The only person in the world who loves books


So I made a joke in my most recent weekly update that when I post my various maunderings on in-progress books, I feel like the only person in the world who loves books this much.

What do I mean by that? Well, if I’m particularly enjoying a book — as I am the Six of Crows duology, or my (re)read of the Earthsea books — I produce a steady stream of commentary. You may have seen me do this on social media, but let me assure you, you only see a small portion of what I produce.

Why don’t I share more?

I’m not sure it’s interesting to anyone else.

If you haven’t read the book, it’s probably not interesting, and it’s usually spoilery up to the point I’ve read. If you have read the book, you may not have any patience for my partial understanding of the story up to that point. Some of it is cogent — like “I thought this plot twist was handled well for X reason” — but some of it is just silly fangirling, like “what Leverage characters would I map the Six of Crows crew to?”

A lot of it is one-off thoughts, most appropriate for social media

That very thing I am trying to use less of; that very thing I am trying to keep from taking over my life. But when I want to compare the otak from A Wizard of Earthsea to a porg, it seems appropriate for a social media post, but not so much for a blog post. Where do I share this urgently important thought???

Some of it ends up in my weekly update; sometimes I text or message someone personally with a clever thought. More often than I like I break social media silence to share it! And very rarely indeed it ends up in my Goodreads feed, which is probably the place it most belongs. (Although that, too, is social media, of a sort. Not monetized as aggressively as Facebook, certainly, but it has its small place in the attention economy).

Limitations of the media I do use

On the other hand, enough of it is long-form content that I think I would quickly outstrip the limits of the Goodreads progress updates field. (Just confirmed: yep, only 420 characters allowed, and no way to mark spoilers). You can do long-form and spoilers in reviews, but full-fledged reviews aren’t my problem — I write a lot of them here.

And there’s also the fact that audiobooks (which are a lot of my reading) make it hard to say “I paused on page 3 and had this thought.”

So I guess I’ve established that I’m comfortable using Goodreads for short, non-spoilery progress updates on print books that I’m reading, but longer form, spoilery updates that stop short of reviews? I’ve got no place for those.

Want to see an example of this, in all it’s unedited glory? After listening to a chapter of Crooked Kingdom on my commute, this is what I produced.

I’ve blanked out the spoilery bits with a background-color:white style; highlight to read them.

More Crooked Kingdom maunderings…

I listened to the Wylan chapter this morning where you learned what happened to his mother. It was heartbreaking*, and perfectly timed — the reader (at least this reader) figures out what is going on before Wylan does, but not so far ahead that it came across as predictable. It was definitely that perfect “sudden but inevitable” plot twist.

* I was going to say “heartrending”, but that has another meaning here.

(It probably helped that it’s not a plot twist, per se. While it changes Wylan’s motivation — in that he has accepted how evil his father is, and no longer wants to get back in his good graces — it doesn’t really change much about the plan going forward).

And while I’ve been harsh on this narrator, he did a pretty good job in this chapter — enough so that he at least faded into the background.

Particular things/moments I liked, more spoilery now:

– The “let’s go steal all my father’s money” that closes out the chapter. A Leverage homage (?) that isn’t nearly so heavy-handed as some I’ve seen. (Great, now I’m going to picture Kaz as Timothy Hutton instead. I liked it better when he was played by George Clooney in my head. And damn, now I’m mapping the crew members and it’s totally a thiiiiiiing, except for the part where there are different numbers and you kind of have to map both Matthias and Jesper to Elliot).
– Jesper’s incredulous “You lied to Kaz Brekker and got away with it!” moment.
– The irony of Marya not recognizing her son — the inspiration of so many of her paintings — because now he’s wearing Kuwei’s face.
– Playing music to her. (Even if I do wonder how the hell he shoved a flute in his shirt). I had a few moments of “just what the hell is Wylan going to SAY to her?” and this was the perfect response to that. To quote my beloved Millay, “comfort that does not comprehend” is exactly what was needed there.
– Even though Van Eck is just this onion of awfulness that we keep unpeeling, Wylan still has pleasant memories of him reading to him, or bringing him tea when he was sick. Because real people, even awful real people who try to have their dyslexic sons killed and wall their wives up in insane asylums, don’t behave consistently all the time. And on Wylan’s side, real people also have complex relationships with family members who are terrible people.

And more spoilers, about the previous Nina and Matthias chapter, this time:

And I do have to say: what the hell is happening to Nina? The bones of saints? Zoya showing up in the Ravkan quarter of Ketterdam? That whole chapter was Grisha trilogy nostalgia, though I was thoroughly chortling at Nina trying to explain “princess and barbarian” to Matthias, or their very serious, “I don’t understand how you can consider Alina Starkov a saint” conversation.

I still wonder how Nina never met Alina, if this is only two years after Ruin and Rising, she fought on her side, and furthermore that she knows Genya and Zoya and David and every other grisha of note from the trilogy. Was she not part of the group that went underground with them? Maybe I need to re-read and see if I can find her there. (I already pull that book down to consult the map all the time, because it’s the only print Bardugo book I have… though I suspect the map in the SoC books is more complete). I also wonder how she isn’t more disgusted at the mention of Retvenko, considering it’s preeeeeeetty clear from his POV chapter that he fought on the Darkling’s side of things in the civil war.

So yeah, that sure was a wall of text.

More than the logistical concerns, however, it comes back to this:

What do I want when I post stuff like this?

I want to have a dialogue with someone who’s as excited about the book as I am. Someone who is there for analysis, both trivial and literary. I want what I had when my friends and I were both excited about Babylon 5 in high school — the tiny kingdom of in-jokes and buzz that we inhabited.

This brings me back to my young adult years, where I was so desperate to talk about the books I was reading that I would randomly ask people on the street if they read fantasy. It’s cruelly hilarious that this loneliness persists today, when fantasy is mainstream.

I suppose if I were more invested in pop culture, I could inhabit that little kingdom; I could squee about the latest superhero movie or the latest episode of Game of Thrones to my friends. But few are the people I know who have read the books I read; fewer still who want to engage with them in the same way I do.

And some of this is taste. Like I know a lot of my book friends love Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence. I’ve read the first one and enjoyed it, but I don’t feel the excitement they have for it. And so when they squee about it I have little to offer. Likewise I know, of the top of my head, five or so people who have read the Six of Crows series, and while they all agree it’s competent, engaging, fun, none of them are as into it as I seem to be. None of them want that fannish engagement with the book.

My best experiences with this have been in writing communities. If there’s anyone who cares as much as I do about books, it’s SFF writers. But that too depends on tastes matching up. My VP17 Slack has channels for The Goblin Emperor, for example, but also channels for things I don’t care about, and certainly no channel for squeeing about the oeuvre of Leigh Bardugo. (I could create one, but if no one else has read it, what’s the point?)

Ultimately, though? I want people to love books exactly as much as I do, no more or less, in exactly the same ways. That is a literal impossibility, as well as a literary one.

So I guess… what do I do with this shit? Who actually wants to read this? Should I just resign myself to the fact that the answer is “no one”? Put it in a diary and save it for my inevitable biographers? 😉

The Poet and Her Book: On Reading the Biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Content warning: this post is full of poetry, sentimentality, and far too many stories about young Lise.

“I’m 80% Edna St. Vincent Millay by volume,” I’ve joked before. My friends know to share anything Millay on my Facebook timeline. I have a memorized line of hers for any occasion. It worms its way into my writing, in small and large ways.

(Just using Lioness as an example: the poet Merveil, that Yfre and Bizel quote at each other, for example, is very much based on her verse; Estevien describes his religious experience in a way very similar to the events of “Renascence”).

And really, this is no surprise. Her poetry was a tremendous part of my life, starting roughly in 1993, when I dug Mine the Harvest, her posthumous collection, out of a box of books my mom had taken out of the house of the poet George Abbe. (There’s a story there, but for another time). I was an impressionable age — thirteen — and so I eagerly read and reread every single poem in that volume. I don’t think I understood most of them at first; I don’t think I even understood how you were supposed to read line breaks in poetry, at the time.

And yet those verses spoke to me. They invoked my own blossoming interest (ha) in the natural world and my fascination with the mysteries of life and death.

This book, when I am dead, will be
A little faint perfume of me.
People who knew me well will say,
She really used to think that way.
I do not write it to survive
My mortal self, but being alive
And full of curious thoughts today
It pleases me somehow to say
This book when I am dead will be
A little faint perfume of me.

Excerpt from “Journal”, Mine the Harvest (1954)

So thoroughly did I take to it that later that year — tasked with making a poster to introduce me to eighth grade — I chose “Song” from that volume, and illustrated it with flowers cut out of a gardening catalogue. Maybe I hoped that there, like Edna’s “beautiful Dove”, I might be happy here; might even sing.

Later, I would discover other volumes that had been part of my life all along: A Few Figs from Thistles on my mom’s bookshelf, a book of collected poems in my high school library, a neglected copy of Poems Selected for Young People that I already had. I layered these together, took on the task of memorizing more intentionally, and was already well studied in her work by the time my mom gifted me with her Collected Poems in high school.

For the sake of some things
That be now no more
I will strew rushes
On my chamber-floor,
I will plant bergamot
At my kitchen-door.

For the sake of dim things
That were once so plain
I will set a barrel
Out to catch the rain,
I will hang an iron pot
On an iron crane.

Many things be dead and gone
That were brave and gay;
For the sake of these things
I will learn to say,
“An it please you, gentle sirs,”
“Alack!” and “Well-a-day!”

“Rosemary”, Second April (1921)

Somewhere in those years, I scribbled on the front page of that volume, “Oh, Edna; you won’t ease my troubles, but you do sympathize.” (Little did I know then that if I’d wanted to be really familiar, I should have called her Vincent).

When I was applying to Vassar, my essay spoke of my love for Millay and for Mary Oliver — both Vassar grads. (Oliver, I just learned recently, visited Steepletop when she was 17 and befriended Norma Millay, and apparently does a ton for Millay preservation. Why I am unsurprised?)

I learned over the years just how subversive Millay was — that she was almost certainly bi, that she and her husband Eugen had an open marriage, that she wrote frankly about sex at a time when women didn’t, etc — which only increased my love for her.


