The Beauty of Physical Writing

Jun. 22nd, 2017 08:00 pm
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Posted by Yoon Ha Lee

In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!

I have a history of not being picky about my writing implements, which makes it all the more hilarious that I got sucked into the rabbit’s hole that is fountain pens. I’ve used everything from the ubiquitous Monami ballpoints that you find in South Korea to cruddy No. 2 pencils (hello, Scantron!) to glitter gel pens. Thumbnail sketches and math problems take on a certain glow when you do them in glitter gel pen.

My first fountain pen was a gift from a generous benefactor, but developed a leak and didn’t last long. I forgot about fountain pens for a while until I came across a website and fell in love with examples of flex-nibbed calligraphy, which takes advantage of a nib’s ability to flex to create line width variation. In real life, the better way to get into this is through dip pens, which are cheaper and flexier, as opposed to with a (usually expensive) vintage fountain pen whose nib you might damage with this sort of tomfoolery. But I was entranced. I bought one anyway.

I spent the next several years reading up on fountain pens, messing with fountain pens, and writing with fountain pens. This is a hobby you can either do on the cheap (relatively speaking), with less expensive pens like the Lamy Safari or Pilot Metropolitan, or at the far end, with limited edition Montblanc or Japanese maki-e pens running to the thousands of dollars and beyond. I’m somewhere in the middle.

What I like about fountain pens as a hobby is that there’s something for almost every budget. The disposable Pilot Varsity is affordable and is very reliable; the refillable Platinum Preppy, although fragile, runs under $5 if you just want to try things out. I like that fountain pens are frequently beautiful (although beauty is, of course, in the eye of the beholder) and that they come with a bewildering variety of filling mechanisms if you like to geek out about that stuff. (For a first-timer, I recommend a cartridge/converter pen–and be aware that some companies make proprietary cartridges/converters, so be sure to get the right one for your pen!) I like being able to choose from the wild variety of ink colors. Your options are more limited if you stick to cartridges, but if you opt to fill from bottled ink, the sky’s the limit. There are even inks that come with sparkling gold or silver particles in them if that’s what your heart desires, although you have to be careful to use them in a pen that won’t clog.

Most of all, I got into fountain pens at a time when reading was exhausting for me and I needed a low-effort hobby. A fountain pen is something that I can appreciate and use with very little work, as opposed to a book. I can simply look at and admire the beauty of a well-made fountain pen. Or I can write with it, and that’s pleasurable too. Even when I’m not writing fiction with a fountain pen, I do a lot of journaling. No one else is going to read those journals, but the process of sitting down with a pen and notebook and writing out my thoughts is soothing. I also like sketching with my fountain pens. Some of them are better for this purpose than others, but the results are fun.

As it turns out, I wrote the rough drafts of Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem (and also Revenant Gun) in fountain pen. For Ninefox Gambit, I mostly used my Webster Four-Star and Waterman 52V, both vintage pens. (Jedao’s signature gun, the Patterner 52, was inspired by the Waterman’s name. Someday I’ll acquire an actual Waterman 52, not just the vest pocket version–which is what the “V” means.) I wish I could show you scans of Ninefox Gambit or Raven Stratagem‘s rough drafts, because I used every color of ink I could get my hands on and the results looked like My Little Pony vomit, but we were flooded out last August and the notebooks and papers were among the casualties. I still write longhand revision notes, however, and I’m considering going back to doing longhand drafts because something about the physicality of the process helps me think.

Yoon Ha Lee’s space opera novel Ninefox Gambit and its sequel Raven Stratagem are available from Solaris Books. He lives in Louisiana with his family and an extremely lazy cat, and has not yet been eaten by gators.

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Posted by Mari Ness

It perhaps says something that one of the most remarkable aspects of the life of Mademoiselle Marie-Jeanne L’Heritier de Villandon (1664-1734), at least on the surface, was just how unremarkable it was. While most of her fellow French salon writers of fairy tales and novels alike were busy conducting scandalous affairs, travelling throughout Europe, dabbling in intrigue, entering and escaping dire marriages, and finding themselves exiled from the court of the none-too-tolerant Louis XIV, and often Paris itself, L’Heritier lived a comparatively quiet and, apparently, chaste life—if one that still had a touch of magic.

The niece of fairy tale writer Charles Perrault, daughter of a historian, and sister of a poet, she met and befriended several fairy tale writers in the salons of Paris, and was inspired to write tales of her own. Her talent and erudition eventually earned her a patron, the wealthy Marie d’Orleans-Longueville, Duchess of Nemours, which eventually turned into a small annuity after the Duchess’ death. Equally important was a friendship with the formidable and controversial Madeleine de Scudery, these days renowned as the probable writer of Artamene ou le Grand Cyrus, one of the longest novels ever published, but at the time noted for her scholarship and fierce defense of women’s education. De Scudery not only befriended the considerably younger woman (De Scudery was born in 1607) but left the fairy tale writer her salon at her death in 1701.

This bequest may have been prompted in part by L’Heritier’s Oeuvres meslees, a fairy tale collection published during 1695-1698—the exact same time that her uncle Charles Perrault was publishing his best known tales (The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods in 1696, and Histories ou contes du temps passé, which included Sleeping Beauty again, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Puss in Boots).

Indeed, the timing later led some scholars to suspect that Charles Perrault was the actual author of at least some parts of Oeuvres meslees, including its best known fairy tale: The Discreet Princess, or the Adventures of Finette. The tales do contain some similarities: a rather arch tone, an insistence that they occurred, not in some distant fairy land, but in a very real part of Europe at some point in the past, and comments on the manners of their French contemporaries. But The Discreet Princess is not only longer and more intricate than most of Perrault’s tales, it also contains a rather unusual motif for him: a princess dropping a prince into a sewer.

Unusually enough for a fairy tale, “The Discreet Princess” is set in a very specific time period: the First Crusade (1095-1099), though admittedly this is less to make a point about the medieval and crusader periods, much less provide an accurate description of those times, and more to provide a convenient excuse for sending the king away for a few years—something that the tale only emphasizes by noting, just a few sentences later, that “people were quite simple during these happy times,” a description that would have startled most of the people involved in the First Crusade. About the only realistic part of this is that the one crusader in the story stays away on crusade for a number of years, fairly typical of many crusaders. Anyway.

The king, hearing about the Crusade, decides to go off to it, noting only one problem. No, not the cost of the crusade, or the potential issues with leaving his kingdom under the care of ministers, or even the ongoing conflicts that would be sparked by this and later crusades. No, he’s worried about his three daughters. Nonchalante is extremely lazy; Babillarde (often called “Babbler” in English translations) will not stop talking; and Finette, as befits the youngest of three fairy tale daughters, is practically perfect in every way, right down to discovering financial cheating by a king’s minister. (To repeat, oh king, why aren’t you worried about these ministers, who HAVE been caught attempting to screw you over?) Despite Finette’s cleverness and near perfection, and, as the tale will later reveal, a general fondness for her sisters, these are not, the king decides, girls that can be left behind on their own, so, worried about their honor, off he heads to a fairy for some help. The request presumably reflects L’Heritier’s Paris experiences, where nobles and others frequently requested assistance from more powerful patrons, but I couldn’t help thinking that just maybe the king should have listened to more fairy tales, with their pointed warnings that asking for help from a fairy often lands people in trouble.

The king asks the fairy for three glass distaffs that will magically break when and if any of his daughters lose their honor, which, look, king, I get that you feel your options are limited, but I gotta say: not exactly the most practical choice here. I mean, I get the nod to at least attempting to honor what was often seen as women’s work, but even I, in the post-industrial age, have seen plenty of women with distaffs, and you know what happens with pretty much all of them? That’s right: they fall on the ground. A lot. Making it more than likely that the princesses could be models of excellent deportment and honor and still shatter their distaffs. Though, that said, since distaffs are also generally wrapped with fiber, it’s equally possible that the princesses could end up doing something terribly dishonorable and yet find their distaffs left completely whole, protected by the fibers. SPOILER THAT DOESN’T ACTUALLY HAPPEN but it could, oh king, it could.

I should note at this point that by “honor” both the king and L’Heritier mean “virginity,” not “honesty” or “keeping promises” or “killing lots of Orcs” or “having Brutus explain that really, you are an honorable man” or “standing up for what’s right” or any of the sorts of things that we might associate with honor these days. This will be important.

Anyway, perhaps realizing that the glass distaffs are not exactly a foolproof solution, the king also decides to lock the three girls away in a tower, in an echo of the women sent to convents, not always willingly, that L’Heritier had known. Incidentally, at this point even the king admits that none of his daughters really done anything—other than Finette, who, as it turns out, has managed to infuriate a neighboring prince, Rich-Craft, by uncovering his attempt to deceive their kingdom in a treaty, something Finette’s father, with her agreement, responded to by deceiving Rich-Craft in return. The other two are guilty only of laziness and gossip, certainly nothing that would justify imprisonment. But honor is honor, so off the girls head to the tower to be locked up.

Naturally, the two eldest sisters soon become extremely bored, a common fate of princesses locked up in towers in a pre-Netflix age. Equally naturally, Rich-Craft, now out for revenge, decides to take advantage of this. Disguising himself as an old woman, he convinces Babillarde to let him up into the tower. Nonchalante goes along with this in a nonchalant sort of manner, and look, that’s L’Heritier’s pun, not mine, so I’m leaving it. It does not take him too long to shed the disguise and convince first Nonchalante, then Babillarde, to “marry” him (without the benefit of clergy, I should note). Their distaffs shatter. He then turns his attention to Finette, who responds by waving a hammer.

This would convince most men to back away, but not Rich-Craft, who particularly wants revenge on Finette. Thinking fast, Finette carefully makes a bed for “them” on top of a sink with a large drain leading directly to a sewer. She doesn’t get on the bed.

Rich-Craft does.

Getting dumped into a sewer does nothing to calm Rich-Craft’s temper. After a much needed bath and some time to recover from his wounds, he begins a battle with Finette—who, in the meantime, has fallen into a clinical depression because her sisters have lost their honor, like, Finette, you just dumped the guy who seduced them into a sewer. Cheer up. Plus, you have a lot of other things to focus on, like, getting kidnapped by Rich-Craft’s servants, pushing Rich-Craft into a barrel studded with nails and rolling him down a mountain, sealing your new little nephews into boxes (with air holes, I hasten to add, but still), and disguising yourself as a doctor so you can leave the boxes with Rich-Craft, claiming that the boxes have “medicine” instead of “babies” which you’d think the sounds coming from the boxes would have alerted nearby people to the difference, but maybe these were unusually quiet babies. Or very terrified babies, whichever. Oh, and welcoming your father home—whose response to all of this is to send his two oldest daughters off to the fairy, who sends them out to do some gardening, which kills them.

No, really. The Discreet Princess is mostly a warning about the dangers of losing your virginity to any guy who decides to enter your tower dressed as an old woman, but it’s also, I think, a bit of a jab about aristocrats, or at least French aristocrats, trained to do so little that even pulling weeds kills them. And, admittedly, a hint of the author’s lack of interest in either character, once their moral purpose has been met: they’re dispatched in two quick sentences.

Finette, you’ll be glad to know, ends up happily married to Rich-Craft’s brother, Bel-a-Voir, if not before some more Fun Stuff with a sheep’s bladder and some blood, which is all to say, if you’ve ever felt that your fairy tales just did not have enough seriously gross things like falling into sewers, sheep’s bladders, babies sealed into boxes, and blood, this is your kinda tale.

It’s also a tale that, for all of its seeming focus on the importance of virginity and honor, primarily focuses on the virtue of distrust. With the arguable exceptions of the king and the fairy and some barely-in-the-story fishermen, those who trust others—Nonchalante, Babillarde, Rich-Craft and Bel-a-Voir—all end up suffering greatly for the error of trusting someone’s word. Three end up dead; the last loses a brother and has an issue with that sheep’s bladder. The fairy sums everything up with her remark Distrust is the mother of security.

The tale also showcases the way seemingly proportional responses to conflict can escalate that conflict—in this case, going from a minor deception involving a treaty, to three dead people and one smushed sheep’s bladder and quite a lot of blood. Sure, part of the point here is “lying during treaty negotiations will not, in the long run, go well,” but I also can’t help but think that it is possible—just barely possible—that had Finette and the king responded to Rich-Craft’s initial attempt to deceive them over a treaty by, say, simply declining to sign the treaty, instead of deciding to trick him in return, Rich-Craft might not have decided to come after the three daughters in revenge.

In this, for all its happy ending, The Discreet Princess presents a decidedly bleak picture of court life: a life where women can be sent away and locked up on the mere suspicion that they might do something; a life where exposing issues in a treaty can later make you a political target; a life where someone else’s actions might make you a political target; a life where your children can be taken from you (by the good guys) and never seen again; a life where your mother might be killed by gardening. Quite a contrast from the court life presented by L’Heritier’s uncle, Charles Perrault, who found success in Louis XIV’s court at Versailles, and described court life as a place where even commoners like Cinderella and Puss-in-Boot’s human could succeed, if only they had the right manners, and, ok, yes, a fairy godmother or a talking cat.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the entire collection was dedicated to Henriette Julie de Castalnau, Countess of Murat (Madame de Murat) banished from Versailles in 1694 for writing political satires.

L’Heritier does not offer the options of fairy godmothers or talking cats. Instead, she warns readers to distrust everything, except for self-education. Finette’s sisters, who spent their time either in gossip or lazing about, end up dead. Finette, who studied diplomacy, reading, music and needlepoint, is able to keep herself focused and amused in the tower—and thus, able to withstand temptation, and survive. It’s a powerful argument for the education of women, though it’s a bit of a two-way sword: Finette becomes a target largely because that education and focus brings her into the political side of court life. On the other hand, her less educated sisters aren’t spared, becoming targets thanks in part to their family’s political manipulations—and end up dead. Finette survives.

I’m left with mixed feelings. On the one hand, the death sentences dealt out to Nonchalante and Babillarde seem overly harsh, to put it mildly. I can quite see that Nonchalante would have been a burden to her servants, but prior to getting locked up in a tower, Babillarde’s fondness for gossip hardly seems to have hurt anyone except herself, and even then, the real wrongdoer here is Rich-craft—who probably wouldn’t have succeeded had the princesses not been locked in a tower, away from everyone. Babillarde spends time searching for and helping her older sister, and all three of them appear to be genuinely fond of one another. And speaking as a person who has often succumbed to both, the idea that an affinity for laziness and gossip should result in death—well, my skin is crawling a bit over here.

Nor am I all that thrilled that for all of the punishment doled out to Nonchalante, Babillarde, Rich-Craft and Bel-a-Voir, that the other prime mover in all of this—the king—gets away with virtually no consequences whatsoever. Virtually—his two oldest daughters are dead—but this doesn’t seem to bother him very much. Otherwise, his reward for responding to deception with deception, locking his daughters away in a tower and then sending two of them off to their deaths, and marrying off his youngest daughter without consulting or even notifying her? Living happily ever after. Er.

And if you’re wondering what happened to those little babies in the boxes, well, I am too. About all I can tell you is that the boxes were opened. What happened afterwards? It’s a fairy tale, filled with unfairness. I can’t reassure you.

But I can say that for all of this, The Discreet Princess gives us a fairy tale princess who isn’t afraid to swing a hammer at a foe, drop unworthy princes into a sewer or push them into barrels studded with nails, dress up as a (male) doctor and trick unworthy patients, or use sheep’s bladders when necessary. Sure, she also nails babies up in boxes and leaves them with mostly strangers, and sure, she has a tendency to fall into major depressions more than once, but she can still swing that hammer, and warn us that princesses might need more than glass slippers to survive court politics. It’s something.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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Posted by Scott Oden

In 1966, at a gathering of J.R.R. Tolkien fans in New York City, the poet W.H. Auden—once a student of the Professor’s at Oxford—famously stated: “Tolkien is fascinated with the whole Northern thing.” In describing Tolkien thus, Auden coined a phrase that encompassed more than mere geographical direction. It was, according to the late Steve Tompkins, himself a formidable essayist and scholar of Tolkien’s work, “the mythology, many-legended history, and darkness-defying worldview of the ancient Germanic and Norse peoples.” This dynamic was woven into the cultural DNA of the Professor’s beloved Anglo-Saxons, as well. All the peoples of the north held the same basic belief: that Fate was inexorable, that the good fight must be fought, and that victory—however glorious—was transient. In the end the monsters would win, and the long twilight of the north would give way to an eternal darkness where even the gods were doomed.

While Tolkien is arguably the most recognizable standard-bearer of “the Northern thing”, he was by no mean the first. Antiquarians and writers such as George Webbe Dasent, William Morris, H. Rider Haggard, and Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur poured forth thunderous tales of naked will and courage unfolding in the shadows of a pre-ordained ending of the world. And readers in the 19th and early 20th centuries lapped it up. Since then, whole generations of writers have turned their eyes in Auden’s so-called “sacred direction”, seeking inspiration for their own fiction in the tales and myths of pre-Christian Scandinavia. Myself included. Below, I give you five such books—not necessarily the most popular or the best-of-the-best, but five books which nonetheless embody the whole Northern thing, with its clash of iron and its grim determination that while an enemy might ultimately win the day, he won’t win this day.

 

Hrolf Kraki’s Saga by Poul Anderson

In the great tapestry of northern legend, the name Hrolf Kraki is woven throughout in glittering silver thread. We know of him from such diverse sources as Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum; from the sagas of the Skjöldunga and the Ynglinga; from the Skáldskaparmál of the Norse; from the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, and especially from the eponymous Icelandic tale, Hrólfs saga kraka. What Poul Anderson has done, though, is to take this remote figure of Arthurian proportions and render him in flesh and blood for the modern reader, giving context to the sometimes inexplicable motives and feelings of the ancient Scandinavians. Hrolf Kraki’s Saga is a grim and magnificent tale, filled with betrayal and murder, sibling rivalry and incest, and enough ax-play to sate a berserker.

 

Swords of the North by Robert E. Howard (Rusty Burke, ed.)

