This has been an odd month. I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished much of anything – school holidays ate two weeks of the month, for one thing, and my health has been a bit wobblier than usual, meaning that the fatigue has been extra bad. I’m glad that I’ve started writing this series of posts, since it’ll let me look objectively at what I’ve done.
And yes, there is a shiny stack of books (though I honestly thought I hadn’t bought many until I came to take the photo). I’m especially chuffed with Rupetta, since I managed to chase down a second-hand copy of the lovely signed limited hardback.
This is where I feel like I haven’t accomplished much, mostly because I’ve been bashing my head against the same damn short story all month. I am not a fast writer of short stories – it takes me a few drafts to figure out what the hell the story is about usually, and this one in particular is being quite evasive. I’m having to write to a strict word count, too, which is a learning process in and of itself. No idea if I’m going to have something that’ll sell at the end of it, but we’ll see.
I started listening to a brand new podcast – The Worried Writer, link via Stephanie Burgis (who is also interviewed on the second episode – I really, really enjoyed this interview and can recommend listening to it because Stephanie is gorgeous). Really liking the podcast so far.
Swancon happened! I happily sat on a short story writing panel (seriously, give me a place where I can spruik awesome publishers and writers and I am Happy) and bought some books and only caught up with a few of the people I’d wanted to, but that’s okay.
When Prince Valamon is impossibly taken from the heart of Algaris Castle, the only clue as to motive or culprit is the use of unknown sorcery.
Reclusive cleric Seris is happily tending to his book-infested temple when he finds himself recruited to the politically compromised rescue mission. His sole companion on the journey is Elhan, a cheerfully disturbed vagrant girl with terrifying combat skills and her own enigmatic reasons for seeking the prince.
Venturing into the wild, unconquered lands, Seris has no fighting prowess, no survival skills, and no charisma, as Elhan keeps pointing out. Armed only with a stubborn streak and creative diplomacy, he must find a way to survive outlaw towns, enchanted tropical isles, and incendiary masquerades, all without breaking his vow to do no harm.
Chasing rumours of rising warlords and the return of the vanished sorcerers, Seris and Elhan soon discover a web of treachery and long-buried secrets that go far beyond a kidnapped prince.
As enemies rise from beyond the empire and within it, Seris and Elhan realise that the key to saving Valamon and averting a war may lie in their own bloody pasts, and the fate of their fragile friendship.
I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
The Hunt for Valamon is Australian author D.K. Mok’s second novel (Her first novel, The Other Tree, I also reviewed.) The Hunt for Valamon is high/epic fantasy, a departure from The Other Tree’s urban fantasy.
First of all, I have to comment on that incredible cover art. Mok’s books (both published by Spence City) have had the most gorgeous covers. Huge kudos to the cover artist.
Let me tell you a story of teenage and young adult me. I loved epic fantasy. In high school, I would walk through the aisle looking for the distinctive fat paperbacks (preferably a series, since it lasted longer) that would give me an escape from the world. I devoured Raymond E. Feist’s books, and waited impatiently through university for each Wheel of Time book to be released. I loved fantasy, and for a while read fairly indiscriminately. Wizards and magic and dragons? I was there.
And then I read a lot more, and started seeing the same old tired tropes being trotted out again and again. Farmboy who goes on a journey and saves the kingdom and becomes a prince? Princess who is little more than a pretty trophy to be won? There were always exceptions, of course, but the old tropes were still there far too often, and I drifted away from the genre.
Now, I’m slowly coming back to reading epic fantasy, mostly because of some of the incredible authors who are breaking those old tropes and breathing life back into fantasy. Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire is pretty much a must-read, especially if, like me, you were burned out on a lot of the same-old same-old.
Now, I’m a fan of Mok’s work in general, but I will admit to some trepidation in reading The Hunt for Valamon. And honestly, I shouldn’t have had any. Mok brings a particular uniqueness to the genre with this book: there’s a good dose of modernity and originality in this book, and honestly, it’s just plain fun. There are no trophy princesses, not a farmboy-turned-prince in sight.
