Necromancy, Living Gods, and Intrigue: Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead

Book Cover

Ha! No sooner do I decide to expand my focus here that I read a book that is SO GREAT that I have to write about it. OF COURSE.

That book would be Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead (disclosure: I’m friendly with both Max and his editor at Tor) which had been languishing on my Kindle for most of this year. I don’t even know what impulse made me open it up this weekend, but I’m glad I did–from the very first page, it’s a hell of a read.

I don’t want to go into a detailed plot summary–to do so, I think, would destroy the delight of discovery, but I will say that for a debut novel–this is extraordinarily accomplished.  The worldbuilding is complex and holds together, the plotting is precise and economical, and I loved all the characters, especially Tara Abernathy.

The other cool thing about this book is that while it’s the first book to come out in this series, it’s actually the third chronologically–there’s a whole post about the chronology, in fact.

This book was really so much fun to read. There’s necromancy and legal maneuvering and hive-mind police officers and poetry-writing gargoyles and gods. The gods might be my favorite part. Or the Deathless Kings. Or the vampires.  Or the temple which is also a power plant (and the maintenance logs are a critical plot point, be still my heart). Or maybe it’s all these details combined with a confident narrative voice and with characters that are compelling and fully fleshed out–you get the sense that these are people with full lives and stories and we’re only seeing a fraction of their complexity here. Love that.

In summary: loved this book. You might love it, too.

Digger, Ursula Vernon

Digger, Ursula Vernon

Digger, Ursula Vernon

I’ve been meaning to read Digger for years. But I am mostly-allergic to serial web-comics (I can barely manage to keep up with non-serial ones like xkcd and A Softer World) and I never think to look for print volumes, so when I heard about the Kickstarter for an omnibus edition, I jumped all over it.

Friends, the omnibus edition is gorgeous and I am so happy to have a copy for my shelves.  It also weighs about ten million pounds (okay, only 4 pounds but that is still really heavy!).  If you can afford to, get the individual volumes (the omnibus is cheaper than all 6 volumes, even at full price).  Or read online!  Luckily for me, the Kickstarter rewards also included a PDF and since I have a tablet, that’s how I ended up reading it. 

And it’s wonderful. And I can’t imagine reading it at the rate of four pages a week over eight years. The suspense! Because this has got plot galore and honestly, it’s amazing how everything ties so neatly together in the most unexpected ways.

It’s about a wombat named Digger and how she ends up far, far, away from home.  There’s a statue of Ganesh which is sometimes inhabited by the god, there are hyena-people, a demon child, and all sorts of odd nonsense going on that Digger would prefer not to deal with, being a sensible wombat, but there’s nothing to do but to get on with things.

And she does–and it’s a marvelous story, one that’s funny and sad and important in all the right ways.  Oh, Ed.

The art is gorgeous–I don’t know much about drawing or comics, but I simply can’t imagine this story having the same kind of impact done in full color.  I love the attention to detail and I love the sheer personality of the art.  It’s a perfect marriage of drawing and story and this novice comics reader found it very easy to follow.  Also, there are footnotes. Hilarious footnotes.

All in all, a great story. So glad I finally read it. So sad I’ll never be able to read it again for the first time.

Historical Fiction and Nicola Griffith’s Hild

Hild, Nicola Griffith

Hild, Nicola Griffith

This is going to be, in part, a review of Nicola Griffith’s latest novel, Hild. But it’s also going to be a discussion of historical fiction and how historical fiction is also speculative fiction and shares much more with science fiction and fantasy than may be immediately apparent.

Hild is, without a doubt, one of the best books I’ve read this year.  It follows the early life of the woman known to us as St. Hilda of Whitby, of whom very little is known–just a couple of paragraphs in The Ecclesiastical History of the English by the Venerable Bede.

