Every summer around solstice time — that is, in a normal year; I don’t even know what I did last summer — I put away my writing projects and indulge in an orgy of reading. I gather up books I expect to be a pleasure to read, and sample them as the mood strikes me. So here’s a roundup of the books on my proverbial nightstand.
Martha Wells, All Systems Red (Murderbot #1): Fun, snarky, jabs an elbow into the fourth wall from time to time, exactly as advertised. Will read further into the series but it’s not urgent, as the ending of this initial novella lands pretty satisfyingly.
Nghi Vo, The Empress of Salt and Fortune: A pan-Asian fusion of fairytale and magical fable. Deceptively simple prose that evokes a fine beauty. Plan to read the companion novella, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain.
K.J. Charles, Slippery Creatures & The Sugared Game (Will Darling #1 and #2): Charles is just the best at period queer romance, and that’s all there is to it. These are well spiced with murder, mayhem, and snark, and the POV character is so Fed Up With Everything that my primary delight in reading these is when Will loses patience and tells off and/or punches people — or both at once. My hold on the third book just came in, so I’ll be finishing this trilogy in short order.
E.J. Beaton, The Councillor: Fantasy court intrigue, European-inflected but with new twists on mythic imagery and magic. I like the POV character so far but haven’t quite…chimed with her? I don’t think it amounts to a flaw in the writing, but it is slowing me down somewhat.
Arkady Martine, A Desolation Called Peace: I read the first chapter of this and decided it was too exciting to be an adequate distraction from the panic attack I was having at the time. Will circle back later.
S.A. Chakraborty, City of Brass: Had a critical mass of recs for this series, so look forward to giving it a try.
Still welcoming recs for pleasurable reads in the above vein!
Ask ten aroace folks what they think about sex scenes in stories and you’ll probably get seventeen different answers. So consider this more a meditation than an assay at representation.
Writing always starts with reading. In the olden fandom days I used to complain a great deal about how ship fics crowded out nearly everything else in the pipeline. It’s vastly irritating to work hard on a piece that isn’t terribly explicit or shippy (or God forbid, gen) and see it drop in the pond without a ripple, while the one-off explicit story one writes for a challenge gets an avalanche of recs. There are still a few embers of annoyance there, when I care to stir them. Why the hell does a story have to have a sexually-driven throughline to compel widespread interest?
Yet I don’t hate to read it myself. I quite like a good romance from time to time, particularly if it’s got mystery or mayhem to go with the sex. True, I’ll often skip, skim, or gloss the sex scenes, not because I am disgusted by them, but mostly out of a reflex I used to call “smut sunblindness” — one doesn’t want there to not be a sun, but staring at it is A Bit Much.
I’m leaning toward a food metaphor for it these days, though. If I order a hamburger or somesuch, I rarely ask to omit the tomato and onion, even though I inevitably end up fishing them out and leaving them in the wrapper. Why? Because I like the flavor those things bring to the party, to paraphrase Alton Brown. I just don’t necessarily want to eat more than a bite or two of them.
“A sex scene should be about sex and something else,” counseled a writing-advice book I once read; I can’t remember if he was quoting Vonnegut or merely used Vonnegut as an example. (He took care also to excerpt some bad and overwritten sex scenes to ahem, nail down the point.) I think this is quite right; the more a sexual interlude drives character development or plot arcs, the more likely it is I’ll want to read it, and the more likely it is to be erotically interesting, too.
This principle informs my writing, too, naturally. If you’re not going to tastefully fade to black, there ought to be a reason for staying in the room where it happens, so to speak. Say perhaps that the encounter is the locus of a turning point between the characters, or a catalyst for the motives of one or both; say that it’s an occasion for release, or recognition, or ruin. That much should be clear whether or not one chooses to use unequivocal language.
I don’t, for the most part; my goal in writing scenes like that is to evoke emotion and sensation by an indirect approach, which is, as I said above, more erotically interesting to me. Once the scene is written, though, I tend to treat it just like sex scenes I didn’t write; I gloss them on reread and sift for the emotional throughline on the other side.
This is another instance of how hobblingly inadequate writing advice like “Write what you know” can be. It so easily becomes “Write only what you know,” and that is manifest bullshit. If we wrote nothing but what we know, we would write nothing but memoirs. Often I turn that around and say, “Know what you write,” but in this case, I could also say “Use what you know.” As an aroace person I know for a fact that that “something else” turns a piquant sexual interlude to a compelling one; that access to emotion and sensation is the goal of good prose; and that, as Lord Peter Wimsey observed, sex isn’t some separate thing “functioning away all by itself; it’s usually attached to a person of some sort.”
