Weird Western tales

The Weird West as a fantasy subgenre is one that I’ve really been enjoying lately, and has cultivated a vibrant readership over the past few years. I’d say my first introduction to it was R.S. Belcher’s Golgotha books, but I have read a lot of other books in the same vein since then. This post collects some of those titles with a brief overview of the salient positives and negatives for each, spoiler-free.

I grew up for a good chunk of my childhood out west, in Arizona to be precise. I also grew up reading the Sackett books by Louis L’Amour. So reading these weird western titles is super nostalgic for me, but also constantly amazing. Somehow, it seems like this genre is the one providing some of the most innovative takes on sexuality, gender roles, and race – which honestly shouldn’t surprise me, given how rich the history of the territories was in the US both pre- and post-Civil War. So without further ado, in no particular order, I give you some of my favorites.

Silver on the Road, by Laura Anne Gilman

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NPR described this book as “pure American myth” and I can think of no better description, honestly. This is my favorite of all these novels, starring the Left Hand of the Devil, Isobel, in a dreamy coming of age that sucks you down into a world that’s larger than life. Though Isobel is young and at times naive, this is not a young adult book – the themes are too large and too dark. Magic lives in the Devil’s West, and it sinks its claws in whether you like it or not. This is the true American frontier, the archetype of a time in our history that formed so much of our cultural identity. If you read no other book on this list, read this one.

The Six-Gun Tarot, by R.S. Belcher

Perhaps the best way for you to get hooked on this book is to read this handy excerpt from Tor.com. The first book in the Golgotha Series, this book draws on Mormon, Chinese, Native American, and esoteric Christian mythologies in a world tinged with steampunk. Maude Stapleton is my favorite character, and she has her own spinoff book later in the series that just came out this year which I haven’t had a chance to read yet. I’m very excited about it.

Dreadnought, by Cherie Priest

Dreadnought is a lovely little tale written by Cherie Priest, one of the big names in steampunk. This is in fact a steampunk book, one hundred percent. While I prefer her book Maplecroft, this book still is high on my list of her works. Maplecroft is set in New England, so it unfortunately doesn’t fit the theme here. Dreadnought, on the other hand, tells the story of a Civil War nurse traveling across the country, so it’s not solidly set in the West as it were. The frontier feeling of adventure remains, however, and it’s aided by trains and chemically induced zombification, so if you’re into those things I recommend this book highly.

Wake of Vultures, by Lila Bowen

This book is a lovely, introspective affair that spoke deeply to the little girl in me who wanted to be a boy. Basically, if you ever read the Song of the Lioness books and felt immeasurable kinship with Alanna, this book is for you. Unlike those books, however, Wake of Vultures also tackles race and sexuality, and takes the next step on the gender identity conversation that the Song of the Lioness either couldn’t or wouldn’t take. All of that is wrapped up in a wonderful odyssey to battle a terrifying monster or two.

Vermilion, by Molly Tanzer

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Speaking of gender identity and race, don’t miss this lovely installation. Featuring Chinese heritage, talking bears, and a badass genderqueer female character, not to mention vampires, this book is a galloping romp. It sets itself up for a sequel as well, which I hope it follows up on.

Jackalope Wives and The Tomato Thief, by T. Kingfisher

This is an example of saving the best for last. Also I’ve cheated a bit by including both of these titles – there are technically two novelettes here, one of which won the Hugo this year! It’s worth it to read both in order, since they are so short. You can get these two stories along with several other lovely tales in the collection Jackalope Wives and Other Stories. Ursula Vernon, aka T. Kingfisher, is one of my all-time favorite authors at this point and a  source of inspiration. And the main character of these two tales is a lovely old woman. I love reading about old women doing badass things.

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The last Book of the Raksura

It is a bittersweet season, because into this season has come the last of the Books of the Raksura.*

I discovered these books several years ago, and they remain one of my favorites of all time. Shapeshifting? Check. Sweet aerial lizard-people battles? Check. Awesome emotional tension? Check. Gender-bending? Hells yes. Basically it’s everything I’d expect from a Martha Wells story and more.