I had forgotten how the frogs must sound
After a year of silence, else I think
I should not so have ventured forth alone
At dusk upon this unfrequented road.


I am waylaid by Beauty. Who will walk
Between me and the crying of the frogs?
Oh, savage Beauty, suffer me to pass,
That am a timid woman, on her way
From one house to another!

“Assault”, Second April (1921)

I’m not sure when my mom — always my Millay dealer — gave me Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, by Nancy Milford. Sometime in college, I am sure, because I remember it sitting on my bookshelf in my senior-year apartment.

And yet I just finished reading it.

It’s… not everything I could hope for, but it is quite good. Sometimes I feel like it’s withholding information I would dearly love to have — possibly my appetite for trivial details about Millay is unquenchable. Other times, I feel like it has reached biographical perfection, putting its finger on Millay’s heart. (And of course as I write that, I recognize the echo of “Renascence”).

How strange it seems
That of all words these are the words you chose!
And yet a simple choice; you did not know
You would not write again. If you had known–
But then, it does not matter, — and indeed
If you had known there was so little time
You would have dropped your pen and come to me
And this page would be empty, and some phrase
Other than this would hold my wonder now.
Yet, since you could not know, and it befell
That these are the last words your fingers wrote,
There is a dignity some might not see
In this, “I picked the first sweet-pea to-day.”
To-day! Was there an opening bud beside it
You left until to-morrow?–O my love,
The things that withered,–and you came not back!

Excerpt from “Interim”, Renascence and Other Poems (1917)

I wanted to know, for example, how somebody as young as Millay could write something with the crushing grief of “Interim.” There are mentions of it in the biography, letters from Vassar to her mother and sisters, talking about entering it in a contest — but that’s about it. I want to know: is it biographical? Had she lost someone in this abrupt way? Who?

Or, I wanted some speculation on the sickness that kept her abed for nearly a year in the early 1930s. The letters she wrote through her husband talk of seeing the world as if there’s a mesh in front of her eyes, of terrible migraines. There are no answers to those questions contained in the book, and her headaches seem to suddenly go away when she rushes off to Paris to be with George Dillon.

The book also stops abruptly with her death — found with her neck broken, having fallen down the stairs at Steepletop, her home in Austerlitz, NY. It doesn’t even mention that later it was ruled that a heart attack was what caused the fall and probably her death.

I also find myself frustrated with the obstruction of Millay’s sister, Norma, who clearly revised the narrative of her sister’s life over the years. There’s only this biography of Millay, perhaps because Milford was the only person who was able to sufficiently placate Norma! Even then, Milford says that everything she took out of Steepletop, Norma insisted on “interpreting” for her. It seems like Milford dealt with this as best she could; Norma manages to be a not-entirely transparent narrator. It’s not her biography — but her presence, her take on Millay’s life, still casts a hue on the story.

I wonder, sometimes, of the elision of these points is intentional. During her life, Millay was asked to put out a volume of her love poems with her notes on who each of them was about (!) She refused, although she joked to her publisher that she “reject[ed] your proposal but appreciate your advances.” She gets offended when Arthur Ficke asks her if a particular sonnet was written to him; only on his deathbed does she admit that yes, it is. (“And you as well must die, beloved dust/and all your beauty stand you in no stead”). I think Milford possibly understood this well, and stopped short of this sort of voyeurism. (Although, maybe not in the choice to include some of Eugen’s smutty letters… burn all the letters, indeed).

The courage that my mother had
Went with her, and is with her still:
Rock from New England quarried;
Now granite in a granite hill.

The golden brooch my mother wore
She left behind for me to wear;
I have no thing I treasure more:
Yet, it is something I could spare.

Oh, if instead she’d left to me
The thing she took into the grave!—
That courage like a rock, which she
Has no more need of, and I have.

“The Courage That My Mother Had”, Mine the Harvest (1954)

But then there are the moments when the biography sings. The story of how Millay and Eugen drove her mother’s body home from Maine, for example — with the goal of burying it among the mountain laurels on the hills above Steepletop. How the ground was frozen solid and they had to dynamite, and the sound of it boomed over the hills for days. “Now granite in a granite hill,” indeed.

Another moment involves the wife of Millay’s brother-in-law, Charlotte Boissevain. They didn’t get along when Millay and Eugen were staying at their house on Cap d’Antibes; later, Milford interviews Charlotte Boissevain about the event. This bit from the interview struck me:

“Standing before her bookcase with its signed copies of first editions of novels by her friend Rebecca West and by Joseph Conrad and H.G. Wells, [Charlotte] began to speak, pointing to a book of Millay’s poems inscribed to them both: ‘There. There is as much as she’s ever written to me, to us — her words are precious, to Edna. And how do I see her? Edna — with a wall around her.'”

This felt like a perfect description of the intense loneliness of being a writer. (There, her echo, too; I think of “intense and terrible — I think — must be the loneliness of infants”).

Those hours when happy hours were my estate, —
Entailed, as proper, for the next in line,
Yet mine the harvest, and the title mine —
Those acres, fertile, and the furrows straight,
From which the lark would rise — all of my late
Enchantments, still, in brilliant colours, shine,
But striped with black, the tulip, lawn and vine,
Like gardens looked at through an iron gate.
Yet not as one who never sojourned there
I view the lovely segment of a past
I lived with all my senses, well aware
That this was perfect, and it would not last:
I smell the flower, though vacuum-still the air;
I feel its texture, though the gate is fast.

“Those hours when happy hours were my estate…”, Mine the Harvest (1954)

What is funny to me is how often Millay is viewed as this saucy jazz baby poetess. She rebelled strenuously against that notion; she fears, as she gets older, that she will be never be taken seriously, that “mature” Millay will be disdained. And yet every article that appears about her in the press, it seems, infantilizes her further, describing her clothing and how “doll” or “child”-like she looks, even into her fifties.

But for me — it wasn’t early Millay I fell in love with. It was that exquisite observation that Mine the Harvest is full of, a sort of natural philosophy through poetry, written almost entirely in her last year of life. It’s bitter to think of her during that time: her husband dead of lung cancer, alone except for housekeepers and gardeners. But also sweet: finally having overcome her morphine addiction, writing her best verse.

Mature Millay was beautiful, and that time period was so short-lived. I wanted to dwell longer there. And that, regrettably, is not something Milford’s biography allows.

I will continue, then, to make of my own life a memorial to her.

Stranger, pause and look;
From the dust of ages
Lift this little book,
Turn the tattered pages,
Read me, do not let me die!
Search the fading letters, finding
Steadfast in the broken binding
All that once was I!

Excerpt from “The Poet and His Book”, Second April (1921)

“The shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience”: some thoughts on Into Thin Air

I finished reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (subtitle: a personal account of the Mount Everest disaster) on Saturday, and I can’t seem to stop thinking about it. Just some thoughts that go through my head:

As I said on Facebook, my reaction to much of this is WHY WOULD ANYONE EVER SUBJECT THEMSELVES TO THIS? Climbing Everest seems to be playing Russian roulette with natural phenomenon to begin with (storms, a serac falling on you), but on top of that, the whole “you probably won’t sleep or eat above 20,000 feet, and you’ll either be freezing cold or burning up from the solar radiation; also did we mention the risks of pulmonary or cerebral edema?” just made me not even understand why, even if you’re a risk taker, you’d put up with that misery.

I’m just appalled/intrigued/blown away to the extent to which people trust themselves (or their guides) to make decisions that may end their lives when they are hypoxic and sleep-deprived. I mean, I guess you don’t have much of a choice. (Unless you don’t climb Everest to begin with, but we can tell that’s not going to happen).

On that note, the most poignant story for me was that of Rob Hall, the head guide for the expedition that Krakauer was on. By all accounts he was imminently sensible, setting turnaround times to ensure climbers weren’t getting so exhausted that they couldn’t get down from the summit. Except that then he decided to ignore his own rules, seemingly to get a client to the top. He ended up at the South Summit when the storm struck, unable to go on. He was basically stuck, dying there, for like 24 hours, able to reached by radio and satellite phone, but unable to be rescued. There’s a quote from his wife in the book, saying that when she talked to him on satellite phone it was a “Major Tom moment,” and yeah, wow. How do you even go on with that?

I know Krakauer gets some criticism for this book, and his role in what happened. Even as I was reading, I had a dim recollection of a conversation I had with a fellow staffer when I was working at the Adirondak Loj. She was reading a book about mountaineering — it might have been Anatoli Boukreev’s book, The Climb — and I made some comment like, “oh, like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air,” and she went off on Krakauer, talking about how Krakauer “huddled in his tent” the whole time instead of helping with the rescue effort.

But honestly, having reading Krakauer’s book, he comes across as super honest about his capabilities, or lack thereof. He’s introspective and you can tell there’s a lot of pain there for what he did or did not do. I can’t blame him for any decisions he made there, because he, like everyone else, was delirious with hypoxia. If he was huddling in his tent at Camp Four, so were a lot of other people. You can argue that he knew things were worse than he let on, of course, but to me, he comes off as earnest.

(And as I understand it, Boukreev has since met his end on Annapurna, so he perhaps should not be cited as an example of sensible mountaineering).

Also, reading that climbers in the IMAX expedition, summitting on May 23rd, sat beside Scott Fischer’s corpse and talked to it? Is just grisly. It speaks to the mindset of the person who would actually climb Everest, to my mind — the absolute denial of the monstrousness of death.

And the book is full of monstrous, gruesome images like that. The sherpa coughing blood into his mask. The porcelain-doll look of frostbitten skin. The corpses, like landmarks, that litter the trail.

There’s a Joan Didion quote as one of the chapter headings — the famous “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” one, somewhat expanded. It speaks of the “shifting phantasmagoria — which is our actual experience.”

Man, was that book a shifting phantasmagoria.

The Incredulous Tsunami (Review of The Incredible Tide, by Alexander Key)

My history with this book is long, drawn-out, and expensive. Given all that, I feel the need to write a proper review, so I at least have something to show for my time and effort.

