Monday, February 29, 2016

WriteFest Writing Exercise 1: Setting

Last week, I went to Houston to the WriteFest conference and took a 4-day workshop on speculative fiction with Cassandra R. Clarke. Houston was great--good food, great art--and the workshop itself was a wonderful experience. Cassie's discussions of writing were down-to-earth and inspiring, and she did a great job of fostering a community within our little group. And WriteSpace Houston is full of smart, fun, supportive writers ... I now want to start something like this in Oxford.

Anyways, here's my first writing exercise, based on Cassie's prompt about setting: Think of a place you either liked or hated from your childhood. Describe it, being careful to include some of the emotions you associate with this place.


I’ve run away from my mom in J.C. Penney’s again and I’m hiding in one of those circular racks of clothes, crouching down in the middle. I turn around, glancing out the slivers of space between the baggy shirts and polyester pants. People mill around outside my hiding place; a woman drags her son, red-faced and screaming, by the arm. A man stops to consider a tie, flips it over to glance at the price, walks away.

I am safe. Hidden. Quiet as the eye of a hurricane amid the bustle of the shoppers and the hum of the smooth jazz. Even when a middle-aged woman comes to thumb through the clothing, pulling out a hideous printed dress and holding it against her, she doesn’t notice my pale face shining in the gloom. If she did, she might shriek, or laugh—it’s happened before. But not this time. I press against the side of the metal frame, letting my head sink back into the clothing until it covers everything but the tip of my nose, the way I like to pretend I’m drowning in the tub.

I can see my mom over in the corner; she hasn’t noticed I’m gone yet. She will, though; when she does, my pleasure will be diminished by a spark of anxiety and guilt, pressing up from under my skin until the only recourse is to duck between the hangers and reveal myself to her, hugging her legs tightly and smiling up at her so she’ll forgive me and still buy me an Orange Julius later. But for now, I am a tiny god huddling in a dark circle, watching the world go by, gleeful in my invisibility.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Wild Girl: A moving novel about the literary history of fairy tales

Kate Forsyth’s book, The Wild Girl, was published in Australia in 2013 but has recently been released in the United States in both hardback, Kindle, and audio versions. It tells the story of an unsung hero of the history of fairy-tales: Dortchen Wild, the sweetheart and eventual wife of Wilhelm Grimm and the origin of many of the Grimm’s tales.

Dortchen grows up with six sisters and an invalid mother under the authoritarian rule of her apothecary father, Herr Wild, near Hesse-Kassel (part of what is known today as Germany). Their next-door neighbors, the Grimms, fascinate Dortchen, who befriends the youngest Grimm, Lotte. At a very young age, Dortchen develops a crush on Lotte’s older brother, Wilhelm, who has returned from university. She assists Wilhelm and his brother, Jacob, as they work on their project to collect German folktales. Along the way, Dortchen and Wilhelm fall in love (this isn’t a spoiler, as you learn about their relationship in the first chapter). But war, poverty, and family trauma keeps them apart, even as the stories they share draw them closer together.

Forsyth incorporates a lot of historical research into The Wild Girl, describing daily German life as well as providing the larger context of the Napoleonic wars. What I found most fascinating was the ways the Grimms researched and wrote their story collections. Fairy-tale nerds like me will appreciate the behind-the-scenes look at how 19th century fairy-tale scholarship worked — and how it sometimes didn’t work, as we see when Jacob and Wilhelm’s collections do not initially sell. And I am grateful to Forsyth for another book that draws attention to the unknown female storytellers of these famous tales. Her book Bitter Greens performs this task for the women behind the “Rapunzel” tale; in The Wild Girl, we have Dortchen Wild’s legacy as a consummate storyteller unearthed and preserved. That alone is reason to celebrate this book.

But Forsyth’s own storytelling is beautiful and heartbreaking on its own. Reading The Wild Girl was, at times, hard to continue because of what a painful story Forsyth has pieced together — some details imagined, I’m sure — for Dortchen. I had to take a couple of breaks from the book because of how sad Dortchen’s life became. Some of her experiences, particularly those with her father, are visceral and traumatic. But Forsyth manages to weave them together with the fairy tales (probably worthy of trigger warnings themselves) that Dortchen tells Wilhelm, creating a frame narrative in which Dortchen expresses her own grief and horror through her storytelling. I was reminded again of Bitter Greens, and the ways in which the women claim their own voices in the face of oppression and abuse.

