The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson

Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe was a slow burn, and a good one.

I admit that it lost its compulsive hold on me part way through. I was distracted. My reading wandered, and I consumed several other tasty books. But when I returned to it after some time away, I finished it in one sitting. And while my hair did not stand on end (much harder now with its covid-length), this story does an excellent job of peeling back the skin and exposing fresh, homemade, very human discomfort.

Another friend of mine absolutely adored this book and inhaled it in one go, unable to put it down. In talking about it, we speculated that my distraction in the middle may have come from gendered differences. Perhaps, we thought, I was less caught up in it because it felt less intimately personal. Your mileage may vary.

Whatever the source of that difference, I absolutely agree with her (and with whomever decided to bundle these books at Tor) that like The Ballad of Black Tom (my review, Goodreads), this book does a beautiful job of reimagining abysmal source material with vibrance, reality, and truth. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe captures the same strange wonder and eeriness of Dreaming that I remember enjoying from Lovecraft’s work, while shedding Lovecraft’s awful baggage. I firmly believe that this story, like The Ballad of Black Tom, is superior to HPL’s work.

Read the originals only if you must, and only if you’re ready for how much worse Lovecraft was.

Speaking of ‘must,’ this story is an adventure of musts and mustn’ts. It’s about being pushed, pressured by society and those with more power. And this story is more concerned with wily survival against the wishes of malignant potentates than with any fulfillment of internal, personal dreams and desires. In fact, it’s about quashing one’s own hopes in order to conform, in hopes that conforming will offer some protection. That is part of what sets this story up so well as a piece of slow horror, but it’s also foundational to why it feels so honest. Our protagonist, Vellitt Boe, struggles against constraints even as she tries to uphold them; she’s caught in a vise, doing her best to protect the little island of home she’s found, the little space for broadening life’s horizons she’s been able to settle into… but to do so, she must drag another woman back from those broadened horizons, back into a constrained life, lest many more lives be lost.

Horrible. Perfect.

Now, some very light, very generalized *SPOILERS*…

The late-in-the-story turnaround leading to the story’s final resolution seems obvious when I think about it now, but it caught me by surprise in the best way. And throughout the story, I loved that Vellitt Boe accomplished more through her own previous experience—and the relationships she’d forged over her well-traveled life—rather than through any personal skill mastery or super-ability. Being experienced in the ways of the world, having old allies, and knowing how to convince people to do what she wanted all did more for her… and that felt perfect. In so many ways, Vellitt Boe is the opposite of the heroes or narrators chosen by Lovecraft, or his contemporary Robert E. Howard. And the fact that Vellitt Boe’s connections to other people are so fundamentally instrumental to her success… it feels to me like a beautiful refusal of the ideologies of the source material.

End *SPOILERS*.

Look, I like this book. I definitely recommend it. More deliberate than fast-paced, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is full of subdued horror, is uncomfortable but rewarding, and is very good.

Rewrites, Dying, and Seeing Beauty

I wrote a scene in my Protectors setting soon after New Years, one that resonated really strongly with me. It felt good. It was obviously either the emotional climax of a story, or one of two emotional climaxes. That scene just as obviously needed more material to support it. It was, in some ways, like finding out that I’d built the middle of a bridge’s span and still needed to build the rest.

As I wrote the rest of the story, I discovered that—to remain honest to the characters and story—I either needed to write something that felt depressing and which I didn’t want, or I had to find a very different way of reaching the conclusion I’d hoped for. My first attempts at this didn’t go well. I tried forcing the conclusion I’d hoped for, and it felt dishonest, jammed into place. Then I mapped out what would happen in the depressing version, and just felt sad.

So, rewrites. Rewrites and talking with my mom (and crit group) about my narrative struggles.

My crit group agreed that I probably had to write out both versions and see what happened. They also noted that writing the depressing version might be more in keeping with the setting. My mom, on the other hand, offered up some observations from a book she’d read recently about mortality and the experience of approaching death and dying (Advice for Future Corpses (And Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying, by Sallie Tisdale).

