In an Absent Dream: A Parable of Wanting to Keep Your Pie and Eat it Too

I’m still making my way through the list of 2021 Hugo contenders (I’ve reviewed these Hugo contenders already), but this week I’m reviewing a novella which isn’t on that list, but is part of the same series as an entry for Best Novella, so I guess I’m kinda making progress towards getting a another title crossed off the list (which is soooo long).

Unfortunately, I read the previous three Wayward Children books long before I decided to start blogging again, so at this point there are no reviews for them, but if I ever do a reread, I’ll make sure to drop the links here.

Anywho, In an Absent Dream (IAAD) is the fourth book in the aforementioned Wayward Children series, which in general terms, seeks to answer the question: “What happens to (portal fantasy) children, when they come back from their quest?”

As we have seen in each of the previous installments, there is still plenty of story left to tell.

For the main character of IAAD, Kathrine Lundy (though she decidedly prefers just Lundy) that even means (many) returns through the series’ pivotal “doors”. If I’m remembering correctly, we actually spend a lot more time in the portal world, called The Goblin Market, than we have in other Wayward Children books which is interesting, but of course, as with each book in this series, it is still time spent after whatever quest a more stereotypical fantasy would have been written about. In this case, the usurping of an evil wasp queen, and a tragic run-in with some baddies called The Bone Wraiths.

I understand that these details are absolutely NOT what these books are about, but I can’t help but still sometimes wish that I could read about these events somewhere, even if it is just a “boring ol fantasy story”. I like those too.

Anyway, if you have read the first book in this series, Every Heart a Doorway, you’ll recognize Lundy (or recognize that you should recognize Lundy) and so while this title is a standalone, it ties in with the other books, and gives more backstory to their history which is always fun. I’ll admit that I hope we’ll get to see an adventure from Lundy’s father as it’s mentioned many times that he also did a tour in the Goblin Market.

In terms of prose and language, IAAD is extremely well crafted, as are most books I’ve read by Seanan McGuire. She always manages to turn at least one well-worn phrase subtly on its head so that it evokes some new meaning to suit the story.

OK. Ok. Skip to the part about the pies . . .

Yes! The pies! Specifically, wanting to both keep and eat them simultaneously. This is essentially the main theme of the story (at least for me). Some things you just can’t have both ways. What I found interesting about this novella was the way McGuire uses the setting to express this theme, and what she uses it to say, or at the very least question.

Now, in IAAD, The Goblin Market is really quite an awe-inspiring place, filled with magic, adventure (sadly offscreen), fun and glory, but each of these thrills has a cost which cannot be deferred or delayed. It is expected of the Market’s denizens to each pay “fair value” for any goods or services they require, but things like friendship or love, also seem to have their costs as well.

It’s a strange place which seems to be both better and worse than the real world we live in. In the Market people can work hard and avoid debt, but nobody can really “get ahead”. What’s strangest about the whole thing, is that people can’t really offer charity either for doing so just puts another person in debt to the would-be philanthropist.

In the course of trying to understand “what debt is”, Lundy discusses all kinds of things like prices which are based off the proportion one makes (although perhaps difficult to figure out in the Market’s bartering society), and how a system like this could still provide for the sick and elderly. The implications of such a system seem to be infinite.

So what’s the pie we can’t both eat and keep?

Honestly, I’m not quite sure. For Lundy, it is living in two worlds, wanting to both be a part of her life with her family, and also with her friends in The Goblin Market. For us, it seems to be something to do with late-stage capitalism.

We know from experience IRL that what we have now doesn’t seem to be working to everyone’s benefit, and so The Market presented in IAAD calls to us as an ideal of something we could strive for. With enough rules and moderation in place, perhaps we could build something which would be fair to everyone.

Although, as Ruthanna Emrys notes for Tor.com, The Market has:

. . . gone so far into capitalism that it’s come out the other side into “to each according to their needs, from each according to their ability.”

https://www.tor.com/2019/01/10/fairness-and-feathers-reading-seanan-mcguires-in-an-absent-dream/

Essentially The Market has become communism (I had to look up Emrys’ quote). And as we see in the novella, fair isn’t fair either. So perhaps — and this is rather a downer — the novella shows us that we can’t have a form of capitalism that is moderated enough to actually benefit everyone without it being the communism we all loathe and fear.

We can’t have capitalism without all the stuff we don’t like about it, because then there’s nothing left. The good things we like about it are also the bad things we hate about it and so to get rid of those things means it wouldn’t be capitalism anymore?

If we get rid of the pie (yummm) then we no longer have pie . . .

Let me know your thoughts in the comments! For only like 180 pages, I think this story still gave a LOT to chew on.

See you next time!

Should Harrow the Ninth Win the Hugo?

THIS book. What a ride. Gonna go ahead and announce now that pretty much this entire review is going to be a SPOILER because I’m not sure how to talk about it without doing so. If you’re looking for a quick (spoilerless) opinion on whether or not you should read it, I would say:

Yes. Read it, but don’t drop anything you’re super excited about to do so. There is a lot to appreciate in Harrow the Ninth, but personally, it was a bit of a slog. If you’re expecting to enjoy it for any of the reasons you liked Gideon the Ninth, you will probably be disappointed. Harrow, it seems, goes decidedly her own way (we should expect nothing less).

All of that said, I feel it was worthy of the accolades it’s received, but it probably won’t be my pick for the Best Novel Hugo Award. To explain why, we’ll have to get spoilery . . .

— Entering Spoilerland —

— Look out! —

Ok. Now that I’m done having fun, what’s the deal with this book and how can I think it a slog, but a good enough slog to win an award?

Essentially, Harrow the Ninth is a (mostly) well written book that expects a lot from its readers, and pushes a lot of boundaries all at once. Personally, I feel as if this should have been right up my alley, as I pretty much go all in for things any time they get weird or unexpected. This book did all of that in droves, but I believe it suffered mainly from expectations set up by the first book, Gideon the Ninth.

Gideon the Ninth was a gem which seemingly we all could admire. My review described it as both fun and provoking. Down to its simplest elements, it was a mystery, and an adventure. Start accounting for some of its complexity, and it was a prompt on the nature of abusive relationships and what kinds of things we’re ‘allowed’ to show in our fiction . . .

Harrow, in many ways, left all of that behind for a rumination on grief, loss, and mental health. It traded in a somewhat (enthusiastically) crass but ultimately consistent narration for shifting types of POV (mostly 2nd person, and 3rd person, but some 1st person too) along a non-linear narrative and alternative reality dream sequences. It shattered any trust we had in ourselves as readers to a) remember past events in the story (aka book 1) and b) understand at any given moment what the hell is actually going on.

Too put it simply, reading Harrow the Ninth felt like being gaslit for 400 pages.

This in fact, makes perfect sense for the novel since we’re reading AS a main character who is trying so hard to repress any feelings of grief or loss, that she literally gives herself a lobotomy (I suppose Ianthe helps) to wipe out all memory of what she fears to lose.

That Muir is able to manage this weird sort of readers-are-so-deep-into-the-character-we’re-essentially-method-acting is, from a technical standpoint, quite incredible. And as a writer, I’m in awe and hope that I will someday be able to pull off something half so complicated.

Being gaslit, however, isn’t exactly pleasant, and I found that I was somewhat eager to distract myself from this book, and often reluctant to pick it back up.

So why do so many consider this book so good?

Obviously, it’s impossible to say for sure, but I would point to the following:

Humor:

Considering how serious everything in the Locked Tomb series seems to be, there is a surprising amount of humor within the series. In Harrow the Ninth, it’s often Ianthe’s frank wit (and unapologetically misplaced morals) or Harrow’s general hatred and reluctance for everything that do most of the heavy lifting. We aren’t given any Gideon lines until the last quarter of the book.