In the face of Dortchen’s suffering, I broke down and wept when Wilhelm presented her with a new copy of the Grimm collection. He has re-written the tale “All Kinds of Fur” to shape it into a joyful tale rather than a horrific one. He tells her that “the whole reason for telling the fairy tales is to awaken the heart. To help people believe that misfortune can be overcome and evil can be conquered.” In The Wild Girl, Forsyth has created a powerful novel espousing the idea that stories can bring hope and healing.

The audiobook was read by Kate Reading, whom I know best as the female narrator of THE WHEEL OF TIME series. Her voice, warm and cultured, conveyed Dortchen’s vulnerability perfectly, while also capturing the gravitas of other characters.

*This review first appeared on, where I gave the book 4 stars.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Hugo Nomination #5: Austin Grossman's Crooked

Austin Grossman’s Crooked is my favorite book I read in 2015*. I expected good things from Lev Grossman’s twin brother, but not much otherwise as I am not — was not — a big fan of Nixon or, indeed, of American history in general**. But by the end of the first chapter, I was breathless, thrilled, entertained and excited beyond my wildest expectations. Also, obsessed with Richard Nixon.

Crooked tells the story of Richard Milhous Nixon’s rise to power, complete with childhood in Yorba Linda, fight against the Communists as a young senator, Vice Presidency under Eisenhower, and his infamous Presidency. It’s all there: the Cold War, Vietnam, his visit to China, the moon landing, Watergate. And it’s no surprise that Watergate should be the linchpin for a novel about Nixon, but the secrets Grossman uses Watergate to cover up for are a surprise. Because Nixon isn’t the scowling jowls and flashing victory-sign you’re familiar with. Well, he is those things — but he’s not just those things. This Nixon is a sorcerer.

In Grossman’s alternate history of the mid-twentieth century, the faceless Communist threat is much more insidious than creeping ideology. Instead of restricting their arsenal to nuclear warhead, the Russians are developing supernatural weaponry. Invoking Lovecraftian forces both ancient and futuristic, they plan to infiltrate the American government with a man possessed. Senator Nixon is the unwitting victim of their first attempt and witnesses the horrific fallout. After this, the Russians have him in their pocket; he works as a mole, trying to ascertain what kinds of supernatural weapons the American government has developed.

Which, as it turns out, is quite a lot. And we get to watch Nixon as he unravels the mysterious origins of the American Presidency and the dark powers that come with it.

This by itself is all well and good. In the right hands, it might make for a book along the lines of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer, or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Take serious history/literature, mix with a dash of chthonic forces, and bam! You’ve got yourself an entertaining novel! And how else can I describe a book that includes a horror scene set in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disney World?

Only that, despite how fabulous and over-the-top (in all the best ways) the plot sounds, the writing is even better.

Not that plot is separate from writing. It’s easy to think about it as something apart, that a story just “comes to us” and then it’s our job to set it down on paper, to make it pretty, to make it sing. Well, that’s not how it works, and Grossman has carefully plotted this novel, weaving his narrative of the dark forces behind national powers seamlessly into the events of Nixon’s presidency, and using the inciting event not only to set Nixon down his path towards power and the Presidency, but also to set up the book’s greatest antagonist. The sheer believability of Crooked in reference to American history is one of its greatest strengths; it takes the familiar and makes it strange and wondrous again. For instance, as Nixon drives across the country, “past the great slumbering presence below the Grand Canyon,” he comments on the Eisenhower interstate system, calling the highways “a runic inscription right across the country,” that managed to bind “the things that lived in the in-between places, strange survivors of long-vanished primeval forests.”

