My mom’s youngest brother passed away this week. Gilbert Lee Jackson was one of those men that was hard to get to know. When he first entered a room, he seemed to fill it, but then he would sit down in a chair and listen. You’d almost forget that he was there, until he laughed. It was a deep, deep laugh, like the earth had heard a joke. Then he would subside again.
When I write about men with low, rumbling Southern drawls, Uncle Gilbert is who I’m thinking of. He didn’t speak often, but I loved the sound of his voice.
I lived far away, so didn’t spend much time with him when I was a child and even less as an adult. But the stories that Grandma used to tell… Oh, my. Apparently, everyone in the neighborhood new Uncle Gilbert’s name because of how often Grandma shouted it. He was, I gather, a bit of a rapscallion in his youth. But I remember watching this bear of a man dissolve into a pool of honey when his grandchildren and great grandchildren entered the room.
Betsy Dornbusch is joining us today with her novel, Emissary: The Second Book of the Seven Eyes. Here is the publisher’s description:
Draken vae Khellian, bastard cousin of the Monoean King, had risen far from his ignominious origins, becoming both a Bowrank Commander and a member of the Crown’s Black Guard. But when cursed black magic took his wife and his honor away, he fought past his own despair and grief, and carved out a new life in Akrasia. His bloody, unlikely path, chronicled in Exile: The First Book of the Seven Eyes, led him to a new love, and a throne.
Draken has seen too much blood . . . the blood of friends and of enemies alike. Peace is what he wants. Now he must leave his wife and newborn child in an attempt to forge an uneasy peace between the Monoean King and the kingdom of Akrasia. The long bloody shadow of Akrasia’s violent past hangs over his efforts like a shroud. But there are other forces at work. Peace is not something everybody wants . . . not even in the seemingly straightforward kingdom of Draken’s birth.
Factions both known and unknown to Draken vie to undermine his efforts and throw the kingdom into civil war. Forces from his days in the Black Guard prove to be the most enigmatic, and a bloody tide threatens to engulf Draken’s every step.
What is Betsy’s favorite bit?
First, thanks to Mary for hosting me today! I love the theme because we all have those favorite parts of our own books that we love so much, but it feels funny sometimes to mention them—kind of like telling a stranger the thing you love most about your spouse or your kid or your dog. But books are different yet. I think as writers it’s essential to know not only what appeals to us about our own writing, but why. Too few times, though, do we get to point out to ourselves, “Here, right here, I did good.”
In reading this series of posts, I was unsurprised to see many favorite bits consist of relationships between characters. Like with any job, like with anything at all, it’s really the people who make or break it. Relationships with good chemistry can make magic of the most mundane situation.
For Draken, living in secret exile in enemy lands, all his relationships are taut with tension and rife with lies. Every word is a landmine waiting to blow, because he knows too much of what he shouldn’t, and too little of what he should.
Few people know his past, almost none know he was banished or why… but for one: Aarinnaie, a princess trained as an assassin by a necromancer, a damaged, desperate young woman torn between powerful people. She threatens Draken at their first meeting in Exile, where he’s interrogating her about an attempted murder.
Draken rested his forearms on his knees again, the towel and water forgotten, resentment deepening his voice to a growl. “And look at you: chained like an animal in the Queen’s Bastion, a hundred Royal Escorts vying to be the one who pulls the blade through your throat.”
Draken had no real reason to feel loyalty to anyone; he had done all he had up to now in the name of survival and a misguided—he knew that now—attempt at solving his wife’s murder. But he felt something. Elena’s very real fear tugged at him, and now this young woman sat before him in dire straits. It all was so confusing and pathetic. How had he been dragged into this mess?
Gods, by my own doing, he thought. He rubbed his hand across his face, willing away an anger that had nothing to do with her. “Give me a reason to save your life, Aarinnaie. Show me your value to the Queen, and I’ll do my best to protect you.”
“Oh, you will want to protect me. For if I ever feel a noose about my throat or cold steel at my nape, Draken vae Khellian, Bowrank Commander and Black Guard for your cousin the Monoean King, I’ll shout your name loud enough for the Gods, and certainly Reavan, to hear.” Aarinnaie unfurled a small, certain smile, her utter accuracy grinding a cold and feral knife deep into his soul.
Their relationship only deteriorates from there. Throughout Exile Aarinnaie is an enemy leading Draken on a merry chase to a destination that threatens to kill not only him, but everyone in his newfound country. But by early in Emissary, the two have become close confidants. Aarinnaie still has her wild side, a penchant for blood, and a mouth on her. She disappears for weeks without a word; she might or might not be out killing for pleasure or coin, or doing any number of other unsavory things. But she is loyal to Draken.
For his part, he never goes back on his word to her. He promised to protect her and does his damnedest. Though sometimes it’s debatable who is protecting whom…
Shouts penetrated the rain, his agony, and his groggy mind. Metal clanged. A deep voice screamed. Rain and briny spray ran into Draken’s nose and open mouth, making him cough.
A sharp, high voice, unrecognizable through his coughing: “Ty! Get him up, damn you!”
Rough hands hauled Draken back up over the rail and dumped him onto the hard wood deck, slick with rain and a familiar, sickly-sweet reek that clotted in his lungs with every gasping breath. Rain pelted down clear and splashed back up crimson. Narrow, delicate bare feet stopped near his face.
“Seize the ship.”
Draken blinked and strained to see, but just got an eyeful of rainwater for his trouble. He squeezed his eyes shut against the sting. “Aarin—” Another burst of coughing cut him off.
“Up, Draken. You’ve a ship to command.” Strong, slim hands tugged at his bare arm, digging into his muscles. Her fingers felt like dagger points.
He moaned again and shoved to a sit, unable to pull free of her iron grip. Khellian’s balls, she was strong for such a slight thing. “Aarinnaie. You’re pulling on me.”
“And you’re drunk.”
