Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Book Review: New Worlds, Year Two: More Essays on the Art of Worldbuilding by Marie Brennan

Pros: short essays are easy to read, covers a wide variety of topics

Cons: short essays don’t go into much detail

This is the second book of essays compiled from Brennan’s Patreon. There’s an introduction, 52 themed essays and an afterward. The themes from this book encompass weaponry, honor, cosmetics, clothing, wedding customs, literacy, time keeping, religious practices, superstitions, and some general worldbuilding tips.

I loved that there were a variety of topics, broken down into more specific essays. Each essay is only a few pages long so you can easy read one in a few minutes. Brennan gives several examples per essay showing how cultures differ, so as to get the reader thinking of applications beyond the common. The downside here is each essay is very basic and is more of a way to get you thinking about applications than showing you how to apply each aspect to your own world.

As with the first book, it’s a great collection and points out a lot of worthwhile tidbits for making your fictional worlds feel more lived in.

Friday, 21 June 2019

Shout-Out: Green Valley by Louis Greenberg

Chilling near-future SF for fans of Black Mirror and True Detective.

When Lucie Sterling's niece is abducted, she knows it won't be easy to find answers. Stanton is no ordinary city: invasive digital technology has been banned, by public vote. No surveillance state, no shadowy companies holding databases of information on private citizens, no phones tracking their every move.

Only one place stays firmly anchored in the bad old ways, in a huge bunker across town: Green Valley, where the inhabitants have retreated into the comfort of full-time virtual reality--personae non gratae to the outside world. And it's inside Green Valley, beyond the ideal virtual world it presents, that Lucie will have to go to find her missing niece.

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Physiologus: A Medieval Book of Nature Lore Translated by Michael Curley

Pros: excellent introduction, full translation, lots of end notes

Cons: some quotes left untranslated

Translated in 1979 and reissued in 2009, this was the first full English translation of the Greek manuscript, Physiologus. The manuscript took stories of animals and gave them Christian allegorical meanings. These stories were used in later bestiary collections and by encyclopedists - with and without their allegories - greatly influencing the medieval mind.

The book begins with an introduction that gives background on the Physiologus and the questions surrounding when it was written and who it was written by. It is then followed by translations of the 51 chapters, most of which deal with animals though there are also a few plants and stones.

The information in the introduction is fantastic and really helps you place the Physiologus in history while not being too academic and dry. My only complain here - and also with the notes at the back of the volume - is that neither Greek nor Latin quotations are translated for those who can’t read them.

The manuscript itself is rather dry. More time is given to the moral than to describing the animal. If you’re unfamiliar with these types of works, you’ll be confused by a lot of the ‘natural’ behaviours described. Very little of this is true animal behaviours. Consider them more morality tales like Aesop’s fables rather than a treatise on natural history. However, remember that as many of the animals described were not native to the lands where the tales became popular, they did influence beliefs in mythological creatures and many in the past believed the stories depicted actual animal behaviours.

The book includes black and white woodcut images from the 1587 G. Ponce de Leon edition of the book. I had expected there to be an image per chapter but there were only 21 images in total and a few of the listings had more than one image (the serpent has a series of 4 images).

If you’re interested in medieval thought and art, the bestiary by way of the Physiologus was hugely influential. This book is a glimpse into the medieval mind, both with regards to how they saw the natural world and how they believed the natural and spiritual worlds overlapped.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Book Review: The Queen of Crows by Myke Cole

Pros: great fight scenes, real consequences, long odds


The displaced villagers of Lutet now face the full wrath of the Order. They realize they need walls to protect them and decide to take over the nearby town of Lyse.

Picking up immediately where The Armored Saint left off, Queen of Crows starts with an ambush and ends with a siege.

There’s a good amount of fighting and some real internal conflicts for the villagers in general and Heloise in particular. They suffer real losses (again) in this book.

I enjoyed learning more about the travelling people and seeing their knife dancing and magic.

The first book was so good I was a little concerned this one wouldn’t hold up, but the author nailed the ending. I can’t wait for the next book to come out.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Book Review: The Armored Saint by Myke Cole

Pros: feisty protagonist, interesting world-building


Sixteen year old Heloise Factor’s world is upended when she and her father encounter members of the Order on the road. The Sojourner and his Pilgrims dragged the bodies of two female magicians behind their horses. Thus the Order keeps the people safe from the legions of Hell, which magicians unwittingly loose in their pride. But the Order has little consideration for the peasantry that feed them, and Heloise discovers that her fear must contend with anger at the mistreatment she and her father receive.

This character driven story is told from Heloise’s point of view as she learns that the world can be a terrifying place and that those who profess to do good are sometimes the most horrible. She’s a headstrong girl who can’t watch injustice without acting. This gets her - and others - into a lot of trouble. She’s also slowly discovering that she’s into girls, in a world where that’s not an acceptable option. There were a few moments where I wanted to yell at her for making poor decisions, but I can’t deny that Cole accurately tapped into a teen girl’s psyche, showing her fear, rage, and passion in equal measure.

The setting is medieval inspired with some minor steampunk style engines thrown in. I loved that there were quotations from various books of holy writ as well as her father’s journal from when he was in the war to give the narrative some historical grounding.

