The Rec League: Mary Stewart

Oct. 19th, 2017 08:00 am
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Posted by Amanda

The Rec League - heart shaped chocolate resting on the edge of a very old bookOur community at the Bitchery is full of warm & fuzzy moments and as the person who puts together the Books on Sale posts, sometimes we get some kickass, budget-endangering comment threads. For example, KateB alerted us to a mega Mary Stewart sale!

You can view Mary Stewart’s ebook editions, sorted from low to high prices, all of which are $3.99 or lower, at this Amazon link.

Here are some Stewart recs from that particular comment thread.

No, the Other Anne:

Airs Above the Ground and The Ivy Tree are particular favorites. I also love Touch Not the Cat. Really you can’t go wrong with anything Mary Stewart, though!

Vicki:

I think my favorite might be The Ivy Tree. Currently re-reading MoonSpinners, the book is better than the movie. Gosh, I read all of these between eight and 13 years old, did not get all the sub-text and still loved them. Love them all now, too.

PamG:

Personally, I favor This Rough Magic and back in the day, when I first read Mary Stewart, I loved Wildfire at Midnight. Her later romantic suspense–post Touch Not the Cat–seemed a little bland to me, but the rest of it was golden.

Do read the rest of the comments for more recommendations, and please let us know which books the Bitchery should be during this awesome Mary Stewart sale!

A Spoonful of Magic by Irene Radford

Oct. 19th, 2017 07:00 am
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Posted by SB Sarah

DNF

A Spoonful of Magic

by Irene Radford
November 7, 2017 · DAW

Trigger warnings for rape, gaslighting, infidelity, and discussions of Joss Whedon.

I  DNF’d this book so hard I’m a little surprised my Kindle isn’t embedded in the drywall.

First, a few points.

  1. I am aware (and was aware when I started this book) that this is Not a Romance. I am not carrying into this review my romance-reader expectations on happy or optimistic endings.
  2. I started this book while the coverage of Kai Cole’s essay on Joss Whedon’s infidelity and gaslighting was everywhere, which was a weird parallel that accentuated my revulsion.
  3. This book does not come out until November 7, which is a good ways off. Usually I don’t post reviews so far in advance, but I’ll probably complain about this book more than once before pub date.

I picked up this book because the NetGalley description sounded really intriguing:

A delightful new urban fantasy about a kitchen witch and her magical family

Daphne “Daffy” Rose Wallace Deschants has an ideal suburban life—three wonderful and talented children; a coffee shop and bakery, owned and run with her best friend; a nearly perfect husband, Gabriel, or “G” to his friends and family. Life could hardly be better.

But G’s perfection hides dangerous secrets. When Daffy uncovers evidence of his infidelity, her perfect life seems to be in ruins. On their wedding anniversary, Daffy prepares to confront him, only to be stopped in her tracks when he foils a mugging attempt using wizard-level magic. 

Suddenly, Daphne is part of a world she never imagined–where her husband is not a traveling troubleshooter for a software company, but the sheriff of the International Guild of Wizards, and her brilliant children are also budding magicians. Even she herself is not just a great baker and barista—she’s actually a kitchen witch. And her discovery of her powers is only just beginnning [sic]. 

But even the midst of her chaotic new life, another problem is brewing. G’s ex-wife, a dangerous witch, has escaped from her magical prison. Revenge-bent and blind, she needs the eyes of her son to restore her sight—the son Daffy has raised as her own since he was a year old. Now Daphne must find a way to harness her new powers and protect her family—or risk losing everything she holds dear.

As I said, I didn’t go into this book expecting a romance at all, but what I got made me SO angry.

The book opens with Daffy at a 13th anniversary dinner with her husband, and she’s pissed. Someone has emailed her pictures of him having wild sex with another woman, just after the people of their small (and of course sort of weird) town saw him around when he said he was overseas. When she confronts him with the pictures and then leaves the restaurant, three dudes attempt to mug her, but he stops them with his wooden fountain pen which is actually his magic wand.

She thought he was a low-level “parlor trick” magician, similar to some of the semi-magical people around their town. Turns out he has serious magical abilities, but he only tells her that much because she saw them. He won’t answer her questions about his having sex with someone else, and keeps insisting that she not kick him out because he has to keep her and their three children safe.

I was thinking maybe at some point she’d realize her kitchen witch powers and set him on fire, but that didn’t happen. Instead, the story follows Daffy ( she’s a magical baker in a magical coffee shop in a magical small town) and her children, who are beginning to manifest their powers.

I liked that not everything is explained up front. There’s no infodumpy reverie from the protagonists – not even when G should have been explaining things because clearly Daffy is devastated and betrayed by his infidelity –  and there isn’t much random “As you know,” from ancillary characters. The world is built in small doses, and while some of it is cliched (magical small town coffeeshop bakery because of course magical small town coffeeshop bakery), it made me curious enough to keep going.

I was confused by the fact that there are dual points of view, with Daffy’s narration in first person, and G’s perspective in third person, but I figured that was a choice that would make sense later.

Unfortunately, I have no interest in getting to later. I stopped and I will not be moved.

Let me back up and explain some of the setup here. G doesn’t acknowledge how those pictures happened, except to say (of course) that it’s not what she thinks. He says that cameras can’t capture illusions, and that someone had to have hacked his email account because he didn’t send the pictures.

So he did have sex with someone but he didn’t mean to send his wife evidence?

Huh.

This is 2% in to the story so I was willing to keep going.

Then G explains that the world is really dangerous and she and their children need him around to protect them.

But he won’t say from what, and he won’t talk about whether he did cheat on her, despite visible evidence.

Then he says they’ve had “thirteen wonderful years together” and that he needs her “now more than ever.”

Daffy calls him on his bullshit:

“You need me to babysit your children. Thirteen years when I’ve raised your son as my own. I adopted him on our wedding day, so he’d never need to ask about the mother who died giving birth to him. I’ve given you two wonderful daughters, kept house, cooked, and picked up after you.”

And here is G’s sensitive, thoughtful reply:

“And I love you for that. I do truly love you despite the temptations I face every day. I built you a wrought iron-and-glass greenhouse that fills a quarter of the backyard where the stables used to be. That should prove something of my devotion to you.”

You. Have Got. To be. Fucking. Kidding. Me.

He built a greenhouse where the stables used to be so obviously she’s not focusing on the right details.

And while I’m looking at this paragraph, “The temptations I face every day?

Are you SERIOUS?!

His argument reminded me with a sick feeling of the coverage of Kai Cole’s account of her marriage wherein Whedon was cheating on her for 15+ years. That whole “temptation” whine sounded nauseatingly familiar. It was kind of eerie that this was the book I picked up immediately after I read her essay.

I mean, gosh, it’s so difficult to not stick your dick in other people.

Such a burden to be basically decent when you’re a successful, powerful dude.

I just strained every one of my ocular muscles.

Anyway, Daffy kicks his ass out of their home, and the story continues as their divorce gets closer to being finalized. The kids, it turns out, know about the cheating because one of them is drawn to locks, puzzles, and things she shouldn’t be looking at. She clicked her way into her mother’s hard drive and saw the images, which she promptly shared with her siblings.

(Yeesh.)

(And as an aside: Daffy blames herself for not doing a better job of protecting her files, since she knew her daughter was drawn to all puzzles, locks, and passwords. Do people with magical abilities have a free pass to be completely crappy humans in this world?? I cannot with that part.)

Daffy is determined that she be able to at least cordially co-parent with G, and tries to work out ways for him to be part of their lives. This becomes more complicated when each child begins manifesting signs of their own magical ability, some far earlier than normal, and all with considerable amounts of power.

Plus, G’s narration reveals that Daffy was raised in a fundamentalist household, and that her grandmother had been a magical practitioner. To get his daughter away from the “evil influence,” Daffy’s father had his mother committed and subjected to electric shock treatments. Daffy never saw her again. As a result of her own parents’ indoctrination and the absence of her grandmother, Daffy’s own magic is severely suppressed. But no doubt her own talents combined with G’s mean that their children are like a Semi-Nuclear Pre-Teen Magical Titan Fantastic Squad.

The Kids are All Magical was a really tempting element to this story for me. Each one is compelled to find their personal wand, which can take the shape of a mundane item, usually an antique that “calls” to them. One has two sticks that she wears in her hair with ornaments on them which transform her from awkward teen to beautiful siren, and another, the lock-breaking boundary-obliterating one, is later drawn to an item that’s connected with her talents.

G’s son, Daffy’s adopted son, is a talented ballet dancer, and they figure out pretty early in the story what his “wand” is, and how it accentuates and focuses his power. And his dedication to dance and to practice and training make it pretty clear he’ll be very powerful the more time he spends dancing. He was one of my favorite characters in the parts that I read. I’d read a whole book about him.

For the next few chapters, Daffy and G are separated, and she slowly learns more about who he really is (very little of that information is provided by G himself) while trying to set up new boundaries for his involvement in her life, and trying to understand what her powers are or might be.

Then there are two major revelations, one of which I will hide behind spoiler tags:

Spoiler and Trigger Warning: Rape

It seems that G’s ex is not dead, but is in magic prison for killing a bunch of people, including his parents. Except she’s escaped from magic prison, and has been killing people all over the world.

AND she used her magic to make herself look like Daffy, so that when G was having sex with her, he thought he was with his wife. Evil Ex-Wife took the pictures, hacked his email, and sent them to Daffy, knowing she’d kick her husband out, leaving her and her children – specifically her son – vulnerable.

So effectively, she raped her ex-husband and framed him for cheating on his wife.

I read that part, and said, “WHOA.” Out loud. But quietly because people were sleeping.

And I was waiting for G to sit Daffy down and explain the whole thing, about the danger to the children, about the circumstances for the pictures, all of it.

But he doesn’t.

He doesn’t seem upset about what happened to him except that his ex-wife is dangerous (and also not dead but everyone thinks that she is). He doesn’t explain what’s happening, he doesn’t reveal how he’s lied and concealed information about Daffy, about their kids, about anything. He knows best – for himself.

And I grew increasingly angry at him for it. He’s wrapped up in some willful deceit and manipluation to not tell Daffy the truth about her own life, about the children she’s raising, about her own marriage, and their collective vulnerability.

He’s supposed to be able to protect them? From what, his own dickbaggery?

Then I completely lost my shit.

G. brings pizza and wine to the bakery, where Daffy is setting up the dough on a Sunday night for the Monday morning baking. He mentions that he’ll be heading out of the country on some big case, and she reacts with some asperity (completely justified, to my thinking):

“Have fun,” I said with more than a bit of contempt.

G didn’t need to read my mind to know where my thoughts led me. He reached over and rested his big hand atop mine. I looked small and frail in comparison to his strength.

“It’s not always like that, Daffy.”

“Like what?” I fixed him with a determined glare.

“Look, I have, upon occasion, found release with another woman when I was far away from you and the amount of magic I had to case in order to close a case was too much to contain. Not often. Not habitually. There is always a woman of age I can pick up in a bar who is very willing to share a one-night stand. And I always use a condom.”

He paused long enough to chew a bit of pizza and swallow it. “Normally I hop the first flight home and return to you, my love.”

Aaaand that would be where I stopped reading.

Because are you KIDDING ME? 

Seriously.

At the foundation level of this story, I believe I am supposed to witness G redeeming himself or something. Maybe Daffy needs to show him how not to be a terrible person (which he should have figured out on his own) or maybe he is going to wake his own sorry ass up and realize what a shit he’s been, but I am not here for any of it.

G is the gatekeeper of information Daffy needs and should have, and lies to her every time they talk. And based on the direction of the plot so far, eventually they will probably go fight evil together or something.

I don’t know, and I don’t care.

I can’t invest myself in wanting any part of his involvement in her life, or in this book. I won’t be convinced, ever, that he is a person Daffy should have in her life. I won’t be convinced to read about him, either.

His inability to acknowledge his actions, and the way in which the world of the book seems to condone the fact that he lies to Daffy, misleads her, and banged people behind her back without telling her made me feel ill, similar to how I felt when I read Kai Cole’s essay. “I did something wrong over and over but it wasn’t my fault because magic/patriarchy/both” is not heroic, not in real life, and not in a book.

(And how exactly does using a condom makes it ok, you magical dipshit? Come on.)

The longer he deceives Daffy and hides the truth from her about her life, her marriage, his past, her children, her latent powers, and her future, the more he strips her of any agency in a story that is ostensibly about her. Life is way too short to spend my reading time with a character like that, and, as Amanda pointed out to me as we discussed this book, it’s very easy for me to put down the book and walk away – far easier than it may be for a person in a marriage as damaging as this one.

Daffy can’t get away from G, and he’s orchestrated everything so that she won’t be able to extricate herself from any involvement with him. He hasn’t told her anything resembling the truth, and the ethical systems and morality of the magical world seem to condone his decisions and the harm he does to Daffy and their family.

To hell with him, and people like him. I’m out.

ETA: Out of morbid curiosity, I flipped to the last chapter to read how it ends. So while I did not finish the book, I did read the end.

Show Spoiler

Daffy, G, and the kids defeat the Evil Ex Wife, and G and Daffy have outstanding sex, but then she tells him to leave. She’s going to date other people, and he can as well, but they should start over. She married him too young, and needs a chance to know herself before she commits to him again. So I’m guessing there will be another book at some point.

Good going, Daffy. Way to toss him out.

But the door is still open for him to come back in, and so I’m not interested in reading the rest.

Quick Check-In

Oct. 18th, 2017 10:29 pm
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Posted by John Scalzi

Hello fellow humans! I am not dead. I am slowly making my way down the length of California toward my high school reunion.

Life is good. I hope also that your life is good.

Tell the class about your day in the comments.

Yours,

JS


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Posted by Stubby the Rocket

As we hurtle toward Halloween, or, as we like to call it, THE GREATEST DAY OF THE YEAR, we were reminded of what may be the greatest Halloween costume in recent memory. All you need is a Nazgûl outfit, a black horse, and an ability to ask after the whereabout of “Baggins” and the “Shire” in a creepy voice. The original costume was created by thespooklock (who has since deleted their Tumblr presence) and as you can see, it’s terrifying. Especially when viewed through that fabulous German Expressionist angle.

Click through for more Nazgûlery!

Now, granted, this costume is probably easier to achieve in a lonely field:

 

Or a shadowy, not-quite-Fangorn-forest:

But we’d like to imagine a Nazgûl going door-t0-door, asking for the location of the One Ring, and having to accept those Reeses Cups that are supposed to be pumpkin-shaped but actually just look like weird blobs. Maybe he and the other eight Ringwraiths could go all the way over to the rich neighborhood, where every single house gives out King-Sized candy bars instead of the stupid Fun-Size ones, and then maybe they can try to sneak into the cemetery to frighten some goth kids.

You can see the whole post over at reddit!

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Posted by Tor.com

Cory Doctorow book cover redesigns by Will Staehle

Designer Will Staehle is bringing a unifying appearance to Cory Doctorow’s books, redesigning five of the author’s novels to make them align visually with Doctorow’s most recent work, Walkaway. The new trade paperback editions will be on shelves and available in May 2018.

Check out the enlarged line-up below.

The Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross

The Rapture of the Nerds: Until the overminds bore of stirring Earth’s anthill, there’s Tech Jury Service: random humans, selected arbitrarily, charged with assessing dozens of new inventions and ruling on whether to let them loose. Young Huw, a technophobic, misanthropic Welshman, has been selected for the latest jury, a task he does his best to perform despite an itchy technovirus, the apathy of the proletariat, and a couple of truly awful moments on bathroom floors.

 

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

Down & Out in the Magic Kingdom: Disney World! The greatest artistic achievement of the long-ago twentieth century. Now in the keeping of a network of “ad-hocs” who keep the classic attractions running as they always have, enhanced with only the smallest high-tech touches.

Now, though, the “ad hocs” are under attack. A new group has taken over the Hall of the Presidents, and is replacing its venerable audioanimatronics with new, immersive direct-to-brain interfaces that give guests the illusion of being Washington, Lincoln, and all the others. For Jules, this is an attack on the artistic purity of Disney World itself.

Worse: it appears this new group has had Jules killed. This upsets him.

 

Eastern Standard Tribe by Cory Doctorow

Eastern Standard Tribe: Instant wireless communication puts everyone in touch with everyone else, twenty-four hours a day. But one thing hasn’t changed: the need for sleep. The world is slowly splintering into Tribes held together by a common time zone, less than family and more than nations. Art is working to humiliate the Greenwich Mean Tribe to the benefit of his own people. But in a world without boundaries, nothing can be taken for granted-not happiness, not money, and most certainly not love.

 

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town: Alan is a middle-aged entrepeneur in contemporary Toronto, who has devoted himself to fixing up a house in a bohemian neighborhood. This naturally brings him in contact with the house full of students and layabouts next door, including a young woman who, in a moment of stress, reveals to him that she has wings–wings, moreover, which grow back after each attempt to cut them off.

Alan understands. He himself has a secret or two. His father is a mountain; his mother is a washing machine; and among his brothers are a set of Russian nesting dolls.

Now two of the three nesting dolls, Edward and Frederick, are on his doorstep–well on their way to starvation, because their innermost member, George, has vanished. It appears that yet another brother, Davey, who Alan and his other siblings killed years ago, may have returned…bent on revenge.

 

Makers by Cory Doctorow

Makers: Perry and Lester invent things—seashell robots that make toast, Boogie Woogie Elmo dolls that drive cars. They also invent entirely new economic systems, like the “New Work,” a New Deal for the technological era. Barefoot bankers cross the nation, microinvesting in high-tech communal mini-startups like Perry and Lester’s. Together, they transform the country, and Andrea Fleeks, a journo-turned-blogger, is there to document it.

Then it slides into collapse. The New Work bust puts the dot.combomb to shame. Perry and Lester build a network of interactive rides in abandoned Wal-Marts across the land. As their rides, which commemorate the New Work’s glory days, gain in popularity, a rogue Disney executive grows jealous, and convinces the police that Perry and Lester’s 3D printers are being used to run off AK-47s.

Hordes of goths descend on the shantytown built by the New Workers, joining the cult. Lawsuits multiply as venture capitalists take on a new investment strategy: backing litigation against companies like Disney. Lester and Perry’s friendship falls to pieces when Lester gets the ‘fatkins’ treatment, turning him into a sybaritic gigolo.