Scenes between these two almost write themselves, their chemistry is so strong. But that’s not the main reason why I love Aarinnaie and her relationship with Draken. First of all, let me be clear. She is not a love interest. Nor does she actually need his protection; she’s a danger in her own right. She certainly saves him from more than one scrape. But despite all that, she does choose to sometimes let him help her. And in doing so, they both learn vulnerability doesn’t equal weakness, and that two broken people can come pretty close to fixing themselves if they do it together.
Betsy Dornbusch is the author of a dozen short stories, three novellas, and three novels. She also is an editor with the speculative fiction magazine Electric Spec and the longtime proprietress of Sex Scenes at Starbucks.
(This originally appeared in COSMOS in 2007. I thought we could all use a fiction break. Also, my students may recognize some of this dialog)
His keys dropped, rattling on the parquet floor. Julius stared at them, unwilling to look at the bandaged stump where his left hand had been two weeks ago. He should be used to it by now. He should not still be trying to pass things from his right hand to his left.
But it still felt like his hand was there.
The shaking began again, a tremelo building in his hand and knees. Julius pressed his right hand–his only hand–against his mouth so he did not vomit on the floor. Reaching for calm, he imagined playing through Belparda’s Étude No. 1. It focused on bowing, on the right hand. Forget the left. When he was eight, Julius had learned it on a cello as big as he had been. The remembered bounce of the bow against the strings pulsed in his right hand.
Don’t think about the fingering.
“Jules, are you all right?” Cheri’s voice startled him. He hadn’t heard the door open.
Lowering his hand, Julius opened his eyes. His wife stood silhouetted in the light from their apartment. Her hair hung in loose tendrils around her face, bleached almost colorless by the backlight.
He snatched his keys off the floor. “I’m fine.” Julius leaned forward to kiss her before she could notice his shaking, but Cheri turned her head and put a hand to her mouth.
“No. Sorry. I– I was just sick.” A sheen of sweat coated her upper lip.
Julius slid his good arm around her and pulled her to him. “I’m sorry. The baby?” This close, her lilac perfume mixed with the sour scent of vomit.
His phantom hand twitched.
She half-laughed and pressed her head into his shoulder. “Every time I throw up, I think that at least it means I’m still pregnant.”
“You’ll keep this one.”
She sighed as if he had given her a gift. “Maybe. Two months, tomorrow.”
“See.” He brushed her hair with his lips.
“Oh–” Some of the tension came back to her shoulders. “Your agent called.”
Julius stiffened. His agent. How long would a one-handed cellist be of interest? “What did Leonard say?”
“He wants to talk to you. Didn’t say why.” Cheri drifted away and began obsessively straightening the magazines on the bureau in the foyer.
Julius let her. He had given up on telling her that the accident had not been her fault. They both knew he would not have taken the tour if Cheri had not insisted. He would have stayed in the hotel, practicing for a concert he never gave.
He tossed his keys on the bureau. “Well. Maybe he’s booked a talk show for me.”
At the coffee shop, Julius felt the baristas staring as he fumbled with his wallet. Leonard reached for the wallet with his pudgy sausage fingers. “Let me help.”
“No!” Julius grit his teeth, clutching the slick leather. “I have to learn to do this.”
“Okay.” Leonard patted the sweat on his face with a napkin and waited.
The line shuffled behind him. Every footfall, every cough drove a nail into his nerves. A woman whispered, “Julius Sanford, you know, the cellist.”
Julius almost turned and threw his wallet at her. Who the hell was she? Had she even heard him play before the accident or had she only seen him on the nightly news? Since the accident, sales of his albums had gone through the roof.
He wasn’t dead, but he might as well be.
Julius bit the inside of his cheek until he tasted blood and pressed his wallet against the counter with the stump. The bandages bit into the still tender flesh, but the wallet stayed still.
He pulled out his credit card with his right hand. It was stupid and it felt good and he hated it, all at once.
As if it were celebrating, his phantom hand flicked through the opening passage to Vivaldi’s Sonata in F Major. Jules pressed the wallet harder against the counter, trying to drive out the memory of a hand with each throb of pain.
Avoiding eye contact, he took his iced latte from the barista. He did not want to know if the she was the type who watched him with pity or if she stared with naked curiosity.
Leonard had already picked a table outside. Jules dropped into the chair across from him. “So?”
“So.” Leonard sipped his mocha. “What if you didn’t have to learn to do that?”
“What? Handle credit cards?”
Leonard shrugged, and dabbed the back of his neck. “What would you give to play cello again?”
Julius’s heart kicked against the inside of his ribs. He squeezed the plastic cup to keep from throwing it at Leonard. “Anything.”
The older man looked away. His tongue darted out, lizard-like. “Is that hyperbole, or would you really give anything?”
Shaking, Julius shoved the stump squarely in Leonard’s vision. The phantom twitched with inaudible music. “If the devil sat down with us and offered to trade my hand for my soul, I’d do it. I’d throw yours in with the bargain.”
“Good.” Beads of sweat dotted Leonard’s forehead. “Except he’s already got mine.” He pushed a newspaper across the table, folded open to a page in the Arts and Leisure section.
SVETLANA MAKES TRIUMPHANT RETURN TO FIGURE SKATING
Julius stared at the article. She had suffered from bone cancer and lost her foot. Two years ago, she was told she would never skate again. Now she was at the Olympics.
“A blastema bud.”
Jules wiped his hand over his mouth. “I thought those were illegal.”
“Here. Yes. Calcutta? No.” His tongue flicked again, always the sign of a sticking point in negotiations. “But the blastema has to be from a related embryo to reduce chances of rejection.” He paused. “Svetlana got herself pregnant.”
The phantom hand froze.
“I know her doctor.” Leonard tapped the paper. “I can get you in.”
Cheri sat in the living room looking at a catalog of baby furniture. When Julius entered, she smiled, barely looking up from the glossy pages. “Did Leonard have anything interesting to say?”