So as a person of this sort, I happily invite all and sundry to make use of my expertise. Happy belated Pride.
So, speaking of hotel clerks, there once was a man who went to a conference at a hotel whose customer-service motto was “There are no such things as problems, only opportunities.” He went up to the desk and said to the clerk, “There’s a problem with my room.” “Ah,” said the clerk, tapping the sign, “but there are no problems, only opportunities.” “Call it what you want to,” the man retorted, “but there’s a woman in the room assigned to me.”
Yes, it’s a stupid joke, and faintly creepy to boot, but it plays into what Palmer and Walton are talking about in their essay, which is at bottom an issue of displacement, in the Archimidean sense. It reminds me of the time when I, with disastrous naivety, joined a writer’s group while I was working on Ryswyck. At one point another member grilled me about who the protagonist was in the story: I tried to say that if anything, Speir and Douglas (and specifically the friendship between them) was the protagonist, if there had to be one — but that wasn’t sufficient. I finally allowed as how the reader’s-eye POV belonged to Speir, but refused to follow the logic that was being pressed on me: they wanted me to refocus the story on one person and leave out what wasn’t relevant to her directly.
Needless to say, this was the beginning of the end of my participation in this group, but I’m really grateful to Palmer and Walton for bringing an even wider angle lens to this issue — for describing the continuum of storytelling from protagonismos through braided POV through tapestry. Not only does this perspective explain why I find pitch advice for aspiring writers so desperately annoying (“make sure to identify your protagonist and her conflict/desire/pain point!”), it shows how dangerous for our collective narrative diet it is to read no stories except those driven by protagonismos.
Of the tapestry stories mentioned in the essay, I’ve read only the last — Edward Rutherfurd’s Sarum, which a housemate lent me as a favorite book of his (in exchange for Doomsday Book, if I recall correctly). I would never have picked up this immense book on my own, but I was fascinated by this “tapestry” mode of storytelling, in which all the characters, and the landscape itself, are like the striations of a muscle, working away to drive the story along. I do believe that even a plague flea was given a brief POV in Rutherfurd’s book.
Like Palmer and Walton, I’m not entirely sure what made Rutherfurd the final outlier in the trend away from tapestry storytelling, but I remember the 90s, and recall how much of the fin of that particular siècle was dominated by avatars — the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square, Bill Clinton, O.J. Simpson, Ryan White, Tupac Shakur, Michael Jordan (a lot of men are coming to mind, for some reason!). Stories were avatarized: A Night to Remember became Titanic; D-Day became Saving Private Ryan. Nowadays we’re getting villain origin stories, as if the only way to make Cruella de Vil interesting or compelling is to protagonize her. And let’s not get into Star Wars, shall we?
As the essay points out, the trend has swung so hard that a series like Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” — which in another frame would be seen as a bog-standard braided-POV story — is regarded as an outlier for having a large ensemble cast. Ensemble casts have been actively discouraged as making books unwieldy and hard to sell. My friend and fellow indie author Erica H. Smith has embraced the cast-of-thousands approach — structurally, her books are made up of disciplined POV braids mostly in tight-third, but every other chapter she finds herself inventing another fascinating walk-on character to stir things along and I’m usually like, “Ooh! I like them; are we going to see them again?” “…Maybe.”
This is one of the uses of independent publishing. Ensemble casts, intricate POV braids, walk-on multitudes, tapestries — they may not sell like hotcakes, but someone has to write them. Else the protagonismos displacement might go the way of the Ever Given and block global sea traffic for weeks.
Thanks to this essay, a widened perspective shows me that my own instincts were what I thought they were — a braided ensemble like the cast of Ryswyck is not grotesque, nor is it fully a tapestry story. But as I’ve mentioned in other places, I made sure that the turning point of the plot depends not on Speir or Douglas or any of the other POV characters, but on the most ordinary and unsophisticated character in the cast, a character whose legacy will ultimately cast a longer shadow than a charismatic would-be protagonist like Barklay. I did my best to make sure not only that every character had a trajectory but that nearly all of them are indispensable to the community and to the solution of the story’s dilemma.
The fact that this essay exists is a harbinger of what I certainly hope will come, stories whose moral imperative is based in community, with hope that doesn’t spring from powerful avatars or narrative exceptionalism.
Because Erica so much enjoyed this book for the meta of writing that so easily beguiles writers into nattering about their process (I say; beware), I thought I had better read it. I checked out the ebook at my local library and read it over the course of a few days, and gave it the standard four stars on Goodreads that I always give to books that I enjoyed and that were well-written.