The history

Sometime between 2000 and 2002, my college pal Dillon screened the anime series Future Boy Conan (1978) for Vassar’s geek club, the NSO. The 26-episode series was Hayao Miyazaki’s directorial debut — before Studio Ghibli was even a thing — and it displays prominently the environmental themes Miyazaki will return to in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke.

Personally, I quite loved it. And yet, some fifteen years later, my memories are primarily emotional. I resonated strongly with the deep loneliness that Conan feels, and with the sense of a world lost under the rising oceans.

Also it had a pig called Umasou (Looks Delicious). So there’s that.

Dillon informed us that it was based on The Incredible Tide (1970), by Alexander Key (who I venture many Americans of my age primarily associate with Escape to Witch Mountain, of which I retain even dimmer memories). He also told us that the book was wildly out of print, and hard to acquire.

Well, of course that only made me want to read it even more.

The “hard to acquire” bit was relevant. This was before the era where ’80s and ’90s kids found their childhood re-released in ebook form. The nostalgia factor was driving prices of this volume up to absurdity in the early 2000s, mostly through Amazon resellers — if you could even find it at all. I was told at one point it had only ever been released as a library edition, further fueling its scarcity.

However, in 2004 I attended the World Science Fiction Convention when it was in Boston, and among many other things, they had a ginormous dealer’s room. Here, at the booth of Somewhere in Time Books, from St. James, NY, I traded $200 for an ultra-rare copy of The Incredible Tide.

Which proceeded to sit on my shelf for over twelve years.

Fast forward to 2017

However! An opportunity presented itself this weekend, when I found myself dog-sick with (what I suspect was probably) norovirus. I wasn’t puking, but I was nauseous and feverish, and my skin hurt. Reading in bed was pretty much all I was capable of. And a book aimed at children/teenagers seemed about all I could handle.

I suppose you should examine this review in that light — I read most of The Incredible Tide while being very ill, and it might have colored my perception. But I emerged from the weekend without hating the Rifftrax Time Chasers coloring book I was working on, or Kevin Hearne’s Hounded, or Tad Williams’ The Dragonbone Chair (both of which I attempted to read, to varying degrees of success), so I really do think it was the book.

Because the book is… well, if the adjective “phoned in” was used in the 1970s, one might say Alexander Key phoned this book in.

Possibly via satellite phone while vacationing on a Caribbean island. Potentially while drunk on pina coladas.

What I’m saying is, the craftsmanship is just sloppy throughout. That’s overall my biggest complaint. Each of the factors I’m about to list, by itself, wouldn’t sink the book; but this general carelessness, on the whole, makes this book less than successful.

Anyway, first things first:

Plot Summary

Conan is a young boy who was abandoned on a little spit of rock when an “incredible tide” covered the world. Somehow he figures out how to survive on that rocky islet, and lives there for five years, until he’s found at the age of seventeen by the “New Order,” a group that is trying to remake the world — with technology!

Not these guys.

That makes them, by this book’s logic, the villains of the piece. In particular here we meet Dr. Manski, who becomes marginally relevant later.

At the same time, we also meet Lanna, far away in High Harbor, a community that was established by “Teacher,” a.k.a Briac Roa, when the world was going to shit. For some reason we are never told, Teacher then got captured by the New Order? But he apparently can stay in psychic contact with his daughter Mazal, whose husband Shann leads High Harbor. (Lanna is their daughter).

But there’s political unrest in High Harbor, as the New Order is trying to take over (via its agent Dyce), and a group of feral teenagers, led by a guy named Orlo, are trying to ally with them.

Pretty much, as far as I can tell, Lanna exists only to tell us this side of the story. And to have a crush on Conan. Her only other defining feature is her awful fear of vast expanses of ocean, which is totally understandable under the circumstances!

Meanwhile, Conan is “rescued” and brought to Industria, the New Order capital. They want to enslave him before he can become a citizen, and are resentful that he doesn’t seem grateful about this. He is imprisoned when he resists being branded by the New Order While imprisoned he discovers that Teacher/Briac Roa is also under the thumb of the New Order, posing as crackpot shipwright (two words I never thought I’d put together) Patch. “Patch” rescues Conan by requesting him as labor for his shipyard, and fills Conan in on his escape plan.

Their escape plan, however, goes awry. Whilst in the middle of robbing a workshop for supplies to escape, Teacher realizes that Industria is going to fall into the sea and decides that informing them of this is The Right Thing to Do ™, Right Now. He sends Conan off on the fragile boat they’ve built, while he risks his life to tell the people who have imprisoned him that he is this Briac Roa they’ve all been looking for, and hey, your city is in danger. This goes over about as well as you might imagine. He survives only because Conan comes back to rescue him.

Together they try to make their way to High Harbor, but are pursued by the New Order. A storm lands them on… the very same island Conan was stuck on for five years! The storm does away with his New Order pursuers, conveniently, except for Dr. Manski, who they just kind of run into on this giant ocean. She argues with Teacher about the existence of God while they wander around in the mists that make this post-apocalyptic sea mostly unnavigable. Finally they are able to make it back to High Harbor thanks to Lanna sending Tikki — the tern that kept watch over Conan through his time on the island — back to find him, conveniently overcoming her terror of the ocean all at one go.

The book ends with the tsunami Teacher has been predicting, which decides to show up just in time to wash away the New Order agent on High Harbor. It would have washed away Orlo, too, except that Conan decides that rescuing him is The Right Thing to Do ™. He is knocked over by the wave, but the people of High Harbor help him to his feet.

The end.

No, really, that’s where it ends. Mid-paragraph, it seems, as if the author just got sick of writing the story. What was the promise of the story, and was it fulfilled by this ending? Who knows…

Element by Element


The basic writing is bland, but not terrible. I’d call it workmanlike. No beautiful turns of phrase here, but we do get a sense, in the early chapters, of the lay of Conan’s island. It didn’t leave me with that nostalgic yearning for a world lost that Future Boy Conan did, though, but I’m willing to forgive that.

But soon enough we meet people for Conan to interact with. And augh, the dialogue. To say it is a wooden is an insult to hard-working wood. Modern reading preferences favor verisimilitude in speech in fiction; SFF, true, can get away with less. But by whatever standard, no humans anywhere talk like this. The conversations are like summaries of talking points, with many exclamation points. To give you an example, there’s this argument between Dr. Manski and Conan:

“Oh, stop talking like an idiot! Don’t you realize it took both sides to do the damage?”
“I don’t believe it!”
“But it did! Now someone has to put the pieces back together.”
“Only it has to be done your way — and with branded prisoners! You’d even take over High Harbor if you could, and rob everybody of his rights! Why you’re the dirtiest bunch that ever–”
“Shut up!” she ordered icily. “No one has any rights, not even I. Only the state has rights — the New Order. It’s only the state that–”
“State, my eye! Of all the stupid ideas!”
“You’re the stupid one! Stupid and ignorant. Of course we’ll take over High Harbor — and soon! We’ll be doing them a favor. They’re entirely incapable of looking after themselves. If you could only see–”
“I can see how warped and twisted you are! And greedy!”

Some of this might be a function of the characters, who are… well, let’s get to that.


… is the biggest weakness of this book. Mostly, I didn’t like any of the characters, and I didn’t care what happened to them. It made reading even this little 153-page volume a real chore.

At the core of it, it’s that they are ciphers, with no internal life; more stand-ins for an ideology than real people with hopes and dreams. Most of the narration is just an action-by-action recitation of what they’re doing; occasionally we get a “this made Conan mad,” but no sense of the context, or how we’re supposed to feel about it. It becomes hard to follow, as a result — a bland landscape without value judgments. An example:

Instantly he began scrambling forward, climbing over the disorder of equipment and groping for the coil of line and the piece of broken concrete that, because of the scarcity of metal, had to serve as an anchor. He found the concrete finally, started to heave it over the bow, but thought better of it and began lowering it carefully. It was well that he did so, for he paid out nearly the entire coil before the line went slack, and when he reached the end he found that it had not been made fast to the cleat on the foredeck.

(Don’t ask me how many times my poor, sick mind had to re-read this paragraph).

Teacher at least SEEMS like he might have internality. He’s literally the world’s smartest man, a shipwright, a seismologist — and, more tellingly, the one “good” character who attempts to understand the New Order point of view. But the author doesn’t want to show us more than just a tease of who he is. Does he think the young minds that are his audience can’t handle the complexities of opposing points of view? I don’t know.

God help you if you are a female character, though. Lanna, Mazal, Dr. Manski all seem to exist to further Conan and Teacher’s plots.

The moments where Conan and Teacher choose to endanger themselves in order to help people they hate is clearly supposed to be characterization. But… it feels pasted on. We can’t predict it from their actions elsewhere. And it ends up feeling as preachy as many things in this book are; like the author is bashing us over the head with THE MESSAGE.

Speaking of which…


As I said, Future Boy Conan has environmental themes. The Incredible Tide has an agenda.

It starts before the book even does, with this dedication: “To a people unknown, of a land long lost — for surely what is written here has happened before. It depends upon us alone whether it is a reflection or a prophecy.”

Well, all right, then.

A few chapters in, I joked to my husband that “so far this book has been Alexander Key’s diatribe against synthetic fabrics,” and it wasn’t far from the truth. Witness these choices tidbits:

Page 29: … he was given clothes to cover his nakedness. They were old and patched, and made of a shoddy synthetic material that felt unpleasant against his skin…

Page 30: “And don’t call the food synthetic. It is the best food ever made, and the most scientific.”

Page 48: But the New Order’s cloth would help. It was sleazy, of course. It was about the worst stuff she’d ever seen. Yet it was better than no cloth at all.

Page 56: It was a pair of sandwiches made of synthetic materials, obviously the product of machines. He thrust the unpalatable things in a corner and reached eagerly for the water bag.

Of course, never is it mentioned that, hey, maybe this is the work of a society attempting to survive in a post-apocalyptic world where wood and metals are rare. Nope, it’s clearly because the New Order are the villains, and therefore anything they do is bad. We should all be pitching in together and “making a game” of survivalism (this is literally how Lanna says High Harbor survives the rough times) and weaving our own wool-linen blend cloth, apparently. (Again, a thing Lanna literally does).