Julius hesitated in the door and then eased onto the sofa across from her. “He’s found a way to get my hand back.”
Her catalogue hit the coffee table, the pages slapping against the wood. Cheri stared at the stump. Her mouth worked soundlessly.
“It’s not legal.” Agitato beats pulsed in his phantom fingers. “It’s–” He broke off, rubbing his left arm above the bandages to ease the ache. She wanted the baby so badly. “I feel like I’m dead. Like this.”
Cheri reached across the coffee table to grab his good hand. “Whatever it takes, Jules.”
He started to shake and pulled back. “The doctors can transplant a blastema bud to the stump and regrow my hand. But we have to do it now, before scar tissue forms.”
“That’s not so bad.” She got off the couch to kneel beside him. “I don’t mind moving to a country where it’s legal.”
He bit his lip and nodded.
Cheri ran her hand through his hair. Cool and soothing, her fingers traced a line from his scalp to the nape of his neck. “Hey. Sweetie. What’s wrong?”
Wrong. She wanted to know what was wrong. The shaking started again. “It has to be related.”
She froze. They hung suspended, as if waiting for a conductor to start the next movement. Julius stared at the carpet until Cheri moved her hand.
She slid it down his back and stood. “Related?”
He nodded. “To reduce the chances of rejection.”
“So it might not work?” Cheri wrapped her arms around herself.
“I don’t have another choice.” He held the stump up so she could see it. “Do you have any idea what it’s like? I can’t play.”
“You could teach.”
A laugh ripped out of him. “It’s not the same thing! I can’t go from being part of the music to hearing it butchered. I mean, can you imagine me with eight-year olds? Christ. Kill me now.”
“Sorry.” Cheri paled, her skin becoming almost translucent in the light. She turned and went to the window. “What do you want me to say?”
Say yes. Say you understand. “I– I just wanted to talk about options.” Julius crossed the room to stand behind Cheri. He reached out to hold her and stopped, staring at the stump. In his memory, the tour-bus tipped and landed with his arm out the window, sliding on his hand. Grinding it away. “I should have stayed in the room.”
“Nothing.” He wouldn’t have gone if she hadn’t insisted. “We can make another baby.”
“Can we?” A vein pulsed in her neck. “It’s been two years, Jules.”
“So you miscarried before.” The phantom hand clenched in a tight fist. “You might miscarry again, and then you won’t have a baby and I still won’t have a hand. Is that what you want? Are you happy that I can’t play anymore?”
Her shoulders hitched and Cheri shook her head.
Julius pinched the bridge of his nose. He had gone too far, but she had to understand. “I’m sorry. I just see this chance and it’s the first time I’ve hoped since the accident.” He put his hand on her shoulder. She trembled, her shoulder as tight as a bow. “I’m sorry.”
She nodded but did not turn.
Julius waited for more but Cheri continued to stare out the window. He squeezed her once and walked away.
“Jules?” Her voice caught him halfway across room. “We should do it.”
Afraid to look at her, he stopped. “Do you mean that?”
“Yes.” The word almost disappeared into the hush of the room.
“Because I don’t want to force you into anything.” He tasted the hypocrisy on his lips, but he needed this. She had to understand that.
She turned to face him then. Her face, all cheekbones and dark circles, was blotched red with anger. “You’re offering me a choice between giving you your hand back and raising a child that you hate. What choice do you think there is?”
“I didn’t mean–”
Cheri shook her head, rejecting his apology. “Tell Leonard I said, ‘yes’.” She turned back to the window and leaned her head against the glass.
“Cheri.” He stopped. Nothing he could say would make her feel better, without giving away the thing he wanted. The thing he needed. He plucked at the bandages on his stump. If he could play again… “You have to understand what this means to me.”
“I understand that I’m your second love. I said yes. I can’t give you anything else.”
Julius stared at her unforgiving back. “Thank you.”
He slid out of the room to call Leonard. His hand trembled on the receiver.
Down the hall, the door the bathroom shut. Cheri retched once. Then again.
Julius pressed the phone harder against his ear and started running Wilde’s Lament in his mind.
He concentrated on the fingering.
The last vibrations of Wilde’s op 12 buzzed through Julius’s thighs and into his chest. He flexed the fingers on his left hand as he released the cello’s neck.
Across the room, Leonard sat with his head tilted down so that his chin vanished in his neck. Julius swallowed, the gulp sounding as loud as it had when he first auditioned for Leonard.
Leonard lifted his head. “What was that?”
“A Lament in Rondo Form for solo cello, Op.12 ” Julius stroked the cello’s silky wood. The sweat on his palm left a film on the instrument.
Leonard grunted. His tongue darted out to wet his lips. “Well.”
“Well?” Christ, the man was trying to kill him. Julius looked down, loosening his bow as he waited for the verdict.
“Heard from Cheri?”
“She sent me a card on my birthday.” His left hand spasmed. “Are you going to tell me what you thought?”
“Turn the gig down.”
Julius almost dropped the bow. “You’re kidding. It’s Carnegie Hall! I’ve been working for this for the last three years.”
Leonard leaned forward. “Jules. Have I ever steered you wrong?”
“Three years, Leonard.” He’d given up more than the time to be able to play again.
“Take a gig in a symphony, build up your chops again. You wouldn’t have to audition.”
“You asked for my opinion. As your agent–”
“Another agent would get me the gigs that I want.”
“Sure.” Leonard shrugged and headed for the door. “Take it, you’ll sell out the house. But after people hear you play, the only gigs you’ll be able to book will be novelty shows.” His words resonated in the belly of the cello. “You aren’t ready. It’s like you’re playing two different pieces now.”
Julius hadn’t thought anyone else could hear it. He gripped the cello between his knees, as if the fragile wood could shield him from the truth. “How long?”
He paused in the doorway. “How long did it take you to become world-class before?”
“Fifteen years…” Fifteen years of études and climbing his way up through the chairs of symphonies.