Personally, I was most often chuckling at the seemingly normal (and quite frankly bureaucratic) nature of The Necrolord Prime, aka God, aka John.

And of course, the almost nonsensical naming conventions (reminiscent of Ian M. Banks’ Culture Series), which apparently can and do include Eminem lyrics.

For some complexity is beautiful

Reread everything I wrote a little bit ago about the shifting (and unreliable) POV, non-linear narrative, and alternate realities. From a technical standpoint this is amazing to see unfold.

Women Being Badasses

I feel like this is where the rubber meets the road for most people, and is one of the main draws to the series. Harrow the Ninth, as with Gideon the Ninth, is still a story about women who defy expectations. Who want more than whatever bullshit they’ve been given, and are ready to rain hellfire upon the world until they get it.

I think this quote from a Vox interview with Tamsyn Muir really put it in perspective for me (emphasis my own):

“As anybody else who was born in and around 1985 will know, a lot of the stories we got fed, even in a time where women were out in the battlefield more, was that at the end of the day, being angry and fighting actually wasn’t great. And so what the real takeaway at the end of the day was, the love of your friends and hugs is the greatest thing that a woman can have. So being able to repudiate that and give a middle finger to the “a woman’s place is actually the peacemaker and the heart of the group” has undeniably set the tone of the books.”

https://www.vox.com/culture/22266652/tamsyn-muir-interview-locked-tomb-gideon-the-ninth-harrow-the-ninth-vox-book-club

There still isn’t enough of this in fiction, even in this, the year of our lord (necrolord? John?), 2021. We’re still fighting old ways of thinking, and despite all of the confusion of this story’s structure, these characters (Harrow, Gideon, Ianthe) are powerful.

So . . . Should it get the Hugo?

It is certainly worthy of one, but it won’t be my choice. While I can appreciate everything that his book was able to accomplish, I just can’t shake the fact that while reading it, I had almost no desire to complete it. Harrow the Ninth is in many ways a masterpiece, but it wasn’t the one I was led to believe I’d be reading, and the entire time I read it, I was just waiting for it to be different. By the time it started to become the book I wanted (aka when we finally get Gideon back), it felt like my order got lost at a restaurant. The food was cold, and I was already too upset at the wait to enjoy it anyway . . .

Oof, I hate writing negative reviews. If you think I’m wrong about this one (or even if you think I’m right), let me know in the comments section. Also, some things I learned about while writing this review which I couldn’t figure out how to squeeze into the review, but that Muir squeezed into the book:

Coffee Shop / Barista AU
The Denial of Peter
Draco in leather pants
Evil Vizier

Anywho, see you next time. Thanks for reading!

Can I Really Manage To Throw Out TEN BOOKS?! (Unhaul Challenge)

Wow. This is a bit ridiculous. But I’m going to try.

Basically this challenge is to throw out books from your shelf, based on prompts written (I think) by BooksAndLala on Youtube. I first saw the challenge on a video posted by Portable Magic (also on youtube), and then I found a blog version on Merline Reads to see how it could be done in bloggo land.

Let’s get to it!

A Book I Rated Low

Rhapsody: Child of Blood, by Elizabeth Haydon. I’m not quite sure what part of the blurb for this story made me actually purchase this book (although I think I got it from a library used book sale for like 50 cents) but I definitely did not feel satisfied at the end. I’m assuming I was interested in all of the music references in both the title (Rhapsody) and the series title (Symphony of Ages), and intrigued that the main character was a singer who goes on an epic quest. I’ve wanted to write a story about a musician for ages and so I thought this might be a good place to see it done well.

Honestly, I don’t really remember anything in the book actually involving music at all. They climb through the roots of a tree (not the branches) for what felt like a hundred pages, there is some kind of prophecy, an assassin kills a bunch of people and maybe becomes king of something (it’s been a while since I read this one).

Anyway, whatever I was hoping it would do, it just didn’t. I’m seeing now that there is NINE books in this series so perhaps I should have used it for the series prompt later on but nah. Just a low rated book.

A Book I Changed My Mind About

Zombies: Encounters with the Hungry Dead, edited by John Skipp. I think I’m just not as big into zombies as I used to be. There are several great stories in this collection, and the book does a great job delving into the history of zombies in literature (I loved and posted about Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields by W.B. Seabrook, supposedly the first zombie story ever published). That being said, I’ve owned this book for several years and never finished. I’ll always have a special place for zombies in my heart, but perhaps it is time to finally let that trend die?

A Series I Won’t Be Completing

The Ascension Cycle by David Mealing. I don’t know if a two-book cycle really counts as a series, but I will not be finishing this one. The first book, Soul of the World, was pitched as a ‘must read’ for fans of Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn specifically which is my fav), and the blurb seemed pretty good, so I was very excited to read this.

But upon finishing it I was actually a bit mad. (In my subjective opinion), it was nowhere near Mistborn. I can see how it might have similar elements: a seemingly complicated magic system; a young woman protagonist who’s independent, living on the street, and struggling for survival like Vin; an intricate world with intrigue and epic/world altering stakes.

But somehow there was some quality missing from this book that BSands seems to have struck every time. It felt to me, perhaps ironically, that for a book about the soul of the world, this book seemed to lack any soul at all. As I think about it, perhaps it would be worth it for my own writing to read this again and do an analysis as to how it fell short, but that seems like a lot of work, and I already have a big enough TBR, without rereading a book I didn’t enjoy. We’ll see.

A Book I DNF’d (Did Not Finish)

World War Z. I just couldn’t get through this one. I think I’m literally at the 50% mark but I just can’t. It got soooo depressing. It’s been sitting on my shelf for like five years at this point, and I’ve not once ever thought “Oh I should give that one another try.” Nope. Sorry zombie book, you will not be getting a second life.

A Book I Have Multiple Copies Of

Dune Messiah. Why? I don’t know. I think this was one that that I found in my parent’s basement during a move and snagged it thinking I didn’t already have a copy. Then I got home and . . . well I did. One of the editions (the one I snagged) is like super old and kind of falling apart, but has awesome cover art so I’m not sure which one I’ll end up keeping (the newer one is just green haha)

A Book I’ll Never Actually Get To

The Man Who Sold the Moon by Robert Heinlein. I’ve talked a little bit about Heinlein before in my Jurassic Park Book Tag post. Essentially, I didn’t find The Puppet Masters all that great even though I really enjoyed Starship Troopers. I know he’s a classic, and so that is probably what made me reach for The Man Who Sold the Moon when I saw it in my local little free library (love those little book houses haha), but I’ve hardly had any motivation to read it. I think it might just be time to take it back to the little library and hopefully someone else will find some use for it

A Book I Bought Because Of The Hype

Provenance by Ann Leckie. I . . . absolutely . . . LOVED Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (and the rest of the Imperial Radch trilogy) so when her next release, Provenance, was ready to hit the shelves, the world was buzzing and I was more or less frothing at the mouth to read this book. It is a good book. A fun mystery, set in a sci-fi universe, but it just could not compare with her previous work. I will probably read Ancillary Justice ten more times, but unfortunately I’ve never reached for this one on the shelf. Probably best to give it up.

A Book I Bought Because Of The Cover

Rant by Chuck Palahniuk. I’m not entirely sure I’ll actually get rid of this one, and I’m not sure that I actually bought it because of the cover. Full disclosure, I think this one was just the book that had the prettiest cover that I thought I MIGHT actually be able to get rid of. I haven’t read a book by him in years, and I’ve talked about my Palahniuk burnout on the blog before. Everything I said then still pretty much holds true. Maybe I’ll get back into the groove someday.

