December 11, 2013

Book rec: The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia


I seem to need a night semi-off.*  So I thought I’d give you a book rec.  I should do this more often.  All this frelling reading should be GOOD for something, shouldn’t it?

I read this quite recently—on Astarte.  On the Kindle app on my iPad.  There have been various outbursts on the forum about the far greater desirability of old-fashioned hard-copy books with ink and pages and covers you open and close over and against the virtual screen pages you swipe with a finger on your e-reader of choice.  Most of us acknowledge, more or less reluctantly, that e-readers have their place, however, especially the carrying your entire library with you in one slim electronic package aspect.  When the next 7,000 flights are cancelled at Heathrow/O’Hare/Kuala Lumpur/Mars Central at least you have plenty to read.**

There’s another reason for e-readers as most of you know although it’s not so much discussed.  I think it unsettles us Luddites.  Which is that sometimes an e-book version is the only one available.  And then you’re very glad to have it.

I don’t remember when I first started tripping over intriguing references to ALCHEMY OF STONE.  It finally got on my amazon wish list when it was merely out of stock, and I wasted some time looking around for it elsewhere while waiting for it to come back into stock.  I think there was a spell there when it wasn’t available anyway, anyhow—except for £3,612,007 on eBay—so when I accidentally discovered, some time later, that it was available on Kindle, I grabbed it.

There’s a certain justice to reading it as an e-book however;  the central character is an automaton named Mattie.  She was created by a clever, but damaged both physically and morally, human man;  and given by him partial autonomy.  Their society is divided into Mechanics and Alchemists.  He is a Mechanic;  he grants her freedom to study alchemy, become an alchemist, live apart from him and stop ministering to his whims—much;  but he retains the key that winds her heart.  That keeps her alive.  Or ‘alive’.

Of course the basic story tension is between Mattie, who is far more human than Loharri is, even if he is the one made of flesh and she is the one made of springs and clockwork—by him.  But it’s also about the balance, or lack of it, in their society.  The status quo is unravelling as the book opens, and things start going badly wrong. . . .

There is so much to like in this book, starting with the gargoyles on page one, who come to Mattie for alchemical help.  Mattie herself is a spectacular piece of story-telling;  you never for a moment forget she’s not human and yet every reference to ‘the bronzed wheel-bearings of her joints squeak their mechanical greeting’ or ‘Her frame clicks as she leans forward. . . . Her dress is low-cut, and . . . there is a small transparent window in her chest, where a clockwork heart is ticking along steadily’ or ‘She extended her hand, the slender copper springs of her fingers grasping a phial of blue glass’ only makes her more human.

And I liked this book a lot.  Sedia writes so well.  Real style is far rarer than one might wish it were.  Than I wish it were.  Now, truth in advertising:  this is not the most cheerful and optimistic book you’ll ever read.  But I prefer to read the ambiguous ending as hopeful. 

* * *

* Probably because we’ve had bad news about someone close to us and it casts a long shadow. . . . Dear bleeding Christ on the cross dying for our sins why is life LIKE THIS?

** Although a back-up battery and a universal^ mains charger would be a good plan.

^ I guarantee that when they start laying power cables in the red dirt of Mars your travelling mains charger/power adapter will need another lobe.  Every frelling country on Earth seems to have its own unique idea about electricity delivery.  Think of the rampant pioneering possibilities of an entire fresh planet.

Book Rec: The Professor’s Daughter, by Joann Sfar & Emmanuel Guibert


That would be graphic book rec, or if you prefer fabulous comic book rec.*

. . . Oh heavens, how do I try to tell you what a hoot it is, and how adorable?  Especially when my head is going bang bang bang as the inevitable result of two and a half hours in a dentist’s chair today.**  Well I can start by saying that it’s perfect reading for lying on a sofa with an assortment of hellcritters and a sore head***.

A charming young Victorian woman, whose famous father is an archaeologist, wants to go for a walk in Kensington Park, but has no chaperon.  Being an enterprising sort, she fishes one of her father’s mummies out of his sarcophagus, dresses him in tails and a top hat, and drags him outdoors.  They listen to Mozart.  They take tea.

