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Tag: Fantasy

My Top Five Favorite Books of the Year

For the holiday season, the bookstore I work at is making a display of all the employees’ favorite books of 2020. Each of us had to pick 5 favorite to put on there. My own list was pretty extensive, so choices had to be made. In the process of deciding what to choose, I left out sequels such as Harrow the Ninth, or massive cultural successes that obviously didn’t need my help to sell, such as Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste.

With that in mind, I am very happy with the end result. It unintentionally ends up promoting small press, debut authors, and queer identities, and this feels like the little bit that I can do to help this year suck a tiny bit less.

To clarify, this is not a ranked list. I love each of those five titles for different reasons, and I am not looking to pit them against one another. Feel free to click on each title to read my review.

Anyway, without further ado…

Simeon’s Top 5 Books of 2020:

Docile, by K.M. Szpara

Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones

The First Sister, by Linden A. Lewis

Surrender Your Sons, by Adam Sass

Review: Piranesi

There is something to be said about artists who only want to tell a few select stories, and take their time crafting them. Something profoundly Not-of-This-Time. Dare I say, something fey. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell took over a decade to create. It inevitably became a literary phenomenon when it came out. A lush, meticulously crafted Regency epic, mimicking the language and sensibilities of the time, while adding a dose of Faerie magic to the Napoleonic Wars, it was one of the great novels of its decade.

That it should take Clarke 16 more years before she gave us a new book, feels almost correct. But Piranesi is nothing like what I personally expected that book to be.

The House is the world. Or perhaps the world is encompassed by the House. Its endless Halls and Vestibules span for thousands of miles. The highest floors are obscured by clouds, while the lowest drown in oceans. Only celestial bodies can be seen through its windows. Grand, empty atriums sprawl eternal, populated with countless statues.

There are only fifteen humans that have ever lived in the world, and only two of them live still. One is Piranesi, though that is not his name. He is an explorer and an acolyte of the House. He has learned the arcane calendar of its oceanic tides, and the meaning of its many statues. He has walked hundreds of Halls in each direction, and knows their geography intimately. The House speaks to him through symbolism and circumstance. It feeds and loves him.

The Other is a scientist. He is Piranesi’s only friend, though he is seldom seen, and where he goes when they are apart, no one knows. The rest of the humans of the world are but skeletons. Piranesi takes care of them for the House, has named them, and loves them as if they were alive.

Then there is the sixteenth person. The invisible reader for whom Piranesi keeps his journals. And if the numbers on these journals make no sense, or feature entries he does not recall writing, on subjects he does not recall knowing, well the sixteenth will have to do deal with that.

Piranesi is a melancholic and introspective mythology of loneliness. In a strange and — I am certain — unintended way, it is almost commentary on the times we live in. As its titular character roams the empty Halls and interprets the House’s will and meaning through signs that mean nothing to anyone else, the reader is hypnotized by the near-religious irrationality of the narrative. There is infinite kindness and innocence in the way Piranesi sees the world, and even as we try to understand the mystical rules of the House, we are tempted to accept his childlike interpretation of them.

This is a book about magic, but in no way remotely similar to Clarke’s previous epic. For one thing, it is barely a quarter of the size, but that is only the beginning. Where Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was plot-driven, Piranesi is an intimate exploration of one man’s inner world. Even if much of what transpires in the story is real, it still symbolizes the intangible universe within a lonely yet endlessly optimistic individual. The quiet serenity of the House is a search for meaning where none might exist. But for Piranesi it is the search that creates that meaning. And for the reader, it is going through this journey with him that makes the book a masterpiece.

Review: Middlegame

As part of my Hugo 2020 marathon, I finally got through Seanan McGuire’s massive epic Middlegame. It’s not that I didn’t want to, honestly. But I only recently got acquainted with McGuire’s work, and I feared that I might be oversaturated with it. I am happy to report that I was wrong to worry.

Middlegame is massive. Not just in page-count, but in scope, and in a way I genuinely like. The story begins decades ago (but really, over a century ago), with the creation of two unique children. In a world where centuries-old alchemists practice their miracles in secret, a brilliant and monstrous genius — himself the creation of another — seeks to achieve what even the mistress he killed could not: embody a guiding principle of the universe in human form. Twins Roger and Dodger are the two halves of the Doctrine of Ethos. Placed in adoptive families under surveillance, they are meant to grow apart from each other. This way, by the time their powers manifest, they would be easier to control.

