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Month: January 2020

Review: Come Tumbling Down

I was lucky enough that by the time I discovered Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, there were already four of them out for me to devour. Which means that Come Tumbling Down was the first installment I actually had to wait for, and the anticipation was not fun. It also made me wonder whether having to wait will put unfair expectation on the book.

I’m happy to report that Come Tumbling Down is just as good as the rest of the series, easily near the top of my personal Wayward Children chart. Down Among the Sticks and Bones is by far my favorite story in this universe, and a return to the Moors had me biased all manner of ways, but the novella stands on its own, as a completely different experience from the previous adventure of Jack and Jill.

Spoilers for previous books in the series

So far, the Wayward Children series has established a pattern of alternating stories that I have labeled for myself “adventure” and “character”. Every odd number takes place in present day and tends to be mostly plot-driven, while the even ones take us back to the origin of a character we met back in Every Heart a Doorway, connecting their magical world’s theme to the essence of who they are as a person. The fifth book in the series follows this path and takes us back to Eleanor West’s school, but only for a moment. Down in the basement, where Christopher now lives, a door opens out of nowhere, to bring forth an unconscious Jack Wolcott, carried by her twice-dead lover Alexis. Except, Jack is in the wrong body…

Come Tumbling Down continues the tale of my favorite Wayward Child, and as such I had no choice but to fall in love with it. While the narrative is more straightforward than the hypnotic fairy-tale logic of Down Among the Sticks and Bones, it still builds on the themes of the Moors, and how they resonate with the characters we already know from previous installments — Kade, Christopher, Cora, and the freshly-revived-and-technically-a-candy-construct Sumi. Like in the rest of the series, identity is front and center. From the concept of heroism, through the constant throb of feeling like an outsider for the way you are or the way you feel, to the immensely personal experience of being trapped in a body that does not feel yours. McGuire is fantastic at bringing these themes forward without making the story “about” them, or acquiring any sort of preachy quality. The wayward children are outcasts, and misfits, and heroes. Their unique otherness is as integral to who they are, as it is to the adventures they are thrust into.

The Moors resonate with me in a way that no other magical place in this universe has so far. The wild dualities, the extreme, yet petty passions, the pure horror aspect of that world — as far as I am concerned, it is the series’ best creation, and Come Tumbling Down strives to show how the wild things under the red moon impact those who went through completely different doors. The novella stumbles a bit with some of the characters (particularly Kade and Cora who truly deserve books of their own at this point), but I absolutely loved Jack’s development. It was also a delight to see Sumi not as the victim from Every Heart a Doorway, but as the fierce and often terrifying warrior known in Confection.

I adore Seanan McGuire’s style of writing. The seemingly effortless interaction between fairy tale and modern storytelling, woven into the Wayward Children books, fills me with admiration and ugly jealousy. While I prefer her “character” origin stories to the “adventure” ones, every page of Come Tumbling Down has some little twist of phrase, some allegory or dream-logic statement that had me rereading and nodding to myself. If I had one critique, it would be that at times the omniscient POV jumps a bit too suddenly into other people’s heads, but at this point, we have been with these characters long enough not to be too jarred. The atmospheric writing is also helped along by the gorgeous illustrations done by series veteran Rovina Cai.

In case my ramblings were not coherent enough, Come Tumbling Down is a magical book, and an absolute delight. If you have somehow read the previous four books, but weren’t sure whether you should pick up this one, I am very confused, but I cannot recommend you do so at once. If you have yet to start this series, Every Heart a Doorway awaits you, with its many doors. I envy you the journey.

Reading Update: 01/29/20 – New Year’s Resolutions

Not much to report since last time (except, stay tuned for a review of Seanan McGuire’s Come Tumbling Down soon) , so instead, I wanted to talk about my New Year’s resolutions in terms of reading. And yes, I recognize that the very notion of “New Year’s resolutions” smells of giving up at the gym around January 20th, but I promise this is slightly less sad!

First of all, last year I decided to set myself the goal of 52 books. It was a nice number, a book a week, except I didn’t set it until about September. The unexpected result of that was my falling in love with the novella, but I digress. My first resolution is to repeat this number, and if possible — to surpass it. Goodreads says I am 5 books ahead of my goal, but with a wedding coming up in the summer, and a potential move to another state, things might grow dicey in the second half of the year.

Goal #1: Read at least 52 books (no cheating with comic TPBs!).

Next goal: short stories. I have always struggled with those. It’s embarrassing for an aspiring writer of speculative fiction, considering not only the origins of these genres, but also what used to be the traditional path to publishing in the era of print magazines. With that said, I just can’t make myself read short form. Some silly mental block prevents me from starting a story, and when I do finish one, I’m thoroughly unmotivated to begin another. Which sucks, because there are a ton of authors I want to read, many of whom thrive in this medium. So:

Goal #2: Read at least 3 short story collections, be they by one author, or anthologies.