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I first read a story by Martha Wells when I was a preteen/teen (not sure exactly) exploring the local library.** Our little library actually had a pretty eclectic collection of books, including such obscure and slightly disturbing texts as Richard Adam’s Maia as well as classics like Mercedes Lackey’s Heralds of Valdemar series. In the corner, near the end of the adult fantasy section (I had already consumed the vast majority of the YA and children’s books that would catch my fancy) was a narrow, hardcover book. It was called The Wheel of the Infinite, and I recognized the mandala on the cover from my father’s own nonfiction treatises on the subject. I brought it home.

And then I consumed it, ravenously. Even at the time, I recognized that I was reading something groundbreaking, something I could love forever.

The library had a few more books from Martha Wells’ long career, and I flew through them quickly. Then, being a girl and unaware of my ability to order more books that they may or may not have had, I moved on to other sections. As the years passed, I mostly forgot about Wells and her work, buried under other books – Kushiel’s Legacy series was a great favorite, as were the Dresden Files and A Song of Ice and Fire. I scribbled more and more stories, hoping to emulate those I admired, but nothing that ever amounted to anything until 2009, when the death of my grandmother gave me determination. In 2010, I took that determination with me to the World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, Ohio.

At a panel, on what I no longer remember, I saw a thin, dark-haired woman with a name that sounded vaguely familiar. Wells talked about her books, as authors do on panels, and something lit up inside my head. I remembered the books I had loved years ago, and walked up to thank her for writing them. I think she was vaguely nonplussed that it had been so long since I had read any of them and I was still trying to talk to her, but I’m not sure I would have known what to do in that situation either. It can’t be easy to have an aspiring writer walk up and pounce on you post-panel.

In any case, I promptly went home and downloaded all of her books. And that is how I found the Tales of the Raksura, and Moon and Stone and Jade. Malachite, one of my favorites, came much later. I have been reading these books for seven years, and re-reading them when I need a pick-me-up and the world seems heavy. They feel like a hug and a warm blanket. They feel like a happily ever after, every time. Now, I have finished the last novel, at least foreseeably, that will be set in this world. Moon is home with Jade, and hopefully they will have many little baby Moons to fill up their mountain tree. I couldn’t be happier for them.

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And honestly, I can’t wait to see what she does next.

This year, I am going back to World Fantasy Convention, this time in San Antonio. I’m going because I have projects to pitch. I’m going because it’s in the city where my brother lives and I’ll get to visit him. But mostly I’m going because Martha Wells is Toastmaster, and I hope that I will get to see her and say thank you with a little more specificity this time.

 

*That is, unless you follow Martha Wells’ Patreon, where tiny snippets may be birthed in perpetuity. I hold out for a novella about Moon’s little babies and the Sky Copper clutch as they hit adolescence.

**I’m happy to say that my book Mother of Creation now sits on the shelves alongside the many happy tomes that I read as a child.

A few recent reads

I’ve been reading a lot lately, because I’ve been super stressed, which means that I read every spare minute. Don’t ask me why this is. I can’t tell you. You would think that, being stressed, I would engage directly with my stressors and then take my time to enjoy books, but not. I’ve just been spamming everything and screaming internally.

The upside of this is that I have read a lot of good stuff recently. Most of my recent reads have been novellas, but I’ve also devoured some novel-length pieces (always more satisfying for me). So what have I been reading? So glad you asked.

Final Girls – I actually went on a binge of Seanan McGuire (aka Mira Grant) around the first of the month and read a bunch of stuff, including some of her free and Patreon-supported short stories in the Toby universe. That was after I read this novella, which was good in the way all ghost stories and haunted houses are good. I highly recommend.

Binti – I’m not sure what I was expecting from this novella, but it wasn’t exactly what I got. That’s not a bad thing. I can definitely see why it won so many awards, and I’m excited for the next one, though it’s not on my immediate to-read list. That said, I think that I will need to read the actual book next time, instead of listening to the audiobook. I love Robin Miles, but audiobook of a novella is a little too brief for me, I think. It was perfect for my drive back from a conference, though!