A little context: my mom has done a lot of work with the elderly (and is now reaching elderly herself). When I was a kid she did a good deal of work with patients in hospice—palliative end-of-life care. Her second husband, my stepfather, was a good deal older than she was, and the two of them met because they were both working in hospice. They read many books together, especially about philosophy, meditation, and the experience of growing old and dying. My stepfather died last fall. What I’m trying to say is, it’s hardly new for my mom to share something from her readings about mortality.

If you’ve read any of my stories in my Protectors setting, you’ll understand what I mean when I say those stories are rarely about growing old but often about the experience of encroaching death. My mom’s contribution was pretty on point.

The bit she mentioned was an experience which is sometimes shared by those who are dying, one she said my stepfather had spoken of: the heightening of one’s appreciation for the everyday, and for beauty in the everyday world. Not that the world is itself different, but that—in the process of dying, faced with imminent death—the world’s vibrancy and glory are more evident, more accessible.

And that felt like the missing key.

Thinking on it now, this feels like part of the gratitude and joy, or the quiet meditation on beauty, which I see in some Buddhist meditative tradition. And that experience of beauty, gratitude, and joy was the second step I needed to follow the first emotional climax. The transformative nature of those feelings, the fundamental shift from despair and depression to wonder and awe, is at the heart of the emotional shift I needed.

I still have to write it and make it stick, of course. I’m part way through that. I’ve got to put together another few scenes, replace a few others with new ones, and then print it up and see whether it makes any sense. I don’t expect it to work on the first (second?) attempt, but maybe it will at least look a bit more like a finished bridge… something I can work with.

Thanks Mom.

A Deadly Education, by Naomi Novik

This book reads like fanfic grown wild and untamed, the sturdy and feral descendant of stories past. That, in my mind, is a good thing.

I tried to sum up the novel’s concept, as practice for making pitches and loglines, and came up with something like… “what if Harry Potter, but the school is *literally* a death trap full of monsters and there aren’t any adults around to ‘help?’” Add some socioeconomic inequality, teen drama, a pinch of prophecy, and an antisocial and justifiably angry teen girl for a narrator, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education is like.

I enjoyed the hell out of this book.

I did not, apparently, read the first released edition. Before posting this, I read a little bit of other commentary on A Deadly Education, to doublecheck my own impressions, and found some critiques of what seemed like racist content that I had entirely missed. It turns out that I wasn’t oblivious (this time): Naomi Novik acknowledged those critiques after receiving them last fall, said the language was unintentional, undesired, and unnecessary, and removed it from later versions of the text (including the version I read).

Honestly, the only thing that seemed off to me was the lack of more queer folks. As someone who works with kids and teens, I’m kind of surprised that there was so little overt inclusion of characters who weren’t cis and het, even in the background. Yes, it’s easy to read one or two characters as queer, but “plausibly deniable” inclusion just isn’t the same thing. I know that Novik has included queer people in her Temeraire books (only as side characters sadly, but important and beloved ones), and—given the change in context from Napoleonic-era historical fantasy to modern teen fantasy—the general lack seems like an avoidable oversight.

Now, of course, dating and romance necessarily take a back seat to simply surviving in this story. Certainly it could be argued that our protagonist, outcast that she is, is paying more attention to other things than the sexualities and genders of those around her. But she’s also an astute social observer, and I would expect her to pay attention to who was dating whom (or who was crushing on whom) if only for the way that those relationships would change power dynamics in the Scholomance. Surely someone in that hell-pit of a school is openly queer.

That said, the lack of more queer rep was not a dealbreaker for me. I was still stuck in this book, pulled back in repeatedly. I’d open it while my computer turned on, and then keep reading while the machine patiently waited for my password. I’d open it when I sat down for lunch, and lose an afternoon. I’d open it as I lay in bed, and then struggle to put it down and sleep. This book grabbed me, and I want the sequel.

Putting those issues aside, I rather liked the book’s commentary and focus on inequality, and the way that inequality is baked into the setting as a driving force. It’s poignantly, painfully honest—and reminds me in a good way of later themes in the Temeraire series. The resources available to any wizard are a vital concern, and they’re literally life or death for students in the Scholomance. People will do nearly anything to get an edge, or keep one, and that desperation is the lifeblood of this book. I’m so glad that it’s brought to the forefront here.

