DragonCon 2018 Photo Diary, Part 2

The most exciting thing that happened to me at this year’s DragonCon was seeing my new audio playscript, “The Dead-Watcher,” performed by the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, as part of a triple bill with an episode of “Mercury: A Broadcast of Hope” and Elisabeth Allen’s sci-fi drama “A.L.I.C.E.” Sadly, I don’t have many photos to share of this event, but my wonderful husband did snap this picture on that momentous Friday night, with me and the director of my piece, Robert Drake:

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I spent the first panel hour on Saturday morning at the American Sci-Fi Classics Track again, with “Schoolhouse Rock: It’s What’s Happening.”

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There’s something special about sitting in a room full of enthusiastic adults enjoying a sing-along of “I’m Just a Bill” and “Conjunction Junction.” Songs like this can stay in one’s head for hours. The one I couldn’t stop singing to myself under my breath, which I found out is a lot of other people’s favorite as well, is this:

(Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

Some of our audience got a little bit more into the spirit of the panel than others:

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Sadly, I didn’t get many more photos of panels after this, though I attended plenty of memorable ones. The Diversity Track offered a discussion of “Lead Female Characters,” and the High Fantasy Track hosted a look at upcoming TV adaptations. (I couldn’t help regretting that most of the shows in the works — The Kingkiller Chronicles, The Witcher, The Wheel of Time — are based on books by male authors, with male heroes. But I did get a thrill when I learned of TNT’s planned adaptation of N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth.) But the next panel whose image I preserved came the following morning, an examination of “Myths and Retellings in YA,” hosted by the Young Adult Track.

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Left to right: Naomi Novik, Diana Peterfreund, E.K. Johnston, Lexa Hillyer, and Alexa Dunne. All the panelists made excellent points throughout, but I have to admit I was there to see Novik, because I was right in the midst of reading her Spinning Silver and swooning over its beauty. “I’m not interested in retellings,” she told us. “I’m interested in conversations.”

After the panel, Novik was gracious enough to render my copy of Spinning Silver something special for me to keep till I die:

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On Sunday and Monday, Matt and I spent some time at the ARTC sales table, helping to sell our CDs and also promoting my novels. Matt captured me in this environment:

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The ARTC sales table is near a platform where many of DragonCon’s musical guests perform. Not long before we left for home, we had a chance to hear a young woman named Erin Hill, whose beautiful voice is matched by her skill with the harp. She looks as if she’d just stepped out of one of the novel concepts I have yet to write, and if ever one of my stories were adapted for the screen, she’d be my ideal choice to do the soundtrack.

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But every Con must come to an end. We departed with our usual resolution to return next year and learn and explore even more. And it did help keep the melancholy at bay when we knew who would be there to welcome us home:

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DragonCon 2018 Photo Diary, Part 1

Pictures are a perfect way to share a wonderful experience, and for me, DragonCon nearly always qualifies. I can always find something there to love and/or to relish doing. Even if I can’t find a panel or a dealer I want to visit, simply being there, surrounded by people who love what you love, is a natural high.

Here are a few photographic mementos of DragonCon 2018.

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The view from our hotel room, by day and by night. The beauty of Atlanta, GA, seen from the twenty-eighth floor.

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I can’t go to DragonCon without indulging, at least once, in Caribou Coffee. (I had the Butterbeer Mocha.) Even if you don’t drink coffee, it’s hard not to love the way this establishment caters to the Con crowd.

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My first panel, Friday morning at 10 a.m.: “Classic Sci-Fi Musicals,” courtesy of the American Sci-Fi Classics Track. Pictured, l-r: Gary Mitchell (head of the track), Taylor Blumenberg, Kitty Chandler. Not pictured: Kathleen O’Shea David, Michael Williams. My favorite moment was Ms. David’s explanation of what appeals most to her about the theatrical community: “If you could do your bloody job, then you were accepted.” That’s right. That is exactly why I’ve loved theater for so long.

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Here’s a Friday panel at the British Media Track, or the Brit Track as it’s fondly known: “British Historical Roulette,” in which the panelists offer their take on current and upcoming British historical TV dramas/comedies, etc. I didn’t get an accurate recording of who’s sitting where, but the panelists were Heather Mbaye, Amanda-Rae Prescott, Kritsen McGeehee, Caro McCully (head of the track), and Angela Hartley.

The bottom pic is of Amanda-Rae Prescott, cosplaying as Elizabeth Warleggan from BBC/PBS’s Poldark (the show from which we took the names of our kittens). With her she has a knit figure of her husband George, the dastardly villain of the piece.