“Then that’s your answer.” Leonard shut the door.
Within Julius’s left hand, the old phantom hand twitched again and started playing Bach’s Sonata in D-minor. He clenched his hand, but the fingering did not stop.
I’m going to start by defining some terms, because I suspect that this blog post will also get some traffic beyond my usual readers. These are not all dictionary definitions, but how I am using them in this post. Since many of the terms have mutable meanings, I thought it would help if you know what I mean.
Definition of Terms (You can tell that I was on the debate team in high school, yes?)
Fandom – The community of fans who regularly attend fan run conventions.
fans – Anybody who enjoys a particular thing with great passion, be that SFF, anime, or the Cubs.
SFF community – fans, fandom, writers, editors, and anyone who is connected with science fiction and fantasy in any media.
Sad Puppies – A group of fans, inspired by Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen, who feel that conservative writers are excluded from fandom.
diversity – The inclusion of the full range of humanity in fiction.
supporting membership to WorldCon – This is $40 and entitles you to vote on the Hugo awards, receive the voter packet, but doesn’t cover attendance.
Watching the debate about the Hugo awards, I’ve noticed that both sides are saying that the wrong fans are making decisions. To this I cry bullshit. I suspect that the majority of fans in the SFF community have experienced some form of shunning or shaming from people outside the community who look down on SFF as juvenile. That climate is changing, but for many of us, that was a reality.
Are we really going to do that to each other now?
The next thing I’ve become aware of — and I want to thank everyone who has already come by to share their experience — is that people who identify as Sad Puppies are frequently coming from outside of fandom, while being firmly part of the SFF community. This means that they haven’t been part of the conversations that fandom has been having within itself.
I think it becomes easy for fandom to think that it represents all of the SFF community because it’s a pretty diverse group. It doesn’t. The reason that this is important to remember is that when we are having conversations about diversity in SFF, we’ve begun using short hand. We’ve got a whole bunch of folks who are taking part in fandom for the first time, and we are not inviting them into the conversation AND we’re being angry because they don’t know all of the back story. I know that when I first joined the conversation about diversity in fiction, that I tripped over a lot of assumptions simply because I’d never been asked to examine them before. I didn’t even know that these assumptions of mine were there. If not for very patient friends, I would probably have run from the anger (justifiable anger) and not become part of fandom.
Again, are we really going to do that?
Now — not everyone has the time and energy to dedicate to educating people. I am fully aware of that. I’m not asking that all of fandom goes on a mission of education. But I am asking that those of you who do have the energy to take some time to invite people to ask you questions.
And finally… Vox Day. I have seen a number of people referring to his post in which he has declared war on the Hugo awards. Specifically, he has said that in 2016 he’ll rally his fans to make sure that No Award wins every category. “We are the reavers and the renegades and the revolutionaries, and we don’t give a quantum of a damn about pieces of plastic or the insider approval they represent.”
Which means that in 2016 no Hugos would be awarded.
To which I say… why is anyone afraid that this will happen?
My dear fandom, people from the larger SFF community, fans of my work, fans of Larry Correia’s work… there are more of us.
So this is my call to action for all of you — Become more inclusive. Invite your friends and family to participate. Buy a supporting membership for someone who can’t afford it. Welcome people who like different work than you do. Ask them to recommend a book. Read it. Recommend something to them. Talk about why you like it.
But please, please let’s stop trying to make fandom a special little enclave. It has always been the place where people could come, regardless of what they were fans of, and be welcome. It’s where we can wear Regency attire next to a Transformers cosplay. This isn’t to say that we should tolerate bad behavior, but liking something different isn’t bad behaviour.
And to my readers — If you can afford it, I encourage you to buy a membership to WorldCon and become part of fandom. If you cannot afford it… I will buy a supporting membership to WorldCon for ten people, chosen at random, who cannot afford it.I am in no way constraining how that member nominates or votes. All I ask is that you read the nominations and join the conversation.
FURTHER EDITED TO ADD:One More of the nominees (and some other fans) have reached out to me and asked if they can match my pledge. They want to do it anonymously to avoid swaying anyone’s vote. In addition, Ellen Klages has also donated ten memberships* SO that means there are TWENTYTHIRTYFORTY-FIVEFIFTY-FIVESIXTY-FIVESEVENTY-FIVE EIGHTY-ONE supporting memberships available. I encourage others to reach out to your own communities as well.
(This form is for requesting a supporting membership. The comment form is allllll the way at the bottom of the page.)
Application closes on April 17th.
For everyone else, I’m going to keep this thread open to answer questions and try to facilitate conversation. Anything that I think is rude, goes into the trash. And my definition of rude? Come on… If you need that to be defined, then just walk away from the keyboard. The key is be nice. Don’t be awful. Treat others with respect.
Any questions? (Oo! And recommend your favorite bit of SFF)
And I also want to remind people about Con or Bust, which helps fans of color attend conventions.
*Regarding Ellen Klages donation. I’d prefer it if people make the offer to their own communities so that we get diverse representation among the supporting members. I agreed to do Ellen’s because the timing is bad for her to handle the administration.
FURTHER EDITED TO ADD: After a lot of thought, my plan is to decline any potential Hugo nominations next year, since it’s been pointed out to me that people who benefit from this will also be eligible to nominate next year. When it was only ten nominations, that didn’t seem like it would sway anything. Seventy-five? It feels unethical to take advantage of any partiality that might create.
13 April 9pm - I want to thank everyone who participated. Unfortunately, I’ve gotten zero writing done the past three days and really need to, so for my own health, I’m going to close comments tonight when I go to bed and leave them closed. Again, thank you.
The application will remain open until midnight Central time on April 17th.
I’m heading over to the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo (C2E2) on Friday, April 24th! And for you lucky folks who will be able to attend my Regency panel, an added bonus: a limited number of invitations to the book release party for Of Noble Family, hosted at an off-site location by Tor.