Yes, I recommend this book. If you wanted more teen wizards, awful and dangerous schools, teenage drama in terrible circumstances, or delightfully and justifiably angry female narrators, this book will make you very happy. Indulge yourself.

Also, if you want another perspective on the book, check out this naga’s thoughts. I used the image at top from that site.

Novelizations Panel Schedule, Arisia 2021

Come hear me (and other people) talk about Movie Novelizations!

1pm EST, Saturday Jan. 16th, this coming weekend.

I’m only on the one panel this year. This is a far lighter load than I had last year, when I was on seven panels and modded four of them—one of those by surprise (the Harassment one).

Part of me is a little sad about doing less this year. I really do enjoy being on and moderating panels, for all that I was worn out by it last year. But another part of me is fine with it; I have a weekend that I can use to do other life-things. I won’t come out of this weekend feeling run down from running around constantly and talking non-stop for hours on end.

And yet.

I enjoy nerding out about a hodge-podge of topics, and I enjoy listening to other people speak knowledgeably about their areas of expertise, and I *really* enjoy shepherding panels through their explorations. I’ve made some good friends, people I value reconnecting with, over the years that I’ve been at Arisia. I’ll miss seeing and talking with them this year. I’ll miss being on panels with them.

There were fewer panels offered this year that called to me, fewer panels for which I thought “oh that one fits me to a T” or “I could really add something there.” I don’t think that lack is beyond normal variation, especially given the trying circumstances for any convention this year. And I don’t mean that there aren’t good panels on offer, merely that there weren’t as many that felt correct for me.

If you’d like to hear about movie novelizations, or the struggles involved in translating any given story across media, come check out this panel on Saturday. I hope you’ll see me there.

Movie Novelizations at Arisia 2021

I’ve had a writing break. I’m still on break, as it were, at least for another day or two. Working at home so much even before the pandemic means that I’m used to the struggle of easing myself back into my work schedule. Doesn’t make it easier. Reading about people’s struggles adjusting to working at home last March and April was vindicating, and offered guilty nourishment for my schadenfreude.

This year I will be attending Arisia virtually, and will only be on one panel. Organizing Arisia for 2021 seems like a particularly difficult and thankless task, so I am glad that a) someone else is doing it, and b) they’re still doing their best to run a convention despite COVID-19. After working digital LARP camps this summer, I really didn’t want to be on more than one or two panels in a weekend, so this is perfect for me.

The panel I’m on this year will focus on movie novelizations. I hope to include some exploration of other translations of story across media (from pure-text to text with illustration, animation, or live action… and vice versa). I’m fascinated by the ways in which stories (and the story-telling arts) change as the medium shifts, and the ways that story elements become more or less accessible for audiences across different media.

I don’t think that any particular narrative tricks are *impossible* to translate from one medium to another, but they’re certainly not all equally easy to alter.

Take, for example, the ability to convey internal emotional state. A story told purely via text can be first person, granting the reader direct access to the character’s emotional and physical state. In live action form, on a screen, that character’s emotional state is only accessible through the viewer’s interpretation of the actor… with as much (or more) variation in interpretation due to a viewer’s personal response to an actor.

Or perhaps I should compare the ease with which text can dilate and contract time, glossing over the details of a battle in a few sweeping sentences (Lloyd Alexander does this neatly a number of times in his Chronicles of Prydain series) while giving tight focus to an emotional conversation. Live action film can do these things, but I think the audience’s perception of time (and how time works on the screen) is different than the assumptions of a reader. Meanwhile, film can convey a myriad of elements in one shot, encompassing more details (and background clues) in a single frame than is feasible by text; Knives Out is a glowing example of this.

All of which is to say, I’m very excited to nerd out about this with other similarly excited people. I think there’s a lot of good material to explore.

I’ll post more details about when this panel will be when I know more myself.

Last week’s movies: 6 Underground & Enola Holmes

I saw Enola Holmes last weekend, and saw 6 Underground the week before. One I can’t recommend, and the other I’d recommend to nearly everyone.