They fall in love.†

Mayhem ensues.††

One warning:  the plot, such as it is, is very, very, very ridiculous, and for pity’s sake don’t expect consistency or for all the loose flapping bits to be tied up before the end.  Once you’ve got your seatbelt on—and your rational intellect sent off to read Schopenhauer†††—you’ll be fine.  But I spent the first several pages going, Wha’?  Wha’?  I don’t read much illustrated storytelling and am not used to the tropes.  It’s okay, I went back and reread the beginning.  But I hope you won’t have to.

I loved the drawing—Queen Victoria alone is worth the price of admission‡—and the text is full of divine one-liners.  I usually figure that anything in the first few pages doesn’t count as a spoiler but in a very short graphic novel, um.  However . . .  our mummy gets drunk on his tea:  ‘ . . . I’ve had neither food nor drink in thirty-two centuries . . .’  While he’s sleeping it off he dreams of his children, and they guess he wants to marry the pretty lady.  Maybe her father won’t agree to it, he says.  Why wouldn’t the lady’s father agree? they ask.  ‘Because I’m dead and it’s just not done,’ he replies.

A word here also for the translator, Alexis Siegel, who must have had a hell of a time in both the good and the bad way.

Go for it. ‡‡

* * *

* I’ve never quite become friendly with the ‘graphic novel’ or, since they’re not always fiction, ‘graphic literature’ terminology.  Having spent my entire professional life being whacked around by one or another genre label^ I feel that graphic literature sounds like an attempt to civilise something that at its best is often enthusiastically and energetically uncivilised.^^  But I admit I don’t know fiddlesticks about that corner of the publishing world, so I may be tilting at non-existent windmills about this.

^ When are you going to write/have you ever written a real book?

^^ A bit like F&SF, for example.  Or what the Victorians did to fairy tales when they decided to dumb them down for kids.

** Yes.  Shorter than predicted.  He didn’t finish.  Moan.

*** Even if the need to keep the youngest of the party firmly trapped in place was not ideal in these circumstances

† Well of course.

†† Well of course.

††† Rikke

Schopenhauer at one point uses the example that in case of a child’s death a woman with a lesser intellectual capacity will suffer less than a woman with a developed intellect.

 The point being that the analysis and understanding of death and its consequences enhances the pain far beyond the mere acute animalistic pain. Thus the higher evolved the intellect the more the suffering. . . .

I’m afraid this chiefly makes me want to climb in my trusty time machine and race back through the centuries so that I can rip Schopenhauer’s head off and give it back to him on a platter with an apple in its mouth.  Of all the . . .

And just by the way I observe that it’s apparently only the woman who grieves?  Presumably there had been a dad involved in this situation?  Presumably men are pure intellect and don’t stoop to mere weak mortal grief at all?  Grrrrrrrr.

Note that I hated Philosophy 101 in college.  Just for reasons like these.  My [male] professors weren’t overly fond of me either.

‡ Although once I got my seatbelt on, the one place I was thrown out of the story again was by reference to Queen Victoria’s corgis.  It’s not Queen Victoria who has corgis.^

^ Okay, it’s a joke, fine.  Don’t joke about DOGS.

‡‡ And it’s totally cool to have a book rec about a thirty-two-hundred-year-old mummy named Imhotep on Halloween.  Eat your heart out, Boris Karloff.  Or Arnold Vosloo, for that matter.

Short Wednesday! Really short!



I need something more nearly resembling a night off than my usual shortish Wednesday.  So I thought I’d give you someone else’s story.

Someone tweeted me this a few days ago and I was avoiding work* or something and clicked through to read it.  I really liked it.  Don’t let the typos at the beginning put you off—as they nearly put me off—these things do happen, especially when you’re attempting to perform your proofreading late at night and you just want to hang the freller and go to bed.**

I like the way she’s taken a fairly ordinary things-that-go-bump-in-the-night story arc and made it real through her characters.  I like the way the characters aren’t quite what you’re expecting.  I like the seamlessness with which she makes her characters not quite what you’re expecting***.