Then things get really interesting.

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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 John Langan’s “The Shallows,” first published in 2010 in Cthulhu’s Reign. Spoilers ahead.

“The vast rectangle that occupied the space where his neighbor’s green-sided house had stood, as well as everything to either side of it, dimmed, then filled with the rich blue of the tropical sky.”

Summary

Over his daily mug of instant coffee, Ransom chats with his sole companion, the crab resident in his kitchen sink. “Crab” may just be a convenient label for the creature, which with its extra set of carapace-top limbs is no earthly decapod. Thirty yards to one side of Ransom’s house, where his neighbor’s house used to be, ripples a curtain of pale light extending as far as he can see. At the moment it displays a tropical sea seething like a pot about to boil. Fish, whales, sharks flee the center of the disturbance. Among them are beasts beyond identification, “a forest of black needles, a mass of rubbery pink tubes, the crested dome of what might be a head the size of a bus.” An undersea mountain rises, or is it the top of a vast alien Atlantis? The first time Ransom watched this “movie,” he and his son Matt wondered if the upheaval had anything to do with “what’s been happening at the poles.”

Ransom suggests that he should name the crab “Gus,” after his wife Heather’s great-grandfather. Once they thought of naming their son after Gus, but from all accounts, he was an abusive alcoholic so mean he wouldn’t take in his war-disabled son. You know, Jan, whom the old man called a “faggot” because he liked to bake.

Though Ransom’s looked away from the light-curtain, he knows what it must be showing now: a vast entity of coil-wreathed head, scaled limbs, translucent fans of wings, bursting from the risen city. It’s a thing whose sheer size and speed must “break a textbook’s worth of physical laws.” The first time he watched its rebirth, Matt had screamed “Was that real? Is that happening?”

Ransom prepares to leave the house, picking up an improvised spear (butcher’s knife duct-taped to a pole) and making a careful survey of the front yard before opening the door. Before going north two months earlier, Matt made him promise to perform the safety check every time. Nothing worrying, except the ruins across the street and the spongy hive that they once sheltered. Lobster-like things the size of ponies may have hatched from it. Matt led the neighbors who dispatched them with axes, shovels, picks. Northward, everything’s gone, road, houses, vegetation, the ground scraped down to gray bedrock. On the horizon more planes of light shimmer.

Spear at the ready, Ransom exits his house. He’s going to his garden and invites the crab to come along, which it does with eager speed. Ransom, Matt and neighbors tilled the garden together, fenced it, and dug a moat-trench around it. The crab scuttles among the carrots, broccoli, tomatoes, inspecting the plants with such intensity that Ransom’s sure that “in whatever strange place it had called home, the crab had tended a garden of its own.” He speculates aloud about calling the crab “Bruce,” which was the name Heather gave a stray dog she took in late in her struggle with terminal illness. The dog had comforted her and Matt but not for long. Its loutish owner reclaimed it five days later, locked it again in a wire pen. Heather visited the caged Bruce, from the safe distance of the road, right up to her final hospitalization.

In the garden, big red slugs threaten the lettuce. Ransom drowns them, like ordinary slugs, in beer traps. A huge blue centipede crosses his path. He doesn’t spear it, for fear it may “control” other invaders. Inky coils have attacked the beans. Inky coils with teeth. Ransom burns the affected plant and considers whether the neighboring plants can be salvaged. Fresh food’s nice, but the neighbors who went in search of the polar city with Matt did leave Ransom their stores for safe keeping.

The light-curtain beside his house begins to play another movie, featuring a cyclopean structure at sunset. Ransom’s seen this “movie” before, too, and has identified the structure as the Empire State Plaza in Albany, fifty miles north of his town. Its office buildings are decapitated. A massive toad-like being perches on the highest skyscraper. Far below, three figures flee from black torrents that sprout eyes all along their lengths and open tunnel-wide sharp-toothed mouths.

Ransom begged Matt not to go north. Who could tell what the inhabitants of the polar city would do to him? And who will Ransom talk to, without his son? Matt told Ransom to write his experiences all down, for when Matt returned. But Matt won’t be coming back. Matt’s one of the three figures the torrents devour, as the light-curtain shows Ransom over and over again.

The crab has scuttled to the top of the garden to inspect some apple trees. Ransom only glances at them. They appear to be “quiet.”

He and the crab return home. Ransom tells it that Matt used to say, “Who wants to stay in the shallows their whole life?” Ransom’s answer, which he himself hadn’t fully understood at the time, was “There are sharks in the shallows, too.”

Back at the top of the garden, the apples swing in the breeze and ripen into “red replicas of Matt’s face, his eyes squeezed shut, his mouth stretched in a scream of unbearable pain.”

What’s Cyclopean: The beans in Ransom’s garden are full of “gelid, inky coils.” Those things are almost as bad as Dutch Elm Disease.

The Degenerate Dutch: Gus, for whom Ransom’s sorta-crab (but not his kid) is named, appears to have been a bundle of delightful bigotries.

Mythos Making: R’lyeh rises and Cthulhu rises with it, heralded by shoggothim. The toadlike thing is probably Tsathoggua…

Libronomicon: No books this week. Where are those million copies of the Necronomicon when you really need them?

Madness Takes Its Toll: Gus (the person, not the sorta-crab) was a “functioning alcoholic” and an abusive jerk.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

I used to love end-of-the-world stories. It was a way of coping with the last days of the Cold War, imagining that stories could still take place Afterward. And there can be comfort in an apocalypse that grinds away the stress of daily demands and narrows your choices to those that are truly important. I especially liked the so-called cozy catastrophe, in which survivors crawl out of their shelters in neat family units to rebuild the world better than it was before, or at least closer to the author’s preferred societal organization.

Langan’s catastrophe is anything but cozy. The neat family unit’s been broken up in favor of a last-ditch save-the-world effort, failed almost before it began. And—cozy inevitably being a matter of point of view—the story’s from the point of view of the last-ditch save-the-world hero’s aging father. Nothing like parenthood to remove any last vestiges of comfort that an apocalypse might otherwise have retained.

The rise of the elder gods makes an excellent stand-in for all manner of apocalypses. (Apocalypsi? Apocalyptim? This is becoming an increasingly urgent question, folks, help me out.) Charlie Stross memorably hybridized it with the devastation of nuclear war, and in his more recent work it’s metamorphosized to cover climate change (Case Nightmare Green turns out not to be an event, but a stage of earth’s history with no end in sight) and the rise of fascism. In Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald,” it’s more like colonialism; in Drake’s “Than Curse the Darkness,” it’s a price for the overthrow of same that just might be worth paying.

In “The Shallows,” the apocalypse in question might be the plain everyday one of mortality. Eaten by a shoggoth or consumed by cancer, Matt and Heather both die. They both go down fighting for life—Matt for the world, Heather for an abused dog—and neither succeeds. Just like in real life, too, there are screens everywhere to show you the details of every ongoing disaster, over and over and over and over. Who knew that elder gods were so into mass media? (No comments section, though, thankfully. Imagine the flamewars.)

It’s a damned good story. But maybe avoid checking Twitter after you read it.

Langan does an excellent job of invoking Mythosian horrors without naming them. Ransom has no way to know that this outsized horror is Cthulhu, that one Tsathoggua, and oh that’s a Shoggoth* over there eating your kid. He just knows that he’s surrounded by forces beyond his comprehension or ability to control. And in the face of all that, he’s going to keep his garden going. And talk to his sorta-crab. Like Matt and Heather, he’s going to keep fighting for life, in the little ways he’s capable of. Il faut cultiver notre jardin. I can appreciate that.

The monsters of “The Shallows” are cosmically horrible in many ways. They’re huge, inexplicable and unexplained, beyond the ability of humans to understand or fight. But they’re human-like in at least one way: they’re vindictive. Why else show Ransom, of all people, those particular scenes? Why send those particular apples to grow in his yard? Unless every survivor has rebel-faced fruit growing in their yards, it does make you wonder. After all, if you can get the giant inhuman force to notice you, maybe resistance isn’t so futile after all.

*For all that we hear a lot about shoggothim in the Mythos, they almost never appear in person outside “Mountains of Madness.” Langan’s version are a worthy on-screen addition.

 

Anne’s Commentary

To start on a personal note: The full name of the Albany complex where Ransom’s son meets his death is the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza. It was indeed the brainchild of Governor Rocky, as my father fondly called him, designed to strike visitors to the New York capitol with awe as they flew in or crested the hills on the opposite bank of the Hudson River. Impressive it is. Also unsettling, especially against a flaming sunset. Architectural critic Martin Filler describes this aspect of the Plaza well: “There is no relationship at all between buildings and site…since all vestiges of the [previously] existing site have been so totally obliterated. Thus, as one stands on the Plaza itself, there is an eerie feeling of detachment. The Mall buildings loom menacingly, like aliens from another galaxy set down on this marble landing strip”

No wonder Langan chose this spot as the lair of shoggoths and their Master Toad (Tsathoggua?) Still, I have fond memories of sitting by the Plaza’s vast reflecting pool, watching Fourth of July fireworks duplicated on the glassy black water. And besides, Governor Rocky once gave my five-year-old cheek a big smack. Quintessential politician, he was an adept pumper of hands and kisser of children. We needn’t go into his other feats of osculation here.

“The Shallows” is my kind of post-apocalypse tale: up very close and very personal. John Langan addressed the aftermath of a zombie epidemic in “How the Day Runs Down,” a novella brilliantly structured like the worst-case scenario version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Here he takes on that greatest of all possible apocalypses, the return of Cthulhu and Company. In “The Call of Cthulhu,” Lovecraft (via cultist Castro) envisions that return as a time when “mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones, free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.” Quite a party, however (literally) burnt out the revelers were bound to feel the morning after. Langan’s vision is a much soberer one—no Boschian orgy of damnation but one man crucified, cross-affixed by the nails of his greatest fears, over and over again.

Langan’s Great Old Ones wreak mass destruction, sure, like that monstrous gray gash north of Ransom’s house. It looks like some huge hoof scuffed Earth’s skin to the rocky bone, stomped trees and roads and buildings, animals and people, indiscriminately out of existence. But the Old Ones aren’t merely mindless force. They seem to reserve some humans for prolonged, subtle torment. Ransom’s one such sufferer, stranded among light-curtain movie screens that endlessly replay not only planet-wide catastrophe but Ransom’s most personal tragedy: Matt’s violent death, only fifty miles into his quixotic journey north to the polar city. How do the “screens” work? Are they dimensional rifts disgorging alien flora and fauna to infiltrate terrestrial ecosystems? Are they also veils of some energetic fabric that serves as both broadcast medium and psychic sponge? Via the veils, all can witness R’lyeh’s rise and Cthulhu’s escape. Upon the veils, each survivor can “record” his individual horrors.

Cosmic-class bastards, the Old Ones. Unless the effect of the light-curtains on the human brain is accidental, the hallucinatory product of our own mental vulnerabilities. What about the screaming-Matt apples, though? Ransom himself doesn’t describe them to the reader—while we share his point of view, we only know the apple trees make him uneasy. It’s in the closing switch to authorial point of view that we learn what terrible shape the fruit’s taken, and that suggests to me that the new world order has deformed them, for Ransom’s particular anti-delectation.

Shades of a Color out of Space, by the way!

Now, what about the crab that is no crab, at least no earthly one? Nice parallel, how Ransom “adopts” it with as little apparent misgiving as Heather adopted the dog she named Bruce. I’d like to think the crab’s drawn to Ransom out of a mutual need for companionship. Maybe it’s a larval Mi-Go, hence both telepathic and highly intelligent, the child of Mi-Go tenders of vast fungal gardens on the mountain terraces of Yuggoth.

Speaking of gardens. As Candide tells Pangloss in the story’s epigraph, we’ve each got to tend our own, regardless of whether we live in the best of all possible worlds or the worst. Ultimately that’s the only way we can go on. Not through the heroics of a Matt, but through the grubbing labors of a Ransom. Do heroes seek heights (and, conversely, depths?) Are gardeners content in the shallows?

Oh dear, though, doesn’t Ransom tell us true when he says there are sharks in the shallows as well as the depths? Downer, if we take that to mean there’s no safety anywhere. But uplift, too, if we take it to mean both shallows and depths require courage of the swimmer, foster their own brands of heroism.

 

Next week we delve once again into Lovecraft’s juvenalia, and meet the angsty scion of a fallen line, in “The Alchemist.”

Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots (available July 2018). Her 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.” 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 Amanda

Workspace with computer, journal, books, coffee, and glasses.Wednesday links are here!

Essentially, the crop of links today are strictly romance and Carrie Fisher related, and I don’t think anyone will mind too terribly about that. I’ve been in South Florida for a week, dealing with family things, and I’ll be returning to the Northeast today to sleep in my own bed and cuddle my ornery senior cat.

Three cheers for Beverly Jenkins talking about romance and diversity over at Shondaland:

Shondaland: For a lot of people, the outside perception of romance has been that it’s this very white space, which can make it feel inaccessible for a lot of minorities. But I think that’s changing, and it’s in large part thanks to amazing writers like you. So, just to start, thank you for your work, and for normalizing people of color in romance.

Beverly Jenkins: You’re very welcome. Love is love. We all love. And the industry should reflect everyone. Like you said, things are getting better — [but] every industry can do more, or needs to do more. I think romance, along with Romance Writers of America, have made tremendous strides in the last four or five years in trying to bring that normalcy to the genre. And it’s been great.

I also recommend looking over the Shondaland site from time to time for more great interviews.

Organization Academy A note from Sarah:  A quick reminder – pardon the interruption.

I am days away from opening registration for the inaugural Organization Academy online course, Menu Planning Mastery. 

If you feel overwhelmed by the question, “What’s for dinner tonight?” when you don’t know the answer, this course is for you. Each lesson will teach you how to harness the power of Google Calendar to manage and automate your meal planning, and save you time, energy, and money.

You’ll know what’s for dinner, you’ll have more time and money to buy books – what could be better?

If you’d like to be among the first to know when registration opens, please enter your email address below!  I’ll also send you weekly tips and step-by-step instructions with specific organization and time management strategies:

Please sign up if you’d like information about the course when registration opens.

Thank you in advance, and now back to your regularly scheduled link-a-palooza!

These next couple links regarding Carrie Fisher are from Elizabeth. Thank you, Elizabeth!

First up, The Mary Sue has an article about Fisher stressing the importance of Leia in pop culture:

“She was so conscious of the place that Leia had,” Johnson said, “not just broadly in the culture, but very specifically in terms of girls who grew up watching Star Wars, when Leia was the only female hero on the screen. She really wanted to do right by that, drawing the character forward. That was something that she would always be pulling us back to.”.

Here are some of Elizabeth’s additional comments: “Apparently when filming The Last Jedi, Carrie Fisher had a lot of input into the script. She wanted to make it the best it could be for all the girls who grew up watching Star Wars and for whom she was a hero.”

There’s also a #LeiaIsWithUs hashtag gaining momentum, which is calling for fans to honor Fisher during The Last Jedi‘s opening night by wearing or bringing an object that is Leia-related.

The Bacon Free Library is having a romance swag bag auction! The auction will officially launch October 22, but you can preview the items available now.

Bid to win swag from any of these award winning, best-selling, beloved, classic romance authors. Swag can include anything from signed books to having your name in one of the authors’ next book – how exciting!

There are a ton of authors participating, so please check it out!

Lastly, I’m dismayed to just hear about the Werk It Festival, which highlights women in podcasting:

Werk It’s first iteration, in 2015, was comprised of a crowd of 100 women, who met in WNYC’s Greene Space. This year the festival drew 600 pass-holding attendees and presenters, who all wore assertive smiles while mingling over coffee in the dimly lit Spanish Gothic Theatre and lobby, where the men‘s room had temporarily been labeled unisex. (The hotel was a uniquely fitting setting, based in the renovated headquarters of United Artists, a company co-founded in 1919 by one of the most powerful women in Hollywood history, Mary Pickford). Later, guests attended panels with names such as Creativity Doesn’t Just Happen and Extreme Engagement, and watched live tapings of shows such as Death, Sex & Money with Anna Sale, and 2 Dope Queens with Jessica Williams and guest co-host Naomi Ekperigin.

I would love to attend next year, as I pretty much exclusively listen to podcasts now.

Don’t forget to share what super cool things you’ve seen, read, or listened to this week! And if you have anything you think we’d like to post on a future Wednesday Links, send it my way!

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Posted by Sweepstakes

Tor Books has just released a handful of small-format paper-over-board hardcovers selected from their distant and recent backlist, plus a new-to-book-form story collection by Charlie Jane Anders and the first standalone edition of Brandon Sanderson’s Edgedancer—and we want to send you a set of all six books!

Before the success of her debut SF-and-fantasy novel All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders was a rising star in SF and fantasy short fiction. Six Months, Three Days, Five Others collects—for the first time in print—six of her quirky, wry, engaging best.

This miniature hardcover of the Orson Scott Card classic and worldwide bestselling novel Ender’s Game makes an excellent gift for anyone’s science fiction library.

Since its debut in 1990, The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan has captivated millions of readers around the globe with its scope, originality, and compelling characters. From the Two Rivers is a special edition that contains Part 1 of The Eye of the World.

There is a secret history of the world—a history in which an alien virus struck the Earth in the aftermath of World War II, endowing a handful of survivors with extraordinary powers. Some turned their talents to the service of humanity. Others used their powers for evil. Wild Cards is their story.

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Brandon Sanderson, a special gift edition of Edgedancer, a short novel of the Stormlight Archive (previously published in Arcanum Unbounded).

Perfect for an entry-level sci-fi reader and the ideal addition to a veteran fan’s collection, John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War takes audiences on a heart-stopping adventure into the far corners of the universe.

Comment in the post to enter!

NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. A purchase does not improve your chances of winning. Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States and D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec). To enter, comment on this post beginning at 1:30 PM Eastern Time (ET) on October 18th. Sweepstakes ends at 12:00 PM ET on October 22nd. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Tor.com, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

Barbary Station

Oct. 18th, 2017 06:00 pm
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Posted by R.E. Stearns

Adda and Iridian are newly minted engineers, but aren’t able to find any work in a solar system ruined by economic collapse after an interplanetary war. Desperate for employment, they hijack a colony ship and plan to join a famed pirate crew living in luxury at Barbary Station, an abandoned shipbreaking station in deep space.