Griffith has written extensively about the research she undertook during the writing of this book. The amount of research is absolutely evident in the text but it’s never overwhelming to the reader and it’s all utterly essential. You need to know what the lives of women were like in 7th century England to understand why Hild was so extraordinary–and you also need to know the kinship obligations between all the people on the page–most of whom are historical.

Which is why this review was so disappointing to read.  Calling Hild a “gussied up fantasy novel” is, I think, supposed to be an insult.  It also seems that Michael Robbins doesn’t think women are the proper subject for a historical novel–that their lives just weren’t interesting enough. At least that’s what I took Robbin’s flip reference to the gore and chivalric romance that Griffith mostly ignores in favor of the relationships between the women.

Well. I found this a lot more interesting than many fantasy novels I’ve read in part because the descriptions in Hild are so very vivid–as Hild observes, so does the reader.  I can say that the descriptions of all the textile-related activities was utterly correct based on my knowledge of the field, and because of that, I have confidence that the rest is accurate as well.

And to move back to my other point about historical fiction being speculative fiction: in the absence of working time machines, we can never truly know everything about the past.

There is, after a certain point, when research is just that: research. And it is, at that point, speculation–fiction–must begin.  And that is what Hild is.  It is, indeed, a fantasy novel but not a “gussied up” one–it’s one that acknowledges the past (is rooted in it) but is about all the things we don’t really know about it. As Griffith says, history itself is story.  We look at history and try to make it a narrative.  I think that’s one reason–at least here in the U.S.–that history classes so often revolve around war and conflict. Those things are pretty easy to turn into a narrative that will interest easily distracted students.

Speculative fiction writers learn this sort of thing from the ground up. They learn how to share important pieces of information in ways that aren’t always immediately apparent and to leave unimportant ones out–unlike Robbins, I think Fursey’s comment about the petrified dragon was absolutely perfect because of course people knew about fossils before they knew they were fossils: they were just called something different and the way of thinking about the world was different. They learn to populate their stories with believable characters. They learn about constraint and how that can force the story into interesting and unexpected shapes.

It’s an immersion technique and speculative fiction writers are–have to be–very good at it.  They have to understand their settings inside out and backwards. They typically don’t let an intriguing detail slip without understanding the ramifications of that detail.  If it doesn’t serve the story, it shouldn’t be in the story.  I’m not saying that this isn’t a skill that writers in other genres don’t have–but other genres usually focus on other aspects of story. Romance, for instance, focuses on the emotional narrative between two characters.  There may be constraint that forces emotional intimacy, but that constraint doesn’t usually completely confine one or both characters the way Hild is constrained in this novel. She is contrained by her sex and gender, at times by her age, and by her kinship ties and associated politics.  She has so little room to maneuver and a single misstep can mean her death. Those are incredibly high stakes and watching the tiny adjustments and huge chances she takes is exhilarating.

One detail in Hild that stuck out for me was all the wool and textiles.  As most of you know, I’m a knitter and spinner, so I was beyond thrilled that this industry was omnipresent in the book (no knitting, though, as it hadn’t been invented yet).  It’s women’s work, making cloth. It’s technology and it’s mostly invisible and yet, without it, there’s no civilization.  The amount of information conveyed by the clothing that the people wore was tremendous and in this book we see the birth of York as a major player in the wool industry. I think it’s important to remember that for most of our history, cloth was made by hand, not machine and it took a lot of time and energy.

This is a book full of all kinds of details–Hild and her mother have positioned her as a seer within Edwin’s court and in order to keep her place, Hild has to have visions periodically.  She does this through close observation and by building a network of informants which, to the king and his gesiths (warriors), looks like magic.  Her skills appear to be uncanny, but the reader knows that they’re the result of Hild’s observational and information gathering skills.

Ultimately, though, Hild is about an extraordinary, singular woman. It’s about the women in her life and the constraints they lived under and how they were still able to influence the path of history. They did it subtly, through weaving patterns and taking calculated risks instead of with swords and open violence, but they did it nonetheless.