The book begins when Prince Valamon, heir to the throne, vanishes mysteriously from his room in the castle. A tournament is held to find a champion to be sent on the titular hunt. Elhan, a mysterious warrior who is followed by a curse, enters and wins. She sets out on her quest with Seris, a cleric with healing abilities.
Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? There’s a quest, someone to be rescued. But in every aspect of this book, Mok brings something new. It’s a prince who needs to be rescued, for one. Said prince, Valamon, is seen by others as being vague, and quite frankly, not a suitable heir to the throne. As the book progresses, we have chapters from Valamon’s point of view in captivity, and we learn more and more about him (also, there are scenes where he attempts to break out of his cell using straw and hessian, which are kind of awesome).
The female characters in this book are incredible. There are women in positions of power – Elhan is an accomplished warrior, despite being cursed to bring death and destruction everywhere she goes, and rightly feared because of it. We also have Qara, childhood friend of the princes who has grown up to become a royal adviser, and Haska, who had a hand in Valamon’s kidnapping. The reader sees chapters from all of their points of view, allowing Mok to flesh out all of the characters fully. There are no cackling two-dimensional villains here, just real people, all of whom believe that their actions are right.
And Seris also needs to be noted. He’s a cleric who has the power of healing granted to him by the goddess he serves, and could easily have become a passive or weak character, especially when juxtaposed against so many other physically strong characters. Mok draws him finely, and gives him strength of a different fashion – he has the strength of conviction, of belief, and he always stays good and true to his beliefs.
If you’re tired of grimdark fantasy, I’d suggest that The Hunt for Valamon is a good place to start. There are serious issues at stake here, but there’s always a lightness there, too, with just enough humour to balance the darker aspects of the book.
I did feel at times that some of the modern language that Mok uses in this book jarred, but then I took a step back and thought about it. The language that we’re used to seeing with so much epic fantasy goes along with so many of the old tropes, and why shouldn’t a different kind of fantasy also use a different kind of language?
Highly recommended to anyone who loves fantasy, or, like me, has burned out on all the same old fantasy tropes.
Four hundred years ago, in a small town in rural France, a young woman creates the future in the shape of Rupetta. Part mechanical, part human, Rupetta’s consciousness is tied to the women who wind her. In the years that follow she is bought and sold, borrowed, forgotten and revered. By the twentieth century, the Rupettan four-fold law rules everyone’s lives, but Rupetta—the immortal being on whose existence and history those laws are based—is the keeper of a secret that will tear apart the world her followers have built in her name. The closeness between women is mirrored in the relationship between Henri and Miri, a woman at the college with whom she fall in love, and also between mothers and daughters and grandmothers and granddaughters – a heritage of affection that loops down over the centuries.
In 2013, Nike Sulway won the Tiptree Award for her novel Rupetta, becoming the first Australian to win the award. Rupetta was also shortlisted for the Aurealis award for best science fiction novel, and won the Norma K. Hemming Award in 2014.
I purchased an ebook of Rupetta soon after the Tiptree win, and it was left lingering in my virtual to-be-read pile for too long (along with way too many books). This year, I’m trying to make inroads into reading through my to-be-read mountains, and Rupetta was a good place to start.
And I am now kicking myself for not reading it sooner. I actually almost wasn’t going to write a full review of this book, simply because I wasn’t certain that anything I could write would truly reflect how achingly beautiful this book is. I fell deep in love with Sulway’s extraordinary prose from the first page, and deeper still with Rupetta, Henri and their world. As soon as I finished the ebook, I hunted down a physical copy as well, just so I can have this gorgeous book on my shelf.
This book isn’t going to be for every reader. The prose is dense, oftentimes reading more like poetry than anything else, and the storyline isn’t linear. Each chapter feels very much as though it is a cog in part of a grand machine, like Rupetta herself. I feel very much that this is a book that will benefit from much reading and rereading in order to see the full pattern of that machine.
Women are the central focus of this book. Rupetta was created by a woman, and requires a psychic bond with a female Wynder in order to run. Generation through generation we follow the Wynders, each of their stories unique and compelling. Their bond to Rupetta, and Rupetta’s very existence, shapes the society around them.