But when they arrive there, nothing is as expected. The pirates aren’t living in luxury—they’re hiding in a makeshift base welded onto the station’s exterior hull. The artificial intelligence controlling the station’s security system has gone mad, trying to kill all station residents and shooting down any ship that attempts to leave—so there’s no way out.

Adda and Iridian have one chance to earn a place on the pirate crew: destroy the artificial intelligence. The last engineer who went up against the AI met an untimely end, and the pirates are taking bets on how the newcomers will die. But Adda and Iridian plan to beat the odds. There’s a glorious future in piracy… if only they can survive long enough.

Barbary Station, the debut novel from R.E. Stearns, is available October 31st from Saga Press.

 

 

In her water tank, Adda shook blue dust out of her hair. Since the tank was suspended underneath the pirate compound, beneath the station’s double hull, Iridian proclaimed it safe enough without the blue antiradiation coating. Adda kept forgetting to pull her hood over her head when she left the tank, and the blue stuff that covered the rest of the compound’s ceiling and walls fell into her hair and shirt.

She piled pillows inside her workspace’s noise-canceling canopy. Though the sides were transparent beneath a thick grid of black tracer lines, it did resemble a tent. Once she’d plugged her nasal implant jack and her comp into the main unit, she triggered the comp’s countdown timer. If she spent five hours in a workspace, Iridian usually checked on her. When both of them forgot, Adda had headaches and nightmares. She placed a thin purple sharpsheet square on her tongue. While it dissolved, she inserted earbuds, which hissed pink noise and canceled out everything else.

Time to find out what I’m up against. As one of her professors used to say, Zombie AI can’t develop their own priorities, so give them yours. If she got the intelligence to interact with her, she could ask it to stop. The pirates didn’t have a workspace generator, so they couldn’t have tried that.

She lay on her back and sealed the sound-resistant generator tent. After several seconds, the sharpsheet took effect and the generator’s software accessed her neural implant net to draw her into a workspace. Her parents’ house in Virginia, before the bombing, assembled around her.

The comp glove could render small parts of the programs she worked with, but interacting with the fragments limited her view of the system as a whole. The workspace software converted the concepts and commands into visual metaphors her brain processed quickly, naturally, and more effectively with the sharpsheets’ help. Sunlight patterned down through a large, high window. All six shelves of the bookshelf beside it were full of ancient paper books, many more than the tiny collection of books that her mother had maintained. Each book represented information on the station intranet’s public front. Station administrators would be remarkably careless to leave a manual on the station’s security intelligence sitting out on unprotected intranet, but she had to check. A spiral-bound stack of paper labeled Employee Policies might be helpful.

An orange glow with ragged gray-blurred edges swam over a plain black book’s spine. The glow shrank into the words Criminals and Criminology. With dreamlike slowness, Adda pulled it from its shelf, blew the ensuing dust cloud away from her nose, and placed the book beside her bare feet.

Despite the carpet, the book landed with a sound like a massive gong struck with a hammer. Adda stilled, her hand hovering over the book. She hadn’t set any alarms like that, so who had?

When she turned back to the bookshelf, a yellow eye stared out from its back panel, in the space where the book had been.

“Hello.” She breathed slowly to keep her field of vision, already gently twisting left and right, from starting to spin in response to her excitement. It wasn’t clear how well her biological functions carried through the workspace to the intelligence. Heart rates told a lot about humans. What conclusions AegiSKADA drew from hers was something else again.

“I’m looking for your occupant monitoring archives. I’m a friend. Everyone near me is too.” She concentrated on the concept of a group of nonthreatening individuals with similar objectives and priorities. “We don’t attack friends.”

The eye didn’t blink. Its pupil was a splotch of black liquid, asymmetrical and fraying into digital static at its edges. Adda reached into the bookshelf and pressed her fingertips to the top of the panel, above the eye. The titles on the other books’ spines swam, cycling through numeric codes and names. The eye refocused on them. The human-to-AI translation software in her comp was hard at work.

“Look at me.” She concentrated on how delighted she was to meet a new intelligence. The eye’s gaze flicked from one mental construct of household objects to the next, checking each one for signs of her. It was possible that no one had spoken to it in the four years since the station had been abandoned. If it understood what she’d said, it didn’t agree with her.

AI played games with human minds. Her translator should protect her, but depending on what direction this intelligence’s development took, the translator might be outmatched.

The risk raised her heart rate. The room rocked like a boat on stormy seas. The eye focused on her, confirming its access to biometric sensors. How many had the station’s designers planted, recording every cardiac rhythm of humans within range? And where was the one recording hers, alone in an empty water tank? She shut her eyes against the swinging room and concentrated on the second question. The rocking sloshed the contents of her stomach. Whispers in static too soft to interpret brushed across her arms and thighs. She thought she heard her name, and Pel’s.

When she opened her eyes, a dark image flickered in and out of existence below the eye on the book spine. Orange specks of light near the top were probably the string of lights in the passage between the hulls.

Adda grinned. It was so satisfying to create an answer through the intensity of her question. The nearest sensor node was in the hull passage that led to the pirate compound. She didn’t know what to do about that yet, but she’d think of something.

A cardinal peeped triumphantly outside the high window. The whispers faded to silence, and a hard, squared-off edge formed against her palm. She drew a paper book out of the bookshelf with the intelligence’s eye in the center of the cover. The image of the space between the hulls flickered out.

Behind the workspace’s hallucinations, her translator had convinced AegiSKADA that she was a temporary systems maintenance technician. That granted her the most basic levels of personal security aboard the station. Leaving so much of her identity open to the intelligence made her vulnerable, but she now claimed enough clearance to review its biometric database.

Millions of records swirled around her as dust motes in sunlight, with no archival procedure. AegiSKADA had recorded over a year of the pirates’ heart rates, respiration, gait, words, and images, every move the pirates had made since they’d crashed in the docking bay below. As she watched, the intelligence accessed record after record that hadn’t been significant enough for the workspace to render before. The workspace depicted each shining mote of information for only an instant, and then the eye on the book absorbed them.

The intelligence hadn’t been accessing those records when she first applied the translator. Adda could only imagine AegiSKADA accessing the pirates’ data this way in order to select targets for investigation or attack. If she had time to think, more reasons might occur to her. It was appalling that the intelligence had so much biometric data so readily available. None of the utilization scenarios she was coming up with had positive outcomes for Sloane’s crew.

AI rarely gave humans enough time to develop viable plans of attack, and she couldn’t just watch it work. Adda slammed her hand down over the eye to stop the transfer to its active memory. The home around her flickered, with red nothing behind it, as her software struggled to block AegiSKADA from records it was already accessing.

The eye widened and widened beneath her hand. It expanded past the borders of the book representing her software barriers between the intelligence and her personal system. The eye swelled to the width of the bookshelf, then the room, before Adda could draw her hand away. And it was focused on her.

The overwhelmed translator didn’t interpret the angry digital buzz filling the workspace, but something was hunting her, had caught her scent in the red beyond the workspace’s world. It was coming, and she had to get out.

Excerpted from Barbary Station, copyright © 2017 by R.E. Stearns.

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Posted by Stubby the Rocket

Infomocracy by Malka Older Cover Crop

What does the term “gronkytonk” make you think of? Perhaps rowdy country western music, say, the Blues Brothers trying their best to fit in at Bob’s Country Bunker? You’re only slightly off—gronkytonk is the preferred music in Malka Older’s Infomocracy, and while Older was inspired by a video of Rob “Gronk” Gronkowski expressing himself through the medium of dance during a Superbowl Parade, a group of musicians has now taken the phrase and run with it, creating a dazzling musical genre of the future, today!

Infomocracy imagines a near-future in which the nations we’re familiar with in our time have broken up into a global micro-democracy—tiny sovereign states that each offer their own perks and drawbacks as they vie for citizens, who are free to change their statehood as they please. As the book’s plot hurtles towards a pivotal election, Older builds a near-future piece by piece. In this scene with Ken, a political operative for the Policy1st party, she gives us the state of the watering hole of the future:

Excerpt from Malka Older's Infomocracy

 

Now gronkytonk has been brought to life in our own time! Marc Weidenbaum, musician and author of the 33 1/3 volume Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II brought the genre to the Disquiet Junto. Disquiet Junto is a musical collaboration that meets online once a week to create music, but with a catch—the music is always themed, and the musicians must work within each week’s theme and follow instructions that are sent out to the group’s email list. In the past they’ve created such collaborations as “10bpm Waltz” (make super slow music in ¾ time), “Dungeons & Drum Machines” (make a track with two rolls of a 20-sided die), and “Domestic Chorus” (make music from all the alarms, buzzers, and alerts in your home). Recently they decided to create a musical genre, when they committed to making an album’s worth of “gronkytonk” songs inspired by Older’s novels!

Hypoid’s “404 (Where Have I Been)” combines the twang you’d expect in a honkytonk song with a lovely ambient hum:

 

Detritus Tabu3 takes a country rhythm and applies grunge and breakbeat in “GRONK GRONK GRONK”:

 

And itssowindy’s “Gronkytonk Nightmare” gives us a terrifying circus:

 

And Ohm Research gives us “Tonk,” a song that does, actually, sound like the future:

You can listen to the whole album over at the Disquiet site!

 

 

 

 

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Posted by Grady Hendrix

A lot of people make a lot of assumptions about Stephen King: he writes about writers too much; he sets all his stories in Maine; he writes horror. Now I’m giving you the tools you need to argue with anyone about any of these propositions. I read every single book published by Stephen King under his own name, so I leave out three of the Bachman books, books that are collaborations (no Talisman, no Sleeping Beauties, no Black House, no Gwendy’s Button Box), and I leave out the Dark Tower books (all eight of them). Also, I didn’t read Eyes of the Dragon because I forgot. So that means I didn’t read sixteen of his books.

Nevertheless, all told, I read 38 novels, 15 novellas, 111 short stories, and 5 poems by Stephen King. And here’s how they break down by the numbers.

Books with female main characters: 10 / 38

Books named after women: 5 / 38

  • Carrie
  • Misery
  • Dolores Claiborne
  • Rose Madder
  • Lisey’s Story

Books written in first person: 7 / 38

(NOTE: Christine is not entirely first person, and From a Buick 8 has multiple first person narrators, so neither were included.)

Main characters who are writers: 11 / 38

Main characters who are teachers: 9 / 38

Books set in Maine: 20 / 38

(NOTE: Cell, 11/22/63, and Revival take place partially in Maine but also elsewhere, so they weren’t counted here.)

Books not set in Maine: 18 / 38

  • The Shining – Colorado
  • The Stand – Colorado
  • Firestarter – New York, Ohio, Virginia
  • Thinner – Connecticut
  • Misery – Colorado
  • Rose Madder – unidentified city
  • The Green Mile – Louisiana
  • Desperation – Nevada
  • The Regulators – Ohio
  • Cell – Massachusetts, Maine
  • Duma Key – Florida
  • 11/22/63 – Maine, Texas, Florida
  • Joyland – North Carolina
  • Doctor Sleep – New Hampshire
  • Revival – Maine, Hawaii
  • The Bill Hodges Trilogy – unnamed city

Books featuring characters with psychic powers: 13 / 38

  • Carrie
  • The Shining
  • The Stand
  • The Dead Zone
  • Firestarter
  • The Green Mile
  • Desperation
  • Regulators
  • Dreamcatcher
  • Lisey’s Story
  • Duma Key
  • Doctor Sleep
  • End of Watch

Books where aliens did it: 3 / 38

  • The Tommyknockers
  • Dreamcatcher
  • Under the Dome

Books where extradimensional creatures are to blame: 7 / 38

  • It
  • Insomnia
  • Rose Madder
  • Desperation
  • The Regulators
  • From a Buick 8
  • Lisey’s Story

(NOTE: “The Mist”, “The Langoliers”, “Hearts in Atlantis” are novellas involving extradimensional creatures.)

Books where kids central to the plot are killed: 10 / 38

  • ‘Salem’s Lot
  • Cujo
  • Pet Sematary
  • Thinner
  • It
  • Desperation
  • The Regulators
  • Cell
  • Duma Key
  • Revival

 

I’ll be updating this with new statistics and more information, and hopefully including stats on the short stories, as time goes by, so check back every few months. And if you can think of categories where you want to see the stats, sing out in the comments. I aim to please!

Grady Hendrix is the author of Paperbacks from Hell, a history of the horror paperback boom of the Seventies and Eighties, as well as My Best Friend’s Exorcism, and Horrorstör.

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Posted by Emily Asher-Perrin

Obi-Wan and Luke

Calling yourself “Old Ben” is fine. Saying mean things about someone’s uncle is rude yet necessary. Pretending that you don’t remember your BBF’s old copilot droid is crappy, but saves time. Does that excuse all the outright lies that Obi-Wan Kenobi tells to Luke Skywalker? Maybe if those lies were truly essential to getting the kid to bring down the Empire. But they’re not, so most of those lies (and omissions) are pretty egregious.

Here are a few things that Obi-Wan could have said to avoid the most ridiculous ones. Because let’s face it, most of Ben’s lies are just kind of… ill-conceived.

 

1. Darth Vader and Your Dad Are the Same Guy, Sorry That Your Dad is Evil

Luke, Anakin, Return of the King

When I’m trying to explain to people how I screwed something up, I always come up with a story—for framing purposes! Let’s say I kind of missed out on preventing a friend’s fall to evil? When I tell that story, I make sure to separate my friend into two different entities; the guy I drank brewskis with, and the fellow I trained who murdered the guy who I drank brewskis with. Two totally different bros. That sounds like a nicer story, yeah?

Okay, there are a few legitimate reasons for not immediately explaining to Luke that Vader is his dad. And telling the kid that Vader murdered a father he never knew is a good way to get him to care about bringing down the Empire. But there are so many ways that this plan could have backfired. Luke could have easily gotten fixated on vengeance. He could have said whoa, that’s kind of freaky, maybe I should sit this one out. He could have decided that he needed to know much more, and grilled Obi-Wan long after Alderaan had been reduced to space dust. Creating this whole goofy backstory about how Vader killed Luke’s dad just reads like a desperate attempt from Obi-Wan to sidestep the unfortunate fact that he is partly responsible for Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side. He’s really lucky that Luke didn’t tell his Force ghost to shove it once he learned the truth on Cloud City.

 

2. Your “Uncle” and Your Dad Only Met, Like, Once

Anakin with the Lars Family

Doesn’t it seem like one of the easiest ways to get Luke ready for a space-faring journey away from his family on Tatooine would have been to clue him in that they… weren’t really his family? Sure, neglecting that fact is kinder, but it results in Obi-Wan spinning this wild story about how Luke’s Uncle Owen didn’t “hold with your father’s ideals” and told his dad not to get involved in the Clone Wars. Which never happened because Owen Lars is Anakin’s step-brother, and the only time they met was years before Luke’s birth when the prodigal Jedi son returned to Tatooine to find his mother, and ended up returning to the family homestead with her dead body instead.

Owen and Beru Lars have been good guardians to Luke all this time, but they’re not related to him. Obi-Wan could have saved himself a lot of time by just telling the kid that he was hidden away to protect him from the Empire, and now it’s time to step out. It probably would have been a shock still, but at least you don’t have to spend several hours convincing the kid that he doesn’t have to do what his uncle taught him. It shouldn’t be a hard sell to get a teenager away from a life of moisture farming, but Luke is weirdly reasonable for an adolescent (trips to the Tosche Station not withstanding).

 

3. Here’s Some Background On the Jedi Order and the Empire

Jedi Council

This isn’t a lie, but it is a gigantic omission that contains a lot of vital information. This is what you get for being shortsighted and short on time. Obi-Wan (and Yoda too, for that matter) give Luke practically zero background information on the war he’s entering into. It’s obvious why; they want Luke to do something very specific, wiping out the Emperor and his right hand guy. They’re not in education mode, they’re in weapons-making mode. As a result, Luke gets no rundown on the Jedi Order, their downfall, or the rise of the Empire. He gets the micro tale over the macro one — the Empire is the reason your dad is evil. Care about that part.

But the rest of that stuff? Is kind of important for the future that will come about if Luke is successful. If he doesn’t know much about the Jedi, he’s stuck putting the pieces together after the fact. Which could cause all the same problems that led to their destruction and a mega-evil Empire all over again. Case in point? From what we know about Luke post-Return of the Jedi, his whole new Jedi school kinda blows up in his face. When he fails to prevent the fall of his nephew. Does this sound familiar? I feel like I’m repeating myself. I feel like this also could have been avoided if you’d given him some Jedi books from the Jedi library. (I know, they’re gone now. But people have some holocrons of knowledge squirreled away and Yoda was old enough to have a lot of facts stored up that in green brain.)

 

4. Burying Your Feelings Deep Down is Not a Good Way to Defeat the Emperor

Luke, Emperor Palpatine, Vader

To be fair, this is one of those places where Obi-Wan got so good at lying, he even lied to himself. On a regular basis, in fact. It sort of makes sense, considering the fact that his best friend in the whole universe went berserk and killed practically everyone they knew, younglings included. Problem is, Obi-Wan bought into the Jedi doctrine wholesale, even in the places where it obviously came up short. Insisting that Anakin keep his emotions buried is part of what caused his fall to the Dark Side. His advice seems really even on this account—your feelings are a credit to you, but they might be of use to the Emperor, so just push them way down there—but it’s advice that also goes against all of his former training. Most of Obi-Wan’s first lessons to Luke in using the Force were about “trusting” his feelings and “stretching out” with his feelings. We’re mixing our messages here.

More importantly, trusting those feelings as he was initially instructed is how Luke actually works things out in the end. After burying his feelings until he rage-explodes, the kid finally takes a pause in the middle of thrashing his pops and realizes that he’s gone too far. He takes a deep breath, re-centers himself, and tells the Emperor that he will always be a Jedi—just like his father was. This declaration, along with some previous needling is precisely what allows Anakin Skywalker to resurface and kill the Emperor. If Luke had kept his feelings buried, he probably just would have wound up dead, and nothing would have changed. Emotion was the name of the game.