This is an amazing book. Read it.

Off To Be The Wizard, Scott Meyer

Off To Be The Wizard, Scott Meyer

Off To Be The Wizard, Scott Meyer

Most people who are familiar with Scott Meyer’s name know him as the author of the webcomic Basic Instructions. Off To Be The Wizard is Meyer’s first novel, a time-travel fantasy that leaves the heavy lifting to other writers and sets out to offer the reader nothing much beyond a good time. For the most part, Meyer succeeds at this goal.

I feel compelled to start by pointing out that this book is self-published, and Meyer might want to make use of a professional editing service for future books—it’s riddled with misspellings and missing punctuation, mostly in the form of quotation marks missing around chunks of dialogue, which drives me bananas. Also problematic, to me, is the hand-waving away of sketchy plot points within his premise—there are vague explanations for these, but they’re deeply unsatisfactory. I don’t demand my fantasy novels have a factual basis in general (because, hey, fantasy), but when you start explaining away some things, you have to explain them all away in order to maintain some internal consistency.

So here’s the deal: a 20-something geek working a dreary, dead-end job (unspecified past the dreary and dead-end parts) who spends his spare time poking around in various corners of the internet stumbles upon a buried file. Out of habit, he pokes around in the unguarded file and discovers that it contains his name and basic info. On a whim, he adds two inches to his height in the file, and is surprised to find himself growing two inches. This leads to more poking around, and Martin Banks soon discovers that the human race is basically nothing more than a giant computer construct. From there it only takes a little computer, er, wizardry to figure out how to teleport and how to time travel, two skills he figures out how to manage by developing crude apps for his smart phone. Martin is smart enough to realize that he may, in the future, need an escape plan in case whomever oversees this file figures out that he’s messed around with it.

Martin decides the best place to escape to is the past, and chooses a benign time in the Middle Ages in England as his escape destination, figuring he can pass off his new crude skills as magic and himself as a powerful wizard. He’s forced to put his plan into action quite soon when all of his monkeying around with his bank account lands him in trouble with the Treasury Department. Dressed in Slytherin robes, Martin teleports himself back in time, landing outside the village of Leadchurch which, unfortunately for him, already has a wizard in residence. So the locals aren’t exactly impressed. Been there, done that.

As a premise, this has loads of potential, and Meyer milks it pretty well. He also doesn’t waste any time setting it up, which has positives and negatives. On the one hand, there’s not much in the way of info-dumping here. On the other, there’s not a lot of detail—one page, Martin is running from the feds and the next he’s hit his escape app and landed outside Leadchurch. But on the plus side, the swift removal of his character to the Middle Ages allows Meyer to get down to business and have a little fun.

See, it turns out ALL the wizards in his new time period are actually time-travelers who’ve come from various decades. Like Martin, they chose to escape to the Middle Ages thinking it’d be easy-peasy to pass their ability to manipulate the file off as magic. Eventually, they all created a shell file to standardize their wizardry. Leadchurch’s Wizard-in-Residence, Philip, takes Martin under his wing, offers to train him up in the use of the shell program so that he can pass the Wizard Trial, and shows him how to live a modern lifestyle in the Middle Ages. So Martin gets some snazzy robes and a hat, makes a staff, and eats a lot of stew while learning to pull burritos out of his hat, fly, and transport his bed from home to his hut in Leadchurch. He also meets a clutch of other time-travelers/wizards and begins to make friends.

The set up gives Meyers a chance to make zillions of funny pop culture references about everything from The Simpsons to Apple computers to Pontiac Fieros, and Martin’s adventures in learning his new trade are genuinely amusing. The problem, which you’ve no doubt figured out by now, is that these people all need computers to access the shell and make their tricks actually work because in this world, wizardry is actually nothing more than a series of macros that are created to respond to vocal commands, and there was no electricity in the 1300’s to run the computers on. Meyer gets around this difficulty by letting them use the shell to create certain fields around themselves and objects to preserve a constant, which is actually fairly clever—they can create fields to maintain their body temperatures at a constant level of their choice, and, more important in the world-building sense, they can create fields that will allow their computer batteries to forever remain at a full charge. Because Meyers is working from the premise that all of life is basically a computer construct, he can get away with this—manipulate the program to get whatever you want, be it a burrito or fully-charged computer battery.

