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Archive for the ‘Bookery’ Category

Fresh Fiction: Hammers on Bone

In March of this year I got a DM from Cassandra Khaw asking if I’d take a look at her novella, Hammers on Bone. I get a lot of blurb requests these days, so stuff really needs to hit my buttons to keep me reading. I am a fan of Khaw’s short fiction (there’s plenty to check out, but here’s “Breathe” and “When We Die on Mars“) and she was first on my Campbell nomination list this year.

Khaw’s fiction runs the gammit of science fiction, fantasy, horror, urban fantasy, and weird. Hammers on Bone is a creepy Lovecraftian urban fantasy weird (?) novella that I read all in one gulp poolside in Orlando (some TW’s for violence against women). As I am short on time these days, I will simply share the blurb I wrote with you, and urge you all to check it out:

Cassandra Khaw’s explosive, evocative prose is a treat to read. Khaw’s ability to transform the mundane into the deeply phantasmagorical is nothing short of magical. Prepare to take a long leap into the gory, the weird, and the fantastic in the hands of a fresh new voice in fiction.

Enjoy!

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More Books I Have Been Reading

When you find yourself casting about for ideas, it means it’s time to refill the bucket. So I have been. Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly of what I’ve been reading the last few weeks.

Writing How-To’s

I Give You My Body: How I Write Sex Scenes by Diana Gabaldon

51swfw1xiul-_sy346_As those who’ve read my work know, while I do have the occasional sex scene in my novels, it’s generally only a few lines. My books aren’t romances, so this isn’t something I’ll dwell on for pages, but sex is still an important thing to my characters, and I have wanted to have more emotional turning points in the bedroom (or wherever) than I have. I’ve read a few primers on writing sex scenes, but this was the first I’ve read that I actually found useful. Gabaldon’s note that the more senses you can engage in a scene, the more tactile it becomes was a really helpful and practical way to think about these scenes.

 

Take off Your Pants: Outline your books for faster, better writing

5100lvz-oql-_sy346_This was NOT about writing sex scenes, of course, but novel outlines and creating master plots so that you can write faster, more efficiently, and of course, write better page turners. Unlike 2K to 10k, it didn’t really change my life or anything, but it provided some good outline suggestions (and noted, once again, that if you’re REALLY interested in structure, head over to those screenwriting books. Screenwriters are obsessed with structure). I wouldn’t pay for a paperback of this, but three bucks for it on Kindle is fair (it’s only 100 pages).

 

Book Research

Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer

51nmwmxnxtl-_sx328_bo1204203200_This was one of those books that fundamentally changed how I view the world. Seanan McGuire recommended it to me on Twitter, and I AM SO GLAD. I’ve become very interested in how tied humans are to the organic systems here on earth. We need bacteria from this planet, something that we need to keep in mind if we choose to leave said planet. This book goes a step further and posits that we need those wormy parasites, too, and that many of them, in fact, have been integral to our own development. I’d read a lot of other studies about hookworms curing or reducing the symptoms of chronic immune disorders like lupus and type 1 diabetes, and this book points out that the rise of immuno-disorders like these can indeed be tracked to the elimination of parasites. As the parasites are destroyed, these types of diseases increase. So do allergies. Our immune systems are incredibly powerful, because they have been driven by parasites to become that way. So when you remove the parasites, they are more likely to go haywire and start attacking the body itself. Introduce some worms, and the chemicals that the worms put out suppress your immune system. All this time I thought my problem was I had a shit immune system. It turns out it’s actually very good. So good that it’s trying to kill me. If you want to bend the way you think of humans and how “great” the miracle of life is in the world, check out this book. Halfway through reading about all the terrible things parasites do to animals and people, I decided that it was totally OK for life everywhere to go extinct and all these barren rocks are actually the pinnacle of civilized existence, because for fuck’s sake, life is fucking CRUEL AND AWFUL. I mean, in a fascinating way.

Grunt by Mary Roach

41snvmsomkl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Because I clearly can’t get enough Mary Roach books, I also read Grunt, her examination of some of the less talked about and less glamorous sides of the military. Lots of interesting details here about sleeping, eating, and shitting on a military campaign, and the bazillions of dollars in wild studies that go on (polar bears think used tampons are delicious, but other bears aren’t interested, so hey, don’t run around naked in Alaska while menstruating. Read and find out!).  There is plenty of heartbreak in here, as well. The roundtable of medical professionals who go over the deaths of soldiers in the field and point out how they could have been better treated on the field so that they survived their injuries was sobering.

 

Death’s Acre: Inside the legendary forensic lab the body farm where the dead do tell tales by William Bass

41z4p5lu2fl-_sx324_bo1204203200_I’ve heard about The Body Farm on Bones, of course, so I had to check out this book. It’s a great long look at this life of forensic anthropologist William Bass, who got started doing forensic anthropology back in the 50’s before there really was such a thing. There are some shocking truths here, among them that he and his team spent many summers in the 50’s digging up, literally, thousands of Native American graves before they were covered by water by a dam project. How they find the cemeteries is interesting, and the science is cool, but we’re talking about cemetaries that really aren’t that old, belonging to ancestors of people still alive, and the sheer number here was staggering. What I did appreciate is that he does not look away from these terrible truths of how forensic science was developed. The bodies of the poor, of slaves, of those with less power in society, had their skeletons pulled. For years the body farm actually used corpses from the local morgue of poor people whose bodies were never claimed by anyone. I mean. Wow. This is a wide-eyed look at what has been done to advance forensic science, dark and gray and everything in between. It doesn’t pretend it’s not messy and morally messed up.