Of course, the most important lie-by-omission has a lot less to do with the Force…

 

5. That Princess is Your Sister, DO NOT Spend Time Thinking That Your Sister is Cute

Luke Leia kiss

Dude, we’re not in the Dune universe. Mating with your sister to keep the bloodlines pure is not a thing that we do around here. Letting this kid think that the princess in that holovid message is cute, then walking him onto one of the most dangerous weapons in the galaxy to rescue her? Ben, you know how forbidden love works. You’ve witnessed it, this is not funny, do your damn job and tell the kid that the princess is his sister. It’s like you don’t even remember that Order 66 was a thing, or that your apprentice and best pal flipped out when he thought that his secret wife was going to die.

You’ve witnessed enough of the Skywalker family to know that they’ve got some issues around their emotions, you are just setting this kid up to fail, what I’m saying is that it’s your fault that they kiss okay? THIS IS ON YOU, CRAZY OLD BEN. You didn’t even have to say sister, you could have just told Luke that Leia was his cousin! Someone he should feel weird about making googly eyes at. You could have stopped all this terrible confusion and prevented both those kids from needing serious therapy later on. You chose not to do that, Obi-Wan. You should feel bad.

Emily Asher-Perrin thinks that Obi-Wan should have stuck to what he was good at — snark and flirting with villains. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

Firefighters, a Thriller, & More!

Oct. 18th, 2017 03:30 pm
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Posted by Amanda

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy

RECOMMENDED: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott is $1.99! This nonfiction book tells the history of four kickass women during the Civil War. Carrie reviewed the book and gave it an impressive A+:

The book is interesting and exciting and paints incredible pictures of very different women who, love them or hate them, lived unusual lives of great political and personal passion and daring.

Karen Abbott illuminates one of the most fascinating yet little known aspects of the Civil War: the stories of four courageous women—a socialite, a farmgirl, an abolitionist, and a widow—who were spies.

After shooting a Union soldier in her front hall with a pocket pistol, Belle Boyd became a courier and spy for the Confederate army, using her charms to seduce men on both sides. Emma Edmonds cut off her hair and assumed the identity of a man to enlist as a Union private, witnessing the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The beautiful widow, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, engaged in affairs with powerful Northern politicians to gather intelligence for the Confederacy, and used her young daughter to send information to Southern generals. Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, hid behind her proper Southern manners as she orchestrated a far-reaching espionage ring, right under the noses of suspicious rebel detectives.

Using a wealth of primary source material and interviews with the spies’ descendants, Abbott seamlessly weaves the adventures of these four heroines throughout the tumultuous years of the war. With a cast of real-life characters including Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, General Stonewall Jackson, detective Allan Pinkerton, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Emperor Napoleon III, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy draws the reader into the war as these daring women lived it.

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Flirting with Fire

Flirting with Fire by Kate Meader is $2.99! This is a contemporary romance and was mentioned in a podcast episode with The Ripped Bodice owners, Bea and Leah. Readers loved the heroine, but found the pace surprisingly slow. It has a 3.8-star rating on Goodreads.

The first installment in Hot in Chicago, a brand-new, sizzling series from Kate Meader that follows a group of firefighting foster siblings and their blazing hot love interests!

Savvy PR guru Kinsey Taylor has always defined herself by her career, not her gender. That is, until she moved from San Francisco to Chicago to be with her fiancé who thought she wasn’t taking her “job” of supporting him in his high-powered career seriously enough—and promptly dumped her for a more supportive and “feminine” nurse. Now, as the new assistant press secretary to Chicago’s dynamic mayor, she’s determined to keep her eye on the prize: no time to feel inferior because she’s a strong, kick-ass woman, and certainly no time for men.

But that all changes when she meets Luke Almeida, a firefighter as searingly sexy as he is quick-tempered. He’s also the second oldest of the Firefightin’ Dempseys, a family of foster siblings who have committed their lives to the service—if Luke’s antics don’t get him fired first. When Luke goes one step too far and gets into a bar brawl with the Chicago Police Department, Kinsey marches into Luke’s firehouse and lays down the law on orders from the mayor. But at Engine Co. 6, Luke Almeida is the law. And he’s not about to let Kinsey make the rules.

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Bound by Your Touch

Bound by Your Touch by Meredith Duran is $1.99! This is a standalone historical romance and I know many of you enjoy Duran’s books. Some readers mention that this is a surprisingly emotional romance and really felt for the hero. However, others felt like there was way too much going on with the heroine. If you’ve read this one, what do you think?

Silver-tongued Viscount Sanburne is London’s favorite scapegrace. Alas, Lydia Boyce has no interest in being charmed. When his latest escapade exposes a plot to ruin her family, she vows to handle it herself, as she always has done. Certainly she requires no help from a too-handsome dilettante whose main achievement is being scandalous. But Sanburne’s golden charisma masks a sharper mind and darker history than she realizes. He shocks Lydia by breaking past her prim facade to the woman beneath…and the hidden fire no man has ever recognized. But as she follows him into a world of intrigue, she will learn that the greatest danger lies within — in the shadowy, secret motives of his heart.

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Are You Sleeping

Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber is $2.99! I mentioned this in a previous Hide Your Wallet because it’s a thriller that has to do with a true crime podcast, and true crime podcasts are 90% of what I listen to. However, some readers say that despite the cool premise, the execution is lacking in areas.

The only thing more dangerous than a lie…is the truth.

Serial meets Ruth Ware’s In A Dark, Dark Wood in this inventive and twisty psychological thriller about a mega-hit podcast that reopens a murder case—and threatens to unravel the carefully constructed life of the victim’s daughter.

Josie Buhrman has spent the last ten years trying to escape her family’s reputation and with good reason. After her father’s murder thirteen years prior, her mother ran away to join a cult and her twin sister Lanie, once Josie’s closest friend and confidant, betrayed her in an unimaginable way. Now, Josie has finally put down roots in New York, settling into domestic life with her partner Caleb, and that’s where she intends to stay.

The only problem is that she has lied to Caleb about every detail of her past—starting with her last name.

When investigative reporter Poppy Parnell sets off a media firestorm with a mega-hit podcast that reopens the long-closed case of Josie’s father’s murder, Josie’s world begins to unravel. Meanwhile, the unexpected death of Josie’s long-absent mother forces her to return to her Midwestern hometown where she must confront the demons from her past—and the lies on which she has staked her future.

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Malagash by Joey Comeau

Oct. 18th, 2017 07:00 am
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Posted by Evelyn Deshane

Malagash, written by Joey Comeau and released in 2017 by ECW Press, doesn't feel like a book. The plot is premised on a computer program that the young protagonist Sunday is in the process of writing in order to help her father to achieve immortality. By capturing his voice and laughter in .wav files, as well as recording the hushed conversation from hospital rooms as her father dies of cancer at a too-young age, she hopes to create a computer virus that will then infect others with her father's living memory. The novel is filled with the file extensions written in computer code right alongside the recreated conversations she records surreptitiously on listening devices as she, her brother, and their mother go back and forth across the city of Malagash.

The novel, like much of Comeau's other work, is written in present tense from a first person perspective. This POV hastens the pace at which Sunday goes through and collects these files of her father, always running against the clock of his mortality. The handful of other books I've read with this perspective are dystopian novels (The Hunger Games most strikingly, along with The Last Policeman series by Ben Winters and The Evolutionist by Rena Mason all share this writing choice); it's a hurried pace that makes me feel as if I am always on the edge of my seat. In dystopias and horror novels, this kind of frenetic pace makes sense, as it does with Comeau's other works, especially his webcomic A Softer World. The reader should be at the edge of their seat because the narrative isn't done yet and they must wait for the true horror of The Hunger Games's dystopia to reach its climax, while in A Softer World, the immediacy of the emotions becomes visceral in the present tense and episodic form. In Malagash, though, the reader is on the edge of their seat because of fear—but fear of the precise thing they desire: the end of the book. The closure of the novel means the reality of death, and as much as we want to keep going and read as fast as we can, we ultimately don't want to continue. In this way, Malagash offers a contemporary narrative about grief and the complex emotional struggle it engenders—the persistence of time running against the repeated loop of memory.

As Sunday worked on her virus in the novel, I was reminded of Hackers, the 1994 movie that I've come to love as a darling of the 1990s. Since Comeau was born in 1980, I can only assume he's also been influenced by the anarchic cry of “hack the planet” when he created Sunday, along with cyberpunk thrillers. In much of Comeau's prose, I hear antiquated nostalgia for a past vision of the future of technology and the hope it once offered. Though Sunday is a young adult in this work, she reads like an adult who has access to that time period. This can sometimes be a problem in novels—I actually despise it when children or teens read as mini-adults—but Comeau provides a plausible reason for Sunday's apparent maturity and beyond-her-years wisdom. Her tongue-in-cheek dismissal of the daily, parting ritual around her father's sickbed is written off with their standard exchange of “goodbye forever.” There is a strong resistance to sentimentality among all the family—as seen when the mother consistently treks back and forth to get coffee in order to get out of the hospital room, rather than play the wife who stays by his side at all times—but it is also made clear that these resistances to their emotions are defense mechanisms. Sunday's cry of “goodbye forever” isn't callous, and it isn't even her anachronistic attempt at humour that makes her seem from a different time. It's mimicry of her dying father who does not want to believe he is dying, so instead makes a joke out of it.

Sunday's role in the story is precisely that mimicry she does to avoid death; it's what she aims to capture with her computer program and subsequent virus. If she can replicate her father through these .wav files and particular snippets of conversations and stories, she believes she can keep him. He can become the proverbial ghost in the machine and all the melancholy she once felt about death will be assuaged through technology. She is so convinced of this until the very day where he does die. Suddenly, the bed is empty and there is nothing to mimic anymore. And she must truly be alone with herself.

When the father dies, I was expecting it. But the fact that he dies so soon in the novel was refreshing to me, because it meant that Malagash wasn't really about death or even about a computer virus. As much as I want to read this work in the vein of William Gibson and other Canadian writers of sci-fi and fantasy, the only thing that is speculative in this technology are the emotions it engenders. This isn't a sci-fi story of progress; it's a story about how sadness and grief become mechanical and banal to the point where Sunday and her family need the computer to access the full extent of their emotions. There has been much (some would say too much) written about how the younger generation is always distracted and how everyone blames their distraction on iPhones and internet. Indeed, an easy reading of Comeau's story would be that these people can't feel feelings so they drown themselves in technology—but that is not the case at all. They use technology as a tool for grief, tapping into the Greek root of the word technology as a teachable art. Grief is a teachable art in this story, one that Sunday tries to pass on to her brother after her dad is dead and gone. Her insistence on the virus as the answer, and her brother's help with making it manifest, becomes not so much a memento mori of death itself—since death needs no proof when they already have an empty bed in a Malagash hospital—but a way to deal with the sadness that envelopes them after the funeral is over. The virus is not a way to facilitate immortality, but community.

The last passage of the story, something which I won't spoil here, is another testament to this fact. In the same way that funerals are never about the dead but about the living, the computer virus is not about her father, but everyone else he touches. Titling the work Malagash, after the peninsula in Nova Scotia where the story is set, is yet another way to further the point about community over immortality. It is less about a family that this death happens to, and more about the countless numbers of families that have had this happen to them. Cancer is as common as computer virus; a never ending ones and zeros of suffering.

Malagash ultimately doesn't feel like a book to me because it feels too familiar. It is remarkably short (I read it in an afternoon), and it doesn't linger on something we already know too well. Instead, Comeau creates his own kind of virus with his prose, something I haven't been able to shake off since reading.


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Posted by Tor.com

Winter Tide Ruthanna Emrys

From now to the end of October 20th, Tor.com Publishing is offering a free ebook download of Ruthanna Emrys’ Winter Tide when you sign up for their monthly newsletter.

Winter Tide is the first book in Emrys’ Lovecraftian saga about the last survivors of Innsmouth, which continues with Deep Roots in summer 2018.

This offer is available worldwide from 12 PM EST on October 17th to 12 PM EST on October 20th.

By signing up for the Tor.com Publishing newsletter, you’ll receive updates on all of our titles and authors, plus excerpts, features, new acquisitions, sweepstakes and more.

Act fast and tell your friends!

Please note: If you already receive the Tor.com Publishing newsletter, you still need to sign in for this program to get your free ebook.

If you’re experiencing technical difficulties, email “ebookclub@tor.com”.

*Tor.com Publishing reserves the right to end this promotion at any time

More about Winter Tide

“Wicked for the Cthulhu Mythos” —Seanan McGuire on the Innsmouth Legacy

“Winter Tide is a weird, lyrical mystery — truly strange and compellingly grim. It’s an innovative gem that turns Lovecraft on his head with cleverness and heart” —Cherie Priest

After attacking Devil’s Reef in 1928, the U.S. government rounded up the people of Innsmouth and took them to the desert, far from their ocean, their Deep One ancestors, and their sleeping god Cthulhu. Only Aphra and Caleb Marsh survived the camps, and they emerged without a past or a future.

The government that stole Aphra’s life now needs her help. FBI agent Ron Spector believes that Communist spies have stolen dangerous magical secrets from Miskatonic University, secrets that could turn the Cold War hot in an instant, and hasten the end of the human race.

Aphra must return to the ruins of her home, gather scraps of her stolen history, and assemble a new family to face the darkness of human nature.

Winter Tide is the debut novel from Ruthanna Emrys, author of the Aphra Marsh story, “The Litany of Earth”—included here as a bonus.

And coming in July 2018…

Deep Roots

The Innsmouth Legacy continues with Deep Roots, arriving next year. See the cover reveal and read an interview with Ruthanna about the book at the Verge, and pre-order your copy now!

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Posted by Jeff LaSala

In Which We Take A Roll Call of the Valar and Their Maiar Compatriots, and In Which Melkor Rearranges the Furniture

The Valaquenta—the “Account of the Valar”—is a sort of cast list for the earliest days of the Valar in the newly minted universe of Eä, and also an introduction to another group: the Maiar. Although there’s no real action there, there is some delectable stage-setting and real estate talk. Then we’ll start right into the Quenta Silmarillion, the “Tale of the Silmarils.” Its first chapter, “Of the Beginning of Days,” describes the earliest conflicts with Melkor, which involve some impressively large (if glaring) floor lamps, followed by some cool arboreal nightlights, and how the face of the world is changed forever.

Dramatis personæ of note:

  • Melkor – ex-Vala, Public Enemy Number One
  • Manwë – Vala, air traffic controller
  • Varda – Vala, illuminator
  • Ulmo – Vala, oceanographer
  • Aulë – Vala, smith and groundskeeper
  • Yavanna – Vala, horticulturist
  • Mandos – Vala, judge, professional brooder
  • Nienna – Vala, professional mourner
  • Oromë – Vala, hunter, animal wrangler
  • Tulkas – Vala, MMA fighter

Valaquenta

After a two-paragraph recap of the Ainulindale, we are presented with sixteen Valar, the mightiest of the Ainur who have come down into Arda. That’s fourteen + Melkor + one laughing, ruddy-faced latecomer (no, not Santa Claus) who didn’t originally sign up for the job.

Now, there’s no need to memorize all the names in the Valaquenta, because it’s a hell of a lot, and because some almost never come up again. But some have notable roles to come, and these are the ones to start impressing upon your mind:

Manwë (MAN-way), of course, is at the top of the list. He’s the master of the skies and air, “first of all Kings.” He is, in fact, the very basis for the idea of kingship in all that follows. We’re also told that he is closest to understanding the mind of Ilúvatar and had even been the “chief instrument” in that second theme in the Music of the Ainur—the one that was raised to counter Melkor’s initial discord. These are no small things! Remember, these two are supposed to be brothers, and we know it eats Melkor up inside that he’s not given Manwë’s title. Manwë will soon dwell with his wife way up in a tower aerie on the tallest of the Earth’s mountains, while hawk- and eagle-shaped spirits come and go, bearing news far and wide.

Varda, Lady of the Stars, is beautiful beyond description and has, literally, the light of Ilúvatar all up in her face. And that’s an amazing thing; when people look at her, they see a reflection of that transcendent glory. Varda is notable as the Ainu who makes all the freakin’ stars in the universe from her part in the Music. (And it won’t be the last time she upstages everyone, either.) Manwë is Varda’s husband, and together they make the ultimate power couple in Arda.

We’re also told that of all the Valar, Elves will adore her the most. And because Elves love to have a bazillion names for things, they won’t even call her Varda much; they prefer to refer to her as Elbereth the “Starkindler.” Readers of LotR may recall the many times that name gets invoked like a prayer in times of need—by Legolas for sure, and even by Sam and Frodo.

Wait, we’re not finished with Varda yet! The drama deepens when we learn that she actually rejected Melkor. This was back before the Music of the Ainur. And lest this anecdote gives anyone some Snape-style sympathy for Melkor, remember that we don’t really know why she rejected him, or even what exactly she was rejecting. Perhaps some sort of creepy romantic advances, or maybe just companionship in his quest to claim the Flame Imperishable? We’re not sure. We’re only told that “she knew him.” I see no hint of mere friend-zoning here; my guess is she’s just a good judge of character. So having been rejected, now Melkor hates her. But he also fears Varda more than anyone. This love/hate relationship he’ll have with light—perhaps owing to this unrequited romantic misadventure—is going to be a recurring stick up his ass.

Ulmo, the not-so-gregarious Lord of Waters, is up next. Aside from being the master of all things wet and watery, he’s a bit of a hermit/nomad among the Valar—making him the most independent of them all, but in a decidedly un-Melkorian way. Ulmo goes out alone, not to possess but to explore, to ruminate, to observe. Of his peers, it will become obvious that he is also the fondest of the Children of Ilúvatar. Even in the ages to come, when things look bleak for them, he is never so far away. His spirit, as the Elves will say, “runs in all the veins of the world.” Appropriately, he’ll also be the nosiest of the Valar. We also know from the Ainulindalë that he gets along well with Manwë.Aulë is the Vala with mastery over the fabric of the Earth itself: rock, soil, and all terrestrial matter. He’s the quintessential smith and tinkerer who, like Melkor, desires to make new and original things of his own. But quite unlike that malefactor, he has no interest in possessing what he makes. He crafts things and immediately gives them away, moving on to the next project. His labors of love and impatience for the arrival of the Children will actually get him in a spot of trouble a little ways down the line. Moreover, some of his underlings—we’ll get to those later—also have a tendency to covet things. When matter itself is your forte, I suppose it’s easier to be materialistic.