We don’t have much doubt as to the author’s intentions, do we? Throughout, he’s sending a message — synthetic bad. Natural good.

And by “sending” I mean “double ham-fistedly pounding you about the head and shoulders with.”

Did I mention the stuff about the Voice? Apparently if you are a protagonist, or protagonist-adjacent, you hear a voice that tells you the right thing to do at any given time. It helped Conan survive on his island, and it also tells you to do things like continue sailing blindly into the abyss, or to love your neighbor, or whatnot. This is so clearly a god-analogue that even Dr. Manski can sense it, and spends much of the penultimate chapter of the book arguing with Teacher about it.

Even if you’re religious, this is like a four year old’s understanding of God, and feels appallingly simplistic in a book that is ostensibly aimed at much older children.

And now repeat that sentence, replacing “God” with “environmental issues,” and that’s my executive summary of this element of the book.

(Idiot) Plot

The plot is the original idiot plot — driven entirely by convenience and people making really stupid choices. Some examples:

Conan apparently could have avoided capture by the New Order by fleeing to the eastern islet of his archipelago. He didn’t.

Conan could have apparently just punched out the door of his New Order prison, because it’s made of plastic. (And as we all know, plastic is an evil — and thus inherently flawed — synthetic). But he doesn’t, until he’s nearly dying of thirst, at which point Teacher convinces him not to, because… they are being watched?

Industria has been in danger from earthquakes and tsunamis since it was founded — and Teacher, theoretically, knows that — but he decides, at the moment when he and Conan are about to make their triumphant escape, to inform the authorities of this?

(In retrospect, it occurs to me that he might have seen signs that there was a recent tectonic shift, which might make the threat more imminent. But from the reader’s perspective, all we know is that Conan has a sense of dread, Teacher stops and examines a crack on the floor, and then, suddenly, they call the whole thing off. My primary reaction was largely, “huh?”, which is probably not the response the author wanted to this dramatic reveal. Again this may be largely a function of Teacher being, like every character, a cipher).

Teacher is blind. Not that this is ever relevant, because he is apparently strong in the Force, and can sense things regardless, up to and including the position of a compass needle. (No lie, he’s framed as being able to sense the world via some semi-magical, sensory-compensation-gone-wild kind of thing). It ends up feeling like Key just sorta forgot he was blind throughout half the book, so made up an explanation that he thought sounded good. (It didn’t).

How the heck does Conan ever end up on the island by himself? It’s implied that he was escaping with Teacher and Lanna before the apocalypse, and that Lanna had enough time to gift him with Tikki, but that’s about it. Why isn’t he at High Harbor with the rest of them? Did they have to drop him as ballast or something?

If Lanna is a gifted psychic communicator, why hasn’t she communicated with Conan during the FIVE YEARS they were separated? Eventually she uses that ability, together with Tikki, to bring him back to High Harbor — which only begs the question of why she didn’t do this earlier. You might be forgiven for thinking it’s her agoraphobia — the view of the vast ocean she sees whenever she ascends to the watchtower on High Harbor sickens her. But she doesn’t need to be there to communicate, as is made clear later in the book. At that point, it’s literally explained to us as, “she tried it once as a kid, and it decided it didn’t seem like something she should be able to do, so she never tried again.” Which seems merely engineered to give us the central plot complication.

The other thing I have to say about the plot is — what is it? Everybody just seems to be reacting to events around them. There’s no through-line, no drive forward, which in most modern fiction comes from the main character’s wants and needs. Conan never seems to want or need much beyond what is in front of him. As an example, he’s only escaping Industria and heading for High Harbor because it’s what Teacher wanted. We have a general idea it’s a thing he wants, too, because we know NEW ORDER BAD, but it doesn’t feel real or complex.

Still not these guys.

This is what I meant when I asked, “what is the promise of the book, and does the ending fulfill it?” I don’t know, because I literally don’t know what the plot of the book is. The end feels abrupt because we don’t know if we’ve arrived — because it’s never clear what the destination should be.

Again it ends up feeling more like ideology than story. It makes a little sense if Teacher and Conan are ciphers for Hope, Youth, Age, Wisdom, Harmony, etc, and High Harbor is some sort of Promised Land, but if these are real characters? It all falls apart.

And personally, I was hoping for characters, and a story.

Random Creepiness

I could have done with Orlo’s clearly (to an adult mind) rapey intentions towards Lanna. Witness:

“An’ do you know what Orlo an’ the commissioner plan to do?”
“What, Jimsy?”
“Take over your house. Doc an’ his wife, they gotta move. But Orlo says he’ll make you stay. That’s how he figgers on getting even for what you done.”

Wtf? I mean, YA these days tangles with some tough topics, but this childish explanation of what is basically SEXUAL ASSAULT just feels so off-the-cuff and unnecessary.

(I also would like to point out: if we’re supposed to accept High Harbor as this standard of community living in harmony with nature, then how the hell are we supposed to reckon the feral teenagers it has apparently produced?)

“Do you want feral teenagers? Because that’s how you get feral teenagers.”

Also strange and hard to explain is how everyone seems to fetishize Conan’s body, like he’s sooooo healthy and toned by living alone on an island and doing physical labor for five years. Multiple examples like this exist in the book:

Page 10: He sighed and stood up, rubbing his calloused hands over his very lean and very hard body.

Page: 29: “I’d hate to see such a fine young body thrown away. Such beautiful muscles! In all my life I’ve never seen their equal.” She felt his arms. “Like steel! The New Order needs your strength.”

Page 33: “But he’s amazing! Such health! Come here, young fellow,” the commissioner ordered, “and let’s have a look at you!”

What Age Range is this Even For?

The breakdown of middle grade/YA is a very modern one, so in general I’m okay with it being vague in books that pre-date that distinction. I recently re-read one of John Bellairs’ Johnny Dixon books, and was able to say, “hey, this is clearly middle grade, even if no one would have called it that at the time.” In many ways that’s a good comparison — they were shelved in the same place in my elementary school library, and the authors were rough contemporaries.

There is no such tell here. If you go by the age of the protagonist, The Incredible Tide is YA. But the reading level is… let’s generously say, it’s below middle grade. It’s certainly not as complex as some of the beautiful MG we have today (take the first Harry Potter novel as an example, or my pal Django Wexler’s The Forbidden Library). It reads as even more simplified than the John Bellairs.

And of course there’s the weird skirting of much more adult topics, which I don’t know how to categorize. One of my favorite YA novels (Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone) opens with a frank discussion of penises. Contrast this with MG, where there seems to be a strict “no kissing” rule — a minor crush is about as much you can show. Again, this book is not consistent with either standard.

The overall effect, then, is that Key is talking down — and quite condescendingly — to his audience. Which is like no-no number one of writing for a young audience.

In Conclusion

In general I felt like this was a manuscript, not a book. It falls prey to common pitfalls of inexperienced writers — mostly around giving us characters to empathize with, and not forcing a point of view down the reader’s throat. (And yet, this is his TWELFTH novel). I’m not sure why an editor didn’t catch any of this, but it does not, ultimately, feel like a book that could be published today.

But who am I kidding. Really, this book failed because it didn’t have a porcine character named Looks Delicious.

And with that, I can confidently say I wrapped this review up more satisfactorily than the book itself did.

If, after reading this review, you feel the incomprehensible need to read the book, fear not! The ebook is free with Kindle Unlimited ($5.38 otherwise). Makes me even more bitter about how much I spent…

Perfectly Cromulent Reads of 2016

Multiple people have complained to me that I seem to only read books that I hate.

This is untrue — but it’s also an understandable mistake. I read lots of books*, but I mostly only have things to say about them if they’re a) mind-blowingly good (see Uprooted, The Goblin Emperor), or b) truly awful (to my tastes) in some way (mostly I just rant about these in friends-only spaces).

*okay, relatively speaking

Just to assure you that I do read stuff that I like, here are the other books I’ve read this year — ones about which I had nothing dramatic to say. I’ll say a few more words about each, but in general they were completely satisfying literary products, and no slight is intended by their inclusion here.

The Girl in the Garden, by Kamala Nair. Recommended to me by EB. I found it entertaining, but not as profoundly awesome as EB did. An Indian-American woman recounts a tale of a fantastical childhood summer visiting her family’s home in Kerala. At first glance, it seems like the genre is magic realism, but the only magic turns out to be that of a family keeping secrets too long and too deeply…

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie. Having won the “triple crown” of SFF (the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke awards), I had high expectations for this book. They were not entirely met, but it was still an enjoyable read. The main character, Breq, is a ship’s AI that was severed from her ship years ago, for Reasons. She’s trying to find reasons to live and get revenge on the Empire that made her what she is.

One of the things that gets a lot of buzz in this book is the pronouns: Breq was programmed by a culture that doesn’t recognize gendered pronouns in language, and she can’t read gender by the myriad cultural clues most humans recognize instinctively. The upshot is that she refers to everyone as “she.”

It’s an interesting effect, but I didn’t think it was the most clever thing about the book. The core mystery that Breq is trying to solve is kind of brain-bending ontological one, and I found it simultaneously frustrating and yet clever. Either by intention or by style, Leckie doesn’t explain anything, so you are kind of thrown into the abyss trying to figure out why so–and-so ordered such-and-such to do the Thing.

I also read some of the third book, Ancillary Mercy, as part of the Hugo voter packet. Man, that was hard to follow without having read the second book.

Overall, the way I tend to describe this series is “meditative” — it’s going somewhere, but it’s taking its time getting there.

Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear. Karen is a prostitute at an upscale brothel in steampunk-y 19th century Seattle/Portland. She finds out the ladies of her house are in danger from a serial killer, and gets embroiled in the political plot of the region in order to keep her chosen family out of danger. This book has voice by the gallon. It has a Singer sewing machine mecha. It has girls in love. It has loads of characters of color. It is very, very entertaining, but at the end of the day it didn’t affect me emotionally as much as I would like.