The Red Market: On the trail of the world’s organ brokers, bone thieves, blood farmers, and child traffikers by Scott Carney

51low0njnql-_sy346_So, with Death’s Acre, the narrator dug up thousands of Native American graves. That’s… pretty atrocious, despite how “great” it was for “science.” He also sticks to a lot of assumptions about skeletons and race while admitting that actually a lot of those markers can be wrong. But he was not, overall, painted as an unlikable person, if that makes any sense whatsoever. At the end of the day, I respected what he did and found plenty of other admirable things about him. That’s not true of the narrator of this book, who came across like a privileged whiny white kid shocked SHOCKED at the state of the “third world.” A lot of stuff here that got presented felt like rumor mongering. He didn’t question many of the reports, and appeared to do a very small surface level of actual reporting. The book has a great title, but I wouldn’t say it presented anything new, to me. Worse, it starts out with him giving us this personal story of how one of the young people he was leading as a tour/teaching guide committed suicide in a foreign country, and his narrative about it is so self-reflective, so narcissistic (and creepily sexualizes her in death) that it was really tough to get through the rest of the book with this guy as my guide. It’s got a great title and cover, tho. So, there’s that.

Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found by Francis Larson

61e-odigl6l-_sy346_Another book I was recommended via twitter and yeah, wow, this one is great. If you ever doubted that Europeans were bloody weird scary conquering nutjobs, this book will put you straight. I read an amazing book back when I was working on my Master’s thesis called Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa, which talks about all the seemingly “crazy” myths about Europeans that many Africans in the Congo in particular had about Europeans. That they were vampires, that they kidnapped people for their blood, and all sorts of other stuff, and you know, after reading about Europeans actually did in Africa, this shit is not crazy at all. Not in the least. Horrible shit went down. This one also points out how seemingly “barbaric” practices like headhunting were actually driven by European demand (much like scalping). The human obsession with heads across many cultures is explored, and it’s grim and gruesome. For instance, did you know that American GI’s took home Japanese soldiers’ heads in WWII as trophies? You know whose heads they DIDN’T take home? Nazi heads. Why? Racism. This, too, is explored in depth.

Life Hacks

Purple Cow by Seth Godin

514fkvz8z9l-_sx361_bo1204203200_This is a classic Godin book with some outdated examples and such, but the premise of the book still holds up. No matter what business your in, the market is most likely oversaturated. As an author writing in a world clogged with trad and self-pubb’d books, and movies and games and TV and social media and VR fighting for people’s attention, getting eyes on your project is a fucking struggle these days. Godin notes that if you want to stand out, you need to offer something truly and absolutely exceptional. You need to come up with a purple cow. Figuring out what your purple cow is, of course, is the problem. Worse is figuring out how to come up with the NEXT purple cow once everyone else is making purple cows like yours. The gosh-wow treadmill we’re on these days makes me wish I could have built a writing career back in the 80’s.

Stop Saying You’re Fine by Mel Robbins

51bdmtwyrl-_sx322_bo1204203200_One of those self-help books for folks feeling stuck in a life rut. Am I in a life rut? Well, I’ve certainly been cruising along here for five years or so without a lot of massive leaps in forward momentum. My career is ticking up, but slowly, so slowly, the long author marathon, and sometimes it moves forward so slowly so sure do FEEL like you’re standing still. Some good ass-kicking here, some strategies. It did get me to finally institute my sticker motivation calendar. Baby steps.

 

Fiction

Elektrograd: Rusted Blood by Warren Ellis

41qqumeoovlSome good Weird fiction. Don’t expect to get pulled in by the vague plot or enticed by the interesting characters, but gosh-wow worldbuilding, etc. The apartment blocks are these living things that get up and move. Took me a bit to get through, but… worldbuildling.

 

I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas

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I read this one in… like, two days? It was a surprisingly light, easy read from Mamatas, which was not quite what I expected. A murder goes down at a Lovecraft convention, so you’ve got a murder mystery to drive the “plot,” but the book is mostly an excuse to poke fun at the convention community as a whole. Having been to my fair share of conventions now, I recognize all of these types (there is a disclaimer in LARGE LETTERS at the front of the book insisting that these are all fictional characters, but you know…), and I admit to rolling with laughter at many scenes, especially the ones of panels (“But I AM the moderator!”) because it was a lot like being there. There’s a lot of in-jokes and nods to real SFF controversies. My main issue with the book was that I couldn’t figure out the protagonist’s motivation to solve the murder (and the police weren’t terribly convincing, but hey, Cthulu’s influence can work as an excuse for everything). As a newcomer to the convention scene who barely knew the guy who gets killed, she does things that make sense for the plot, but I never figured out her personal stakes. At the end of the day, it didn’t really matter. It was a breezy popcorn read, which I admit is not something I ever thought I’d say about a Mamatas book. My spouse eagerly grabbed this from me after I was done, and I think he’ll enjoy it as well. This was published by Night Shade Books, who I hate supporting because they still owe me a shitbrick of money, but it was a fun book.

Awards Eligibility & Reading Recs

It’s here! It’s time!

I know, I know, seems like it was just yesterday we went over this, eh? But ’tis the new season, and so: the new post.

BEST NOVEL

The second book in the Worldbreaker Saga, EMPIRE ASCENDANT came out in October of 2015, and is eligible in all the best novel categories.

That said, this was another insanely great year for books, and I don’t have my fingers crossed for this one. It’s a middle book, and it’s up against some books I’ll be happily nominating for best novel, including THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT and PLANETFALL. Ann Leckie made another powerful showing with ANCILLARY MERCYUPROOTED was also a huge treat, and if I was nominating work on pure entertainment value, it would be up there.

Yet as much as I loved those, I think this is going to be THE FIFTH SEASON’S year. It’s an incredible book, not just a great read, but thematically and technically brilliant, and I expect to see it on a lot of lists, mine among them. So. Good.

BEST NOVELLA

As ever, a category I don’t read or write a lot of, but there was a huge number of novellas out from Tor this year, and Tachyon, Subterranean, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction continue to put out great stuff. I’m just under-read.

I did really enjoy Catherynne Valente’s “Speak Easy “. So check that one out, too.

BEST NOVELLETE

My Patreon novelette, “The Judgement of Gods and Monsters” came out in 2015 via Patreon and is being reprinted this year in Beyond Ceaseless Skies, which will actually mean it’s eligible for 2015’s awards (I know, the rules are weird). I’ll update this post when the story is live for those who haven’t read it yet.