She Wolf and Cub – I’ve read a lot of Lilith Saintcrow, and I enjoy her stuff. Her worldbuilding is solid, as always, and her system of magic (or in this case, science) is inventive. Sandworms, dystopias, nanobots, and one really made lady – sign me up! I enjoyed this book, though it’s one of the more pulpy ones on this list.

One Fell Sweep – Speaking of pulpy, this is a new book by Ilona Andrews, who always fits that bill. Space vampires and lots of explosions lie within. Check it out if you need something light, but beware – it’s the third in a series.

A Closed and Common Orbit – Reading A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is not a prerequisite for this book in my opinion. That said, it does spoil a small part of the ending of the Hugo-nominee, so if you were planning to read that to see what the fuss was about you might want to get on it before you read this book. I liked this one loads better than Small, Angry Planet, which I honestly wasn’t a huge fan of, mostly because the pacing didn’t quite work for me. A solid book, with two powerfully complex and interesting characters narrating.

All Systems Red – This is a novella, and it is by Martha Wells, and if you know anything about my reading habits, you know I love Martha Wells. Admittedly, you may not realize because she puts out new stuff a little less frequently than, say, McGuire. Anyway, read her stuff, all of it is phenomenal and this novella is no exception. Hands down, Wells remains one of my favorite writers.

On my to read list for my honeymoon and the strenuous two weeks leading up to it, I have:

Your infrequent inspiration update 

It’s November and the holidays are rolling down the chute, coming whether we like it or not. I haven’t planned my entire Thanksgiving dinner yet but you’ll probably hear all about it after the fact. For now, I wanted to bring you up to speed on some of the fun things I’ve read  and watched recently.

First off, Luke Cage. Holy mess Luke Cage. There were so many things done right with this show. The research and care that went into this production blew me away. The attention to detail in the selection of the soundtrack was especially phenomenal. At first, I was a little skeptical that Luke’s vendetta with Cottonmouth was feeding into the narrative of black on black crime, but the treatment of both characters as well as the role of Misty and Scarfe and the exploration of their motivations and identities quickly quelled that fear. All of the characters in Luke Cage are wonderfully complex and well-crafted. I definitely recommend it.  I could write a book about this show, but I’ll let you watch it and see for yourself.


As for other things  I’ve been into, there have been a lot of short stories I’ve really enjoyed recently. “Fiber,” a comedy with reborn zombies and cheerleaders by Seanan McGuire, was particularly amusing. You can find that over at Tor.com. On the eery, cerebral side of the spectrum there was “What Becomes of the Third Hearted,” published by Shimmer Magazine. That one was like a punch to the gut, in a good way. I’ve also been enjoying being a Patron of Fireside Fiction and Martha Wells. Martha Wells in particular gives me a bunch of fun Raksura tidbits to chew on, which I love. I’m very excited for Harbors of the Sun to hit shelves next summer.

Speaking of novels and novellas, some recent reads have included Vermilion, which I have been wanting to read forever, and Silver on the Road. I guess I’ve been on a Western kick. Vermilion is set in San Francisco and other areas on the far west coast, during the 1800s unless I miss my guess. It is a steampunk adventure which skillfully tackles issues of Chinese immigration and labor in the rail industry, as well as gender fluidity and diverse sexualities. Silver on the Road is also an alternate West story, but set in the area between the Spanish territories and the Mississippi River following the successful bid by the American colonies for independence. The main character is a Latina woman who works for the devil, who runs a saloon in the town of Flood.

In addition to these I’ve been reading Letters from Burma as a bit of a nonfiction break and also for research purposes. It’s a very easy read, and really fascinating. I also finished Obelisk Gate on Audible, which was a wonderful performance by Robin Miles, as always. I have mixed feelings about the second book in this series, mostly because I loved the first book so much. It honestly almost stood alone for me. But it was a great story and, once I reached the end, I was definitely back on board with wherever Jemisin wants to take me. I’m currently looking for my next audiobook, so let me know if you have any recommendations!

Whew. What a list. Anyway, chime in and let me know what you have been reading below. ‘Til next time.