Of Noble Family, by Mary Robinette Kowal. The final book of the Glamourist Histories, where Jane and Vincent go to Antigua to try to manage Vincent’s deceased father’s plantation. Very dramatic and enjoyable. I thought the racial issues implicit in the setting were addressed head-on, and yet deftly and honestly handled. As always, we the reader are aware of all the ways in which Jane is privileged, and when she does boneheaded things with that privilege, it’s always clear how we should feel about that. Sometimes she uses it to do some truly awesome things, too, and I appreciated that as well.

Let me say, too, that as someone who has no desire to have children, MRK does a BRILLIANT job of making me care about the Vincents’ wanting to have children. This is what’s cool about good writing — it really is a form of mind-control.

Overall, I was definitely sad to say goodbye to Jane and Vincent, and kept feeling like there should be more adventures with them just around the corner. They are one of my favorite fictional couples, because they simulate SO beautifully what it is like to be a happily married couple that still has issues. Also, they have same anniversary as Matt and me, so I feel some personal investment 🙂

And yet on the same note, this was probably not my favorite one of the series — Valour and Vanity hit a high point with Lord Byron and gondola chases.

Brain on Fire, by Susannah Cahalan. This is a memoir by a NY Post reporter who was afflicted by a rare type of encephalitis, and was imprisoned in her own mind for months while doctors tried to figure it out. I borrowed from the public library on a night when I really needed a treat, and knew it had to be something I’d want to read right away, and not let it sit on a table for weeks. I thought this book would fit the bill, and I was not wrong — it was fascinating and yet terrifying. I think medical memoirs hit the same thrill-seeking part of my brain as true crime, and thus are becoming the same guilty pleasure…

Honeymoon in Purdah, Alison Wearing. A Canadian woman decides to visit Iran in the 1990s, under the guise of being on her honeymoon. Funny story to how I picked this book up — I was at a Mennonite thrift store near Stratford, Ontario, waiting for my mom to finish shopping. I started reading this and found it hard to put down, so I bought it and read it before I even left Canada. It is truly fascinating, although occasionally the author’s incredible privilege — and strange, not-always-successful poetic language — got on my nerves.

The Truth About Stories: a Native Narrative, by Thomas King. I picked this one up in the Stratford Festival gift shop — it’s a series of essays (based off lectures) by King about the power of narrative, and in particular how it’s used for meaning-making in Native American/First Peoples communities. He illustrates it with stories from his own life as a Native American, traveling and lecturing across the U.S. and Canada. One of the things I found most interesting was the author’s concern, when he was a young man, with looking “Indian enough” to fit people’s narrative of what an Indian should look like. It’s not something I’d thought a lot about in terms of how people experience their identity.

Also, I love this quote so much I pinned it to the top of my Twitter feed: “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.”

Young Men in Spats, by P.G. Wodehouse. A collection of stories — some about the Drones Club, some Mr. Mulliner — about clueless Wodehousian young men getting in trouble. I’d read (almost?) none of these before, and it seemed just the sort of silly frippery to get me through my cat Brianna being sick. It was indeed a perfectly cheering, perfectly acceptable piece of Wodehouse to read. (And Brianna turned out to be fine).

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, by Gretchen Rubin. She of the Happiness Project blog writes about habits, giving us, as she so often does, several frameworks towards understanding how to form habits more reliably. Most of them are framed in terms of distinctions: owl vs. lark, underbuyer vs. overbuyer, etc.

One in particular which has helped me understand myself is the abstainer vs. moderator distinction. This describes how you react to reducing your intake of something like food, i.e. do you find it easier to cut a food out of your life entirely, or to have a little bit now and then? I’ve discovered I’m an abstainer, so I thrive better on “you can never have french fries” than I do “you can have french fries once a week.” With the latter, I find I spend too much mental energy trying to calculate whether or not I can actually have fries. (Also, never having French fries doesn’t apply to what I — after Gretchen — call “planned exceptions,” which is a premeditated cheat).

Overall, I like it, like I like all of Gretchen’s stuff, because it feels genuinely human and kind in its outlook. So much self-help/advice is about guilting people into behaving a certain way; hers are more about figuring out what makes you tick and trying to work with that. (And the fact that I tend to refer to her as “Gretchen” should be taken as a sign of how warmly I regard her).

Kushiel’s Dart, by Jacqueline Carey. I talked about this briefly in my “outleveling GRRM” post, so I’ll refer you to that. But mostly? I wanted to love this book more than I did. It gets talked up as being quite smutty, and while it does have quite a few graphic sex scenes, it’s mostly a ginormous novel of political intrigue in which BDSM occasionally plays a part. If you don’t dig that, it can actually be quite boring. I do like it, but it still felt rambling and directionless at parts.

Plus, like any novel written in the first-person, it lives or dies by voice. And Phèdre, the main character, has a voice that’s… polarizing. I feel like you either love it or you hate it. If you hate it, you won’t get very far in this book! I found it tolerable, with occasional quirks that drove me nuts. “There’s little to tell about such and such thing… but let me tell it anyway.”

I doubt I’ll read anything else in the series, as I was perfectly happy to leave Phèdre et al at the end of the book.

The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker. Another nonfiction book, this one about using one’s instincts to escape incredibly dangerous situations. Yet another “I started reading it in a bookstore and had to finish it” book. I will say, by the end I got quite bored of it; it boils down to “you have good protective instincts and you should totally listen to them.” But you can’t really teach instinct, so there’s a certain intangibility to the advice. Although, he does take various signifiers in dangerous situations apart and tell us why they are subtle clues that our prehistoric hindbrain gloms onto before we have time to intellectually process them, which is interesting.

Ghost Talkers, by Mary Robinette Kowal. Her first post-Glamourist Histories book! I was sold from the minute I read the blurb on her website. Mary is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors.

This book promised me “WWI mediums serve as a super-secret espionage corps of the British army,” and it delivered. Ginger, the main character, is serving as one of these mediums when she stumbles into a plot to infiltrate and destroy the Spirit Corps. She’s even more invested when the danger becomes personal.

I liked many things about this book, and I enjoyed listening to the episode of Writing Excuses where they took it apart. (One I could finally listen to without spoilers! Hooray!) I have strong emotional memories of certain scenes in the book, like one of the final ones. But overall, I didn’t feel as invested as I would have liked, and I’m not sure why. It hit some high notes, but not enough, I guess.

The Sleep Revolution, by Arianna Huffington. Sleep is awesome and you shouldn’t do what the author did, where you become so sleep-deprived that you pass out and break your cheekbone on a coffee table. But no, honestly, this validated what I already knew: that sleep is not optional, and we suffer from sleep deprivation more than we imagine, both physically and mentally. I am literally a different, more terrible person when I’m sleep deprived, which has made me a bit of a sleep zealot. This is also why I say: if you think you have sleep apnea, get checked, yo.

Grunt, by Mary Roach. More nonfiction. I’ve actually never read any of Roach’s more famous books, but I enjoyed this one, which touches on bits of military science that don’t involve shooting people — things like sweat and birdstrike and zippers. Also, the first chapter takes Roach to the Natick Army Labs, which is down the street from where I work, so that’s pretty cool, I guess.

If I have one big complaint, it’s that the book never delves as deeply into a single topic as I would like. I feel like we’ve just started learning about performance fabrics when she wisks you away to talk about how the bottom of tanks are shaped. Also the segues between topics sometimes feel a little forced.

The Magpie Lord and A Case of Possession, by K.J. Charles. Really… these novels are fantasy m/m erotica. If you don’t want to read about boys fucking, nothing I’m going to say is going to convince you to read these. (And even if you do, it’s a little bit representative of the “gay men as written by straight women” genre, so bear that in mind).

And yet… the craft on display in these novels is superb. The main character, Lucien Vaudrey, the eponymous magpie lord, is a disgraced 19th-century nobleman who’s spent his whole life in Shanghai to keep his scandal far, far away from home. His father and older brother are killed mysteriously, and thus he returns to take the title he never expected to hold. He soon finds that whatever is trying to kill his father and brother is after him too — with magic. Into his life comes Stephen, a magician/detective who’s helping him to unravel the crime. And whom Lucien Totally Does Not Schtup Before the End of the Book. Because, again, this is smut.

The second book continues in this vein, with a series of killings related to old Shanghai acquaintances of Lucien’s. And more smut. There’s a third book, too, but I’ve reached my limit of “money I’m willing to spend on boysmut” for the year, so it’ll have to wait a bit.

One of the things I like about these books is how… refreshingly anti-colonialist they are. Steampunk/neo-Victorian stuff has a tendency to romanticize British imperialism, and I feel like this veered successfully away from that. Having a main character (albeit white) who lived most of his life in China — and clearly views it as a more civilized land — provides a sane, outsider point of view, while having him be back in Britain means we don’t risk fetishizing the “mysterious east” or some such. At least, that was my take on it — I’d be interested to hear what others have to say about this aspect of the story.

Basically I call these books “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, with smut.” Lois McMaster Bujold wrote a really good review of them on Goodreads, so if you don’t trust me, trust a multi-Hugo-Award-winning author.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King. A perfectly acceptable book of advice about editing your own words. It approaches the text on several different levels, from structural to word-level. I’m not sure if it taught me anything that I didn’t already know, to be honest? Not much of it has stuck with me.

Writing Fight Scenes, by Marie Brennan. Mostly I recall being surprised that Brennan contradicts one of the rules I’d already heard for writing action scenes — use short sentences. She disagrees with this, although I think her advice boils down to “make it feel fast and immediate through a variety of tools, not just shorter sentences.” Although I’ve been told I have good action narration, so the necessity for this book may be limited.

How to Talk to Anyone: 92 Little Tricks for Big Success in Relationships, by Leil Lowndes. At first glance, this is a kitschy book with a kitschy title. In fact, I found this so cutesy in parts that I had to take occasional breaks. And yet… it’s largely smart advice. (Yes, I seem to be on a kick of “making up for social skills I somehow skipped in Girl classes”). All the stuff about phone usage is dated, of course, and the ebook has some very odd formatting issues, but all in all a valuable read, and I think about the tips I learned often.