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Here’s the room for the High Fantasy Track, which hosted my next panel, “Intro to Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere.” Sadly I didn’t get the panelists’ names, but they were chock full of knowledge and opinions, and the room was happily packed with fellow Sanderson fans. I repeat, just knowing how many people love the same things you love is a thrill in and of itself.

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Last but far from least of my Friday panel-ing: “Female Writers: A Woman’s Perspective,” hosted by DraonCon’s brand new Diversity Track. Left to right: Anya Martin, Christine Taylor Butler, Seressia Glass, Janny Wurts, L.M. Davis. Not pictured: Aaron-Michael Hall.

Coming Next: Part 2.

How to Tell You’re In a Nan Monroe Novel

Recently I got some disappointing news. My publisher closed its doors. This means I’ll be hunting for a new publication home (be it indie, self, or traditional) for my existing works as well as my works in-progress and to come. As part of that process, I’m moved to consider my “brand.” So many, many writers, both published and aspiring, turn out new fantasy novels every day. What makes me and my work special?

When I heard the news, I made the choice to temporarily shelve a project I’d been working on for over a year, which formerly I’d felt obligated to finish. It should have been my dream novel, with a dragon shifted unwillingly into human as its female lead. Yet somehow I never could finish a draft of it. I’d stop somewhere in the middle of it and say to myself, “Oh, this is what it needs,” and then I’d go back to the beginning. Rinse and repeat. Just what was the problem? At one time I thought my heart was still too engaged by my previous work, Nightmare Lullaby, and if I could just force myself to commit to the new project, it would come out fine in the end. At another time I thought I just needed to change the characters’ names, to give the same story a different world and tone. Yet neither of these was the source of my difficulty. It wasn’t until a newer idea awoke and set my imagination singing that I realized what was wrong.

I was trying to be something I’m not.

As a reader I love nothing more than a good high fantasy series, a sweeping epic with a cast of hundreds in which the fate of nations is at stake. Political intrigue, battle sequences, mighty clashes of cultures — give me more of that wonderful stuff! Just as long as a woman appears at or at least near the center of the story, I’m happy. My project was a high fantasy involving high-stakes tension between religious, with my shifted dragon caught in the middle. Since I love such grand tales, I should be able to write one of my own, right?

Well… no. The story I wanted to tell needed a high fantasy author to tell it. Yet I kept on writing it like me.

As much I might love and admire high fantasy, I write low fantasy. I’m most at home with a smaller canvas, a smaller cast of characters with no more than four POVs. I can’t write a battle scene to save my life, and I much prefer to create characters affected indirectly by politics rather than the movers and shakers in the rooms where it happens. My bent is toward fairy-tale retellings, and I strive for a style that evokes both the light and the darkness of those old stories.

The world of the project I shelved felt alien to me; I struggled to visualize it, and so I could never manage to make it vivid on the page. The world of the project I’ve begun feels natural and right. It feels like me. A good friend and adviser of mine once identified my work as “cozy fantasy.” I’m good with that. There’s a place for fantasy that doesn’t involve kings, princes, and soldiers, and that’s the place where my work lives.

A few days ago, a question was making its way around my Twitter feed. Addressed specifically to authors, it asked us to point out how our readers can tell they’re in one of our novels. Rather than Tweet my answers, I figured I’d save them for a blog post. So, how can someone tell they’re in a Nan Monroe novel?

  1. The bulk of the action takes place in a small setting — an estate, as in Atterwald, or a small town, as in Nightmare Lullaby.
  2. The central character is female. At some point in the future I may try my hand at a male protagonist, but right now I’m busy writing the stories I didn’t get (or didn’t know about) when I was younger.
  3. The female lead is set apart from the Norm in some way, either a nonhuman or a human with unusual abilities. It’s left to other characters to represent the world’s version of “normal.”
  4. She has at least one woman in her support system (e.g. Ricarda in Atterwald, Valeraine and Mennieve in Nightmare Lullaby).
  5. She has at least one good non-romantic relationship with a male character (e.g. Ailbe in Atterwald, Pierpon in Nightmare Lullaby).
  6. She has a rich interior life and a strong imagination, though the ways in which she puts her imagination to use may vary.
  7. Music and the arts play a substantial role. My female lead is more likely to be Bard-Woman than Warrior-Woman.
  8. Fairy-tale elements are present, though their adaptation may be very loose indeed.

