First of all, holy shit somehow that last post got quadruple the normal number of views and reshares between visitors, which I should probably just chalk up to people laughing at my dubious choices in self-ornamentation as a grown man with illustrations from Hayao Miyazaki’s children’s movies and nerdy mashup pieces covering a significant portion of my body forever. What that does signify to me is that I should get a bunch more tattoos prior to releasing new books/stories to drum up site traffic, as if I needed more of an excuse.
I honestly don’t have a whole lot to blog about today. I’ve had a very uneventful weekend for the most part, mostly a lot of running around doing errands. What I’ve done writing-wise is just editorial passes of short stories for anthology projects and submissions, and some outlining work for the novel; nothing remotely fun to read or write about so I’ll spare you that and just say that following Brandon Sanderson’s newest set of videos on fantasy literature have really given me a lot of useful things to think about in terms of structure and scope, even if his scientific approach to writing magic systems is rather the opposite of how I approach mine (which I absolutely love to read, don’t get me wrong — Mistborn and Stormlight Archives have become two of my favorite fantasy settings ever written in just a few years), where I tend to like portraying it more on the grimdark side of the scale where it’s unknowable and terrifying to normal people and I keep internal consistency knowing the rules myself but try not to reveal them to the reader. His recent lecture on writing the other was really quite heartwarming to watch and I appreciate that the dude actually listened to the criticism on how he was writing female characters and not only learned from it but is going on to try and teach other people how to avoid his mistakes.
Anyway, in terms of stuff I actually did do, we ended up heading over to Circular Quay yesterday in spite of shutdowns in train service to and from our suburb for line work, because there was the annual Bleu Blanc Rouge festival along the harbour and under the bridge. Big celebration of French cuisine and craftsmanship with a healthy dose of vendors from Quebec too. We found a Canadian food shack there serving honest-to-god poutine with real cheese curds, even better than you can find in Maine near the border. Last time we’d indulged in poutine it was the middle of winter and we were visiting Toronto for a weekend, so it made me very nostalgic for that. On the way home we encountered a large piece of furniture someone had discarded on the side of the road, a seven foot tall hall cabinet with mirror and accessory hooks and fold-open drawers. One of the advantages to living in a suburb frequented by wealthy, foreign college students who just toss all their furniture and electronics out when they move is that it’s free for the taking. Because my wife and I are basically human raccoons who rummage through used goods and hate to see anything go to waste, and because this thing would have run at least 4-500 bucks stateside, we lugged it home the length of several blocks. Powered by poutine, obviously.
In lieu of writing a bunch about writing this week, or stuff I’m in the middle of watching/reading (for the record, I have started The Dark Tower series after years of putting it off after being interrupted halfway through The Drawing of the Three back in college, and my frequent collaborator and friend Chris might actually murder me if I don’t finish them before the movie hits) I thought I’d toss out some book recommendations on stuff I’ve read over the last year or two, things that resonated with me. I know I’ve mentioned a couple of them in passing before, but here’s a little more in depth stuff. I wouldn’t consider this a list of favorites per se, you won’t see my holy trinity of Tolkien, Pratchett and Gaiman present, but it’s less represented stuff that deserves to be read all the same.
So, in no particular order:
The Golem and the Jinni is at its heart an immigrant story, something that really celebrates diversity and the cultural mixing pot. Specifically the idea that said pot may homogenize things a little bit but is at its best when every element is allowed to maintain its own cultural identity. A golem woman arrives in New York in the late 1800s, created to serve as perfect wife to a man who died just after she was given her instructions. She doesn’t know quite what to do, if she’s a real person, what her purpose in life is, and if it even counts as life. She’s wracked by berserker rages and a kind of hyperfocus on whatever task she’s been assigned, a take on the classic golem myth that’s both heartwrenching and a little chilling. She finds herself tangled up with a Jinn, outcast from his glass palace in the heart of the desert many years ago, robbed of many of his powers and exiled to a foreign land where he is still driven to cause mischief and act generally rakish. Basically a Jewish woman and Muslim man clinging to each other in a strange new world that isn’t particularly accepting of either of them, and whose only similarity is that shared alienation. It’s a historical fantasy in the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which is one of my favorite novels of all time. It’s not quite as smooth, the narrative prose not done in a period style, but overall it’s a lovely read with a lot of good messages.
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a strange beast of a book, and one that I’ve personally recommended to almost everyone I know over the last year. It’s a novella about a man from another place hired on to escort a merchant caravan across a vast jungle where the laws of reality have ceased to function, strange things leak in from other times and places, and he is slowly forced to confront and accept who and what he is to fulfill his pact. It’s absolutely brutal and keeps fingers in several genres at once, but the closest thing I can nail it down to would be a post-dying earth setting in the vein of Jack Vance or Gene Wolfe, where the apocalypse has come and gone so long ago that things are beginning to regrow. The magic here is rooted in transhumanism and you can read the gods as truly supernatural entities or post-singularity humans who have seeded the earth with guardians and terrors to serve their own unknowable purposes. It’s unrelentingly queer and black as well, which is a treat in fantasy fiction. Characters own their bi and homosexuality without apology, and the vernacular of the story would not sound out of place on an NWA record. It was briefly jarring to read until I realized that every grimdark fantasy novel I’d read in prior years did the exact same thing with contemporary white language without anyone batting an eye. There’s a sequel due out later this year that looks even better than this one and is one of my most anticipated upcoming novellas.
