Writing Updates & NaNoWriMo Preparations: The Deep Breath Before the Plunge

It’s National Novel Writing Month and I don’t know what I’m doing. Well, that’s not entirely true. I know I’m writing a novel. I even know what novel I’m writing. In fact, I’ve already started, not just planning, but writing. Because, you see, NaNoWriMo wasn’t the plan. Writing a novel was the plan, a long gestating, slowly marinating plan. I’ve had a mild to middlingly successful year writing short stories, stories that became progressively longer and longer. A novel was the next logical step. NaNoWriMo was an accident of the calendar.

This puts me in a slightly odd position. I’ve never written a novel before, although I started one once upon a time. I’ve never done NaNoWriMo before. That isn’t the odd part. The odd part is I’m slightly out of sync. I’m also slightly behind. I’m 3 days behind schedule and I haven’t even started NaNoWriMo yet. This doesn’t bode well. It’s also why I’m even doing this. Pressure. Productivity pressure. Something I can lack. Something many writers can lack. After all, if I coincidently start writing my first novel at around the same time thousands of others are, and there’s a community for us writers/ escaped inmates, why not take advantage.

So, 50,000 words in November plus the 8000 or so I’ve managed the past week and a half. Seems doable. I say now. But then, I am the crazy person who wants to write for a living and the key part of writing is writing, and writing consistently. I’ve been more consistent this year than I’ve ever been, but I need to be more so. So that’s how I intend to treat this and all future NaNoWriMos—as training, as a career step of some kind.

What could possibly go wrong?

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The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

Liu Cixin is one of China’s most prolific and popular science fiction writers. The Three-Body Problem, first published in 2007, was the start of an immensely popular trilogy and one of the most popular science-fiction novels in China. Translated by Ken Liu, The Three-Body Problem is an extremely ambitious novel that takes its central premise from the titular three-body problem in classical and quantum mechanics.

The novel stretches across multiple timelines, and even dimensions, shifting from the experiences of Ye Wenjie, a young woman struggling to survive the Cultural Revolution and forced to work for the government at a mysterious scientific base, and Wang Miao, a researcher into nanomaterials who finds himself embroiled in the mysterious suicides of a number of leading suicides, a situation that is secretly and inexplicably being treated by the international community as an invasion.

Ye Wenjie’s development and attempts to survive the political upheaval are compellingly realized. Her descent into a form of nihilism and turning away from humanity is an entirely reasonable response to her experiences. Wang Miao’s modern day investigations and entrance into a surreal virtual reality world were less compelling for me, although his interactions with hard-boiled detective Shi Qiang provide some much needed levity and grounding to the high concepts.

The Three-Body Problem is immensely ambitious, wrapping a tale of social unrest, mystery, invasion, and a meditation on the human history, around a core of dense physics concepts. Liu Cixin has a firm grasp on both the science and the characters, and an ability to make the ideas reasonably clear.

 


 

Received a Copy from NetGalley for Review

Werewoman by Piers Anthony

Piers Anthony’s WereWoman is a tongue-in-cheek fantasy noir romp, filled with Witches, Demons, Weres, Ghosts and Zombies. Anthony has a light comic touch and a strong command of the genres and world he has created.

Philomen is a PI—newly licensed and fresh out of school. He is also a shape changing Were with an unusual power. When a Witch walks into his office and asks him to investigate her cousin’s death, Phil finds himself drawn into a complex case with ties to all the clans. Someone is killing Supernatural creatures or “Supes” throughout the city, and despite his protestations, everyone seems to be looking to him to solve it.

Phil and his ‘partner’ Mena make for an interesting pair. The concept is amusingly offbeat but only briefly explored. Indeed, for a relatively short novel, a great deal happens and a lot of characters are introduced, if only briefly. Phil and his best friend’s fiancé, Syd, serve as the main investigators, and while Syd plays an important role in the beginning and at the climax, she disappears somewhat in the middle. Likewise the femme fatale Witch is a strong presence at the start, but slowly fades away.

WereWoman is a series of wildly imaginative, often very amusing vignettes loosely connected by the murder mysteries. As an entertaining and original introduction to a world, it is delightful. The mystery, itself, was less of a focus than expected.

 


WereWoman can be found here on Amazon.

Received Copy from NetGalley for Review

 

 

Bathing the Lion by Jonathan Carroll — Book Review

Jonathan Carroll’s Bathing the Lion is a surreal, metaphysical tale of friendship, broken marriages, and the cosmic conflict between order and chaos. In a small New England town, five people go to sleep one night and find themselves sharing the same dream. Some of them know each other, some of them are married, some of them had never met before. From their shared dreams, and relationships, an eerie world of symbols and metaphors unfolds leading to half-glimpsed revelations about the nature of the universe.