Where it all gets a bit hand-wavy is with the use of cell phones and cell phone apps to control things. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how their smart phones could actually work in the Middle Ages. Because they can carry them back and forth, and they can conserve the battery charge at a permanent level, but it’s a fact that my cell phone, full battery or not, will not work if I’m in a dead spot. And I can’t think of a bigger dead spot than the 1300’s. I finally just gave up and waved my hands too. It was easier than imagining cell phone towers dotting the landscape of medieval England, and Meyer at no point described how they might make this work.

Martin has more adventures once he becomes a fully-trained wizard, and Meyer leaves himself enough room that he could easily make this into a series if he’s so inclined. I found this a fast, entertaining read. It’s not going to win any points for style, but it’s told in an engaging, undemanding fashion. My biggest issue with it was that the characters never really bloomed: they each seemed to have an assigned character trait (Martin, for example, is impulsive, while Phillip is very steady and conservative) and didn’t ever grow or change along the way; the result is that they’re not really driving the plot, just walking through it. If he does carry on with these characters in a series, he’ll need to work on that. But he has a very promising foundation to build on.

Women to Read: Romance & Speculative Fiction

One of the best things I discovered last month amongst all the various conversations is #womentoread on Twitter –I added lots of new writers to my completely unruly list of books to read (someday). Then I got to thinking: some people might be interested in reading outside their usual genres. So I thought I’d put together a couple of lists of romance that I think speculative fiction readers will enjoy along with explanations as to why and vice versa. The only limit I put on my recommendations was that the author needed to be someone who identified as a woman since what got me thinking about this was #womentoread.

Romance for Speculative Fiction Readers

Lord of Scoundrels, Loretta ChaseA Lady Awakened, Cecilia GrantThe Duchess War, Courtney Milan

I’m sticking with historical authors for this batch of recommendations because I think historical romance has a certain affinity for speculative fiction. Historical romances are, in my opinion, very much like fantasy novels and much like fantasy novels, the setting can and does inform the plot and characterization.

As in speculative fiction, historical romance relies upon an interlocking sequence of research and extrapolation that the story must rest upon–a strong foundation can hold up just about any kind of story. There are so many fantastic books in the subgenre that I had a difficult time picking just three writers to recommend!.

Loretta Chase: Chase is probably my absolute favorite romance author and I’m always recommending her–her books are smart, well-constructed, and thoroughly researched. I’d recommend either Lord of Scoundrels or Mr. Impossible–or both, if you want an idea of Chase’s range as a writer.

Lord of Scoundrels is one of her earlier novels–it was published in 1995–and yet it still feels fresh and revolutionary in so many ways. I can’t even imagine reading it when it was first published.  It must have been mind-blowing.

Jessica Trent is an intelligent and thoroughly self-possessed young woman and Sebastian Ballister, Marquess of Dain is a dissolute blackguard who has never been loved or loved anyone in his life. They have boatloads of chemistry together and it’s just fun to read their interactions. One of the key things about this book is that Dain is, on the surface, a stereotypical “alpha-hole” hero–but because the reader is given his backstory right at the beginning on the book, his alpha-hole-ness is subverted and the reader’s sympathy is gained. It’s a clever bit of storytelling and while it is a bit leaden, it’s also essential because otherwise Dain is essentially irredeemable. I’ve often been tempted to buy a copy of this book, remove the prologue, and hand it to someone who has never read it and see what they think. So much of the book’s success rests on the beginning.