Of all the writers on this list, only Robert E. Howard had a view of the world not dissimilar from the grim ideals of the North. Indeed, it colors his work, from his first published story, “Spear and Fang” in 1924, to the last tale of that indomitable barbarian, Conan of Cimmeria, written before Howard’s death in 1936. Without exception, his characters—though lusty and larger than life—fight against “the iron collar of Fate” to make their mark upon the world before “sinking into final defeat with the froth of a curse on his lips.” This hefty 540-page volume, though rare, collects the finest examples of Howard’s prose and verse exemplifying the Northern thing. My own favorites include “The Grey God Passes,” about the Battle of Clontarf, and the brief but haunting “Delenda Est”.

 

Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton

Though perhaps best known as the author of the wildly popular techno-thriller Jurassic Park, in 1976 Michael Crichton explored the Northern thing with Eaters of the Dead: The Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan Relating His Experiences with the Northmen in AD 922. Utilizing as his starting point the actual 10th-century manuscript of Ahmad Ibn Fadlan—who was an emissary from the Caliph of Baghdad to the king of the Volga Bulgars—Crichton skillfully builds a unique tale that mirrors the epic Beowulf. The tale veers from the historical when Ibn Fadlan is taken North against his will by a band of Vikings, led by the mighty Buliwyf, to combat a creeping terror that slaughters their people in the night. Along the way, the reluctant hero bears witness to the curious customs of the Northlands, from ship burials and human sacrifice to single combat and the fatalistic philosophy of the Viking.

 

The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell’s is a familiar name to fans of historical fiction; he is the reigning king of the bloody and thunderous epic, with tales running the gamut—from the Stone Age through to the Napoleonic Wars. But with The Last Kingdom, set in a 9th-century England wracked by war, Cornwell really hits his stride. It is the tale of Uhtred son of Uhtred, a dispossessed earl of Northumbria, who is captured as a child and raised by pagan Danes. Uhtred is a Viking in all but blood, as swaggering and headstrong and profane as his foster-brother, Ragnar Ragnarsson—and every inch as dangerous in that crucible of slaughter, the shieldwall. Historical fiction is close cousin to fantasy, and Cornwell blurs the edges between the two by having characters who believe in the myths of the North, in the power of prophecy and magic. This clash of cultures, and of faiths, comes to a head when Uhtred is forced to choose: live as a Dane and become the enemy of God and King Alfred of Wessex, or return to the Saxon fold, pledge himself to Alfred, and perhaps win back his stolen patrimony: the Northumbrian fortress of Bebbanburg.

 

Blood Eye by Giles Kristian

Reminiscent of Cornwell’s Uhtred, Osric—the hero of Giles Kristian’s Viking tale—is a young orphan who has no memory of his past. A deformed eye the color of blood marks him as a pariah among the villagers of Abbotsend on the coast of southern England, where he has spent his youth apprenticed to a mute carpenter. Such is the same small and lackluster life he expects to lead … until Norse raiders come to Abbotsend. Kristian’s Vikings, led by Jarl Sigurd the Lucky, are wondrous to behold: true sons of the North drawn in the vivid colors of their age; bold and fearsome and raucous men who want nothing more than wealth, wine, and women—men who seek Odin’s weather and a glorious death, sword in hand. The Norse spare Osric, who becomes one of them: a hard-as-nails reaver, a killer of men, touched by the Allfather; Sigurd names him Raven, and like a pack of wolves they fare forth in search of fortune or a storied death.

 

Top image from The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

Scott Oden was born in Indiana, but has spent most of his life shuffling between his home in rural North Alabama, a Hobbit hole in Middle-earth, and some sketchy tavern in the Hyborian Age. He is an avid reader of fantasy and ancient history, a collector of swords, and a player of tabletop role-playing games. He is the author of A Gathering of Ravens, available from Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press), a novel that pairs the “whole Northern thing” with a lifelong love of Orcs. His previous books include The Lion of Cairo, Memnon, and Men of Bronze.

Spaceballs Brakes for Nobody

Jun. 22nd, 2017 05:00 pm
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Posted by Leigh Butler

Thank you for pressing the self-destruct button, Tor.com. This website will self-destruct in two minutes! Okay, not really. But maybe you should read this post at ludicrous speed, just in case.

That’s right: today’s Movie Rewatch of Great Nostalgia is one of the most parodiest of all sci-fi film parodies: 1987’s Spaceballs! Whoo!

(I apologize in advance, by the way, for the sheer number of gifs under the cut. But I just couldn’t help myself!)

Previous entries can be found here. Please note that as with all films covered on the Nostalgia Rewatch, this post will be rife with spoilers for the film.

And now, the post!

 

LIZ: We should do the drinking challenge this time.

ME: I feel like I might get in trouble for that. Also that we might get alcohol poisoning.

KATE: Not possible, we have seen this movie TEN BILLION times.

“The drinking challenge”, O my Peeps, refers to an often-discussed-but-never-actually-implemented contest in which my sisters and I would theoretically watch certain excessively-beloved films of our childhood, and be obliged to correctly recite all the dialogue along with the actors in real time. And if you mess up, of course, you have to take a drink. Yeah.

Like all drinking games, this is (a) an inherently terrible idea, which is (b) probably going to happen at some point anyway. Even if it didn’t on this particular occasion, because I am a dreary killjoy who hates fun, according to certain unnamed parties.

Kate’s point, though, is valid, in that we have seen Spaceballs so many times over the course of our lives that we probably really could recite just about every line from memory. And I know what you’re thinking: why, exactly, have we watched this movie so freakin’ much?

Well, I mean, “because it’s funny” may seem like a reductive answer, but it does have the virtue of being true. Still, there are lots of very funny movies out there that we have not seen eleventy zillion times, including most of Mel Brooks’s oeuvre, so why this one in particular?

On reflection, I think it had to do with two things more than anything else: timing, and subject.

Parody, particularly the brand of joke-a-minute goofball slapstick parody Mel Brooks is famous for, generally tends to do best with people occupying a rather specific sweet spot on the maturity front. By which I mean, you have to be mature enough to have the knowledge to understand what’s being parodied (and what parody even is in the first place), but you also have to be juvenile enough to genuinely enjoy things like pratfalls and dick jokes and general relentless silliness.

A lot of people hit that sweet spot and then leave it as adults (and a lot of people—like, say, Mel Brooks—hit that spot and then never ever ever leave it), but you generally don’t arrive at that sweet spot until your age is at least in double digits. Before that you’re generally just too young to get why exactly making fun of other people’s art can be so entertaining.

Spaceballs came out in theaters in 1987, and went to VHS the next year, and to cable probably within a year after that. Which meant that in terms of timing, it arrived in my life at pretty much the precise juncture I was most likely to think it was the most gut-bustingly hilarious thing ever invented in the whole wide world—whether it actually was or not.

Spaceballs is probably not the most gut-bustingly hilarious thing ever invented in the whole wide world. But I retain enough of my inner pre-teen-year-old that you’ll never be able to totally convince me (or my sisters) of that.

Which brings me to the other reason Spaceballs was so viscerally satisfying for my siblings and me to watch over and over and over again, and that of course is what it was parodying: i.e. Star Wars.

I know Star Wars is once again a big deal in the world (and that it honestly never really stopped being a big deal, even before the new sequels came out despite the prequels what prequels there are no prequels), but even so I don’t think people who weren’t kids in the late 70s and 80s can really appreciate what a Honkin’ Humongous Deal Star Wars was to those of us who were. I’m not going to let this article derail into a Star Wars appreciation post, so just trust me when I say that our appetites were so whetted for new Star Wars material (that at the time we thought we were never going to get) that even a parody of the franchise was cause for paroxysms of joy.

Spaceballs covered a lot more territory than just Star Wars, of course, lampooning everything from Alien to Indiana Jones to the above Planet of the Apes even to The Wizard of Oz, but at its core it was a Star Wars parody, and that made our geeky selves incredibly happy.

As a side note, I’m not a hundred percent sure whether this movie was the thing that introduced me to the concept of breaking the fourth wall, but I sure did love when it did. (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which also took great glee in the trope, came out in 1986, but I almost certainly didn’t see that in the theater, so who knows which one I saw first.) Dark Helmet getting knocked down by a dollying camera should not be so freakin’ funny, for example, but it really is.

Although that might just be because every single thing Rick Moranis did in this movie was hysterical, then and now. My sisters and I basically can’t mention him or his delicious send-up of Darth Vader without segueing into a flurry of quotes.

KATE & LIZ: KEEP FIRING, ASSHOLES!”

So many of the jokes in this movie should absolutely not have worked, except that the actors delivered them so well. Moranis is the clear winner, but he had George Wyner (as Colonel Sandurz) as well as Mel Brooks himself (as President Skroob) to play off of, and the three of them together were hilarious.

Also awesome despite the fact that in general I didn’t care for them as comedians were Joan Rivers as C-3PO send-up Dot Matrix and John Candy as Chewbacca stand-in Barf. RIP, you two.

 

LIZ: That’s Barfolomew!

Bill Pullman, meanwhile… eh, he got the job done as Lone Starr, the haphazard sort-of generic hero amalgamation of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker.

KATE: He’s better than Greg Kinnear, anyway.

LIZ & ME: [very long stare]

ME: That is the strangest thing you’ve ever said.

KATE: I was trying to think of comparable actors!

Sure thing, honey. (Does anyone even remember Greg Kinnear at this point?)

 

Anyway. Daphne Zuniga as Druish Princess Vespa got in a couple of good zingers (and has a lovely singing voice), but really her greatest contribution to the movie (and should have been to fashion and/or electronics) was her Princess Leia headphones, which is one of the many things I was terribly sad to see were not available to buy at the time (or now, apparently, even though someone was selling them at one point).

But this is because there is no merchandise from Spaceballs—none official, that is. Which makes the whole moichandising! scene pretty ironic, really. Apparently Brooks made a deal with Lucas that in return for Lucas’s endorsement, he wouldn’t produce any Spaceballs merchandise, because Lucas thought they would look too much like Star Wars merchandise. Which, besides being kind of a dick move on Lucas’s part, seems completely dumb to me. Like getting to buy a Yogurt doll wouldn’t have stopped me from also buying a Yoda doll.

 

KATE & LIZ: “May da Schwartz be with you!”

…Although I have to admit that these days I would be much more likely to buy a Yogurt doll. So maybe it wasn’t dumb on Lucas’s part, who knows. (Still a dick move, though.)

Speaking of Druish princesses and Da Schwartz, I’m… not sure I’m up to getting into the Jewish jokes, and why it’s okay for a Jewish man to make Jewish jokes but not okay for non-Jews to do the same, but if you want some (lengthy) commentary on the subject of Mel Brooks and the ethics of satire, here you go. Suffice it to say that generally speaking, as far as I am concerned comedy is funny when it’s punching up, or at least sideways, and not otherwise; and that therefore if there’s anywhere I feel like Brooks falls down on the job it is where it concerns women, but usually not otherwise. If we were discussing Blazing Saddles I would probably have to examine that more closely, but fortunately we’re not, so I don’t! Yay!

LIZ: Although:

ME: STOP HARSHING MY SQUEE, LIZ.

The ethics of it notwithstanding, though, the question is: is Spaceballs still as funny as it was in the 80s?

It is to us, mostly: a few of the lamer jokes have lost their luster, but the many priceless bits remain priceless (and if I listed them all we’d be here till the end of time, but here’s one of my faves, just for you):

But would it be as funny to a non-alive-in-the-80s audience? Liz thinks not, pointing out how dated many of the references are. I disagree, though. Sure, maybe millennials will have no idea that the Dink Dinks’ song is from Bridge Over the River Kwai (which predates even us) or why a reference to the “Ford Galaxy” is funny, but the sheer number of properties lampooned in Spaceballs that have been rebooted or rejuvenated since the 80s (including Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, and Star Wars itself) means that an awful lot more of the humor in it remains current than probably ever could have been reasonably expected.

KATE: And besides, some things are just universally funny no matter how old they are.

 

Truth.

We would love to watch this movie with someone who’s never seen it, to see how funny they would find it, but agree that we would almost certainly annoy this person to death by gleefully yelling all the best quotes along with the movie, so—

LIZ: “Did you see anything?”

KATE: “No, sir! I didn’t see you playing with your dolls again!”

LIZ: “Good!”

—SO we shall have to be satisfied with the knowledge that we, at least, still love it, and probably always shall.

And that’s all for now, kids! Time to close with our Nostalgia Love to Reality Love 1-10 Scale of Awesomeness!

Nostalgia: 9

Reality: 8


Hopefully there will not be a delay for the next MRGN like there was for this one (sorry about that), so come back in two weeks for more!

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Posted by Alice Arneson

Warbreaker Brandon Sanderson

Welcome back to the Warbreaker reread! Last week, Lightsong sent his newly-acquired Lifeless squirrel on a successful mission, and Vivenna was at last brought up out of the gutters again. This week, Siri capitulates, Lightsong dreams, and Vivenna learns.

This reread will contain spoilers for all of Warbreaker and any other Cosmere book that becomes relevant to the discussion. This is particularly likely to include Words of Radiance, due to certain crossover characters. The index for this reread can be found here. Click on through to join the discussion!

 

Chapter 44

Point of View: Siri
Setting: The God King’s Bedchamber
Timing: Undetermined, but at least a few days after Chapter 40

Take a Deep Breath

Siri and Susebron enjoy their nightly post-bouncing picnic; Siri is reminded that Returned appear as they wish to appear, so Susebron can eat as much dessert as he likes. She wishes he would be a little less obedient to his priests, but is disconcerted when he reveals that he has talked to his priests using the artisans’ script. He asked why his father died right after he was born; their responses were so evasive that he begins to think Siri may be right about them.

Siri reminds him of Treledees’s reverence for Susebron’s Breath, and together they reach the conclusion that perhaps the entire purpose of the Hallandren monarchy is to be a vessel for that treasure. Suddenly, they realize that the new God King might not be the son of the old one: perhaps a baby has Returned, and the priests are using Siri to create the fiction of a royal baby preparatory to killing Susebron after forcing him to give his Breath to the baby.

Susebron sadly realizes that if he was not the son of the previous God King, the woman who raised him may not have been his mother. His sense of loss brings him to ask Siri about her family, and they distract themselves with the Idrian royalty. He notices that her hair doesn’t change color as much lately, and she admits that she has learned to control it to reduce her own vulnerability. This reminds them to worry over the rumors of war.

Susebron returns to personal issues, and confesses that his mother was not the only person to ever have loved him: Siri has. Hesitantly, he kisses her, and in spite of all the rational objections, she responds. A small part of her fears that they will give the priests the excuse they seek, but she ignores that. Susebron doesn’t know what to do, but Siri does, and the scene fades to black.

Breathtaking

They had to make my family kings because of how much Breath was in that treasure. And they had to give it to a Returned—otherwise their king and their gods might have competed for power.

“Perhaps. It seems awfully convenient that the God King always bears a stillborn son who becomes Returned…”

She trailed off. Susebron saw it too.

Unless the next God King isn’t really the son of the current one, he wrote, hand shaking slightly.

What a frightening insight that would be, for both of them. All the things they thought they knew, and the things they thought they could control, just collapsed on them.

Local Color

The annotations go directly to that question, and we’re told that Siri is right in recognizing that the next God King isn’t necessarily the son of the current one. The spoiler section explains that it is possible for a Returned to have children, but it requires special knowledge that we won’t learn until the sequel. The priests know, but since it’s not 100% reliable, they sometimes do what Siri guessed. If an infant Returns, the priests take it as a sign that it’s time for a new God King; if his wife can’t get pregnant (which they’d really prefer), they will use the other infant.

Susebron was one of those infants who Returned and triggered a replacement, and they really did bring his mother with him to raise him.

There is, right now, an infant Returned; that his Return coincided with the fulfillment of the Idrian treaty, the priests take as both vindication of faith, and deadline for a pregnancy. BUT:

Note that there’s not, in fact, any danger to her either way, no matter what Bluefingers says. She and Susebron, following the change in power, would have been taken to one of the isles in the middle of the Inner Sea and kept in a lavish lifestyle as long as they lived.

So… the current political situation does threaten Siri’s homeland, and Bluefingers’s plans threaten Siri and Susebron directly, but not in the way she has assumed. Sigh.

And yes, after the fade, Siri and Susebron finally consummate their marriage.

***

Chapter 45

Point of View: Lightsong
Setting: Lightsong’s palace
Timing: The same night as Chapter 44

Take a Deep Breath

Well, there’s not much to say about this chapter. I think I’ll just copy and paste.

Breathtaking

That night, Lightsong dreamed of T’Telir burning. Of the God King dead and of soldiers in the streets. Of Lifeless killing people in colorful clothing.

And of a black sword.

Well, there’s a right nightmare for you.

Local Color

Sanderson’s annotations are way longer than the chapter, and talk about how he’s always wanted to do a super-short one like this. Also, this is where he’s most bummed about the need to have more tension earlier in the book; while it strengthened the story as a whole, it weakened the impact of this chapter. It’s also noted that this is specifically, and not coincidentally, the same night as the previous chapter; the possibility of Siri actually having a child just went up (!) and it affects the future. Lightsong, as a Returned, is sensitive to such changes, and so his dreams just took a turn for the worse.

***

Chapter 46

Point of View: Vivenna
Setting: A small rented room in T’Telir, and its environs
Timing: Undetermined, but at least a few days after Chapter 43

Take a Deep Breath

Vivenna eats alone, choking down yet more fish, so exhausted that it’s difficult to sleep. Vasher has been working them both very hard, meeting with one group after another, all working-class men and women, who can influence their friends and family not to participate in activities that will push Hallandren to war.

In this rare solitary moment, she considers a subject she’s been avoiding: her identity. No longer the confident princess, but not the beaten-down wretch either, she’s not truly even the penitent princess she’s playing for her people right now. Her personality is still the same—still determined, still committed to the Five Visions, but with a better understanding of herself and the world around her. She wants to learn to Awaken; she hates being helpless. So she begins to practice.

After various experiments resulting in completely gray clothing, Vivenna has learned many things that don’t work, and a few that do. Vasher returns and gives her a few practical bits of advice, then points out that the gray clothing is a little obvious in T’Telir. They return to their tiny room, where he remarks on her un-Idrian desire to learn Awakening, though he doesn’t understand why Austrism suddenly condemned Awakening after the Manywar. He also comments that she is not what he expected. Finally, he begins to explain Awakening Theory to her in a very scholarly manner, even as he insists that BioChroma is complicated, and humans understand very little about it.