A Book I Don’t Know Anything About

Lifelode by Jo Walton. I think this was given to me in one of those book bags you sometimes get when you register for a conference. I’m honestly not sure how I came by it, but Jo Walton is seemingly a giant in SFF, so I thought I might as well keep it . . . I’ll read it someday.

I still haven’t. Probably should give it up.

A Book I Didn’t Buy

The Lost Years of Merlin by T.A. Barron. I keep thinking I’m going to go on a big Merlin kick where I just consume every piece of media I can find that is even remotely related to this mythic wizard of yore. This one is another little free library find, and I was pretty excited to read it when I first found it. However, I was right in the middle of some other books I wanted to post about, and so I put it on the shelf where it has gathered dust for quite a while. Perhaps I’m never actually going to go on this Merlin kick after all. Perhaps I should give this one up too.

Please Let it STOPPP!!!

Ok that was a little dramatic but wow, I can’t believe I actually found ten books on my shelf that I’d be willing to get rid of. Usually I can hardly gather up the will to return a library book let alone voluntarily give up TEN books but here we are. The list is made.

I’m hopeful that some of these I return to their respective little free libraries (and maybe find something else that looks interesting!) or perhaps trade them for some credit at a used book store or something. I have at least one friend who likes Jo Walton so maybe they will appreciate a random book by them appearing for them one day out of the ether. Maybe not . . . anything can happen.

Anyway, now that I’m done feeling proud of myself, let me know your thoughts. Are there any on this list I should give another shot? Any you would like? Leave it in the comments!

See you next time!

Review of ‘Remote Control’ by Nnedi Okorafor

This was supposed to be my beach read last week. Something short which wouldn’t take too much investment as I knew I’d be spending a lot of time with family, and it would be hard to squeeze in time for reading.

Wow did that plan fail.

I finished up another library book just before my trip, and was still waiting for my next hold to come in so I figured I could read a little of this, and then finish it while at the beach.

Two days later, I was posting four stars to goodreads and wondering what the heck I was going to read now. I finished this that quickly. I suppose I should have known . . .

Ever since I read Binti, back in 2017, Okorafor has been like pizza for me. I tell myself just one more slice (chapter), ok maybe two more but then that’s it! Only to realize later that I’ve crushed the whole thing in a sitting (send help about the pizza . . . the problem is getting out of control!).

I’m still getting caught up on everything she’s written (Broken Spaces & Outer Spaces, and Who Fears Death currently next in line), but I’ve managed to get a couple of her stories read, and have loved every one of them.

Anyway, this story was not different. Right from page one, I was already smiling as the book opens with a quote from Omar Little . . .

Yes, Omar Little from The Wire.

And it set the scene perfectly. As members of the town flee the presence of Sankofa, the “adopted Granddaughter of Death”, I could just hear them saying her name as they ran, much to the cadence of “Omar is coming!”

Another of Okorafor’s strong suits is worldbuilding.

It’s no surprise then that the world of Remote Control simply shines. Those who have read Okorafor before, will see a lot of new elements, but also recognize things from her previous stories.

For instance spiders seem to be a common occurrence, and in past books have always felt like some kind of unknowable architect, moving through the world with their own agenda, weaving a web of fate in which humankind is merely an unsuspecting fly.

After a quick google, I thought that perhaps this constant occurrence was meant to be Anansi, a popular figure in Akan folklore. A second google revealed:

Okorafor has spoken on Udide — and generally seems to have cornered the SEO on the term — during her TED Talk about Afrofuturism and how it is different and unique from Western, mostly white and male, Science Fiction.

In her novel, Lagoon, Udide the spider artist, is a vast spider who lives underneath the city of Lagos and is responsible for weaving the past, present, and future into the lives of the city. For Okorafor, Udide seems to be a metaphor for Science Fiction itself, and the socio-political power of stories. Science Fiction is a will-to-power. The question: What if?

Assuming her tweet holds true for the Remote Control as well, then it would seem Udide (or some aspect of Udide) is the large black spider Sankofa encounters in the very first chapter as she enters town:

“Good evening,” Sankofa said in Mampruli as she stepped up to the gate’s door. The spider paused, seeming to acknowledge and greet her back. Then it continued on its way up, into the forest of broken glass on top of the gate. Sankofa smiled. Spiders always had better things to do. She wondered what story it would weave about her and how far the story would carry.

Okorafor, Nnedi, Remote Control, pg. 10

We aren’t told its purpose, nor are we sure what business it has in the town, but it seems to give the weight of this moment some emphasis. Fate is at work here, or was, and is now scurrying onward toward whatever’s next.

In that same scene, we also see a grasshopper (prominent in Akata Witch and Akata Warrior), though I haven’t taken the time yet to familiarize myself with any symbolism related to it and what its appearance could mean.

A later scene shows us a wall filled with masks, which seems meant to invoke the Night Masquerade of Binti, or something similar in the Akata Witch/Warrior books.

In this way, all of Okorafor’s stories seem to take place in a kind of mythic African universe, but I don’t believe that they are the ‘same universe’ as we would say about the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere . . .

To me, this is incredibly refreshing, as I don’t feel the need to read every one of Okorafor’s novels, afraid I may miss something, but it does add a bit of added enjoyment to the stories I have read.

But considering I compared my compulsion to read her stories as equal to that of stuffing my face full of pizza . . . I will probably end up reading them all anyway.

Conclusion?

Go read this one. Probably read it twice. I’ve only begun to unpack everything that is packed into this relatively short novella, and I’m sure that upon second and third reads I will think about and discover even more. That seems to be the nature of things when reading Nnedi . . .

Anyway, that’s all for now. If you’ve got thoughts and opinions, please leave em in the comment section. I hope to hear from you there! See you next time!

July Newsletter + New Fiction: Master of Secrets

So this post is a little wonky (and looonnngg oops), but basically, I have a newsletter which I’m going to put out quarterly. I’ve copied the July letter into a post so folks can see an example of what they’d get by signing up. Mostly it’s updates about my life and writing which I might not post on the blog. Also, each quarter I’m going to try to include a new piece of fiction, that is exclusive to the newsletter. This month’s piece is Master of Secrets which I’ll explain more about in the letter.

**Please also note that if you sign up, you’ll immediately receive the first piece of fiction I ever wrote about a Warlock Doctor. It’s kinda fun I think.

Anyway, here it is! Enjoy!


Hi all,

Welcome to my quarterly newsletter. You’re probably here because you clicked the subscribe link on my blog. I hope you did that because you’re interested in keeping up with me ‘behind the scenes’ so to speak. If not, please feel free to unsubscribe.

Still here? Awesome! So basically what you’ve signed up for by getting this newsletter, is MORE access to my random thoughts which might at first seem a little scary (unsubscribe is still just a click away), but you will also get quarterly updates on different writing projects I’m working on, how the process is going, sneak peeks and exclusive content. Ya know standard newsletter stuff. Hope it lives up to the hype! Read on to find out . . .

Announcements:

This section is pretty self-explanatory. In it I’ll cover anything that I feel needs to be announced. Right now (7/2/2021) things are chugging along pretty well but everything should be business as usual for a while. Some things are in the works which will get announced soon, but those announcements will likely be sent out over the blog, not exclusive to the newsletter (sorry).

Writing:

Another self-explanatory section. Here I’ll go over any writing projects I’m working on and what I feel my accomplishments during the quarter have been. Right now, those projects are mostly Blogging on A&A, and my novel (and associated short fiction).