Books I’m currently reading which I may finish before the end of the year:

Maplecroft, Cherie Priest. Despite my kvetching over certain plot details on Facebook, it’s not a terrible novel by any means. I feel like Priest’s writing has a lot of the same weaknesses mine does (pale characterization, overexplaining), which may be why I notice it more. But you know, I’ll still probably give this book two or three out of five stars, depending on the ending.

The Weaker Vessel, Antonia Fraser. An ambitious book, this one — it’s a history of (primarily British) women in the 17th century. Very relevant to Lioness, it turns out!

Also, I was traveling to Dorset when I was reading about the Parliamentarian siege of Corfe Castle (in that county), and the defiant Royalist countess who wouldn’t give it up. I found myself wanting to visit the castle, only to find out it was razed. Alas. But! Someone at Consequences who was from Bournemouth told me it’s not completely gone — it was large enough they couldn’t complete raze it — so I’d kind of like to go see it some time I’m nearby.

One annoying feature of the book is that, in referencing personages that Fraser has mentioned before, she won’t often give you page numbers. So you need to refer to the index to find out which countess married whom and did what, and why we should now care about her.

Also I am even more convinced now that we would know startlingly less about the 17th century if it weren’t for the Verneys being packrats and Samuel Pepys writing about all his amorous affairs in a terrible mix of French, Spanish, and Latin — because it’s rare to find a book about this era that doesn’t source Pepys’ journal or the Verney collection of letters.

Anyway, this is a useful and fascinating book, but it’s also dense, and slow-going.

… wow, I think totally by accident I read mostly books by female authors or authors of color this year. That’s pretty rad.

“I don’t want to be a tree yet.” (Review of Uprooted by Naomi Novik)


So, now that I’ve slept, I can elaborate a little more on what I loved about Uprooted, by Naomi Novik. (This was the book I was squeeing about all last night on FB, in case you missed it, or didn’t catch on). I’ll try to be minimally spoilery.

This book, first of all, is supremely good at using question marks as hooks to pull you through the story, from its very first pages — starting with why the Dragon chooses Agnieszka instead of Kasia. As we learn more about Agnieszka’s magic, we wonder about the nature of that instead. Then, as Agnieszka and the Dragon’s relationship develops, the unresolved tension between them is amazingly good at sparking interest, all the while we’re navigating the other mysteries and obstacles of the main plot.

(I spent a lot of time wanting there to be romance between them, and then feeling bad for wanting that, because clearly Strong Independent Witch Don’t Need No Man — especially not a surly wizard who locks young women up in towers for ten years at a time — but their relationship developed in a way that took no agency away from Agnieszka).

(I also wasn’t entirely sure the central romance wasn’t going to be between Agnieszka and Kasia, since they were so tender to each other throughout the whole book).

There are some incidental similarities with Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha books (immortal wizards, a sinister natural force dividing a country, fantasy!Slavic), so much so that I was half expecting a nasty twist halfway through the book. I also wasn’t entirely certain some major character wasn’t going to die and break my heart. While this book was heart-rending, and there was sacrifice, it still stayed mostly in the realm of bittersweet.

I loved the Wood as this looming source of malice that slowly takes on more and more importance throughout the story. At the beginning, Agnieszka is so caught up with the Choosing that she just incidentally mentions that oh, hey, the Wood kind of reaches out and devours people occasionally. She takes it for granted as part of the setting, and we do, too, until its malice becomes more personal, and it becomes the prepossessing antagonist of the book.

There were many points in reading this book that I was crying — not out of sadness, which books sometimes also wring out of me, but from so much beauty, so many deepy-felt vicarious emotions. The end in particular, in its hopefulness but also bittersweetness.

The themes are close to the surface, and heartfelt. It’s about the roots that a place leaves in us, for good or for ill — usually both, and how they are entangled. About how place has a memory. There are so many points in the story where the bad can’t be removed without taking the good with it — the corruption of the Wood can’t be cleansed without destroying something. The girls spending their ten years in the tower with the Dragon lose any hold the Wood might have on them, but they also lose any connection to a place they once called home. The epitome of this, for me, was how Agnieszka solves the final problem of the book, and how the Dragon’s sacrifice allows her to do that (vague to avoid spoilers).

The book is also about art. The wizards and witches of Polnya live greatly-lengthened lifespans, thanks to their magic, and it distances them from other people, even their own family. They observe life, they preserve life, without really drinking of it. Agnieszka tries to change this — in a sense, her sort of magic is all about life — but we get the sense she’s only partially successful; the people of the Valley are still wary of her, at the end. I think all artists resonate with this sort of half-life, this idea that their work will live longer and be better loved than they are — if they are lucky.

I also really love how Agnieszka and the Dragon’s magic complement each other, earth and water versus fire and air; organization and structure and replicatable results, beside instinct and feeling. Again, it feels like it’s talking about art to me — Agnieszka is completely exhausted by (and seemingly not very skilled at) magic until she learns how to do it in a way that makes sense to her. This feels to me like a comment on how each artist has to find their path, a way to speak their truth, which may look nothing like anyone else’s.

Also, did anyone notice — a subtle thing — how after the two of the did any working together, they seemed to be reading each other’s thoughts? Like Agnieszka would think something, and the Dragon would reply to her, with the thought unspoken? It’s never commented on, but it’s brilliantly done.

I… didn’t love the narrator for the audiobook, Julia Emelin. She has an Eastern European accent, which is actually great for the voice of Agnieszka, a character based loosely on Polish fairy tales, but her delivery is so inconsistent. Sometimes it’s just painfully wooden, lurching from one phrase to another. In particular I’d REALLY wish she’d voiced the Dragon better. (Maybe I was hoping for Lauren Fortgang’s sexy Darkling voice from the Grisha books. I ended up imagining the Dragon having a voice like the male lead from a high school romance anime. Which is not a terrible thing, since he’s basically the King of Tsundere). I ended up giving up on the audio around chapter 15, when I finished my commute home for the weekend — and then went and bought the ebook when the Hugo voter packet version abruptly stopped around the same point.

It was a good choice — I’m glad I ended up reading the smutty smutty bits rather than try to listen to Emelin narrate a sex scene.

And yeah, there’s… like two sexy scenes. So I didn’t mean to make it sound like this is some magical pornucopia, but they were emotionally moving as well as being hot, so they stuck in my head.

Overall, this is likely to be my Hugo novel pick!

I do love this new trend of fantasy that’s hopefulThe Goblin Emperor was, I felt, in much the same vein. Optimistic about humanity, but not short-sighted about its flaws. I would much rather have this than dudebros intriguing politically.

I went to sleep VERY LATE last night, and wished, hoped, prayed to my moon gnosis, Maya, that I could cast the same sort of illusions with words that are cast here. To make people feel as I have been made to feel. To make stories that matter.

A Tale of Two Janes (or, September Book Mini-Reviews)

I don’t write full reviews for every book I’ve finished — most, in fact, don’t have a full post’s worth of things to talk about.

So here, let me write a few paragraphs for a bunch of books I finished in September.


The Price of Valor, Django Wexler. Five stars. Many of you know I am often Django’s alpha reader and always number one fan. This book, the third in the Shadow Campaigns series, made me a little sad that I had rated the two earlier ones so highly, because I felt like this one blew it out of the water.

I like all of the characters, but Winter is superbly awesome in this one; the conflict between her love for Jane and the importance of her career in the army is deeply felt, and masterfully done.

Oh, and we get a return of the characters who spent last book on a boat: Bobby, Feor, Give-em-Hell and Preacher. I love the new characters, too: Andy, Viera, etc.

Janus continues to be Janus. He and Winter have some really powerful interactions in this book.

I love Raesinia, and I’m okay with her burgeoning romance with Marcus, which begins to be felt in this book. It lends Marcus some dimensionality, too.

Also, Sothe is a badass, which is a given.

Having read the outline for the series, every time I write about these books, I have to avoid shouting, “I KNOW SOMETHING YOU DON’T KNOW” in a Carol-Kane-as-Ghost-of-Christmas-Present-in-Scrooged voice.

All that said, sometimes the books still surprise me. See: all of Jane’s actions at the end of the book.


Moving on to a very different Jane, we have Without a Summer, by Mary Robinette Kowal. (Four stars). This is the third book in the Glamourist Histories, continuing the adventures of Jane and Vincent in London, creating a glamural for a *gasp* Irish Catholic lord, and trying to get Jane’s sister hitched — all against the background of the famous Year Without a Summer.

While I had enjoyed the earlier two books, I was never as excited about this series as I wanted to be. This book changed that by being supremely engaging. Mostly, I feel I connected more with the characters than I had previously.

At one point in time Jane realizes that she’s spent most of the book making a grievous error of judgment, and her mortification is palpable. The reader ends up feeling vindicated as a result, as the prose has simultaneously set us up to root for the wronged character.

What’s really beautiful about this book is how Kowal handles race and religion in the 19th century. Kowal’s magically-enhanced 1816 London includes Irish and Catholics, Southeast Asians/Indians, black folks from Africa and the West Indies — and, often, the ugly stereotypes about them. Jane navigates this setting, first with benevolent racism from a position of ignorance, and later, challenging her narrow-minded beliefs.

This book also had some moments of real tension for me, especially near the end, where I found myself asking how they could possibly get out of this.


Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World, Timothy Brook. Four stars. This book has a lot of negative ratings on Goodreads due to what I think is a misunderstanding. If you just read the title, you might think this book was about art history, and would talking about Vermeer extensively.

It doesn’t, really. As the author explains, he uses Vermeer’s paintings — and sometimes other contemporary pieces of art — as “windows” into the world of the 17th century. For example, we look at the skyline of Delft in one of Vermeer’s paintings, with the buildings of the Dutch East India Company visible, and we talk about the Company’s trade with Asia. But we don’t talk about Vermeer’s motivation in painting it, or how he managed to portray light in such a unique way.

The author is by vocation a scholar of Chinese history, so his perspective on history is more inclusive than I’m used to seeing. We hear a lot about what was happening in China in the 17th century, understandably; certain chapters also talk extensively about the Algonquin and Iroquois and their interactions with Samuel de Champlain.

To me, this was fascinating, and ended up giving me a lot of ideas for other books in the Lioness series. I found most intriguing this view of the 17th century as the “century of second contact,” the Western world becoming more dependent on products like furs from North America and porcelain from China.