He abruptly ends the lecture by refusing to explain a Type Four BioChromatic entity, and tosses her a package which turns out to contain a dueling blade, telling her that she needs to learn to defend herself. With that, they’re off to meet another group.

Breathtaking

“All right,” he said. “I guess this is for the best. I’m getting tired of you walking around with that bright aura of yours that you can’t even use.”

“Well?”

“Well, I think we should start with theory,” he said. “There are four kinds of BioChromatic entities. The first, and most spectacular, are the Returned. They’re called gods here in Hallandren, but I’d rather call them Spontaneous Sentient BioChromatic Manifestations in a Deceased Host. What is odd about them is that they’re the only naturally occurring BioChromatic entity, which is theoretically the explanation for why they can’t use or bestow their BioChromatic Investiture. Of course, the fact is that every living being is born with a certain BioChromatic Investiture. This could also explain why Type Ones retain sentience.”

Vivenna blinked. That wasn’t what she had been expecting.

This cracks me up all over again, every time I read it. She was just looking for a little training, some practical how-to instructions… and all of a sudden it’s BioChromatic Theory 401 up in here, and she’s wondering just when this street turned into a college campus.

Local Color

The annotations focus mostly on why Sanderson wanted to do certain things, but he starts with Vivenna’s need to figure out who she is at the core, now that most of her trappings are gone. Then he goes into why he waited until this point to explain the magic, and how long he’d planned to write this scene with Vahser-the-scruffy-curmudgeon suddenly talking like a scientist—and also that there are Clues as to who he really is. Then there’s a chunk on the origin of Awakening as a magic system, which is cool but you should just go read it.

***

Snow White and Rose Red

Well, our girls are in very different places now, but at least they’re both progressing in positive directions now. Siri, thanks to Mab’s instruction, is now exactly where she didn’t want to be, but she also did…

To back up a little, I’ll confess to a good bit of irritation with Siri’s line about wishing Susebron were more reckless, impulsive, and independent. While I understand what she’s getting at, and it might indeed be better for him to question his priests, or at least insist on a better education and real answers to his questions… at the same time, she’s got a very juvenile assumption that somehow recklessness and impulsiveness would be a good thing, even in a man who is more powerful than she registers. With that kind of power, would you really want the God King to be reckless and impulsive!! Independent, yes; willing to think for himself, yes; able to advocate for himself, absolutely. But not reckless just for the sake of being reckless. Kids these days.

I do, however, have to acknowledge her sense of fairness. On the one hand, she doesn’t think Susebron is very capable when it comes to getting information from his priests, but she realizes how inconsistent it would be to chastise him for doing the exact thing she just said he ought to do. So there’s that much.

While Siri is more and more focused on Susebron and his potential danger, Vivenna is taking a large step backwards from her former persona. She’s very reflective in these chapters, because she has to figure out who she is besides an Idrian princess. She’s not 100% there yet, but her self-evaluation has become much more honest since Denth betrayed her trust. She recognizes the value of her inherent determination; even though it was long directed at becoming the perfect Idrian princess to marry the Hallandren God King, and that goal has been overcome by events, it’s always been part of her. She’s just realizing that perhaps her definition of “the perfect Idrian princess” had a lot of false standards:

She was also a hypocrite. Now she knew what it was to be truly humble. Compared to that, her former life seemed more brash and arrogant than any colorful skirt or shirt.

She did believe in Austre. She loved the teachings of the five Visions. Humility. Sacrifice. Seeing another’s problems before your own. Yet she was beginning to think that she—along with many others—had taken this belief too far, letting her desire to seem humble become a form of pride itself. She now saw that when her faith had become about clothing instead of people, it had taken a wrong turn.

Poor Vivenna; she’s realizing that a set of rules is far easier to follow than a general admonition to humility and selflessness.

I also think it’s pretty awesome that, just as she decides that she really wants to learn Awakening despite the tenets of her religion, Vasher casually mentions that Austrism didn’t always forbid it. That’s a relatively recent event, even—only 300 years ago or so. (In the annotations, it’s mentioned that this is partly because Awakening was still a fairly new thing at the start of the Manywar, and that part of the reason for the Idrian mistrust is that they had some bad experiences with it.)

As I Live and Breathe

Vivenna’s practicing reveals a number of the limitations of the magic system, though Vasher’s instructions does little to address them immediately. But I do so much love the fact that what we call “magic” is, for a scholar on Nalthis, something to be evaluated, measured, and studied as a science. That just makes my little engineer’s heart happy! And of course I’m amused at the way most people assume that because they can do it, they “understand” it… when one of the greatest scholars on the planet is fully aware that they really know very little at all. Again, the annotations point out that Vasher, as a scholar, not only has a lot of good information, he also has a pretty good understanding of what, and how much, he doesn’t know yet.

In Living Color

Returned, Returned everywhere. Proceeding in order:

Susebron—and the reader – is gradually learning about himself and his situation, but the conclusions he and Siri are reaching are wrong at least as often as they’re right. They made a good catch this week, when they figured out that the succession doesn’t necessarily have to be literally father to son. But at the same time, Siri’s absolute distrust of the priests goes too far; she attributes far more sinister motives to them than they actually have. Of course, to be fair, they do absolutely nothing to reassure her: their determination not to trust her or Susebron with the truth, and their high-handed treatment of her, would be enough to make anyone at least question their trustworthiness. Keeping their own God King in such ignorance has finally convinced even him that they might not have his welfare at heart. And naturally, Sanderson plays with the readers’ expectation that the priests are corrupt, because priests are always totally corrupt and power-hungry vultures, aren’t they?

Lightsong gets far more action in the annotations than in the chapter, but it all boils down to the connection a “Spontaneous Sentient BioChromatic Manifestation in a Deceased Host” has to the cognitive and spiritual realms. So he has horrid dreams which really, really are prophetic—at least in terms of “these things are likely to happen.”

Vasher. I wonder what I thought about Vasher by this time on my first read-through. The contrast Vivenna thinks about, between his tattered appearance and his obvious scholarship, should be setting off alarms everywhere… at least once you know it should. Let’s pretend we all saw this, right? Anyway… I do like the way he gives her credit for integrity when he acknowledges that she’s not what he expected, and promptly decides to go right ahead and give her the full fire-hose BioChroma education. I also like that the annotations tell us he’s right, because reliable narrators are not all that common in Sanderson’s writing.

Don’t Hold Your Breath (Give it to me!)

Vasher’s categorical refusal to even talk about the fourth type of BioChromatic entity is a major cluebat. I suspect most semi-savvy readers are making the connection to Nightblood, at least once Vivenna voices her suspicions in her own mind; the fact that Vasher tells her never to ask again should make it clear that there’s something seriously dodgy about the sword and his connection to it.

Like Fresh Blue Paint on a Wall

“Spontaneous Sentient BioChromatic Manifestations in a Deceased Host.” Austre, Lord of Colors, what a mouthful. I can’t decide whether it’s hilariously ostentatious or awkwardly accurate!

Exhale

I find myself more and more frequently wishing I could remember my reactions to this book the first time I read it. By now, between skipping forward and backward to check on things, and reading all the annotations several times and often out of order, I have real trouble remembering what I should know with confidence, what I should be figuring out, and what ought to be just a faint glimmer of suspicion. Too bad you can’t go back in time…

 

Well, that’s enough anyway. Let’s hear your comments! And be sure to join us again next week, when we will cover chapters 47 and 48, in which Lightsong remembers Calmseer and collects Allmother’s Lifeless soldiers, while Siri and Susebron plan how to reach out beyond the priests.

Alice Arneson is a SAHM, blogger, beta reader, and literature fan. As the Oathbringer preparations continue to ramp up, look for an article next week on the beta read. Behind the scenes, the copyedit review stands at 71% (or a bit more by now), and the gamma read is expected to start in early or mid-July.

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Posted by Stubby the Rocket

SFFPit hashtag guide

Do you have a science fiction or fantasy book burning a hole in your laptop? Today might be the day you find it a home! Twitter is hosting #SFFPit today, so if you have a finished manuscript, you can craft a 140-character pitch, tag your tweet with a descriptor like #FA (Fantasy), #PA (Post-apocalyptic SF), or #WW (Weird West) and send it out into the world! The rules are simple: if a literary agent likes your pitch, you can follow their instructions to follow up with a formal query. If you want to support a pitch, you can retweet it, but don’t like it—only agents are supposed to like, and you don’t want to clutter another writer’s notifications. And remember, only pitch if you have a completed manuscript!

Click through for some samples!

Some authors use film classics as touchstones, from National Treasure:

To The Hunger Games:

While others stick to strictly literary comp titles:

And others hearken back to much older inspirations:

 

While others grab you with a terrifying hook:

And others unleash demons:

And still others have concepts that beg to be read:

Are you ready to dive in? Head over to #SFFPit to pitch your book, and best of luck to everyone!

 

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Posted by Sarah Gailey

Harry is the hero.

Right?

He’s the guy the story is all about, after all. He’s the Boy Who Lived. He has the scar and the prophecy. He has the sidekicks and the invisibility cloak. He has the mentor. He has the tragic backstory. He faces down the villain.

Harry is the hero. It’s his face on the covers of the books. They’re called Harry Potter and the… for a reason.

Right?

harry

Art by Lila

Ron is a sidekick. You can’t deny it. He can’t even deny it. He trips over things and he makes faces and he provides Harry with a Normal Friend. He explains things but doesn’t always get them right. He supports. He humanizes. He gripes sometimes but other times, he’s there. He’s there when Harry needs him, mostly. He holds the team together until he goes off in a snit to explore his options, and when he does, Harry spirals for a while until he comes back.

Ron is a symbiote. He doesn’t get his own story that’s separate from Harry, not really. And sometimes he hates it, but also, he knows that it’s all there is for him. When he’s not with Harry or near Harry, his edges start to fade and people start calling him by the wrong name and he finds himself in a state of hibernation, not-quite-frozen but unable to really move until Harry comes back.

We aren’t discussing Ron right now. He’ll wait. He’ll be there when it’s time for us to get to him. He’ll be there once he’s needed.

He always is.

golden trio

Art by sas

Hermione, though.

What are you, Hermione?

Are you a heroine? Or are you a sidekick?

Here’s the thing with Hermione: she’s always there. She’s always performing the ceaseless emotional labor that Harry and Ron require. She does the heavy emotional lifting so that Harry can continue to Hero all over the place and Ron can continue to sidekick. She is always there, even when she’s angry, even when she’s being horribly mistreated. She’s loyal to a fault, unwavering, unflinching. She’s patient.

trio fighting

Art by sas

That’s sidekick behavior.

But then.

When Harry’s not there, Hermione is busy. She’s not waiting for him. She decided at some point that it wasn’t Harry’s story, it was everyone’s story, and she acts accordingly. She’s not along for the ride.

hermione happy

Art by sas

This is something that the Harry Potter fan community has been discussing for years: Hermione drives the story because she has her own story. No one in their right mind would trust 13-year-old Harry Potter with a Time Turner, but Hermione gets one and she deserves it. She dates a celebrity, and she outsmarts Rita Skeeter, and she does those things in the background of Harry’s story. She convinces Harry to be a figurehead in the fight against Voldemort, and she creates Dumbledore’s Army. She schedules the DA meetings, she creates the consequences for DA defectors, she creates the galleons that allow the DA to communicate in code. She researches horcruxes and how to destroy them. She rereads all of Hogwarts: A History. She shows up with the tools and the knowledge and prevents Harry and Ron from standing around looking perplexed while the world ends around them. She saves everyone’s bacon all the time by being smarter and better-prepared than anyone else. Those two boys would be dead a thousand times over without her intervention.

She gets her own story, if you know how to look for it. She has her own narrative that’s completely separate from Harry’s. But does that make her a hero?

hermione sweet

Art by Lila

Harry is the hero, right? He stands in opposition to Voldemort. He’s suffered loss at the hands of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Unimaginable loss.

Except.

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Hermione does too. She makes the same sacrifice that Harry did—losing her parents—but instead of losing them to the Avada Kedavra curse, she loses them to her own wand. She erases their memories of her. She hides them in Australia, tucks them away to make sure that they aren’t tortured for information. To make sure they aren’t tortured the same way she’s tortured later in the book.

Hermione thinking

Art by Katie

But everyone has lost people. Everyone has missing relatives, dead brothers, inaccessible parents.

That doesn’t make someone into The Hero. Everyone’s the hero of their own story, but not everyone gets to be the hero of this story. Too many people have died in the Harry Potter universe for loss alone to bestow heroism. Too many people have lost everything. Have sacrificed everything.

Sidekicks can suffer, too.

So, what are you, Hermione?

hermione fierce

Art by Tufunny

Does anyone in the Harry Potter universe stand in more direct opposition to Voldemort than Hermione Granger does?

Voldemort stands for oppression. He stands for the fundamental superiority of blood-purity. He stands for status, not achievement. He stands for alignment, not friendship. He stands for fealty, not loyalty. He stands for a wizard’s foot on the neck of a house-elf. He stands for the sacrifice of one’s humanity in pursuit of one’s ambition.

Hermione Granger is his antithesis. She’s a muggle-born witch who arrives at Hogwarts prepared to dominate magic. She’s enormously ambitious, but consistently seeks to elevate others when she could easily let them fail. She walks beside Harry even when doing so means putting up with relentless scorn from the people who waver between hating him and worshiping him—even when that scorn is piled on top of the blood-status slurs she weathers continuously throughout the series. She stands up against a centuries-long institution of interspecies slavery, even when doing so means that everyone she cares about will laugh at her. She skips her final year of school in order to help Harry and Ron find the horcruxes, even though it could mean losing every opportunity she’s spent the previous six years working for. She chooses her causes over her ambitions every time, and she swallows the consequences because they’re worth it to her.

fierce hermione

Art by Katie

What is Hermione?

She’s relatable. She’s an overachiever who consistently stands in the shadow of The Hero. She pursues victory without ever receiving credit. She accomplishes and innovates constantly without recognition. She is expected to have the answers, and to provide emotional support, and to weather the foibles of others with maturity and grace. She is shouted at for daring to have her own pursuits and interests. She is shouted down for disagreeing with the person who has designated himself In Charge. She is never allowed to be tired or sad because everyone always needs something from her. She must be the best at all times, and she must never demand a reward for her efforts. She is a cypher for every ass-busting girl who has been shunted to the side of the stage while a man who yells at everyone receives a medal from the mentor who’s never seen fit to so much as meet with her.

Hermione is where women and people of color and especially, too often, women of color so frequently find themselves: pushed to the side and asked for patience.

To Harry, she is a sidekick.

To us, she is a heroine.

hermione final

Art by Lila

Top image by Frida Lundqvist.
This article was originally published in September 2016 as part of the Hugo-nominated Women of Harry Potter series.

Sarah Gailey’s fiction has appeared in Mothership Zeta and Fireside Fiction; her nonfiction has been published by Mashable and Fantasy Literature Magazine. You can see pictures of her puppy and get updates on her work by clicking here. She tweets @gaileyfrey. Watch for her debut novella, River of Teeth, from Tor.com in 2017.

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Posted by Leah Schnelbach

When I went to see Ratatouille in 2007, I was trapped in a terrible job. I was exhausted all the time, I felt completely uninspired, and spent a sickening amount of energy questioning myself, beating myself up, hating every decision I’d made that led me to that moment in my life, and creating a vomitous feedback loop of self-loathing. When I went to the movie with friends, I was paying for two hours of forgetfulness. Two hours to stop thinking about my life, and lose myself in a cute Pixar story. I remember hoping I liked the short.

And then the film started, and I didn’t get forgetfulness—I got a much-needed slap in the face.

This isn’t a cute Pixar movie—Ratatouille takes every cliche of every artist biopic you’ve ever seen and tweaks them just enough to both honor the idea of the artist, and to challenge it. This may be the only artist biopic that both presents the idea that its subject is a genius, and reveals him as kind of a snob who deserves a comeuppance. He lives with his loud, obnoxious, completely uncultured family, who urge him to use his keen sense of smell for practical things like sniffing out poison, rather than pursuing his artistic dreams. His brother loves him but doesn’t understand him. He’s bullied by larger rats, and especially crushed by his boorish father.

The movie is basically “every D.H. Lawrence novel, but with rats.” Finally he makes the journey from the countryside to the big city, where, cut off from his family and past, he can at last be himself and allow his gift to blossom. He makes new friends who understand him. He grows in his art, experts hail him for his creativity, he has a fall from grace, and he builds builds himself back up. He even has a muse.

The film gives us the greatest physical representation of inspiration I’ve ever seen. When Remy combines food for the first time, and it becomes a synesthetic symphony of color and music, we know what he means. We understand what he’s trying to explain to Emile. Remy’s art is ephemeral.

With most movies about writers, painters, sculptors, musicians – we know their art. When you watch Amadeus, you go in knowing at least a little of Mozart’s work, and a large part of the (inaccurate but fantastic) film is watching him transcribe the music he hears in his head. If you watch Pollock, you get to watch the artist figure out his paint-splatter technique. Even fictional writers get a similar treatment – in Wonder Boys we see the physical manuscript of James Leer’s debut novel, The Love Parade, and his mentor’s much heftier tome, The Wonder Boys; in Sideways Paul Giamatti’s character has to lug his enormous manuscript in two separate boxes when he wants to share it with a friend.

But Remy works in food. He’ll spend hours tasting and sniffing to perfect a flavor, he’ll arrange his mise en place, he’ll dab up any errant spots of sauce. Then the diners will eat the meal and within half an hour his work is just more fodder for a human digestive tract, the same as a Happy Meal or the “corn puppies” that Gusteau’s ghost finds so objectionable. He still has to put the work in. He still has to wring himself dry, laboring over each meal as though it were a painting that would outlive him. This is what makes Ratatouille, for me at least, the purest artistic film. With many artists, work = immortality. Watch Vincent and Theo, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, or “Vincent and the Doctor”: these portraits of tortured, suffering Vincent Van Gogh are all poignant, yes, but the audience knows that while Vincent’s life is a tragedy in many ways, his art survives. In Amadeus, Wolfi is buried in a pauper’s grave while his beloved Stanzi weeps in the rain, but we all know that Mozart’s music lived on after him. We can flinch while we watch Pollock skid down that slippery Long Island road, but we’ve seen One: Number 31, 1950 in history textbooks. It’s why we’re watching the movie. But Remy? He might write his recipes down, but an essential part of his art will die with him. (Or, well, did die with him. The movie’s a decade old, after all. Rats don’t live that long.)