I’ll be appearing with Babs Tarr, Wesley Chu, Michi Trota, Gabrial Canada, Professor Turtel Onli and Danny Bernardo.
Get Regency with Mary Robinette Kowal! 4pm-5pm, Room S403
“Celebrate all things regency with Author/Puppeteer, Mary Robinette Kowal! This month the fifth and final book in the Glamourist Histories, Valour and Vanity, goes on sale and we want you to celebrate with us! Come dressed in your best regency attire for a fashion show and costume contest; authentic costume, steampunk, anime or Darth Vader in waist coat and ruffles, we want to see you strut your stuff!”
If you’re able to come to this panel, you’ll receive an invitation for two to the off-site publication party, hosted by Tor.
Autographing Session 5:15pm-6:15pm, Autograph Table 16
Come by and say hello! There will be books available for purchase by the signing area as well.
Please understand that I love Marie Brennan’s books. Loooooooove. Love. You know how sometimes you pick up a book and think, “Hey! This author wrote this book specifically for me!” The Memoirs of Lady Trent are like that for me. We have a smart, resourceful woman as the protagonist who is a naturalist specializing in dragons. So, right there? Awesome. Then you get immersed in a story that sits somewhere between the best golden age pulp you’ve read and a shocking memoir by the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey.
I actually have a memoir from a mid-19th century actress who performed with John Wilkes Boothe and these remind me of that in a lot of ways. They feel utterly real. This is a secondary world fantasy, but it feels like reading something from the mid-1800s. These are glorious and swashbuckling and smart.
Oh! And Marie and I are touring together in May, so you can hear her read IN COSTUME and show dragon bones. And she’s good.
So. Now you know I like them. But what’s Marie’s favorite bit?
I sometimes think Mary should title this series “My Favorite Bit (That Isn’t a Spoiler).”
When I sat down to pick out my favorite bit from Voyage of the Basilisk, I had to discard the first three or four things I thought of, because they would give too much away. I would have to explain half the plot to give the element context, or the mere fact that I called out that detail would tell you it’s a lot more important than it looks at first glance. I guess that’s what happens when you try to pick a favorite bit out of the third book of a five-book series.
But here’s one I can share without too much trouble: Heali’i.
You see, I’m an anthropologist by training. And one of the things I decided to do, when I set out to write this series, was to incorporate cultural details of the sort that exist all over the world, but don’t often show up in fantasy. That’s why the second book of the series, The Tropic of Serpents, includes things like polygamy and matrilineality in the societies Isabella visits. I haven’t made a formal list, but I’ve got an informal one in the back of my head, and one of the things on that list was third gender.
Not every society divides people into male and female only. So if Isabella’s going all over the world, why not have her go someplace where there’s another option?
Now, when these issues come up, a lot of writers say they’ll include those things if there’s a reason for them, but they aren’t going to shoehorn those kinds of ideas into their stories just for the sake of having them there. (With the implication that doing so would be preachy and bad.) But I’m here to tell you that’s exactly what I did — and it turns out to be one of my favorite bits of the entire book.
I didn’t say “hmmmm, this story calls for a third gender to make the plot go.” I said “hmmmm, why not have a third gender? What happens if I do that?” What happened was a lot.
For starters, I invented Heali’i: a character who is biologically male, but presents (to the eyes of the foreign visitors) as female, and occupies a position in Keongan society that isn’t quite either of those things. Figuring out the ideological underpinnings of the ke’anaka’i gender prodded me to come up with some mythology; I decided those people are considered to be “dragon-spirited,” and made up stories for what exactly that means. Thinking through the role ke’anaka’i play in society changed the dynamics of several events, and offered unusual solutions or plot twists at unexpected moments. By crafting the parameters of that gender to suit my purposes, I was able to catch Isabella in its net; this gave me an interesting angle from which to consider gender roles in her own culture, and her relationship with them. And having the Keongan people categorize her as ke’anaka’i instead of female made for a number of lovely little character moments with the people around her, who all react to it in different ways. (Those of you who have read the first two books may not be surprised to know Tom just starts laughing. In that “Oh god, you’ve outdone yourself now” kind of way.)
All of this came about entirely because I decided that writing about a third gender character might be an interesting thing to do. The story didn’t call for this idea; the idea called for a story. Following that thread made this whole book richer, and of the various people Isabella forms relationships with in her travels, Heali’i is one of my favorites.
All of which really only encourages me to do this more. In fact, I welcome suggestions in the comments: what kinds of things exist out there in the world, that you haven’t seen enough of in fantasy?
Marie Brennan is an anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. She is currently misapplying her professors’ hard work to the Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent; the first book of that series, A Natural History of Dragons, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award. She is also the author of the doppelanger duology of Warrior and Witch, the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy, the Onyx Court historical fantasy series, and more than forty short stories.
When she’s not obsessing over historical details too minute for anybody but her to care about, she practices shorin-ryu karate and pretends to be other people in role-playing games (which sometimes find their way into her writing).
…they like it. Oh, thank heavens. This is the first industry review for Of Noble Family, so I’m seriously relieved. The nervous making thing about trying something different in each novel is that it’s a lot easier to misstep.
Kowal’s tense conclusion to her highly praised Glamourist Histories magical Regency series (following Valour and Vanity) sees happily married Sir David and Lady Jane Vincent caught up in the intrigues of Sir David’s manipulative family. When they receive a letter indicating that Sir David’s father and eldest brother have died, the Vincents are asked to retrieve a new will from the family estates on Antigua. While en route, they discover Jane is pregnant and so must conclude their business quickly if she is to deliver in England. All is not as advertised when they arrive, and in addition to contending with the oppressive heat and trying to halt the vicious and inhumane management of the family slaves by the odious and presumptuous Mr. Pridmore, the Vincents find themselves once again maneuvering against the machinations of relatives. This is a twisty, emotionally loaded conclusion to a delightful series. Agent: Jennifer Jackson, Donald Maass Agency. (Apr.)