I want to thank all of you who follow my blog and who have read and supported my work. And if you’re anxious for my shifted dragon, don’t be. She’s still in my head, and one day she’ll make herself at home in a setting that’s just right for both of us.

Gone to DragonCon

Things I’m most looking forward to at DragonCon 2018:

1) seeing the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company perform my newest radio drama at the Marriott Imperial Ballroom tomorrow night (7 p.m.);

2) selling books at the ARTC table;

3) attending panels about books, authors, and shows I love;

4) hearing authors, especially Naomi Novik (because Spinning Silver is awesome), talk about their work.

What’s Making Me Happy: August 2018

The advent of DragonCon.

This year will mark my fifteenth visit to DragonCon, my fourteenth year as a member of the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, and my seventh time as one of the writers whose scripts ARTC will be performing. If any of you, dear readers, find yourselves at DragonCon this year, please be sure to check out our shows on Friday and Sunday nights. Friday’s is the one for which I have writer credit: “The Dead-Watcher,” on a triple bill with Elisabeth Allen’s new sci-fi script “A.L.I.C.E.” and an excerpt from our ongoing series “Mercury: A Podcast of Hope,” August 31 at 7 p.m. in the Marriott Marquis Imperial Ballroom.

I have the DragonCon app on my iPad and have already drafted a schedule of all the panels I’m dying to take in. One special source of excitement: author Naomi Novik, whose Uprooted I love and whose Spinning Silver I’m currently devouring, will be there! Now if Brandon Sanderson would just come back…

Current reads.

At the moment I’m making my way through not only Spinning Silver, but also Becky Chambers’ A Closed and Common Orbit and Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation, and I’ve just started N.K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate. All of these works tick off most of my “Like” boxes: engaging and descriptive prose, vivid female characters with distinctive personalities, and well-told stories in which I can invest both my mind and my heart. I’m pretty sure I’ll have much more to say about these books in future posts.

Female authors triumph at the Hugo Awards.

I have spent many an hour of many a day of many a year browsing Goodreads and similar sites in search of high-quality fantasy and science fiction both by and about women. The good books are out there, in greater numbers than ever, yet they don’t get talked about nearly as much as they should, which of course gives rise to myths such as “Women don’t write epic fantasy.” I recommend female-authored books as often and as loudly as I can, doing my heart to counteract such nonsense as this, even as I keep seeing signs I may be fighting a losing battle. Here, for instance, is Goodreads’ list of the 50 Best Fantasy Books. Of course Tolkien’s and Lewis’s work turn up there, along with titles by Stephen King, Richard Adams, and Peter S. Beagle. Yet most of the more recent books on the list were also written by men. Brian Staveley, Brian McClelland, Anthony Ryan, Peter V. Brett, and Brent Weeks make the list, along with such bound-to-be-there names as Brandon Sanderson, Scott Lynch, and Patrick Rothfuss. Yet Lois McMaster Bujold’s splendid The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls are nowhere to be found. No mention of Barbara Hambly, or Patricia McKillip, or Juliet Marillier, or Kate Elliott, or Elizabeth Bear. What exactly makes these authors’ work less deserving?

Then I see the list of 2018 Hugo Award Winners, and I feel a little better.

One of the few recent female writers included on Goodreads’ Best-Of list is N.K. Jemisin, whose The Fifth Season, the first book in the Broken Earth Trilogy, won the Hugo for Best Novel in 2016. She followed that up the next year with a victory for the second volume, The Obelisk Gate, and now, with her victory for the concluding book, The Stone Sky, she becomes the first author ever to win three consecutive Best Novel Hugos. (In her acceptance speech she has a few choice words to say to anyone who might attribute her triumphs to political correctness.) Women scored big in other categories as well, including Novella, Novelette, Short Story, Related Work, and Graphic Story. Rebecca Roanhorse’s win of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer is particularly satisfying when one remembers that Campbell himself held no very high opinion of women’s ability to write quality SFF. The award may bear his name, but history has proven him wrong.

We still need to work on talking up the best books by and about women, and mentioning Elliott and Bujold in the same breath as Rothfuss and Lynch. But victories like those at the Hugos give me hope that we’ll get there eventually.


Favorite Female TV Characters

One of the main things I love about television is that it gives us far more diversity, in both characters and creators, than the big screen, where over 80% of widely publicized mainstream releases are made by and about white men despite illusory “gains” in inclusiveness. In particular, TV is a more woman-friendly medium, with more opportunities for female writers, directors, and showrunners (though it could still be much better) and intriguing female characters aplenty. Here are a few of my favorite ladies on currently-airing shows.