But my favorite part is Nixon. His voice dominates Crooked. You thought nobody could capture your attention, your imagination, quite like Cthulhu? Wait till you meet Grossman’s Nixon, a sneaky sonofabitch with no illusions about himself and yet all the illusions of power imaginable. He’s flawed, tortured, and completely compelling, managing to be self-deprecating, self-aggrandizing, and slyly hilarious at the same time. At times, he loathes himself so much that he dreams of getting away from Richard Nixon; when he’s given false passports, he sees them as “million-dollar bills, like the Count of Monte Cristo’s treasure chest,” a way out of the sham of a life he’s created.

As the mysteries behind government pile up, he quickly gets in over his head. Despite this, Nixon craves power, pursuing it with the dogged determination of an addict. When Henry Kissinger approaches him in 1966, asking him to consider thinking about running for President again, Nixon considers what it would mean to let himself dream this long-dead dream again:
There are the rare, rare moments when you’ve lost a thing you treasured and made your peace with that loss; your life is going to go on without it, a diminished place, but you’ve figured out how to twist yourself around just right to love and appreciate the new thing you’ve become — and then you’re given another chance at the thing you wanted so badly.
But he’s funny, too, at the most poignant or frightening moments. Introducing his constant companion, Gary, the carrier of the nuclear football, he lists all of the embarrassing or private bits of his life that Gary has had to witness, including “gastrointestinal episodes,” “furious arguments with Pat,” and “restrained, dignified weeping,” before concluding, anticlimactically, that “Gary and I were not friends.” Another list, this time in a classified document, tells of “potentially nuclear-resistant entities” who might represent a threat to the United States, including “Corn Men,” “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin,” “the British royal family,” and “Little Hare, a Native American trickster god of the Southwestern United States.”

Buried beneath Nixon’s paradoxical, ridiculous exterior is a darker truth, though — the unknowability of the human heart. He admits that, since a young boy, he felt an attraction to secrets. He remembers the moment when his mother taught him what a secret was, realizing that there was “more than one side” to him:
No matter how pure I seemed, righteous all the way through, there was always another me that couldn’t be put down, a sly one, a clever one, a lying one, a vicious one. I could be elected president of the whole goddamned United States but I’d always be Tricky Dick.
All of this secret-keeping takes its toll on Nixon as an individual and on his closest relationships, primarily his relationship with his wife Pat (who has some delicious secrets of her own!). He tells us in Chapter 2:
This is a tale of espionage and betrayal and the dark secrets of a decades-long cold war. It is a story of otherworldly horror, of strange nameless forces that lie beneath the reality we know. In other words, it is the story of a marriage.
In comparison to these painful human truths, Grossman doesn’t spend much time showing us the dark forces or the secret rituals that call them forth, causing some readers to complain that they wanted more of that aspect of the book. But I thought it was perfect. One of the effects of Lovecraftian horror is the sense that the big scary thing is always just out of sight, around the corner, down a well, or lurking beneath the waves. Spending a fraction of time actually with these creatures helps amplify our terror when we do see them. But I think there’s another reason, too, that Grossman spends most of his time on Nixon’s personal fears and failings. This is his clue to his readers that the horrors of power, of being a double agent, a spy, and a fake — of, essentially, being alone — are just as chilling as the supernatural horrors the novel keeps at bay.

I got to listen to Crooked as narrated by Kiff VandenHeuvel. VandenHeuvel nailed Nixon’s brusque delivery without being too over-the-top; his voice was rough but resonant as if his jowls were an echo chamber but, somehow, it did not devolve into caricature. It was one of the best audiobook experiences I’ve ever had — and yet, despite getting a review copy of the audiobook for free, I STILL went out and bought this in hardback… which should tell you something, because I’m pretty cheap!

*Well, other than City of Blades, but that actually released in 2016.
**This is pre-Hamilton as well.
**This review originally appeared on, where I gave the book 5 stars, easy.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Evolution of a Sci-Fi Class

A few years ago, I was approached by an academic publisher to review a proposal for a sci-fi textbook. I was excited to do it, but a little confused as well; I’d only taught a class on speculative fiction* twice, and was not an expert in the field by any means. But the publisher had found my name and course descriptions online, and if that was good enough for them, hey, why not?