I really love this one, but I’m biased, naturally.

BEST SHORT STORY

I had some short fiction come out that’s eligible, my favorite of which is “The Light Brigade.” This one was selected for a Year’s Best, but I had to turn it down because it was coming out from Night Shade Books, and I’d like to keep as much of my work away from them as possible; the editor of that anthology is great and totally understood my reasons. It was also chosen for inclusion in PWNING Tomorrow, the EFF benefit anthology.

Elephants and Corpses, a Tor.com short story about body-hopping mercenaries and endearing elephants, came out in May, making it eligible for 2015 awards.

“Body Politic” was out in the anthology Meeting Infinity, and is also eligible, as it’s an original story.

“The Improbable War” which debuted in Popular Science Magazine also counts, as many “short story” categories have an upper but not a lower word count limit.

As for what I’ve read this year, folks know that I’m a fan of Seth Dickinson’s short fiction, like this eligible story.

Nino Cipri wrote a lovely time-travel story I thought was fabulous, “The Shape of My Name.” Read it (I’ve discovered I’m kind of a sucker for time travel stories almost as much as war stories). Another I liked, also chosen by editor Ann VanderMeer, is Haralambi Markov’s “The Language of Knives.” You’ll see why pretty quickly.

I’ll also point folks in the direction of Cassandra Khaw, whose work is new to me this year. Check out “You’re All Going to Die on Mars” and “Her Pound of Flesh.”

BEST RELATED WORK/BEST ANTHOLOGY/BEST COLLECTION

Meeting Infinity fits into any of these categories on various ballots. I think something like half of the stories in it have already been pulled for Year’s Best collections, so you may want to check this one out.

BEST FAN WRITER

Abigail Nussbaum is repeatedly robbed of this title every year. Read her stuff to see why you should vote for her this year.

BEST NEW WRITER/CAMPBELL

As ever, the toughest category of all, as one doesn’t know if an author is eligible unless they tell you. I’ll update this one as the lists start to come out. Cassandra Khaw has let me know that this is her first year of eligibility, so there’s one!

As for the other categories across various awards ballots, I’m going to be reading other recommendations posts looking for new work and artists to check out, and I hope you will too.

The great part about awards season that we don’t talk about enough is how great it is to find little gems of work that we missed in the last year, and great new-to-us authors that we can follow into the new year.

 

 

The Long Fall to a Sentient, Creepy Planet: Planetfall

I read Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About To… when I was in my early twenties. It’s the story of a bunch of unrelated people who crash land on an uninhabited but habitable planet, and whose male members quickly decide that what they really all ought to do, since no hope of rescue is forthcoming, is colonize the planet and start breeding for the cause.

This is a dumb thing to consider, but it’s an assumption we see in a lot of Golden Age SF parables about how the last man and woman alive should hook up so humanity can carry on. Russ skewers this idea neatly by lobbing a homicidal no-nonsense heroine into the fray.

A lot of these starry-eyed tales forgot that when we’re going off to colonize new planets, who we are as humans comes with us. Russ’s book did not. Nor does Emma Newman’s blistering SF/mystery/colonization novel PLANETFALL. It took me a few pages to get into this one, enough that I considered setting it down for about half a minute before the mystery kicked in and I realized there was more to this seemingly utopic colony than first meets the eye.

When it comes to pinpointing what it is I love about a particular book, or why I get passionate about it, sometimes I can’t come up with much more than “I just liked it.” Other times I write something like 4,000 words of personal essay on it. So the mileage really varies. PLANETFALL was the perfect merging of two genres I love – mystery and science fiction – with fascinating worldbuilding and community politics. We forget, in getting wrapped up in our huge epic fantasies, that the original seat of political backstabbing happened within small, insular communities just like the one in PLANETFALL. It’s little towns that often harbor the biggest secrets.

It’s what those secrets do to us, and their consequences to our larger communities, that make up the creepy heart of this fun, engaging science fiction novel.

Five stars of win. Highly recommended. Best of all, it’s out today, so you can click and buy right now.

What Will You Sacrifice? The Traitor Baru Cormorant

Reading is a very personal experience. And so we start here, with the personal:

What would you sacrifice, to achieve your life’s ambition?

I know what I’ll sacrifice for mine, because I’ve already done it, and it is this:

I will sacrifice everything. All of it.

And I will never look back.

I didn’t have any hobbies in school outside of writing, or many friends. I came home and I wrote. I wrote in class. I wrote during summer breaks. I wrote on vacation. I wrote when other people went to birthday parties and dances and family reunions and played video games. I worked a lot of grinding temp jobs to make ends meet while I wrote. I cleaned dog kennels. I sold popcorn. I worked in a vitamin store. I was a waitress. But always, I wrote, because all I ever wanted was to be a writer, to be published. I figured I’d spend my whole life working food service jobs, trying to get a novel published, because I didn’t have the time to invest in being good at anything else.

It turns out that getting published and making a career of it is easier for some people than others. For me, it was and is hard. I had to burn down a lot of other things around me. I still do. And I’m still a long way from making a living at this.

Not everyone has it as tough as me. Some have it  much, much harder. Some have it easier.

But I’m not naturally talented. I’m not a savant. So all I can do is work harder.

What We Give Up

I blew through a series of disastrous relationships in my mid-twenties. People wanted love and commitment from me, but all I wanted was a book contract. I started writing GOD’S WAR when I was 24, the ninth novel in a long line of failed novels that I had been writing for the last 12 years. When people asked me what I did, there was only this: writing, and writing, and writing. I wasn’t as good as other people, and I knew it, but dammit, I wanted it, and I was willing to work for it. I was willing to fight up through what I was told was an inherently rigged game: women were going to be reviewed less, judged more harshly, and feminist work in particular was going to be a hard sell. The system was broken, they said. You don’t have a chance, they said. You can’t sell that fucking book about a bisexual bounty hunter and bugs, they said, because nobody knows how to fucking market it.