(Honestly, the star method of rating books is so two-dimensional. If only there were some way of rating books with an opaline sphere with colors for the quality of writing, colors for the emotional pull, colors for the personal impact, &c. But that’s not very useful in late-stage capitalism, is it? No, it’s five stars or bust, for book evaluation as for customer service. I hate to think I might be letting good authors down by not giving them five stars, but I can’t help using the metric the way I think best, and anyway, writers can’t be fired — or even deplatformed, as the opal orbs of their past indelible impacts would testify if only they could. )
— Clearly, I’m still under the influence of the narrative voice of Or What You Will, which is effortlessly strong, like a deep, pellucid current. How else could Walton get away with writing a book in which the entire first half has maybe one chapter devoted to the vehicle story and the rest a series of digressions about — if you do not come too close, if you do not come too close — the history of Florence, the history of the author being narrated into being by her own muse, the history of Montreal, the nature of religious experience, the evolution of a writer’s relationship to her own past art, and anything and everything the muse thinks important to enlist our participation in his project of saving Sylvia Katherine Harrison’s life. Or her soul, as the case may be, if there be a difference.
(And anyone who knows me by my fanworks knows there is no way on God’s green earth I wouldn’t notice all the references to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Anyone who’s read my fic, that is, or Virginia, who’s not here for me to talk with about this book. The moment when a loved one of the author texts her that they can’t wait to discuss a book with her, but dies before they can, gave me a pang.)
From a writer’s point of view — and for all I know, from a critic’s — this book is a narratological puzzle box, bound to give delight to those who like such things. Would people who are not writers or critics find it self-indulgent? I don’t know, but the thing I said out loud at one point was How the fuck is she getting away with this?! — so Your Mileage May Vary is not going to apply if Our Muse succeeds in getting you on a Vespa, which he probably will if you’re interested enough to pick up the book in the first place.
I am not sure the ending quite succeeded for me, after all the buildup, after all the debate between author and muse about what is real in the real world and what is real in the worlds of her invention. But then, the narrator is ultimately thinking about his own life and soul, and I can’t help centering on the author’s — and the narrator’s arc is satisfying, so far as it can be (and the fire and the rose are one).
I can’t help thinking about characters I drew up when I was in my teens and early twenties, and how, in some respects, they saved my life, by living out stories — and sometimes telling me about it — that I needed to “see” lived out, as some kind of internal healing mechanism. (In some ways, especially that way, writers are always seeking eucatastrophe.) I suppose it was while writing what’s so disparagingly called “self-insertion” fic that the germinating plant began to peel away from the cotyledon’s husk: a prolonged meta exercise like writing yourself into a media-property story teaches you exactly what wishes can be fulfilled, what parts of yourself you can save, and before very long at all the avatar I’d built was an entirely different character with a different trajectory, different preoccupations, different needs. She was a lot more heteroromantic than I am, to start with; but I didn’t know that at the time.
In any event, I didn’t do much of that with my characters in Ryswyck. The situation was the other way around; instead of saving myself (“saving” like Dante’s “salute” — greeting with true recognition which when you think about it is nearly all of what salvation is) by means of writing them, I saved myself so that they could be written. Yet the enacting that I suspect all writers do behind closed doors — weeping one’s own characters’ tears, rehearsing their cadences as if playing them upon a stage, laughing at their jokes — is still present, and does me as much good as it does them, maugre Socrates and Freud and all the dour, humorless figures who cluck their tongues from their pantheons over this process of selving as if it were invalid. I can go and kneel where prayer has been valid, if I so desire — and I can also make the valid prayer in the first place. I have never not thought so, even at my deepest depths of self-suspicion.
Because of this, I deeply appreciated the Muse making the point that people who have suffered abuse in their lives (like Sylvia, his author), or been exposed to some traumatic and humiliating event, are not, despite common wisdom, blighted people. They can know or learn how to love; they can be happy; they can pray and make art and live full lives. They can have a coherent sense of autobiography. They can co-inhere. And the best thing about this assertion is that the Muse is making it on behalf of the author who made him, is advocating for her in a way she cannot advocate for herself. And if nothing else, it is a good thing that Or What You Will exists, to reach out, grasp the reader by the collar, and insist that if you greet the author, you should greet her with true recognition.
Happy Monday! I hope you’re at home. Wash your hands.
Now that that’s out of the way, here’s today’s topic. I had thought about doing this one as a video, but as the ensuing post will illustrate, that plan has been (at least for now) scrapped. Mass quarantine has given rise to a new appreciation of the arts, including opportunities to read books, and I wanted to say a little bit about what it’s like choosing things to read when you’re ADHD.