When I opened the proposal, I was surprised by how limited the anthology was, despite including 50 stories. The proposal was focused on including “classic” stories—in the words of the author, “the greatest science fiction stories ever written." I had already expected it to be weighted towards the Golden Age of sci-fi--most anthologies I've seen are--but I wasn’t prepared for how heavily weighted it would be. Although the timeline of the anthology began in 1844 and went through 2011, fully half of those 50 stories were from just three decades—the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. And although I could tell that the author had made an attempt to include women and writers of color, I was still disappointed by the scope of science fiction represented in the anthology. In short, it didn’t seem to be doing anything different from any number of anthologies already out there.

Maybe I’m not as interested in the “classic” label as others are. What’s exciting for me about reading contemporary speculative fiction is how different it is from what I grew up expecting when I read an SFF story. Read most of the pro SFF magazines today and you’ll find a wide variety of storytelling modes, of prose styles, and of points of view.  I don’t mind social issues in my fiction. Yep, I’m one of those people. To my mind, speculative fiction is one of the most fun and most subversive ways to tip the [insert ideology here] status quo on its head and explore alternatives to the norm.

Fast-forward five years, and I’m teaching another speculative fiction class. In the interim, I’ve learned a lot more about the field by reviewing books, reading spec-fic magazines regularly, and writing SFF myself. I’m still not an expert, but this time around, I decided to challenge myself by building my own syllabus of stories instead of relying on an anthology. (You can view it here.)

The first question I asked myself was: okay, so what IS speculative fiction? Am I going to try to cover fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and magical realism in just one class? Or am I going to specialize?

Spoiler alert: I decided to specialize.

Now, my very specific jams are dark, lush fairy-tale retellings, but I’ve taught that class, and I wanted to do something new. I was also considering the bald economics of teaching at a university: keeping butts in seats, so to speak. I thought I had a better chance at attracting students with sci-fi than I did with a course titled “Kate’s Favorite Dark Fairytales," (subtitle: everybody bring a pillow to scream into).

I also wanted to keep cost in mind. The two sci-fi textbooks I’ve used in the past are both pretty expensive, upwards of $50 a pop. Instead, I began by choosing a book of criticism that would function as an introduction to the field: The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, pictured above. It’s a reasonably priced textbook with essays covering the chronology of SF, as well as major thematic issues and critical approaches to SF. The bulk of the rest of the reading I found available for free online.

Using some of the issues and themes that the Companion develops, I structured my class into 4 units. During the “Explorations in Space and Time” unit, we look at time-travel and space-opera. In the “Strange Encounters of the Third Kind” unit, we read some first-contact stories, and then examine the ways sci-fi has treated issues of race and gender. We discuss governments and political systems in our “Utopias and Dystopias” unit. And then end with a unit on ‘The Post-Human,” in which we cover artificial intelligence, human evolution, and the blending of biology with technology. The larger question we consider, through the lens of each of these units, is a question that a lot of literature asks: “What does it mean to be human?”

Because I’m teaching an undergraduate class, I felt like I couldn’t dispense entirely with the SF classics. That’s probably what the students have come to read, anyways: the Robert Heinleins and Arthur C. Clarkes of the world. But I wanted to balance the expected sci-fi stories with more modern stories to give the students a taste of what the field actually looks like today. Representation mattered, too; I consciously sought out writers of various backgrounds and identities. So for each unit, I chose a couple of the old standards, and then a handful of stories that fit the theme from recent issues of major spec-fic magazines. This way, I got to introduce my students to amazing authors that they may not have heard of like Charlie Jane Anders, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Rachel Swirsky, Nnedi Okorafur, Ken Liu, and Kelly Link (and some online comics from my fave, Emily Carroll! *squee*)

I was terrified to do this when I started. I felt like I didn’t know enough about the field (it’s YUUUUUGE) and, even with what was available for free online, I was spoiled for choice. But I'm pretty happy with what I came up with; it helps that the students seem to be digging the choices I’ve made. However, as I’ve said repeatedly in this post, I AM NOT AN EXPERT, so I welcome feedback and story suggestions as I tweak this class for future iterations.

*by which I mean sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and magical realism ... and all the subgenres thereof.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Sorcerer to the Crown: A fun Regency Fantasy with a heart

Zen Cho’s debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown* is a heck of a lot of fun.