I decided that if nobody else knew how to fucking market my shit, I’d figure out how to market it my own damn self.

I finished and shopped around GOD’S WAR when I was 27, but it took nearly four more years of messy publication madness for it to see print.

I had to work harder.

When GOD’S WAR finally hit, it was the passion in the writing, folks said, that drew them to it. I wasn’t an exceptional writer when it came to plot or prose as yet (getting better), but my passion and grit shone through. It was the passion and drive and persistence (and luck) that helped get MIRROR EMPIRE picked up even after my third book in the GOD’s WAR series tanked. And it was MIRROR EMPIRE, paired with the success of an unapologetically feminist essay (of all things!) called “We Have Always Fought” that finally helped me generate the respectable sales numbers and public profile I needed to sign more contracts.

Feminist work doesn’t sell? Well, fuck you.

I will sell it my own damn self.

That’s a long road, and a long time to give things up to get there. Nearly twenty years.

I read an essay from Samuel R. Delany once where he talked about all of the things he had given up in his pursuit of being an exceptional writer – his health, his relationships, having children, a profession other than writing or teaching. Some people had to work harder, he said, and to work that hard at one thing – especially if you’re working up inside a system that’s not friendly toward you and your work because of your race, your gender, who you go to bed with, what your politics are– sometimes you have to give up everything else… and even then, there are no guarantees that you’ll make it.

I saw a lot of myself in that essay.

I was the person who worked and worked right up until getting hauled off to the emergency room when I was 26, yelling “I’m fine, I’m fine!” from the back of the ambulance before learning I had a chronic illness and all that time writing was going to have to count for extra, because now not only was I not starting out better than other people, or as a dude writing about dudes, but I was going to have less time than other people to write all this bullshit, too.

My path to getting published, when I look back, is not only a long slog of hard work, but a ruthless slash-and-burn wreck of everyone and everything that I saw getting in the way of that.  I’ll note that it wasn’t until after GOD’S WAR sold the first time that I hooked up with the person who would later become my stellar spouse. But that was about all I could manage and still fulfill my contracts and manage my illness. I had my tubes tied three months after GOD’S WAR was finally published.

It’s only as I write this that I see the grim irony in that.

I knew what I had to give up to have what I wanted. I knew the odds were stacked. I had to push back.

I had to work harder.

Sacrifices May Vary

Does everyone have to give up everything to be a writer, or a lawyer, or a politician, or an accountant who rules the world? Of course fucking not. Most authors have children and alternate, successful high-powered careers outside of writing, and a multitude of friendships and fountain of hobbies. I see these people all the time. Some even have first novels that hit it big the first time out, and get to give up their day jobs and create their own schedules. Some aren’t in this to be career writers, and are more than happy to write a book a decade without trying to murder themselves at the frenetic book-a-year (or more) pace.

But not all of us. Not all of us. Some of us start much further behind. Some of us have to grind to keep up. And we forget that sometimes. We want to believe in overnight successes. We want to believe we can have everything and sacrifice nothing.

The truth is, we can’t, always. That’s a shitty thing to hear. It’s a shitty thing to live.

And it’s why, sometimes, we need stories that acknowledge that.

I offer this preamble to my review of THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT because reading experiences are, by their very nature, incredibly personal and subjective things. Only half of the reading experience is what the author puts on the page. The other half is what you bring to it.

I brought a lot of baggage to Baru.

Luckily, Baru has baggage too.

CNM-g0cVAAAFfKuWho’s Baru?

I got the pitch for this book from editor Marco Palmieri sometime in November of last year. In part, the pitch went like this:

When the Empire of Masks conquers her island home, overwrites her culture, criminalizes her customs, and murders one of her fathers, Baru Cormorant vows to swallow her hate, join the Empire’s civil service, and claw her way high enough to set her people free. Sent as an Imperial agent to distant Aurdwynn, another conquered country, Cormorant discovers it’s on the brink of rebellion. Drawn by the intriguing duchess Tain Hu into a circle of seditious dukes, Baru may be able to use her position to help. As she pursues a precarious balance between the rebels and a shadowy cabal within the Empire, she orchestrates a do-or-die gambit with freedom as the prize. But the cost may be much higher than she is willing to pay. For Baru’s meticulous plans did not include falling in love with the woman she might have to betray to win the long game of saving her people.

I had read a short story by the author, Seth Dickinson, called “A Tank Only Fears Four Things” and it gutted me, so I was intrigued to see how he’d pull off this story. I knew Dickinson was a mean, precise writer who wielded words with scalpel-like precision, and he wasn’t afraid to hit you just where it hurt most.

What I did not expect was to get the book and cry through the first forty pages of the book.

THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not. It’s set up from the beginning as a tragedy about power and commerce and sacrifice, and that’s exactly what you get. As in every good tragedy, Baru is given the opportunity to change her course many, many times throughout the novel. But she is single-minded and ruthless in her pursuit of vengeance against the empire that destroyed her home and murdered her father. She is willing to give up everything and everyone to achieve her life’s ambition.

She’s going to change the power structure of the whole world. And she’s going to do it without picking up a gun or a sword or head-butting anyone in the face. She’s going to do it with a pen.

Indeed. I have no idea why I liked her so much. None at all.

What will you sacrifice?

If you are Baru Cormorant, you will sacrifice everything.

Grim Optimism

There are some folks who won’t like this book. It’s a book where bad things happen to people. But what makes this an inspiring book, for me, as opposed to a story of suffering where Everything is Awful, is that this story doesn’t exist just to tell you that Everything is Awful and colonialism is Bad and We’re All Fucked. It says Everything Can Be Awful but even people who endure the worst – people who are colonized, who are beaten, who are overwhelmed by far greater numbers, by technology – can pick up a pen, and a sword, and work their asses off, and give up everything, and they can win.