Remy’s art is experiential.

As we see in the iconic scene when Anton Ego first tastes Remy’s ratatouille, his art acts as a time machine, transporting a bitter, middle-aged man back to a moment of safety and love in his childhood, when he still had his whole life stretching before him, but it didn’t even matter because here and now he had his mother’s love. Assuming that my mind and consciousness stay more or less intact as I get older, I will never forget the moment when Anton Ego takes a bite of Remy’s ratatouille.

In this final part of the film, Ratatouille does something revolutionary: Remy’s story of artistic greatness shares time with Anton Ego’s story.

When has a movie about the life of an artist ever paid attention to the importance of a critic? Back in the ’90s, Ratatouille director Brad Bird worked on a not-very-famous TV show called The Critic, about Jay Sherman, the film critic moviegoers relied on if Pauline Kael, Siskel, Ebert, Genre Shalit, Leonard Maltin, and Janet Maslin were all busy. It was a Simpsons-style comedy that hung upon the usual assumption about critics: they are failed artists. Jay’s one attempt at filmmaking was an abysmal student film in which Jay, playing Prometheus, hangs himself from a ceiling fan because no one understands him. Jay is a joke, snotty, angry at everyone, dismissive of the films he’s paid to critique.

Even respected, real-world critics are subject to the idea that they are somehow failures. Life Itself (2014)—a documentary about Roger Ebert and his and struggle with cancer—digs a bit into the relationship between critic and art, with friends (including Martin Scorsese) teasing Ebert for his only produced screenplay, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

But we get no such “failed chef” back story from Ego. Ego is a food critic for the disarmingly simple reason that he loves food: “If I don’t love it, I don’t swallow,” as he snarls at Linguine. But this isn’t a warning, it’s a challenge. Ego doesn’t create food, he critiques it, because he knows that creating food is an art, and he wants chefs to treat it as such. He didn’t give Gusteau a scathing review because he had a grudge against the man, he was disappointed in what he saw as a loss of passion. So when Remy presents him with the simply prepared, but expertly balanced ratatouille, all of his defenses fall away. He recognizes an artist who shares his passion. And then he asks to meet the chef.

This is the key moment. Maybe even more than that unforgettable flashback. Linguine and Collette weigh their options, and ask him to wait so they can introduce him to Remy with as little trauma as possible. The critic is not being mocked for his “snobbery”—he isn’t a snob. He isn’t being brought low when he wants to thank Remy. The act of criticism isn’t revealed to be a sham. An artist has given him something unquantifiable, and, as is only correct, he wants to thank him for the gift.

And then, after all the buildup and suspense? He accepts Remy as he is. Like any great critic, he’s able to look past boundaries and limitations. His life is dedicated to seeking art, and his real work is to be grateful when he receives it, and to share it with others without judging the source. While Linguini, Colette, and Django all retire to their various homes to think about the night, Ego goes to his office and works his own art, delivering a speech in defense of art and critique that would have been extraordinary in any context, but is made all the more so for being tucked into a children’s film about a rat.

And in the other best moment (I know, I know, there are a lot of best moments—blame Brad Bird.) Remy walks down to the Seine to be alone. Working in a kitchen leads to wired, sleepless nights, but in this instance he’s touched a numinous moment of pure creativity.  He focused his entire being into the food he made, and an expert in his field, a man he respects, has acknowledged him as an artist and appreciated his work. He needs to process this before he can be around people, or rats, so he spends the night with his city.

By the time I had come out of the movie I had stopped crying and was wearing an ear-to-ear grin. We went to Florent, a legendary, much-missed all-night diner, and I stuffed goat cheese into my face. The subway was extra full of rats that night, and I giggled like a child each time I spotted one. I started staying up late, and writing again, and I allowed the bad parts of the job to fade into the back of my mind while I searched for something new. The following year I wrote the short story that would later expand into the novel I’m finishing now. I wrote story after story. I took walks and watched people and began absorbing my city again. Most of all I stopped feeling sorry for myself and allowed myself to feel joy and anger. I started laying a path to change my life instead of looking backward and lamenting all the mistakes I’d made. And this might sound like hyperbole, but a huge amount of that momentum came from this rat who knew that anyone could cook, and the critic who believed in him.

Leah Schnelbach still watches this movie at least twice a year. It keeps her honest. Come discuss the art of criticism with her on Twitter!

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Posted by Jenn Northington

The first Octavia Butler novel I ever read was Fledgling, and it was a revelation. While I had been taught by early exposure to Ursula Le Guin that genre fiction could be political, could comment on social and cultural morés, I never expected that someone would use vampires to discuss bigotry, racism, and slavery. It’s been almost a decade since I read it, but I doubt I’ll ever forget that sense of wonder.

And that, more than anything else, is why Butler ranks as one of my all-time favorites. Of course, her accomplishments are many—this is a woman who conquered both dyslexia and prejudice to become an award-winning writer and a MacArthur Fellow. Kindred alone is enough to put her in the ranks of influential sci-fi writers. But I am a lifelong genre fan and a somewhat-jaded reader, and I’ve read a lot of good books and many great ones too. So when I read, I’m looking for a return to that moment we’ve all felt, in which an author does something so original, so creative, so truly surprising, that it feels like your mind has been blown wide open. Octavia Butler’s books create that moment, time and again.

For the first U.S. World Book Night, I chose to hand out Kindred. There’s nothing simple about trying to convince strangers first, that you’re not trying to give them religious materials, and second, that they should take this sci-fi novel from you. And believe me, I dearly wanted to say, “Have you accepted Octavia Butler as your personal reading savior?” but wiser heads convinced me this was a bad idea. So instead, I often found myself babbling. “It’s not just a time travel novel,” I told people. “It’s a book that shows how you can use science fiction to talk about politics and society.” “It’s amazing. It will change the way you look at genre fiction.” “She’s the most famous female African-American sci-fi writer!”

I said all those things because they were true, but mostly because “It will astonish you,” doesn’t seem like enough of a pitch. But truthfully, that’s the highest praise I can give: Octavia Butler will astonish you.

This article was originally published June 22, 2013 on Tor.com.

Killing is My Business

Jun. 21st, 2017 08:00 pm
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Posted by Adam Christopher

Another golden morning in a seedy town, and a new memory tape and assignment for intrepid PI-turned-hitman—and last robot left in working order—Raymond Electromatic. But his skills may be rustier than he remembered in Killing Is My Business, the latest in Adam Christopher’s robot noir oeuvre, available July 25th from Tor Books.

Read chapter 2 below, or head back to the beginning with chapter 1 here, along with an excerpt from Ray Electromatic’s novella-length adventure, Standard Hollywood Depravity.

 

 

Chapter 2

It was when Wednesday rolled around for the fourth time that I rolled the Buick into a spot across the street from the downtown office in which Vaughan Delaney parked his blue-suited behind Monday to Friday, nine to five. While the building was owned and operated by the City of Los Angeles, it wasn’t actually city hall, which was good because paying a little visit to a target in city hall would have made the job a little more difficult than I would have liked. It wasn’t exactly going to be easy here but I had some ideas. I’d been scoping it out for long enough and it was now coming up to eight fifty-five in the morning on the last Wednesday of Vaughan Delaney’s life and it was time for me to get to work.

Two minutes after I turned the Buick’s engine off the red Plymouth Fury swept into the slot right outside the steps that led up to the front door of the building. The slot wasn’t posted as belonging to anyone in particular but it was always free. There was a spot marked for Vaughn Delaney in the parking lot out the back of the building, but that spot had the disadvantage of not being visible from the main street, and Vaughan Delaney was proud of his car and he liked it to be visible.

I knew about the parking lot around back and the slot that was posted for Vaughan Delaney because I’d checked. I’d checked everything there was to check about Vaughan Delaney and that included where he parked his car during the day and during the night and what his lunch habits were.

Lunch was my moment of opportunity. More specifically, lunch on Wednesdays, because Wednesday was the one day a week he poked his head out the office door before five o’clock. On Wednesdays he came out between twelve oh-two and twelve oh-three and he skipped down the office steps with one hand pressing his fedora against his scalp and the other swinging the buckskin briefcase. Then he got into his rocket ship, threw the briefcase on the seat beside him, and blasted off for galaxies unknown before making his re-entry anytime between twelve fifty-five and twelve fifty-six.

Vaughan Delaney was the kind of guy who watched the clock. That was something else I admired about him.

I say “lunch,” but that was really a misnomer, given that in the three weeks I’d been following him Vaughan Delaney hadn’t done much in the way of eating food, unless he had Cindy Delaney’s homemade sandwiches in his buckskin briefcase and he ate with one hand on the wheel. Because what Vaughan Delaney did during Wednesday lunchtimes was drive.

The first Wednesday I watched and waited in my own car outside his office. I didn’t move it from the spot across the street and I didn’t move myself from the driver’s seat. I just kept my optics on the office and watched as the city planner came down the stairs and got into the car and drove off and I watched as he drove back and got out of the car and went up the stairs again.

The second Wednesday I followed him and I must have been surprised at what I discovered (although I didn’t remember—never remembered) because all he did was drive in circles around downtown LA, going along East 1st Street until it become West 1st Street and then hooking in Figueroa and then down to Olympic Boulevard and then around and about and back to his office. I kept a good distance but he never got out of my sight. He never stopped for lunch either, and if he was eating on the go then I never saw him do it through the acreage of glass that wrapped around the upper half of his vehicle. The leather seats inside the Plymouth Fury were red and white like the outside of the car and you certainly wouldn’t want to spill mayonnaise and ketchup on them. Vaughan Delaney was nothing if not a careful man.

The third Wednesday he fired the boosters on the Fury and he headed into my territory. Hollywood, California. Beverly Boulevard. Highland Avenue. Santa Monica Boulevard. The Plymouth Fury bucked and rocked and weaved. It stopped at lights and I stopped with it. It roared off when the lights changed and I did my best to keep up.

Then he went back to the office and went up the stairs and that was that.

It was interesting but perhaps not remarkable. Maybe he just liked driving. A car like that, I’d stoke its afterburners once weekly too. Maybe Cindy Delaney’s sandwiches were waiting for him in the drawer of his desk.

Vaughan Delaney’s Wednesday sightseeing tours gave me an idea. Because one week he’d take off and then …

Well, one week he’d take off and he wouldn’t come back.

Vaughan Delaney had made my job just that little bit easier and for that I was much obliged. I’d been sitting in my car for too long and I was feeling restless. I didn’t know if we were on any kind of timetable but Ada hadn’t said anything about it.

Timetables, it had to be said, were not my strong point, given that I had no recollection of events prior to six in the morning, each and every day. That was because I was a robot with a state-of-the-art miniaturized data tape sitting behind my chest plate, a ribbon of condensed magnetic storage slowly winding from one reel to the other, the events of the day recording themselves through the medium of me.

“Day” being the operative word. My memory tape was a technological wonder, but it had a limit. Specifically, a twentyfour-hour limit. Subtract a couple more to allow my batteries to recharge back at the office, and I was down to twenty-two hours of working time. And when I switched back on afterward, the world around me was born anew, the old memory tape boxed and archived and a new clean one installed. I guess I was the one who did the boxing and installing. I don’t know. I didn’t remember.

So my surveillance of Vaughan Delaney, my three weeks of watching and waiting in my car, of following him on his lunchtime drives around town, my visits to his house in Gray Lake, my observation of Cindy Delaney and her own daily habits-none of this was anything I could actually recall. Every morning I’d wake up in my alcove in the computer room behind my office and my boss, Ada, would give me a rundown on current jobs. In fact, Ada was the computer room, and my alcove was inside her next to her own spinning memory tapes and flashing data banks. All that tape, she had no problem remembering anything at all. Once she’d laid out the details of the current job, including what I had done and what I needed to do, I was out the door with a spring in my step and a few homicidal thoughts fizzing between my voltage amplification coils.

And the current job, singular, for the last three weeks, had been Vaughan Delaney and nothing else. But even if I didn’t remember a thing about it, and even though there didn’t seem to be any particular kind of timetable supplied by our anonymous client, I figured I’d spent enough time sitting in my car and had better get the job done at some point.

That point was today. Wednesday.

I sat in the car and I watched and I waited. Vaughan Delaney had been in his office for an hour. He wouldn’t appear for another two. I sat and I waited. I opened my window an inch and listened to the beat of the city around me.

It was a busy street and the office got a lot of foot traffic, some of which even stopped to admire the car that was the same color as a fire engine parked right outside the door. Back on my side of the street there was a drugstore down on the corner that got a lot of foot traffic too. I watched people come and go and some of those people were carrying brown paper bags. Some people went inside and stayed there, sitting on stools at the bench inside the front window as they drank coffee and ate sandwiches.

I watched them a while longer and then I thought rd quite like a sandwich and a coffee to pass the time. I didn’t need to sit and watch the building. Vaughan Delaney’s schedule was as regular as the oscillators in my primary transformer. I had time to spare.

I got out of the car and stood on the sidewalk for a moment, one hand on the driver’s door, looking over at the office building. A sandwich and a coffee still felt like a great idea. It was the kind of thing you got when you spent a lot of time waiting and watching. It helped pass the time, like smoking and talking about baseball with the boys and making your own flies for fly-fishing.

Of course, I had no need for a coffee or a sandwich or a cigarette. IfI walked down to the drugstore and went inside and bought one of each I wouldn’t have any use for them on account of the fact that I didn’t eat or drink.

I was a robot.

And still as I stood there in the street the faint memory of the taste of fresh hot coffee tickled the back of my circuits. An echo of another life, maybe. A life that didn’t belong to me but that belonged to my creator, Professor Thornton.

A coffee and a sandwich would be a real waste, but maybe the drugstore could sell me something else. Maybe I could get a magazine. A magazine or a paperback book. That sounded fun. I had two hours to kill before I followed the target on his weekly jaunt around the City of Angels.

I closed the door of the car and I pulled my collar up and my hat down and I headed to the drugstore, just a robot minding his own business. Most people in the street minded their own too. So I was a robot. Big deal. The city had been full of robots once. Some people remembered them and some people were too young. Some people glanced at me and held their glance a moment longer than they normally would, but there was some stiff competition coming from the miracle machine parked up on the other side of the street.

I never made it into the drugstore, which was a shame as I was set on the idea of a paperback book. In fact, I never even got close to the corner, because this Wednesday Vaughan Delaney decided to make a change to his routine, and he did this by falling out of the window of his office on the sixth floor of the building and making a splashdown right on the white lid of the red Plymouth Fury.

The crashing sound this unexpected event made was just as loud as if another car had collided with the Plymouth instead of a human body. The initial smash was followed by the slow tinkle of broken glass and more than a couple of screams and shouts from the good folk who had, until that moment, just been minding their business on a sunny midweek morning.

I froze where I was and looked across the street. The car was still rocking on its suspension and the roof had caved in toward the back, bending enough for the rear windshield to shatter. The front windshield remained intact, most likely due to its prodigious expanse of curved glass, which clearly added a great deal of strength to the structure.

Vaughan Delaney lay in the concave roof, arms and legs spread out like he was getting comfortable in his big bed in Gray Lake after a good night out with the boys in accounting. Said boys were still in the office above the car and were now leaning out and looking down and pointing, as though there was some other direction their former colleague could have gone. I heard more shrieks and sobs from above as the realization spread across the whole office like the blood spreading out from Vaughan Delaney’s ruptured insides onto the roof of the car, turning the white leather covering it the same color as the bodywork. Soon enough other windows up and down the whole side of the building and its neighbors opened and more heads looked out. A man in a uniform that marked him out as the concierge ran out of the building and raced to the car fast enough to leave his peaked cap floating down the steps behind him. He was joined by a couple of other men, one of whom had flown off the sidewalk next to me to lend a hand at the scene. Around me people stopped and stared and either turned away with a shudder or a gasp as they dropped their shopping or they just stood there and looked on as they sucked their cigarettes and adjusted their hats.

I didn’t have a cigarette to suck but I was wearing a hat and I adjusted it just like everyone else. I stood there and watched as in just a few minutes more people came out of the building and from up and down the street to form a not insubstantial audience around the wrecked car.

I walked back to my own vehicle and got in. I kept my eyes on the scene. Someone in shirtsleeves had climbed up onto the hood of the Plymouth Fury, but on reaching the windshield he’d stopped with his hands on hips like he was unsure of the route ahead.

Sitting between me and the passenger seat in my car was a telephone. It started to ring. I let it ring and I started the car and pulled away and headed up toward Hollywood. When I was clear of the scene by an intersection or two I picked the phone up.

“Hi,” I said.

“What’s cooking, Ray?” Ada sounded cheerful as she always did and she sounded like she was pulling on a cigarette which she sometimes did and which I knew to be merely an echo in my circuits of someone else, given that my boss was a computer the size of an office.

”I’m heading back,” I said. “Get the coffee on.”

“Nice piece of action downtown, Ray.”

I frowned, or at least it felt like I frowned. My face was a solid flat plate of bronzed steel-titanium alloy and my mouth was a slot and a grill that was about as mobile as any of the four faces carved onto the side of Mount Rushmore.

“If you’re talking about the untimely end of Vaughan Delaney, then I guess that is action of a fashion,” I said. “Although I have to ask how you knew about it given that it happened all of three minutes ago.”

“Oh, it’s all over the place, Ray. Someone called it in to the cops and I just happened to be listening in. Then everybody started calling it in to the cops.”

“I did think it was a little early for the late edition.”

“It’ll be front page tomorrow,” said Ada. “Perhaps below the fold. Depends what other standard Hollywood depravity goes on before sundown, I guess.” Ada blew smoke around my circuits. “Not your usual style, but you know what I say, whatever works, works.”