First: a small briefing on what it’s like from the inside. Too often ADHD gets talked about in terms of its inconvenience for other people. (This is where a video would work well.) We all have a part of our brains dedicated to making plans — visualizing, ordering, measuring timescale, anticipating what “done” looks like. For most people, that part of the brain delivers plans without much thought: for those people, planning is like picking up a newspaper at a kiosk and reading it. For us, it’s like we have to consult Gutenberg and build the printing press, hire the reporters, gather the editors, invent the sections, instruct the galley mechanics, and print the paper, and by the time it comes out, it’s two weeks later, it’s old news, and we’re exhausted.
So instead, what ADHD people do is recruit other parts of their brain to get a plan done and executed. It’s like being right-handed and having to write with your left all the time; you can do it, but it’s awkward and tiring and the result looks kind of pathetic.
Everyone’s compensation strategy is different. Me, I use the part of my brain that makes lists. So say I want to get a particular book (without going to Amazon). So I make a conscious and explicit list of actions in order. I decide, library or bookstore? Then I choose a time to go when they’re open — and also when I’m not obliged to be doing something else. Then I leave the house, get in the car, drive to the place, and look for the book. I could check the internet catalog to see if they have it first, but that…doesn’t necessarily make it into the plan. Say I don’t find the book. I go to the nice person at the desk; they tell me they can order it for me. I say yes and go home. When I get the heads-up that the book has come in, I have to make this plan all over again and execute it.
Sounds simple, you say. It is — if you’re not doing it with the wrong hand.
So I have the book in my hands now and it’s time for Phase 2 of the plan. I open the book, start reading words, and keep doing that till I’ve read all the words. If something happens to interrupt me, I have to ramp up the momentum again as if I’d never started.
So you can see that when ADHD people say they can only do something if it’s interesting, they don’t mean that they just can’t be arsed to do a lot of stuff. They mean that if making the plan and executing it is so tiring, then doing the thing needs to have some intrinsic reward to make it worthwhile. In other words, if I’m going to make a long list of ordered tasks to get a book, it better be a damn good book.
(By the way, if you have a loved one with ADHD and you want to help them Do a Thing, you can approach it from either end. You can help pre-make some of the plans to funnel them into Doing the Thing without getting too tired and shearing off. Or you can find ways to raise the intrinsic reward of the Thing once they get to doing it. Offering rewards at the end doesn’t help; it just becomes, like, Phase 3 of the plan, one more distracting and tiring irrelevance.)
When I was a kid, I had less logistical labor to do — not no logistical labor, but less than I have now. So I had more energy for reading books. Now, well — on a normal day, I get up, make tea, take meds, do prayers, get showered, get dressed, get in the car, drive to work, do work over a period of 8 hours, get in the car, drive home, decide what to have for dinner, make dinner, eat dinner, allocate my free time, wash face, and go to bed. And that’s without extra stuff like meetings and fencing practice and doing dishes. So…I read less.
Which is why I’ve decided in 2020 to lean into my instinctive priorities for choosing books to read. And I’m telling you about it, in case it’s useful.
Is the book easily available? This is what makes Amazon so insidious. If I’m interested in a title, I can shorten that list of tasks a whole lot by typing the title in the search blank, deciding if I want to buy it, and then *click* a Kindle copy is delivered. Instant phase completion! If I don’t want to spend my hard-earned cash at Amazon, then I ask: does a friend have it to lend? Do I have time to get to the library right now? Is it at the indie bookstore down the street? (Thanks, Will!)
How long is this book? I’m not gonna lie: last time I was in the library I caught sight of This is How You Lose the Time War on the shelf, and said: “Hey, this is on my list — look at this, it’s skinny! I didn’t know this was a novella. I’m taking this home.” So I took it home, read the whole thing in an afternoon, and had time for a nap into the bargain. Win. I can read a long book, but it needs other selling points, as you will see.
Is it recommended by more than one friend? Generally, I wait to seek out a book until I’ve had a critical mass of recs over a period of time long enough for me to contemplate them. This tactic rarely fails to pay. If I read a book off only one rec, the fail rate increases. So I’m leaning into this one now.
Is it by or recommended by a trusted author? Major shortcut. Knocks out half the decision load.
Does the description promise my favorite tropes? Look, after a while on this earth you get to know what you like. If the other criteria are weak, I might try a book on the strength of someone saying it has my favorite Love Between Enemies kink. And, since it’s me, if I can’t find a book that has the specific tropes I want, I wind up writing it. But that’s a whole other post.