Baru drives this story. Things don’t just “happen” to her, just as they did not just happen to me. This is not a book about someone lying around and having terrible things happen to them and boo-hoo isn’t life shit let’s all die. Baru orchestrates this plot, and the empire that seeks to destroy her way of life, like a maestro, certainly with far more agency than I’ve ever managed to achieve in the orchestration of my own life.

And I can say Baru’s journey is one of grim optimism. Yes, she gives up everything.

But you know what? (spoilers) She achieves what she set out to achieve, even if it meant giving up far more than she ever imagined.

Whether or not winning was worth giving up everything, well, that’s something for her to figure out.

But there’s a grim comfort in that, for people like me who aren’t sure if we’re going to win, who aren’t sure if there’s an end game.

Not all of us win.

The Bad Ass Accountant

Traitor-UK-487x750“I work in banking,” the reader who won my ARC bundle contest said after reading THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT, “and Baru is the most BAD ASS ACCOUNTANT EVER.”

And she is.

In truth, it was refreshing to read a book where a protagonist topples whole governments with… like, banking schemes and commerce and shit. The one time in the book she picks up a sword is played as a comic moment, because she really has no idea how to use it. This is a fearless and ruthless intellectual hero, and I honestly can’t think of anyone in fiction like her.

Is there an over-emphasis here on the horror of systematic homophobia in this colonialist society? Probably. Is the worldbuilding odd in that respect, as homophobia of this nature is, in our world, largely tied up in Abrahamic religions? Sure. My God’s War books have some systematic homophobia in various societies, reinterpreted and reimagined to fit in each particular culture. The Worldbreaker books don’t. That has a lot to do with one being SF and one being fantasy. It’s a fair criticism. How and why relentless homophobia exists in this world isn’t fully teased out. But it’s no more or less lazy than some other fantasy worldbuilding I could eviscerate here, especially in regards to how woman are treated in most other books. And though sometimes it sucks to live in this world, goddammit, every single one of the people struggling through it are real people, not cardboard cutouts, not stereotypes, and not people who exist to be shit on.

There’s something to be said for that.

At any rate, as Baru climbs up through the ranks of power to infiltrate and undo her enemy, the book also asks important questions about whether or not those of us who try and change a system from the inside are forever changed by it. Does the process of infiltrating the system transform us into the very enemy we were fighting?

And this was the other very personal question that the book laid bare for me, and why I responded so strongly to it, because it’s a question I’m sitting here asking myself as I type up my own work, and as I share posts like this. After ten years of yelling on the internet, and twenty of writing and submitting work, I’ve got a voice people are listening to. Big posts of mine will reach twenty thousand or more readers. My books have now crested that reader mark, too. That’s not the hundreds of thousands or millions that other people see, but compared to the hundred people who used to read this blog ten years ago, that’s a lot. When I speak, people listen, and I’ve become even more aware of what I’m saying.

With great power comes great responsibility, and all that bullshit.

Grinding on Up

As I grind up through the publishing millhouse I am very aware of who and what I’m becoming, and watching Baru struggle with that at a higher level, with more frightening stakes, tore up my insides because I have felt something like that here on my own tiny little plane of existence.

You spent all this time getting here, but now, really, are you any better than the people in the system who you were fighting against?

I know that no matter what I do,  or how good I hope to be, there will be a lot of people who will always see me as the enemy now. I, like Baru, have become part of The Empire. I’ll read stuff about me online and it’s very clear that to many folks on the margins, I’m the worst shit in the universe. There are younger feminists ranting hard and long about what a sellout I am. People think it’s all far-right hate mail, but my most vociferous haters are actually folks on the far left who think I’m far too conservative and conventional. I’ve become an Enemy of the People.

I’m always going to be someone’s enemy, because people need enemies…and because I’m doing the best I can in a system that’s so very broken.

And I look at me, and I look at Baru, and I look at our choices, and I wonder if this is the only end game, or if we could have succeeded without wrecking all this destruction, and without becoming a part of the very system(s) we set out to destroy. I wonder if it was inevitable that all of our choices led us here, or if there was another way to get here.

On Tragedy and Comfort Fiction

I’ve talked before about how tragedy is like comfort fiction for me, and that’s why I found THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT to be such cathartic read. I could read about somebody asking the same questions I’ve had to ask, someone whose stakes are far higher, whose life is far grimmer, whose resolve is far stickier, and I can step back and watch someone else navigate that horrible road, and I can cry for them in a way I can’t cry for myself.

She deserves the pity. I don’t. I probably just need a fucking vacation. There’s a lot less at stake if I burn out than there is when Baru burns out. And her burn out is coming. I can feel it.

I don’t know what Baru or I are going to have any hard answers, in the end. Maybe we’ve done terrible things to get here (I have not destroyed the economies of whole countries, but looking at some of the vitriol spewed my way online, you’d think I might have). Maybe we’ve become terrible people in the process.

I know there are some who hate tragedies all together, especially ones with queer protagonists, and I get that: this isn’t the book for you. But you know what? I’m queer and female and my life sure has felt fucking tragic at times, screaming from the back of an ambulance, getting evicted from my apartment, living on expired insulin because I was too poor to buy new stuff. I am at the point in my life where I can cheer and say I’m winning now (FOR NOW), but at the time it pretty much looked like I’d given up everything and gotten nothing. I have been Baru standing there holding ash in my hands and wondering if it was all fucking worth it.

The truth is that sometimes, especially in broken systems like ours, those of us who aren’t playing on the lowest difficult setting have to give up a lot of things to achieve our life’s ambition. That’s the reality. And yes, I need stories that say fuck that, and envision better futures, and I even write some of those! But sometimes, just sometimes, I need stories that acknowledge that fight, and that sacrifice, and that invite me to interrogate that experience, and to let me feel it, really feel it, in a way that’s safe.

Because I need to ask, and to understand, who I am at the end of all of this – am I really Luke Skywalker, fighting the good fight against evil, or has fighting up through the system turned me into just another Stormtrooper for the Empire?

What side will Baru be on, in the end?

Let’s all find out.

THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT.

Read it and weep.

I did.