Except, they find each other in the space between their minds.

Middlegame follows Roger and Dodger from their 7th year until present day, when they’re in their late 20s. The narrative is omniscient, jumping perspectives between the two protagonists, as well as the villains trying to control their destinies. McGuire is amazing at this type of storytelling. She often flat out tells the reader of tragedies still to come, only to deliver them later in unexpected ways.

The story goes to some genuinely dark places, and while I am not one for content warnings, it’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into. There is a whole lot of fairly gruesome murder, and a particularly grueling scene of self-harm. The author doesn’t do this lightly, or for shock value, but still, it’s important to know in advance that this is not a YA adventure.

The violence and tragedy underline another theme of the book, which is alternate timelines. McGuire deftly spreads out signs that the twins are on a path that has led them to failure and death many times. And they have rewritten their fate over and over, trying to retain even a fraction of knowledge that might save them next time. The more they mature, the more their story focuses on the power that they embody. Middlegame begins as a tale of two children learning how to be what they are without hurting each other. But by the end, the magical aspects of the world are driving the vehicle full speed. And for the longest time it seems like they’re driving it into a concrete wall.

Roger and Dodger are wonderful characters, particularly Dodger. She is a math prodigy, and while not explicitly labeled as such, certain aspects of her are coded as autistic. McGuire develops her brilliantly, both as herself, and in the context of her sometimes-toxic, but always loving relationship with her more mundane brother. Roger himself is more subtle, more relatably flawed, at least at first. But the story also follows him more closely than it does his sister, and so we get to see how divinity impacts them on a deeply human level.

I have seen people criticizing the book for its length. The way I see it, this story could either be a very short action adventure, or the sprawling coming of age saga that it is, with no middle ground. As I thoroughly love McGuire’s writing and characterization, I didn’t mind the sprawling coming of age saga version, but I can see how others might be more focused on story. Even so, the book ultimately delivers on that as well. It just asks you to stick with it. And in its defense, it never drags its heels. As the twins grow, their lives never cease to be compelling.

All in all, I really loved Middlegame. It makes grand promises, and then surprises you by actually delivering on them. It does so in a single volume too, raising the stakes to a point where sequels would be impossible. And even if I love a good series, there is a lot to be said about solid stand-alone storytelling. Definitely recommended reading, with some content warnings.

P.S. The audiobook is read by Amber Benson, a.k.a. Tara from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Not that this is terribly relevant, but it was an added plus for me.

Reading Update 07/22/20 – Catching the Late Hugo Train

It occurred to me, out of nowhere, that I have never actually managed to read all Hugo Award nominees in time for the ceremony. And of course, ten days out is exactly when one should decide to catch up. But I am not letting things like the objective passage of time stop me! By necessity, I am only limiting myself to novels, though I have already read some of the novella nominees as well.

The nominees for best novel are:

The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders

Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir

The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire

The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow

As of right now, I have read Gideon the Ninth and A Memory Called Empire. Currently, I am halfway through The City in the Middle of the Night, and then I think I will try The Light Brigade, since I have been meaning to read it for a while now. Hopefully I will be able to get to at least 4/6 before the awards are announced.

You Will (Almost) Certainly Disappoint Everyone With Your Prequel

Recently, I reviewed Suzanne Collins’ The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. It was a Hunger Games novel, so I wasn’t going to miss it. I ended up quite enjoying it, because it was focusing on a character, rather than events. But back when I first heard about it, my reaction was an exasperated sigh.

I hate prequels. I hate them with a fiery passion. I respect the fact that not everyone feels as I do, and for some people returning to a beloved world is enough to be happy. But I am not wired this way. I enjoy that, to be sure, but my main drug is story. And here is the thing about prequels: I know what happens next.

There is a pretty solid argument to be made that the very concept of a prequel is messing with the dramatic rhythm of a work. The emotional punchline is by default muted. Sure, we are invested (smirk) in the trade disputes around the blockade of the planet Naboo in The Phantom Menace. Or the mystery of the clone army in Attack of the Clones. Or even Sidious’ machinations in Revenge of the Sith. But really, what we want to see, is the rise of the Empire and Anakin turning evil.

Except, we already know those things will happen. The Empire will rise. Anakin will become Darth Vader. And then Sidious will be killed by his apprentice, who will die saving his son. Thus apparently redeeming himself for being the galaxy’s shittiest parent.