There are more stories where this one came from on her web site, and she’s got a book for sale on amazon:

I haven’t bought it yet but the ebook is CHEEEEEEEAP and I’m sure I’ll decide it’s wasteful not to buy it.

. . . And just in case you need a Silly Animal Video:

Although my informant says it’s gone viral so you may have seen it already.  I do feel that the human in question is a trifle naïve to have put that cat gym next to the door and then be surprised at the result. . . .

* * *

* Never!

** Ask me how I know this.

*** I may also be extra-disposed to like stories with porcelain-faced dolls in them at the moment because I’m reading ALCHEMY OF STONE.


The forum comments that didn’t get into Oh, Great . . .



Yesterday was a black hole, by the way*, but I’m better today.  I think.


Oh, yes, the “Are you published?” after you’ve said that’s what you do. Even after you say how many novels you’ve written (since occasionally that comes first) and you know perfectly well that no one (I think no one in history but I could be wrong) writes over 20 novels just for the heck of it. It’s work. It takes time. It takes time away from other things in life that a writer might want to do. I wrote one monster . . .when I wasn’t published, but chances are very, very high that if the thing had not been published, I would now be much better at knitting, singing, gardening, riding, and the house wouldn’t look like it does…and it would have been my only novel. . . . .(Of course I’d have gone mad. Madder than I am. But I don’t think I’d have sat down to write just about a book a year without deadlines and checks. Also, we’d now be very broke.)

Yes.  And that’s the other thing:  if you can’t earn a living by writing, then trust funds and/or wealthy spouses aside, you’re going to have to earn it some other way.  Now earning a living is a major time suck.  It’s just that if you’re doing it for love, you can manage to ignore the forty cents/shilling thruppenny per hour you’re ultimately getting paid, so long as you can keep eating.


Not being a blog follower when PEG came out, but still having visited the website enough to know that sequels were definitely not the hell goddess’ thing, I came to the end of the book . . . I tried my hardest to reason with myself . . . if this was where the story ended, then this is the story that needed to be told and I should look inside it to find the meaning, and I came up with all these beautiful ideas about friendship and perseverance and had completed the grief process up to acceptance… Then discovered the sequel tantalizers online.

::falls down laughing::  Sorry.  It’s friendly laughter.  Still . . . ::falls down laughing some more::

There certainly could be a story about how Sylvi and Ebon, Marked for Life by Their Tragic Separation, went on to do Great Things Alone.  That’s just not the one I’m writing.

Er, this Peg II crashing to a halt business is a little frightening. I’m glad it was past tense and I feel like I’ve heard positive things about it lately? Hmmm.

PEG II crashed and burned because I was refusing to recognise that it needed to be two books.  Two more books, making a [YAAAAAAARRRGGH] trilogy.  So the pacing, the story arc, the way everything fit together, was totally bodged and gleepy in the original PEG II.  This was scaring me quite a lot, as you may imagine.  I still don’t know whether it was just I had my head down so far I couldn’t see the forest for the trees or if I really was suffering a total mental block about the idea of a [twitch] trilogy [twitch].  Anyway.  By the time I finally figured it out, or let myself figure it out, I had the morale of club moss or a dead octopus or something. I could not face starting over from the beginning right away. Meanwhile—remember that benchmark about eating?—I had to keep eating.  So I wrote SHADOWS.

I admit PEG II and I are still not the best of friends.  There’s an awful lot of I Have Been Here Before, But Not in a Good Way.  But we’re getting there.


I really like the family dynamics in your work- I get rather sick and tired of lowly orphan/foundling hero/heroines- is that just fantasy writer quick hand of being able to send them off questing without too many obstacles??? I think I’m going to do a short story on the peeved mother who gets left behind on the farm who suddenly has to do all the chores and swears at that mysterious old stranger who has gotten little Timmy all excited about saving the world.

Thank you.  Yes.  I agree.  Orphans are fine, but there are a lot of families out there.**  And families are interesting.  I’ve been thinking about that story about the left-behind mum too.  And the other three children, the herd of goats and the ill-tempered pony.   And the cabbages.  And the mortgage payments.  Feel free to write it first.  All good stories can be retold indefinitely.