Last, and certainly not least, it is 2020 (yeah, hi. I have mastered the calendar!). I am a foreigner on a path to citizenship. The world is on fire. American political structures are on fire. The US constitution is on fire. Even if I wanted to stay away, I know too much about current politics to do so. Which brings me to my third goal. Political non-fiction to me has always been like Yoga, in that I have never done Yoga, but I like to think of myself as someone who would do Yoga. Well, that might not be in the cards for this year, but I want to finally read some of the books by the people who I listen to on podcasts.

Goal #3: Read at least 3 non-fiction books on current politics.

It is all doable, I am already on it, and I am using this platform to keep myself accountable. Hopefully, you stick around for it all!

Working on the Craft: The Reluctant I

Once in a while, I want to do a writing exercise and post the result here. The goal of this exhibitionism is to keep myself accountable, as long practice shows that few things motivate me as much as the need for external validation and the fear of not showing up. For my first attempt, I picked Exercise 1 from The 3 A.M. Epiphany by Brian Kiteley. It is simple: to write 600ish words of first person POV, in which the personal pronoun is only used two times. The result is unpolished, unedited, and woefully melodramatic, but I enjoyed doing it, and so you get to judge it too. Here goes:

I stand on the small square, staring at the wall which rises tall above the crooked buildings. The mists are everywhere – an oppressive dome that covers the city entire. It looms just above the copper chains draped on their rods on every roof, testing their strength. A swirling front batters the human-raised barrier ahead, as if angry at the brown metal that repels it. The world is drained of color.

The copper won’t be enough this time. The sentries have ran down the stairs, abandoning their posts. There have been no screams of warning – the immutable weight of the mists demands silence now – but the wordless retreat is message enough.

Everyone else on the square knows what comes. Or rather, they don’t know, and that’s the point. That’s the real horror. Anything could be hiding inside the mists. Everything is. The grey wisps themselves are poison and worse. Clusters of people stand still, staring at the wall. Some hold each other. Others don’t seem to notice that they’re not alone. A little boy’s questing hand finds insensate fingers as he reaches for what must be his mother. A young man whispers in anger and fear at another – a brother? A lover? – trying to pull him away from this open ground. But the grey tendrils that even now begin to slide over the wall are hypnotic.

The death of a city is a solemn thing. It asks to be witnessed. Even if it is by the victim itself.

A mute thud reaches the square. More a vibration than sound, something massive striking the wall. Another follows, then a third. That one lasts longer, but as everyone stares at the copper plates rising above the rooftops, waiting for the cracks to appear, the young man who has refused to be spirited away to the lie of safety points up. Eyes follow, and there, above the wall, the tall rods with their copper chains are shaking. Thick tendrils of mist have moved between them, sizzling as they get close to the metal that repels them. But they hide something else.

The rods begin shaking. The copper chains rattle, the sound muted. Swallowed. The mist has now almost obscured them, the wisps trying to slide down the wall even as they are burned by its surface. Then a rod falls into the miasma, which opens to allow its passage, then closes over the gap. Another follows. A sharp, slithering hiss, as the chain is unmoored and dragged down.

Nothing moves for a moment. The dome of mist seems to hold its breath.

Then it collapses. Torrents of grey death pour over the wall and over the buildings, trying to suffocate the city with their weight. The screams start, finally, as the wall collapses and shapes dart through the breach. Some of them screech with voices that are almost, but not quite human. Altered things, remade by the mist into hurt and rage. Others drift above the ground, more the wisps taking shape than something moving through them. A massive grey wave passes above the square, something grand and grotesque making its own current as it swims over the city that has denied its kind for too long.

People try to run. Some are swept by the mist and the things that come with it. Some escape through the narrow alleys beyond, but their fate will be no different. The grey dome collapses on all sides. There is no pathway. No place else exists now.

I choose to stand my ground. Not out of defiance or bravery, but for the simple, meaningful act of witnessing the end. As long as there is someone who doesn’t turn away, the mist has not destroyed everything that matters.

A vast shadow moves through the grey swirls, sweeping closer until there is nothing else in the world.

But there are other cities. And as long as someone is there to witness the end, then the end will never be final.

The Intersectionality of Personality Types and Writing Habits: Playing Against Type

Two things are true about me. First, I have some mild obsessive-compulsive tendencies, mostly manifesting as a need to optimize and organize things (but not extending to making my bed in the morning, because I’m not a monster). And second, I am, as of this stage in my development as a writer, deathly afraid of outlining.

All indications point to someone like me being in his natural habitat when it comes to planning out stories. And yet, everything I have written so far has been the very essence of pantsing, discovery writing through and through. I tried to figure out why that was, and what I came up with was both surprising, and at the same time quite obvious.