First, 6 Underground was a very pretty mess. I haven’t looked up who was in charge of writing (Paul Wernick & Rhett Reese?), edits, effects, or anything else past Michael Bay’s role as director, but somewhere along the line a great deal of the movie fell apart. If you want a simplistic portrayal of regime change a la Batman, with minimally developed characters and frequent holes in the story—and the world’s continuity in general—then 6 Underground is for you. As per usual, Bay is extremely good at finding beautiful camera angles and showcasing big action sequences… but he mostly ignores the other stuff that movies are made of.

Sometimes I fear I hallucinated my enjoyment of Bay’s Pain & Gain, and worry that I should re-watch it to see whether it’s still worth holding up as a counter-argument to my usual dislike of Bay’s movies. I haven’t gone back to it yet. It’s hard to muster my enthusiasm, when I’ve just watched something else by Bay.

Thankfully, Enola Holmes (eponymously named for the main character) was delightful.

I like middle grade and young adult fiction. If you’ve followed anything else here for a while, I doubt that will be a surprise. Enola Holmes feels like an excellent translation of Upper Middle Grade / Young Adult storytelling into movie form, and I would love to see a sequel (which I understand is in the works, lawsuits from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate notwithstanding). Relatedly, I now want to read the book series this movie was based on, the first book of which is The Case of the Missing Marquess by Nancy Springer.

A few choice tidbits in no real order… I’m a fan of the movie’s little historical nods, especially including suffragists (later called suffragettes) who really did learn jiujitsu in order to take on cops who tried to break up their demonstrations. The movie’s (and I assume, the book series’) extrapolation of the Holmes family’s dynamic is excellent fun, and I loved seeing the growth of Sherlock (in the background) in response to Enola’s prodding—heck, any time Millie Bobbie Brown and Henry Cavill were on screen together was fun. Honestly, putting Helena Bonham Carter, Millie Bobbie Brown, and Henry Cavill together in a movie is a pretty strong lure for me. I also can’t overstate how glad I am for a period piece like this to include the women’s suffrage movement, and to draw the traditional male protagonists’ attention to it without making those protagonists the focus of the story.

If you enjoy Sherlock Holmes stories or Middle Grade / Young Adult narratives, and don’t mind some fourth-wall breaking commentary from the main character, I strongly recommend Enola Holmes.

Tamsyn Muir’s Sword-wielding Lesbian Space Necromancers

This isn’t anything in-depth about Gideon the Ninth or Harrow the Ninth. It’s much faster than that.

If “lesbian swords and necromancy in space” doesn’t sound appealing, I guess you should look elsewhere. I thought it was great. Gideon the Ninth has plenty of drama, channels anime in places and ways that I found very satisfying, and delivers convoluted mystery alongside swordplay, violence, and necro-magic. Tamsyn Muir (Tor page, Tumblr, homepage) has my attention.

I’m also enjoying the separate in-universe story The Mysterious Study of Doctor Sex, which takes place before the opening of Gideon the Ninth.

For those who don’t like starting a series until it’s finished… first, that’s silly, it’s not how publishing works. If you want a series to exist, you should damn well read the first book and recommend it to others. Secondly, I don’t think you need to worry as much about that here: while Gideon the Ninth is obviously the first of multiple books, the ending ties the story up neatly and resolves things while still leaving room for a satisfying next story.

I read Gideon the Ninth last year and loved it. I took a little while to really sink into it, but once I had been caught I was stuck in it and couldn’t put the book down. It juked and weaved all over the narrative space; I never felt like it was letting me down by breaking narrative rules, but always felt like I should have seen the next twist coming and was instead surprised by it. I realize that might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it delightful.

I also loved the deeply anchored first person perspective that carried the narration throughout. I took a while to tease out where Gideon’s perspective was reliable and where it wasn’t, but honestly that only made the whole book more fun for me. The generally grisly nature of the story, the YA drama undertones (or just tones sometimes), and the excellent adventure / mystery plot were only made better by Gideon’s grumbling, scathing commentary.

I haven’t started Harrow the Ninth yet.

I’m really looking forward to it.