  1. Amy Santiago, Brooklyn Nine-Nine

When the show began, I wouldn’t have imagined writing this. Amy looked like the character we were meant to hate, the uptight, ambitious, and humorless foil to the fun-loving, take-life-as-it-comes Jake Peralta. I expected she’d be either the show’s main antagonist or the love interest liberated by Jake from the burden of her own personality. Had either of those things happened, I wouldn’t be watching the show now. But Nine-Nine had different, far more interesting plans for Amy, plans better suited to the talents of actress Melissa Fumero. Still fairly early in the first season, the writers began to deepen her character, at times with strokes so subtle you’d barely notice what was happening. She remained uptight; she remained ambitious; but less and less were these qualities cast in a negative light. They became endearing, as we began to see them as part and parcel of her idealistic and basically decent nature. Yes, she and Jake fall in love, but while she does loosen up just a tiny bit under his influence, he also comes to appreciate, right along with the rest of us, the Amy-ness of Amy. She’ll always be the perfectionist who loves paperwork and would find a visit to a museum exhibit of office chairs a fun way to spend an afternoon — and I wouldn’t want her any other way.

2. Webby Vanderquack, DuckTales (2017-2018)

This show is so much fun it justifies the existence of reboots, and Webby, very much a bland “token girl” in the original show from the late 1980s, is the new show’s breakout star. A key difference between original Webby and new Webby lies in the voicing, which lets us know what kind of character we’re getting: the uber-girlish baby-talking lisp of Russi Taylor vs. the sharp hyper-kinetic sass of Kate Miucci. Miucci’s Webby can break out of captivity in less than two minutes and can keep the gang from getting into trouble by virtue of her readiness to read everything that falls under her eye (how else would she know it’s a bad idea to accept a ride from ponies with wet manes?). “Everything’s about learning!” she tells us, having owned Louie Duck with a practical joke after he’d made fun of her geekishness. But for all her capability, her frenetic eagerness to please makes her funny and endearingly flawed. And darn it, my heart breaks for her whenever she’s hurt.

3. Kara Danvers, Supergirl

This show has had its ups and downs over three seasons, but it’s still one of the too few shows on TV that centers on a female superhero doing her thing, and this core character keeps me tuned in; Melissa Benoist’s likable performance definitely helps. Kara/Supergirl makes mistakes. She may try too hard or try the wrong thing. She may be prone to misjudgments of certain people and things. Yet those mistakes only make it more satisfying when she learns, comes through, and saves the day. Plus, it’s hard for me not to embrace a superhero who is seen kicking bad guy butt one minute and Netflix-and-chilling on her couch in her pajamas the next. Watch, baby, watch.

4. Kimmy, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

As those familiar with Netflix’s sitcom are well aware, Kimmy has spent her formative years shut away in a bunker by a wacko cult leader, which makes her very much the fish out of water in contemporary New York City. But Kimmy is determined to make her way in this weird world, and it’s that determination, which rarely falters and never fails in the face of repeated missteps and misfortunes (hence the show’s title), that makes me love her and root for her even when she might be wrong. Certain episodes touch on her trauma and its effects, and these glimpses make her resolute optimism all the more admirable and endearing. Plus, her kind heart goes out to nearly everyone she meets, even when they don’t deserve it. (A side-note: I didn’t really care for this season’s inclusion of an “incel”-related plotline, in which a new cult of disaffected men forms around Jon Hamm’s despicable “Reverend.” I understand that laughing at evil is one way to cut it down to size, but I have a hard time finding incels funny. Still, I’m here for the next round.)

5. Liv Moore, iZombie

When zombie Liv eats the brains of murder victims, she takes on their memories and their personalities, and in doing so helps nab their killers. For the show’s first two seasons, Liv spent so much time in the personalities she absorbed (giving actress Rose McIver the opportunity to deliver one tour-de-force performance after another) that we didn’t get much chance to know Liv herself. But in recent days the show has given the real Liv a chance to come to the fore, to make herself and her ethics and values known, and to become a hero in her own skin as she takes a stand against the injustices around her. No longer do I merely admire McIver’s ability to adopt new personae each week; I admire Liv the person, as she strives to do the right thing. I really wish more people were aware of this show.