That was September! If for some incomprehensible reason these reviews have motivated you to read these books, you can thank me by buying them through the affiliate links above.

Starting my Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn Re-Read


I’d hinted I was interested in doing something like this elseweb, and here I am doing it: re-reading Tad Williams’ late 1980s/early 90s work of epic fantasy, the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy. This is in part because we’re going to get a new trilogy, The Last King of Osten Ard, starting in spring 2016.

But it’s also because I have a history with this trilogy, one that leads directly to my writing fantasy today. These books turned me on to the sort of fantasy that is viscerally immersive and complex, extended outside the page with glossaries and language guides and in-world texts and gorgeous Michael Whelan cover art.

The Dragonbone Chair was first published in 1988, when I was eight years old. I didn’t read it then; I was around thirteen when I did. The final volume, To Green Angel Tower, was only out in hardcover when I started reading; I have the edition that is all one ginormous hardcover, rather than two paperbacks.

I read those first two books with the final volume hanging over my head like an exquisite promise. It was the name, you see: To Green Angel Tower. You know from page one that Green Angel Tower is the massive, vertigrised Sithi-built tower that still stands in the Hayholt, the castle where the story begins — and, as the title promises, ends.

(There’s a crash course in literary resonance, kids).

I remember distinctly the day I started reading The Dragonbone Chair for the first time. I was sitting on my parents’ bed in the loft of the log cabin where I grew up, the fan whirring loud and metallic beside me, as I read of Simon sparring with Rachel the Dragon, the fierce Mistress of Chambermaids in the Hayholt.

Last night, on a day that was not summer nor quite fall, with the moon in eclipse, I read the same scene again. I had scarcely opened the books since that day twenty plus years ago; I had replaced my battered paperback copy of The Dragonbone Chair with an equally battered library hardcover.

I perused the ephemera, which meant more to me now. God, Williams looks so damn young in his author picture. I can’t find it on the interwebs to share with you all, but he must have been the age I am now. It’s especially striking next to his current author picture..

The glossary was not as extensive as I recalled it being — but then, it does expand in future volumes, as does Simon’s knowledge of the world. But there are those delightful Qanuc sayings I loved, i.e. “if it falls on your head, then you know it’s a rock.”

And… well. I suppose I’ll just point you to my tweets from then on:

I only got about two chapters in before sleep overwhelmed me. It was no fault of the writing, I assure you, only the fact that I was coming off a larp weekend.

Although, speaking of the writing, it has a certain naive awkwardness you probably couldn’t get away with in fantasy today (omniscient third person, a lot of “as you know, Bob”-type conversations). But oh god, the descriptive language is fabulous. He was the Pat Rothfuss of his day.

Anyway. I invite you to join me in my re-read — even if it’s your first time through! I’ll be checking in here occasionally, as the mood strikes me, but primarily my musings will be found on Twitter at the #LiseRereadsMST hashtag.

Review: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Or: this book should win the Best Novel Hugo.

Or: I bought this book twice and I don’t even care.

Or: I wish I could go back in time and read this book again for the first time.


Ahem. So. The Goblin Emperor is a 2014 fantasy of manners by Katherine Addison, who you may know better as Sarah Monette. From the Goodreads blurb:

The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an “accident,” he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.

Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment.

Surrounded by sycophants eager to curry favor with the naïve new emperor, and overwhelmed by the burdens of his new life, he can trust nobody. Amid the swirl of plots to depose him, offers of arranged marriages, and the specter of the unknown conspirators who lurk in the shadows, he must quickly adjust to life as the Goblin Emperor. All the while, he is alone, and trying to find even a single friend… and hoping for the possibility of romance, yet also vigilant against the unseen enemies that threaten him, lest he lose his throne – or his life.

I first heard about this book due to Scott Lynch’s blog, where he raved about it. Since then, it has reached critical fan mass in my circle of writerly friends, and I finally decided that I needed to get in on the lovefest.

I was not even a little disappointed.

Things you need to know about this book:

It is entirely composed of intense conversations in small rooms with subtle body language — and that is the beauty of it.

I’ve heard negative reviews that complain that nothing really happens and… well, it’s kind of true. Don’t expect a three-act structure, or cliffhangers, or action that flies off the page. The first half of the book is nearly an hour-by-hour recounting of Maia’s (the title character’s) first days as Emperor of the Elflands. Who is his steward? What will he do with his hated guardian? Who will his bodyguards be? What the heck is the Lord Chancellor up to? What will he have for luncheon?

If this sounds boring to you… well, it’s possible this book might not be your cup of tea, but let me explain why it worked for me. Monette manages to makes the stakes clear for even the most trivial decision. If Maia doesn’t choose correctly, he might offend somebody, or lose an alliance, and that could have dire consequences for his future as an emperor, or his lifespan.

For example, one of the issues Maia must decide in his first days on the throne is the issue of his half-sister’s marriage. It would be advantageous to make a political alliance, but she would rather “study the stars.” In navigating this, Maia has to choose between forging relationships with his family members vs. making alliances with outsiders. It’s also a struggle between what he feels is right — that his half-sister should do what she wants with her life — and what is politically necessary. The results of this seemingly boring decision end up having life-threatening consequences for Maia by the end of the book.

It is the anti-Game of Thrones

Okay, let’s be more general and say, “the anti-grimdark.” But I have GoT specifically in mind because a friend who is a GRRM fan asked me if she would like this. I wasn’t sure what to tell her. It has some things in common — political intrigue, primarily — but its outlook is much less pessimistic than GRRM’s. A policy impasse which might be solved by murder and poison is solved by a tipsy dinner conversation instead. One of the members of the privy council steps forward to offer to educate Maia on the political currents, and has no ulterior motive.

Mostly, Maia succeeds in his role by being a genuinely good, earnest person, and I felt like that was refreshing, especially against the trend towards dark or morally ambiguous characters in SFF.

You need the text of this book.

I love audiobooks. I loved this audiobook — Kyle McCarley infuses a challenging text with emotion and color. But listening to this book without a reference is like trying to read Tolstoy without knowing how Russian names are constructed.

There are hundreds of characters, some only mentioned once, all with complex names with non-intuitive spellings. Plus everyone has a title, which of course is an Elvish word rather than “lord” or “lady.” Plus there are a lot of five-syllable words used for unique cultural concepts.

Without the text, I got as far as the scene where a mess o’ Drazhada (the ruling family, to which Maia belongs) swear fealty to him at his coronation — and was so confused I promptly went out and purchased the ebook, and spent the next hour poring over the glossary.

Once I had the text in hand, I could listen to the audio without endlessly referring to it, but it was helpful for knowing how things were spelled and who was related to whom.

What I Liked About This Book:

The characters. Maia is fascinating as a character. The most common descriptor I hear of him is “adorable,” and it’s true. I kind of want to smoosh his cheeks. As the hated child of the hated fourth wife of the former emperor, he has a history full of neglect and abuse, and we just desperately want him to be happy. Some of the sweetest moments are the highs and lows he feels — saying “I love thee still” at his mother’s tomb, or expressing amazement that anybody would acknowledge his birthday.

Maia is the only viewpoint character, so there’s a lot to love there, but he’s not the only character to pay attention to. Csevet, Cala and Beshelar, Thara Celehar, Csethiro, Vedero… they’re all fabulous characters, painted deeply with only a few brush-strokes. I think equally fondly of Csevet’s impatient throat-clearing, the deliberateness with which Celehar treats the dead, and Csethiro’s comments about dueling.

I also liked seeing that being an emperor is a lot of emotional labor, some aspects of which Maia excels at, and some of which he is rubbish at. The amount of importance put on small talk — and the direness of Maia’s social awkwardness — paints a picture of a world where being a good ruler involves more than just making policy decisions. This idea of leadership as involving relationship maintenance feels rare in fantasy. Even the decision to talk about the clothes Maia wears feels important in this light — it’s not excessive description, and it’s clear these are not trivial choices.

(It matters that Maia’s jacket has tiny pearl buttons if what you’re trying to show is how he’s so anxious he can’t button them, in other words).

The world-building. This is a rich, steampunk-y world, where airships and factories and gaslights and pneumatic post are all things that exist.

The main characters may be elves and goblins, but this is no stereotypical fantasy world where the elves are all beautiful and enigmatic and the goblins are ugly and barbaric. Sure, the elves might think that, but it goes both ways (Maia describes your typical elf as “ferret-faced”). Instead of outright war between the two factions, we have complex political negotiations, diasporas, and intersections of race and class.

There’s also a complex east vs. west dynamic to the Elflands, and a muddled, neverending war with a people called the Evressai to the north. There are gods with fuzzy spheres of influence. There is magic — but a very roughly-defined sort of magic, which works only because it’s never called on to do much of real importance. Both elves and goblins have a subtle body language based on ear positions which I never quite worked out.

In brief, it’s the kind of world that requires a glossary — and I’m okay with that, because those are the sorts of books that taught me to love fantasy.

And the language! Well — that deserves its own bullet point.

The language. Okay, I’m a language geek, so of course I’d say this. I suspect Monette is, too, considering the dinner conversation which becomes a discussion of philology.

First, I was absolutely blown away by the (bold!) choice to use English’ archaic informal second-person (thou/thee) for pretty much its original purpose. The elves tend to be a little bit more selective about who they can tutoyent than your average speaker of a Romance language, however — it seems reserved for oneself, family, very close friends (which, as Maia reminds us again and again, an emperor doesn’t have), and people you want to actively disdain. Even children and servants get the more formal “you.”

“We” also gets used as a formal first-person, rather like the “royal we” (except it’s used to the emperor as well as by the emperor). Sometimes this necessitates tagging dialog as “using the plural, not the formal,” but it’s generally well-handled.

This enables Monette to do some very clever storytelling with in/formality — like when Maia stops addressing Setheris, his abusive former guardian, as “thee,” as a way of making their new relationship clear. Or when he drops formality to tell his bodyguards how much they mean to him.