Yavanna (ya-VON-nah), the Giver of Fruits and Queen of the Earth, is the ultimate gardener. Plants and beasts and growing things are her jam (and she probably makes actual jam, too). Her husband is Aulë, and their respective areas of expertise (stone and soil, plants and animals) make them a complementary yet occasionally contentious couple at times. And not to be too…well, hasty…but trees will hold a special place in her heart.

Mandos (MAN-doss) is a dude who’s going to come up quite a bit a few chapters from now. He’s called the Doomsman of the Valar, “keeper of the Houses of the Dead, and the summoner of the spirits of the slain.” Which…damn, that’s metal. He’s grim, he issues judgments, and he’s kind of a know-it-all, too. He’s the well-read goth of the Valar, always hanging out at the library, always saying ominous and portentous things. Everyone likes Mandos, but he’s the sort of guy you’d be nervous to have turn up on your doorstep—him or his creepy tapestry-weaving wife, Vairë.

Lórien is Mandos’s little brother and he’s all about visions and dreams. But he’s mostly known for his especially sweet digs: the Gardens of Lórien. Galadriel will one day name her forest realm in homage to his, and according to pretty much everyone who’s ever visited the place, Lórien is the most beautiful place in all of Arda. That’s really saying something (and would likely garner some fantastic reviews on TripAdvisor).

Nienna (nee-EN-nah) is the sister of both Mandos and Lórien, and she embodies grief and sorrow. She “mourns for every wound that Arda has suffered in the marring of Melkor,” and it was in some part her sorrow in the Ainulindalë that was woven into the Music. For all that Nienna may sound like a bummer to be around, she actually exemplifies Ilúvatar’s mercy, turning woe into strength, grief into hope, and “sorrow to wisdom.” It is she who brings such boundless compassion to the world—and anyone who’s read The Lord of the Rings knows a thing or two about the importance of pity and mercy. That’s no coincidence, given the Maia who serves as Nienna’s protégé (below—keep reading!).

Oromë (OH-roh-may) is the hunter and scout of the gang. He’s also a keeper of beasts and hounds (shout-out to Huan!), and is the Vala who seems to love the physical lands of Middle-earth best. And then there’s Tulkas, the hands-on pro-wrestler of the Valar, a muscle-bound, good-humored warrior “who is of no avail as a counsellor.” I guess you could say that where Oromë is the ranger with high Wisdom, Tulkas is the barbarian who made Intelligence his dump stat so he could max out his Strength. He’s the guy who’ll laugh when you punch him in the face, and laugh harder when he gives you a mouthful of teeth. Tulkas is kind of the odd Vala out, because he’s not one of the fifteen Ainur who first volunteered to come down into the World. Rather, he comes later at the promise of battle. Still, while it’s fun to assume he’s kind of dim, he simply gives no thought to the past or future. He’s a Vala of action, not words.

Now we come to the Maiar (singular, Maia), those spirits who came into the World with the Valar and who are just as old. There a whole bunch of them living among the Valar, peopling their courtyards and parks, but we’re not sure how many or who they all are. They’re of the “same order”—meaning they are Ainur, too, “but of less degree.” Which also means they also participated in the Music of the Ainur. (I imagine they didn’t handle the main riffs and certainly took no solos, but probably added color in ways like adding reverb, doing backup vocals, or playing cowbell.) Generally speaking, the Maiar are not as powerful than the Valar, but there are some exceptions to this, and the difference in might between one Maia and another can be enormous.

It’s worth noting that Maia are usually vassals of specific Valar, too. Accordingly, each has his or her related skills and proclivities. So a Maia in the service of Mandos would probably be judicious, chat with the spirits of the dead, and keep her house stark and somber; while a Maia of Yavanna might decorate his house with garland, won’t shut up about kale, and get from A to B on a rabbit-drawn sleigh. I mean, just spitballing here.

So which of the Maiar are worth remembering?

Well, Eönwë (ay-ON-way) might be, since he’s the herald and standard-bearer of Manwë. (Apparently the Valar are into banners.) We’re told that Eönwë’s “might in arms is surpassed by none in Arda,” and that’s really saying something when you consider the existence of both Oromë the ranger and Tulkas the barbarian. Come to think of it, I think this makes Eönwë the quintessential fighter in the Valar’s D&D party. He’s the kind of guy who leads the charge when it matters most, and he’ll come up a few times in future chapters when battle is afoot. Yet Eönwë isn’t warmongering in the least. He’s passive, taking up arms only when the Valar require it. A professional soldier, this guy.

Ossë (OSS-ay) is the wild Maia of roaring coastal waters, leaving the deeper oceans to his boss, Ulmo, and he delights in the storms that Manwë brings down upon the waves. Fascinatingly, we are told that Ossë was almost drawn into the service of Melkor in the shaping of Arda. Yet he atoned for it and was forgiven.

Why would Melkor choose Ossë for conversion? Well, certainly for his susceptibility; Ossë’s temperament is as wild and untamed as the crashing waves and Melkor is the sort of fellow who can inspire rebellion in others. For Ossë, the temptation was the promise of greater glory. But mainly it’s because we’re told that Melkor could never master the Sea and therefore hated it, so he sought a vassal who could tame it on his behalf.

You know, Melko sure hates a lot of things. Certain targets of his hatred get called out specifically;. I think it’s time to see his running list.Melkor's Hate List (pretty much everything, but especially...) ● Ilúvatar ● Varda ● the Sea

Anyway, the next Maia worth remembering is Melian, vassal of Lórien, who hangs out in his gardens. Try and remember her; she is easily one of the most important of the Maiar in this book. Once the Children of Ilúvatar enter the world stage, she’ll get involved in a very personal way, to the point that she excuses herself from the other Valar just to stay with them—and one in particular. She’s all about birdsong and nightingales. As we’ll see, if the First Age had a slogan, it could be: Why doesn’t anyone ever listen to Melian?

Then there is Ganda— Ah, I mean, Olórin. He serves Nienna, the Vala of grief and mourning, and will later impart her wisdom to many. Long, long before he appears to Elves and Men, Olórin simply hangs out, unseen, watching them. This is a chap who puts in the time, cuts no corners, and really does his homework when it comes to learning the hearts of the Elves and of Men. “I will not say: do not weep,” he will tell some very sad hobbits someday, “for not all tears are an evil.” We’ll see him again, but not until the very end of The Silmarillion, when all that watching and learning pays off. What’s he doing through all the turmoil between then and now? I wish we knew.

But not all Maiar are on the good guys’ side. Some throw in with Melkor, as Ossë almost did. Melkor must be as charismatic as he is nasty, given how many seem to come under his influence. Jealous and arrogant from nearly the start of everything, Melkor had coveted Ilúvatar’s Flame Imperishable, and that desire has twisted him into something especially vile. And unrepentant. He has become “a liar without shame,” using his talents to pervert others to this will:

For of the Maiar many were drawn to his splendour in the days of his greatness, and remained in that allegiance down into his darkness; and others he corrupted afterwards to his service with lies and treacherous gifts.

We don’t know how many Maiar fall into his service—this book is scarce on exact numbers—but clearly they’re enough to give Melkor some serious muscle. Especially the Balrogs, who were formerly just spirits of fire hanging out in the Timeless Halls but who have now become “demons of terror” after collusion with Melkor. That’s right: the Balrog who would later become known as Durin’s Bane—who would menace the Fellowship, and who would scuffle with Gandalf high in the Misty Mountains—once took part in the Music of creation itself. Indeed, right alongside Gandalf. It had even once looked upon Ilúvatar himself and beheld the vision of Eä. It’s quite a fall. Melkor is such an asshole.

And speaking of assholes, lastly we’re introduced to Melkor’s right-hand man and the mightiest of the Maiar in his camp: good ol’ Sauron, who started off as a vassal of Aulë and was therefore a master of arts and crafts long before switching sides. Cunning and skilled with his hands, Sauron was probably voted Most Likely to Forge A Super Powerful Ring in his class. For now, he is merely the lieutenant of Melkor.

Although not specifically called out in The Silmarillion, another bad Maiar apple will eventually fall from Aulë’s tree of artifice…but not until many ages have passed. Poor Aulë must have had some uncomfortable discussions with his HR department. (And HR is probably his wife.)

“Spoiler” Alert: The Valaquenta drops a few solid spoilers. One of which is that Melkor will be given a new name at some point and earn the epithet the Dark Enemy of the World—which, geez, go big or go home, right? We’re also told that although he had started out as the most powerful of the Ainur, he “squandered his strength in violence and tyranny.” And bit by bit, we will see how. The craziest spoiler is literally in the last sentence, a place in his prose where Tolkien often likes to be especially dramatic. We’re given a heads up that Sauron, like his master, will walk “the same ruinous path down into the Void” See, just a few pages in, Tolkien is ruining the end of The Lord of the Rings. So inconsiderate!

“Ormal” by Andrey Maximov

“Of the Beginning of Days”

Remember those huge swaths of unmeasured time I mentioned in the Primer intro? The first few chapters of The Silmarillion are rife with ’em. In these early days, while Melkor wages war against the Valar and their works in ways we can only imagine, there is no sun in the sky yet for measuring years. There aren’t even seasons yet. The epochs that pass are poetically named, not numbered.

You’ll notice the narrative is not seamless between the Valaquenta and this first chapter in the Quenta. For example, although we’ve been given a helpful profile of the major players, they’re not actually dwelling in the homesteads with which they’re associated. Not yet. They’re still Arda-sculpting here at the start. But despite Melkor’s constant subversion—as mentioned at the end of the Ainulindale—the Valar have at least gradually gained the upper hand, and the world is more or less in a solid shape. It’s wondrous but still very different from the Arda the Elves will come to know when they show up.

The action really begins with Tulkas the Strong, who hears there’s some kind of brawling going on down in the “Little Kingdom” and totally wants in on that. So he leaves the Timeless Halls, drops down into Arda and is eager to bust some heads. Namely, Melkor’s. Yes, Melkor is still a powerful being. But when the universe’s answer to the Kool-Aid Man comes bursting onto the scene, laughing the whole time, Melkor wisely retreats—presumably shaking his fist like Skeletor at He-Man and assuring everyone that he’ll be back.

And he sure will. Melkor doesn’t just going into hiding, not with Tulkas looking for a fight. He leaves Arda altogether and goes out to some dark corner of Eä to brood. Seething with hate for Tulkas especially. So you know what? Tulkas is going on the list.

Then a long time passes and all is peaceful. The Valar get back to work, this time in peace, preparing the Earth for the coming of the Children of Ilúvatar. Which is what they signed up for, after all. They still don’t know where or when these Elves and Men will show up, so they just busy themselves with preparations. Tulkas sticks around because he likes what the others have done with the place—and hey, is that Oromë’s sister? Quite a looker.

Meanwhile, preeminent botanist Yavanna starts planting the seeds that she’s been dreaming up since forever ago in the Timeless Halls, where she’d probably tacked crayon drawings of trees and flowers all over Ilúvatar’s refrigerator. But one thing is still missing: sufficient light.

And that’s something easy to overlook. Arda is still rather dark in this primeval age. Sure, Varda’s stars are wheeling overhead beyond the exosphere, and who knows what kind of wondrous auroras or other light-emitting phenomena were thought up in the Music of the Ainur? But by and large, the world is still quite dim by our standards. There’s no sun; there’s not even a moon. And this has all been fine thus far because there are no Men lumbering about in need of light yet. But most of Yavanna’s plants were devised with photosynthesis in mind. And sure, eventually the Children of Ilúvatar are bound to show up, and they’re going to need to walk around without bumping into each other, too.

Thus at the request of Yavanna, the industrious Valar get to work, doing what they do best: teaming up, being harmonious, getting shit done. Many Valar hands make light work! So with Melkor still out of the picture, they undertake an impressive feat of engineering—probably with the help of numerous Maiar contractors. The result is the construction of two colossal, pillar-like Lamps that become the primary source of Arda’s light. Aulë and his team handle primary manufacturing, Varda does the lighting, Manwë does the hallowing. And I assume Tulkas does a lot of the actual heavy-lifting—probably laughing the whole time, the weirdo. The two Lamps are then raised up on opposite sides of the world. The northern one is blueish in hue—one might be tempted to say moonlike—while the southern Lamp’s light is yellowish. The Earth is thereby filled with light “as it were in a changeless day.” The Lamps are the ultimate utility—there is no nighttime now, just ceaseless, life-giving light.

At this point, Middle-earth is essentially the name of the entire landmass within the Encircling Sea. Arda is the name for all of these things together: earth, sea, and sky. Beyond the seas are the Walls of Night, which separate the proto-planet from the rest of Eä.

This begins what is called the Spring of Arda, and the world is as close to perfect as it can be. By the light of the Lamps, green and growing things sprout up and explode with life. Trees “like living mountains” arise and animals pop up to inhabit the fertile lands of Middle-earth. Yavanna has to be giddy; this is her time.

The Valar take up residence together in a place called Almaren, an island in a huge lake at the center of Middle-earth. In this region, the light of both lamps overlap splendidly, and since all Valar are gathered together (though I’m betting Ulmo still comes and goes), it’s an especially marvelous place to be. After all that Lamp-building, the Valar finally take a break. They party. They’re happy. They even hold a wedding for Tulkas and his bride, Nessa (the aforementioned sister of Oromë!). Nessa is into running and dancing, and does performance art for everyone on lush green Lamp-lit lawns.

“Illuin: Lamp of the Valar” by Ted Nasmith

These are the celebratory salad days of Arda, and they last for an indeterminately long time.

But this festive atmosphere and the markedly lax vigilance of the Valar allows evil to creep back into the world. Melkor, remember, had left Arda completely. In these early days, he hasn’t squandered his power yet, and he can still do things like this—can come and go as a spirit—as long as the Valar don’t actively hinder him. And with Tulkas and the others resting, they don’t.

It’s not necessarily that the Valar or their Maiar subjects are simply falling asleep at their posts, either. They’re naïve; they’re not watchful against Melkor. As wise as they are, the Ainur as a whole have a long way to go in understanding even each other—we’re told that from the start—much less the deviant mind of Melkor. And even Manwë can barely comprehend that his brother would do the harm that he does. It’s not that the Valar can’t quantify evil, it’s that they don’t really fathom its existence. Yet. Even when Melkor was spoiling their efforts early on, they simply persisted—like ants rebuilding a knocked-over anthill. They didn’t retaliate and attack him directly. (Only Tulkas was going to do that when he first showed up, because that’s what Tulkas does.) How does one prosecute when crime isn’t even a thing yet?

The timing of Melkor return isn’t coincidental. He’s had informants all along in Almaren, spies already in his service. And now, drawing near again, he looks down on the Spring of Arda and at what the Valar have made, and he hates and envies it all the more for its splendor. Arda should have been his to rule—those jerks just didn’t listen to reason—and now it’s a vibrant green world under these garish and ridiculously oversized lamps. On the list it goes!

Say, this list is getting long.Melkor's Hate List (pretty much everything, but especially...) ● Ilúvatar ● Varda ● the Sea ● Tulkas ● the beauty of the Earth in its SpringAll that light, man! Light which should have been his alone to command. Light that Ilúvatar had given forth, light captured in Varda’s own lovely face, and now light she’d gathered up and displayed for all to enjoy. Well, if Melkor can’t control the supply, then no one should!

Together with “spirits out of the halls of Eä that he had perverted to his service,” Melkor slips over the Walls of Night—essentially the boundaries of Arda. Hidden by the great shadow of the northern Lamp, he reenters the world, and down he delves into the earth. There in the far north he creates a hidden fortress, Utumno, where he sets up shop for all the horrors he’s got planned. His malice and ill will flows out of him like a blight.

When the Valar start to notice things in the natural world growing sick, beasts turning to monsters, “rank and poisonous” fens appearing, and forests growing dark, then they know that Melkor is back. Back in business. Screwing things up. But it’s kind of too late now.

Melkor with his dark host reignites war with the Valar, culminating in the toppling of the Lamps themselves. We don’t know how he manages this. With an intricate pulley system? A team of synchronized Balrogs with massive chains or rams? Did he have some of his Maiar spies, while feigning service to Aulë, deliberately introduce a design flaw into the Lamps’ construction? Something that, when the moment was right, Melkor could exploit? We don’t know! But he pulls it off and down come the Lamps!

And this cataclysm changes everything. So titanic are these Lamps and the energies that power them that when they fall, the very continent of Middle-earth is split apart; “destroying flame” spills out across the lands—burning, devouring, tearing things up.

And the shape of Arda and the symmetry of its waters and its lands was marred in that time, so that the first designs of the Valar were never after restored.

The island of Almaren is totally obliterated, and the Encircling Sea flows in where the land breaks apart. So now we’ve got some big continents formed from the whole: Middle-earth is now the name given only for that primary eastern half, while Aman is the name given to the western continent; henceforth there is a clear distinction between these two. And Aman is where the Valar regroup after this great turmoil and destruction.

Melkor wisely pulls back at this point, since Manwë and Tulkas are especially pissed off and actively go looking for him. He hides out in Utumno and they do not find him. Moreover, the Valar all have their hands full trying to quell the destruction, put out the fires, and salvage what they can. Yet they also try to minimize their land-shaping and fissure-closing tricks, or whatever it is they can do, because they know all too well that the Children of Ilúvatar could show up at any time and they’re going to be fragile little things by comparison. They dare not risk harming them.

Once they’ve done what they can, the Valar regroup in the West, to Aman. And this time they fortify against Melkor, literally raising up mountains on Aman as a barricade against his aggression. The breaking of the Lamps really spooked them.

In describing the new settlements, Tolkien throws down a bunch more names and titles—in some ways he’s reintroducing the most notable of the Valar. It’s elegant language to read but difficult to keep track of. You needn’t worry about most of the names on a first read-through. What matters is that the Valar are shoring up their defenses in Valinor, a region of Aman, and that they’re leaving Middle-earth alone for now. This is when each of them establishes their estates and gardens, as mentioned in the Valaquenta above. For example, it’s at this time that Manwë and Varda set up their home in a tower on Arda’s tallest mountain, Taniquetil (tah-NEE-kwuh-teel), gaining an impressive vantage on the World.