Runners-Up: Jessica Jones (Jessica Jones); Rosa Diaz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine); Ruth, Carmen, and Tammie (GLOW); Alex Danvers (Supergirl); Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Orange Is the New Black); Jemma Simmons (Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD); Veronica Lodge (Riverdale, my guilty pleasure); Demelza Poldark (Poldark); Patterson (Blindspot).

“Never Read the Comments”

In vino veritas, the old saying goes — in wine, truth. The idea is that when we drink, our inhibitions drop and we lose the ability to curb our impulses. With our capacity to guard our tongues so compromised, we may let slip an unpleasant truth about how we feel about something or someone, and such slips as these ostensibly reveal our “true” natures. I don’t know how much I subscribe to this saying. On the one hand, if the side someone shows when they’re tipsy is too ugly, I’d be inclined to keep them at a distance thereafter. (Mel Gibson, whose drunken anti-Semitic tirade killed my taste for his films except Gallipoli and Chicken Run, is my go to example here.) Yet on the other hand, all of us have some ugly side, and our efforts to keep that side under control are a sign of our values and ethical code. With in vino veritas, we get only half the truth, and usually it’s the worst half.

The Internet, I’ve found, functions a lot like the vino in the old saying, in that our inhibitions are lowered and our self-control mechanisms may be compromised when we’re online. Yet this effect isn’t wrought by chemicals we ingest, bur rather by the seductive comforts of distance and anonymity. And as we see all too clearly when, despite the best advice, we give into the temptation to “read the Comments,” there are very few happy Internet-drunks.

We’re not face to face with the people with whom we talk online. We don’t hear their voices. We don’t see how their expressions change as they take in what we say. All we know of them are the handles they use (rarely their actual names) and the words they write. As such, we may find ourselves forgetting that they are truly people. And since they don’t have the means to hold us accountable, we feel we can say whatever we like to them. If they should disagree with us, we’re free to be as hurtful to them as our facility with language will allow, with no stings of conscience. After all, they are only their words, and that means their opinions — opinions we hate.

Examples of the swift descent into meanness when disputes arise are absolutely everywhere, from Twitter (a hotbed) to the Comments sections of articles linked on Facebook. I stumbled onto one instance in a place I wasn’t quite expecting, via a YouTube video. It was an episode of Hollywood, a documentary series on American silent films, and I’d thought the people posting in the Comments section would be at least somewhat united in admiration for this stunning series, sadly unavailable in a proper DVD or Blu-Ray release. Yet an argument came up, and out came the meanness.

At the crux of the debate was whether contemporary Hollywood actively promoted atheistic views, with Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous as an example. One poster argued that critics and Hollywood’s intelligentsia embraced Maher’s exercise in anti-Christian mockery, while another poster pointed out that the overall response to the film was in fact lukewarm. Poster 1 grew angrier and angrier, while Poster 2 tried to counter with detailed evidence until finally he/she realized that wasn’t working and announced he/she was pulling out of the debate. In response Poster 1 wrote, “Kill yourself.”

“Kill yourself.” Let that sink in.

Given the number of people who suffer from clinical depression in this country, “Kill yourself” is just about the most dangerous thing you can say to a stranger online. If there are any words less Christ-like, I don’t know them.

This is far from the only noteworthy example of online meanness, but it stings me a bit because I too consider myself a woman of faith. I don’t care for Bill Maher, with his stock-in-trade smugness. (He’s a misogynist, for one thing.) I can recall reading a few reviews of Religulous which suggested the movie attacks not so much hypocritical believers as belief itself. According to Maher, faith is just stupid. So I have avoided him, on film and TV. Why court rage? It’s not as if, should I meet the man, I would have any hope of changing his mind.  He can stay on his side of the pop culture world and I will stay on mine.

Yet this poster is just one of too many people who call themselves “Christians” who, whenever they perceive their faith under attack, choose to respond in the least Christian way possible. In sending the other poster a message to “kill yourself,” he/she isn’t contradicting Maher, but proving his point.

When we’re posting something online, we ought to consider that in the eyes of others, we are defined by our handles and our words. If we’re having a really, really bad day, as this person on the You Tube message-board might have been, those reading our posts don’t know it. So we ought to consider just what the words we choose are saying about us. Instead of letting ourselves get Internet-drunk, we should think when we’re writing online, just as we would if we were writing anywhere else. Will anyone be wiser or better informed as a result of this post? Will our words do good for anyone or change anything for the better? Let’s think of those who loved us most when we were growing up, who taught us right from wrong. Will our words make them proud?

Drive the Internet sober.