And finally, one more principle I’m leaning into this year: forgiving myself for not finishing a book. I got interested in Tipping the Velvet enough to get a Kindle copy, and started reading it. Then I got interrupted, and didn’t come back to it, and didn’t come back to it, and I finally asked myself: finish the book? or go read spoilers on Wikipedia? Spoilers it was. I may get back to it some time, but I give myself permission not to. (On the other hand, I was reading Ancillary Mercy at Christmastime a few years ago, and got so busy with services and whatnot that I literally had to put it down for 48 hours, and it about killed me. So, behold the power of intrinsic reward.)
And there you have it. The shape of our daily logistical labor is quite changed right now, and may never be quite the same again, but I feel sure that these criteria will still be helpful to me choosing books in the future.
So my weekend was fairly productive on the housework and acquiring-new-shoes-for-the-conference fronts, but not so much on writing or blogging. Or changing the cat litter, but one can’t do everything. But one thing I have done recently is start going through Pat Wrede’s blog on writing; there’s some really good stuff there, and it’s given me a lot to think about.
For one thing, Wrede put me on to Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft, a writer’s guide which she updated for the 21st century — ULG was lively-minded right to the end. I want to be Pat Cadigan when I grow up, and I want to be Ursula Le Guin when I grow old. Anyway, Steering the Craft is (naturally!) full of sensible advice and actual writing exercises that look salutary for a writer to do. (I mean, I haven’t done any of them yet, but they do look useful.)
For another thing, reading a blog that has a long archive is like leafing through a time capsule of the changing zeitgeist. I found a post where everyone on a panel (including Pat) was shocked when someone said brazenly that a novel should have an agenda, at least so much as to say a moral point of view. Seanan McGuire, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor: these authors have since then articulated even more firmly that if your very existence as a writer is itself a political act, then of course you should embrace writing stories with a specific moral point of view. After all, any story that appears to be agenda-less actually has an invisible agenda that is congruent with the predominant cultural point of view. It has plausible deniability, or at least an unthreatening premise.
I think that argument is true in the specific sense in which the new writers are using it. And I think they’ve been successful enough in changing the conversation that it’s now about whether new speculative fiction can be called “high concept” if it is not challenging to the predominant cultural point of view. And that’s a good thing, in my view. I’ve read some great books in the last five years thanks to those efforts.
But that’s not what I want to get at today. I want to talk about what writing with an “agenda” is like from the writer’s point of view. Like, how does a writer actually pursue a moral point of view in a story they are writing?
In my experience, the first question is what kind of story you want to tell yourself. You have to want to tell yourself this story, or it’s no fun. I can see where writers can become sad and bitter, if the stories they want to tell themselves are stories that other people are indifferent to, or disapprove of. When I find myself sinking into a mood like that, my self-prescription is to read other people’s books, preferably ones I haven’t read already. If it lightens my mood, that’s enough; if it enriches my perspective, that’s even better. Whatever gets me back — or onward — to a place where my story is fun.
Mind you, no matter how viral your story turns out to be, any story with a specific moral point of view isn’t going to be for everyone — like Hendrick’s Gin, which puts that legend in scrolling script on every bottle: It Is Not For Everyone. (Then they came up with another infusion that’s even more Not For Everyone than the original, which might be a bridge too far, but I haven’t tasted it yet, so I withhold judgment. And anyway I doubt Hendrick’s is complaining about their sales volume. But I digress.)
Example: back in the day when I was a floating library assistant (insofar as a Geo Storm hatchback could be said to float around Tulsa County library to library), I had a conversation with a branch librarian that appalled me to my core. We were talking about displaying favorite books, and she started gushing about Thomas Hardy. “I mean, the way he writes, it’s just the way life is!” she said. Now, I had had to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles for my Victorian survey class, and to me it was the epitome of everything I hated in a story: a hapless protagonist whose every effort to get out of a tar pit only mires them in further, a dim view of human capacity, a cynical view of God and/or spiritual enrichment, and a narrating voice that can well afford to stand afar off, aloof if not sneering altogether.
I can’t remember if I actually bit my tongue or if I answered her out loud: “God, I hope not!”
Nowadays, if (God forbid) I should ever be forced to teach Tess to a class of unsuspecting undergraduates, I would pair it with T. C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Yes, double the misery, I know. But reading the Boyle book showed me something I hadn’t picked up about Tess, even in a university setting: which is that Hardy was doing all those things on purpose, not because he was a miserable man with a miserable point of view, but because he wanted to subject his readership to a scathing parable about their complacent condemnation of the marginalized people among them. I don’t know any Victorian middle-class snobs; but I do know plenty of white liberals. I get the value of these novels as parables — and there’s something to be said for a book’s power if it could make me react so strongly 100 years later.
But. I still don’t want to tell myself a story like this. Hardy and Boyle obviously found some fun in it; but I think in large part it’s because they could afford to. You have to be placed just so if you want to afflict the comfortable without also comforting the afflicted.