Planning out your work, as I understand it, is a way to create a structure for how it is going to go, in terms of story, theme, worldbuilding, or characters. When I listen to outliners describe the things they put down before they start writing, it feels paralyzing. I just don’t know any of this in advance! How am I supposed to begin an outline?

And I realized that I do this in my head. It is chaotic, and subject to constant revisions – as I guess all discovery writing is – but precisely because I am so prone to organizing and structuring things in my life, it is actually easier for me to hold an abstract structure in my head, rather than try to put a concrete one on digital paper.

Because the flip side of having this kind of personality means that I don’t know where to draw the line. When I try to outline, what happens is that every bullet point has a subset of bullet points, each of which needs to have further clarifying bullet points, and then I have to color them differently, based on purpose, character, or theme… and then I am absolutely lost, and feel defeated and unable to continue.

However, one does not write The Next Great Epic Space Fantasy Series through pure discovery writing. Or maybe one does, but not this one. So I have been forcing myself to learn to outline simpler stories, without adding more than the absolute bare minimum to each bullet point. And it is manageable, of course, and something I will get better at. But it was still a strange feeling, not being able to do something it seemed I should be a natural fit for.

Maybe this realization is only a surprise to me, and every other writer in the world already knows that personality types and writing habits don’t always overlap. But I thought it interesting, and hopefully others will too. It showed me that even as I am learning how to better put my thought process into a word medium, there is no particular “right” way to do so, even if it seems like there should be.

Reading Update: 01/23/20

This year, I’ve decided, is to be space opera-themed. Which is mostly code for “finally started The Expanse, several years after everyone else”, but I have other titles in mind as well. After finishing Leviathan Wakes in one (very long transatlantic flight) sitting, I started Caliban’s War, which is about as much word count as I can take from any one author (ok, in this case two) before needing a change of pace.

Meanwhile, this is the eclectic pile I am currently thinking of as “to read soon”. My obsession with Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series is boundless, and I have been waiting for Come Tumbling Down for months. Before and After the Book Deal is on the list because of a recommendation from Jane Friedman, whose book The Business of Being a Writer was transformative to my understanding of the field. Fangirl caught my attention with the meta aspects of spawning an in-world fantasy series, as well as, yunno, everyone raving about Rainbow Rowell.

Adam SIlvera’s Infinity Son is on the pile, courtesy of my need for more gay male SFF. Not to diss other queer fiction (I think about half of the books I read in 2019 were written by and featuring various types of queer women), but for some reason it seems gay male stories written by gay male authors are pretty sparse in the speculative genres. And Killing Gravity just sounds. So. Effin. Awesome! I don’t know what a “voidwitch” is yet, but I desperately want to be one!

What Is This, And What Is It For?

I have wanted to be a writer ever since I was five. It is the first “adult” thing I remember wanting to do, actually. I probably still have my first attempts scrawled on a notebook in semi-literate Bulgarian, tucked away in a closet somewhere. It was based on the original Robotech anime, if I am not mistaken.

Wanting to write was a driving instinct, almost a knowledge that this was what I would be doing sooner or later. Life took me other places (because life is often like that), but I never stopped writing. It wasn’t fiction, though I still dabbled from time to time, but I had to express myself, share my opinions on everything. Because they were so important, you understand! Reviewing literature, cinema, or television, barfing political opinions and social commentary left and right. I even translated fantasy novels from English in a legit capacity.

History can tell whether I ever wrote anything worth reading, if it cares enough to check. But no one can say I didn’t write.

Some 25 years after that embarrassing Robotech fanfic, I am now into my third year of “trying to do the writing thing for real this time”. The external voices that said becoming a professional writer was unrealistic and childish have been replaced by my own inner insecurities. And those I know how to work with. I have written one whole entire novel that got hard trunked the moment its second draft was done, and am currently buffering on the second draft of my second novel. This one might be for real. Or maybe I got some more practicing to do before braving the real world. But I am doing the thing. Five-year old me would be super proud.

I have been reading books on writing — the craft and the business — and listened to all the podcasts. I have, if not actual experience, then at least a theoretic grasp of the world of doing this with any degree of professional success. So now all that’s left is to keep writing.

But while this is going on, I figured that I wanted to have an outlet for, well, freestyling. I don’t presume to be at a stage where I have any meaningful advice for other people who want to become writers, and I am certainly not going to claim any deep knowledge in any other field. But this thing that I am trying to do, it comes with a whole lot of thoughts, and a whole lot of feelings, and — sweet, merciful baby Cthulhu — yes, also opinions! So maybe I have something to say that will resonate with others, and maybe externalizing my internal monologue will help me figure shit out myself.

So yes, hi. I am Simeon. Welcome to my blog. It will be part review site, part random thoughts, part travelogue as I am navigating this endeavor, and life in general.

Thanks for stopping by.