“Except I had nothing to do with the death of Vaughan Delaney.”

“That’s good, chief. Keep it up. Deny everything, ask for your phone call, and don’t speak until you get a lawyer.”

I came up to a set of lights that were red. rd come several blocks and was at the corner of Beverly and South Union. I didn’t like this part of the city. Hollywood might have been crummy but downtown Los Angeles was strange to me, too many tall buildings standing too close to one another. I wouldn’t be happy until I was back home.

The lights changed and I kept on in a westerly direction.

“Ada, listen, it wasn’t me,” I said. “The city planner hit terminal velocity under his own volition.”

“Oh.”

“Oh?”

“Oh, as in, oh well, accidents happen.”

“You don’t sound too worried.”

“Should I be?”

“Do we still get paid?”

“Well,” said Ada, “the target is dead, isn’t he?”

“That he is.”

“So job done. That was good of Mr. Delaney to do our work for us. Nice and clean is the way I like it.”

I made a buzzing sound like a bumblebee trapped under a glass. Ada got the message and she laughed.

“Don’t worry about it, chief,” she said. “Come back to the office and take the rest of the day off.”

I thought again about the paperback book I was going to buy. As I drove I kept an optic out and I hit pay dirt nearly at once.

There was a bookstore on the corner with a Buick-sized space right outside it.

“I’m on my way,” I said as I pulled the car up. “I’m just making a little stop first.”

“Going for a root beer float, chief?”

I frowned on the inside again and Ada started laughing.

“Go knock yourself out,” she said. And then the phone was dead.

When I got out of my car I paused a while in the sunshine of the late morning. I turned and looked at the bookstore, and then I turned and looked down the street in a southeasterly direction. Four miles away Los Angeles city planner Vaughan Delaney was being scooped out of the broken roof of his red-and-white 1957 Plymouth Fury.

Then I swung the door of the Buick closed and I headed into the bookstore with just one thought buzzing around my solenoids.

It sure was a shame about that car.

Excerpted from Killing Is My Business, copyright © 2017 by Adam Christopher.

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Posted by Emily Asher-Perrin

Dune Messiah Cover

We come to the final part of our Dune Messiah Reread. Now we must deal with the consequences of this these machinations, which happens to be… twins? Of course twins. It’s always twins.

Index to the reread can be located here! And don’t forget this is a reread, which means that any and all of these posts will contain spoilers for all of Frank Herbert’s Dune series. If you’re not caught up, keep that in mind.

Summary (through the ending)

Paul’s remaining eye tissue is removed, but he won’t get the Tleilaxu eyes he offers the other men. He tells Chani that they have eternity when she admits that she feels they are running out of time. Chani notes that Paul always refers to their unborn progeny as a single child, but she assumes that he must know she carries twins because he always knows everything. He tells her that their child will rule an even greater Empire than his own. The trial against Korba takes place, with the Fremen all nervous over Paul’s ability to see without eyes. Korba demands to face his accuser, but Paul say his accuser is Otheym—they have his voice by way of Bijaz. The other conspirators have fled Arrakis with the worm they kidnapped. Korba insists that he be judged by Fremen law, and Stilgar agrees—because he plans to take care of Korea himself later. Alia realizes that this was a plan between Paul and Stilgar to flush out the other traitors. Stilgar is surprised that Alia could not sense that ahead of time, and she wonders how he has changed. Stilgar asks if she is questioning his loyalty, and she insists that she isn’t… but she knows that he is about to betray Paul and tells Stil so.

Hayt is sent to talk to Bijaz, who claims to have been there when they reanimated him and tells him that his flesh did not want to be brought back to life. Hayt suspects that Bijaz is there to unbalance Alia somehow, then realizes that the dwarf is actually there to unbalance him. Bijou sings to him, explaining that they were grown in the same tank, that they are like brothers. He possesses the words and phrases to trigger Hayt—who he insists is truly Duncan Idaho. He tells Duncan that the Emperor will come to him one day and say “She is gone.” And in that moment they will offer him a ghola of Chani, and when he is vulnerable. He also tells Duncan that the Atreides carry Harkonnen blood through Jessica to help tip the scale of his argument. And the price will be renouncing his godhood, his sister, and his CHOAM holdings. Then he claps his hands, preventing Duncan from remembering their discussion of these matters.

Alia has taken a great dose of spice to attempt to see what her brother sees. She talks to Hayt and calls him Duncan, which he does not want her to do. She tells him that the Bene Gesserit are hoping to get their breeding program back in line by getting Paul’s child… or hers. She cannot see who the father of her child will be, however. Hayt begins to realize that she has likely overdosed on spice and wants to call a doctor—he cannot bear the thought of an Atreides woman dying. Alia realizes that the ghola loves her, and a doctor is called to help with her overdose. The doctor worries that she was poisoned, but she dismisses them and insists that Hayt stay with her. She tells him that she wishes she were not part of her brother’s story, that she wants the ability to laugh and love. She asks Duncan if he loves her, and he admits that he does. He tries to get her to sleep, but she tells him about the plot against Paul and how bad it has become. She drifts off thinking of the child she will have one day, and how that child will be born aware, just like her.

Chani looks out on the desert near the sietch where she will give birth. Her contractions have started but she wants a moment to herself, confused as to why Paul has brought so many people with them into the desert, including enemies. Hayt insists that Chani comes inside to avoid the coming sandstorm, recognizes that she’s about to give birth and calls other to them. He is gripped by fear that Chani will die and Paul will tell him so, wondering where the panic is coming from. Then he knows that Bijaz has done something that will trigger him when the time comes.

Paul is thinking of the future that is rushing toward him, wishing that he could tell his believers to worship life and not him. Hayt comes by to warn him of how he’s been rigged, but Paul insists that he will not do violence to him. He calls him Duncan, which Hayt thinks is dangerous… but then Hayt calls him “young master” as Duncan used to do. Paul advises him to choose his humanity. One of the Fremen approaches to tell him that Chani is dead and Paul utters the trigger. Hayt moves to stab him, but then has a crisis of consciousness and realizes that he is Duncan Idaho. Paul tells him that this was the moment he came back to him. Paul is then told that Chani gave birth to twins and that the speed of the birth is what killed her. Paul is shocked that he did not see two children in his visions and finds that he can no longer see. He comes to the room where Chani’s body and his children are, and Harah directs him to them. Paul had only ever seen a girl in his visions. He tries to access them, to see what is around him now that his vision is truly gone.

Alia comes in with Lichna, who Paul knows is truly Scytale in disguise. The Face Dancer is fascinated to learn that Duncan Idaho has regained his past. He tells the room that he will kill the Atreides children if Paul does not take his offer to have Chani back as a ghola. Paul realizes that they gave him Duncan to further entice him with the possibility that Chani could truly come back to him, but he knows the price would be too high for all of them, at the mercy of the Tleilaxu forever. He tells Alia to bargain on his behalf, then suddenly regains his vision… from the vantage point of his son. He needs to kill Scytale, and he wonders if perhaps Chani’s needs for so much spice had been to give his children awareness just like Alia. The babies can focus already, staring at each other. He names the boy Leto, for his father, and the girl Ghanima, “spoil of war.” Harah objects, as that is an ill-omened name that Alia used to tease her with, but Paul insists.

Bijaz comes in and insists that the plan succeeded, despite Scytale’s death; the Tleilaxu knew that Idaho thought of Paul as the son he never had, so he would not kill him if he resurfaced. He offers again to restore Chani, and Paul is more tempted than before. He orders Duncan to kill Bijaz to prevent this, and Duncan does. Paul then goes into the desert, and though Duncan thinks he will not die there, no one knows for sure. Stilgar takes Alia’s orders now, killing all the traitors including the Reverend Mother Gaius, which was in conflict with Paul’s orders—betraying him as Alia said he would. Duncan goes to Alia, who is racked with grief, calling her brother a fool for giving in to this path. She has had no more visions since Chani’s death, and now has to contend with Irulan who insists that she loved Paul but never knew it. Irulan has promised to renounce the Bene Gesserit and spend her life training Paul’s children. Duncan realizes that now the Bene Gesserit have no hold over any of the Atreides heirs with Irulan on their side. Alia pleads with Duncan to love her and tells him that she loves him, which confuses Duncan as it is such a departure from his old life. But he loves her and agrees to follow wherever she leads him.

Commentary

The biggest problem with Dune Messiah as a book is that it spends ages debating philosophy about what is happening, and not a lot doing things. I’ve already sort of gone into this, but it comes very clear by the end of the book where every conversation is ultimately about whether or not Paul is a slave to his prescience or not. There are places where it gets kind of silly; Alia tells Duncan “Nature abhors prescience” like “nature abhors a vacuum,” and at that point you kind of have to chuckle at everything.

None of these ruminations are bad on their own, there are actually several fascinating arguments within this tale, but it seems like these arguments were really all that Frank Herbert was interested in writing and then he just kind of built the book around that. It’s a pretty common writing error that makes me wonder what might have happened if an editor had broken the book down a little more. Some of the back-and-forths are deliriously obtuse, and then the books legitimately stops being fun. But the ultimate point is that the life of Muad’Dib is tragic, as we were informed at the outset. Paul is not truly a savior, and he is not a deity. He did what he thought he had to do, but he still only ended up substituting one brand of tyranny for another.

The most important of these arguments is probably Paul’s insistence that people prefer despots to kind rulers, and that freedom results in chaos. Now, this is a pretty common theory that tyrants love to use when they feel the need to prove themselves right (see: Loki’s speech in Germany during The Avengers), but we’re observing a system in this book where that kind of thinking has literally subsumed an empire of billions, and resulted in slaughter. Given the long view of history, we can blame Paul for some of this, but not all—there is a system in place around him that led to his rise, all the myth making and legend-seeding that the Bene Gesserit did before he ever arrived. So the book is not just a argument against making individuals into gods, it is critiquing a system by which people are condition to accept such individuals. Without legends, without religions, without prophecy, the rule of Muad’Dib high have never come to pass.

Herbert is might be preaching, but his messages are largely sound: Think for yourself. People are not gods. Gods are not governance.

I kept coming back to the section where Bijaz and Duncan discuss Alia, and how she is described more than once as the “virgin-harlot.” That’s a pretty loaded term, as it combines two of few main archetypes that women are ever allowed in fiction: maiden or whore. On the fictional world level, these tropes have not left the universe that Herbert as created despite thousands of years having passed (from what is ostensibly our own time), which is still irritating to me because it suggests that people have not evolved at all… then again, the Dune Universe is kind of about that. On the other hand, the use of these tropes to label Alia—or to specifically call out the ways in which she cannot be labeled—is very interesting. Alia suffers continuously from having not just a dual nature, but a multiplicitous one. She is many lives at once, but she is also herself, and it is clear that the reader is meant to consider the impossibility of that, the difficulty of being Alia.

Later on, the book even goes for far as to describe the many over-complicated relationships she has with everyone in her life. Her father is her father, but he’s also her husband and lover. Her brother is her brother and he’s also her son. Her mother is her mother and also herself. These are all warning signs for what will happen in the following book, a clear breakdown of the sheer magnitude of Alia’s being. Paul spends a lot of time thinking how rough his life is, how he could not stop what happened to him, but Alia is the one who truly cannot help being who she is, whose very existence is a contradiction. Calling her a virgin-harlot is too simplistic at the end of the day. Alia is far more than that, and her grief at the end of the book should be painful; she is abandoned by everyone in her life, altogether and quickly. It is little wonder that she hangs onto Duncan with her fingernails.

Duncan’s tale is also bobbing up and down in the background of this story, but it is one of the most important arcs of the whole book. The idea of regaining humanity from a dead man, and how this resurrection changes his purpose is also central to the novel’s themes: what is a person made of? Are they their hopes and dreams? Their memories? Are they what other people require of them? This is particularly clear at end; Duncan is also grieving over Paul in his way, as once he comes back to himself at the end of the book, he means to serve his Duke as he did before. But then Paul is gone and he is left with Alia, who was not even born before his death. Now his life revolves around a member of the Atreides family that he never meant to serve, and he’s aware of the fact that he is recalibrating for a different purpose.

Chani’s death always bugs the hell out of me as a reader. There is a need for her to die in order for the events of the next book to work, but we don’t see enough of her for it not to feel like a slight. The worst part is, I really enjoy the way she is written when Herbert deigns to write her. She is such a fierce and keen presence when she is there, and her perspective is consistently one of the most interesting in the book. Then we have many more character deaths on top of hers once Alia chooses to murder all the conspirators against Paul. There is a vague mention of how broken up Alia is over Chani’s death, but because Herbert never writes their relationship into the book, it doesn’t land as well as it could. All the emotional moments between people who are not Duncan/someone else are missing in the novel, and it feels sparser for it.

We have Irulan, who is now claiming that she loved Paul all the while and now wants to teach his children. It’s one of those unfortunate places where the book wraps too quickly, because hearing that about Irulan is not a satisfying turnover, but getting to witness her reaction might help it make more sense. Of course, this will also be important going forward….

Jessica’s absence in this novel is glaring, and it is clearly meant to be. We will see her again, too… she can’t very well stay out of everyone’s affairs forever. With that said—Children of Dune is coming.

Emily Asher-Perrin has always been sort of mesmerized by the term “stone burner” as horrific weapon. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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Posted by Ruthanna Emrys, Anne M. Pillsworth

Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.

Today we’re looking at M. R. James’s “Casting the Runes,” first published in 1911 in his More Ghost Stories collection. Spoilers ahead.

“Dear Sir, — I am requested by the Council of the ___ Association to return to you the draft of a paper on The Truth of Alchemy, which you have been good enough to offer to read at our forthcoming meeting, and to inform you that the Council do not see their way to including it in the programme.”

Summary

Mr. Karswell of Lufford Abbey, self-styled wizard, isn’t happy about the rejection of his paper on alchemy. Not happy at all, as the secretary of the rejecting Association tells his wife. At lunch with friends who live near the Abbey, the pair learn how vindictive Karswell can be. According to the friends, he never forgives an offense. To keep children off his estate, he treated them to a magic-lantern show of horrors, including a piece about a flopping white thing that does away with trespassers in the Abbey woods. Then there’s what happened to John Harrington, who wrote a damning review of Karswell’s History of Witchcraft. One night, on his usual walk home, he scaled a tree, fell, and broke his neck. No one can imagine what he sought to escape, but John’s brother suspects Karswell was responsible.

The secretary hopes Karswell won’t learn that Edward Dunning reviewed his paper for the Association. But Karswell would have to inquire at the British Museum for fellow alchemical scholars to learn his reviewer’s name.

Karswell, alas, is a clever man.

Dunning’s quiet life is first upset when he notices an unusual advertisement on his tram ride home. It reads: “In memory of John Harrington, F.S.A., of The Laurels, Ashbrooke. Died Sept. 18th, 1889. Three months were allowed.” By the next day the ad’s disappeared. Then Dunning’s given a leaflet by a man with a strangely rough and hot hand. Dunning glimpses the name Harrington before the leaflet’s twitched away by a passerby. It disappears, as has the distributor.

These incidents leave Dunning pensive. On his next visit to the Museum, he drops some papers. A stout man sitting behind him returns his notebook, saying “May I give you this? I think it should be yours.” Dunning later asks the attendant the man’s name. Oh, that’s Mr. Karswell, and actually Karswell has been asking about authorities on alchemy, and of course was given Dunning’s name.

As Dunning heads home, he feels that “something ill-defined and impalpable had stepped in between him and his fellow-men—had taken him in charge, as it were.” His physician meets him at the door with the news that his servants are both in hospital, poisoned by shellfish they bought from a door-to-door vendor. Dunning must spend the night alone. He’s in bed when he hears his study door open. Investigating, he sees and hears no more, only feels a gust of hot air around his legs. Back in bed, he reaches under the pillow for his watch, only to touch “a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and…not the mouth of a human being.” He flees to the guest bedroom, to spend a miserable night of listening for—something—to fumble at the door. In the morning no intruder’s to be found.

Our Association secretary meets Dunning and is shocked by his haunted appearance. Learning that Karswell has identified his reviewer, the secretary refers Dunning to John Harrington’s brother, Henry. Henry relates John’s story, how a stout man—Karswell—handed John back a dropped program at a concert, after which John felt unaccountably “followed.” He and Henry later discovered a slip of paper in the returned program, covered with black and red runes. Henry remembered a chapter in Karswell’s History of Witchcraft about “casting the runes” to “get people out of the way.” He believes his brother could have escaped Karswell’s curse if he’d been able to give the slip back, but unfortunately (and totally coincidentally) wind caught it and blew it into the fire. Three months from the night of the concert, something chased John to his death.

Dunning recalls Karswell returning his notebook. He and Harrington find in it a slip marked with runes, identical to the one John received. Wind tries to whisk it out the window, but Harrington is able to grab it. They must keep it safe at all cost and somehow trick Karswell into accepting it back.

A week before Dunning’s three month reprieve will be up, Harrington learns Karswell’s leaving for Europe. Dunning and Harrington contrive to be on the same boat train, Dunning in disguise. Karswell is visibly anxious, keeps leaving the car, then spying back through the window. The last time he leaves, one of his ticket cases falls to the floor. Dunning quickly puts the runic slip into it and hands it to Karswell on his return; somehow he keeps his voice from trembling as he says, “May I give you this, sir? I believe it is yours.”

With a distracted air, Karswell takes the ticket case. At the Dover pier, the conspirators watch him board the boat to France. The boarding official calls him back, asking if the gentleman with Karswell has also shown his ticket. Karswell snarls that no one is with him, and indeed that seems to be the case. The official apologizes, then puzzles to a mate about whether Karswell had a dog with him, or did the official just mistake his bundle of coats for another person?

Dunning, uncomfortable sending anyone to his death, dispatches a telegram to Karswell’s hotel warning him to check his ticket case. Evidently the message doesn’t get through, because a couple days later, at the end of Dunning’s three months, a stone falls from a church under repair and kills Karswell. No workmen were around at the time of the accident.

Back in England Harrington tells Dunning about a dream John had before his death, but Dunning soon stops him.

What’s Cyclopean: James’s writing is perfectly sedate—but of Karswell’s we hear that it’s full of “split infinitives, and every sort of thing that makes an Oxford gorge rise.”