Blogging on A&A:

It’s been almost five months since I reintroduced myself to blogging with I’m Baaaackkkk!, and I think it is going pretty well? I’ve certainly been enjoying it. Since my return, I’ve been trying to post book reviews on Wednesdays and short fiction and miscellaneous posts on Fridays. I’ve done 17 reviews, mostly about Hugo Award finalists, and 9 pieces of my own original flash fiction. It’s been a wild ride.

Also, during May, I participated in #WyrdAndWonder, a month-long celebration of the Fantasy genre. The post I’m most proud of is #MapMonday: Using Emerging Tech for Fictional Maps, but there’s a lot of fun posts for it, so be sure to check out my #WyrdAndWonder Wrap Up Post.

#JurassicJune was kind of a bust for me, but I did read and review a great book called Why Dinosaurs Matter by Kenneth Lacovara, and did a fun Jurassic Park Book Tag.

Two more posts I’ll mention because I enjoyed writing them are Ancient Egyptian Doggos! and On the Scholomance as a Twisted, Evil Eudaimonia Machine.

Ancient Egypt and Dinosaurs:

I won’t say a ton about this right now, as almost everything in this category is still a work in progress but considering this quarter’s “exclusive fiction” is a random scene in-world, y’all gonna know about it. The premise is simple (but hopefully fun and unique): What if there were Dinosaurs in Ancient Egypt?

I’ve written a short story in this world called Narmer and the God-Beast which I’m going to publish on Amazon. I even paid for a cover and everything, which is like 88% done and I’m sooo excited to show it because it looks great even now but it’s not done. Expect more on that coming soon!

I’ve also written a novel in this setting which will be torn to shreds, critiqued in July. I’m hoping to pitch this more traditionally once I have feedback and have done rewrites. It’s been a ton of work, and will probably be a ton more, but I’m already pretty proud of it, so hopefully I’m not delusional, and it’s alright. Look for more on this coming soon . . . but not that soon.

Finally, I’ve been working on a companion piece to the novel tentatively called The Ore of Ra Nt-ka, which will follow a merchant, Beqsu, through a similar track as the MC’s in the novel, but with different goals and motivations. I’ve posted teaser of this piece on the blog as Beqsu Takes a Leap.

Ultimately, it’s just an alternate perspective. I decided to do this because I wanted to spend more time in the world before diving into a sequel (too much work lol), and thought it might be cool to try to get it on Kindle Vella which will be live in late July. I can already tell I will not be able to make this deadline but am still going to pursue the piece and see what comes of it.

The ‘exclusive’ fiction at the bottom of this post, Master of Secrets, is a deleted scene from that work in progress. You’ve seen a preview of it on the blog as well. I hope you like it!    

Convention stuff:

Not much happening in convention world. I reserved a room for Discon III at the OMNI. I’m really looking forward to this con as I’ve never been to a Worldcon before, and am not sure how many others I’ll be able to go to (traveling to them is usually cost prohibitive). But that’s not until December so I probably won’t have much to say about it until then. But get hype! It should be fun.

Random:

Usually, I might write something here that’s been on my mind lately, about any topic, but I think this post has gone on long enough already. Future me will do better . . .

Besides, I just want you to read the fiction!  

Newsletter Exclusive Fiction:

Master of Secrets

By JD Weber

Khueninput looked into the glowing red eyes of the god-beast before her and wondered if the Lord of the Sacred Land really still protected her, or if she was being a fool to keep the dead priest’s body hidden.

Quite a bit of rumor and myth surrounded the legendary creature which stood snarling and hissing in her face, and she was horrified to say that every terrifying story she’d heard about Ra Pt-r appeared to be true.

This one stood roughly the height of a man, and walked on two sturdy legs, its head and torso leaning forward, while its tail stretched out behind it. The beast had two forelimbs which protruded from shoulders barely distinguishable from its thickly muscled neck.

But mostly she focused on its jaws, which were filled with an innumerable array of jagged teeth. Sickle shaped claws tapped ominously on the sandstone floor.

Khueninput clenched her fists and decided to direct her outrage to the very-much-still-living priest who controlled the creature.

“It does not matter how many godlings demand entrance to the embalming chamber, Ra Nt-Ka’s authority does not supersede that of The Great God Anubis. None can enter while he is here.”

The man before her curled his lips into a leer and simply raised his eyebrows as if to say “Oh really?” 

Khueninput did not let her fear of the creature weaken her stern gaze, much. If the god-beast wanted inside the embalming chamber there was little she could do to stop it. Better shore up her position before the priest grew tired of playing with her, and let the beast loose.

“A blind man can see that Ra Pt-r is controlled by your red magic. If you release it, it will not be the godling who must recite the confessions before The Court of Ahseer. Do you think the Scales of Anubis will balance for you when you’ve broken the Jackal’s own laws? None can enter while he works. None but the dead can know his mysteries.”

“There is one who may enter,” said the priest looking amused. “Hery Sesheta, the Master of Secrets.”

Real anger flared in Khueninput’s gaze now. “That is no longer my rank within his cult Setek Peribsen.”

“A shame,” the priest said with a feinted nonchalance, as if the temple storeroom where out of Bahriyan wine, and he’d have to drink something else of lower quality.

Ra Pt-r crouched as if to strike.

“Do not go against him Setek Peribsen” said Khueninput, in a hiss that would have made a cobra proud, despite her desperation. “You will not survive it. He is the Dog that Devours Millions.”

“I’m here by Chaotic God’s own decree!” burst the priest. “You do not think the Great God Set will protect me from the whims of his own son? A child no less? You truly believe your dog will be able to stand against The God of Storms himself?”

“Anubis is also known as He Who Eats his Father.”

She let the silence fall heavy between them.

The priest’s face did change, if only briefly.

So he’s heard that name as well, perhaps there is some truth to it then . . .

“Fine!” He said finally. “Let the dog play with his bones. Your only delaying the inevitable. That man was in league with The Assassin, and he will answer for it. Set will have his vengeance.”

“Then he’ll have to seek it in the Duat.” Khueninput replied cooly.

The priest was all bark now.

He huffed and made a show of whirling his black and gold vestments, as he tried to storm out the mortuary. Ra Pt-r looked at her with an almost pleading eye before stalking slowly behind him, chittering softly.

Khueninput sagged against the door behind her, her breath escaping in a long and ragged gasp. She realized with quite a bit of detachment, that her hands were shaking. She was still fighting for control of them when she felt more than heard, a voice call out from inside the embalming chamber.

You may enter . . .   

Khueninput’s heart leapt in her chest. Could it be? The Lord of the Sacred Land had just asked — no ordered her — to come into the sanctuary and share in the Mysteries of the Sky, Earth and Netherworld. He had not done so since . . .

She did not allow herself to think about the last time he had allowed her anywhere near an embalmer’s bench. She might never allow herself to think of that day again.

But neither would she allow herself to ignore his command.

She fumbled at the door, unable to work the latch correctly when suddenly, the door disappeared, a simple archway now before her.

The Keeper of Keys.

The Opener of the Ways.

She entered slowly, keeping her head bowed in respect to the great deity, but she could not help but scan the embalming chamber in search of the jackal god.

She saw much before she found him.

The room was dimly lit, shadowed so that Khueninput could just make out the shelves of herbs and animal fat used for embalming. Alabaster jars — each carved to resemble a different son of the falcon god Horus — waited to be filled on the workbench nearby. A small vat of natron salt had been rolled in, and several spoons, knives, a chisel, and spatula, rested on its unopened lid. Only the heap of linen seemed to have been disturbed by the god in his work.

It did not feel right.

The priest, Ra Nefer-Ab, or the beauty of Ra, lay wrapped and shrouded in long strips of linen on a large stone pedestal. His posture seemed tense, somehow rigid as if trying to break free of the binding of the cloth. He was contorted ever so slightly so that his face peered up at the Jackal God looming over him, and though she could not see his face, Khueninput would have guessed the man in pain.