It’s very much a novel about family and what people will do for those they love. It’s also about communities that stick together, even when things get tough.

There’s a scene reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and it’s just as uncomfortable to read. It also contains the sole scene of graphic, somewhat gory, violence in the book. There’s a brilliant fight scene at the end that’s brutal, but not gory.

This is a quick read that really grips you (I missed a subway stop reading it).

Note: If you liked this but want a fantasy novel with an older heroine, pick up Armed In Her Fashion by Kate Heartfield.

Friday, 31 May 2019

Books Received in May, 2019

As always, many thanks to the publishers who sent me books this month.

Lady Mechanika, Vol 5: La Belle Dame Sans Merci by M. M. Chen and Joe Benitez - I absolutely love the artwork in this series and the Victorian steampunk aesthetic.  I've reviewed it here.

Lady Mechanika's investigation into her forgotten past is overshadowed by concern for her associate Mr. Lewis when he becomes enamored of a beautiful and enigmatic young widow, whose own past seems disturbingly linked to the untimely deaths of several creative geniuses. Will Mr. Lewis be next?

New Worlds, Year 2: More Essays on the Art of Worldbuilding by Marie Brennan - This is the second collection of essays for Brennan's patreon worldbuilding perk. I read last year's ebook and they're great. Each one's short but goes over a good amount of information. I'm part way through this one and enjoying it.

Explore a world of your own . . .
Science fiction and fantasy are renowned for immersing their readers in rich, inventive settings. In this follow-up to the collection NEW WORLDS, YEAR ONE, award-winning fantasy author Marie Brennan guides you through new aspects of worldbuilding and how they can generate stories. From beauty to books, from tattoos to taboos, these essays delve into the complexity of different cultures, both real and imaginary, and provide invaluable advice on crafting a world of your very own.
This volume collects essays from the second year of the New Worlds Patreon.

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone - I enjoyed Gladstone's Craft Sequence novels (though I still have to read the last 2 - there's just not enough time!) and am really excited about this collaboration.

Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandant finds a letter. It reads: Burn before reading.
Thus begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents hellbent on securing the best possible future for their warring factions. Now, what began as a taunt, a battlefield boast, grows into something more. Something epic. Something romantic. Something that could change the past and the future.
Except the discovery of their bond would mean death for each of them. There’s still a war going on, after all. And someone has to win that war. That’s how war works. Right?

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Book Review: Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World Edited by Elizabeth Morrison with Larisa Grollemond

Pros: lots of gorgeous full colour illustrations, essays on a variety of topics, thorough discussion on the evolution of bestiaries

Cons: some of the essays are dense

This is the guide that accompanies the exhibition “Book of Beasts” at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The exhibit runs from May 14th to August 18th.

The book is divided into three parts. Part one is an introduction plus images and text for the 15 best known bestiary animals. Part two: Exploring the Bestiary is subdivided into The Bestiary in form and function (consisting of 6 essays and the first 28 catalogue listings) and The Bestiary Reimagined (two essays and 5 listings). Part three: Beyond the Bestiary is again subdivided, with catalogue listings after each essay. It’s sections are: Church and Court (3 essays) and Bestiaries and Natural History (4 essays). The epilogue is followed by the final catalogue listings and four appendices.

I found the first few essays of part 2 boring due to their dry and somewhat dense prose. There’s a fair amount of repetition in that most of these essays opened with similar background paragraphs on Bestiaries and their origins in the Greek book Physiologus. For me, the most interesting essay of this section was “Accommodating Antlers, Making Room for Hedgehogs, and Other Problems of Page Design in the Medieval Bestiary”. It was interesting learning how scribes and illustrators may have been working from different manuscripts and so their work didn’t always line up.

The later essays were much more interesting, both in style an content. There’s less minutiae about the manuscripts making them more accessible and I enjoyed learning new things about how bestiaries influenced other forms of art like maps and sculptures. I also appreciated that there were separate essays on Jewish and Muslim uses of animals in manuscripts. Those essays all felt too short, given the amount of information being discussed.

I liked that there are occasional ‘notes to the reader’ explaining some of the terms so that even those who haven’t studied manuscripts can understand the more scholarly language used. The notes for catalogue listings generally mentioned if a manuscript has been fully or partially digitized and is available online for further study. Unfortunately these notes are in such small text I’m afraid some readers will miss this information.

Catalogue images are all reproduced in colour and there was a good variety. I loved seeing the evolution of the genre and how the stories were reinterpreted in later works. I was surprised that some of the images were duplicated though. A page would be used to illustrate an essay and than that same page would be one of the images used to illustrated the catalogue listing for that manuscript. Given the fact that each manuscript only got one or two images, I would have expected different pages to be used each time in order to maximize the number of different images shown.

If you’re new to bestiaries this is an excellent primer, though you’ll have to work a bit to understand some of the terms. For those with some knowledge, it will increase it and suggest other works to examine. If you’re well versed in the subject the later essays don’t go far enough to suggest new avenues of study, though the earlier ones do an excellent job of showing what scholarship has been done and what still needs examination.

This looks like an excellent exhibit and I wish I could attend and see all of these manuscripts and artworks in person.