The five New Englanders—Vanessa, Dean, Kaspar, Jane, and Bill—used to be “mechanics,” inhuman beings who restored order to the universe when chaos threatened, before they were retired and given new memories. Now their retirement is over and their old memories are being reawakened. The universe is in the midst of an upheaval, chaos has been unleashed, and the retired mechanics throughout the universe may be the only hope.

For all the vast cosmic nature of the premise, this is a tightly contained novel. The great conflict between order and chaos is shown through the prism of the characters experiences and perceptions. This is as much a story about their human lives, frailties and relationships, as it is about the nature of the universe. This is both the novels greatest strength and greatest weakness.

The characters are engaging and well drawn in all their human frailties and hopes. The early parts of the novel are focused almost exclusively on Vanessa and Dean’s crumbling marriage with only minimal traces of the supernatural or the weird. When the larger plot emerges, and Carroll begins to provide answers—half-seen and beyond human understand, but answers nonetheless—the characters recede from focus some disappearing altogether, at least in a human sense.

Bathing the Lion is a hugely ambitious, surreal, yet very human novel that plays with grand ideas on a cosmic scale, while also trying to marry those ideas to a human story. Indeed, the interplay of the cosmic and the human is a central theme of the novel. Carroll has a sure and practiced hand, and if he does not quite pull all the various threads together, he nevertheless succeeds more than he fails. Thought provoking and metaphysical, this is the sort of strangeness and ambition I enjoy most. I look forward to seeking out Carroll’s other, longer works.

 


 

Received a Copy from NetGalley for Review

The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg — Book Review

Charlie N. Holmberg’s The Paper Magician is a charming, if slight, slice of Steampunk fantasy. Ceony Twill has always dreamed of being a magician, a smelter to be precise, bespelling metal. Top of her class at the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined, she finds herself apprenticed to Emery Thane, a paper magician, and her dreams shattered. Resigning herself to a demeaning and denigrated discipline, Ceony begins to find a strange and wondrous power in paper magic, and learns that her eccentric, handsome mentor is harboring old wounds and dark secrets.

The novel takes place in an alternate turn-of-the-century England where magic is prevalent and highly regarded and Excisioners—a practitioner of dark, flesh magic—are hunted down. It is an interesting but lightly sketched world, which can be applied to the novel as a whole. There is little sense of the world beyond the immediate characters.

Ceony is a determined and intelligent young woman, but despite being the viewpoint character is oddly underdeveloped. She reacts to events, takes bold action, and even begins to develop feelings. These actions, however, are rushed and appear at times more a function of the plot than organic developments. Thane, the titular paper magician, is better developed at least in terms of backstory. The earlier parts of the novel, which concerned itself with slow world building and Ceony and Thane cautiously discovering each other, was effective and intriguing, but a full third of the novel primarily consists of extended exposition where Ceony learns her mentor’s history. Thane himself is absent and passive for most of the novel leaving his character more told than experienced.

The Paper Magician is closer to a novella than a novel which explains many of these issues. Holmberg has created a whimsical world with hints of darkness and an original form of magic based in part on origami and paper mache. The central relationship between Ceony and Thane is likewise promising, but barely developed. Despite some reservations, Holmberg has an engaging writing style and a world worthy of revisiting.

 

**Received an Advance Copy from NetGalley for Review

Doctor Who Silhouette by Justin Richards

Justin Richards has been involved with Doctor Who books since the early 90s and the days of the Virgin New Adventures. With over 20 novels, short stories, and audio plays, he knows his way around a Doctor Who story. Silhouette plays to his strengths. Richards has shown a fondness for Victorian England as a setting both in Doctor Who and his other novels, and for the past few seasons, Victorian London has increasingly felt akin to Doctor Who’s home base replacing the contemporary England of the Russell T. Davis Years. This is in no small part due to the popularity of Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax.

All three are present and correct in the novel, which allows Richards to more fully explore Jenny and most especially Strax. Madame Vastra, the Great Detective herself, was slightly dampened in print. This may, perhaps, have more to do with the size of the cast Richards had to handle. Apart from the Paternoster Gang, Richards also had to help introduce the new Tardis team of Clara and the Twelfth Doctor. As is often the case with novels early in a Doctor’s run, this version of the Twelfth Doctor is more of a sketch than a fully rounded incarnation. Richards does his best to capture the sense of Capaldi based largely, one assumes, on scripts and early episode cuts. He is largely distinct from his predecessors and effort has clearly been made to distinguish him, but he occasionally falls back into a more generic Doctor mode that is common in the novels.