Mr. Impossible is nearly the opposite: it’s funny and features a male protagonist who is basically a lovable and happy-go-lucky guy. Rupert Carsington is not book-smart, but he is emotionally intelligent and he basically falls in love with Daphne from the first moment he meets her. He is absolutely besotted with her intellect and he lets her take the lead on that front as they attempt to locate her kidnapped brother–the entire book is basically an extended rumination on how smart Daphne is and how very, very excellent that quality in her is. The villain of this book is, more or less, a standard issue British imperialist, but rest assured he does get his comeuppance in the end. There is also a completely ridiculous and over the top sex scene in a pyramid during a sand storm. It’s awesome. It’s also my very favorite romance novel of all time.

Cecilia Grant: A Lady Awakened was one of the best romances I read last year. There are many reasons for this but my favorite one is the truly epic bad sex and how it was absolutely right for the story and how, as the two protagonists came to care for each other their physical relationship transformed as well.

Martha is newly widowed and unless she is able to produce a boy child within the next 8 to 9 months, she will lose her home and become a poor relation. Theo is her new neighbor–the son of a minor nobleman, he’s been sent to the country to learn responsibility. Martha sees him as a possible solution to her problem and proposes that she pay him to try to get her pregnant in the next month–she knows this is unethical and it’s not what she wants to do but it is, literally, the only choice available to her. Watching Martha make this choice and still try to remain true to herself and her ideals is really something.

And Grant’s writing is simply gorgeous:

Her hands fell at random places on his back and stayed there, passively riding his rhythm like a pair of dead fish tossed by the sea. Or rather, one dead fish. The other still curled tight, like a brittle seashell with its soft sensate creature shrunk all the way inside.

That’s a sex scene. With dead fish. It’s wonderful. It’s such a perfect encapsulation of Martha at that point in the book–she is trying to be active but not being particularly successful at it–she hasn’t been taught how to be active in her own life: she’s all repressed and brittle and curled in upon herself. And the way she slowly, so slowly opens up is so very powerful. The ending is a bit rushed and didn’t quite work for me–there were too many coincidences–but for a debut novel, this was one hell of a book.

I also just love Grant’s take on romance as a whole, too.

Courtney Milan: I’m going to recommend the first two volumes in her current series, the Brothers Sinister. The first volume, “The Governess Affair” is a prequel novella that sets up the rest of the series–it’s not essential reading but it is useful background knowledge. The Duchess War is the first full-length book in the series and it’s fantastic. Milan is well aware of all the tropes in romance and she is explicitly playing with and exploding them while telling a compelling and moving story about people who feel so, so real.

Min is acutely conscious of her place in society–which is quite marginal, for reasons which are thoroughly explored within the text and which I don’t want to spoil here–and Clermont has bucketloads of unearned privilege that he’s very uncomfortable with. Milan is one of the few writers of historical fiction who is actively working within the restrictions on both women and those not of the upper classes–so often, characters in historical romances are able to move between social classes through the power of love (and buckets of money)–Milan’s body of work makes it evident that this oh-so-common genre convention is a fantasy and that while love is a powerful force, it cannot conquer all.

As for the trope-exploding, there are two very common things that occur in romance that drive a lot of readers up the wall. That would be the evil mother and the baby epilogue–Milan explodes both of them in The Duchess War, right down to the hushed dark room with a terrific amount of tension. And then when it becomes apparent what’s actually going on, it’s just a great ending to the book. And as for the evil mother–she has real motivations and isn’t just a cardboard character there for the purpose of causing trauma to her son.

There’s also a second novella in this series, “A Kiss for Midwinter” and it’s also wonderful–it’s about a couple of secondary characters and the theme of that one is knowledge and anger and horrifying Victorian medical practices. Good stuff. Can’t wait for the next one!