You can think of Valinor as a place of pure concentrated Ainur power. It’s a fortress, watchtower, and sprawling palace all in one. And because they’ve had to give up trying to make the entire world perfect, the Valar are at least able to make one region especially awesome:

In that guarded land the Valar gathered great store of light and all the fairest things that were saved from the ruin; and many others yet fairer they made anew, and Valinor became more beautiful even than Middle-earth in the Spring of Arda.

A city, Valmar, is built, and just beyond its western gate, on a giant green hill, a new project eventually gets underway. If the Lamps of the Valar were the original world premier blockbuster, then this is the smaller-release (but miraculously better) sequel. Yavanna’s powers of growth and Nienna’s tears of mourning mix together in the soil, and from that fertile mound grow the Two Trees of Valinor. High of stature, each produces mind-blowingly beautiful light from its very leaves, one with white and silver light and the other with golden hues. Even their dew is like liquid light, and Varda collects it in lake-sized vats for storing.

“Trees of Valinor” by HelenKei

The light of the Trees even wax and wane in regular phases, which has the effect of making time measurable. No one had been keeping track before; but now begins the Count of Time. And this first epoch is called the Bliss of Valinor; it will be referenced quite a few times in chapters to come. These Two Trees are a huge deal, and whether one has looked upon their hallowed light will make all the difference to the Elves someday. Granted, those giant Lamps had once lit all of Arda. The Trees light only Valinor properly—the difference between a bold room-illuminating halogen lamp and an unspeakably lovely night light in one well-furnished corner.

But this means that across the Great Sea that now lies between them, Middle-earth itself remains shrouded in gloom, lit only by the stars. And now Middle-earth is stalked by Melkor, who seems to have free reign there for the moment.

Well, not quite. A couple of the Valar are unwilling to leave Middle-earth completely to Melkor’s machinations. First, Savanna—sweet, hippie Yavanna who just wanted things to flower and grow—actually urges the other Valar to wage war against Melkor directly for what he’s done and may still do again. At first glance, she seems like she’d be the most passive. She’s the creative force behind the Two Trees, and those are forever remembered as her greatest work, but she doesn’t just cultivate things and sit around. Like her husband, she makes things and moves on to other works. And when you really pay attention you’ll see that Yavanna is no shrinking violet; she’s a freaking Mithril Magnolia.

Second, Oromë the Hunter also returns often to Middle-earth’s dark forests with his steed, his bow, and his spear, all too eager to hunt down Melkor’s monsters. He’s unwilling to let them go unchecked. Two chapters from now, Oromë’s wanderings will pay off, too.

And so because the Valar’s high-level ranger and druid keep intruding on his turf, Melkor is forced to keep a low profile. He can roam farther afield than he could in the days of the Lamps but he knows he still has to stay under Manwë’s radar. Still, his bold return has put the Valar on the defensive. So much so that it’s given him a shadowy playground—Middle-earth—where he can at least play the bogeyman, if not a great king.

But beyond this stalemate, mostly we’re seeing the Valar sit and wait and watch for the coming of the Children of Ilúvatar.

The rough shape of Arda after the fall of the Lamps.

“Spoiler” Alert: During the descriptive end portion of this chapter, we’re told a couple of times that Aulë will be associated with a particular group of Elves when they come—the Noldor, they’re called, and they’ll be big fans and pupils of his. Never mind that name for now, but out of this mention comes a one-sentence synopsis for the entire Quenta Silmarillion:

The Noldor also it was who first achieved the making of gems; and the fairest of all gems were the Silmarils, and they are lost.

So, uhh, when we do get to see the titular Silmarils, don’t get too attached. Not like…some.

Finally, the chapter ends on a fascinating philosophical note. At some point, long after the Valar have retreated and settled into Valinor, Ilúvatar speaks to them again—and it’s one of the last times we’ll hear from him directly throughout The Silmarillion. Which is deliberate. He’s largely a hands-off creator, having entrusted the World to the Valar, involving himself directly only for very big, crucial reasons. Anyway, he points out to them that of the two kindreds of the Children of Ilúvatar, Elves will “bring forth more beauty” than Men and have “greater bliss” in the world. This will translate into the grace and joy and comeliness that Elves will enjoy; it is what makes us Men see them as fair and wonderful beings. But to Men, Ilúvatar says he will give “a new gift.”

The gift he speaks of is a curious thing. For one, it is a type of freedom that’s difficult to grasp—not just for we the readers, but for the characters. Men, Ilúvatar says, will “stray often,” and make poor choices, and to the Elves they will seem like little Melkors—going wrong far more often than themselves. But if the Ainur and the Elves have free will (and they do), Men seem to have an especially free will. They are not bound to the World in the same way:

Therefore he willed that the hearts of Men should seek beyond the world and should find no rest therein; but they should have a virtue to shape their life, amid the powers and chances of the world, beyond the Music of the Ainur, which is as fate to all things else; and of their operation everything should be, in form and deed, completed, and the world fulfilled unto the last and smallest.

Beyond the Music?! That’s no small thing. The Music is all the Ainur have known, along with the attempt to realize the vision that it created.

And this gift to Men is also the gift of death. Elves will not have death, not as such. Elves will be immortal, and live in spirit and in body as long as Arda itself does—however many ages pass. Even if they are slain in violence, Elves will go to the Halls of Mandos and might be rehoused in body again, and live on, be it on Middle-earth or in Valinor, but still within Arda.

But not us! Men will “dwell only a short space in the world alive, and are not bound to it, and depart soon whither the Elves know not.” So for all the grief that may come to Men by the cruelties of Melkor—and we’re told up front that he’ll hate and fear Men, too—we will only be subject to it for a short time, then be ushered along to an unknown future beyond Eä that only Ilúvatar knows about. Not even the Valar get to know.

Hence we are called the Guests of Middle-earth, the Strangers.Melkor's Hate List (pretty much everything, but especially...) ● Ilúvatar ● Varda ● the Sea ● Tulkas ● the beauty of the Earth in its Spring ● Men (when they show up)In the next installment, we’ll listen in on a fun but profound little marital squabble called “Of Aulë and Yavanna.”

Top image: “Illuin” Andrey Maximov

Jeff LaSala can’t leave Middle-earth well enough alone. He also wrote a Scribe Award–nominated D&D novel, some cyberpunk stories, and some RPG books. And now works for Tor Books.

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Posted by Tor.com

Tor Labs Steal the Stars preview audio drama Mac Rogers

Steal the Stars is the story of Dakota Prentiss and Matt Salem, two government employees guarding the biggest secret in the world: a crashed UFO. Despite being forbidden to fraternize, Dak and Matt fall in love and decide to escape to a better life on the wings of an incredibly dangerous plan: they’re going to steal the alien body they’ve been guarding and sell the secret of its existence.

And we’re down to the final three episodes!

If you haven’t yet listened to Tor Labs’ sci-fi noir audio drama written by Mac Rogers and produced by Gideon Media, you can read our non-spoiler review and catch up on the first eleven episodes: “Warm Bodies,” “Three Dogs,” “Turndown Service,” “Power Through,” “Lifers,” “900 Microns,” “Altered Voices,” “The Walls of the Maze,” “The Real Stuff,” “Protocol,” and “Checkpoints.” Then click through for this week’s installment, in which Dak and Matt’s escape turns desperate.

Dak and Matt are finally on the road with their extraterrestrial contraband, but Sierra is hot on their heels. They’re finally forced to take refuge in the last place Dak wants to go.

Steal the Stars is a noir science fiction thriller in 14 episodes, airing weekly from August 2 – November 1, 2017, and available worldwide on all major podcast distributors through the Macmillan Podcast Network. It will be followed immediately by a novelization of the entire serial from Tor Books, as well as an ads-free audio book of the podcast from Macmillan Audio.

Subscribe to Steal the Stars at any of the following links:

iTunes | Google Play | SoundCloud | Spotify | StitcherRSS

About Tor Labs:

Tor LabsTor Labs, an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates, specializes in experimental and innovative ways of publishing science fiction, fantasy, horror, and related genres, as well as other material of interest to readers of those genres.

About Gideon Media:

Gideon Media proudly builds on the acclaimed, award-winning theatrical tradition of Gideon Productions in creating complex, riveting genre entertainment. Gideon Media meticulously crafts new audio worlds in which listeners can lose themselves, centered around heart-wrenching, pulse-pounding tales of science fiction and horror.

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Posted by Theresa DeLucci

Fall comes at you pretty fast. If you don’t stop and smell the pumpkin spice, you could miss it…

Summer’s end is always a bit of a downer, but for some of us, falling leaves and harvest moons herald the most wonderful time of the year. Autumn is usually seen as the perfect time for new horror releases. Whether that’s actually true or just an outdated marketing ploy is arguable; I read excellent horror year-round. Still, I’d rather be inundated with good books than gourd-infused lattes, or, Cthulhu forgive, Christmas sales.

This fall sees a grab-bag of debut fiction, anxiety-inducing anthologies, and a love letter to horror that, actually, were you an enterprising and early bookworm, would make a pretty perfect gift for the horror fan on your list, be it for Halloween or some other, less fun holiday.

 

The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova

Skewing more towards New Weird than horror, “skewed” is certainly another way to describe the narrators of thirteen wildly different tales of (mostly) wildly different women. There is a woman who can unstitch her skin to reveal a sewing machine underneath, a mermaid, a spider’s wife. There are also women who work in dystopian factories to support their Men (always capital-M) and women who transform into wolves and eat their own young, reminiscent of other Canadian fantasists Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood; Grudova’s women share that defiant feminism.

David Lynch, too, is a natural comparison, for Grudova’s most notable skill is sustaining a macabre dream logic of domestic life teeming with corruption, deformity, and the illogical. This juxtaposition strands out best in “The Mouse Queen,” which centers on a young mother obsessed with Greek and Roman mythology and mourning the father of her twins, who abandoned her to a tense and lonely fate. This collection of uncanny stories mixes the grotesque with the mundane to largely, extraordinary effect, though the surrealism may not be for everyone.

 

Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix

What an infectious joy Hendrix (Horrorstör, My Best Friend’s Exorcism) brings to his debut nonfiction title. I wish I loved anything as much as Grady Hendrix loves homicidal crabs. The 70s and 80s were the height of the horror paperback. From now-extinct chain bookstores that were once in every shopping mall across America to the spinner racks at rural supermarkets, there was a horror novel for every demographic and Hendrix attempts to outline them all. Are you a hippie-hating conservative? Try some Satanic cult titles. New parents? There’s a whole genre of demon children novels. There is also a whole subcategory of books claiming to the next The Exorcist, The Others, and/or Rosemary’s Baby.

Hilarious and informative, Hendrix shines a light on the frankly fucking bonkers stories that once sold millions of volumes yet now would be impossible to ever sell to an agent. While he delivers his copious knowledge with humor, there’s an obvious love and respect and sometimes unexpected poignancy upon closer examination of the authors of these books — some actually very good, but now forgotten. See: the almost-star of Ken Greenhall. Thanks, Silence of the Lambs. I enjoyed the final chapter looking at my own personal gateway to horror, Dell’s incredible, defunct punk rock horror line Abyss, publisher of Melanie Tem, Poppy Z. Brite, and Kathe Koja. Damn, I’d forgotten how much Abyss’ logo on a book’s spine meant to me when I was fifteen.

Quirk’s books are known for their beautiful production and Paperbacks from Hell is in vivid color (mostly red) throughout, showcasing the amazing collection of artists — many female in a male-dominated industry. It’s a gorgeous, lurid deep-dive into horror’s heyday and a must-read for any self-respecting horror fan.

 

The Best of Richard Matheson by Richard Matheson

If you’re in the mood for something a bit more classic this season, Penguin has released a new collection of Richard Matheson short stories curated by Victor LaValle (The Ballad of Black Tom, The Changeling.) LaValle, who is as engaging in his academic criticism as he is in his fiction, writes a foreword that instead of just regurgitating biographical facts or obligatory praise, contains an original, creepy-as-hell story from LaValle’s childhood that exemplifies Matheson’s signature motifs of the monstrous hiding in plain sight.

But the praise is still there, as “[Matheson’s] influence exists even for those who have never read him.” You may not have read Matheson before, but you’ve seen Matheson before, whether it was William Shatner –or John Lithgow — screaming about a monster on the wing of an airplane on The Twilight Zone or Will Smith as the last non-vampire on Earth in I Am Legend or a psychic Kevin Bacon solving a murder in Stir of Echoes. Matheson is perhaps only rivaled by Stephen King when it comes to adaptations. Still, LaValle specifically included stories that aren’t as frequently anthologized, though even the one he rightly calls “straight up disturbing” was a Masters of Horror episode called “Dance of the Dead”, starring Robert Englund and directed by Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s Tobe Hooper. Matheson is a master of horror, but moreso a master of incisive prose and skill.

 

Looming Low Volume 1 ed. by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan

I frequently review anthologies because horror and Weird fiction are genres that are often best-sustained in shorter works. (Though I’m craving more novel-length works of late.) Looming Low is the first in a proposed original series of curated Weird tales from Dim Shores, not unlike Undertow’s stellar Shadows & Tall Trees anthologies. There are many familiar names contained within, but editors Steele and Cowan have cast a wide net for what Weird means to them. While I appreciated how they kept the introduction and foreword short and let the stories speak for themselves, I also would have enjoyed a closer look at the editorial process, as the editors of Undertow’s other anthology series, The Year’s Best Weird, do.

There were great contributions, from Michael Wehunt’s poignant and disturbing “In Canada,” Craig Lawrence Gidney’s dating app thriller “Mirror App” and a dark, long meditation on infectious ambient music in “The Sound of Black Dissects the Sun,” but my favorite stories were all written by women. Livia Llewllyn always makes me happy, even when she scares the shit out of me by combining the darkest nihilism with the unapologetically erotic. Nadia Bulkin’s biting, infuriating revenge story, “Live Through This” is sure to make it into someone’s “Year’s Best” anthology, as should Gemma Files’ SF closer “Distant Dark Places.” There are also original shorts from Anya Martin, Kristi DeMeester (Beneath,) and A.C. Wise. With 26 stories, Looming Low looms large in variety and I’ll definitely keep an eye out for Volume 2.

 

The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson

British author Tade Thompson (Rosewater) brings his background in medicine, psychiatry, and social anthropology to the season’s most buzzed-about novella. Molly Southbourne has a rare “hemophilia:” every time she bleeds, she creates a doppelganger of herself. These “mollys” have been a part of Molly’s life since she was born and, as she ages, the mollys become increasingly homicidal towards her, thus perpetuating the bloodshed. And there is a lot of bloodshed on both sides of an endless struggle for survival at a very human cost. How does a young girl who has been killing, dismembering, and burning copies of herself confront her own personal identity?

The exploration of that question forms the heart of the story. From practical concerns — how does Molly deal with papercuts and the beyond special horror of menstruation? — to the effects her condition has on her parents’ relationship, Molly’s murderous creations keep her literally getting in her own way as she struggles for independence. It’s a fascinating existential conflict that grows increasingly more disturbing and Cronenberg-ian as Molly goes to college, starts a relationship with an anatomy professor, and circles closer to the secret of her origin. This kinetic read explores a more literal notion of self-harm with a relentless terror that lingers well beyond the last red drop of blood. I read a lot of scary stories, but this is the second Tor.com Publishing novella to give me heart-pounding nightmares, which is to say I can’t recommend The Murders of Molly Southbourne enough.

 

Weird Whispers:

  • NecronomiCon Providence 2017 was a fantastic success and easily one of the best convention experiences I’ve ever had. There were panels and tracks for Lovecraft purists (I didn’t attend those panels,) Lovecraft revisionists, straight up horror, and lots and lots of Weird Fiction that went thankfully well beyond the “What is Weird?” tedium. Combine all of that with a really cool film program and roster of speakers, a fun dealer’s room, and a lot of great readings, and I was a happy fangirl — even when I had to wake up for a brilliant 9 a.m. panel on werewolves with Stephen Graham Jones and Sonya Taaffe. (My To Be Read list grew three times longer after that hour.) If anything, there were almost too many panels and I had to make tough choices between attending readings or spotlight discussions about major authors like Shirley Jackson and Thomas Ligotti. Still, it’s a good problem to have. I also enjoyed the goth music and costumes of The Eldrich Ball and my first Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast, officiated by Cody Goodfellow, who managed to keep the mood festive while delivering a scathing anti-racist sermon a week after the Charlottesville protests.
  • Scott Nicolay‘s The Outer Dark podcast from NecronomiCon is up, for those who want a sample of some of the great talk about genre. This special panel includes Peter Straub.
  • While not falling at all under the banner of Weird West or horror, I do think fans of dark, post-modern Westerns in the vein of Blood Meridian will enjoy In The Distance from Hernan Diaz, author of the acclaimed Borges, Between History and Eternity. A young Swedish immigrant looks for his brother across the American West, encountering crooks, religious fanatics, and grifters, to sometimes violent ends. The prose is surreal and wondrous, especially in its evocation of a landscape that exists more in allegory than historical fact.
  • Concord Free Press as a great omnibus coming soon, Another Way to Fall, which collects two dark novellas from Brian Evenson and Paul Tremblay. Concord Free Press also has a really cool business model: the publish free books, only asking that when you get it, you donate what you would have spent on the book to a charity, then you tell them about it. Their catalog includes A Handbook of American Prayer by Lucius Shepard, and titles from Scott Philips and Jenny Slate. We can all use some altruism in 2017.

Theresa DeLucci is a regular contributor to Tor.com, covering book reviews, film, and TV, including HBO’s Game of Thrones. She’s also discussed entertainment for Boing Boing, Barnes & Noble’s Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, Den of Geek, and Wired.com’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. Follow her on Twitter.

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Posted by Sam J. Miller

A group of friends, a pair of lovers, and the tussle between love, addiction, and what comes next. Otto, a former addict, grateful and indebted to his lover Trevor, is faced with temptation and the threat of disaster, but he’s fighting it. Fighting it in a future where matter can be reprogrammed and anything could happen, good or bad.