This makes any potential emotional punch of the Star Wars prequels – even were they better written – immediately lessened. And what’s worse, we now have the bad taste of those not-awesome movies that mars our experience of the original trilogy. And this applies to any work of art. Often the prequel will create context that damages the original story in some way, and for what? I don’t want to sympathize with the villain. I don’t need to know how many adventures the protagonist’s now-dead parents had. It only makes me annoyed that they died so easily before the story even began.

I think it is likely easier to write a prequel than a sequel. You are working with a pre-existing world, and leaning on a completed story that demands a certain direction. Furthermore, publishers LOVE prequels. For established works they are certain cash cows, and even for less successful stories, they are, by definition, low-risk.

But here is the thing. Even when people like a story enough that they are willing to read anything related to it, they would still never truly love your prequel. And they will especially fail to love the diminishing returns of your prequel series. We know what comes after. Sooner or later we are just looking at our watches and waiting for it to just happen.

I did a little mental inventory to see if there have been any prequels I have genuinely loved. Weirdly enough, the most recent example I started this post with, is actually among the successful ones. The Star Wars sequel trilogy was far more exciting to me than the prequel one. It had never occurred to me to even try and read anything about James Potter, even before Joanne turned full TERF evil. But I did enjoy the flawed Cursed Child. The Dune prequels were… not awesome. The Wheel of Time’s New Spring left me gasping from boredom.

Our entertainment culture is driven more and more by profit, and seems to be increasingly terrified of taking risks. Literature, luckily, is low-stakes enough, and by its very nature can’t survive without new voices. But the moment something becomes successful, it is expected to keep proliferating. And hey, if they are offering you bags of money to write prequels, you should absolutely take their bags of money! The easiest way to do so is to look back. ‘How did we get here?’

But here is the thing. You already told us how. In the original story. If we needed to know more in order to understand it, you’d have told us then. And this is before considering that adding more (and rarely necessary) details only has the potential to mar the impression of the source material.

In most cases, prequels add nothing but disappointment and diminishing returns to my experience. I accept that this is not the case for everyone, but I dare you to show me a single work where a prequel was better or more exciting than the sequels. In the meantime, I will continue hoping that Collins takes us further into the future of Panem and the inevitable collapse of its inept people’s government.

Reckoning

I have been thinking about how to approach the torrent of revelations coming out of Twitter in recent days. Not because I am in any way close to any of the people involved, but rather because I felt I needed to. And I fully recognize that this situation is not about me, and my thoughts are unlikely to enrich it. But this blog is part therapy, and I hope I also don’t cause harm by speaking on the subject.

Several notable authors of Science Fiction and Fantasy have been dragged out for various forms of harassment of women, non-binary folks, and queer people they perceived as vulnerable. Those include Myke Cole, Sam Sykes, Mark Lawrence, Max Temkin, and Warren Ellis. Some of them I’ve met in person, others I know only through their writing or reputation. None has made any overtly bad impression on me.

And I don’t for a second struggle believing the accusations leveled against them.

It’s not even about believing the accusers in this case. Most of these men have freely admitted to their actions, with varying degrees of accepting responsibility. Some have ran away from Twitter, preferring to act like victims. Others are so far standing firm and accepting their punishment, whatever that’s worth to anyone.

It made me consider my own behavior. As a pretty firmly established gay man who hasn’t been on any kind of “prowl” in quite a few years now, I have never considered myself any kind of threat to women. More than that, in my few and limited interactions with female and queer authors, I’ve made it a point to be respectful and considerate.

But I have no way of knowing how successful I have been. I have witnessed autograph tables of accomplished, wonderfully talented women stay empty. Meanwhile, one lane over, a male author would have several lines struggling to fit into the allotted space. I have been in some of those big lines, rather than the empty ones. Of course, sometimes the reason was the particular names involved, rather than gender.

But this raises another question — if a not-inconsiderable number of the most successful writers in the field are men, do they not have an even bigger responsibility to make our shared spaces feel safer and more nurturing for women and queer folks? And what message does it send to these people, when they come to conventions and conferences, only to be met by crude jokes, belittling behavior, and other forms of often overt harassment? Because let me tell you, a super buff dude grabbing me in his lap while telling me he wants to pee on me, would NOT make me want to return to that space.

We are all capable of calling this out. And I believe we are responsible to do so. As fans, as hopeful writers — scary though that might be to our proto-careers — and as people who believe in human dignity and every person’s right to feel safe in any public space they enter. We can uplift underrepresented voices, so that these public spaces are not ran by drunken cops or writer dynasty legacies.