Speculative Fiction for Romance Readers

Shades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette KowalThe Sharking Knife: Beguilement, Lois McMaster BujoldIn the Garden of Iden, Kage Baker

My recommendations here have a certain something in common with my romance recommendations–these all have a strong thread of romance and they also have fully realized settings that the characters move within.

All three of these writers are firmly grounded in speculative fiction and it is mostly from these tropes these series spring–the romantic elements are essential but the stories wouldn’t be what they are without the speculative elements.

Mary Robinette Kowal: Her fantasy novels are Regency novels but with magic–they’re set during the Napoleonic Wars, a setting that should be very familiar to romance readers In the first book, Shades of Milk and Honey, Jane Ellsworth has a rare talent with glamour–the manipulation of which is considered essential for any well-bred young lady. Along with her sister, Melody, Jane’s life revolves around eligible young men and hopes of marriage. Naturally, Jane’s skill with glamour plays an important role in this book–one thing I found very interesting was the way Kowal subverts the use of magic in her book. Typically, in fantasy novels, magic is a prestigious or desirable activity and yet, in this book it’s an activity fit only for women and men on the fringes of society.

These books are an explicit exploration of women’s roles in society both in and out of marriage and how, even when entering into a marriage that both partners have agreed will be egalitarian, there is still a lot of internalized expectations that need to be overcome.

Lois McMaster Bujold: Bujold is a favorite around these parts, but I’m going to be recommending a series we haven’t covered here and that’s the Sharing Knife quartet. These were written explicitly as an exploration of romance and, as such, the romantic element is explicitly foregrounded while the fantastical elements are much more subtle. There’s a lot going on in these books and I enjoyed them for what they were but many of Bujold’s core audience did not (warning: link contains a lot of “ew, girl cooties”) and wrote the series off after the first volume, Beguilement.

The heart of this book is the relationship between Fawn and Dag and how it develops while they are dealing with magical creatures called “malices”. These books take place in a society that’s trying to rebuild after some sort of magical apocalypse–the malices are a remnant of the catastrophe and the Lakewalkers, Dag’s people, are charged with dispatching them. Fawn comes from people who are more settled and there is a tremendous amount of tension and misinformation between the two groups–most of the tension and conflict in these books comes from the clash of these two (very essential) cultures, not from the fantastic elements.. These books are definitely an experiment on Bujold’s part and while I’m not sure they’re a completely successful experiment even a bad book from Bujold is head and shoulders above a good book from other authors.

Kage Baker: Baker’s Company series is about immortal time travelling cyborgs. Specifically, one named Mendoza who is bitter, prickly, and hates humanity (and for very good reason, i.e., the Spanish Inquisition). And yet they’re also gloriously romantic although it takes many books before Mendoza gets a happy ending. I will note here that the last few books do not work for everyone and even though they worked for me I can absolutely see how the ending is deeply unsatisfying and problematic for other readers. I’ll also note that Baker passed away in 2010 after a short and brutal battle with uterine cancer. She is, still, missed.

In the Garden of Iden is the first book and it’s wonderful–it’s a science fiction historical romance which ends badly (possible understatement of the year) but it’s such a compelling story and the way Baker writes a thoroughly unpleasant character like Mendoza in such a sympathetic way is incredible. Mendoza is made into a cyborg at the beginning of this book and she trains as a botanist–her hope is to be sent someplace far away from people for her first assignment but instead she’s sent to Elizabethan England where she meets Nicholas Harpole and falls in love. Note: things end badly here. There isn’t even a happy-for-now ending.

There is wonk and angst galore in these books and I can’t recommend them highly enough. There’s also a deep and evident authorial love for all the characters and the setting–these are books about California and secret histories and pop culture and nightmare dystopian futures. With immortal time traveling cyborgs.

So to summarize: there are awesome books in lots of different genres. It can’t hurt to try something new–at worst, it’s a DNF and at best you have a new favorite. I’m hoping to make this a regular feature here, so any and all suggestions will be considered for the future.