Book Report: Recent Reads

The Queen of Blood

Cover pic Queen of Blood

I’d been told by those I trust that Sarah Beth Durst’s high fantasy novel about a realm plagued by malevolent spirits only a Queen can control was good. If I had imagined how good, I might have read it much sooner.

Or maybe not. With all the new books that come to my attention on a monthly basis, I can’t be sure. Suffice it to say that The Queen of Blood was exactly the book I needed to read at the moment I was reading it, a moment when I was feeling even more than usually disheartened by the ongoing flow of “Me, Too” stories coming out of creative communities. Hearing about so many women victimized by powerful men in Hollywood and elsewhere, I needed (and continue to need) stories about women who claim power for themselves and don’t have to smash their moral compass against a rock in order to do so. I couldn’t help but get a thrill from seeing Durst’s hero, Daleina, forge forward and refuse to listen to anyone who tries to tell her “no” — including herself.

Through Daleina, Durst plays with the fantasy genre’s traditional trope of the Chosen One, the protagonist from humble beginnings appointed by Destiny to save the kingdom and take the throne. Guided by some unseen hand of Fate, the Chosen One magically overcomes any obstacle in his (it’s usually “his”) path. He’s meant to be King because Destiny says so, though very often we’re not sure why. The triumph of the naive Everyman over and ahead of those outwardly more suited to success has a certain appeal, and Durst manages to keep what works about the trope while subverting its problems.

Like most Chosen Ones, Daleina is the one you wouldn’t look at. She does have a gift for controlling spirits, but her gift is much less pronounced, less remarkable, than the other girls training along with her for a chance to become the next Queen. Others are more obviously up to the task. But when Daleina does win the throne, it isn’t thanks to the hand of Destiny showing itself by the sudden appearance of a surprising ability; if you’re waiting for her to miraculously become the Best At Everything, you will wait in vain. Instead, she succeeds because she knows her weaknesses and is determined to get better. She takes responsibility and pours every ounce of effort into developing her skills. The keys to her rise are not inborn talents but determination, imagination, and resourcefulness. Many of the short-sighted people in her orbit actually look on her hard work as a weakness. But Ven the legendary Champion sees it for the virtue it is, and he takes her under his wing to train her to be the next Queen.

The idea of training to be Queen is another thing I love about the book. In this world, the royal title is not inherited and passed on through a bloodline. Rather, it is earned. The girl who proves herself the most adept at thwarting the spirits’ murderous impulses becomes Queen. Daleina works to achieve the title not so much to win personal glory as to keep the country safe from the tragedy her home village suffered when spirits raged out of control. Her concerns aren’t limited to the well-being of family and/or a few close friends. She thinks bigger.

Also noteworthy is that only girls and women can harness the power to control spirits, and therefore only a woman can rule. This might seem like the seed for a knock-down drag-out battle of the sexes, with men fighting to claim power and women determined to keep them in their place. Yet to my immense relief, nothing like this happens! We may seen tension between individual characters, but gender-based hostility is all but unknown. All walks of society and roles other than Queen are open to all genders. The men accept the authority of a Queen rather than feeling emasculated by it, and we meet men and women who treat each other with respect and forge solid friendships.

The Queen of Blood is not, in an obvious sense, a feel-good book; look at the title, after all. The threat of violence is everywhere, in the very air and wood and water, and the novel includes many horrifying scenes of nature turning against humankind. Characters die, and many of them are people we like. The country Daleina earns the right to rule has been badly shaken, thanks to the hubris of the previous ruler, and she must take charge of rebuilding even as she mourns the loss of so many friends. Yet still, the book affirms hopeful truths we need to hear in these frustrating times. Women can claim power and lead well. Men and women can support and strengthen each other. We just need to make up our minds to do so.

A big Thank You to Durst for giving us this book.

What’s Making Me Happy: July 2018

  1. Ross and Demelza

Since 1995, when my new kitten TZ (short for Twilight Zone) came with me to Auburn University at the beginning of my doctoral work, pets have been a part of my life, to the point where I have trouble conceiving of a daily routine in which no animal plays a part. Few things make me smile as readily as watching cats and dogs at play, and few things rouse me to fury as quickly as stories about animal abuse. Never in my life has that been truer than now.

Back in March, the last of my three “Auburn cats,” Gandalf, succumbed to heart failure at the age of sixteen. For the first time in over twenty years, I didn’t have a beautiful cat to climb up on my lap whenever I stretched out with a book. My husband and I agreed we should fill the gap by adopting a pair of kittens, but we made up our minds to wait until July. In the meantime, we had our sweet Winnie Dog. I can’t quite put Winnie into words. Here’s her picture.