 

Vashti’s polymer was purple-flecked, fist-sized at normal density, and we all watched dutifully while she tapped at her phone and cycled through the rather stale parlor tricks of turning the lump of soft pseudo-styrene into a tiny dinosaur, a sword, a little stripper who shrank to the size of a quarter and then ballooned to Labrador-Retriever proportions. The roast was taking too long and Trevor was in the living room being charming instead of mixing up the salad dressing—and why did I have to have such a charming boyfriend?— and the doorbell was ringing and no one was answering it and I huffed my way to the door and forced a smile onto my face as I wrenched it open.

As soon as I saw him, I knew I was doomed.

“Hi,” he said, “I’m Aarav.”

“Vashti’s brother,” I said, seeing his bear-beard and wolf-smile and feeling my stomach plummet, “of course.”

His hand was hot in mine.

I’d been doing so well. I’d fought temptation at every turn. I’d never cheated on Trevor, not once, never mind how every stroll down a Chelsea block flashed a couple dozen lean-and-hungry golden-boy-or-silver-fox grins at me, and surely just once wouldn’t hurt—except that I knew, from the still-raw psychic wounds of my momentarily-vanquished crystal meth addiction, that once was all it took to bring your life crashing down into the gutter. Not because one snort would wake you up covered in blood at Central Booking or Lincoln Hospital, but precisely because it would not, because you’d get away with it, and remember how magnificent it was, and forget every awful consequence, and keep doing it, until you’d lost everything.

And now Once had walked into my living room, his ass perfect and his eyes alive with the knowledge of what a weak creature I was. And I was doomed.

I led him into the living room.

“Your polymer is impressive,” Fennis was saying to Vashti in a superlatively unimpressed voice—but then again he’d never liked her, and why had we invited him again? —and produced his own polymer, a jagged solid jelly in a glass jar, marbled and muddied with a mix of clear first-generation inert polymer and the darker second-gen stuff that could change color, cast light, play videos, and he opened the app on his phone and we watched it come to life, writhing and thrashing and then elongating, sharpening, shattering the glass with a single explosive motion. It penetrated Vashti’s polymer, which denatured and was assimilated into Fennis’s. Before her cry of protest was completed his polymer spat hers back out and both stood there as though the whole thing had never happened. His finger swirled on his phone screen and the thing took a wobbly bow. Everyone applauded.

“Field control assertion like that must have cost you a pretty penny,” she said sourly.

“Not really. Some boys on my block are battlers, they love sharing their new tricks.”

“Otto is working on a story about polymers,” said Trevor, patting my thigh proudly when I came to hover over him and silently command him to return to the kitchen. He was using That Tone, the one that said Be chatty, be witty, be handsome, perform. “About the dangers. Aren’t you, honey?”

“I am,” I said, doing my best to simultaneously smile at our guests and glare at him.

“Vastly exaggerated, those dangers,” said Aarav, who I’d been doing a damn good job of not looking at since he walked in the door, except now he was talking so I had to look, and, yes, damn, there it was, those broad chunky shoulders, that ample bottom he was surely standing in three-quarters profile precisely to best display, and I hated Vashti so much in that moment, for calling that morning to plead with us to make space for him at our annual vernal equinox supper—“He just moved to New York, he hardly knows any other gay guys, I feel so bad for him.” I gave him the most withering smile I could find. He continued, “No more dangerous than cell phones or networked microwaves, and no one’s writing articles about that.” His face was warm, almost sad, and the multiplex of my mind stuttered to life with a dozen different pornographic scenes starring only us.

“You should interview Aarav for your story,” Vashti said. “He works on polymers!”

“Not exactly,” he said. “I do communications for Verizon. My unit does focus a lot on polymer-related promotions. The kaiju battle community is a very important demographic.”

“You two talk,” Trevor said. “I’ll go make the dressing.”

And what could I do, but be seated, beside Aarav, and curse the smallness of our couch, because I could feel the heat of his leg where it pressed against mine, and surely everyone in the room would know, at once, how badly I wanted him, what a disgusting pervert I was? And, of course, matters were made immeasurably worse by his wisdom and sense of humour—he had everyone giggling, which meant I had to giggle too, lest someone wonder why I wasn’t.

“I heard that hammer sales are plummeting,” someone said.

“Screwdrivers too,” said someone else.

Ten people at our party, and suddenly everyone had something to say about nanopolymers. I didn’t care one way or another about the damn things. They assigned me the story because I’d cultivated relevant contacts on previous articles. I drank my gin and tonic in one long gulp and switched to wine.

Aarav would not let me stay silent. When I failed to weigh in on whatever theory or fact or opinion was passing around the room, he touched my arm and said, “What do you think, Otto?” Was that because he was a kind and generous person? Or did he know the game I was playing—the game of hunger, of lust, of trying to be good—and could play it just as well as me? The problem with returning to the smiling happy world of dinner parties and office jobs and responsible adults after a long addiction is that you’ve seen people at their worst, especially yourself, and it’s hard to assume the best about anyone.

“When my old broom wore out, I didn’t buy a new one,” someone said. “So much easier to just download broom instructions and beam them into your polymer.”

“Dinner!” Trevor called, and I sprang from the couch. He frowned at the glass in my hand, made stern eye contact.

“We never buy new toys for Tripp anymore,” said Fennis, leading the troupe into the dining room. The oven had heated the whole place up so high that we’d had to open a window, and an undercurrent of cold city winter wind tugged at our sleeves. “Whatever he wants, we can just make it on the spot. Now the problem is, he keeps on begging us for more and more putty! Quite the status marker at school, how big your total polymerload is.”

“Kids are so insufferable with it,” someone else said. “I made the mistake of calling it ‘magic clay’ the other day and my seven-year-old said ‘It’s not clay, it’s a plastic-based gel. And it’s not magic, it’s got millions of tiny machines inside of it that respond to commands from wireless devices.’ Can you imagine?”

We could all imagine.

“So is your article about the death of the manufacturing sector?” Aarav asked, sitting down beside me, and his eyes were immense, so light they looked like gold. “They say we’re less than five years from polymer automobiles. Imagine being able to upgrade to the latest car model with just a software update!”

“That’s ridiculous,” someone said. “Toys and simple tools are one thing, but shape-memory polymers are a long way from being able to emulate complex machinery. Nanite stereolithography doesn’t even do batteries very well—the storage capacity is shit, they overheat…”

“I don’t know,” someone else said. “I spun mine into a laptop, on a business trip last month. Wasn’t winning any beauty contests—battery was like a weird bloated tumor on the back, and it kept, I don’t know, writhing—but it got the job done.”

“They let you take programmable matter on a plane?”

“No, of course not,” she said. “But Virgin is doing this thing now where you can give them your polymer at the gate and get a bar code voucher, and then when you get off at your destination they give you the exact same amount back. They even get the blend of first-gen and second-gen stuff precisely right.”

“Delta, too,” someone said.

I prayed for them to stop. I drank a third cup of wine praying it, practically chanting it out loud. I wanted them to be quiet and I wanted them all to get the fuck out. Especially Aarav.

Of course it was silly. No one could see the filthy thoughts I was thinking, how precarious this lavish scene of domestic virtuosity truly was. No one suspected how unhappy I was, how hungry. No one but Trevor, who put his hand out to stop me when I picked up the bottle of wine.

Trevor was older, wiser. He’d picked me up out of the gutter—or, more accurately, picked me up off the floor of a dark room at a particularly nasty sex party. It was his apartment we were in; his job that bought the roast and the good wine and the cheeses on the platter. And I loved him. I truly did. But he was good and I was bad and his smile said he knew I was a fraud, and loved me anyway.

“So?” Aarav asked. “Your article. You haven’t said what dangers you’re covering.”

“Hacking,” I said, passing the rolls, pleased with how perfect they’d come out, how brown. The roast, on the other hand, lying in a dish of its own blood, was a different story. Our oven heated unevenly. One corner was blackened and burnt. Absolutely everything in the world was wrong.

“What, like that whole thing about how terrorists might make your polymer bracelet turn into a razor blade and slit your wrist open? I thought people gave up on that kind of hysterical scare-mongering two years ag—”

“Not that, so much,” I said. “There’s this whole new wave of what they’re calling aggregative malware, which could in theory cause polymers to compulsively link up. Predictives anticipate some pretty destructive scenarios as a result. Especially once the third-gen stuff comes out…”

“Interesting,” he said, his sturdy forearm innocuous on the table beside mine. Against mine.

“Not sure I buy it, myself,” I said. “Though lots of smart people do.”

“Thinkpieces will be the death of us all,” Fennis said. “Every other day people are trying to tell you we’re sowing the seeds of our own destruction with some stupid thing. No offense, Otto.”

“None taken. Anyway, I’m with you. Even if it’s true, what are we supposed to do about it?”

Everyone agreed that we were helpless, guiltless.

Trevor turned his head in a slow circle, his smile immense, proud, blissful at what we’d built, what a life we had, what wonderful friends, what a stable glorious home he’d made for me. For us. I tried my best to smile back.

I loved him. So, what was I hungry for? What did I still want, why couldn’t I keep from imagining ravaging Aarav in the wreckage of our living room?

“It is inherently less secure,” someone said. “You can’t encrypt them in the same way. Your shaping app can lock the nanites, but only until something with a stronger field comes along. It’s fundamental to how the distributed CPU functions.”

“I went to a kaiju battle last week,” Vashti said. “That’s the whole point of them, that struggle for control. Some pretty big mother fuckers.”

“I’ve only ever seen the web videos. And that awful reality competition show.”

“It’s so much fun,” she said. “Grimy, and a little bit scary. Some of these creatures look like something from a nightmare. Most fights, there’s this part at the end, what they call the death roll, where it’s essentially one big Silly Putty blob wrestling with itself to see which one has the stronger field control. People sitting in the front rows say they can feel their polymers moving in their pockets.”

“Did you read that article, The Future of Hunger in the Age of…

Everyone had read that article.

“Good lord,” Trevor said, finally. “This is worse than lunch with the straight guys from work, hearing them talk about football!”

“Have you guys seen I Can See Right Through You yet?” I asked, because Trevor had me well-trained, and nothing derailed a boring conversation better than a controversial art/horror film. “That guy they got to play the demon lover was hot.

The night went on like that. Everyone happy but me—or everyone doing just as good a job as me of faking it. Snow and wind hammering at our windows. People peeling off, departing with regrets as the night got longer and the storm got worse. Me doing my damnedest not to make eye contact with Aarav, not to notice how smart he was, how once he’d voiced an opinion on something it just felt right, like my own, like it had always been my own. I tried, too, not to notice how nice it was to hang out with another gay guy who wasn’t Trevor, Trevor whose prim paranoia about my inherent weakness kept us from all but the most unfuckable friends.

“Shit,” Aarav said, past two, the last guest, long after his sister had left, seeing the snow of an early-spring surprise storm stacked against our glass. “It’s piled up so much!”

“Subways run all night,” I said, cheering inside as I went to get his coat. “Best part of New York City life, newbie.”

“I have my car,” he said. “I know it’s not practical for the city, but I just can’t bring myself to get rid of it.”

“That sucks,” Trevor said. “It isn’t safe to drive in this. Should be all plowed and cleaned-up by morning.” His eyes flitted to mine, made the smallest frown, a fraction of a second, long enough for me to read whole oral epics into it—he could see my weakness, knew what I ached to do to Aarav, saw how unwise it would be to have him in our house for a single unnecessary extra second. But he could see, too, with his exquisite WASP etiquette, that there was no other option than to say to him: “You can crash here for the night, if you want.”

“You sure?” Aarav asked, looking to me, and I was conveniently taking a long sip of wine at that point, screaming inside, No don’t do this, but eventually the sip had to end, and I nodded as enthusiastically as I could.

He did the dishes. We made up the guest bedroom. We all watched polymer videos online, saw the terrifying monsters and fancy clothes and seawalls and emergency shelters that people had built from nanopolymer, watched trailers for three or four new polymer-based reality competition shows. We placed our polymers and our phones in a heap by the charging hub. I was furious with Trevor for extending the invitation, with myself for getting so drunk, for enjoying the husky sound of Aarav’s laughter so much.

“You shouldn’t drink so much,” Trevor said, once the bedroom door was shut behind us.

“What?” I stammered, all false innocence, because, of course I shouldn’t. “Why?”

“You embarrassed yourself. Practically drooling over Aarav.”

“I was not!” I said, reddening, from alcohol and guilt, shame and defensive anger.

Trevor shrugged and undressed, like it was all too obvious and inconsequential to argue over. I’d been surprised, when we first started dating, when we had The Talk about our sexual parameters, that he insisted on monogamy. “Addicts never stop with just a little,” he’d said, and what could I say to that? What could I say whenever he brought that up, which was often—whenever he wanted to end an argument? And what could I say now? Because any argument I offered would be a lie. He was right and I was wrong, he was perfect and I was wretched. I slid into bed beside him, felt the whisper of the wind from where we’d left the window open, heard the clanking of our radiators trying too hard. I touched his hip with one hand, which he seized, and held.

He had been right, too, about my having had too much to drink. I slept poorly, in and out of hungry dreams—burnt meat and hairy barrel chests—too dizzy to lay still, until I sat up with my head spinning and my stomach doing its best to expel the charred corner of the roast that I’d taken for myself so none of our guests would eat it and think less of us.

Dawn, almost. The sky just starting to brighten past the normal city luster of snowy winter nights. Everything else a blur. Was I home? Was I back in the hallway of that filthy apartment building where a john had kicked me out and I’d fallen asleep outside his door? I staggered towards the bathroom, imagining myself projectile vomiting absolutely everything absolutely everywhere.

I had to puke. This much was true. But was that why I was out of bed? I walked slowly, silently, suspecting in my groggy fuddled state that this was all an elaborate ruse to watch Aarav sleep, taunt myself with his tantalizing profile and hope for a glimpse of a furry bare arm or the sheet-hidden outline of an erection. But would I be able to stop myself there, in the doorway, watching?

Is this me? I wondered, peering into the dark. Am I capable of this?

What I saw was so much better than mere sleeping nudity. And so much worse.

His ass. Bare, damp with sweat in the overheated apartment, moving, a dire implacable rhythm. The chubby, perfect, naked bulk of him. My boyfriend beneath him. Trevor’s groans of pleasure. Aarav’s hand, clamping over Trevor’s mouth to quiet him.

They didn’t hear me. I’d never seen Trevor eyes look like that. I didn’t move. I watched helplessly, wanting to, not wanting to want to. Memorizing what I saw, for the long lonely nights to come. Bracing myself for the apocalypse that was on its way, almost here, that would arrive the moment I opened my mouth to shout hate and rage at them. Wondering why I couldn’t open my mouth.

 

#

 

Coffee in the camps was always a crap shoot, most mornings merely warm brown water the color of iced tea when half the ice has melted, but once in a while they’d get a donation of decent stuff, several bins of Folgers sent by fundie jocks or soccer moms in some idyllic safe small town who did a Kickstarter or bake sale to send toiletries or pleasantries to the poor benighted New York refugees, and that’s what kept us coming back, every morning, the hope that we’d get something other than shit—Upper West Side dowagers and Brooklyn graffiti virtuosi waited in line together, sweaters held tight against the wind, and then we drank the coffee we were given, and shivered together in the long windy tents, beside the stripped-bare orchard, and tried not to think about what lay behind us, or what lay ahead . . . and it was there, in the Canajoharie resettlement area, in a forest two hundred miles north of the crater where my city used to be, cradling a cup of so-called coffee, that I saw Aarav for the second time.

As soon as I saw him, I knew he was doomed.

Six months had passed, since the last time I saw him—the night he spent in at our apartment. Six months, since polymer kaiju stomped New York City into rubble. He’d lost weight, wore dark sunglasses now. The rest of him was unmistakable.

I won’t lie: my first emotion was happiness. To see someone I knew, a memory of my vanished world. My mouth opened, eager to call out his name. But happiness faded fast, replaced by lust, which triggered rage.

“And to think,” someone was saying, “we used to think it’d be rising ocean levels that would wipe us out!”

“Stop being melodramatic,” said someone else, because everyone was an expert when it came to the polymer kaiju uprising, and these breakfast-table conversations were interminable, “We’re not wiped out. All those attacks barely made a dent in the total human population of the planet. Rising ocean levels still have plenty of time to destroy us.”

“All our fault, either way.”

“Is it?”

“You don’t think so?”

“What else could we have done?”

“That’s exactly the problem. Keep telling yourself you’re helpless, pretty soon you’ll start to act like it.”

“They’re still out there,” Aarav said, and his voice was just as wise, just as insightful—except now I could hear his wisdom for what it was, what all of us were doing when we tried to sound like we understood what was going on around us. Cave men at the campfire trying to feel less afraid. “Just because we can’t see them, doesn’t mean they’re not coming.”

Rage lit me up inside. Revenge plots percolated. Bloody murder tingled in my fingertips, aching to be let out.

And it felt…familiar. Murder wasn’t meth, not exactly, but it brought back the old buried joy, the bliss when I’d scored enough to last me through the whole weekend, the ecstasy before the first hit, when my head was still full of perfect scenarios, the thousands of sexual partners and the endless dance floor hours and the loud howling down late-night residential streets. I looked at Aarav and I felt alive in a way I’d spent years trying not to feel. Except that now there was no reason not to. No Trevor telling me to stop. No police waiting to arrest me for possession or prostitution.

Because what else did I have? After all I’d lost, here, at last, was something I could do. Something I could control.

What are the odds, I thought, but I knew the odds, could do them in my head, math had always been my strong suit, back when math mattered—two thirds of the city’s population made it out alive, half of them ended up in a camp, and there were four possible camps. So, approximately an 8.33% chance that we’d both survive, both have nowhere else to go because our nearest relatives lived too far away for the perilous land trek, and he would end up in the same camp as me.

Shouts, from a corner of the tent. Kids fighting over the radio. Music came and went, replaced by a tired-sounding woman reading bad news. Beside me, a bandaged man read a newspaper whose front page sported a particularly gnarly spider woman kaiju.

I thought of hiding from Aarav. Keep my distance, bide my time while I concocted some spectacular revenge.