For his part, The Lord of the Sacred Land looked just as she remembered him. In this form, he had the body of a man but wore the head of a jackal. He wore a simple white skirt which contrasted sharply with the onyx coloring of his skin. Around his neck he wore a linen scarf adorned with a double fillet of blue lotus and cornflowers woven upon strips of pith, twisted in a bow at the back of his neck. Small veins of gold pierced the dim along his arms and chest, stress fractures, as if his shape were ready to burst from the pressure of his holy blood and power as a god. Sandaled feet revealed silver toenails and when the god turned to finally acknowledge her, he looked upon Khueninput with eyes inlaid with gold, calcite, and obsidian.

Not for the first time Khueninput felt her heart drop out of her chest, and her pulse begin to race. Sweat beaded upon her brow, and her pupils dilated more than the darkness of the room should allow. To look upon the Great God Anubis was to look upon death itself.

It was to look upon eternity.

Anubis motioned for her to join him at the pedestal and then turned back to the priest lying upon it.

Khueninput heard the man’s voice in her mind as it had been during life, though his lips did not move to speak.

“Please,” Ra Nefer-Ab said. “I have not uttered lies.”

He who Sits Upon the Coffin nodded.

“I have not uttered curses.”

The jackal god nodded again.

“I have made none to weep”

Khueninput sucked in her breath in surprise as she put the pieces of the room’s puzzle together, as she realized what felt off about the scene. None of the herbs on their shelves had been removed, and the canopic jars had remained empty. The natron’s lid had not been removed and the tools were still dry and sterile. The process of embalming took seventy days of painstaking ritual and work to prepare the body for its journey through the Duat, and yet before her was a completed mummy, lying before Anubis and —

Answering the Negative Confessions . . . 

“I have not worked witchcraft” Ra Nefer-Ab continued.

The Jackal God reared back slightly and tilted his head to one side, as if trying to identify some unknown sound in the distance.

You aided the Chaotic god. Used his magic.

Ra Nefer-Ab’s voice was pleading. “I was possessed Great One! The Chaotic god forced the enchantment.”

The Great God Ahseer will not care whether you were forced, his hatred for Set is too strong. If you held his magic, Ahseer will condemn you.

“But the other Gods.” Ra Nefer-Ab begged. “Surely they can be persuaded.”

Anubis thought for a moment and then nodded for the priest to continue.

“I have not attacked any man.”

You killed two soldiers in Set’s temple . . .

Ra Nefer-Ab’s voice sounded as if his body were wracked with sobs though it lie motionless on the bench. “Please. I am not a man of deceit.”

Anubis looked thoughtful for a moment before nodding.

It is true, you are not, but as you are you will not pass The Court of God’s judgment. Take this.

Anubis opened his jet black palm to reveal a small nugget of gold, carved and shaped into the form of a scarab.

Swallow this before you speak false, and Khepri will protect your heart.

“OH! Thank you!” Ra Nefer-Ab cried. “Thank you.”

Anubis reached behind him for the embalmer’s tools and selected a golden adze Khueninput had not seen when entering. The Jackal God touched the adze to the mummy’s lips and light began to shine forth from the priest’s body. It swirled and roiled until finally it had collected into the shape of a bird with Ra Nefer-ab’s countenance. The golden scarab hung from a small chain around its neck. The priest’s Ba nodded once to the Lord of the Sacred Land and then flew towards the archway through which Khueninput had entered. She saw now that it did not lead out into the streets of Edfu, but into a shimmering field.

The Jackal cleared his throat and Khueninput turned quickly back to him in surprise, remembered who she stood before, and then dropped to the sandstone floor in a bow. With her head still lowered to the floor, the Great God spoke.

Outside, in the face of Ra Pt-r, you held your ground. Loyal, after all this time.

Yes Great One. Always,” she said, and realized that she must mean it. To speak something in The Two Lands was to make it true.

She had not looked up at the Great God when she spoke, but at her words, the shadow looming over her seemed to move. She lifted her gaze slowly and found the god’s hand proffered out to her, palm open as it had been with the priest only moments before.

A golden scarab rested in his palm.

Now it was her turn to rear back slightly in confusion.

“Great one I cannot take this, I’m not worthy of it.” She held his crystalline gaze as long as she dared, but then lowered her eyes as he wrapped her palm around the amulet.

Then find someone who is. I have faith that when you do, you will no longer need its protection.

She raised her eyes again, wanting to ask what the Lord of the Sacred Land could possibly mean by such an order, but he was gone.

Khueninput startled as a knock came at the door to the embalming chamber. The door, not the archway which had only moments ago lead unto a paradise which she could only presume had been The Fields of Aaru.

Khueninput got up off the floor, and steeled herself, expecting Set’s priest to have returned. But when she opened the door, she found a young woman in a white robe standing before her, a jackal-head mask tucked neatly under one arm.

She was one of the lower priests, ranked as W’b or maybe not yet initiated into the earliest rites.

“Are you ready Hery Sesheta? Your boat to Hardai is nearly ready to leave.” Khueninput blanched slightly at the use of her old title, but the woman did not seem to notice. She just continued on in a perky voice as if she were about to visit the market to shop for some new jewel.

“I can walk with you to the docks if you like.”

Khueninput looked at the women suspiciously for a moment, feeling the weight of the gold scarab in her palm.

Would it really be that easy?

No she decided, and told the priestess to go onward without her. She would catch up soon.

Khueninput took inventory of the things she’d need for her journey home, and quickly gathered them to her person. She elected to wear what little jewelry she had instead of packing it, and then found another W’b priest to take her luggage to the docks.

It felt strange leaving the priest’s mummy on the stone slab alone, but the other priests of his order, and whatever family he had near the temple would come soon to seal him in his tomb. She had done her job, and should be on her way to the docks.

She walked out into Ra’s light and couldn’t help but feel a bit giddy as she walked the thoroughfare to the docks.

Anubis, Lord of the Sacred Land, was giving her a second chance . . .

It was nearly impossible not to skip her step with excitement.

As she walked, she noticed the young woman from before, lingering near a merchant’s stall, eying his wares, but not daring to approach. When the woman caught site of Khueninput approaching, she quickly scurried off in the direction of the docks.

This only brought the merchant’s attention onto Khueninput, and he began lavishly heaping praise upon her beauty, complementing the jewelry she already wore, but also adding how much better she would look with one of his pieces resting gently around her neck.

She laughed slightly and was about to continue on, when she noticed he also had jars of incense to sell, and wax candles, always a commodity in the Great Jackal’s temple, or any other god’s shrine.

She knew the ship was supposed to leave soon, but she could not help but approach the merchant’s tent. He seemed slightly stunned at first that he’d actually managed to hook a customer, but he recovered quickly enough and began pull forth some of his finer wares for her to peruse. After he’d set out the leopard’s skin, and giraffe’s tails he began to launch back into his pitch.

Khueninput held up a hand to stall him.

She hefted a jar of incense, feeling its weight in her palms and judging it to be similar to that of the golden scarab within her pocket.

“Made with cypress?” she asked raising the jar of incense to her nose to smell.

“No Hery Sesheta. Pine resin.”

The merchant had a small scale on the table as well, and she placed the jar on one of its plates, declaring her intent to purchase. The merchant rubbed his hands together eagerly and began adding weight in Deben to the other side. He added many more than needed to balance the scale, and yet the jar remained firmly rooted against the merchant’s table.

“Your weights are false. I’ve already weighed the jar in my palm, will you not even try to hide your lies?”