Secondly, we get glimpses of an Elvish language that extends beyond the page. We see recurring morphemes (“death,” “magic,” etc), word endings that indicate part of speech and gender (-is/-o), and words that have become archaic (“morhath,” brought up in the philology discussion).

Finally, there are just some beautiful turns of phrase. Arbelan Drazharan describing the previous emperor as “a killing frost” still sticks in my mind.

Overall, the wordplay is impressive, but also a little intimidating, and I can see how some readers might not like it. But for me, it worked really, really well.

An escape from toxic masculinity. Maybe this is strange to talk about, but it’s something I don’t see enough of in SFF — we can imagine anything, and yet we often still imagine men who aren’t allowed to cry.

Maia is delightfully free of all this. As emperor, he isn’t allowed to give vent to his emotions; but from inside his head, we see he is plagued with grief and self-doubt. We are allowed to feel it along with him — along with his frustration at being unable to deal with it through his usual coping mechanism of meditation.

On this note, I really like how the plot with Min Vechin was resolved — he’s clearly attracted to her, but turns her down when she propositions him, mostly because he’s a virgin and terrified of the prospect of bedding her. It’s rare (and vulnerable) that a male character is portrayed as having those kinds of fears.

LGBT characters. Casually so — Maia just happens to have an aunt who ran off to become a pirate and married a woman. A nobleman and his courier turn out to be lovers. Celehar has a sad past involving a man he loved. And, else-page, Monette has suggested some interesting things about the courier system…

This is handled well, although I would have liked some of the major characters to have been included in this diversity.

Resonance and theme. I love the recurring bridge-building imagery, and Maia’s evident joy at both the mechanics and the politics of it.

Near the end, the decision to describe the person responsible for the airship crash that brought Maia to power as looking almost exactly like him — half-goblin, with blue eyes, black curly hair, and slate-grey skin — is just perfect.

The cover art. Not Monette’s doing, but look at that cover art. Maia, with the weight of the entire Elflands on his head. Look at his shifty and suspicious eyes. Look at the bridge! Look at the airship! It’s symbolic and beautiful.

What I Didn’t Like:

Really, this book is amazing, but there are a few things that would have made it even better.

For all that there is this deep and diverse world-building, gender roles are still pretty staid — Maia inherits, after all, thanks to our old friend agnatic primogeniture succession, which disallows women from inheriting noble titles. Like in many traditional feudal societies, women of noble birth are valued primarily for their ability to forge marriage alliances and make babies. Going to university is seen as “devaluing” women for this purpose. It’s also unlikely in this setting for women to serve in military roles (like the emperor’s bodyguard).

Maia is clearly a progressive dude, given his actions towards the women in his life — but that is still the milieu he inhabits. And while I really can’t argue with that, since I don’t think I’ve ever written a fantasy world with total gender equality, it is the old problem of “you can imagine anything and this is what you imagine?”

While I very much love the language aspect of the world-building, I feel like it could be an obstacle for some readers. In many instances I feel it could have been used more selectively for maximum impact. There’s nothing untranslatable about common terms from monarchy like “gentlemen of the bedchamber” or “privy council” or “bodyguards” that needs to get special Elvish words like edocharei, Corazhas, and nohecharai.

Overall, I gave this book five stars on Goodreads, and added it to my favorites list. It was a rare book where the sadness that it was over eclipsed the feeling of accomplishment at having finished it.

(To somewhat allay that sadness, I went and read fanfic. I highly recommend “Give My Hands True Purpose” if you want more about Maia and Csethiro).

Have you read this delightful book yet? What did you think of it? Will it be getting your Hugo vote?

Review: Sheepfarmer’s Daughter (Deed of Paksenarrion, book 1) by Elizabeth Moon


Last month I visited my friend Jess, whom I had not seen for almost a year. Luckily we have that great kind of friendship where you can be out of contact for a long time and then pick up like no time has passed at all.

One of the things we discussed is how we missed having a book club. We used to belong to an SFF book club in Salem, NH, which is a) no longer convenient to either of us, and b) always had very different tastes than ours, anyway.

So we decided we were going to start our own book club. With blackjack! And hookers! It’d be a little bit different, though — each month we would each pick a book for the other to read, and then get together to discuss them.

For her, I picked Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies, because I knew she’d liked The Lies of Locke Lamora and had read it four times, and yet somehow had not read the second or third books. (Strangely, our get-together is on the same day Lynch has announced that book four is going to be delayed until 2016 for health reasons).

For me, she picked the book I am reviewing in this article, which is a favorite of hers. She loaned me her well-worn paperback of the book — so well-worn she had to tape it back together before giving it to me.

Regrettably, I cannot say that I share Jess’ fond opinion of the book.

First, here’s what Goodreads has to say about it:

Paksenarrion — Paks for short — is somebody special. She knows it, even if nobody else does yet. No way will she follow her father’s orders to marry the pig farmer down the road. She’s off to join the army, even if it means she can never see her family again.
And so her adventure begins . . . the adventure that transforms her into a hero remembered in songs, chosen by the gods to restore a lost ruler to his throne.

Here is her tale as she lived it.

What I Liked:

The prologue. Prologues are generally despised in modern fantasy, and for good reason — they have been wildly overused and abused. But I actually really liked this one. It’s of Paks’ family, years later, receiving a mysterious visitor who delivers her sword, with the equally mysterious message that she doesn’t need it any more. (Which of course leaves them wondering why). Overall, it sets the tone for rousing adventure. Reading it was comforting, like I was saying to myself, “Now here’s that good old epic fantasy I like.”

The details of military life and strategy/tactics. Y’all know I’m a fan of stuff like Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels and Django Wexler’s flintlock fantasy series The Shadow Campaigns, so it should be no surprise I liked this aspect of it. Admittedly, the tech level is pretty generic high fantasy — say 1300s or so? — and this is not an era I know a ton about, so it’s possible there are inaccuracies. But it all seemed plausible to me, and moreover, mentally stimulating. (I’m weird, shut up). I enjoyed reading about the importance of mercenaries in combat, or tactics for short sword and shield in small cohorts, or how sieges work.

Paks’ asexuality. I doubt Moon had this word in mind when she wrote the book, but Paks vocally has no interest in sex or romance, and it’s refreshing in a female character.

What I Didn’t Like

everything eeeeeeeelse

Okay, let’s lay it out:

The worldbuilding. The world feels like a D&D or a Tolkien ripoff. There is magic, and it is divided into priest magic and wizard magic. There are elves and dwarves from central casting — beautiful and enigmatic elves, stocky, fighty dwarves who love treasure (who we only see from a distance). I’m told there is this whole elaborate world, laid out… in future books? On the wiki page? but it’s decidedly not in the pages of this book.

The characters. “Wooden” is often too generous for them. There are hundreds of names, and barely any of them matter, because they die and (with a few notable exceptions) Paks doesn’t give a second thought for them. (In fact one of them dies and comes back twenty pages later, through an unfixed continuity error).

Even Paks herself is wooden; we don’t feel close to her at all. Sure, she wants to be a soldier! She’s really good at it! She doesn’t want romance! She’s loyal to the Duke’s company! But… there’s not much more. She spends the first half of the book completely flat, not really feeling anything for anyone, even when people from her cohort die. She does later seem to grieve for a few close friends she loses, but she has no self-awareness about it. “Oh… I felt bad for a minute. I guess it could have been worse!” is the most we get.

The “head-hopping.” This is very much a style preference, I admit; modern fantasy tends to favor a close third- or first-person viewpoint. Mostly we’re in Paks’ head, but Moon occasionally decides we’re going to follow some other character, because they’re more interesting.

It makes some sense when, in the midst of the investigation that takes up much of the early book, we jump into Paks’ sergeant’s head — he’s the one with the freedom to act in that situation. It makes a lot less sense later on in the book when suddenly we’re in the head of some random dude we’ve never met before who exists only to get castrated and motivate Paks’ superiors. (I suppose that’s a refreshing alternative to the women in refrigerators trope…. okay, no, really it’s not).

The rapeyness. The investigation I alluded to in the first part of the book involves an assault and attempted rape on Paks, for which she is imprisoned due to a misunderstanding of the situation. I mean… I guess it’s tactfully handled, as far as these things go — I’d much rather have Moon writing about this than GRRM. It serves to show us both the way in which things are still tough for Paks as a female soldier, as well as the bureaucracy around proving her innocence. It reminds me of various military sex scandals, in this way, which couldn’t have been far from Moon’s mind.

But then at the end of the book, we get this castration thing with J. Random Dude we don’t even care about and it’s like… really? Really? It seems to exist primarily to tell us that the villain Siniava is a Bad Dude, and… we kind of knew that, since at that point we’ve seen him kill entire towns and sacrifice children on altars to some god of torture.

All of this, I could have forgiven, but the book committed the cardinal sin of fiction: being boring.

Let’s be honest. There were a few parts where I was able to enter that happy reader trance (Paks and friends’ wild overland journey; the stuff with the paladins of Gird; the final twenty-five pages or so), but on the whole the book was a slog. So many of the descriptions are just… ridiculously tedious. Five pages devoted to walking through one town (i.e. “We saw a wall and they looked like this and then we passed a woman holding a jar by a well and then we walked into a side street…”) Pages devoted to conversations that tell us nothing about the world (i.e. why some random mercenary captain isn’t here — it’s because his friend is getting married!)

I mean, if Moon was trying to convey that military life is a lot of boredom interspersed with occasional moments of all-too-interesting peril… she succeeded? It’s just not compelling to read.

By the end of the book, while Paks had changed and grown as a character, it wasn’t enough to be interesting to me. It’s hinted that she has this future ahead of her as a paladin, but in the final pages of the book she declines the chance to go that route, which felt a lot like walking away from the most compelling story.

Overall, I gave this book two stars — it deserved at least that for the stuff I did like. But on the whole this was a good example of a book that might have been revolutionary in its time, but which I am reading waaaaay too late to really appreciate. (Other books in that category include Raymond Feist’s Magician: Apprentice, from 1982, which I felt shades of). I might have also appreciated this more if I read it when I was younger.

Sorry, Jess. I tried to like this one, but it just wasn’t for the Lise of Today. I doubt I will be reading more of this series, unless you strong-arm me into it 😉