The London of the novel is mostly concentrated on The Carnival of Curiosities and the factory of the mysterious Orestes Milton. Milton is a reasonably effective foe and his allies including the titular Silhouette are suitably creepy. This is very much Doctor Who by numbers, enlivened by the interactions among the five main characters and the early efforts to capture Capaldi in print.

Justin Richards is as experienced and safe a pair of Doctor Who hands as can be found. Like all his novels, Silhouette is a well told, good old-fashioned Doctor Who story, but one that never quite manages any more than that. It doesn’t even quite reach the heights of some of Richards’ own previous efforts.

 

**Received copy from NetGalley for Review

 

The Palace Job by Patrick Weekes—Book Review

In The Palace Job Patrick Weekes has concocted a wild ride full of swashbuckling thieves, con men, wizards, unicorns, talking war hammers, prophecy, empires, and magic. This is a fantasy con and heist novel and wears its influences on its sleeve—there is an ancient prophecy, a battle of good and evil, a desperate band of thieves and con artists, and an impossible heist. Weekes has taken the standard tropes of the two genres and combined them almost seamlessly. The fast pace and relentless sense of fun papers over any cracks.

Isafesira de Lochenville, commonly known as Loch, is a former soldier—betrayed, left for dead, and marked a deserter. She has survived by her wits as a thief, her birthright stolen by the most powerful man in the Republic. With the help of an old comrade and a band of thieves, illusionists, death priestesses, unexpectedly lustful unicorns, and a young boy with a mysterious tattoo, Loch plans to have her revenge, or steal it.

Outside of Loch, most of the characters are somewhat flat and seldom rise above their archetype. Nevertheless, Weekes makes sure they all have a moment and clearly enjoys playing them off of each other. Likewise, the world with its ancient magical past, class and racial tensions, and rival empires is fascinating but lightly sketched. This is a novel primarily concerned with plot and action sequences. The reader is introduced to Loch and Kail, an old comrade in arms, during a prison break dangling from the bottom of a sky city, and the story seldom stops for breath.

The Palace Job never takes itself entirely seriously. There are crosses and double crosses, swordfights in the sky, break-ins, and uncrackable magical safes, but most importantly, there is an infectious sense of fun. The Palace Job is not trying to be anything more than a fantasy heist novel, and it doesn’t need to be. Highly enjoyable. I look forward to the next book in the Rogues of the Republic Series.

 

*Revived a Copy from NetGalley for Review

Of Bone and Thunder by Chris Evans—Book Review

Chris Evan’s Of Bone and Thunder: A Novel proudly describes itself as “Apocalypse Now meets The Lord of the Rings” which is an unusually apt description. Evans, apart from having written a previous fantasy series, is a military historian who wrote a history book about jungle warfare in Vietnam. His interest and passion for the period shows, as the Vietnam allusions and allegories are both prevalent and obvious. This is not to say that Evans hasn’t created a fully realized and fascinating fantasy world, but rather that just as Tolkien built a world partially out of Norse myths and languages, Evans built his out of the Vietnam War and added a dragon or two.

The Kingdom is in the middle of a succession crisis. The Royal line’s legitimacy has been called into question, rival clements are emerging from the woodwork, and some people are even starting to consider the disillusion of the monarchy. The threat of civil war looms ominously. Then the recently conquered province of Luitox erupts in rebellion, and the King ceases the opportunity to rally his people against a common enemy. He sends an overwhelming force of crossbowmen, armored dragons, and thaums or magicians into the jungles of the Lux to crush the rebellion and then conquer the lands beyond. That was four years ago and the Lux natives, or Slyts, remain as defiant as ever.

Carnan “Carny” Qillibrin and his squad of crossbowmen have been fighting in the jungle for years. They’re tired, and desperate to get out before the Lux kills them all. Flying high above the jungle, Vorly is a veteran dragon rider who cares more for his dragons than he does for people. He is forced to contend with the arrival of a thaum, Breeze, who brings magical advancements that could change the nature of warfare forever. Finally, there is Jawn Rathim, an idealistic thaum who volunteered for the war and believes utterly in their civilizing mission. Newly arrived in the Lux, he becomes embroiled in the adventures and machinations a crown man called Rickets.

The Jawn and Rickets sections were the most interesting for me. The combination of a naïve young officer and the jaded, dangerous old veteran is clichéd but certainly effective, and their slowly developing friendship feels genuine.