The Degenerate Dutch: The tram workers need Dunning’s gentlemanly testimony to avoid getting sacked for “making up” a creepy disappearing advertisement.

Mythos Making: Witches, from Keziah Mason to the thousand heirs of Salem, appear throughout Lovecraft.

Libronomicon: John Harrington reviewed Karswell’s History of Witchcraft; unfortunately for him Karswell doesn’t take criticism well.

Madness Takes Its Toll: The scientific man may be reluctant to concede the evidence of other people’s senses, but “hypnotic suggestion” soothes many ills.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

Scientific rivalry isn’t what it once was, back in the day. Twenty-first century researchers may excoriate their reviewers—or worse, the authors of failed replications—in the vilest of terms, but that’s generally as far as it goes. The active sabotage and libel of the Bone Wars is well behind us. Even that pales beside a fellow like Karswell. The gentleman (and I use the term loosely) is an excellent argument for anonymous peer review. The field of alchemy is fortunate that he’s not a more prolific writer.

There are a lot of excellent creepy details in “Casting the Runes.” I’m going to think twice before the next time I stick my hand under my pillow, let me tell you! Karswell has the Riddler’s sense of drama, and combines actual (possible) witchcraft with the sort of ominous hints that more mundane organized criminals and stalkers use to intimidate. “I can get to you any time” is powerfully and unpleasantly suggestive, with or without curses. Then again, like the Riddler’s requisite hints and tricks, it also affords getting caught. In Karswell’s case, that’s a pretty severe risk.

That risk is where the story breaks down for me—it feels a little too pat. Once Dunning compares notes with Harrington, his own hazard feels somewhat more relaxed and more predictable. Yes, all is death and ruin if he fails to get the paper back to his tormenter, but he has a plan, and it mostly involves waiting around. Plus, there’s an end to mysteriously etched tram windows and inhuman mouths under pillows, at just the point when the reader’s appetite has been whetted.

Harrington (Henry) and Dunning feel a little too confident in their guess, unsupported but perfectly accurate, that safety lies in surreptitiously returning the runes to Karswell. Then I have trouble buying Karswell’s willingness to accept a returned item, any returned item, a week before his curse comes up. If I were him, I’d check every coat and scrap of paper that came within 50 feet, ever. He seems paranoid from the moment he gets on the train—why would he not carry that through to actually, dunno, guarding against the very ruse he’s so fond of?

Then again, all my two-star reviewers are still alive. So clearly my mindset isn’t much like Karswell’s; I could be missing some deep psychological explanation behind his willingness to hug the idiot ball.

Even with these flaws, the story retains a core of power. Karswell is a writer, albeit one who horrifies Oxfordians with dreadful split infinites and mixed mythologies. Runes aren’t a random choice of tool: live by the pen, die by the pen. It’s interesting that he chooses to separate Dunning from his household via poisoning. Slipping something into someone’s food, and slipping something into someone’s papers, are parallel weapons. Writing isn’t so far from cooking in its range of possible effects, from transcendent pleasure to excruciating pain.

Given that similarity, perhaps Karswell should have paid more attention to his critics, rather than dismissing them with deadly force. You can’t avoid your own cooking forever, after all, and a willingness to improve would have made the taste more palatable.

 

Anne’s Commentary

Discussing the “Modern Masters” in Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft mentions a number of James’s stories, but not “Casting the Runes.” Or else he mentions it only obliquely, by stating how a Jamesian creature is “usually touched before it is seen.” Surely that description applies perfectly to the moment of purest terror in this week’s selection! I don’t keep handkerchiefs or books under my pillow anymore, for fear I might reach for them and encounter something else instead. Something inhuman. With teeth. Teeth!

As if anticipating the ire of “Runes” fans, Lovecraft offers a pre-emptive apology: “Amidst this wealth of material it is hard to select a favourite or especially typical [M. R. James] tale, though each reader will no doubt have such preferences as his temperament may determine.” That’s okay, Howard. I too have a hard time picking a favorite James, but “Casting the Runes” would definitely make the top five, probably clawing for number one with “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” And Howard nails it with his analysis of what makes James a master. The most donnish of dons, antiquarian of antiquaries, James deploys his learning lightly, strategically.

To avoid the “technical patois” of scholarship and occultism is one of the rules James himself set for the weird tale. Another is to catch the reader where he lives by using contemporary and ordinary settings, giving him no opportunity to say, “Oh, that sort of thing only happened long ago and far away, in exotic dreams, don’t you know, kind of thing that Lord Dunsany chap writes.” James’s closest contemporaries were the fellow academics and writers who listened to his stories around the Christmas fire, and their “type” forms the bulk of his characters. They remain highly relatable, I think, for what do they do to precipitate themselves into supernatural adventures? Nothing we moderns couldn’t do: Buy the wrong book or picture, stay in the wrong hotel room, write a scathing review on Amazon or GoodReads.

The third rule is simple and paramount: Make the ghost (or other supernatural entity) malign, not benevolent or neutral. Come on, we’re out to scare readers to ecstatic shivers, right?

“Runes” certainly meets James’s own standards, and exceeds them. It’s notably light on magical jargon and pedantic asides—compared, within the author’s own oeuvre, with stories like “Number 13” (Danish church history) and “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book” (lotsa Latin.) It’s rich with contemporary and prosaic detail, into which the uncanny slowly filters, at first a light taint, finally a choking darkness. On his daily tram ride Dunning scans the old familiar ads, only to find one unfamiliar and subtly unnerving. On the streets of London someone hands him a leaflet. So what? Except this one somehow ties into the unnerving tram ad. He drops papers. A stranger returns some to him. Only the stranger turns out to be exactly the man Dunning would like to avoid. Only, afterwards, Dunning’s vague anxiety deepens, and his servants are sick, so he’s alone when something comes out of his study and creeps into his bed, gaping and toothy. No sooner does he hear the story of how Karswell cursed another critic than he learns he’s under the same curse himself. Escalation of peril, set off and even heightened by the preceding and interspersed bits of character humor: the Secretary and wife at lunch, the dialect-spiced repartee of the tram driver and conductor.

And is the supernatural entity malign? Hell yeah. What’s more, we experience it (and its precursors) through that most intimate of senses, touch. Dunning doesn’t just look at the strange tram ad—he rubs it with gloved fingers, yet fails to erase the lettering. The man who gives him a leaflet leaves no visual or auditory impression—he’s nothing but the odd heat and roughness of his hand. After the warning squeak of his study door opening, Dunning hears nothing more, sees nothing—he only feels hot air gust over his shins. Then there’s the touch that James describes with such brilliant brevity, leaving it for our own rousing imaginations to elaborate how Dunning must have felt the sticky give of furred lips under his fingers, and beneath them sharp ivory, and the ivory parting to release still hotter air, no, breath.

One sort of touch is still worse for Dunning’s victims, and that’s the touch of the intangible, the invisible, the inaudible yet undeniable, the phantom follower that dogs them and oppresses through their extrasensory perceptions of imminent danger, of doom that will shadow-tease and shadow-torture until the given time is up, when it will once again materialize.

Materialize, and do the deed the indecipherable runes have summoned it to do.

James pours on the suspense through the last quarter of the story, making the reader fret with Dunning and Harrington about whether they’ll be able to transfer the curse back to Karswell. But that’s not the final twist to our nerves, nor is Karswell’s death. The ending that proves James’s subtle mastery is again all suggestion. When Harrington finally tells Dunning what cursed brother John dreamt about his familiar, the truth is so horrible Dunning must cut him off.

Good God, man, it—it must have been the very Unnameable!

 

Next week, your hostesses try to counter a stressful summer with “Winged Death,” the very last Hazel Heald collaboration. We’ve been saving it like the last truffle in the box of chocolates; let’s find out if it’s worth the wait!

Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” is now available from Macmillan’s Tor.com imprint. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Dreamwidth, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story.The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.

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Posted by Stubby the Rocket

Game of Thrones trailer

The latest Game of Thrones trailer is a great mess of action designed to delight and confuse the viewer, but whooooaaaaa is that every Greyjoy ship that ever existed?

Uh-oh.

It’s all Sansa! Dragons! Zombies! Dragons! Boats! Jon Snow! Daenerys! Snow!

Are the dragons going to “flame-on” that Greyjoy armada? It kinda looks like they might. And Jon Snow is going to make everyone work together to fight back some winter zombies, if it’s the last thing he ever does. Which is could be. Given how things have gone for him so far.

Winter is here on July 16th.

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Posted by Niall Alexander

The easily-offended will be offended easily by Tom Holt’s new novel, a madcap Miracle on 34th Street in which religion in particular gets a ribbing, but readers with less delicate sensibilities should be ready to romp, because The Management Style of the Supreme Beings is a whole bunch of fun from word one. And it’s more than a simple send-up: it also stands as a sublimely ridiculous examination of morality in the modern era.

God, the thing begins, is getting on. “Fact is […] I feel old,” He says to his dearly beloved son as they fish for the same Sinderaan species that “had split the atom and proved the existence of the Higgs boson when Earth was still entirely inhabited by plankton.” An age or an instant later, as the five-dimensional fish nibble and divine drinks are sipped, the Big Guy admits that He thinks it might be time to step aside—as manager of the planet, naturally.

You build a business from the ground up, you care for it, worry about it, you take pride in its progress, you’re there for it when things don’t go so well. But there always comes a time when you have to let go. Or does there?

For obvious reasons, Jesus—who goes by Jay these days—doesn’t disagree. After all, “they’re father and son but also equal aspects of the One; it’s therefore logically impossible for them” to part ways in anything other than a philosophical fashion. It’s to His credit that Jay does wonder where that’s likely to leave Uncle Ghost, who’s gotten a bit dotty in His dotage, before giving God the nod… but notably, nobody mentions Kevin.

Kevin is “the younger son of God, marginally less well beloved” than his celebrated big brother “and with whom his father was not always quite so well pleased.” That’s probably because Kevin is desperately inept. He’s the kind of person who sticks to instant because he broke the cappuccino machine and everyone in a position to fix it with a minor miracle is too busy. Even celestial mechanics, “the easiest part of the business,” is beyond this poor kid, whose destiny seems to be to watch one rerun of Touched by an Angel after another, which… well, the less said about, the better.

To wit, when the time comes to hand off the heavens and the earth, Kevin isn’t even in contention. “Everybody seems to think the Venturi boys are a safe pair of hands” in any event. They’ve taken over and turned around plenty of struggling planets in the past, and they’ve offered a fair price—namely “a number [that] couldn’t possibly exist in human mathematics”—for the aforementioned firmament.

Kevin takes off in something off a strop when his high-flying family proffer this plan to him as a fait accompli, so as the Big Guy, Jay, and the Ghostest with the Mostest drive their holy camper van into the stars, the black sheep of the bunch is left on our lowly level when the Venturi brothers explain how they’ve made problematic planets like ours profitable:

Traditionally, your planet, and millions like it, have lumbered along through the Dark Ages on basically dualistic moral systems. You think in binary terms. Mostly it’s Good versus Evil, though in the past—credit where it’s due—some of you went for the more rational and commonsensical Honour/Shame dichotomy—which you guys currently regard as quaintly primitive. But let’s not dwell on that because everything’s about to change. From now on, there is no more Right or Wrong, Good or Evil. We’re doing away with all of that. It’s holding you back: it leads to war, unhappiness and grossly inefficient distribution of valuable resources. It’s gone. Don’t give it a second thought.

Instead:

Under Venturi morality, every sentient being is master of his fate and captain of his soul. You can do whatever you want, when you want, how you want, provided you pay for it. And we’re not talking some vague metaphysical, allegorical, wishy-washy philosophical price here. We’re talking about a fixed tariff of charges, payable in your local currency, fourteen of your Earth days from date of invoice, no excuses, no credit. [And] if you don’t pay, you go to jail.

Looks like the Venturis know what they’re doing, too, because over the months to come, criminal empires dissolve into debt as violent individuals are finally made to pay. Relatively little things, like extramarital flings, end up too expensive to pursue; even potty mouths cost more than a curse word’s worth. Faintly evil though it may be, the new system seems to work—at least at first.

There are, of course, those outliers who are unhappy about the recent change in the planet’s management. Malcontents like Jersey Thorpe, an action hero cut from distinctly Dan Brown-coloured cloth who had “dreamed the impossible dream, fought the unbeatable foe, made the impossible call and been put through—only to find the very next day that God had sold out to the Venturi boys and everything was suddenly completely different, rendering his colossal achievement meaningless.” Not to speak of Santa Claus: actually an ancient thunder god too popular with the people for God to put in his place, as He did all the other deities. Even the Venturis might have difficulty bringing this beirdy weirdo to heel.

Between them—them and a couple of other characters that may be more mundane but are no less marvelous—they dream of destroying the new world order that’s made us safer, but (sniff) sadder. And when their paths cross Kevin’s—who, as “the son of the Big Guy [was] born with an overwhelming instinct to redeem, even if none of it’s your fault and you had no say in the major policy decisions”—they find an unlikely ally who’ll probably be no help at all.

The Management Style of the Supreme Beings is, hands down, the best book Tom Holt has turned out in the ten years I’ve been reading his winningly silly fiction. God knows it’s not going to be for everyone—Holt is as happy to skewer the sacred as he is to take the piss out of the profane—but it’s not as barbed as all that, in fact. Its is a wit served with warmth: a sense of affection that softens the story’s sharp parts.

It’s not, on that note, Holt’s strongest story. Narratively, a lot of The Management Style of the Supreme Beings is nonsense, particularly the last act, which gets so grandiose that it almost loses sight of the little people at the book’s beating heart, however Holt is such an entertainer of an author that he could write a trilogy about watching a pot boil while paint dries and I’d read it in a gleeful evening. He has a sparkle in his authorial eye that makes every satirical sentence glimmer, and a spring in his storyteller’s step that makes even the most distracting of his digressions a devilish pleasure.

His characters are, in any case, more fully formed than his narrative, and between cretinous Kevin, Satan’s suck-up of a secretary Bernie Lachuk, and Jersey’s unexpectedly independent love interest Lucy, Holt has a cast of winners on his hands here. Also: a bloody good book that’s perfect for folks who like a lot of fun, and a little Father Christmas, in their fantasy fiction. Unless, I guess, they’re over-sensitive.

The Management Style of the Supreme Beings is available from Orbit.

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.

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Posted by Leah Schnelbach

UPDATE: Ron Howard will be popping the clutch and politely requesting that everyone eat his dust as he directs the Han Solo movie! However, there are still more spin-offs on the horizon, and we think any of these fine directorial choices could give us a killer Boba Fett biopic.

Last night the news broke that the directing team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller have departed the Han Solo spin-off movie. A new director has yet to be announced, but after a spirited discussion with my co-workers, I’ve got a few potentially polarizing suggestions for a fresh take on the galaxy far, far away…

 

Quentin Tarantino

Han and Lando ride around in the Millennium Falcon, bickering about who she belongs to, and committing occasional acts of horrific violence.

 

Martin Scorsese

Han and Lando ride around in the Millennium Falcon, committing occasional acts of horrific violence, while pausing to wrestle with the moral implication of their violence, and the silence of God.

 

Whit Stillman and Noah Baumbach

Two directors known for their scabrous takes on upper-class city life give us a tag team take on Han Solo! Will the young, scrappy smuggler find his way in the bright lights and big, planet-sized city of Coruscant? Or will his tortured intellectualism and serial adultery ruin his life?

 

Wes Anderson

After the death of Woody Harrelson’s Garris Shrike, Han, Lando, and Chewie go on a rollicking-yet-emotionally-resonant trip through the far reaches of space to work out their grief, and their complicated love for each other. Do the Kinks exist in this galaxy? They do now.

 

David Cronenberg

Each day the Millennium Falcon’s dials and ports seem more…organic. Could it be that the hull is breathing? Is this reality? Han Solo doesn’t know what to believe anymore. He needs to make the Kessel Run, but will he have to merge with his ship in order to do it?

 

Stephen Spielberg and Tony Kushner

The Young Han Solo movie gets the Lincoln treatment in this haunting meditation on friendship, loyalty, and honor as Han fights the enslavement of Wookiees.

 

Bong Joon Ho

HAN SOLO EATS BABIES.

 

Richard Linklater

Han Solo ambles around Mos Eisley, running into old friends and new acquaintances, on a vague mission to meet up with Garris Shrike. As he wanders, Han finds himself in conversations about death, the Force, the totalitarian desires of the Empire, and the possibility of love in a universe that is always changing.

 

Patty Jenkins

Why is Wonder Woman in the Han Solo movie? Stop asking questions, just sit back in awe as Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince single-handedly defeats the Empire and restores freedom to all the star systems of the galaxy.

 

Joel and Ethan Coen

The Han abides. It wasn’t always the high-stakes life of a smuggler for young Han, who once preferred blue (milk) Russians and looser-fitting garb. What strange young woman comes along to push him out of his life of leisure?

 

George Lucas

…maybe not.

 

So who do you think should take over now that Miller and Lord have taken their leave?

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Posted by Leah Schnelbach

Angels in America by Tony Kushner

It’s easy when the world is falling apart to feel like a tragedy is too big to look at, too dire to capture in words. It’s easy to think that nothing an artist does can possibly matter—you’re just one more small weak meat envelope against an unbeatable system. But of course this is exactly when you have to engage with the world. It’s an artist’s most important job: to look at the world you’d rather hide from, to engage with tragedy, to wring humor and joy out of wretchedness.

In 1988, Tony Kushner began writing a play called Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. It was supposed to be about two hours long, and he wanted it to be about gay men, the AIDS crisis, and Mormonism…and he knew there was an angel in it. He was also choosing to write about what was then the very recent past. The first version of the first half of the play (which ended up being over seven hours long) premiered on stage in London in 1990, and on Broadway in ’93. The play is set in 1985-6—not the neon tinted, shoulder-padded dream of American Psycho, or even the manic hedonism of The Wolf of Wall Street, but the desolate, terrifying time in New York when the queer community was fighting AIDS with little recognition from a conservative government, when racial progress was at a standstill, and the increased visibility of the women’s and queer rights movements were under constant attack by the Religious Right.