And that brings me to the point I wanted to make. So often when people take against the idea of writing with an “agenda,” the complaint is that the book is too “preachy.” But I say: show me a person who thinks a story can’t present a moral point of view without turning into (ugh) a sermon — and I’ll show you someone who hasn’t heard a good sermon. It’s not their fault; good preaching is hard to find, generally speaking. I’m lucky: I gained a lay preaching license because I had some truly gifted mentors. I learned that a sermon combines the art of academic argument with the art of storytelling. A good sermon does five things: 1) it is about one topic and has a beginning, a middle, and an end; 2) it does not read things into its text but draws them out; 3) it is relevant for the people it is addressed to; 4) it gives the listener something to chew on on more than one level — intellectual, emotional, spiritual, imaginative, or all of these; and finally 5) it’s given by someone who knows when to be confrontational and when not. It’s a delicate art.
Like writing a novel.
So what kind of story do I want to tell myself? What sermon do I need to hear? I want a story with eucatastrophe built into it, obviously; with characters who are innocent as doves or cunning as snakes or both together; where everyone is essential to the resolution of the crisis, or at least significant in it; where people get along with the others or find a way to work with those they don’t; where suffering isn’t a cheapskate play for meaning; where heroes don’t punch down; whose plot doesn’t take for granted the punishment of women for laying claim to significance; where friendship is a driving force; where agency rather than fate is the moral imperative; where redemption is earned and grace bestowed, instead of the other way around.
Now that sounds an awful lot like an arduous checklist, but when I’m making up a story, I don’t proceed by ticking boxes. It’s more like I’m hanging on the refrigerator door figuring out what to make for dinner. Ooh, I have an onion, I could make this; won’t make that till I buy some lemons. But of course I’m the one who stocked the fridge in the first place.
There’s a lot of work between that moment and the moment I have people over. But then there will be wine. Or gin.
I admit my reading is a bit peripatetic. So often do I clamber wearily through my weekly schedule without the energy to do anything more than open up, say, a Vorkosigan omnibus to some random place so I can have something to read while eating dinner, that it takes a critical mass of recs and/or an opportunity of mood to pick up something new.
This weekend, however, I haled my neurodivergent ass over to B&N and picked up A Memory Called Empire to read while consuming egg drop soup and dumplings. I read four chapters and let the remains of my dinner get cold — and the tea, too. Then I took the book home and read the rest of it in one gulp.
It’s not a short book by any means, but it does read very quickly, and the pacing is snappy without being frenetic or irrational. This is my second court-intrigue novel in a month — and strangely, like The Goblin Emperor, it involves a murder mystery, where the mystery is not really about who committed the murder as it is about why the murder was committed and the serious implications of the aftermath for the succession of the throne. Are a lot of court-intrigue stories like this? I’m not sure I’ve read enough of them to discern a pattern.
In any event, this is a particularly ambitious story. Apart from the court intrigue plot, Martine introduces us to a highly mannered and poetry-inflected world via a foreigner, the POV character who is the new ambassador to the Teixcalaan Empire’s central planet. Mahit was chosen as the hasty replacement of her murdered predecessor in no small part because she had fallen in love with the empire’s literary tradition and similarly struggles with the simultaneous insult of being branded a barbarian and desire not to be one. We find out all about the meaningful details of dress and mode of language and apparent alliance through her eyes. To add to this bewildering sensory onslaught, each chapter is headed by epigraphs from Teixcalaanli poetry, or history, or correspondence offstage and out of the POV character’s ken. It’s a lot to take in, and without the snappy pace of the plot itself, it might have been too much.
The characters, too, help carry the burden of introducing such a vivid and complex world. They are nearly all of them memorable individuals that have arcs of growth and nuance as the story unfolds. But if I want to be honest, the parts I want to reread — the parts I have gone back to reread, several times — are the parts where Mahit interacts with her imago memory implant, a technology of her home station whereby the experience and skill of previous generations is grafted onto the new people in their roles, with great psychological care taken to integrate them with their predecessors’ personalities. Not to spoil a major plot point, but Mahit’s relationship with Yskandr, the former ambassador whose murder she is investigating — hampered by sabotage early on in the conflict between her home and the Empire — became the heart of the story for me. I found the concept fascinating and exceptionally well-drawn, and I particularly loved the theme behind the idea, of being seen and understood and not alone, with all the intimacy and peril that implies. That, too, chimes somewhat with a theme in The Goblin Emperor, though the implications are not at all drawn out in the same way.