Leading into the other predominantly African-American piece I read in the last few months, The Ballad of Black Tom. One of the single greatest Lovecraft updates I’ve ever read for a lot of reasons. As I’ve said before, Lovecraft is a thing I have had to wrestle with quite a bit as a bleeding heart Jewish fan of cosmic fiction. When you get right down to it, the bulk of his stories deal with the “horror” of miscegenation, of scholarly men discovering that their bloodline has been “tainted” by breeding with another race in ages past, in the worst kinds of otherism. The Horror at Red Hook is, to me, the culmination of Lovecraft’s worst traits. It’s a bizarre fevered rant about how blacks and jews dare to walk among the men of European descent in the heart of a thriving city, and that no one else can see how clearly evil they are. In many ways it’s the grandfather of urban fantasy as we know it, a glimpse into a world where the cityscape hides magicians and demonologists operating just out of view. It’s a shame that it is so very, very racially tinged that it can’t be excused. The brilliance of Black Tom is that no excuse is made, and in telling the story from the perspective of a black man in the same situation it’s shown that the narrator of the original is deeply biased and part of the system that drives people underground, drives them to do terrible things. It sets up a story where awakening sleeping elder gods is a viable alternative to accepting white supremacy, and then makes a compelling case for the old ones in that they are uncaring rather than actively malevolent like men. Rather than simply retelling Red Hook it makes the story whole and gives it a plot beyond the frightened ranting of a man who thought that a detective who gleefully endorsed police brutality against impoverished blacks and Kurdish refugees alike would be heroic and that his descent into madness should invoke sympathy rather than a nod and a response of “he deserved it.”
Oh, The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Political machinations within political machinations. Quadruple and quintuple agents. A setting that will crush your heart in your chest because it’s completely explicit about the realities of colonization and cultural erasure. This is one of the strongest debut novels I’ve read in a long time, and I’ve read it several times over picking up additional hidden gems with every go. This one is hard to review without spoiling it, so I’ll have to be brief. The overall gist is that an empire characterized by politicians in masks have begun expanding their territories at an exponential rate, gobbling up lands and people, recruiting and reprogramming children in massive walled institutions as the parents are wiped out by viral warfare and entire belief systems are demolished. The first few chapters feature an openly queer and polygamous society being brutalized and it only gets more depressing from there. The punishment for male homosexuality in this empire is death, and the punishment for female sexuality is genital mutilation. It’s never shown explicitly but it hovers there in the background, watching smugly over the characters trapped in this nightmare world. The only hope for any kind of justice is internal sabotage, and Baru has to learn to use the rules of the empire as a cudgel as she works her way up the ladder to a position where she could avenge her destroyed culture and murdered parents. She has to use every weapon at her disposal from indulging intermilitary power struggles to sabotaging fiat and territorial currencies. It’s a secondary world fantasy very much in the vein of Guy Gavriel Kay where there is no overt magic, just… something lingering in the background that could be it, adding a little dash of suspense to a world that is incredibly real and heavy with the weight of imperialist atrocities.
And the last one today will be City of Blades, the second in a series that started with City of Stairs the other year. Stairs saw a world where a colony, used as slaves and fodder for a city of gods and their followers managed to figure out a way to kill those gods and waged a desperate campaign against them, finally destroying every one of them and causing their miraculous creations to be sucked back into nonexistence. The first book was so named for their capital, where enormous staircases once connected the mortal worlds to the halls of the gods, and with the destruction of those gods it was left a metropolis where jagged, half-finished staircases lead up to nothingness. It’s a great book all on its own and you definitely want to read it before the sequel, but Blades took the concept a step further: when the gods of an underworld die, what happens to all the souls that had come to rest there, particularly the souls of those blessed with divine artifacts and powers, like enormous swords that could allow for invulnerability and serve as portals to and from the afterlife? What happens when a simple murder investigation in a remote port town points toward the angry dead clawing their way back to the real world, eager to avenge the death of the goddess who they’d entered into binding covenant with? It’s a kind of weird, post-magic philosophical fantasy that takes a lot of the standard tropes of religion in secondary worlds and upends them, examines them critically, asks questions about how they’d work if certain narrative devices are deliberately violated and what the chain reaction would be.
I’ll probably do some more of these next update, I don’t want to be the dude who just posts a very long line of books that makes eyes glaze over.