As an avid fantasy reader one thing that bugs me IS sequels that are done just for sequels sake. Singletons are lovely.

Singletons are different.  They feel different, they read differently, they hold together differently.  It’s not just that they’re perforce shorter, although that’s the obvious thing.  It would be a gigantic pity if The Serial Mind totally took over.  But I want to put in a word of defense of writers writing less-than-great sequels.  Some of them . . . are just writing less-than-great sequels.  It happens.  But some of them have been told that either they’re writing a series or that there’s a rumour that Wal-Mart is hiring.  Remember the need to keep eating.  I’m lucky:  I’ve been around a long time as a writer of singletons and most people are mostly used to it.  I’ve been haunted by sequels all my working life but when I wrote SWORD and HERO while series were desirable they weren’t yet a stick that your public and your publisher beat you with.***

…. I think I’ll stick to quilt pattern designs. Hmmm. A pegasus would look great.

A pegasus would look great.  But if it’s a McKinley pegasus remember they are NOT horses with wings.


Thank you for the glimpses into your mind and life that you provide in the blog. I’ve become a compulsive blog reader in the last year or two. It’s not only what you write but the way you write that draws me irresistibly. Thank you! 

You’re very welcome and thank you.  And I want to say out here on the blog that generally speaking I try not to copy and paste the really nice compliments because it makes me look like such a prat.  But I read them with ENORMOUS PLEASURE.  Just sayin’.


We shall make t-shirts that say “FRELL YOUR FRELLING SEQUEL” and wear them around.

I’m beginning to think I should officially look into the t-shirt thing as an author who needs to keep eating while she [re]writes her next [frelling] novel.  There’s also the footnote t-shirt.  Maybe there should be a PEGASI ARE NOT HORSES WITH WINGS t-shirt too.


What I love is books that continue around the edges of them. They are so much more ‘real’ than books where the author finishes everything off.

YES.  EXACTLY.  As a reader I way prefer books where it’s not all tied up with a big shiny ribbon at the end.  The big-shiny-ribbon conclusion tends to kill it dead, for me, and send retroactive gangrenous ripples back through the book that I had perhaps been enjoying—or at least successfully suspending my disbelief for—till then.


. . . I sometimes approach sequels with an attitude of “oh, so these poor characters — don’t they just get to live, well, not happily-ever-after necessarily, but out of the spotlight maybe? With no more than what the rest of us typically have to deal with, at least?” Whereas if they’ve landed in a sequel again it’s because something Very Exciting has happened.

Snork.  As a fairly dedicated stay-at-home myself†, who relishes her hot baths, pillows and blankets, and mains-electric reading lights,  as well as a writer (mostly) of singletons, I like your attitude.


. . . why, a good 60% of the time is the next sentence out of someone’s mouth Oh, are you published?

AND this one…

Oh, I’ve always wanted to write – everyone tells me I should write a book about (blah blah blah) …

 SOOOOO, my question is always: Do you like to read? To which, invariably, the reply from alleged aspiring writer is: ohhhh noooo – I hate to read!

‘Invariably’?  You poor thing.  You need to find a better class of pub/gym/chat room/alternate reality to hang out in.  The aspirers who talk to me usually do love to read—and seem to think this means they’ll be natural writers.  Cough.  Cough.  And it’s a beginning, of course—it’s even a good beginning, being a reader:  it’s just not enough.††

* * *

* What a good thing it was already a Saturday!  Or I might have been forced to hang a KES ep out of order!

** Harry has a brother!  Okay, she’s an orphan, but she has a BROTHER!  Also, I was younger then, and it was harder to keep account of too many important characters.  Trying to hold everyone straight in HERO was a steep learning curve.  If someone had told me then I was on track to write a book with PEG’s cast of characters I might be a manager of graveyard-shift supermarket shelf restockers by now.^

^ This is the Mysterious Disappearing Footnote from the other night, for anyone who was confused by the forum exchange about it.