Writing as activism: The Ballad of Black Tom

I thought long and hard before writing this post.

This is for a couple of reasons, the principal of these being that I am white. Because of this, I want to take a moment to acknowledge that my reflections on the novella The Ballad of Black Tom are my own, and come from my whiteness, at least in part. We cannot extricate the parts of our identities, after all. That said, I am also a writer and a writer keenly interested in diverse representation and stories which get to the heart of oppression. The Ballad of Black Tom did both of these things baldly and without pulling any punches. I want to unpack that. And I want to lend my platform to this book, because it is a valuable read, perhaps most especially for white people.

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All of that said, there will be spoilers. Stop here if you don’t want those, and scroll to the end for further reading recommendations if you must. You are warned.

If you want to read this book first and come back, I encourage it. It’s a novella, so it took me about three or four hours to chomp through at most. I read fast, but it’s not a terribly serious time commitment if you want to bookmark this page for later.

No, the time commitment is in how much you’ll find yourself thinking about it afterwards.

With no further ado… Continue reading “Writing as activism: The Ballad of Black Tom”

Likability in ASOIF

I’ve spent a lot of time this week reminding myself that I don’t have to be likable. In a way, writing Liana in The Creation Saga has been an exercise in writing an unlikable female character for me. That isn’t to say that I don’t want humans to commiserate with her, or understand her. The opposite, really. I want them to understand all of it and feel that same sort of dysphoria that she feels. I should be able to do betterI must be able to live up to their expectations.

There’s a point, when you are obsessed with likability, where you can slide into this kind of thinking. And it is easy to be obsessed with being likable as a woman. It offers you a sense of protection, however inaccurate that sense is. Likability is a kind of social capital. Politicians rule by it, at least in part. Celebrities live by it. It is a kind of power.

It is, however, fickle as powers go. A person must build their worth on other stuff. Cersei shows us this in A Song of Ice and Fire, as does Arya. Neither of them are cuddly sorts. We might admire Cersei’s competence at times, or her pure madness, but we certainly don’t like her. And while we pity Arya, hope that we would be as strong as her in the same situation, admire her skills and her bloodthirsty nature, most of us would not be able to hold a conversation with her. We’d be appalled when she slit a man’s throat without explanation. She is stunning and devious, not likable, despite the fact that we, as readers, like her.

The most likable character, in fact, is Sansa. In terms of being someone who could have a conversation with you, entertain you, someone who is generally beautiful and, if not kind, at least not cruel, your best bet is Sansa. Despite this, Sansa is usually the least liked character in the books, at least by readers. This is because Sansa has no power.

I may seem to have contradicted myself there, so let me unpack that.

A person’s worth doesn’t come from the likability, much as we are taught otherwise as women. Sansa swallows the princess narrative hook, line, and sinker. She thinks that if she can just be pretty and witty, she will be safe and cared for. She thinks that beautiful people on the outside must also be beautiful on the inside. We hate her for this, because we recognize very early on that the good do not win in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire. That good people have already spent the one quality which might help them to survive, which is ruthlessness. But if we met Sansa on the street, we would probably consider her an upstanding girl, a cute little thing. She would be the kind of person we would hope to invite over for tea. We would talk about stories of knights in shining armor and fair queens.

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For the record, I don’t watch the show. That said, here’s Sansa in Game of Thrones looking innocent.
We dislike Sansa not because she is unlikable, but because she has no power to affect her world. She has traded that power for the very likability that we teach little girls like her to strive for every day, with promises that it will protect them.

In some ways, I think Sansa’s character and her development is the most transgressive element of George R.R. Martin’s work.

In my own life, I spend a lot of time trying to cultivate other kinds of power. Not necessarily power over others, but power over myself. I try to be fearless in situations where fear does not help me. I try to be rational in making choices that are best for myself even when those choices may inconvenience others. And, most importantly, I try to quell the need for likability that sometimes comes clamoring out of my gut. When I make decisions to accomplish given outcomes, I recognize that I might be navigating my boat unevenly, listing towards positive reinforcement, begging for someone to recognize my sacrifices. This wastes valuable energy, but it is a human thing, too. We all have inconsistencies, foibles, weirdnesses that make us what we are.