And in the mean time, it takes more than a Twitter repentance. Many of these dudes are fairly successful in their careers. So, put your money where your apologies are. Make meaningful steps to help women, POC, and queer authors. If you need an apology tour, go donate to a charity, or check yourself into rehab. It is high time that “taking responsibility” means more than 240 symbols on a social network.

Reading Update 06/24/20 – Trans Authors, And Where to Find Them

As I have already written here, I was less than happy with J.K. Rowling’s continuing quest to invalidate trans people. Of course, Rowling is in a tax bracket where nothing mortal can really impact her, but the same is not true of the people she is putting in danger through her willful ignorance.

There is very little I can do to help, other than be an ally myself, but I found a nice way to express my feelings.

Recently, I started work at my local indie bookstore (“Unabridged Books” in Chicago). It is smack in the middle of our gay neighborhood Boystown, so I convinced them to set up a display of trans and non-binary authors of fantasy and science fiction. So far the support has been overwhelming, and we are ordering other titles that we didn’t have in stock at the time.

If you too feel grossed out by Rowling’s transphobia, and wonder what you can do, supporting a SFF trans or non-binary author is a great first step.

Working on the Craft: Letters From Inside the Story

This exercise asks the writer to take a story they are working on, then write a letter from one of its characters to another. The letter is never to be sent, so it needs to be deeply personal. It is never to become part of the actual story, so it’s more an exploration of the characters than anything else. I went full sap, while also trying to keep things ambiguous. Wouldn’t want to spoil my future NYT bestseller, yunno!


I marvel at my own capacity to write these words without breaking down. I have to face the truth of what is about to happen to you, and I find that I cannot.

I lost you once, all those years ago, and…

No, this is untrue. I have to start being honest with myself, even if it’s far too late for that.

I lost you for the first time all those years ago. And then I kept losing you over and over again, every second that you stood beside me. Beautiful. Kind. Unwitting. Broken. I could not tell you what had happened to you, for that would have been a loss far more final than all the rest combined. I could not give you the truth. So I had to watch you stumble in confusion, through a life you were no longer fit for.

He broke you, back then. I try reminding myself of that, and it rings hollow.

I told myself this lie over and over, even as I knew that it was a lie. Perhaps I accepted it for so long, because I took my cues from you. Your entire existence is a lie, after all, yet in the moments of lucidity you scrounge from the shattered mess of your mind, you seem happy. Content. You are incomplete, and it ruins my heart every time I see the knowledge of it on your face. But you are also content. Content to be with me.

I was not content. I never could be, with what was left of you. So I blamed him. Over and over, until my hatred of what he did to you seemed all that sustained me. But it is the end now, and I am about to lose you for the last time. There is no more point in lying to myself. He did not break you. He saved what could be saved of you. He did it in a rash, stupid, harmful way, but he had no choice. We all had left him no choice.

But now what happened to you back then is about to happen again. And I find that I no longer know if I have it in me to survive this. There is still a chance, maybe. He says there is. I have spent so long hating him, that I don’t know how to trust him. And I have seen this before. I have seen you before. What you become. How you have to be stopped.

It sounds stupid, and empty, and cheap now, because it is so very late. I should have said the words before. I should have told you the truth and given you the strength you needed to accept it. I should have…

These are the words then. I love you. I did then, and I have every moment since, even if you no longer knew it. A part of me hopes you still did. Another part knows that it doesn’t matter. Loving you was the one thing that made me feel capable of kindness. Loving you was the one thing that made me human. And even though I railed and raged when you were taken from me, I never lost loving you.

And until all hope is dead, I will continue to believe that you might know me again.

Working on the Craft: Goodness

A little bit of cheating today, because I ran out of life for the day, and I didn’t want to have gaps in my regular posting schedule. In my defense, it kinda works. The exercise calls for describing a kind person doing something good out of sheer empathy, rather than requiring something in return. As it happens, I already have a situation like that in my current manuscript, so I picked it up, edited it a bit, and the result isbelow. With that said, it IS quite weird describing altruism without making it sappy, and I am not at all certain that I succeeded, even with the allowance that the text comes from a work of epic fantasy.


The narrow warrens with their protective awnings formed a shadowy labyrinth. Signs of the Convergence were everywhere. There were too many beggars in the corners, and people wearing clothes that had not been changed in days, huddled in groups around fountains and public buildings with an air of discontented desperation. Children fought with skax for scraps of food, the small rodents’ faceted eyes and angry hissing enough to scare many away.