Winnie on Couch 1

Then, at the very end of June, the worst happened. Winnie, too, we lost to old age and declining health. For a couple of weeks we were without a pet, with memories of Winnie and Gandalf haunting every corner of our empty house. Those memories are with us to stay, and we’ll carry them with us even when we move to a new house where they’ve never lived.

Yet we proceeded with our original plan, and on July 3 we went to the Hall County, GA Animal Shelter to pick out two kittens, a boy and a girl. Matt was the first to notice a black-and-white pair housed in the same cage. This housing indicated they were litter mates, so they would already be used to each other. We took them out of their cage and into the “play room” where we could set them down and watch them entertain themselves (and us) with a set of toys. An hour later, they came home with us. We named them Ross and Demelza, after characters from PBS’s adaptation of Winston Graham’s Poldark series.  Ross’s nose is the whiter one.

Ross Demelza 2

Ross (l), Demelza (r), with their daddy.

Since then we’ve been getting used to them, and they’ve been getting used to us. They’ve curled up to snooze on our shoulders, chest, and lap, in between periods of chasing each other around the room at Mach 2 and engaging in toothy-clawy wrestling matches and scaling the heights of their scratching-post tower. With their energy and curiosity, they make the whole house a happier place. We still miss our Winnie Dog, and still wonder how she would have reacted to them; I like to think she would have looked on their antics with Maggie Smith-like bemusement. But it’s hard not to smile when we look at them and imagine them growing into cathood under our eyes.

Ross Demelza 1

2. YouTube commentary on SFF: Book reviews and trope analysis.

Much of what you find on YouTube, just like any Internet site, is garbage, but it can also be a repository of riches of many kinds. Here are a couple of finds I’ve enjoyed recently:

The Authentic Observer takes on Cassandra Clare’s incredibly popular Shadowhunters series, in ways that remind me a bit of Mark Twain’s classic take-down, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”

Jenna Moreci shares her views on the Ten Worst Fantasy Tropes, and she doesn’t mince words.

3. A Song in the Dark

Song in the Dark

Even though I’m a fiction addict — perhaps because I’m a fiction addict — I venture into nonfiction territory from time to time, not least because some tiny seedling I find in a true story might take root and grow into an idea for a fantasy. Plus, uncovering information about something you love is always a treat, and one thing I love, almost if not quite as much as I love fantasy fiction, is “classic Hollywood,” the works and the history of cinema from its inception through the early 1960s. Any study of the films of this time period will attract my attention, whether it’s voice artist Mel Blanc’s charming autobiography That’s Not All, Folks! or Richard Barrios’ examination of the earliest musicals both good and bad, A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film. Just how did the Hollywood musical evolve and manage to survive near-extinction? Barrios shows us, with an ample helping of detail spiced with dry wit.

4. Season 2 of GLOW, on Netflix

My only problem is that Matt and I binged this one way too fast. Not our fault, really; we couldn’t help ourselves. But now we have to wait a whole year for more. I can remember a time, not that long ago, when I thought a show subtitled “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling” had no business being any good. Yet what other show presents us with such a diverse array of female characters, all funny, all flawed, all working their hearts out? The closest the show has to a central protagonist, Ruth (Allison Brie), is so wonderfully real, with her problems and her perseverance, that she’s become one of my favorite characters on television. GLOW joins Brooklyn Nine-Nine on my short list of Shows Everyone Should Be Watching.

(And speaking of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Matt and I are forever grateful to NBC for renewing the show for a sixth season.  Alas, we have to wait until mid-season to catch up with Jake, Amy, Gina, Rosa, Boyle, Terry, and Captain Holt.  But their story will continue as there’s still one good season left…)


My “Yes!” List

Lists of forthcoming SFF releases, complete with nutshell synopses/descriptions and hopefully an advance review or two, can never come out soon enough to suit me. If a new book has some combination of the following qualities, it goes at once onto my To-Read list; certain combinations propel it into the top ranks.

A second-world or historical setting.

If I click on a title and its description includes contemporary character or place names, more often than not I’ll click away from it without exploring further, unless it’s by an author whose style I admire (e.g. Patricia McKillip, whose contemporary take on Arthurian legend, Kingfisher, delighted me last year). When I read, I want to dream myself into a time and place removed from the ones I physically inhabit. New York, Chicago, and/or Atlanta with sorcerers, vampires, or werewolves thrown in just don’t have the same appeal for me as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Sanderson’s Cosmere, Wexler’s Khandar or Vordan, Pierce’s Tortall, or Bujold’s Chalion.