But Khueninput found herself smiling.

This man would surely need the scarab’s protection when he finally went before the gods, perhaps she should give the amulet to him.

But that couldn’t be what the Jackal god had meant with his order could it? Simply give the amulet to some wretched street merchant who probably had cheated his own grandmother before coming to Egypt.

Khueninput thought of the Great God weighing Ra Nefer-Ab’s answers as he pleaded on the stone slab. If the man had been against Set, perhaps he was indeed a worthy spirit after all. Anubis had seemed to consider more than the literal interpretation of the man’s confessions, he’d considered the intent of the words behind them. He had protected a man who’s intent sought peace and order over the chaos of Set’s reign even though he’d needed to kill to do so.

Khueninput eyed the traveling merchant as he left her side to hawk his wears at another potential customer — somewhat rude but certainly not damning — walking by, and weighed scales in her own head.

Unfortunately, the man who’d come to hear the merchant happened to be none other than Setek Peribsen. His captive god-beast looking plaintively onward with glowing red eyes.  

“I saw him Neb,” the merchant said when Setek Peribsen finally reached the stall.

“Well? Tell me! Which way has he gone?” Setek Peribsen did not seem to notice Khueninput yet, focused as he was on the Chaotic God’s command to find this . . . Assassin.

“It all happened so fast, I can hardly remember.”

“Perhaps north?” the merchant continued looking past the great temple as if he might still be able to catch sight of the man in flight.

The priest’s hand moved to cover his mouth, but Khueninput could still see his eyes shrink with a kind of shrewdness as they searched his countenance. All the merchant’s wares may as well have been more sand among the dunes for all the interest anyone payed them now.

“I remember you,” the priest said, removing his hand to reveal a set jaw and stern bearing. “Beqsu, from back at the monument. Of course it would be you who I must bargain with. What’s your price.”

“It should not be hard to pay. It is only what you already owe.”

“Hah! What I owe. Perhaps I could give the eggs of Hunta Ari Pet back to you.”

Khueninput could feel herself startle at the mention of such a valuable item, but she quickly schooled her gaze.

The priest of the Chaotic God continued. “But then scales would again be unbalanced, and it is your life that would be required to balance them. Luckily I have Ra Pt-r here to collect the toll. Tell me which way he went.”

Khueninput felt herself beginning to shake with rage. She’d been on the other side of Ra Pt-r’s gaze, understood the terror the merchant must be feeling. To threaten someone in this manner, to control the god-beast as he did . . .

It was an abomination.

But with Ra Pt-r poised to strike, there was little she could to on exact revenge upon Setek Peribsen, nor should harming him be her purpose here. She thought of the god she served, his likeness perched atop a coffin, loyal to the dead inside. She thought of Anubis handing the golden scarab to Ra Nefer-Ab, and later to herself, protecting them from the judgment of Ahseer, and the jaws of The Devourer Ammit.   

The words left her mouth before she could think. “The man you seek went south.”

The merchant turned to glare at her, and she could tell by his expression that she’d guessed correctly. She glared back at this Beqsu. “Tell him the rest. You have nothing more with which to leverage the scales.”

The merchant looked as if he might burst he held in so much pent up anger, but eventually he sighed and the anger flowed out of him with the escape of his breath.

“He fell from the sky like the God’s ore itself and landed in the reflecting pool. When he emerged from the waters he fled south, heading towards Nile.”

Setek Peribsen looked thoughtful again, raising his hand to his chin. He turned to Khueninput. “The Chaotic God has blessed me,” he said finally. “I’ll admit that after our dealings outside the embalming chamber, I’m surprised you’ve come to my aid.”

Khueninput smiled. “You’ve not reached Aaru yet Setek Peribsen. The water from the reflecting pool must have cleared your fugitive’s scent. That is why Ra Pt-r couldn’t track him. You’ve been searching too long. He must be half way to Nubia by now if he managed to catch a boat heading that way. 

“It will break the god-beasts to try and catch him now.” Khueninput believed that this notion did not upset Setek Peribsen very much. He almost looked excited by it.

“Perhaps I can ease your journey,” Khueninput continued. “I have a ship which has not yet left the docks. I could send it south along The Great River if I had cause.”

That shrewd look came over the priest’s face. “And what is your price?”

“Give me the Hunta Ari Pet eggs and you can have the ship and everything on it. Send it whichever way you choose.”

Setek Peribsen considered for a moment.

He would be a fool not to take the deal. The sky lizard’s eggs were worth their weight — or perhaps considerably more if measured by the merchant’s false scales — in gold, but they did not come close to the price of ship. And it would certainly shorten The Assassin’s lead on the Chaotic God’s agents.

“And what need do you have for them. I pray you’re not simply going to turn them over to this vagrant.” He motioned towards Beqsu.

“I will do with them as the Lord of the Sacred Land commands me.”

Setek Peribsen did not seem appeased by this answer — a fact that probably gave Khueninput too much satisfaction — but he could not see the trick within her words and so he begrudgingly brought a linen satchel forth and handed them over. Khueninput handed over the deed to the ship, and smiled as she watched both priest and Ra Nt-ka disappear towards the docks.

“What is this?” said the merchant, unable to restrain himself any longer. “Some kind of revenge because I cheated you? Those eggs are mine!”

Khueninput looked over to him.

“You should not have cheated me merchant, but no this is not revenge.”

“Then what? Cruelty?”

Khueninput sighed. “No. Not cruelty either. If we’re counting, I believe I just saved your life from that god-beast.”

Beqsu began to look indignant so Khueninput quickly continued. “Listen. In the short time I’ve known you, you’ve tried to cheat me, and scam a priest of the Chaotic God Set. You claim these eggs are yours, but you neglect the fact that to come by them, you must have stolen them from godlings in the first place, or at the very least traded with someone who did, which will not be better in the eyes of Ahseer.”

The look that came over Beqsu’s face at her words filled Khueninput with some measure of hope and affirmed her resolve.

Grief.

“I was not always like this,” Beqsu said. “In Nubia, it was not like it is here in The Two Lands. It seems like every day I must commit some crime in order to survive. What you saw today was not even the worst of it. It does not bother me anymore.”

“Well at least repay your debt to me. I’ve saved your life.” Khueninput said. “Come with me to Hardai. Spend some time in the City of the Dog, I think you’ll find it is never too late to turn things around.”

“I thank you, Hery Sesheta, for saving my life from the god-beast but I’ve come too far. Any debt I owe you is not so great as what you’re asking me to do.”

Khueninput held forth the patted the satchel at her waist.

“Come with me. Try. If we fail, these eggs are yours.”

Beqsu looked thoughtful for a moment and then smile came across his face. “Fine.” he said then laughed “What is one more trial? Perhaps you will save me after all.”

Khueninput looked the merchant in the eye, a smile forming on her own lips.

Perhaps you will save me as well . . .


If you made it this far I’m impressed. You must like what you’re reading? If you’d like more of this coming directly to your inbox, go ahead and sign up for my newsletter.

Thanks so much for reading. Leave any comments you feel in the comments section. Until next time . . .

(Book Review of) The Poppy War: Context is Everything

Oooh nice cover. I’m assuming this is Qara? I don’t remember Rin picking up a bow.

Oooof. This was not a light read. But I think perhaps it is an important one. I picked it up because it is the first installment in The Poppy War series by R.F. Kuang which has been nominated for the Hugo Award category ‘Best Series’ (also take a look at the other Hugo Finalists I’ve reviewed).

I didn’t really do much other research into it than that. I vaguely remember when it was nominated for the 2018 Nebula Award and the 2019 World Fantasy Award, but for whatever reason I hadn’t really been following the coverage, and so I didn’t know what to expect.