New Story Covers: Self-Pub/Hybrid/Trad Chat

After finishing the cover for “The Judgement of Gods and Monsters,” my second Patreon-funded short story, I got a lot of compliments on the cover, and a few people asked who had done it for me.

I’m still pretty cash poor around these parts, funneling most of my money toward getting out of debt, so I’ve been doing these on my own for some time. What I realized with that cover, and with the one I did for “The Light Brigade” is that I had leveled up enough at this skill that it was probably time to revisit what I’d put on the covers for my self-pubbed short stories and collection.

I put out most of these back in 2011 and 2012 as part of my marketing campaign for the GOD’S WAR novels.

As you can see… well, they needed some… updating:

old covers

One of the things I’ve been doing the last five years is studying covers and trying to understand what works and what doesn’t. I also study titles, but in this case I wanted to keep the titles the same just to avoid confusion, so I decided not to update those.

The break down on what I’ve figured out: covers need to clearly convey what genre you’re selling. SF needs spaceships or planets or space, generally. Fantasy does well with epic landscapes and armies and/or fighting. It’s far less important to show what happens in the book on the cover than it is to convey a feeling of the book and what it’s going to cover. You want to drive expectations: this is a story about spaceships fighting. This is a story about nobles who run with wolves. This is a story about Cthulu (tentacles. Always tentacles).

You also need to take small viewing screen into account, especially now that people aren’t just browsing on computers  or laptops – but from tablets and phones. Clear, bold, uncluttered text and simple imagery will get you further than overbusy graphics. You want people to be able to easily see and understand what you’re selling.

Another thing I wanted to figure out was how to mark short stories as being part of existing worlds that I’m writing in, like Nyx’s Umayma from the God’s War universe, or the Worldbreaker series, if I ever write any in that. I came up with a lot of different text treatments, but they all seemed cluttered and difficult to understand, so I just went with a straight-up text treatment:

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I tried this a couple of times with death heads, but bloody heads and skulls code horror, and I needed something that coded “gritty” and that was this text treatment. Yes, I considered using bugs, but every image I put together looked awful. I may go back and add a bug peeking out from the bullet hole there as an Easter egg for those who look closely, but I’m happy with how this looks on the revised covers:

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Same stories. Better designs.

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Purchase

The Seams Between the Stars | After Birth | The Body Project | Brutal Women: The Short Stuff

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I think my most successful cover in this set is for “The Body Project.” It’s a clean design with black text on a pale background. The hovering people in the beam of light not only evoke the story, but also code SF very well without a lot of over complicated detail:

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For my short story collection, I actually re-hashed a redesign I’d started for the relaunch of my old God’s War blog tour post collection, before I sold a THE GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION to Tor earlier this year, which contains some of those essays. It looks a little literary for what it is, but yanno, fuck it, so does Ursula K. LeGuin’s covers:

BW Short Stuff Cover 9-4-15
Kameron Hurley: Literary as fuck.

I’ll also be curious to see what affect, if any, new cover designs have on these old stories. I’ve always been keen on running cover/pricing experiments on self-pub stuff, but just never had the time. So far I can say, after a few days, that it’s absolutely no difference whatsoever.

Folks ask me, often, why I don’t go full self-pub, and the reason is that the types of books I write just aren’t suited as well for digital-only. They’re complex books low on romance and supernatural elements. They aren’t the world’s most accessible books. There’s a far greater audience for 100-level fantasy like the Dragonlance novels and The Name of the Wind than for 300-level fantasy like The Mirror Empire. That said, I’d argue the Malazan novels are far more complex than my books, and they’ve found their audience, so hope springs eternal (though the Malazan audience is not primarily digital either, I’ll note. LET US STORM THE PAPER MARKET: MY AUDIENCE POTENTIAL HAS YET TO BE REACHED).

So as much as I enjoy my little self-pub experiments, for me and my career, a hybrid approach where I’m putting up some self-pub, doing some Patreon stories, and working with three or four (or more) publishers is the right mix for now, unless somebody can give me a better deal. In an ideal world, I’d be pulling enough in traditional contracts that I could dedicate myself to one or two traditional publishers, but no one has yet made me a good enough offer to do that.

But someday soon. Sooooon.

So we carry on. We persevere, we make covers, we make deals, we keep our day jobs.

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Purchase

The Seams Between the Stars | After Birth | The Body Project | Brutal Women: The Short Stuff

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Bad Plants in New Packages and Other Cool Stuff

The mass market paperback edition of the grim, parallel-universes colliding epic THE MIRROR EMPIRE is out today and includes a bonus first chapter of EMPIRE ASCENDANT.

READ IT AND WEEP MY FRIENDS.

EMPIRE ASCENDANT can now also be pre-ordered from Audible, and will be out the same day as the ebook and paper version, October 6th.

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As this is a Tuesday, that also means a bunch of other BRAND SPANKING NEW books are hitting the shelves today, including these reads:

UPDRAFT

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TWELVE KINGS IN SHARAKHAI

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SORCERER TO THE CROWN

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CHAPELWOOD

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THE SORCERER OF THE WILDEEPS

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And loads more. Happy reading!

To Blurb or Not to Blurb: My Book Reading & Rec Policy

Sometime in the last year, the number of requests I’ve gotten to blurb or simply early-read books has gone up tremendously. For folks who can read a book in a three or four hour stretch, this may not be a big deal, but unless I’m in the midst of a gripping made-for-me book, it takes me a long time to finish things (and even then, bare minimum, it takes me 3-7 days). Add in all my other deadlines, especially here at year’s end, and I’m just overwhelmed.

I’ve been hearing a lot of murmurs at cons that “a Kameron Hurley blurb means something”(but what???) which kind of worries me (no pressure!), and has also contributed to this uptick. I may not sell millions of my own books, but my opinion is apparently taken seriously inside some genre circles.

Because I get so many requests now, I wanted to talk a little about what makes the difference between “Books I’ll blurb,” “Books I’ll review” and “Books I’ll signal boost” so that folks understand what I’m thinking when I choose to blurb or review what I dol.