I like spirited discussions. I was on the debate team in high school and college, and enjoy getting into it with people who hold different opinions than I do. It helps me come to a better understanding of the world.
Then there’s a difference between a spirited debate and an argument. Here’s how to tell when I’m crossing the line from debate to anger.
First, I stop using contractions. This is a retreat into formality, that reminds me that I need to be careful not to say something unforgivable. It’s not something I do consciously, but it is clearly a governing check on my temper. As such, it’s sometimes hard to spot, because I just get more and more polite. This means that I’m angry.
Second, I start cursing. If we move past the place where I’ve gone to contractions into cursing, then my temper is cracking. Usually, I try to leave or end the conversation when I catch myself doing this because nothing good comes after it.
Third, I yell. I am rarely, rarely, pushed to this point. The last time was when a neighbor called black people “savage animals” during a conversation about race. I’d already been heated before that, and had started to walk away. He followed me and I completely lost it and started shouting. I really don’t enjoy this. Although, being from a theater background, it’s surprisingly difficult to shout over me.
This is a public service announcement that I am issuing for no reason whatsoever. I am not, at all, in danger of losing my temper in any regard. See? I even went back and added contractions.
Fonda Lee is joining us today with her novel Zeroboxer. Here’s the publisher’s description.
A rising star in the weightless combat sport of zeroboxing, Carr “the Raptor” Luka dreams of winning the championship title. Recognizing his talent, the Zero Gravity Fighting Association assigns Risha, an ambitious and beautiful Martian colonist, to be his brandhelm––a personal marketing strategist. It isn’t long before she’s made Carr into a popular celebrity and stolen his heart along the way.
As his fame grows, Carr becomes an inspirational hero on Earth, a once-great planet that’s fallen into the shadow of its more prosperous colonies. But when Carr discovers a far-reaching criminal scheme, he becomes the keeper of a devastating secret. Not only will his choices place everything he cares about in jeopardy, but they may also spill the violence from the sports arena into the solar system.
What’s Fonda’s favorite bit?
I’ve never been a big fan of black and white morality in stories. Good versus evil feels too easy, too wishful. Same with dystopias. Don’t get me wrong, there are many, many good dystopian novels and good-vs-evil stories on my favorites shelf, but I have never wanted to write one. It feels like a cop-out for me to start with “the whole world goes to hell” or “heroes will prevail over the evil oppressor” when I don’t really believe those things. I think the world, any recognizable world, real or fictional, magical or futuristic, is nuanced and complicated, with good things and bad things in measure, and full of people struggling with conflicting desires and pressures.
Young adult science fiction and fantasy novels are particularly prone to defiant young heroines who live in unrelentingly bleak societies and rise up to prevail against the seemingly overwhelming might of relentlessly evil adults. I’ve read and enjoyed some of these books.
Zeroboxer is not that YA novel. And that’s my favorite bit about it.
I love that I wrote and found a publisher for an action-packed YA sci-fi that embraces moral ambiguity instead of stripping it away.
It takes place in a future that’s not perfect, but certainly isn’t awful. There are positives and negatives to the changes that have been wrought by technology. Mars has been colonized and is a prosperous planet, but that has engendered jealousy and conflict from Earth. Genetic engineering has cured common ailments but its proper limits are debated, and its use can be abused.
There is political strife, but the main character, Carr, isn’t trying to save anyone, or survive in a dictatorship, or be a rebel leader; he just wants to succeed in his career as a zeroboxer. Unfortunately for him, he’s placed in tough personal situations with no clear right answer. I could debate anyone who argues that Carr’s actions are justifiable or not—and I love that.
It is said that a writer’s work reflects his or her outlook and perspective on the world. Writing an interesting, balanced vision of a future that I would genuinely want to live in—that gives me a pretty good feeling. After all, there’s zero gravity prizefighting involved. Who wouldn’t want to live in a future with zero gravity prizefighting?!
Speaking of which, those weightless fight scenes? They’re my other favorite bit. But that’s another topic.
Fonda Lee writes science fiction and fantasy for teens and adults. Zeroboxer (from Flux/Llewellyn) is her debut novel. Fonda is a recovering corporate strategist, an avid martial artist, a fan of smart action movies, and an Eggs Benedict enthusiast. You can find Fonda at www.fondalee.com and on Twitter @fondajlee.
Folks. Do not send death threats to Larry Correia, Brad Torgersen or anyone else on the Sad Puppies slate. That is a shitty thing to do. Stop it.
I, too, am angry about how things went down with the Hugos, but am also realistic about the fact that much of the work — not all of it — but a lot of it is on there because people are legitimately excited about it. Yes, there are some things from Rabid Puppies that seem to be there purely for shock value. But others? Sheila Gilbert does damn good work. Jim Butcher is a serious writer.
When I sit down to vote, I am, in fact, going to open every file and start reading it. As soon as it doesn’t work for me, I’m going to shut the document. Now, in two cases, I’ll admit, that means that the author’s name is as far as I’m going to read because I’m familiar with their work and know that it makes me angry. I am not going to vote for it, so why make myself angry for no reason?
Everyone else? Sure. Let’s see if that’s fiction that I might enjoy. I have voted for works before of authors who I have disagreed with politically. Shocking, but true.
But regardless of all that, and my personal choices… For the love of all you hold sacred, do not send death threats to people whose politics you disagree with. Seriously. What the hell are some of you thinking?
If you want anyone to believe you when you say that the Hugos are supposed to be about the work, and not the politics, then do not threaten or harrass people. Vote. Get your friends to vote. Get their friends to vote. Get your cousins to vote.
Evangelize about the fiction you love. You think [x] should win? Talk about why. Don’t waste your time talking about why [y] shouldn’t win. Someone likes it. We know, full well, that crapping in a person’s fandom is not a successful strategy.
And threats and harassment are really, really, really not effective. And awful.