Valen’s heart broke a little, as he saw a grimy infant in rags – a little girl, barely able to walk – stumbling around a woman who huddled by the dirty wall of a nearby building, too weak to move. The passersby ignored both, and he could not bear thinking what would happen to this child when her mother was gone.

Pity was replaced by anger. The nobility lived in wonders of walking architecture and threw lavish parties turning the Convergence into entertainment. Meanwhile, the unknown continent’s arrival had spelled utter despair for thousands of poor souls living along the edge. Valen was honest with himself – he didn’t steal from nobles out of a sense of justice. The poor were no less poor for his exploits. But it always brought him a little bit of satisfaction knowing that some of those void damned nobles truly deserved to be visited by him.

He also noticed the increased presence of city guards. Mean expressions, hands dancing over scimitar hilts. What the farinate of Kash lacked in hospitality toward the refugees, it made up for in escalating tension. The Sovereign no doubt thought the Convergence crisis a minor trouble from his high throne in Tallisar. Enjoy the civil war when it arrives, salar…

However, Valen also saw Gem Singers, the glass jewels in their colorful robes glinting with the light of the setting sun as the cultists distributed food among those in need. They were members of various cults – the remnants of the Chantry after the Dissolution, focusing on good deeds and charity, rather than oppressive dogma and moralizing. The selfless work of the Singers was something Abradel sorely needed. And something its rulers should be providing.

There were also a few followers of Amrodin, offering healing to the most desperate looking beggars. The leviathan Gods cared little for the fate of humans, but to worship Amrodin, The Last Pathway, was to worship both life and death. His cult attracted the most skilled healers, even though Valen doubted many among those walking Kash’s warrens had his gift. It is still more than you will do for them, though, is it not?

Valen went to a food merchant and bought some fresh fruit at an exuberant price. He spent a few extra seconds staring at the man, after giving him an entire ruby flame for what no doubt had cost no more than a sapphire chip to acquire. He knew he could create trouble for the merchant, if he wanted to, but then told himself that times were tough, and he wasn’t exactly above exploiting others for his gain. The interaction still left a sour taste in his mouth that fruit could not wash.

He made sure to pass first through a temple of the cult of Amrodin, and then turned back, hoping that he remembered the place right. To his great relief, the lone sick woman and her infant child were still there.

“Take this,” the thief said, kneeling next to her and handing her a succulent simtar.

She looked at him with bleary eyes under a nest of unwashed blonde hair, then reached a tentative hand and took the soft red fruit. While her child watched with curiosity, she put the simtar to her lips and bit from it. An expression of profound happiness came to her face, and she offered the fruit to her daughter, who took it with excitement.

Valen rose from the dirty ground and offered her a hand.

“There is an Amrodin temple nearby, where you and your child will be taken care of. I have arranged it with the cultists.”

He did not mention the large sum of gemshards the healers had demanded of him. It was no matter. For one like him, there were always other sources of money, and walking through the streets of Kash, he’d seen too much suffering. It was a tiny drop in a lake of pollution, but he needed to do something.

The woman stared at him in suspicious uncertainty, while the little girl played with her filthy hair. Then she nodded and took his hand. Valen knew that he could not save everyone. But sometimes, he told himself, even two lives were enough.

Reading Update 06/10/2020 – Reading Polygamy

Mediums, as they say, are the spice of life! No, wait. They say that about variety. Well, mediums are the… uh… medium of variety! There, that’s better.

Recently, as I discovered the “new” frontier of audiobooks, I also started splitting my attention between books. I have always been a “one book at a time” kinda boy. But lately, as “reading” has invaded parts of my day usually reserved for podcasts, things have started to change. So if I lie in bed with a book, I am currently reading Zen Cho’s The Order of the Pure Moon, Reflected in Water. If I am biking somewhere, it’s a great time for a story from the anthology The Mythic Dream. And video game time is all about that Vorkossigan Saga life.

It is something I never used to do before. Juggling two or three paper or e-books has always added unnecessary pressure to choose. Now I don’t have to. I can’t read while eating, biking, or gaming. But I can listen. And since listening apparently takes a completely different part of my brain, I can also compartmentalize when and what I listen to.

All of this to say — audiobooks are still a life-changing addition to my existence, and I am still in love with them. They can never replace paper for me, because I am old and stuck in my ways. But as an “and”, rather than “or”, they are a miracle!