white bread uniformity and xenophobia was as subtle as a punch in the face. I can understand how Jemisin comes to that point of view, but still… I can’t do anything about my skin colour any more than she can.
  • Pacing: The prologue gets the ball rolling just fine, but the story bogs down in the opening chapters. It’s not obvious to start with how the prologue relates to the amnesiac man on the train, and the explanation for his memory loss doesn’t come until a good ways in. The pace does pick up again by halfway through, and then it feels breakneck, with a rushed ending that left me doing a bit of head-scratching.
  • Fridge logic: The fast pacing of the second half carries the reader along, too busy wondering what happens next to get bogged down in picking apart the hand-wavy explanations. On thinking about it afterwards, however, there’s far too much that doesn’t make sense. Mouse over for spoilers.
  • Things get dropped: People, objects, and at least one idea. The trans roommate in Chapter Two was more appealing than the avatar character we’re following, but he’s dropped, never to be seen again. The avatar character drops his credit card in a park and walks away. A minor point, maybe, but it annoyed and distracted me through the next two chapters.

I never lived in NYC, but I spent thirty years in its bedroom suburbs in New Jersey. I’ve done all the touristy things in the city, gone shopping, ridden the subways, listened to the radio traffic reports with all their newcomer-unfriendly shorthand—the GWB (George Washington Bridge), the LIE (Long Island Expressway), etc—so I have a reasonable mental map of the place. If you don’t, Google Maps is your friend. There is a map at the beginning of the book, but in shades of grey on my e-reader’s small screen, I can’t make out many details. It does display the big blobs of the five boroughs, which is enough to show why Staten Island is more New Jersey than New York.

In sum, the book has a few problems, but it was a fun read. How can you go wrong with a book containing lines like this:

Discovering that one’s roommate is actively undergoing a break with reality is high on the scale of “things one wants to learn before signing the lease.”

Trigger warning: Lots of swearing, some violence, xenophobia, racism, attempted sexual assault, police brutality. Minor mentions: abortion, alcoholism.

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The Collapsing Empire

Without faster-than-light transportation, is interstellar travel possible? In The Collapsing Empire, the first book in the Interdependency series, author John Scalzi imagines a strange phenomenon called “The Flow”, unknown to our current physics. Using normal rocket propulsion to reach a region of space where the Flow interacts with normal space, a spaceship can get into the Flow with a carefully-crafted bubble of normal space surrounding it, and be carried along to other star systems in a few weeks or months.

All of known space is part of a network of Flow “streams” connecting the worlds making up the Interdependency, an empire so named because only one planet in the network has all the resources needed to sustain human life on its own. And that one planet—End, Earth is long lost in this universe—is a backwater, the farthest from all other planets in the network, so it’s a good thing that the Flow streams were mapped out more than a millennium ago and are stable.

Except that they aren’t. They are starting to collapse, and within a few years, interstellar travel will be impossible.

I had not read anything else by Scalzi before this book. I first took note of it when it was mentioned in a panel on climate change at CoNZealand, so I suppose I was expecting a focus on either (a) the moneyed interests’ resistance to any change that disturbs their position at the top of the pile, or (b) the impacts on the billions of ordinary people being lied to and abandoned to cruel fate by political leaders unwilling to make hard choices. I was a bit disappointed in that. There are some parallels with the current climate crisis, mostly in terms of people in power unwilling to face up to unpleasant facts, but the focus was less on environmental and societal impacts than on noble families in conflict.

The ruling Wu family has stayed in power for a millennium by extracting tolls and tariffs from their monopoly control of all the entries to and exits from the Flow streams around one central world, Hub. Another ambitious family sees the collapse as an opportunity to take control by establishing the same monopoly around End—under the mistaken assumption that the streams will simply shift, and not dry up completely—and has no scruples about using any means to accomplish that goal.

There are three main characters in The Collapsing Empire:

  • Cardenia Wu-Patrick, the new emperox (a gender-neutral term for the ruler of an empire). She is an accidental, untrained emperox—her older and recently-deceased half brother was expected to assume the throne—who is having to deal with terrorist bombings, assassination attempts, and unwanted suitors as well as this crisis.
  • Marce Claremont, the dedicated scientist overcoming obstacles—including kidnapping and his own insecurities—to bring the emperox the bad news. He also has to live with the knowledge that with the streams collapsing behind him, he may never see his home world again.
  • Kiva Lagos, a potty-mouthed, sex-obsessed member of a noble family, whose main concern is avoid losing face by going into the red on a sabotaged trade journey.

Cardenia and Marce are fairly standard characters: the underestimated ruler who grows into the job, the charming nerd. Kiva is more entertaining—she is ruthless, conniving, quick-thinking, and even occasionally exhibits a conscience—but plot, not characterisation, is this book’s strong point.

One other thing of note about this series is the gender neutrality. Women hold positions of power—emperox, head of the church, heads of merchant families—without questions about their competence. Many of the major players, both protagonist and antagonist, are women. A butt-kicking sister looks after her gentle brother. The over-sexed Kiva will get it on with just about anything that moves.

On the other hand, Kiva takes advantage of her position to get her employees into bed with her—a trait that isn’t more forgivable when a woman does it than when a man does. So, boo.