*** There’s a similar sort of defense to be made about orphan protagonists.  I’m sure there are some out there that were created orphans for no better reason than that the author wanted to get on with the story . . . but that’s not actually a bad reason either.  What starts to get on my nerves is if there’s a huge doodah about the protagonist’s orphaned or otherwise tragedified state when it isn’t, as I-the-cranky-reader sees it, earned.

† Bell ringing is VERY EXCITING!  I rang a HARVEST FESTIVAL today!

†† And the awful truth is that there are a few good writers out there who are not great readers.  I Will Name No Names, but I know a few of them.  Arrrrgh.  It’s like the comforting truth that it takes time to write really well.  No.  Wrong.  It takes some of us a very long time to write anything worth reading.  Not all of us.  Arrrrrgh.  On the whole I’m willing to leave the non-readers in peace because I pity them for what they’re missing.  THE FAST WRITERS I WANT SHIPPED TO ANOTHER GALAXY.  NOW.

Book rec: Silence by Michelle Sagara


This began several weeks ago, when I was musing on turning the hellterror into a superheroine, but (as I said on the blog) Supereater Dog! didn’t seem to me to have the necessary resonance.  One of my regular Twitter correspondents suggested the Devourer*, but added that there was already a character in Michelle Sagara’s Elantra series with that name.**

I’ve heard Sagara’s name more than once and positively, but I’ve heard a lot of people’s names—more than once and positively—and I’m a slow reader who reads over way too wide a range to have any grasp of any area of it.  But I had a look on line for Elantra and discovered that the first three of the series exist as Kindle bundle—which is apparently your only option.  So I bought, downloaded and started reading.***

Meanwhile however my insomnia, even for me, is way out of control.  Drastic measures are called for.  So I decided to try the no-computer-screens-before-bed rule that is getting a lot of public air time lately—especially on the internet.  Ha ha.  Also just in time for me to stop reading the iPad in the bath, having only just bought this waterproof iPad sleeve.  Frell.

But a friend†, hearing that I was reading Elantra for the first time, said that she’d just read SILENCE and liked it enormously, and thought I would too.  And because those microchips that float around in your bloodstream and tell global corporations all your secrets are real and not just in William Gibson novels, the next time I signed on to the Book Depository it wanted to sell me SILENCE at a discount.  Who am I to scorn a telepathic bookseller?

I liked SILENCE a lot.  Even if being nice sleep-friendly paperback hard copy isn’t as friendly as all that when you have to stay awake to keep turning pages.  I liked the basic concept a lot.  I liked the way she took several of the standard modern this-world YA fantasy tropes and . . . not stood them on their heads, exactly, but taught them to do handstands.  And at the risk of being slightly spoilery . . . what would you do if you found out you were special, that you had special powers . . . except they were the wrong powers?  The bad kind, the kind that make the guys in white hats come after you?  What if, thank you very much, you had a life, and a circle of friends—possibly a somewhat surprising circle of friends—and you are who you are, even if you are also that supposedly clueless and malleable thing, a teenager, and maybe the special powers are going to have to adapt to you rather than the other way around—?

There’s lovely humor (“When Emma was stressed, she often tidied . . . She busied herself putting away the dishes whose second home was the drying rack on the counter.  She had homework, but . . . like procrastinators everywhere, she knew that tidying still counted as work, so she could both fail to do homework and feel that she’d accomplished something”) an adorable Rottweiler, some wonderfully grabby and vivid stuff about life as or with an autistic, about being a parent, about the wealthy golden girl who us nerdy bookish types are all ready to love to hate (“Amy also never suffered from false modesty.  In Amy’s case, any modesty was going to be false”) and . . . well, read it, okay?  I think you’ll like it.††

* * *

* which just by the way I love

** The multiverse can hold more than one, right?

*** My informant tells me that the Devourer doesn’t appear till book six.  It’s going to be a while. . . .

† One of these horrible people who is a fast reader and reads everything, and apparently knows the entire fantasy genre rather better and with less swearing and bleeding than I know my own back garden, and a lot of SF as well . . . and she has a job and a life.  Some people.

†† And I’ll let you know about Elantra as soon as I catch up on my sleep.

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