Books I Will Probably Blurb

Ok, listen. If you send me a book to blurb and I don’t get back to you it’s MOST likely because I wasn’t able to finish it – I was too busy, it got lost among other things, I picked up a book that grabbed hold of me more than yours, etc (I still haven’t finished books I’m reading for fun like THE GOBLIN EMPEROR and THE PERIPHERAL and the last three Christopher Priest books). Next most likely is that I got into and realized it wasn’t for me and put it down again.

22.alamyThat said, there is a strange strata of books I read that I enjoy but that I don’t blurb, and that’s generally because it doesn’t seem like something that people who read my work would be into. Case in point: early in my career I was asked to blurb a secondary world supernatural romance. It was a good book with enjoyable worldbuilding, but it had some problematic power dynamics, and I just couldn’t put my name on it without a disclaimer. I didn’t think people who read my stuff would be into it; if my audience isn’t a good crossover audience for your book, then my blurb isn’t going to help you. I could be wrong! But that’s something I take into account. People tend to come to my work for the worldbuilding, the genderbending, and the kickass women protagonists. If I’m not seeing a lot of that in your book, I will probably just review it instead of providing a pre-release blurb.

I also bear some responsibility for the books that I blurb – if those books are problematic, that does blow back on me, so I blurb with care. I need to love something enough to swallow that and be OK with it.

What I really want to avoid, of course, is becoming one of those authors whose blurbs mean nothing except that I’m friends with the author, or that I feel sorry for them. I don’t want to be one of those authors who just blurbs everything like, “Well, this book promises to be good if only I could have finished reading it!” or some ridiculous nothing-statement like that.

Books I’ll Review

I’ll review pretty much everything that I enjoy or think is worthwhile and challenging in some way on my site in the “Books You Should be Reading” feature. That said, I have to FINISH it, first, and whoa boy, yeah – that’s the real issue, there. What I like about reviews as opposed to blurbs is that I can put the disclaimers in there – yes, this book was great, but watch out for that rape scene, or yes, this book was great, but understand that it has some serious women problems.

Books I’ll Signal Boost

If I know you/have met you and I like you and your books are well-written and not a scourge upon the earth and you’re not a giant asshole, I’ll probably signal boost your release news/goodie tweets, etc. Please don’t ASK me to do this, because it’s at my discretion and I’d prefer to keep this as a “Nice thing to do when I see it” instead of yet another full-time job thing, though. I have enough full time jobs, thanks.

Bonus Trivia

Don’t send me generic medieval dudebro books. For real. Just don’t. You’re wasting your time and my time and your book marketing budget. Send me a book with wicked women protagonists, fabulous worldbuilding, and great writing.

Blurb/Review requests should go through my agent (Hannah Bowman) or to my publicity @ kameronhurley.com address. If you send me a pitch and the book doesn’t sound like it’s up my alley, I will decline or decline through my agent, and save us all some time.

I’m more likely to read paper copies of a book than ecopies. Sorry, marketing budgets. This has something to do with having it staring at me on my nightstand instead of buried on Kindle Cloud on my phone.

I hate fishing for blurbs just as much as you do. I have to fish for blurbs, too, and I know it sucks. Please know that I understand this is something we all have to do even though we hate it, and I’m not mad or annoyed at you or anything for asking, as long as you’re not annoying about it. In general when I ask for blurbs I ask once, then follow up once a couple weeks before blurbs are due for people who requested the manuscript to let them know blurbs are due soon. I don’t expect replies and leave it at that and never mention it again if they don’t blurb or review the book.

To sum up, I love you all (probably), but I have three jobs and very exacting reading taste. So say we all.

Books You Should Be Reading: THE LIBRARY AT MOUNT CHAR

I want you to look at the cover of THE LIBRARY AT MOUNT CHAR. JUST LOOK AT IT. Anyone who says covers don’t sell books is lying. There’s a reason it’s the biggest marketing expense a publisher spends on a novel, and if they get it wrong, you may not be entirely fucked, but you will be put at a severe disadvantage.

The cover was enough for me to click, and when I opened to the first page, well… it’s about a librarian walking along the road with a detective’s blood all over her, and why the hell would you NOT read that IMMEDIATELY?

It was such a clever way to start a mystery book: it’s not a woman dead on the road. It’s not about the detective standing over her body. It’s about a woman who has just killed a detective, which sets you up for just how wild things are going to get.

Of course, this isn’t actually a mystery book, either. I’ve seen it called “contemporary fantasy” and I guess that will have to do. I don’t want to go into the plot too much because half the fun of this book is the slow, steady reveal of how fucked up and weird and crazy things are. Suffice to say that you have not read this book before, and if you think you know what’s going on, you are probably wrong.

61VYqrAgpzL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_There are unending cruelties here. Psychotic families. Insane political machinations. Weird magic. Surprising twists.

Any complaints I might have about this book were minor. It’s a first novel, and there were some longish talking scenes (goodness knows I’ve written a lot of those myself) that repeat information to characters that you, as a reader, already know. That was fine – I just skimmed over them. The pacing of the last act runs a little long; but again, by that point I didn’t fucking care because the book was just laying down the payoff of the mysteries it promised to solve at the beginning, and I was down with that. There are horrible things done to people. Horrible things. Including rape and being burned alive. But it’s not voyeuristic and purposeless. There is a method to the horror and madness, and it’s treated fairly; I did not feel punched in the face, though there are certainly a lot of unanswered questions that I can’t really touch on without spoilers. Maybe another time.

I also find it terribly funny that I’m drawn to books with really complex and purposeful plots these days, something I’m not very good at, myself. THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT and even PLANETFALL are political mysteries at their heart, and so is THE LIBRARY AT MOUNT CHAR.

If you’re looking for a weird, wild, rough and engaging contemporary fantasy novel unlike anything you’ve ever read before, pick up this book.

Books I Read on my Twitter Vacation

My to-be-read pile is a thing of wonder, as my voracious need to own all the books will never keep up with my pace of reading all the books.