But why should I hide? He didn’t know that I knew. That I’d seen. The next morning, over coffee and complaints of hangovers, he and Trevor certainly hadn’t said anything about it.

And neither had I. Not that day, and not the next. I waited. Heart and mind breaking from the stress of wondering when it would happen, when Trevor would tell me it was over, he’d found someone new, he was tired of my weakness and my damage.

Five days later, when it was clear that he wouldn’t be bringing it up, I resolved to bring it up myself. My nerve failed at dinner, that night, but the next day, surely—

The next day Trevor died in the ring of radioactive fire that took out a third of us.

So: I would not hide. I moved closer. Aarav’s arms, like mine, were taut and muscular from running the hand-cranked generators that powered the radio, the medical equipment, batteries for approved non-networkable electronic devices.

Somebody ate the bacon off his plate, and I saw that Aarav was blind.

The first kaiju assault was an accident. A faulty German software update rolled out in select markets; conflicting code in a bloated proprietary phone manufacturer operating system; aggregative commands accidentally exploiting field-control backdoors to cause polymer to seek out polymer. No shape, no animating intelligence, just an ever-increasing plasticine blob of horror that bored through walls, crushed buildings, leveled streets until it had assimilated every shred of shape-memory polymer animated by the same operating system and come to a sated stop. At which point forty German cities were mostly gone.

After that, everything happened so fast. Four hundred million tons of styrene polymers in active use worldwide. The software update in question was easy to copy, change, twist.

“Aarav!” I said, standing over him, enjoying several milliseconds of him smiling and looking confused and ashamed.

“I’m so sorry,” he said, gesturing to his sunglasses. “I’m—”

“Otto!” I said, and took his hand. “Otto Trask? You stayed—”

“Otto!” He cried, his mouth a trembling crooked rhombus of happiness, his face darkening like he was about to cry. No flicker of shame, no hint of guilt. He stood and hugged me, hard. “Is Trevor…”

“No,” I said. “Probably the same blast that took your eyesight.”

Aarav hugged me harder. He smelled good. I hated him worse for it.

“And Vashti?”

It took him so long to answer me. “Gone too. Where were you, when it happened?”

“Home. Writing.” In the room where you fucked my boyfriend.

Leaves had piled up at our feet. The forest smelled sharp and smoky. I smiled for what felt like the first time. When Trevor died, all my anger at him turned on myself. I’d been such a bad boyfriend. I’d been so hungry. He’d been smart enough to see it. My fault, that he’d fucked Aarav. My hunger.

One week after Germany, Ukrainian resistance fighters gave six hundred thousand dollars to the nineteen-year-old kid who came in third on the second season of Polymer Kaiju Prime, a crowd favorite with a twelve-foot-tall version of a certain famous Japanese movie monster. He gave them a flash drive with his monster’s schematics on it. Then they pegged it to a more aggressive form of the aggregative software and added in a remote control. The next day the residents of Russia’s two largest cities found that something was compelling their polymers to move on their own, heading straight for the nearest storm drain or toilet. Breaking through whatever they used to try to contain them. That evening, two four-hundred-foot-tall clear Godzillas rose out of the Moskva and Neva Rivers. They couldn’t breathe fire, back then, but they didn’t really need to. Helicopters dropped bombs on one of them, and they did almost as much damage as the monster did. The monster’s polymer fragments re-assembled and she continued on her merry way.

“What’s your plan?” Aarav asked, his hand holding mine, with no lust or lewdness this time, just fear and hunger and loneliness and need, and I smiled, at it, at his weakness, at the knowledge of how I could use it to destroy him.

“Watch my money dwindle. Pick up odd jobs where I can.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Me, too.”

Dogs barked. So many people in the camp had dogs. A gunshot in the distance: upstate boys hunting deer, like this was any other autumn, which for them it pretty much was. Girls in leather and camouflage swapped packages. Black marketeers, officially tolerated because they filled in the gaps that the under-resourced camp administration couldn’t.

Corporations, governments, out-of-power political parties, local militias—everybody started building their own monsters. People stockpiled polymer. Nations took steps to ban or destroy it. When the mayor of Quezon City ordered wholesale surrender from his own citizens, the subsequent stockpile was stolen by—or possibly sold to—a street gang, who made a handful of mid-sized monsters and used them to break their members out of several prisons.

Old hierarchies of power were inverted. Mighty nations were powerless to stop the rogue kaiju of terror cells and coder collectives. But we were being melodramatic, when we called it an apocalypse. Only a few big cities had been hit. Most kaiju dust-ups took place in geopolitical hot spots, contested spaces where conventional violence had been powerless to rupture the status quo: Kashmir, Tibet, Chiapas, the Northwest Passage, the Diaoyu Islands, Jerusalem. The North Cali/South Cali border. Easy to see them as monsters, to look in their eyes and see a malevolent intelligence, but they were still just machines, masterpieces of programming, doing what humans had programmed them to do.

“You have people who know you’re here?”

He shrugged. “Supposedly they keep people informed. But most of my people are in big cities, and who the fuck knows what’s really going on there?”

Every day now was chillier than the one before. New York fell in late March, and we’d been blessed with warm weather ever since. Almost October, now, and I felt it in my tightening testicles: the fear of winter, the stripped-down human animal whimpering in the wind.

I shut my eyes and I could see it, as it had been in the thousands of photos that people had taken and shared in the instants before they died. A three-headed white wolf, forty stories tall. Flames spiraling in the ruins at its feet. Stomach aglow in the dusk, burning brighter as its auto-generated nuclear reactor went critical.

“You know what I miss most?” he said. “About New York?”

“Getting stuck behind slow people on the subway escalator?”

He chuckled. “No. Worse.”

“The thoroughly-reasonable rents?”

“Shake Shack.”

“Fucking tourist.”

“I know!” he said, and laughed. “I’m sorry, I love a milkshake. It was my guilty pleasure. I’d only go late at night, when I was by myself, so no one would know.”

“It’s a damn shame,” I said. “You became a New Yorker just in time to lose the city forever.”

His laughing lowered, and wobbled, and somewhere along the way it became crying.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve just been so lonely. You can’t imagine.”

“I think I can,” I said.

“It’s so good to find you again.”

“Likewise,” I said, and meant it, my smile sincere, because here, finally, was something I could do, even if that something was murder.

I hugged him. He hugged me back, hard, grateful; blind, as Trevor had never been, to the wickedness inside my head.

I took in the scene around us, assessing my options. Looking for ways to make it look like an accident. Forest brightening with fall. The high cliffs above the Mohawk River.

Those. Those would do.

“Now you wouldn’t happen to have a stash of real coffee squirrelled away somewhere, would you?”

I laughed. “I wish.”

I didn’t do it just then. I could have. If I asked him, “Wanna go for a stroll,” promised him a blowjob or a cask of Amontillado, he’d have taken my hand and followed me anywhere. But I wasn’t ready. Had to plan. Write my lines. Rehearse.

And besides. We were in the crowded dining tent. People had seen us. Security in the camps was minimal, practically non-existent, but in the remote chance that his water-logged body turned up not far from here, was traced back to the camp, and someone came looking, I didn’t want to be the last person seen with him.

That’s what I told myself, anyway. That I was being smart. Not weak. Not hesitant. Not waiting for a way to talk myself out of it.

Not wrestling with myself over how badly I still wanted him.

“I gotta go,” I said. “It’s my shift at the hand-cranks.”

“Okay,” he said, looking crestfallen.

“Shift ends when the sun sets,” I said, squeezing his shoulder.

“I’m in Tent 57!” he called, and I heard him, and I did not respond.

I didn’t have a hand-crank shift. I scouted the location, the bluff where I’d bring him. I practiced what I would say.

I didn’t think about Trevor.

Every day, I thought about Trevor. Too-good-for-me Trevor. Comforting myself with the knowledge that I never did a single one of the awful things he’d always been expecting me to do.

I found the spot. I mapped out our steps. I waited until everyone had gone to dinner, and Aarav remained, alone in Tent 57, waiting for my return, like I knew he’d be.

“Wanna go for a stroll?” I asked, and watched him brighten.

Is this me? I wondered, while we strolled. Am I capable of this?

We walked between the trees. Leaves fell all around. None struck us. He was not as sexy as he’d been that night. He’d lost heft, and confidence. But I could feel his heat when we walked together. Smell his body. Feel myself stiffen.

And why shouldn’t I have him? Before I murdered him? I had denied myself this pleasure, before, for love, for stability, for the sake of my happy home, and look where that had gotten me. I had been so good.

When we got to the cliff, when we stood at its edge and only I could see how close he was to doom, I grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him into a kiss.

It lasted a long time. But it didn’t last long enough. Because when it was over he said, “Why didn’t you say anything?”—and I knew, from the tremble in his voice, exactly what he was talking about, but of course I had to say:

“Say anything about what?”

“About what you saw. That night. Me and Trevor.”

“You knew?” I said, and the rage was back, grown to kaiju proportions, and my grip tightened on his shoulders, slid down to take hold of his biceps and squeezed to stop my arms from shaking. River wind roared up hungrily from far below.

“Trevor heard you. Behind us. He told me later.”

“Trevor? He…?”

“He knew. Of course he knew.”

He knew. Of course he knew.

“I’m sorry,” Aarav said. “I can’t believe I did that. There’s no excuse. I’d had a lot to drink that night, and I woke up to him kissing me, and—”

“Don’t,” I whispered. The wind stood still. The river went silent.

“Shit,” he said. “Sorry. I’m sorry.”

We were so close to the edge. The most effortless pivot of my hips was all it would take. So why couldn’t I move?

“I called you,” he said. “The next day.”

I said “Liar,” but wasn’t sure if any sound came out at all.

“I did. On your cell. Trevor answered. That’s how I know he knew you knew.”

It wouldn’t have been the first time Trevor had taken a call meant for me and told them to go to hell, and purged the call from my cell phone log. Dealers, usually, but sometimes exes who he feared would pull me back into the life. And sometimes friends. “Aren’t you the chivalrous adulterer, making the gallant gesture of rubbing my nose in how you’d fucked—”

“Otto, no,” he said, and there was a realness in his voice, a gravity, and I knew that he was going to tell me the truth, a truth I didn’t want to hear but could not escape. “I called to tell you that you deserved better. Better than Trevor.”

“Stop,” I said, again. The wind was back, strong, screaming. My grip relaxed. Tears gathered.

“What you two had, that wasn’t healthy. He was awf—”

I dropped to my knees because it was the only thing I could think of. To stop him talking, to silence the wailing inside my head. I expertly unbuckled his belt. Because he was right, about Trevor, and I’d always known it, and I’d told myself I was wrong, that it was my weakness talking, my wickedness.

“Up,” Aarav said, gruff and tender, pulling me off my knees. “Stand up.”

Moments later I was up against a tree, arms embracing it, the bark rough and good against my face, his hips grinding against my backside. I felt him fatten, expand, and I had a ridiculous and irrational flashback: Vashti’s purple-flecked polymer. The little dance it did. How harmless it seemed. How small. How secure we all felt, in that too-warm living room.

They add up, the tiny harmless things we harbor, the little guilts and baby sins, the crimes we think we only commit against ourselves. The indignities we suffer. The stories we tell ourselves about how wicked we are. Or how helpless. They can crush cities, raise seas.

“You want it?” he asked, poised to enter.

“I want it,” I said, because I did, I wanted, because all I was was wanting, was hunger. But hunger is no crime. And I was no monster.

A low rumble shook the air. I turned my head, looked up. The moon was full, illuminating the winter cloud cover. But something was up there: silent, immense, jet black, like a wound in the bright sky. Something flew. High; so high. Far to the west of us. A manta ray kaiju; a flying polymer as big as the George Washington Bridge. Massive fin-wings propelled it through the sky with slow majestic strokes.

“What is it?” Aarav asked, his breath hot in my ear.

“Nothing,” I said, staring into the sky. The monster flew, free as any animal could ever be, and my heart soared with it. What was it doing? Where was it going? I watched it diminish into the distance, moving leisurely for all its speed, like a lifted burden leaving me behind.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Sam J. Miller
Art copyright © 2017 by Goñi Montes

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Posted by Stefan Raets

When someone asks me for my personal favorite fantasy series, I usually hem and haw for a while and try to sneak at least two or three extra series into my answer. But if you were to force me, under threat of violence, to trim it down to just one, it would be Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series. Vallista, the fifteenth novel in the long-running series, is due out on October 17th, making this an excellent time to try and convert some new readers to the Gospel of Taltos.

Explaining what exactly is so wonderful about this series is tricky, partly because it’s so unique and partly because it’s hard to do without including huge spoilers, but at its heart it’s the story of Vlad Taltos, a human assassin living in the Dragaeran Empire, as well as the story of the Dragaeran Empire itself.

At this point you may be groaning “not another assassin,” but let me assure you that Vlad is not your typical run-of-the-mill hood-wearing killer-for-hire that seemed to be on every other fantasy cover a few years back. Vlad is actually one of the most fascinating protagonists in current fantasy. At the start of the series, he’s a smart-ass, bon-vivant assassin and minor crime boss who enjoys good food and wine and has a great sarcastic sense of humor. A good part of the fun of reading this series is following the constant wise-cracks between Vlad and his reptilian familiar Loiosh. (“You’re pretty smart for a mammal, boss.”) As the series progresses, you learn more about Vlad’s past, putting his choice of occupation in an entirely new light, and you also see Vlad evolve into a surprisingly complex character. (On a personal note, as someone who’s been reading these novels for a couple of decades now, I find that my take on Vlad has evolved considerably as I’ve matured as a person and a reader.)

Dragaerans are basically tall humanoids who use sorcery and live for millennia. This may make you assume they’re like elves—and indeed some humans, like Vlad’s wonderful grandfather, refer to them as “elfs”—but the reality is far more surprising and unique. (This is where it’s very hard not to go into spoiler territory, so let’s just join Vlad’s “Noish-Pa” and think of them as elves for now.)

The Dragaeran Empire is an ancient society divided into seventeen Great Houses which all bear the name of, and some resemblance to, a real or mythical animal. So we have the Houses of the Orca and the Hawk, but also the Houses of the Dzur, Dragon, and Jhegaala. Humans aren’t part of the Dragaeran Empire, but Vlad’s father bought his son a title in the House of Jhereg, which is named after a reptilian scavenger and is basically the crime syndicate of the Empire. The Great Houses take turns running the Empire according to the Great Cycle; as the series begins, we’re just a few centuries into the reign of Empress Zerika of the House of the Phoenix.

Here’s the thing, though: I could go on for ages describing the more intricate details of this fantasy universe, but that’s only one of many reasons why these books are so much fun. Another reason is the way the series is structured, because the books weren’t written according to the internal chronology. The second novel (Yendi) takes place before the first one (Jhereg). The events described in Jhegaala, published in 2008, take place right between two books published over a decade earlier (Phoenix and Athyra), and if I understand correctly (not having read it yet), the forthcoming new novel Vallista takes place right before Hawk, which was published right before it.

If that sounds confusing, don’t worry: the details will fall into place as you progress through the series. Readers used to try to rearrange the novels and read them according to the internal chronology, but that became almost impossible when Dragon (1998) switched back and forth between separate branches of the timeline in each chapter of the novel. To preserve your sanity, I sincerely recommend just reading them in publication order.

Speaking of reading order: aside from the fifteen novels in the core series so far, there are also the “Khaavren Romances,” a trilogy (in which the third novel consists of three volumes by itself, so there are actually five of them) set several hundred years before the main series. Because Dragaerans live for millennia, several characters appear in both series, experiencing things that to Vlad (and most readers) will feel like historical events come to life. This is a very odd experience, only heightened by the narrator of the Romances, the esteemed Paarfi of Roundwood, whose incredibly verbose style (reminiscent of Alexandre Dumas, as the books’ titles suggests) takes some getting used to. There’s much more that can be written about these books—they really deserve a separate article—but just to return to the reading order: as with almost all prequels, don’t start with the Khaavren Romances. If you want to stick with publication order, the first one (The Phoenix Guards) was published between Phoenix and Athyra, or otherwise you can pretty much pick them up when you’ve read at least a few books in the main series. (For completion’s sake, there’s also The Brokedown Palace, a standalone novel set in Fenario, east of the Empire. I just now realize this may be the only novel by Brust I’ve never read, so I can’t really talk about how it fits into the series, but it’s clearly connected and I clearly need to read it.)

But back to the main series! Each novel (except, so far, Taltos) is named after one of the seventeen Dragaeran Houses, and in most cases, Vlad takes on some of the characteristics and attributes of that House throughout the novel, so e.g. in Dragon he ends up a soldier, and in Issola he becomes remarkably courteous. In Jhereg, Brust even applies this technique on the chapter level: each chapter begins with a quotation that connects back to one of the Houses, in the same order they appear in the Cycle, and Vlad does or says something that’s reminiscent of that House.

Brust also likes to play around with the internal structure of each novel in utterly delightful ways. My favorite example is Teckla, which starts off with a list of instructions for Vlad’s launderer-tailor. (“1 grey knit cotton shirt: remove wine stain from rt sleeve, black tallow from lft & repair cut in rt cuff.”) Each chapter starts off with a line from this (literal) laundry list and, at some point in the chapter, you find out how that item of clothing was damaged. Other novels in the series are structured around the menu for an elaborate meal (no one describes food as mouth-wateringly as Brust does, especially in the Valabar’s scenes in Dzur) or the various steps for casting a spell.

Now here’s the oddest thing about this series for me. Even though Brust is performing the literary equivalent of flying trapeze work with all his structural tricks and his convoluted chronology, the actual novels themselves are short (most of my ratty old paperbacks are around 300 pages), tightly written, and purely entertaining. You can read most of them in a few hours. Because the books are mostly self-contained, over the years they’ve started functioning similarly to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series for me: quick and entertaining novels that are still rewarding after multiple readings.

For a series that’s been going for over thirty years now (Jhereg was published in 1983!), it’s stayed remarkably consistent, so if all this enthusiastic rambling intrigued you, I recommend picking up The Book of Jhereg, an omnibus edition of the first three novels in the series.

Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. His (sadly neglected) website is Far Beyond Reality.

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Jennifer K. Oliver

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