The Babysitters Club (Netflix)

Netflix’s version of The Babysitters Club is quite good, and I wonder whether I would have enjoyed the books as a kid as much as I like the show now. I haven’t finished it yet (or gotten very far in) but it’s good. I recall avoiding the books as a kid in part because the branding on the kids’ books was extremely gendered. That makes sense (both for concept and for marketing) but I feel kind of sad about it, because that’s a silly barrier to have between any young reader and some good storytelling. Honestly, the name of the series would probably have been enough to scare me away as a kid even if the covers hadn’t been as gendered, simply because I was raised in a pretty heavily gendered (and gender-policed) time and place.

I don’t mean that boys and girls (because there were only boys and girls in my world there and then) weren’t able to play together or be friends or whatever… but the times and places where that was possible were absolutely constrained. As a boy, I couldn’t be friends with most girls at school, at least not reliably. School was where all the toxic masculinity peer socialization was. And those peers very strongly enforced a social code in which it wasn’t okay for me to play with or enjoy girly things. Dolls, sparkly toys, dresses, colorful clothing, whatever… pink things, or maybe even any bright colors, were not safe to wear or have as an accessory. I remember getting shit from one of my friends in 4th or 5th grade about my yellow rain jacket being a girly color. I avoided bright colors for years afterwards, and was very concerned with maintaining a male gender presentation.

Now, despite this, I did actually play with dolls when I was playing with my friends who were girls. We would make up stories and play out scenes, and I remember delighting one of my friends by some particularly funny interaction between our two dolls (no, I don’t remember what that was). But I, like a fool, stopped playing and spending time with her, because other boys at school teased me about being friends with her. I feel bad about that.

Looking back, I wonder where all that toxic stuff was coming from. There were strong and strange lines drawn, and while I don’t think I questioned them at the time I sure as hell question them now. How was it decided that one girl was okay to hang out with at school, while hanging out with another would get you teased for “having a girlfriend”? Heck, how did “having a girlfriend” become a bad thing? Cooties, gender essentialism, and other reductive nonsense were pervasive.

All of which brings me back to The Babysitters Club. I’m not very far in yet, but I already love it. The first few beats of the first episode don’t bother to wait; they hammer in the unfairness of unequal gendered expectations and permissions, and that first episode’s lingering assignment of an essay on decorum is a perfect example of the struggle writ small *and* large. It’s great.

I admire the way that the characters’ internal perspectives leak into their episodes and tint the world they see through their own concerns. I love the consistency of the characters between episodes, and how we have a chance to see people from both the inside and the outside… it’s magical, having that perspective shifting so readily available. The contrast, from one person’s view to the next, is excellent. It’s written and delivered beautifully. I love seeing work do this, and I’m excited every time I see quality like this in work for kids.

The show doesn’t try to make itself accessible to boys, or try to bury its focus on the lives of young girls, and it doesn’t have to. It’s good just the way it is. I hope that there are young folks of all genders watching and enjoying it, because it’s worth having more people see beyond social boundaries and empathize with people who might be a little different from themselves.

I haven’t finished the season yet, and I understand that it may be a little underwhelming. That’s too bad. But I’d have to be really underwhelmed to be soured on this show.

This is a show worth watching, for a variety of reasons, and I hope there’s more of it. 

The Letter for the King, early thoughts

I’ve only watched a few episodes, a little bit into number four at the time of this post. I don’t know whether I’ll get through the rest of it at this rate. I’ve been enjoying it, for the most part, but I’m not sure I’ve enjoyed it enough for it to hold my attention when I have so many other things to watch.

If you watch this show, you should be ready for YA fantasy tropes to hit you really hard. This is especially true of those classic questing YA fantasy adventure tropes, from stories full of knights and long journeys and all that jazz. These tropes will be all over, and they aren’t too carefully hidden. If you don’t like YA fantasy, I can’t recommend the show. If you do like it, well, keep reading.

What’s good about the show?

First, most obviously when you’re watching the show, it’s friggin’ gorgeous. Lots of pretty scenery and fabulous locations, solid costuming, the works. If you want attractive medieval fantasy vistas, this show will deliver. I think it’s intended to cash in on the present lack of Game of Thrones, and while it hasn’t yet hit any of the bonkers high notes that GoT did with its visuals, I will vouch for this show’s eye candy.

Second, something that I rather appreciate and feel is important: this show has more actors of color than most other medieval fantasies (or TV shows, period) that I’ve seen recently. Now, that isn’t particularly hard to do given the pasty complexion of so many TV shows and movies. It’s an admittedly low bar, and it’s one more shows should clear.