Aside from that, this is a fun, easy read, with hissable villains, witty dialogue, and some great action sequences. Good modern space opera, in other words. Warning: this first book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. If you enjoy it, you’ll probably want to go on immediately to the second book in the series, The Consuming Fire.

Trigger warnings: Violence, bad language, and some surprisingly un-erotic sex.

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Book Announcement: The Forge

The Forge, the fifth and final book in the Reforging series, is scheduled to be released on 3 December. I’ve just seen the cover art, and it’s gorgeous:

The artist, Catherine Archer-Wills, has done a fantastic job with all five covers, but this is the best one yet.

Thunder rolls in a continuous barrage, echoing off mountain walls. Lightning blazes across the sky, one jagged flash after another. The bolts that hit their targets leave charred bodies in their wake. The attacks that miss turn spruce and fir into torches, spreading fire until the entire mountain is in flames. Struggling wizards stand out as black silhouettes against the reds and oranges of the forest fire and the white of the deep snow.

In the valley, villagers cower under beds or huddle in cellars. The bravest peek out through gaps in closed shutters and pray for the Fire Warlock to come and save them.

Their prayers go unanswered. There is no Fire Warlock.

Posted in A Writer's Life, Epic Fantasy | Leave a comment

The Stranger House

Young Australian mathematician Sam (Samantha) Flood comes to the small Cumbrian village of Illthwaite looking for information about her grandmother, also known as Sam Flood. The older Sam emigrated from the U.K. in 1960 and died in childbirth only a year later, leaving Sam’s father an orphan. The locals Sam encounters deny knowledge of any Floods ever living in Illthwaite; it’s only by chance that Sam comes across a weed-obscured epitaph carved into the church cemetery wall:

Here lies Sam Flood
Whose nature bid him
To do much good.
Much good it did him.

The Sam Flood the epitaph references was a curate who had come to the village late in 1960, after the present day’s (circa 2005) Sam’s grandmother had already gone. A coincidence? Of course not. (This is a novel, after all, and the Law of Conservation of Detail applies.) Somehow, though, the villagers almost convince Sam that it is. Almost.

Meanwhile, the half-English/half-Spanish Mig (Miguel) Madero also arrives in Illthwaite, looking for information about a much older mystery in his own family: the disappearance of his ancestor, also named Miguel Madero, who had come to England with the Spanish Armada in 1588. Mig, too, is being stonewalled, but as he and Sam keep digging, they uncover some ugly secrets. Multiple mysteries—one from more than four hundred years ago, two from a little over forty—intertwine, and are still influencing current events. Sam—logical, incisive, and outspoken—insists on knowing the truth, a truth that someone, not so long ago, was willing to commit murder to hide.

If you are willing to accept a certain amount of magical realism (Mig, a former Catholic seminarian-turned-historian, see ghosts, and his sensitivity to the paranormal guides him in his search for clues), The Stranger House is an absorbing read. One of English crime writer Reginald Hill’s last works, it is an intricately plotted novel, with a well-drawn and entertaining cast of secondary characters, including a blacksmith/artist named Thor, a motherly innkeeper, a pair of very odd twins, and a retired cop (my favourite of the lot) who reminds Sam of a superannuated leprechaun.

I am slowly working my way through Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series, but The Stranger House is a standalone, without recurring characters. Hill’s writing is a pleasure to read, never losing sight of the plot, but full of humour and details fleshing out the setting and characters. The book is replete with throwaway lines like: Her eyes moved over Sam with the measured indifference of a security scan. Hill’s vocabulary must have been enormous; he is one of the few authors I regularly read who forces me to keep a dictionary at hand. (Whether you think that’s a positive or negative is up to you. Many of the unfamiliar words can be sussed out from context, but sometimes it is nice to know. Maybe I should read more of them on my e-reader, with its built-in dictionary.)

The book did include a few things that annoyed me, one of them being the not-really-believable romance between the two main characters, and another the frequent head hopping, sometimes moving from one character to another and back within a single page. There was also a sprinkling of Norse mythology (quotations from the Eddas, etc.) that felt rather forced and mostly superfluous to the plot. Related to that, the least successful secondary character was a chilly professor of the subject who never felt like a real person.

Sam’s behaviour, however, didn’t bother me. (I’m commenting on this because several reviewers on goodreads called her rude and unlikable.) I thought she was someone I would enjoy talking to. She started out reasonably polite, although frank and a bit irreverent, but with a chip on her shoulder towards the Catholic church (an understandable one, we find out later). Within a couple of hours of arriving in Illthwaite, four people lied to her and a fifth unseen person caused a fall that could have killed or seriously injured her. Wouldn’t you be angry? By the time she understands what really happened to her grandmother, she is ablaze with righteous anger and determined to dig out the truth, by whatever means is necessary. Calling her rude feels like an application of the old double standard, where anger is acceptable in men but not in women.

By the way, the story of what happened to Sam’s grandmother builds on the real history of the Home Children. Between the 1860s and 1970s, some 150,000 poor children were shipped from the U.K. to other parts of the Commonwealth—Australia, New Zealand, Canada, etc. The stated aim was to give them a better life, and for some it did, but thousands were mistreated and overworked, and many were forcibly separated from extant families. Not a very laudable episode in British history.

Trigger warnings: rape, violence, child abuse.

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