I gave this a solid four stars on Goodreads and would rec it unreservedly for people who like the kinds of things I’ve described. It was hard for me to not read it like a writer, which I’m not sure is a fault at all, but it did put a small remove in my own intimacy with the story, and in any case it was so well written that it didn’t suffer by that undercurrent of examination. Definitely worth the purchase.
It’s the dog days of summer, which I suspect to be an astrological expression but in my case means that lying around rereading books is much more my speed than anything else. So I thought I would respond to a meme going around FB and do a post about books that are meaningful to me. Specifically, I thought I’d write about fiction books that entered my life at certain watershed moments and stuck with me to the present.
Richard Adams, Watership Down
Let’s start with the earliest. My recollection is that a relative rented the movie for a cousin’s birthday party, thinking hey, animated film, should be good for a kids’ sleepover, right? I was the only person left finishing it. So when I was in a used bookstore some time later and ran across the paperback, I picked it up. I carried that book around with me everywhere I went for a year. When my mother took us to get our Social Security cards, the person at the desk demanded a second form of ID for me, so I ran out to the car and got Watership Down and showed her my name on the Garfield bookplate sticker inside the cover, carefully inscribed with a felt-tip calligraphy pen. I no more understand why that was sufficient than why they demanded more ID in the first place, but okay. Sometime in the future Richard Adams’s book will figure in a post I plan to make about POV, but for now I’ll just say that it has what have turned out to be some of my enduringly favorite tropes: found family, loyalty to unlikely leaders, deceptions with cover identities, journeys, uncanny connections between individuals. And stories. It’s the only book I know of where the epigraphs consistently add something to the text and the glossary is not a vast annoyance. Of all the books that could have found me at a formative time, this one was a great piece of good fortune.
G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday
I have talked to people who read this book hoping to like it and were disappointed. I was fortunate; I approached it from the opposite headspace, because it was a book I had to read for a graduate seminar on Edwardian literature. You’re not supposed to like books that you have to read, but I found myself crying with laughter when Syme starts planning the exact dialogue by which he is going to challenge an enemy to a duel. And it had an even more profound effect than that. Syme, as Thursday, sets out to topple the fearsome Sunday, precisely, he says, “because I am afraid of him. And one should never leave in the universe anything of which one is afraid.” There’s something so quixotic about Chesterton in general, but the idea of going up to strike God in the mouth changed something in my viewpoint forever; revealed to me the utter safety of expressing my anger in the presence of the divine. This is not something I would have discovered in my environment up to that point: I had never experienced anger, my own or anyone else’s, as anything but chaos and peril. I don’t know where I’d be, spiritually, without this book.
Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog
I could have chosen for this spot another book, like The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, a comfort read that introduced me to online fandom and some of my oldest friends. It was on the RUSS-L book discussion email list that I heard about TSNOTD, and many other enduring favorites, like the Lord Peter Wimsey series. I could have put Gaudy Night on here, which opened up a world that is small in itself but from which you can see everything — all the kingdoms of this world and the glory of them. I could have put Doomsday Book on here, which I read much later and which unlocked a great grief that I had been unable to access. But this is the book that I referenced for all my online handles for the next fifteen years, the book that reconciled me with chaos by making me laugh. Connie Willis can write Very Serious, and she can write Very Slight, but this one strikes the perfect knife-edge balance. It’s brilliant and awesome and, for good and ill, is more and more of an AU to our world, but it remains a needed reference point.
Charles Williams, Descent Into Hell
Let’s just say it: Charles Williams is the most difficult of all the Inklings to read. None of his books are long, but they are full of sentences so intensely calibrated to get at spiritual states of being that one has to put down the book and recover from the brain-ache for a while. Descent Into Hell is no different; in fact it may be the most impenetrable of Williams’s books, but at the encouragement of the friend who recced it to me, I persevered with it and was deeply rewarded. Somehow it addressed things in me that I had forgotten to hope could ever be articulated — nameless fears, unphysical joys, simple loves. And of course I wound up shamelessly stealing the Doctrine of Substitutionary Love for Ryswyck. If Williams has a fault, it’s an over-reliance on masculinity and femininity as essential archetypes; but he’s able to see and name so much else with astounding accuracy that I can forgive him that with this book in particular.
Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice
I’ve already said stuff about Leckie and Ancillary Justice on this blog, so I won’t repeat myself. I was too shy to go up and talk to her at her booth when Worldcon was in Kansas City, which is a shame as I’m not a huge con-goer and may not get another chance. But the cumulative effect of reading this trilogy coincided with a process in which I finally understood the not-brokenness of my human instrument. For many years I had suffered under a debilitating — and highly gendered — suspicion of myself as incapable of right perception and possibly even evil at bottom. Events unrelated to this book led me to quietly unravel that mesh of beliefs; and so when I read a book in which all humans were referred to as “she,” I understood the revelation that I don’t have to step outside myself to be representative of humanity, or perceive its essence, or write about it. Oh, these were all things I knew intellectually, but there’s something about taking them in in story form that sets them off in living color. Not to mention more of my favorite tropes: there’s a vast amount of hurt/comfort in this series, along with the found family, non-romantic love, and unlikely leaders.