The easy thing would have been to turn away and write about a lighter topic, but Kushner looked at the attacks on his community and set out to write a play that would offer comfort, inspiration, and even hope to a generation of people.

I know that when I started TBR Stack part of the point was for me to read my way through books I hadn’t gotten to yet, and that is still my main MO.

BUT.

It’s pride month, and what I really wanted to talk about this time was Angels in America, because if I had to pick one reading experience that was IT, the one, the triple underlined, bright neon Book That Saved My Life? It’s this one.

First, a quick plot summary: Prior Walter and Louis Ironson are a gay couple living in New York. When Prior learns he has AIDS, Louis leaves him and embarks on a fling with a closeted Mormon named Joe Pitt. Joe’s depressed wife, Harper, self-medicates with Valium. Joe’s boss, Roy Cohn (yes, that Roy Cohn), pressures Joe to take a job in the Justice Department to act as his inside man after he learns people are trying to get him disbarred. Roy then learns that he, too, has AIDS. Belize, Prior’s best friend, is assigned as Roy’s nurse, and Joe’s mother, Hannah, flies out from Salt Lake City and ends up caring for both Harper and Prior after they’re abandoned by their partners. Also, there’s an Angel who won’t leave Prior alone, and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg has decided to haunt Roy, and everyone is in a tremendous amount of pain both physical and psychological. Got all that?

The play gave me a window into the mythical land of New York, a quick education in queerness, socialism, and Mormonism, and an ice-water bath introduction to the early days of AIDS. No one had any explanations at first, or any overarching reason why dozens of men would suddenly get illnesses like Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia or Kaposi’s sarcoma, two common symptoms that had been incredibly rare until the early ’80s. The first patients were young, otherwise healthy men, most in New York, and the only throughline seemed to be that they were gay.

It also captures is the sheer panic that came with the early days of the AIDS epidemic, and the way it was immediately weaponized against the queer community. With the syndrome being called “gay cancer,” fundamentalist preachers were only too happy to call it a punishment from God; people were calling for quarantines of gay men; people were terrified that you could catch it from public restrooms. And William F. Buckley—a tweedy scholarly man considered the leading intellectual of the Right—said that people with AIDS should be tattooed both on the forearm (so needle-sharers would be alerted) and on the ass (so gay men would be alerted during sex). He suggested this seemingly in all seriousness, apparently not realizing that visibly tattooing people would put them at risk of being attacked, and seemingly also blind to the resemblance to the serial numbers tattooed onto the arms of people who had, two generations earlier, been rounded up and thrown into Holocaust Centers concentration camps.

There were several plays around the same time that tackled AIDS: Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart (1985) and The Destiny of Me (1992); Paul Rudnick’s Jeffrey (1992); Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991) and Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994). Indie films Parting Glances (1986) and Longtime Companion (1990) focused on gay men in the early days of the virus. Shortly thereafter Philadelphia (1993) and Rent (1994) were much bigger budget, higher-profile productions that centered straight characters, while the prestige medical drama And the Band Played On (1993) focused on the epidemic. All of these were pure realism, with the ravages of the illness depicted just as starkly as political indifference and societal prejudice. (Parting Glances and Jeffrey each get a single dream sequence/angelic visitation involving a friend who has died of AIDS, but these are both anomalous moments explained away by grief.)

Angels could have been a realistic play, but Kushner instead chose to do something crazy. Something that should not have worked. He chose to reach beyond what realism could accomplish and infuse the play with fantastic elements, which were treated with just as much respect as the domestic drama and harrowing scenes of illness. Prior Walter begins having visions, but these may just be caused by his AIDS medication. Over in Brooklyn, Harper Pitt also has visions, but these may just be caused by the not-quite-suicidal doses of Valium she takes to get through the day. Prior and Harper meet up in dreams, but since those dreams are, as Harper says, “the very threshold of revelation”, the two are able to intuit real truth about each other. Prior goes to Heaven, and his actions there have real world consequences. Finally, Roy Cohn, the slightly-fictionalized villain based on the real-life (and pretty damn villainous) Cohn, is visited by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. But Roy is also suffering from AIDS and whacked out of his mind on pain meds, so, Ethel might be a hallucination, as well? Except then there’s a point when Ethel is kind enough to call an ambulance for Roy, and paramedics actually show up and take him to the hospital, so…where are the lines of reality drawn?

But by the end of the play Kushner chooses to go even further. He takes the complex philosophical idea of the Angel of History, makes her real, and hauls her down to Earth for a wrestle. And when she got away from him, he sent one of his characters to Heaven so he could confront her there.

In 1920 Paul Klee painted a portrait of a creature he called Angelus Novus—New Angel. The following year a philosopher named Walter Benjamin bought the print, and became obsessed with it, eventually writing about it in his final paper, Theses on the Philosophy of History. You can read them here, and it’ll take about ten minutes to read the whole thing. Benjamin was dead about a month later—having fled Vichy France, he decided to kill himself in Spain so he wouldn’t be sent to a Holocaust Center death camp.

Paul Klee: Angelus Novus, 1920

The Theses is a short work, twenty numbered paragraphs. In Paragraph Nine, Benjamin returns to his painting:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Kushner takes this Angelus Novus and gives it a voice, agency, a mission. He makes it one of Seven Continental Principalitiesan Angel for each continent, with America obviously snagging the one who has the most direct experience of progress.

Prior begins receiving visions from the Angel of America, and he clings to them because the beautiful voice of the angel not only comforts him, at one point he even says that it’s all that’s keeping him alive. Someone reading this or watching it from the vantage point of 1993 would probably think that the angel would offer a comforting message, some sort of hope, succor in the face of plague and death? But that’s not quite what happens.

At the climax of the first play she crashes through his ceiling, announcing herself. Prior is terrified, the play ends. (Apparently many viewers assumed that was the end, and that the angel had come through the ceiling to collect Prior, who had died alone after a series of hallucinations.) But in the second half of the play, Perestroika, Kushner subverts the saccharine late ‘80s-early-90s angel craze and turning it into a dark exploration of Jewish mysticism, Mormonism, and socialism. He recommits to the fantastic element and makes it a central part of the story. Prior journeys to Heaven and meets with a council of angels…but these are not the touchy-feely, benevolent creatures of CBS evening dramas, or the adorable cherubim cavorting with ceramic kittens on your favorite aunt’s fireplace mantle. These aren’t even the types of celestial beings you’d find atop a Christmas tree. These angels, each representing a different continent, are cantankerous, angry, ready to wrestle and fight humanity for their cause. They want history to STOP. They want humanity to STOP. Stop innovating, stop creating, stop breeding, stop progressing, just cut it out and give the universe some peace, because each new innovation wracks Heaven with earthquakes. The novelty of humans has driven God away, he’s abandoned his angels and his humans and taken a powder, who knows where. The message resonates with Prior, newly diagnosed with AIDS, feeling his young body collapse into terminal illness, and abandoned by his partner Louis—he fears the future. Any change can only be for the worse.

And yet. As Prior wrestles with the message, and discusses it with friends, he realizes more and more that to stop is to become inhuman. His help comes from two marvelously diverse points: his BFF Belize, a Black nurse who has done drag in the past but somewhat given it up as politically incorrect, and Hannah Pitt, the—say it with me now—conservative Mormon mother of Prior’s ex-partner’s new lover. Hannah, who turns out to be far more than a stereotype of religious fundamentalism, is the only one who believes in Prior’s angelic visitations. She instructs him on how to wrestle, literally with the angel, in order to gain its blessing. And so Prior and the Angel of America reenact the Genesis story of Jacob wrestling an unnamed angel/God (the event which led to Jacob renaming himself Israel, or “he who wrestles with God”) right there on the hospital room floor. Prior wins, and climbs a flaming ladder to Heaven, a beautiful derelict city. It doesn’t matter anymore if this is hallucination or reality: what matters is that Prior Walter, sick, lonely, human, is facing a council of Angels and rejecting their message. What matters is that the human is standing up to the awe-inspiring, fantastical Angel of History, and telling her that progress is not just inevitable, it is also the birthright of humanity.

In this way, by embracing fantasy, making History an Angel, and making that Angel a living, breathing, wrestle-able character, Kushner is able to grab Capital Letter Concepts like Plague, Progress, Socialism, Love, Race, and embody them. And since this play is about AIDS, those bodies are sick, suffering, tortured, covered in lesions and blood. The Angels themselves are in tatters, because Progress is a virus that’s killing them. The play only works because of its fantasy element—the fantasy allows Kushner to tie the AIDS crisis to other huge historical markers, and make straight people pay attention. It also means that the play will never be a dated nostalgia piece, because it’s about so many huge ideas that even if a cure for AIDS was found tomorrow Angels would remain vital. And maybe most of all it takes these characters who could have been trapped in a domestic tragedy, and it lifts them out of their own time and their own pain and posits them as the most important people in history. And after doing that, the play ends with Prior Walter, AIDS survivor, turning to the audience and blessing all of us. “You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.” We are brought into the play, and into history, just as important as any Angel.

About that…Tony Kushner, a gay Jewish man living through the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, visiting loved ones in the hospital, attending funerals, all the while knowing that he might be the next one to get bad news, had every reason to despair. Instead he wrote a story of hard-won hope. Rather than maudlin angels swooping down to fix everything, he gave us flawed, fabulous humans, working together to form families. Rather than cower in fear of infection, he put men naked in bed together onstage. Rather than let the fortunate few who remained unaffected off the hook, he gave us Prior Walter shitting blood and screaming in agony. Rather than succumb to bigotry, he gave us a conservative religious woman who becomes the most three-dimensional character in the play. Rather than succumb to hate, he made his characters say the Kaddish over Roy Cohn.

None of us can see the future. We are all the Angel of History, pushed forward as life unfurls around us, helpless to stop time or change. But we can be present in the world and do whatever we can to help each other, support each other, keep each other safe. Kindle hope in the face of darkness.

Now. Now. Now. Now.

Leah Schnelbach knows that as soon as this TBR Stack is defeated, another will rise in its place. Come spread your wings, fabulous people, and give her reading suggestions on Twitter!

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Posted by Tor.com

With Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire introduced us to a vivid intersection of portal worlds containing magic, mystery, and occasional mayhem. Twin sisters Jack and Jill were seventeen when they found their way home and were packed off to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. Now, readers will finally get to walk through the doorway that transported the pair to a world of vicious vampires and mad scientists in Down Among the Sticks and Bones, a new Wayward Children novella set before the events of Every Heart a Doorway.

We’re excited to share an audio excerpt from the novella below, read by Seanan herself!

Author and narrator Seanan McGuire had this to say:

I’ve done voice work before, but never for an audio book, and heading for the studio for the first time was both exciting and terrifying—a combination that only got stronger as our GPS led us deeper and deeper into a landscape out of one of my books.  We found the place tucked up on a hill, surrounded by trees and unexpected wildlife.  Once there, it was perfectly professional and absolutely delightful, even if I couldn’t have soda near the microphone.  So I sat, and I read, for hours and hours and hours.  I met my own text in a whole new way, and I loved every second of it.  Even if Dr. Bleak’s voice sort of hurt my throat.

Listen to Seanan read Chapter 3 below—you can also read Chapters 1 and 2 here.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones is available in paperback, ebook, and audio formats from Tor.com Publishing! From the catalog copy:

Twin sisters Jack and Jill were 17 when they found their way home and were packed off to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.

This is the story of what happened first….

Jacqueline was her mother’s perfect daughter—polite and quiet, always dressed as a princess. If her mother was sometimes a little strict, it’s because crafting the perfect daughter takes discipline.

Jillian was her father’s perfect daughter—adventurous, thrill-seeking, and a bit of a tomboy. He really would have preferred a son, but you work with what you’ve got.

They were five when they learned that grown-ups can’t be trusted. They were 12 when they walked down the impossible staircase and discovered that the pretense of love can never be enough to prepare you a life filled with magic in a land filled with mad scientists and death and choices.

You can find the audio edition on Audible or get the ebook edition at the links below!

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Posted by Tobias Carroll

Using a historical setting for a tale of monsters or terror can be a reliable way to increase suspense and provide a counterpoint for the horrors described therein. Whether it’s Edgar Allan Poe summoning up a bygone age—and its accompanying menaces—in “The Masque of the Red Death” or, more recently, John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake setting their graphic novel Kros: Hallowed Ground against the backdrop of the Battle of Gettysburg, it’s the kind of narrative decision that can accentuate certain themes and ratchet up the tension even further.

But a specific point in history can also summon up a number of more mundane terrors over the course of a narrative: totalitarian governments, horrific attitudes about race and gender, and unrestrained abuses coming from the powerful all come to mind. Sometimes reading a story set in the past can haunt us for reasons other than literal monsters that lurk on the page. What follows is a look at five books that explore the demons of the past along with monsters in the past…

 

Blood Crime, Sebastià Alzamora (translated by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent)

The Spanish Civil War has, in the last decade and a half, been the setting for a number of notable works of horror and the supernatural, with Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth being the highest-profile example. The novel Blood Crime features plenty of horrible behavior on the part of its human characters, who are caught between warring factions, along with mounting evidence that the killer stalking the city of Barcelona is either a vampire or someone who believes himself to be one. Narration from a jaded and undead voice punctuates the novel, suggesting that the former is the case. And the book gets weirder and weirder as it approaches its climax, including a subplot that riffs on a very different work of Gothic fiction.

 

The King in the Golden Mask, Marcel Schwob (translated by Kit Schluter)

The stories in this 1892 collection, newly translated into English in its entirety, abound with glimpses of European history where horrific violence occurs, terrifying secrets are revealed, and conflicted characters descend into madness. Translator Kit Schluter, in his afterword, notes that the book “suggests time and time again that one’s true identity comes to light only in the crucible of a struggle so intense that it bares him of any privilege or nicety behind which he could otherwise hide.” Schwob’s vision encapsulates royalty and everyday people alike, and shows all of them capable of monstrous acts and harrowing moments of self-deception. For Schwob, the past is more charnel house than museum piece.

 

The Fisherman, John Langan

Much of John Langan’s award-winning novel The Fisherman unfolds in the recent past, as its narrator describes a fishing trip in New York’s Hudson River Valley that takes a turn for the cosmically horrific. But nestled in there is another tale of horror, set across two centuries and involving a war profiteer, the resurrection of the dead, and a trip to the shores of an otherworldly ocean. It’s a powerful counterpoint to the framing story, one which establishes a cyclical nature to the novel’s central menace and shows how different moments in time react to similar supernatural conspiracies.

 

The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry

Trying to categorize Sarah Perry’s sprawling novel, set in London and Essex in the late 19th century, isn’t an easy thing. It’s about the star-crossed connection between the newly-widowed Cora Seaborne and the Reverend William Ransome, each sympathetic and flawed. But there’s also the possibility of a sea serpent lurking just off the coast; there’s a mysterious epidemic of madness going around, and there are a host of nerve-wracking scenes of anatomies dissected and pondered. Some of this comes from the novel’s third major character, Dr. Luke Garrett, a man of science decades ahead of his time–which, in another novel, might mark him as the sort of character who meddles in nature and unleashes monsters. But that isn’t this kind of story–and Perry’s manipulation of expectations makes for a breath of fresh air even as she summons dread with other aspects of the novel.

 

Maleficium, Martine Desjardins (translated by Fred A. Reed and David Homel)

The framing story of Martine Desjardins’s Maleficium is fascinating: it’s ostensibly a found document from the Archdiocese of Montreal, documenting a series of 19th-century confessions too horrific or bizarre for public consumption. Each of the chapters is a standalone vignette, with ominous titles in Latin like “Oculus Malignus” and “Osculum Infame.” There’s body horror aplenty here, as well–one of the narratives, about a parasitic insect, features an abundance of literally gut-wrenching prose. Over the course of the book, certain themes come into focus as well: colonialist abuses coming back to hurt their perpetrators, with acts of sexist violence and negligence turned on their head with vicious consequences.

 

Top image: Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).

reel-thumbnailTobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. He is the author of the short story collection Transitory (Civil Coping Mechanisms) and the novel Reel (Rare Bird Books).

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Posted by Tor.com

We’re thrilled to show off the cover for Liz Ziemska’s Mandelbrot the Magnificent, a stunning, magical pseudo-biography of Benoit Mandelbrot as he flees into deep mathematics to escape the rise of Hitler…

Learn more about the story and check out Will Staehle’s full cover below!

Mandelbrot the Magnificent is available November 14th from Tor.com Publishing. From the catalog copy:

Born in the Warsaw ghetto and growing up in France during the rise of Hitler, Benoit Mandelbrot found escape from the cruelties of the world around him through mathematics. Logic sometimes makes monsters, and Mandelbrot began hunting monsters at an early age. Drawn into the infinite promulgations of formulae, he sinks into secret dimensions and unknown wonders.

His gifts do not make his life easier, however. As the Nazis give up the pretense of puppet government in Vichy France, the jealousy of Mandelbrot’s classmates leads to denunciation and disaster. The young mathematician must save his family with the secret spaces he’s discovered, or his genius will destroy them.

Cover design by Will Staehle

Praise for Mandelbrot the Magnificent:

“We will never know the full extent of what we lost in the Holocaust — what histories, what innovations, what music and science and literatures we might have had. In Mandelbrot the Magnificent, the talented and imaginative, the impeccable Liz Ziemska has fashioned a beautiful story about one famous survivor and the magic and mathematics he’s brought to the world.” —Karen Joy Fowler

Mandelbrot the Magnificent is completely persuasive in its magical-realist rendering of the émigré experience in occupied France in World War II. Even as it’s wrenching in its delineation of how unjustly the fortunate and unfortunate are separated by extremity, it’s uplifting in the way it reminds us just how infinitely resourceful we can be — even if history is our very own Book of Monsters—when it comes to the magic-making of truly loving the world and each other.” —Jim Shepard

“Pure delight and a sense of play right up against the gravity and horrors of history; this is writing that moves into different tones with such ease and joy, even at its most serious.” —Aimee Bender

Pre-order the novella now at the links below, or from your favorite retailer:

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iBooks

The White-Throated Transmigrant

Jun. 21st, 2017 01:00 pm
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Posted by E. Lily Yu

After a bird fatally collides with her car, a troubled young woman’s life changes irrevocably.