As such, my blind (and perhaps rather ignorant) first impression of the book was that it was set in a truly intricate (if grim) world which was expertly realized and beautifully written, but the meandering plot was at times confusing and frustrating, mostly when large periods of time would pass mid chapter or without some kind of climatic event that would clue the reader that we were coming to a new phase of the book.

The Fantasy Hive writes that The Poppy War is . . .

“A coming of age epic that leads on to a magic school section of mayhem and mysticism, before spiraling into a grimdark no-holds-barred military fantasy that’d make Sun Tzu roll over in his grave to rewrite The Art of War, with Joe Abercrombie writing the foreword. The Poppy War delivers what most trilogies aspire to – in ONE BOOK.”

https://fantasy-hive.co.uk/2018/11/the-poppy-war-by-r-f-kuang-book-review/

To me, it was too much. As soon as I felt like I was beginning to understand Rin’s struggles at Sinegard (the “magic” school) we were off joining the Cike in a kind of ensemble-style cast which seemed like it was about to set up for a heist, only to be thrown into an all out war which is when the book got exceedingly dark and gruesome.

But through all of this, I think what I was failing to understand, was the context needed to really see what this book was trying to do, namely, use a fantasy setting to explore the violence and brutality of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Opium Wars which followed, and reflect on some of the darkest parts of Chinese history.

(I want to say a quick thank you and shoutout to Read By Tiffany who did a deep dive and explained all of this context in her post: Everything You Need to Know Before You Read The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang. Truly an amazing post. If you haven’t read it, please do!)

Looking at the book in this light, and with this context, it seems quite remarkable in its achievement. If the book’s motivation was to capture the elements of history I mentioned above, then it really did so in a way that was compelling and interesting.

And so that’s why I feel this book was an important read if not a light one. It got me questioning. At first, those questions were simply: “What is everyone else taking away from this book that I’m not?” But now that I’ve found that answer, it’s become “Well what really happened during that period in history?” or “What is Investiture of the Gods as opposed to Journey to the West?”

With these questions rattling around in my brain, I’m now looking forward to reading the next book in the series, The Dragon Republic.

Although, I must admit, I will probably do some more research before continuing on. I’m assuming it can only help.

Anyway, that’s it for the review. If you read this one, please let me know what you thought in the comments. If you haven’t? Well still let me know your thoughts, I’m always up for chatting book things. See you next time!

The links to Hugo Award Finalists I’ve reviewed

Hi all! I was finding it hard to keep track of the different reviews I’ve done for Hugo Award finalists, so I decided to make a post that’s only that. Also I can stick it to the top of my blog which will be easier on everyone.

I will NOT be updating the Hugo Finalists Reaction post anymore. I may still update the Hugo’s Are Coming! post but it has a bunch of extra stuff that isn’t relevant to the finalists, so I didn’t want to stick it to the top of the blog.

I’ll just update this as I go. If you don’t see a title (or more likely whole category) listed here, but it is listed on the 2021 Hugo Awards website it’s because I haven’t read/watched/played and reviewed it yet. This page will have more links as time goes on. Enjoy!

Best novel:

Best Series:

Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book:

Astounding Award for Best New Writer:


Ok. That’s all I’ve managed so far. Thanks for stopping by!

On the Scholomance as a twisted, evil Eudaimonia Machine.

Last week I reviewed Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education. There’s a lot going on in the book which I won’t rehash here, but one of the main things that stuck out to me as inspiring and wonderful, was the school itself, that is to say, The Scholomance.

Yes. The heartless, soulless, emotionless, a-bunch-of-other-things-that-end-in-less, mystical meat-grinder of a university that tried so hard to end our beloved heroine at every turn was perhaps the most amazing (and definitely my favorite) part of the novel . . .

I guess I’m an academic after all.

But seriously, I was pretty much in awe of Novik for the realization of this place, because as I read further into the book, and learned more about The Scholomance, I realized that what she had created was actually an Aristotelian ideal of existence. The Eudaimonia Machine . . .

Only, ya know, twisted and evil.

So what the hell am I talking about? I’ll tell you, but first a little history lesson:

The Little History Lesson:

So this lesson will be taught in two parts. First a little background on the term Scholomance itself, and then on to the Eudaimonia machine. Here we go!

Wtf is a Scholomance

So The Scholomance is the school in A Deadly Education which all the wizards and witches attend to learn magic which will (hopefully) help them survive in the real world which is apparently filled with Maleficaria (monsters, demons, what-have-you) which are just dying to eat everyone, all the time. It’s horrible and cruel, and seemingly more people die during their tenure than graduate but hey, that’s the world we live in . . . err the world they live in.

When I first picked up the novel and the school was termed Scholomance, the name seemed vaguely familiar, but no references came to mind readily. After I was finished reading, I googled a bit and found that apparently, the term Scholomance comes from the Romanian word Şolomanţă, and was rumored to be a school in Transylvania which was fabled to teach black magic. Students were purported to learn:

“all the secrets of nature, the language of animals, and all imaginable magic spells and charms.”

Transylvanian Superstitions by Emily Gerard. pg. 136. Found at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/52165/52165-h/52165-h.htm

It was also said that the school was run by the Devil who taught there and that only ten students were admitted at a time, and when the class graduated, one was held behind as the Devil’s aide de camp. This lucky (or perhaps luckless) soul would ride around on a dragon that controls the weather.

I suppose if there are Dragons involved, Novik would know about it.

Ah yes here’s the ad haha

Perhaps The Scholomance’s most famous portrayal outside of Romanian myth and legend, was Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It is thought that Stoker read Emily Gerard’s Transylvanian Superstitions and much of the folklore cited there is what inspired the novel. The Scholomance is only mentioned twice however by name (so says wikipedia).

As much as my literary mind would love to believe that I somehow remembered one, or both, of these two measly references in Dracula, the reality of the situation is I’ve only read the book once, and it was for class so I probably retained only exactly what I needed for my paper. The more likely scenario is that I remembered it from World of Warcraft. In that game, The Scholomance, was a castle like school in which the undead baddie Kel’Thuzad trained his necromancers. It was apparently a pretty high level dungeon so I likely never actually ran it, but I definitely would have seen all the ads for it . . .

Moving on!

And a Eudaimonia Machine?

Now this, is where things get even more interesting. The Eudaimonia Machine.

In the work of Aristotle, Eudaimonia is referenced as ‘happiness’, ‘welfare’, or ‘human flourishing and prosperity’ (certainly different then the Scholomance). Architect and entrepreneur David Dewane has thought a lot about these things and wondered what it might mean for people to reach such a state and how. He says:

“eudaimonia for a knife is being sharp and cutting. If it’s dull or just lying on the counter, it’s not achieving its highest state. So what is that for a human?”

https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/story-new-york-eudaimonia-machine-david-dewane-optimal-work-space

For him, it would seem eudaimonia involves “deep work”, or the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. Some might say . . . Flow. Dewane feels it’s your environment that allows you to achieve eudaimonia. No surprise then, that an architect would set out to design a building which helps achieve this state.

James Matheson, someone I found on Medium, has a good post describing the concept, but the idea is basically that as you complete your work day, you are able to handle less and less distraction, and so you should change your environment accommodate that fatigue. The building ends up having the following five rooms (or maybe levels . . .):

  • Gallery – Where you enter the machine. It’s probably the most crowded level as it’s where everyone comes for inspiration and to talk. This level has examples of work created at the higher levels, placed to give you a bit of positive peer pressure.
  • Salon – A bar or maybe a coffee shop. It has good seating and is an area where you can hang and literally chew things out with your peers
  • Library – A library. All of the work produced in ‘the machine’ will be recorded, and accessible to you here. It’s where you will begin to gain the knowledge you use for your work.
  • Office – Areas for meetings and ‘shallow work’. This is where you work out the finer points of your strategy and everything in order.
  • Chambers – Where the rubber hits the road so to speak. This is where the work happens. Total focus. Crush it.

