Just Arrived 3/25/11

Look! Books! Here’s some of what’s been sent to me recently:

* The Physics of the Future, by Michio Kaku (Doubleday): The subtitle to this pop science book proclaims “How science will shape human destiny and our daily lives by 2100.” Finally! Someone will tell me when I get my flying car! No, really, there’s a flying car on the cover. There had to be. It’s like, a law. Out now.

* Crucified Dreams: Tales of Urban Horror, edited by Joe R. Lansdale (Tachyon): Urban horror anthology featuring stories by Harlan Ellison, Jonathan Letham, Ellen Klages, Charlie Huston and some dude named Stephen King. I think he’ll be big. Out now.

* The Demon Left Behind, by Marie Jakober (Edge): Demons studying humans have to let a mortal into their ranks when one of their own goes missing. Interesting idea, I think. Book is out in May.

* Minding Frankie, by Maeve Binchy (Knopf): A ne’er-do-well tries to walk the straight and narrow when he discovers that he’s about to be a father, and the mom-to-be is, alas, terminally ill. Yes, I get sent Maeve Binchy books. I like it when that happens. So there. Out now.

* A Kingdom Besieged, by Raymond E. Feist (Harper Voyager): Hey, Riftwar fans, you have a new Riftwar — the Chaoswar! — and this book is the first in the series detailing it, throwing the wizard Pug right back into the middle of all sorts of magic mess. Dig it, friends. Out on April 12.

* Betrayer, by C.J. Cherryh (DAW): The latest book in the Foreigner series (this is number 12, I believe) has our human heroes in the middle of a alien siege — and possibly being used as pawns in a power struggle. Out in April.

* The Dragon’s Path, by Daniel Abraham (Orbit): Abraham starts a new epic fantasy series with this book, in which several characters from all walks of life get swept up into a war that promises to shatter the world. The book got a starred review in Publishers Weekly and is out on April 7.

* Soft Apocalypse, by Will McIntosh (Night Shade Books): McIntosh won a Hugo last year for short fiction and branches into novel territory with this tale of survival when the world… just sort of runs down. Yeah, you’re thinking about gas prices now, aren’t you? This one’s out next week.

* Okay For Now, by Gary D. Schmidt (Clarion Books): Schmidt follows up his Newberry Honor book The Wednesday Wars with the continuing adventures of Doug Sweiteck, growing up in 1968 and the days of Vietnam and the Apollo missions. Out April 5.

* Touch of a Thief, by Mia Marlowe (Brava): This story about a talented jewel thief becomes complicated by the fact that her bare skin touching the jewels sends terrifying visions into her brain — and by the fact that she’s been caught by a man who a very special mission for her. Personally, when I touch jewels, they speak to me, mostly the words “you can’t afford me.” sigh. This book is out April 26.

I Like Amanda Hocking

She just seems so darn sensible, that’s why. For example, when she talks about why, even after she made a name for herself self-publishing electronically, she took a $2 million advance from St. Martin’s Press for an upcoming book series, over on her blog. It’s worth reading in its entirety, but what it boils down to is that she wants to make it easier to for readers to find her work and for her to focus on what she really likes doing, which is writing (as opposed to everything else).

And of course that’s very sensible. It also touches on much of what I addressed, rather more satirically, a year ago in “Why In Fact Publishing Will Not Go Away Anytime Soon,” — that publishers exists in no small part because they do the rest of the stuff involved in getting one’s work to readers, letting writers write. Which is something I’m for, personally. I mean, I think about all the stuff I want to write but may never get to, just because life is too damn short; if I have to throw in managing every step of the book production process, that’ll just mean even less stuff I get to write. Like Ms. Hocking, I like some of the stuff — I’m pretty engaged in marketing and PR — but other things that are necessary? Meh. I’m happy to let someone else do them.

There is one plaintive note Ms. Hocking put into the entry, in talking to her readers (and other interested folks) about her deal:

…it is crazy that we live in a time that I have to justify taking a seven-figure a publishing deal with St. Martin’s. Ten years ago, nobody would question this. Now everybody is.

I don’t question it; it makes sense to me. Ms. Hocking wants to focus on writing. Hopefully, this deal will let her do that. Good for her, and good luck to her on that.

The Big Idea: Jesse Bullington

In some ways, writing a novel is as much about giving your characters space to introduce themselves — especially to you, their author — as it is giving them a plot so they will have something to do. In The Enterprise of Death, author Jesse Bullington had a particular character which he had been trying to bring into the light for some time. It turns out that what he needed was time — and a time — in which to do it.


Although my book The Enterprise of Death deals with issues of race, the outsider/insider, gender, sexuality, abuse and, well, Big Ideas, it didn’t spring from anything as easily defined and instantly recognizable as the altering of a historical event or a unique plot hook. Rather, I had an idea of this character lurking somewhere in the back of my head for the better part of a decade, and writing this novel was all about coaxing her from the shadows out to where I could see her properly and tell her story.