 

On a grim Tuesday in November, when the world seemed empty of mystery and magic, indeed, empty of all beauty, Winona Li drove down the two-lane country road that counted for a highway in this area, heading home from a second interview. The copper sting of failure sat on her tongue. At the midpoint of a wood whose laced branches cast gloom upon the road, a small, quick thing fluttered across the windshield of her Impala, thumped the glass, and fell.

Winona slammed the brakes and the Impala twisted and screeched to a halt.

The ditch that ran along the road bristled with knee-high chicory and wild mustard. Leaves drooped from their stalks, rusting. Seeds puffed from cleft husks and horns. Winona dug through the weeds, her own heart thrumming, until she found the broken bird. Its eyes were dull with shock, and one wing hung askew, but it was breathing.

“Thank God,” she said. “Hang on, please hang on.”

Even as she spoke, her heels sinking into the mud, the suede toes filling with ditchwater, its trembling stopped.

“You can’t,” she said. “Not today. It’s too much.”

The woods were silent.

Leaving the bird among the yellowing weeds for the ants to devour would be the easiest thing. Easier than laughing. Easier than sleeping.

Clutching the dead bird to her breast, Winona staggered to her car, dabbed at her toes with a fistful of tissues, then drove.

She had passed the Kingston Ornithology Museum many times without stopping. Now she shouldered open the doors under the glassy yellow glare of taxidermied eagles. The display cases along the entrance held rows of eggs ordered by size, from ostrich and emu to hummingbird: pitted, speckled, nubbled, hollow.

The woman in a pink blouse and cat’s-eye glasses behind the desk didn’t look up as the doors swung shut. Winona thrust the bird at her. “I hit it. Can you do anything?”

The receptionist pinched her lips together and fumbled for the phone.

“Penny? Can you come to the entrance? Someone brought in a bird strike. Yeah, I remember that macaw. It was a hoot.” She paused and squinted at what Winona held. “White-throated sparrow. Nothing special. Okay.”

While Winona waited, her shoes oozing, the receptionist rearranged the plastic racks of bird-watching brochures into a wall between them.

Each of the eggs in the vitrines was accompanied by a stiff card, labeled with species and date. Most resembled rocks, pretending to be boring, willing her to look away. Those evolutionary tricks wouldn’t work on her, she told them silently; she was a geologist. Or she had been.

The dribbled surface of the great bowerbird’s egg suggested a painting in a stark modernist gallery. The great tinamou’s resembled an enormous candied almond. She was puzzling over the teardrop egg of the common murre when sharp footsteps tapped and boomed across the wooden floor.

The stocky woman in a comfortable brown sweater, the sleeves rolled back at the wrists to leave her hands free, was probably Penny. A jet dove perched at her collarbone, and her hard boots could have crushed chicken bones, or climbed mountains, or dug wells.

Winona had owned boots like those, once.

“Thanks for bringing this in,” Penny said.

“It was horrible of me, I’m sorry—”

“It happens. We get a lot of window and vehicle collisions. We prepare them as museum specimens.”

“You mean formaldehyde?”

“Skinning and drying. Easy storage and access when we want to ask questions. Do insecticides change claw shape? And so on.”

Penny held out her hand, and Winona, suddenly reluctant, opened her fingers one by one. The silken softness peeled from her damp palm and fell.

The receptionist coughed and rattled a stack of brochures. For a moment, Winona was back in the clinic, hearing the light cough, the shuffle of papers, the doctor’s dry voice. You’re fine. It’s over. Would you like someone to escort you to your car?

Her feet, wetter and colder by the minute, pulled her back to the present.

“You said you’ll skin it. Can I watch?”

The receptionist clicked her tongue. “You’ve got good intentions—”

“Professional curiosity. Specimen prep isn’t complicated in geology.”

Penny raised an eyebrow.

“Also guilt. I killed it. I want to see it through.”

“It’s quite enough for you to bring it in. Don’t go bothering our researchers—”

“I don’t mind, Edith. I was going to prepare a few today anyway.”

“You’re responsible for her.”

“Of course.”

“And I’m not cleaning up the mud she’s tracking in. What a mess.”

Winona blushed.

“Understood. The cleaners come at seven, anyway.”

Penny led Winona down a long hall glassed and pinned with severed wings and diagrams of beaks. Doors beeped and opened to her badge, and they entered a black-benched lab that smelled faintly of bleach, lemons, and decay.

“Is that a dodo?”

“Yes. The one on the right’s a Carolina parakeet. Last one died in captivity in 1918, or in the wild a decade or two later, depending on who you believe. The main museum has nicer specimens—less scruffy—if you want to see them later.”

Penny took a tray and gathered scalpel, scissors, forceps, probes, a cup of water, and a scoop of cornmeal in a plastic box.

“You really don’t have to stay if you don’t want to.”

Winona pressed her hands to her stomach. “I’ve seen worse.”

Penny parted the sparrow’s breast feathers and ran the scalpel in a single smooth motion along its keel. As the skin split and shrank, it showed the cherry-red muscles beneath. With fingers and blunt tools, pushing and probing, Penny flayed the breast and back and rolled down the skin of the thighs like stockings.

Then she snagged the knee joints in her shears and crunched through. The sound was splintering bones and cracked teeth.

Winona winced.

“Why?”

“Tidiness. Anything that can rot, will.”

After stripping the wings, Penny pushed the head backwards through the neck, bit by bit, until the creamy skull and its sockets were exposed. Taking up the forceps, she tore out each eye. They pattered like overripe blueberries onto the tray.

The forceps were exchanged for pointed scissors. The two sharp tips groped inside the skull, then pinched shut with a pulpy, gritty noise.

Two points of a starry headache began to pulse above Winona’s eyebrows, as if in sympathy.

“That—”

“The soft palate. Hard to clean out the brain, otherwise.”

Penny dipped her fingers in cornmeal and wiped them on a wad of white cotton, streaking it pink. Two more wisps of cotton, rolled between thumb and forefinger, formed balls with trailing stalks.

“And these are the eyes.”

The restored head, once Penny eased it back through the crackling skin of the neck, stared blindly at Winona.

Penny slit the crop and spread the seeds that spilled out, probed in the dark cavity of the sparrow’s chest, and jotted quick notes in a binder.

“Dead from trauma and blood loss. As expected, from a car strike.”

“How can you tell?”

“This black jelly here.”

Winona followed the direction of Penny’s finger and felt her own abdomen cramp.

“I was distracted. I was coming back from an interview. I’m unemployed.”

“You said you were a geologist.”

“I was. Out on the Bakken Formation in North Dakota. Before prices crashed.”

Penny selected a dowel, sharpened it to a point, and wrapped it in cotton batting, around and around. “Oil and gas, you mean?”

“Yes.”

“Not what I’d expect, looking at you. You’re so—small.”

“I wasn’t working on the rigs. Just computer models in a field office. The men who operated the rigs were tough. I saw them drinking and swinging at each other in the bars.”

“You go to a lot of bars?”

“Nothing else in those towns. I played a lot of pool.”

“I can recommend the Reynard, if you’re local. Are you local?”

“I’m trying.” Winona laughed, a brittle sound. “I tried in North Dakota, too.”

“My nephew plays guitar there on Thursdays.”

Penny angled the dowel through the sparrow until its point entered the skull, eased the loose skin over the lump of cotton, and started sewing the edges of the incision together.

“Why don’t you write the label, since you brought this one in? There’s a pile of them—yes, right there.”

“What should I write?”

“Species—that’s Zonotrichia albicollis, two l’s—the date—it’s the 20th—my name—Thomason, one s. Go ahead and tie it to the legs. Here’s thread. Now one thread through the nares, to keep the beak closed. Good. The foam drying boards are over there. Smooth out the feathers, make it look nice—that’s right. Now pin it in place.”

The pins crossed over the sparrow like swords. Apart from its cotton eyes, the sparrow looked undamaged, its overlapping breast feathers concealing incision and seam.

“And now?”

“Now it dries. In three days, it goes in a specimen drawer until a researcher wants to see it. Should last three hundred to four hundred years, if we keep the beetles away.”

Winona stroked the mottled breast. It felt silken and warm. Behind her, taps gushed; Penny was washing her tools.

“How many specimens do you prep a day?”

“Two or three, time permitting. There’s a dozen owls and corvids in that freezer, and it’s one of two.”

“Do you have an assistant?”

“Usually. She’s on maternity leave for the next three months.”

“I’d be happy to help. If you taught me.”

Penny shook the container of cornmeal into the trash. “I didn’t think you enjoyed that.”

Winona swallowed, twisting one thumb in her other hand. “You’re taking death and waste—my death and waste—and making a library of birds.”

“You have no experience.”

“I can learn. I did fieldwork. I know my way around my tools. I know how to be gentle.”

“Ever seen a museum budget?” Penny snorted. “We can’t afford snacks, much less another person.”

“I don’t need money. I have four months of expenses saved. Just teach me and let me help.”

Penny picked up the wet scalpel and set it down, picked it up, set it down. The lines around her mouth deepened.

“Fine,” she said. “One trial week, and if it works out, you leave when Maxine comes back. I’ll tell Edith to let you in tomorrow.”

 

The next morning, as sleep shredded itself to threads, Winona awoke in the tiny apartment she rented month to month with the slight pressure of a foreign object against the outside of her thigh. She lay still for a moment longer, considering the possibilities. She did not eat in bed, since she hated the itch of crumbs in her sheets. Neither did she bring to bed the pointed corners of books, nor the harsh flicker and chilly surface of her cell phone. Her network barely had any coverage where she lived, for that matter. And her Internet might as well have been a candle in the wind.

Displeased, she dug beneath the covers and closed her fingers on something small and round.

It looked like a polished ball of smoky quartz, but it was lighter than quartz, lighter than wood, even, and warm. Winona peered into its cloudy depths, perplexed. She had never bought tchotchkes of that sort, with no purpose whatsoever. Her apartment had been sparsely furnished and empty of all ornament when she moved in, and nothing—no loose sequin or feather or forgotten bus ticket trapped between the floorboards—had suggested magpie tastes in the previous occupant.

Then again, her memory seemed to fail her more and more often these days, whether out of kindness or exhaustion.

The smooth crystal surface offered her no answers.

Sighing, Winona dressed, pocketed the bauble, and made toast.

 

For three hours a day, after that, Winona skinned and prepared specimens under Penny’s guidance. The freezer revealed icy wonders in plastic bags: snowy owls peppered with shot, crows battered by trucks, Anna’s hummingbirds with translucent tongues drooping out of open beaks, looking for all the world like cartoon characters playing dead. She discovered the long, wiry hyoid horns wrapped around woodpecker skulls, the plump orange ooze of ducks’ preening glands, the reek of thawed fat, the black spots where blood supplied new feathers, the varied contents of bulging crops, and one day, in astonishment, three pearly, unfinished eggs in the wet depths of a robin.

Fall deepened to winter. Ice whitened the lake. The pines along the shore creaked and groaned, and every so often one crashed through the rest, weighed down with snow. Winona slept under three comforters, tucking her cold feet tight against her shivering self.

Each morning she found another of the crystalline enigmas in her bed. None were perfectly spherical; they tapered and swelled. She lined them up on her dresser with dabs of blue putty. Despite the frost on the windows, they were never cold to the touch.

Questioned, the iron-jawed landlady denied all knowledge of ghosts, then fell silent and eyed her tenant with a speculative air.

The mystery vexed Winona, but as the days passed, she grew used to it. She could, she had learned, grow used to anything.

“You said North Dakota.” Penny was elbow-deep in a swan, and Winona had a tufted titmouse open in front of her.

“The company sent me different places for six to eight months each time. Brazil. Texas. Alaska.”

“Exciting. Why did you come all the way out here?”

“From the middle of nowhere to another nowhere?”

“Most people here think it’s the best town in the world.”

“But—”

“Just keep that in mind.”

“My parents lived here for a few years before I was born.”

“International students? We have a lot of those.”

“Yes.”

“Where are they now? Back in China?”

“They passed away six years ago. Car crash. It was fast.”

“And you could still work for oil and gas, after that?”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“What drew you that way in the first place?”

“You mean, what’s attractive about a solid, safe job?”

“You’re out here where no one knows you, skinning dead birds for fun—you like solid and safe?”

“We were always a dollar or two away from not eating, when I was a kid. A fight every time the bills came. So yes, I liked safe. I could travel. I could eat at restaurants. I could buy nice shoes, the ones that are pretty and comfortable. And those savings let me hide out here and do this.”

Penny, measuring the swan’s stringy, wobbling oviduct, said, “I see.”

“It’s Thursday—is your nephew at the Reynold?”

“The Reynard. Probably.”

After her titmouse was stitched shut and shelved, Winona drove home, ate alone at her scratched pressboard table, then wrapped herself in layers and walked to the Reynard.

She had hoped Penny would be there, but she saw no one she knew. The bar had no pool table, only three kinds of beer and a spindly teenager grappling with a large guitar. He sang in a clear, sweet voice and ignored her completely.

Every other head had turned to her when she walked in, and some continued to stare, brows wrinkled. One or two glared. All the faces in the bar were white. Even those deep in conversation, half smiling, kept glancing at her.

Winona gulped her bitter pint, her head down, her shoulders crawling.

The man beside her tapped her shoulder. “Nee haw,” he said.

“Please don’t,” Winona said.

“Nee haw nee haw,” he said, and his blonde companion tinkled with laughter. “Go back to your own country.”

Everyone was watching, now.

Winona abandoned her pint on the counter and fled.

It was for the best, she told herself later, gazing at the seventy-six mysteries on her dresser. She had made mistakes out of loneliness before, in oil-field cots, in dark corners. One of them had been particularly bad. If she closed her eyes, she could recall in fine detail the shape of his knuckles and the thin brown hair on the backs of his hands. Those hands could be kind—holding her up, stroking her face—then abruptly cruel. When, after two days of vomiting, she held up the stick, warm and redolent with urine, she had wanted to drop dead.

Instead, as the rigs and her friends fell silent, she bought a ticket to upstate New York, found a clinic, then paid with a little blood for her freedom.

Of course it would be hard. Life was not easy, her parents had said, again and again, until the words were inscribed on her bones. This was what she deserved. This and no more. She could imagine staying forever among the pines beside the lake, searching for answers in dead birds, growing old in insignificance. She would waste little, consume little, take up barely any space. She would never sink another well to bring the rich darkness bubbling up.

“Then I ran out of there,” she told Penny, as she printed Mimus polyglottos in careful letters on a paper tag. “I don’t think I’m going back.”

“You probably misunderstood. They’re nice people, there.”

“They didn’t seem friendly.”

“You must have seemed unfriendly, then. Or your behavior was off.”

Winona tied the tag to the scaly black legs and smoothed the long gray feathers.

“I think I could do this for years.”

“Do you.”

“As a job, I mean. You don’t think so?”

“With your background?”

“What, geology?”

“Gas and oil.”

“Do you have something against—”

“The greater sage grouse. The lesser prairie chicken. A million birds a year die in oil pits and spills. Have you seen what they look like, when you pull them out? Have you cleared their eyes with toothbrushes? Have you seen their lungs?”

“You drive a car,” Winona protested. “A Honda Civic. Imported. Not electric, not even a hybrid—what do you think it runs on?”

“Sure, I drive. I even fly. We’re all poisoning ourselves and each other, every minute of every day. I can read it in beak lengths, in the thickness of eggshells. We’re monsters, all of us. You’re monstrous, I’m monstrous. Everything in our freezer is evidence of that.”

“So why teach me?”

“As I said, our budget is tight, and you’re working for free. And I’m keeping a geologist off the oil fields, at least for a while.”

“Well,” Winona said, “I hope you can keep me here longer.”

Penny said nothing.

When Winona had pinned her mockingbird—she could prepare one bird a day to Penny’s three—Penny stood.

“I have a research trip to Costa Rica at the end of February, to look at Talamanca speciation. Flying, before you ask. Very hypocritical.”

“For how long?”

“Three months.”

“Is it all right if I still come in?”

“Actually.” Penny tapped her fingers on the table. “I think it’s time you moved on.”

Winona’s chest tightened. She could not speak.

“Maxine will be back in two weeks. We can’t afford to pay you. This is the next best thing I can do. Go home. Or go somewhere else. Don’t come back tomorrow.”

It was snowing when Winona left the museum. She drove slowly, her headlights picking out the quick slanting streaks of snowflakes, her windshield wipers sweeping feathery handfuls to either side.

At the door to her apartment, she stomped the slush from her boots, then set the kettle on and opened the last teabag in the box. Outside her frozen windows, the blue and purple of evening deepened to black. Here and there the orange slash of a sodium light illuminated the swirling snow.

She had stuffed so many small, soft, pointless deaths into the semblance of life. Her hands remembered the shearing of joints. Her eyes remembered the pink stains and jellied blood. She closed her eyes and bowed her head, hearing their silent singing. The shadows of hundreds of birds swept over her, flying wing tip to wing tip, and were gone.

Her tea grew cold, untouched. When her shoulders ached from stillness, and her skin felt uncomfortably loose on her, she set the mug down and went to her bedroom.

The eighty-nine enigmas on her dresser had cracked open at their crowns, the smoke and gleam emptied out of them. The shells sat hollow and transparent in a scatter of shards. She was not altogether surprised. Something strange and beautiful had been waiting, just as she was, for the hour of departure to arrive.

She scratched her itching collarbone, feeling the skin flake and peel, then her elbows and forearms. Where had these little dark bruises come from? They bloomed down her arms like blood feathers, though it had been months since she had last seen Fletcher, since she had come to him trembling with her news and he had gripped her wrists, tighter and tighter, to keep her from leaving his room. But she had freed herself. She was light with relief, clotted with guilt, sad and joyful, all at once.

With trembling, changing hands, Winona raised the window sash to the blowing cold, and the wind rushed in and blessed her cheeks with snow.

A moment later—who knows how long?—a white-throated sparrow darted out into the flurrying flakes, its dark eyes shining, the compass of its heart pointing south, toward the spring.

 

“The White-Throated Transmigrant” copyright © 2017 by E. Lily Yu

Art copyright © 2017 by Linda Yan

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