The story is told in alternating chapters, one from Rupetta’s point of view following her history, and the next from Henri’s point of view. Henri longs to be an Obanite Historian like her mother, to be Transformed by having her heart replaced with a clockwork version. We follow with her as she rebels against her father’s wishes and enrols. As she delves deeper into history, she discovers more about the truth of Rupetta and the Obanites, as well as of her mother’s life.
None of the magic in this world is explained – not how Rupetta came to be, not how Rupetta bonds with her Wynders. I suspect this will frustrate some readers, but for me, the mystery of it only added to the enchantment of the book. My only real issue is that the ending didn’t quite draw together completely, but I feel that the sheer beauty of Sulway’s writing and the strength of the world and main characters more than makes up for this.
Sulway writes in an elaborate filigree which is not quite like anything else I’ve read. The closest I can come is comparing her to authors like Catherynne M. Valente and Sophia Samatar. Rupetta is fully deserving of the awards it has won, and I look forward to Sulway’s future books.
First, this is somewhat relevant to the panel I was on at Swancon about what makes a good short story, today’s daily writing kick from David Farland which discusses how to judge a story. And for anyone who’s trying to work their way up in the writing field, I can highly recommend subscribing to David Farland’s daily kicks emails.
Second, something I actually meant to mention on that panel was Forevermagazine, a reprint-only magazine recently launched by Neil Clarke (of Clarkesworld). I’ve been a long-time subscriber of Clarkesworld and subscribed to Forever when it first came out. And I have been utterly astonished at the brilliance of the stories that have been reprinted. You want to know what makes a good story? This is a really good place to start looking. It’s subscription-only, but cheap and in my opinion, worth the money.
And third, I’d also like to recommend the new podcast by Mur Lafferty (of I Should Be Writing and the Shambling Guide books) and Matt Wallace – Ditch Diggers. I’ve listened to every episode of I Should Be Writing and highly recommend it for all writers (and especially beginning writers, it’s very worth getting access to the archives by supporting Mur on Patreon and listening to all the episodes). Ditch Diggers aims to explore writing as a business, and is highly entertaining besides. Kameron Hurley and Chuck Wendig have guested, and the latest episode has an interview with Brianna Wu. Go and listen and learn.
Apocalypse fiction rarely includes characters with disability, chronic illness and other impairments. When these characters do appear, they usually die early on, or are secondary characters undeveloped into anything more than a burden to the protagonist. Defying Doomsday will be an anthology showing that disabled characters have far more interesting stories to tell in post-apocalyptic/dystopian fiction.
There’s nothing black and white about disability. I don’t think it’s the sort of topic that many people would assume is black and white, and, yet, that’s definitely how it tends to be treated by a lot of society and mainstream culture.
It’s sometimes hard to see beyond our limited expectations, though, when all we are offered are clichés, stereotypes, and cardboard characters. There are so many damaging myths surrounding disability, as much in real life attitudes as in fiction, and both perpetuate each other.
What myths am I talking about? Gosh there are lots. From the broadly offensive myths that all disabled people are helpless, in need of pity, or objects of inspiration, to impairment specific misconceptions like all people in wheelchairs have no use of their legs or all deaf people are fluent in sign language.
When we accept these myths, it’s as though we are accepting ‘rules’ for how people experience disability. And by accepting these rules, we are doing a lot of things: We’re suggesting a scale of disability (suggesting that some people are more or less disabled than others), or even suggesting that, if someone doesn’t fit our black and white view of disability, then they aren’t disabled at all. We’re suggesting that we know better about how other people live their lives than they do. We’re doing a whole lot more too, but most of all, we’re suggesting disabled people have no experiences to offer other than the two dimensional characterisations we’ve assigned them, in life and in fiction.
The awesome thing about sharing narratives in fiction is that we can help break this myth cycle. We can write characters who have complete experiences, experiences which include the realities of being disabled, and experiences which show being disabled is just one aspect of any character’s narrative.
There are two ways we can include narratives of disabled characters in fiction: 1. We can use cardboard cut-outs that perpetuate the myths I’ve described above, or 2. We can look at the experiences of disabled characters like we should any other characters, and realise there are shades of grey to all experiences, and our characters are more than just one character trait.