A quick description of it may not sound like it, though. It revolves around the magician Zacharias Wythe as he negotiates his new position as Sorcerer Royal, which, in England, has become more of a political position than a magical one. He has to cater to the needs of the English government by helping them negotiate alliances, navigate the shifting politics of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, and make appearances among the hoity-toity London upper crust. Unfortunately for Zacharias, he does not enjoy politics. His position is complicated by the fact that he took over the staff of Sorcerer Royal after the strange and unexplained death of his mentor and guardian, Stephen Wythe. Combined with the fact that Zacharias is a freed black slave, events seem to have conspired against him to make his position challenging, even dangerous.

The three central conflicts unfold, one after the other. England’s magic is draining away due to some unknown cause. England also needs to pacify Janda Baik, an island nation in the Malayasian archipelago, to maintain their foothold in the East against French incursions. To help out their Malaysian ally, Zacharias is asked to remove a contingent of female vampires who have been running amok in Janda Baik. Finally, the female magicians of England have been long ostracized from magical instruction or utility. Most English sorcerers are happy for this situation to continue unchanged, but Zacharias meets a young savant, Prunella. With the help of her inheritance (seven eggs of familiars, a rare and priceless commodity in a world lacking magic), she convinces him that women should be given access to magical education and even position.

As you’ll notice, all three of these problems have to do with England in some way: England’s power, England’s influence, England’s people and magical resources. Sorcerer to the Crown is as much a novel of the mundane realities of politics, national identity, and social institutions such as racism and sexism as it is about fairies, familiars, vampires, and other fantastical beings. But these institutions become villains every bit as frightening as the others. In fact, as Zacharias finds out, these enemies are harder to fight. He has a more difficult time being seen as an equal by the other sorcerers than he does getting out of the many assassination attempts set for him, like sentient flames and sucking puddles of death.

Some of the most disturbing moments in the novel happen in Zacharias’ mind, as he recognizes fundamental attitudes which will never change to accept him. He realizes, as his adopted mother does not, that he is not seen by the eligible young women of London as a potential mate. He is frustrated and hurt when young sorcerers whose careers he has helped are rude and dismissive in public. Prunella, too, recognizes the inequity that keeps her, a talented magician, in the position of governess and housemaid to more privileged young ladies.

So what is fun about Sorcerer to the Crown? Cho’s “fantasy of manners” has the wry wit and sparkling tone of a Regency novel. She lampoons both social mores and social frauds with the deftness of Austen or Dickens. Preening dandies, over-dramatic social-climbers, and backbiting politicians all feel the edge of Cho’s criticism.

The pace is also fun; once it gets rolling, the story moves from event to event at a breakneck pace. I agree with FantasyLiterature reviewer Bill Capossere that, at times, it seemed to move too fast and could have benefited from a few more beats or transition moments. But I always wanted to keep reading, to find out what happened next. In retrospect, I recognize some of the plot holes at the end that Bill references, but in the moment, they didn’t really bother me. I was enjoying it too much, too wrapped up in the fun of it.

To emphasize the lighthearted aspects, though, is not to say that Sorcerer to the Crown lacks a heart. The race, class, and gender struggles that Zacharias and Prunella encounter never feel as though they are there to make this “issue fiction.” They are seamlessly integrated into the characterization and world-building, and their delivery is so heartfelt and realistic that you can’t help but feel angry and sad and hopeless as well.

But to counterbalance the negative emotions are the positive emotions of warmth, love, and affection. Zacharias loves his mentor and guardians, the Wythes, and the friendship (and romance) that develops between him and Prunella is, dare I say, tender. As a sucker for tender, I really enjoyed the way Cho developed their relationship.

Sorcerer to the Crown is the first in a series, and I’m excited to see what happens next. I hope we get to see more Fairyland, more of the world outside of England, and especially more of the four remaining familiar eggs that Prunella inherited.

*Cho's eligibility post for 2015 can be found here and, yes, Sorcerer to the Crown is on it! I'm planning to nominate her for her short story "Monkey King, Faerie Queen" (short fic Hugo nom post coming up ....)

**This review originally appeared at, where I gave the book 3.5 stars.