There is a point to all this I swear (possibly spoilers ahead)

So lets take a look at the five levels of The Sholomance as realized in A Deadly Education. The are: The Library, The Cafeteria, Language Halls, Classrooms, Shop & Special Classrooms.

Now let’s see how well those map onto our machine:

So intricate . . .
  • The Library – A library. This is the first level of the Scholomance. It’s the ‘safest’ level. Students come here to study, talk, hang out. Instead of positive peer pressure, of the Eudaimonia Machine’s Gallery, there is the more negative peer pressure of the fact that if a student doesn’t get a spot, they’ll be forced to study on one of the more dangerous floors.
  • The Cafeteria – Where the food is. Students sit, eat, kill whatever tiny Mals hide in the pudding. It’s a good chance to shore up alliances and hash out trades with your peers
  • Language Halls – Where the languages are learned. Since language is essentially the basis of spell casting in this universe, it’s important to study up. In the language hall is where students really learn the foundations of what they’ll cast later on.
  • Classrooms – Students probably shouldn’t be heading to any of the previous levels alone, but now it’s really getting dangerous. Especially if the room is empty. But once other students arrive, it is mostly safe. A lot of the subjects learned here are seemingly busy work (shallow work?), but sometimes there are a few rare gems which come through. Students often collaborate with their alliances to get the work done, or get the details worked out for projects they’ll pursue on the final level. (also no teachers! could probably write a whole other post on that, but I won’t. I’m getting tired.)
  • Shop & Special Classrooms – These are some of the most dangerous parts of The Scholomance, but also where the real work gets done. In the shop, students create magical artifacts such as magic mirrors, or mana sharers. Whatever they need to survive the end of the year.

We Made it!

So obviously, the Scholomance doesn’t map one-for-one onto Dewane’s Eudaimonia Machine, but I couldn’t help but think that it seemed to fit pretty well as a kind of riff or reversal of the concept. Instead of creating an environment which progressively gets rid of distraction to allow someone to achieve the pinnacle of their capability, The Scholomance is designed specifically to progressively introduce distractions (in the form of bigger and badder mals) so that the students won’t live long enough to do so.

The irony here is, I get the distinct impression that despite all of the danger and distraction present within The Scholomance, I do believe our heroine, El (short for the back half of Galadriel), truly flourished through the course of her adventure, and possibly even found some semblance of those Aristotelian virtues, prosperity and happiness.

We’ll see what her next year holds . . .

I’m impressed you made it this far. Thanks for sticking with it. If you have thoughts or other connections, please leave em in the comments section.


Hey again, I hope you enjoyed On The Scholomance as a twisted, evil Eudaimonia Machine. If you’re at all interested in reading more of my writing, or what goes into my own stories, I’ve started a newsletter (which is hopefully released quarterly) so people can get a more “behind the scenes” look of what I’m doing and what’s going on in my world. Please consider subscribing. Just for signing up, I’ll email you the first story I ever wrote, about a Warlock Doctor. Fun times. Thanks again!

See you next time!

Should ‘Cemetery Boys’ win the Lodestar Award?

I think so far this is my front runner for the award (though I still have four more nominees to read).

I’ll admit up front that (I think) Yadriel is the first openly trans character I’ve read in fiction, SFF or otherwise. Certainly, one of the most interesting and prescient elements of the novel is the way in which Yadriel has to navigate life with this identity, despite a world which — whether intentionally or unintentionally — just doesn’t understand him.

The author mentions in an interview for NPR, that “[Very often] … teaching falls onto the shoulders of queer/trans kids, which can be exhausting.”

I FELT THIS constantly while reading Cemetery Boys (so great execution there). At times it seemed there was enough tension and suspense in just this one aspect of the plot that it was almost cruel to have a magical murder mystery to solve on top of it.

But heroes do hard things and Yadriel is no exception. I enjoyed rooting for him and watching him grow. That he often had so few reasons to grin like a fool, only made me grin that much wider when he finally cracked a smile.

Another strength of the novel is Yadriel’s crew. Julian was perhaps my favorite. Even though he’s technically dead (a ghost), the kid is bursting with life. Energetic, confident, and enthusiastic about seemingly everything, Julian at first appears not to have a care in the world. We see later, that life has not been easy for him either, and that he has his own struggles and issues to contend with . . . which only makes his no-holds-barred approach to life (unlife?) even more impressive and inspiring. He doesn’t always know the right thing to say, and he basically never knows the right thing to do, but he’s honest and caring, and true to himself, in a way that gets him forgiven for his missteps. He’s a perfect companion for Yadriel on this adventure, a true yin to Yad’s yang (try saying that ten times fast).

Maritza also should get an honorable mention as well. She’s a badass and super supportive to everyone in a kind of I-am-rolling-my-eyes-at-you way (as in she’s rolling her eyes, not the reader). Plus she has two adorable pitbulls which provide a shot of much needed laughter and cheerfulness when things are in danger of getting too intense.

Essentially, this story is about its characters, and the author, Aiden Thomas, just nails them seemingly effortlessly.

The last element in the ‘awesome’ category is the book’s milieu (I probably should just say worldbuilding). We’re in Los Angeles, but mostly we’re in this Latinx community of Brujx. There’s so much to delve into here, but I won’t because I’d rather you just read it and experience it for yourself. What I really admired most though, was how tethered (in the case of freeing a soul literally) the magic was to the identity of the community and the protagonist specifically. Everything revolved around it, and there was no shortage of detail to really immerse (welcome us) into the community. Whether it was painting sugar skulls while discussing ancient gods, or simply eating delicious food at relative’s house, it all felt real, and wonderful.

And in the case of an aunt or grandmother constantly trying to push food on you as a teen, somewhat nostalgic?

I had only one gripe with the book and it was pacing. There were a few points which I felt we were getting information we had already seen or heard, or a few times — after learning some new clue or info — we’d have to go home or sit through school. Perhaps I was just identifying too much with Julian who can’t sit still for longer than a few moments. However, none of these moments took me out of the story for long.

Conclusion?

I’m going to say optimistically (as of 6/22/2021) that this will be my vote for the Lodestar Award. A Deadly Education was really great, but marred by too many insensitivities. This book just seemed to shine, so unless the one of the other four nominees shines brighter somehow, I think this will be the one.

Thanks for reading all this. Please let me know your thoughts on the book, and what your favorite parts were in the comments section. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

Newsletter Exclusive Fiction Preview Sent in to Writing Group for Critique!

Hey all, no book tags, book reviews, articles on random topics, or complete fiction to post on the blog today, but I did manage to finish the first draft of this quarter’s newsletter exclusive fiction. As the title suggests, I’ve sent it off to my writing group and will be getting feedback on Monday. Fingers crossed they enjoy it. You can look at a little preview in the image below:

Anywho, please let me know what you’re thinking so far in the comments. Also, this piece ties in with a larger narrative I’m working on for Kindle Vella. If your interested in that, you can check out my WIP tease: Beqsu takes a Leap.

Until next time . . .


Hey again! If somehow this tiny tease of my WIP, and general update as to my writing life happened capture your interest, please consider subscribing to my newsletter. I’ll do a post every quarter (expect the first one July 1st!) that fills you in completely on what I’ve been up to and send you the first story I ever wrote, about a Warlock Doctor. Or, check out my other fiction I’ve posted here on A&A. 

Thanks for stopping by, and see you next time!