An active, capable female lead.

I’ve said it before, but I’m fond of repeating it: I avoid damsels, I admire heroines, but I adore female heroes. I may relish books in which the female hero is one of multiple protagonists (e.g. The Stormlight Archive and The Shadow Campaigns), but I have a soft spot for those books or series which feature a single central female hero who drives the plot (Bujold’s Paladin of Souls being one of my favorite examples), and I wish with all my heart we could see more such books and series outside the subgenres of urban fantasy and YA.

Multiple important female characters.

The Smurfette Principle — the trope of a sole female character surrounded entirely by boys/men — isn’t an automatic “No”; I don’t find it quite as abhorrent as the Not-Like-Other-Girls “girl-on-girl hate” feature I mentioned in my previous post. But whenever I read such a book, even if it’s well-written and the female character in question is dynamic and powerful, I come away feeling disappointed, as if the story were not quite complete. Unless said story is set in some rarefied environment such as a monastery, it doesn’t make sense for women not to have a noticeable presence in that world, in both background and foreground. One thing that helps a great deal–

Gender-egalitarian built worlds.

It gladdens me no end to read about societies in which men and women are shown at every level and in a variety of roles in society, and in which female and male characters do not have to jump over mile-high hurdles reading “SEXISM” in order to accomplish their goals or save the day. For some good examples, see this Goodreads list.

Friendships between women.

Not only are such friendships an effective antidote to the poison of girl-on-girl hate, but they also serve as pushback against the notion that the only relationships of any value or importance in a woman’s life are those that involve sex and/or romance. Our lives are much too full and complex to be summed up by whom we fall in love or have sex with, and I hope to see the day when as many SFF novels center around “womances” as around “bromances.” Here, for your perusal, is another Goodreads list.

Friendships between men and women.

Can men and women be “just friends”? Absolutely. In fact, the ability of men and women to interact in ways beyond the sexual is a key component of social health. The idea that men and women need and value each other only for sex lies at the heart of society’s darkest and most toxic corners, from homophobic hate groups to the “incel” movement. Children benefit when they see male/female friendships modeled as they grow up, and teens need to experience such friendships as they navigate around the land mines of adolescence. So every time I read a book like Ben S. Dobson’s Scriber or Curtis Craddock’s An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors or Sarah Beth Durst’s The Queen of Blood, in which a male/female friendship occupies a central place, I feel a little better. Another Goodreads list.

“Slow burn” romantic plots/subplots.

I have little to no patience with the type of romance commonly referred to as “insta-love,” the trope that has two characters lock eyes and immediately decide they are Meant To Be Together even though they’ve never even exchanged words. What sort of love blossoms between two people who know nothing about each other’s characters, values, ambitions, or interests? A shallow one, of course, based on nothing more than looks and sexual attraction, that in the real world would fall apart inside of a month. I might be able to suspend my disbelief for a fairy tale, but not for a novel where at least some measure of detail and development is expected.

I like a good love plot, but I want to see it built on a foundation of respect and understanding. However they start out, I want the delight of seeing them develop, surely and steadily, an appreciation of each other as individuals with unique minds, hearts, and souls. I want to come away from their stories with a strong sense they will have something to say to each other when they’re not kissing and cuddling. If I get a whiff of a book with such a plot, developed with feeling and skill, into my TBR it goes.

Kindness portrayed as strength, not weakness.

Some writers refer to showing a tough character’s kind-hearted side as “softening” that character. Why, exactly? How is kindness “soft”? Isn’t stepping in to help someone in trouble a brave and heroic thing to do? Isn’t allowing yourself the vulnerability that comes with “giving a damn” an act of courage? Kindness is tough. It’s often hard and frequently inconvenient; it’s so much easier to care solely about ourselves and about those whose “friendship” can benefit us in some way. But kindness changes hearts, and by extension it can, if given a chance, change the world.

A few new and recent titles near the top of my To-Read List, that are not the next novels in series I’ve already begun:

Naomi Novik, Spinning Silver

Rachel Hartman, Tess of the Road

Elizabeth Bear, The Stone in the Skull

Sam Hawke, City of Lies

Justina Ireland, Dread Nation

K. Arsenault Rivera, The Tiger’s Daughter

S.A. Chakraborty, The City of Brass