Ken Liu is joining us today with his novel, The Grace of Kings. Here is the publisher’s description:
Two men rebel together against tyranny—and then become rivals—in this first sweeping book of an epic fantasy series from Ken Liu, recipient of Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards.
Wily, charming Kuni Garu, a bandit, and stern, fearless Mata Zyndu, the son of a deposed duke, seem like polar opposites. Yet, in the uprising against the emperor, the two quickly become the best of friends after a series of adventures fighting against vast conscripted armies, silk-draped airships, and shapeshifting gods. Once the emperor has been overthrown, however, they each find themselves the leader of separate factions—two sides with very different ideas about how the world should be run and the meaning of justice.
Fans of intrigue, intimate plots, and action will find a new series to embrace in the Dandelion Dynasty.
What is Ken’s favorite bit?
The Grace of Kings is an epic fantasy re-imagining of the rise of the Han Dynasty in a secondary world archipelago setting. It is the story of two unlikely friends, a prison-guard-turned-bandit and a disinherited heir of a duke, who join together to overthrow tyranny only to find themselves on opposite sides of a deadly rivalry over how to construct a more just society.
The novel features a melding of classical Western epic narrative techniques with tropes taken from Chinese historical romances and wuxia fantasies. The “silkpunk” aesthetic employs many elements inspired by Chinese tradition that I’ve always wanted to see in epic fantasy: silk-draped airships, soaring battle kites, magical books that describe our desires better than we know them ourselves, gods who regret the deeds done in their names, women who plot and fight alongside men, princesses and maids who form lifelong friendships, and, of course, sea beasts that bring about tsunamis and storms but also guide soldiers safely to shores.
However, The Grace of Kings began its life as The Chrysanthemum and the Dandelion, and that pair of flowers remains integral to the novel and my favorite bit.
Ode to Chrysanthemum
Though it might seem strange to create a novel about massive battles and collision of ideals around flowers, let me tell you a story about flowers and politics.
In China of the late ninth century, A.D., the corrupt Tang Dynasty court lived in luxury while the populace suffered under a series of natural disasters and misrule. Huang Chao (“Huang” is the surname), the son of a wealthy salt-smuggling family, wrote the following poem after failing to place in the Imperial Examinations.
The eighth day in the ninth month of the year: By the time I bloom, all others have died. My stinging fragrance overflows Chang’an, Armor drowns the city in golden tide.
Though the poem never mentions chrysanthemum by name, it is an ode to this bright-yellow flower that blooms in late autumn, after the Hundred Flowers have withered in the cold wind.
But the poem also expressed much more than admiration for the strength of character of this proud, noble flower. The Tang Court favored the peony; praising the chrysanthemum was thus a political act.
In 875 A.D., Huang began a rebellion against the hated Tang court. Five years later, his ragtag army managed to capture Chang’an, the Tang capital. Surviving historical records indicate that Huang’s men slaughtered and preyed upon civilians indiscriminately. Ultimately, his rebellion—though it would accelerate the fall of the Tang Dynasty—failed, and he was betrayed by his followers and killed. The fall of The Tang Dynasty ushered in a time of divisions and foreign invasions, leading to more misery for the people.
Huang’s poem has always been controversial, as is his place in history. Plenty of Confucian scholars condemned both Huang’s poem and rebellion, while Chairman Mao was supposed to have admired the poem (though not Huang’s tactics). Was he a hero or a villain? A recurrent theme in historiography (and in Chinese historiography in particular) is that the judgment of history may not be final even a thousand years later.
Huang’s poem is also featured in Curse of the Golden Flower, a luscious 2006 film directed by Zhang Yimou starring the inimitable Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li. Knowing something about the politically laden history of the poem at its center might add a level of depth to a film that otherwise seems slight.
Flowers of Character
As I conceived of my novel, this history of using flowers to speak the language of revolution kept on resurfacing in my mind, and I made floral metaphors a central part of the narrative. In one of the key early scenes, several of the main characters play a drinking game in which they compare themselves to different flowers, and the other participants judge the aptness of the comparison.
Proud, noble Mata Zyndu (the duke) compares himself to the chrysanthemum, the king of flowers, by reciting a modified version of Huang Chao’s poem. The lush image of blooming chrysanthemums filling the city like an army in golden armor (“A tempest of gold, an aureal tide.”) hints at his inner desire for glory and honor, for poetry and gleaming splendor. This is a defiant flower that laughs in the face of winter, and one that will not yield to overwhelming odds even unto death.
Wily, practical Kuni Garu (the bandit), on the other hand, compares himself to the lowly dandelion, a weed distinguished by being hard to kill and willing to blossom in the most obscure nooks and crannies of the urban landscape. This is a versatile flower that has many uses in the recipes and herbal medicine lore of the poor, and whose seeds will journey far and wide. His homely comparison at first shocks his followers, and only with time would his true meaning be understood.
Yet, there is something unsettling about this pair of flowers, for the dandelion, when viewed a certain way, resembles a small chrysanthemum. Just which flower better represents honor and virtue, and which is the more endearing? Even at the end of the novel, I hope the answer is not as clear-cut as one might imagine at first glance, for the true judgment of history is revealed only in long shadows cast down the centuries.
Ken Liu is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards, he has been published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.
Besides Ken’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings, Saga Press will also publish a collection of his short stories, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, later in the year.
I know. We are bemused by that number as well, although it follows naturally after forty-nine. He is a minimalist and a hermit, so thinking of a gift to honor this occasion is difficult. What is wanted is not an item to commemorate, but instead a way to demonstrate my affection.
So I present to my husband a single gift, my love, as represented by a collection of ephemera in five parts– one for each decade of his life.
Part the first: For your birthday, oh best beloved, in recognition of your hermit tendencies, I give you the gift of a free calendar. We have flown on vacation to a town you love, and I have alerted no one that we are coming. You may rest, and walk, and wander in solitude, or seek company when you wish. But it is quiet, unplanned time.