But I’m glad to say that the actors of color here aren’t simply set dressing, and aren’t (all) reduced to stereotypes—a higher proportion of them are main characters than I usually see. Even better, the focal character is a person of color. It’s refreshing! I like having a broader representation present on the screen, and I find it more interesting this way. 

Unfortunately, that brings me to a less-good detail.

The setting for the show still has fantasy racism, clothed in a thin skein of nationalist bluster. Yet that skein is see-through: the folks that most racist people in the show are racist against are still people of color. Mostly black. 

The show’s writing is clearly of the opinion that this racism is bad and/or wrong. The story is written to empathize with the main character, as he deals with other people being racist against him. Unfortunately, I feel like the show could be doing a better job with this, and could be teasing more out of this. The show’s handling of things feels more tame and settled than makes sense.

Certainly there are better examples of recent works interrogating racism and handling surrounding issues of systemic oppression (mostly not TV, I admit). If the show didn’t want to face all of that, I think they could have done a better job of presenting national animosity without tying it to skin tone. Overall, it feels more like a missed opportunity and a curiously unexamined blank spot in the larger whole of the story, like someone left a low-res artifact in the middle of a beautiful landscape photo.

Maybe the clumsy handling of racism comes from the fact that the source material is a Dutch fantasy novel from the 1960s? I haven’t read it. But browsing the novel’s wikipedia page leads me to think the original didn’t even attempt any such handling; the show has obviously already diverged a good deal from the book, and seems likely to diverge further.

That means the clumsy handling is new to the show, perhaps in an attempt to make the show more modern or current. I’m not sure how to feel about that (especially given that I’m simply guessing). On the one hand, it’s good that they are trying (I think)… but on the other, well, I wish they’d done it differently.

Still, I will say that the broader representation and vague attempt to critique racists is an improvement over many previous shows. Having a diverse group of actors is better than a homogeneously pale cast. Critiquing racism, even poorly, seems like a clear advance from not daring to mention it or (worse) simply including it without any comment or critique. So while I think the show could do better, I’m willing to give it a pass here for trying.

Am I the right person to be passing judgment here? No, not really. If you want to do proper diligence, you should probably read some less-pale person’s thoughts on the show. But I do think this show is contributing to shifting the mode of pop culture in a better direction.

Addendum: Alright, just finished the fourth episode after writing the above. I’m still not sure I like the way the show has handled everything I mentioned previously (also, goodness they’re bad at making a believable belowdecks set for a small ship)… but there does seem to be some more interesting side commentary implied in how the story handles magical power, white savior narratives, and attempts at cultural appropriation etc. So as I said before: I’m not sold on the whole thing, but the show is doing a better job of some of this than their predecessors have.

Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi

CBB+Book+CoverShit Children of Blood and Bone is good. Tomi Adeyemi deserves more than praise for this.

The end of the book was all that I could have wanted and more, and I loved it. I finished it in tears, big warm heartfelt and healing ones, the kind I like. I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone looking for fantasy YA, and I’d add it to the reading list I’ve made of works by Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jemisin, and Alaya Dawn Johnson (all of whose work you should also try if you haven’t yet).

Now, as often happens with YA these days, I did bounce several times nearly two-thirds through. My dislike of YA star-crossed romance tropes—and my fear and anticipation of the next guessed-at story beat—got the better of me. But each time, what Adeyemi actually wrought was so much better than what I’d feared. She did conform closely enough to the tropes for the story beats to be recognizable as those tropes, but she wrote them well. Better, she wrote them differently enough that I, as someone who struggles through those pieces of YA novels, enjoyed it. Tomi Adeyemi is skillful and capable, and she twists characters around and makes them suffer, and she does it brilliantly.

This book is beautiful and powerful and magnificent, it is evocative and compelling, I love it. And I absolutely admire it as craft and as message. Children of Blood and Bone calls out brutal truths about our own world. I fervently hope it reaches more people… and that we change our world.

Thank you, Tomi Adeyemi, for making this and sharing it.

I’ve already picked up Children of Virtue and Vengeance, the sequel.