I could do a different post with all different books that I love for other reasons, but these are books that I met at important nodes of my life and which stick with me even to this day.
Here I am, on a Saturday morning, with cat paralysis, in an idle mood. So here are some idle thoughts.
It was very fortunate that I was slated to host the book club this month, as I needed some kind of impetus to unearth my kitchen from, let’s be honest, months of neglect. It’s…still a work in progress, but reasonably presentable. Or at least I hope so, because right after that I had a houseguest — my longtime friend, beta reader, and fellow author Erica Smith — for two days of playing with the cat and chilling on the porch with tea (when I wasn’t at work). I did manage to take a selfie of us at the bagel shop, but didn’t get any other pictures — dammit, apparently even a new camera is not enough to remind me of such things.
Ah well; Erica and I had some good in-person confab about our respective works in progress, which is what’s really important. And Erica didn’t seem to mind my dubious hospitality, which is as much the mark of a friend as going to a friend’s house and finding they didn’t overclean it for your arrival.
It’s my turn to choose the book club book again come September, so in hopes of finding something new to present, I bought a Kindle copy of The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. It was entirely worth the recs I’d seen for it: the story was absorbing from the first moment, emotionally complex, with an intricate world and a fantastical, slightly steampunk-flavored atmosphere. And I read it all in one sitting — or I would have, if my eyes hadn’t given out at 96% at which point I realized I was in desperate need of sleep. I finished it first thing the next morning. This book is not, I fear, the kind of universal crowd-pleaser that To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book (the most recent book club book) were — but then, what is? I may make them read it anyway, and get loaded on wine before it’s time to have the discussion.
Anyway, thanks to book club my nightstand currently looks like the quintessence of my mental space, so I took a picture of it to use for the category in future.
And finally, there was really no contest this morning between going out to run errands and getting out my watercolors. I had an idea of trying to represent what a prayer-light bowl looks like, based on a memory of a dish I used to have and with a tea-light in a different bowl as a guide. The result is not impressive but the color is all right. I may try this again on black paper, which would save me attempting a satisfactory background wash.
And that, I think, is all the news that’s fit to print.
A book club choice that I’m finally catching up on. Rather wish I’d read it last winter when it was being discussed — there were fun things to talk about in this one. Also wish I could give it 3 1/2 stars, as I definitely liked it better than The Japanese Lover and Where’d You Go, Bernadette? which were also book club reads.
In fact, I almost gave it four stars, but this book just fell enough short of the admiration I have for Ann Leckie’s recent books, the Rivers of London series, and a plurality of Terry Pratchett’s books — though if you like those, you should certainly try this.
The first-person protagonist is a firecracker (or maybe something slightly less benign), with a snarky voice and the most towering capacity for mayhem this side of Miles Vorkosigan. The story was compelling enough to finish in one sitting (the plot, being more or less solid events from start to finish, definitely lends itself to this), but that very sense of undifferentiated urgency left me without much of a grasp on the story, much like when I was a kid in gym shaking a parachute, losing hold of my edge, and fumbling to catch it again. I can’t tell if this is a feature or a bug.
[Mild spoiler] Meanwhile, the characters our heroine makes enemies with turn out to be the bad guys — what are the odds? This sort of thing really annoys me in principle, but in practice this book was saved by the fact that Jodi Taylor is very good at spotting difficulties and lampshading them. (Nothing wrong with a little lampshading! I’ve been known to use the technique myself.) Max, who apparently comes from an unspeakably abusive childhood, second-guesses herself when working out who the villians are, and even gives them more credit than she should precisely because she doesn’t like them. Very believably, she does not trust her own trust meter, with widely mixed results.
Similarly, most of the characters are types, which is handy in a book as full of “damned things” as this is — but if the story gets round to them, they act interestingly within their types, though in some cases less believably than Max.
The emotional throughline of the story was very compelling, and would have been more so if there’d been more dynamic range, but there was never time for anything like that, nor even to grieve for the characters who got killed, many of them gone just as one gets to know them.
These things annoyed me a good deal, which, as I said, is ultimately a point in this book’s favor because it was the opposite of “meh” — so I don’t wish I had my Sunday afternoon back. And isn’t that what we ask of a book first and foremost?