RT Book Reviews

I’ve got a column up  over at RT Book Reviews, talking about things I learned from writing No Proper Lady.


News! Analysis! Oh my God it’s Thursday!

…and nice out! There were crocuses this morning when I walked to work! White, light purple, and the bright purple that I’ve loved since I was a kid and ZOMG BRIGHT PURPLE BEST FLOWER EVER. (I have never been much for subdued earth tones.) Also snowdrops, or I think they’re snowdrops–little white flowers. Very pretty.  

Eventful spring ahead of me:

Hickey of the Beast comes out in print on March 20th! Connie Perez, a smartass faculty brat–specifically, the head’s kid–at a Northeastern prep school which may or may not resemble the one I went to, or the ones where I was raised. (Though it bears little resemblance to Midland. Otherwise, there’d be less central heating and more mountain lions.) Connie’s just trying to deal with freshman year, as you do, when she starts having weird dreams–dreams about students who later fall mysteriously ill. (This is the part that didn’t happen to me, in case you were wondering. I mean, I “fell mysteriously ill” a fair amount, but by that I mean less occult hijinks and more cutting gym class.) She and her friends have to figure out what’s going on, stop it, and not die. 

Lessons After Dark releases April 3rd! Englefield, now setting up as the Victorian magical equivalent of Xavier’s School for the Gifted*, has brought in a bunch of freakish magically-gifted teenagers, a couple less-freakish teenagers who want to learn magic, and two more people to try and keep them all from going Tetsuo-does-London. Olivia Brightmore is a fake-medium-turned-real; Gareth St. John is the school doctor, an ex-Army surgeon with magical healing powers and a whole stack of Issues with Olivia, who he encountered in her wires-and-table-rapping days. Much belligerent sexual tension, also teenage demon-summoning antics! 

And then I’ve been reading Ursula Vernon’s Digger, for about the third time. Spoilers below.

This is a fantasy webcomic about a talking wombat. It’s also one of the best actual epic fantasy books that I can think of.

No, seriously.

I just thought of that lately, mostly because I’ve been thinking about how little Epic Fantasy I read these days, and how much of a shame that is. I loved LotR; still do; re-read it every few years; geek cred established; I like the fantasy tropes like dragons and elves and magic swords; but none of the really obvious hey-this-is-big-fantasy works do much for me. The characters irk, or the writing style bugs, or they take seventeen books to tell the story, or they let the world details overwhelm everything** or they’re George R.R. Martin and really good but I need a Xanax prescription just to get through one book, so…no. 

And I was thinking about that, and making my list of regrettably-rare exceptions, and reading Digger, which, for starters, absolutely rocks at characterization. I am an unforgiving curmudgeon with a cold black heart which may or may not be two sizes too small; there are few works of fiction that don’t make me long for five minutes with at least one character and a rolled-up newspaper.*** Digger…I can’t think of a character that I don’t actively *like*. (And a whole lot of them are female.)

Moreover, the story gives the sense of an actual world with actual cultures and legends and little bits of stuff around the edges that don’t quite get filled in, while still being a story and not a travel guide. And it’s a really, well, epic story.

Doesn’t start out that way. The first couple chapters are cheerful and funny, for the most part; there’s some stuff going on, and it definitely has the potential to get bad (when people are talking about writing on your skin a couple pages in, the world is not without threat), but mostly it’s Digger wandering around and alternately snarking at or having her mind blown by the Cerulean Foothills and their vampire squash.

Then there’s this scene where Ed–“weird exiled hyena guy in a cave” to this point–explains demons by telling one of his people’s myths. It’s not funny; it’s not supposed to be. It’s about pride and desperation and finding that there’s no way back from who you’ve become. (That particular myth also informs much of the plot later.) And then there’s a journey underground, and things that really, really should not be happening, and suddenly there’s a lot more going on here.

The story never, or almost never, completely loses humor. It never completely loses anything, far as I can tell, which is a hell of a task. What it adds is what “epic fantasy” brings to mind for me: the sense of an unambiguous threat, one against which something important has to be done, and the sense that the characters’ decisions have a weight and a resonance that carry far beyond the present moment. There’s a scene with a shadow demon that blows me away every time; there’s a plot with Ed that I could write a damn paper on; there are takes on heroism and fate and acceptance that rank up there with anything else I’ve read. 

There is also, and I cannot emphasize this strongly enough, vampire squash. 

Seriously. I–due to the Internet–am very, very skeptical about anything with animal people, and I love this comic. It’s good stuff.

*This probably doesn’t mean one of the characters will lose her mind and consume an energy field bigger than her head and try to destroy the universe somewhere down the road. Probably.  

**Another concept I’ve been thinking of lately, and possibly one of the reasons I’m picky about original-world fantasy. I find that, in an effort to make worlds seem really original or alien, a lot of authors lose me in the details. For me, I think it’s best to change a few key elements but have the majority of the world vaguely correspond to a RL culture–“okay, you pick your kings by reading the markings on the shell of the Sacred Turtle, but you still have kings”–to stick with an outsider-POV character, or both. 

***The Dragonlance Chronicles, for example, which I thought of re: epic fantasy. They’ve got a lot going for them, and then DAMMIT, TANIS. Aaaaaamong other people.