Of Bone and Thunder: A Novel is an ambitious novel, focusing on the war on the ground. Events back in the Kingdom are alluded to but never seen. This is a novel of the front and that is its great strength and weakness. Evans eventually ties the various plot strands together, but for the majority of the novel the characters seem to be operating in isolation resulting in a series of vignettes. Likewise, the Vietnam parallels are a mixed blessing. The correlations are sometimes simplistic and strained—machine guns become crossbows; helicopters and bombers become dragons, etc. Nevertheless, they provide an unusual angle and unexpected depths to the proceedings. The Carny sections of jungle fighting are immediately resonant and recognizable, and Rickets is clearly a CIA man in a fantasy setting. Over all it was a fascinating, gritty, and unusual depiction of fantasy warfare. Recommended.

 

**Received a Copy from NetGalley for Review

 

 

The Protectors by Trey Dowell

Trey Dowell’s The Protectors is an action-packed superhero thriller that never takes itself entirely seriously. The combination of superhero tropes that occasionally border on parody, and real world concerns could have failed miserably, but Dowell manages to balance the various tones, partly through relentless forward momentum.

Scott McAlister was once a superhero, the leader of the Protectors—the world’s only league of superheroes. The Protectors were more of a PR stunt than an actual team. Scott’s superhero name, Knockout, was chosen based on market research. Their public appearances for the UN choreographed by the CIA. Their superpowers, however, were very real, and not all of their missions were publicized. After a failed mission, Scott retired and has been more or less left alone for years, but now his ex-lover and former teammate, Lyla Ravzi, has gone rogue and the CIA want him to stop her plans for world domination by any means necessary.

The plot is not particularly original, but it doesn’t have to be. Dowell takes familiar tropes and gives them a serious and not so serious twist. Lyla’s superpower is fairly common, she can make anyone fall in love with her. Combined with her twisted idealism, this power has gone to her head. Her Iranian background hints at political and social concerns not often found in this genre, but the relentlessness of the plot means that these ideas serve mostly as background to more typical superhero shenanigans.

Scott, however, has an unusual and initially harmless or low key seeming power. His determination to save Lyla from herself and escape his CIA handlers form the backbone of the novel. Their relationship is intriguing and well developed.

The Protectors is full of government conspiracies, superhero action, and examines the mental and physical toll powers would take, and how the world would respond. It never looses sight, however, of the fundamental absurdity and fun in its premise. Dowell burns through plots and twists at a fast rate for better and for worse. The narrative momentum and palpable joy are the novel’s greatest strength, but it never lets the story take a breath.

Action packed and full of thrills, twists, and superhero shenanigans, The Protectors is exactly what it wants to be—fun.

 

**Received an Advance Copy from NetGalley for Review

A Vision of Fire by Gillian Anderson and Jeff Rovin

A Vision of Fire is Gillian Anderson’s first novel, although it is co-written with Jeff Rovin a New York Times bestselling author primarily of thriller, horror, and military suspense. In many ways, this is a perfect literary match. Rovin has a proven track record with high concept thrillers and Gillian Anderson remains best known for playing Dana Scully on The X-Files. This is a high-powered combination and while I don’t want to speculate regarding how much writing author did, A Vision of Fire definitely does not have the feel of a first novel, or even a second.

Before proceeding, I should probably admit that, shamefully, I have never watched The X-Files in its entirety, not even a complete season. I have, however, seen a great amount of Gillian Anderson’s subsequent work and count her among my favorite actresses. Nevertheless, for someone who first saw her in Bleak House, Gillian Anderson writing a science fiction thriller does not have the same frisson it might otherwise.

A Vision of Fire follows a respected child psychologist, Caitlin O’Hara, as she grapples with the most challenging case of her career against the backdrop of escalating nuclear tensions between India and Pakistan. Maanik, the daughter of India’s ambassador to the United Nations, appears to be having a psychotic break following the attempted assassination of her father. She is speaking in tongues, going into trances, and attempting to harm herself, almost as if possessed. O’Hara soon learns of a number of other similar cases among teenagers across the world and discovers an ancient connection that tests her to the limit.

O’Hara’s story is the through line of the novel and is well realized. Her home life with her partially deaf son is only partially realized and never fully integrated. But the crisis, and her personal quest to help Maanik has unexpected emotional weight. When reading about a icy, professional, career woman written, at least in part, by an actress whose made a career out of portraying icily competent career women, it is difficult not to conflate the two. Partially this is deliberate, but I think does them both a disservice. O’Hara does manage to rise above being simply the Gillian Anderson character.

The plot, however, is action packed but meandering. There is an entire subplot that never intersects with O’Hara but seems to exist entirely to set up further books in the series.

Overall, A Vision of Fire is a fast-paced, workman-like thriller that keeps the reader’s interest but is never particularly surprising.

 

**Received copy from NetGalley for Review