Part the second: A copy of today’s New York’s Times, so that you may sit and read it and feel a connection to the world, without having to be in the world.
Part the third: A rhubarb pie. The tart acidity, mixed with such sweetness, is a perfect match for your temperament. It is your favorite pie, and I will not adulterate it with strawberries.
Part the fourth: The ingredients to make your own grenadine from scratch. (Pomegranite juice, orange blossom water, & rose water) You are not easy with leisure, my love, and so this is a toy to play with that will scratch your love of tinkering with flavours, but is not wine and so does not count as work.
Part the fifth: While we are on vacation, I will eschew the internet. You are so supportive of the demands of my various careers on my time, and do not complain that I am gone. Much. This week, I am yours without distractions or interruptions.
Gillian Polack is joining us today with her novel The Art of Effective Dreaming. Here’s the publisher’s description.
This is not a self-help book, but it’s a book about dreams.
They are not always good dreams.
Fay is a dreamer.
To escape real life, which she finds ‘drearily, drably and impossibly dull‘, Fay creates a dream-world.
She escapes there as often as possible.
But what happens when the line between dream and real life blurs?
Dead morris dancers. Horror and happiness. Folksongs and friendship.
Can she trust anything, or anybody?
What’s Gillian’s favorite bit?
I wanted to write a novel about a woman – Fay – who only felt alive when she was dreaming. One who fought against a boring reality. I peppered The Art of Effective Dreaming with seasoning that would give her dreams life: a white picket fence, seed cake, the sound of waves. Fay needed something to create her dreams from. I used folksongs. There is one song in particular…
“I stepped on a cat,” is the song’s title in Japanese. The tune is one of those piano favourites that beginner’s use. It’s the one that’s not Chopsticks and whose name no-one ever remembers in English. I know a simplified version (I know a simplified version because I’m a simple soul, obviously). I love cats, but something evil in me needed to write this scene. I keep wanting to explain to readers that no cats died or were hurt in the making, unless my mother’s cat (whose name is Toby) was damaged by my singing the song, last time I visited. If he was, he loves me anyway, which is a good thing.
I wanted to make a point. A gentle point. I wanted to say that dreams are not all pretty, nor all nice They come from us, and we’re not all pretty and we’re not altogether nice. We can, however, be beautiful.
We may not be altogether nice, but some of us have secret magic. In Fay’s dream world, one of her friends unwittingly enacts the rhyme, because Fay has that secret magic and, to test it, has decided that it shall be so. Dreams are wayward and people are unexpected, so it didn’t go as planned. This is important to the novel: Fay and her dream world are very close, but very close doesn’t mean that they understand each other. From the chaos, however, came something that I hope is a thing of beauty.
I adore this section of the novel. Normally I forget what I’ve written three months later. This is handy for editing but not particularly useful for readers. “Oh, I forgot I wrote that,” is something I try to avoid saying, but seldom avoid thinking. This paragraph is different. It’s only a paragraph, but it’s with me all the time. If a reader were to ask me about it, I’d say “Oh yes!” and we could converse without that tumbling pause while I try to recollect what on earth we’re talking about.
There’s something deep in me that resonates with daftness and beauty profoundly linked. There another something in me (less deep) that plays with story, all the time, so the thought of taking something endemic to children’s culture in Japan and using the transgressive version of it (where the song is truncated by the cat’s painful miaows) to create part of a larger story about how someone learns what it’s like to be alive… that’s me, as a writer. I often write the very small and the sometimes comic and I turn it into life-changing experiences and I turn it into universes. This is why one scene remains in my mind where others come and go: it represents the glue that holds my writing together. Those few words are important to me. This is the reason I give myself, anyhow. I’m not sure that it’s the actual reason.
How does this paragraph go?
Cats bolted down the street, round the corner of the house, slunk out of sight behind bushes. It was a very patterned movement, reflected Fay. Fan-shaped. In the centre of the fan was Persa. Still Life with Scream. And at the base of the fan, along the struts and right to the edges, were cats, all gravitating as far as they could get from Persa.
It’s odd, for I put so many emotions in that novel. Changing worlds, dreaming, being stalked. Cold fire, ugly tales. Inventing worlds and inventing oneself.
I put so much into that novel. Dead morris dancers. Dead morris dancers ought to remain in my mind. They ought, in fact, to haunt me..
In fact, the novel began as a metaphor based on a poem and I only remembered this the other day when an interviewer asked me “How did this story begin in your mind? Where did it come from?”
“Jacques Prévert,” I said, after much thought. Pour faire le portrait d’un oiseau.” I gave the title with much flair, as if I had been engaging in deep thought instead of having carelessly mislaid the whole inspiration for a novel, yet the only reason I could find that memory at all was because I’d used the poem just three days before, in describing artistic process to a group of writers.
I lose my own beginnings but wherever I go, that single image of the fan with the cats is in my mind’s eye.
One day I’ll find out why. Until then, I’ll invent interesting reasons and remain open to theories.
Gillian Polack is a writer, editor, historian and critic. Her other novels include Langue[dot]doc 1305 (a time travel novel that made excessive use of her background as a medieval historian) and Ms Cellophane (shortlisted for a Ditmar as Life Through Cellophane). Her anthologies include the Ditmar shortlisted Baggage, and she has had seventeen short stories published.
And, in fact, I’ve been planning this joke for weeks.
Sorry about that.
This year, I decided that I would, for my April Fool’s joke, tell you something that was absolutely true and see who I could trick into thinking I was pulling a prank. Meta, I know. The fact of the matter is that I am going to be on Sesame Street.
Just remember, on April Fool’s day, do not trust me. Even when I’m telling the truth, I’m lying.
Forthcoming – April 28, 2015 The final book of the acclaimed Glamourist Histories is the magical adventure that might result if Jane Austen walked on the grimmer side of the Regency Jane and Vincent have finally gotten some much-needed rest after their adventures in Italy when Vincent receives word that his estranged father has passed away on […]
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