Tsana Dolichva and I are editing an upcoming anthology exploring narratives of disabled characters in apocalypse fiction. Most importantly, it will be an anthology of stories that break myths and bust stereotypes, with disabled characters who are more than just a one-dimensional view of disability. Defying Doomsday will be an anthology of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories, featuring disabled, chronically ill, mentally ill and/or neurodiverse protagonists. We are currently holding a crowdfunding campaign through Pozible to fund the anthology. To support the campaign or to preorder a copy of Defying Doomsday, visit: http://pozi.be/defyingdoomsday
Your support is greatly appreciated! You can find out more about Defying Doomsday at our website or follow us on Twitter and Facebook.
Yesterday I made a somewhat wobbly appearance at Swancon, as evidenced by my badge (with similarly wobbly name written by me!).
Things of awesome in this photo: shiny Ditmar pin! I count my chance of winning a Ditmar as being slim, but I am so damn chuffed to be nominated (technically twice, since I was part of the Snapshot team which also garnered a nomination this year). And the cute little chicken, which I got as a bonus for funding Defying Doomsday (link goes to the Pozible campaign, which you should totally fund if you haven’t.).
I also sat on a panel on the writing of good short stories. During which I recommended a bunch of authors, so I figured that I might make some notes here, in case someone wants to chase up the authors that I spoke about. Helen Stubbs also posted about the panel briefly here and tweeted some really useful pieces of advice (and posted a photo in which I manage to look utterly bored, heh).
One of the things we talked about was the need to read a lot of good short stories to get a good idea of what makes a good short story. Juliet Marillier recommended the work of Thoraiya Dyer and Robert G. Cook in particular, and I recommended Juliet’s “By Bone Light”, as well as work by Angela Slatter (whom I think we all pretty much mentioned at one point or other as being one of the outstanding writers of short fiction in Australia), Lisa L.Hannett, Kirstyn McDermott, Stephen Dedman (who was on the panel with us, and is a massive font of useful knowledge about writing in general) and Martin Livings. Shirley Jackson and Angela Carter also got a mention. I wish also that I could go back in time and add Helen Marshall and Kelly Link to the list, but we did mainly try and constrain ourselves to Australian authors.
I also may have confessed to hating short stories at one point in my life. Which is true, and, thinking more on it, I blame it mostly on the kinds of short stories we had to read in high school. I got truly lucky and got to read some amazing poems and novels during my school years, but the short stories left me cold. It was starting to read some of the amazing short story writers publishing in Australia that really got me into the genre.
We also made much mention of how lucky we are to have some amazing small presses in Australia helping to publish short fiction. I talked up Twelfth Planet’s Twelve Planets a lot (I’m sorry, I cannot help how much I love with them I am!), and we also mentioned Fablecroft and Ticonderoga (in particular the Australian Years Best that have been coming out from them).
And some other general pieces of advice, as I remember them:
Read good short stories. You cannot learn how to write short stories from reading novels, and you cannot compact a novel into a short story length.
The beginning and end of a short story are the crucial points. The beginning must hook a reader – whether with an actual catchy hook, some beautiful imagery or gorgeous writing (or all three). Vague meandering at the beginning will make many readers put down the story – we need something to care about or be interested in. And likewise, a strong ending will linger in the mind long after the story has been finished. Stephen Dedman described a story as being a bridge, with the beginning and end anchoring everything.
You need to take out everything that does not serve the story. You’re constrained by word length, and things cannot take up space without needing to be there. However, Juliet Marillier warned that you shouldn’t go too far and take out all of your beautiful prose and kill the voice of the piece.
I talked briefly (and probably too vaguely) about resonance. One of the things that gets me about a truly good story is resonance – having a deeper meaning or layered connections. Tangentially, we also talked about a good story feeling like a gut punch (I believe these words were Stephen Dedman’s, and I agree with them wholeheartedly).
You need to know the basic rules of writing before you can break them. And short stories are a great place to break them and experiment. I have problems writing longer pieces in anything but a linear fashion, but in short stories I really like fragmenting time lines. You can write stories in any fashion you like – linearly, backwards, inside out. Learn the rules, and then have fun.
I’d like to thank everyone quickly who came to the panel yesterday, and all of my fellow panel members. I really loved being on it, and I hope that it was useful for the people who attended.