It’s not bad to be kind, to be charismatic. But when it takes you into dangerous waters, you turn that boat around. When your self-worth becomes tied up in how people receive you, you will lose it. Remembering that, as a woman, is hard. Remembering that brief social buoyancy will not protect you from your status as feminine in a society driven by masculine values can be soul-crushing.

After all, it is so easy to want people to like you. But the most interesting people are often the least likable ones.

The Geek Feminist Revolution – a love letter

An early post this week, as tomorrow is my author signing at the Tanglewood Barnes and Noble. I’ll be there and setting up by 6pm so if you have a book to bring for signing or are looking to buy a paper copy, please stop by!

Now, on to the subject at hand. I’ve been reading The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley and I have to say that this book has literally rocked my socks.

You may have picked up by now that I am a self-proclaimed feminist. This is not always considered a good descriptor of a human being, but I find that people who don’t want to be your friend if you call yourself a feminist are not usually nice people. I say this because of personal experience. As a writer, I primarily try to tell balanced stories with varied female (and male) characters. I don’t always succeed. I grow a lot from project to project. I’m still learning, and that’s okay.

I have the honor of being a relatively privileged woman. I am white, able-bodied, thin, and adjectives most commonly used to describe me are “smart” and “pretty”. This is not ego talking, or not ego for the sake of hearing itself. I find all sorts of people beautiful and admirable who do not, classically, fit these descriptors. This is an observation of social norms. I have privilege. It doesn’t mean that I don’t feel like screaming every time I turn on the news and read about the most recent rape acquittal or talk to a friend who has just experienced some terrible abuse from a partner or get cat-called by some strange man and am reminded that I am, in fact, still a second-class citizen in many ways. That at the first blush, I am a woman.

Hurley said something that crushed me pretty early on in this book, so I’m going to quote it here.

[Joanna] Russ expressed the white-hot rage I felt at realizing the game was rigged against me from the start, and that no matter how equal I believed I was, the world was going to treat me like a woman, whether I liked it or not. Her book The Female Man is so ragingly, teeth-gnashingly nuts that I couldn’t get through it the first couple of times I tried. the title also gave voice to something I felt all the time – that I was a human, a man – not in the sense that I felt disassociated from my female body, but in the sense that I, too, had bought that women were somehow “other” and I wasn’t “other” so I must be a man, a real human too, right?

I had to put the book down when I read that, because I was that girl and it hurt to see someone else put those words on paper. I had thought that I was an anomaly. When my father read me the Lord of the Rings I was Frodo. Frodo, after all, was the hero. I was the hero. The biology didn’t factor in. I only really became aware of the way that my gender and sex had shaped my life once I became an adult and had names for some of the things that had happened to me as an adolescent – and continue to happen, because unfortunately adulthood doesn’t give you a free pass from sexual harassment.

Grappling with that sense of betrayal, with that sudden awareness, is a lot of what prompted the major plot points of Mother of Creation. Coming into adulthood and feeling purely betrayed by the promises of my youth, by the idea that I could be anything I wanted to be, was a harrowing experience. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I was insulated from that experience, relative to others. I am, as I mentioned, relatively privileged. My privilege includes a family that loves me and supports me in all sorts of craziness – including haring off to Japan and leaving a perfectly good, if dull and terrible, job to be a homeless traveler for a month. I always knew, if things got too bad, that I could go home. A lot of people don’t have that. Liana, the princess of the Creation Saga, does not have that. She has no home to go back to, and must face whatever the road throws at her.

But she, too, is fighting to be seen as a real human, despite the barriers of her sex and the situation of her birth. So many of us are.

Reading The Geek Feminist Revolution was like reading a love letter to all of us geek girls who wanted, so badly, to feel like we were human. It’s an at times violent and troubling love letter, but that violence is never turned towards us. Its turned against all of those who would suppress our stories, our muchness. Hurley’s keen analytical mind dissects our stories, the ones we have consumed and the ones that have consumed us. She lays our souls bare. The goal of every writer is to accomplish as much.