At any rate, taking a Twitter vacation turns out to have been great for that part of me that was hardly reading anything anymore, and look! Hey!

As promised, here’s my slightly deeper reactions post to what I’ve been reading.

Today seemed like a great day to talk about great books.

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PLANETFALL by Emma Newman (November 2015)

This was a book I was reading for possible blurbing (and yes, dear reader, I blurbed it!). It’s out in Novemeber, and I’d heard of the author before via Twitter and liked the cover, so when I was approached about it, I said yes. The first couple of pages, I wasn’t sure if this was going to be for me, but it only took a couple of pages before the whole mystery starts unfurling, like some great gory beast so horrifying you can’t look away. It’s about a group of folks who’ve colonized a planet – how and for what purpose is slowly revealed in a rather masterful fashion, so I’m not going to give it away here. There was something very old-school SF about this book in a fabulous way; it was everything I loved about those old “hell is other people” SF novels of colonization and exploration, without limiting the future to the Same Four Dudes. Here I was getting a future that was diverse and interesting and messy, a story that didn’t punch me in the face or preach at me, while delivering a Golden Age SF tale of humanity as its own worst enemy. There were shades of Joanna Russ’s WE WHO ARE ABOUT TO… in this one that I adored (perhaps that terrible sense of the claustrophobic nightmare, that these handful of people really are the people you’re stuck with for the rest of your life), and have I mentioned the masterful way the whole mystery is handled? Highly recommended.

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THE MECHANICAL by Ian Tregillis

Ian Tregillis is probably one of our genre’s most skillful under-read writers. I love everything he writes, and THE MECHANICAL is no different. What I also love about his work is that he doesn’t stick to a formula or genre. His first three novels, starting with BITTER SEEDS, were alternate history war novels. THE MECHANICAL is an alternate history steampunk novel (I say “steampunk” but there’s a sly note made by one of the characters that steam in fact has no future – they don’t use steam power in this universe, but it has many of the same sensibilities as steampunk, and would appeal to readers of same). This is the story of Jax, one of many self-aware robot “mechanicals” owned by the Dutch empire which now rules the world. Though self-aware, they lack free will, and the text’s engagement with what constitutes personhood is one of the more interesting aspects of the novel. Another gem.

 

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SING ME YOUR SCARS by Damien Angelica Walters

If you’re looking for weird body horror and have prepared to dive into stories about horrible things happening to women (but in which they have absolute agency; in fact, women taking back agency in the face of abuse is a theme that runs through many of the stories), this is a fine collection. Another book I found because I’d seen the author interacting with people on Twitter. Somebody RT’d that her collection was live, I read the first couple pages online, and bought it. I was not disappointed. Equal parts horrifying and weird and tragic, it’s a fine collection of weird.

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PERSONA by Genevieve Valentine

Not quite the book I expected based on the blurb, but a rollicking good read with some good chewy bits about the disappearing lines between political figure, figurehead, and celebrity. I’ve discovered the last couple years that I am a sucker for tough, enduring heroines, and this book has that in spades.

I’d been hoping for a little more worldbuilding and weirdness, but this is not MECHANIQUE. It’s more a near-future SF thriller. So keep your head down and enjoy the ride.

 

 

 

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THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA by Zachary Jernigan

Jernigan writes some of the best science-fantasy weird out there, and I wish he wrote more. This collection introduces you to fantastic people on fantastic worlds; old gods and captured souls. If you’ve seen that GIF of Wonder Woman riding a kangaroo through the solar system, well, that’s the kind of fantastic-SF I’m talking about. Old school Michael Moorcock/Cordwainer Smith fantasy stuff that always inspires me to push my fiction a little further. If he stays in the game, I’d keep an eye on his stuff.

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BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jacqueline Woodson

This book doesn’t really need any introduction. It’s won ALL THE AWARDS for a reason. It’s poignant, brilliant, affecting. Just beautiful. I haven’t read prose poetry in some time, and it was a delight to see it used so masterfully here, perfectly capturing a family, a world, a time.

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THE SINGING SANDS by Josephine Tey

A short little murder mystery written in 1953, I mostly enjoyed this for the travelogue through Scotland. It reminded me of my trip to London/Brighton/Edinburgh last year. This detective’s weakness is not the usual “too much drinking,” but claustrophobia caused by “frayed nerves.” Good little mystery right up until the end, when things are a bit too old-school “And then I confessed how I did it!” for my sensibilities, but as a product of its time, fun. Sometimes you have to remember that the old “LET ME TELL YOU HOW I DID IT!” thing and other tropes weren’t actually tropes in, you know, 1953.

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THE SKULL BENEATH THE SKIN by P.D. James

Probably bested summed up as “a nice cozy mystery novel.” I had a difficult time figuring out the time period, which was meant to be the 1980’s, but was told so well in the old school 19th-century mystery style that I kept getting confused about why people were using pay phones and wearing dresses with shoulder pads. I realize writing a good mystery is difficult, which is why I read this one – it does it well, but because it does it so well, I find I have little to say. A bit of a realistic but infuriating ending, too (minor spoiler), with “I’m rich so I’ll get away with it, and you’re just a woman, and who would believe you” because… well, because it’s so true, yanno?

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CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein

Ending with what may have been the best of the bunch, for me. Cries, cries, cries. This book was delightful in about the way you’d think I’d describe a book as “delightful.” It’s the story of two women – a pilot and a spy – in World War II Britain. One is imprisoned and interrogated, and the story is told entirely through her confession and other written letters and correspondence.

A smart, harrowing, book that does some technically skillful things with narrative and assumptions that are about on par with that great book by Sarah Waters, FINGERSMITH, where with one line, the entire narrative of what you read during the first half of the book totally changes. Almost missed this one because it’s been marketed as YA. It’s not YA, but if that helped it sell more books, more power to it. I do see the new covers looked skewed for an older audience, though admittedly, there is something very evocative about the clasping hands cover that gets to the emotional heart of the story.