Obviously characters don’t start off independent of their creators; writers create characters, and for me, at least, the process of writing involves a lot of frustration and false starts and lip gnawing rather than some divine channeling of the ancient muse wherein I take up the gilded laptop and simply let the Art flow through me. Writing is hard. Yet for all that I’ve found that characters really do write themselves, once you get a feeling for who they are and what they want—if you’re doing it right, at any rate.

So over time I developed a character I wanted to explore. Fine and good, but what’s the Big Idea?

What I’m shambling toward is that sometimes it takes a great deal of preliminary thinking and scribbling and character developing before you even know what your story will be, and what sort of Big Ideas will be found therein. For me, the Big Idea is rarely the plot itself, and that’s certainly true here—the plot involves an apprentice trying to thwart her corrupt master, making friends and enemies along the way. I try to do interesting things with that barebones synopsis, but even still the Big Idea isn’t the plot—it’s what happens beside it, beneath it, on top of it. What it took me a lot of hours to figure out, even as the central character grew and changed from how I’d originally conceived her, was what exactly the hell I was doing beyond exploring this particular character.

When I hit on it, it was painfully obvious. My Big Idea was to use my central character, an African lesbian slave-cum-necromancer, to enter into early Renaissance Europe as the quintessential Other and see if the Western world of half a millennia ago was really so different from our own. I’m definitely not saying that my character was my Big Idea (a gay black protagonist? Hold onto your butts!) because characters, if you’re writing them well, shouldn’t just be an embodiment of an idea, even a big one—they should be people, with strengths and weaknesses and everything else that goes with being an intelligent being.

Even talking about her in this fashion makes me vaguely uncomfortable, because like the rest of us she’s more than her sexuality or her sex or her ethnicity; she’s herself, period. Yet all of that is a part of us, even if it doesn’t define us, and that’s where the Big Idea came in—how would who she was, and where and when she was, impact the rough plot I had in mind? More importantly, how would the world and its denizens impact her?

It’s easy to dismiss pre-modern Europe as backwards. To the minds of some contemporary readers, if the early years of the Renaissance weren’t the Dark Ages, then they were at least a twilight epoch—a gloaming before someone flipped the cultural light switch of the Enlightenment. You know, the Enlightenment? That era of unapologetic and violent sexism, racism, classism, religious intolerance, war, and political turmoil that we’re taught in school was the single, shining moment when humanity raised itself up from its barbaric roots and became the sort of poorly defined amalgamation of ideas you’d invite to your parents’ house for dinner?

Anyway, let’s move past how silly it is to think of history as neatly compartmentalized periods stacked on top of another instead of a continuous societal evolution (acknowledging as we do that the aforementioned problematic elements of the Enlightenment are also found in the Renaissance, the Medieval period, and, unfortunately, the modern age). Examining the specific era and place of early 16th century Western Europe using an outsider protagonist struck me as interesting because it would allow me to explore a host of different themes and preconceptions instead of focusing on a single Big Idea.

The novel opens with the handover of Granada from Moorish control to Ferdinand and Isabel of Spain, when centuries of comparative religious and racial tolerance and coexistence came to an end, and when witch fever truly began to catch on in Europe—contrary to popular opinion, it was the Renaissance and not the Medieval period that brought us the large scale persecution of accused witches. The victims of the Inquisition and other witch hunts were countless women, ethnic minorities, religious groups, GLBT individuals, and other “undesirables,” and even in my version of history where witchcraft is real these acts of terror, torture, and murder are indefensible. For all the differences of details, the issue of women and other marginalized peoples being discriminated against, targeted for violence, and becoming victims of contemporary witch hunts is just as topical now as it was during the Renaissance, and so having a character who embodies several of these targeted elements while still having her own unique agency struck me as an interesting way of engaging with the issues.

Yet the above may give an inaccurately bleak view of the time—there is a tendency to think of all of pre-modern Europe as being wholly intolerant to non-white, non-male, non-heteronormative individuals, which isn’t quite true. The Religious Right in America, for example, is fond of alleging that modern society’s supposed acceptance of homosexuality is a recent development that signals the decline of morality, but this is simply wrong, and displays a lack of familiarity with the historical record. The Medieval church (as in, the seed that all western Christian denominations grew out of) performed civil union ceremonies for same sex couples that were virtually identical to the marriage ceremonies for straight couples. Granted, local authorities of some regions treated homosexuality as a crime, sometimes even one punishable by death, but other regions were decidedly comfortable with two men becoming “brothered” and sharing property, inheritance, and a bed.

People have always been gay, and just as there have always been people who do find the sexuality of others dangerous or alarming, there have also been countless people who were accepting of homosexuality. Same for racial differences, religious differences, gender differences, and everything else—a simple truth of history is that there have always assholes, yes, and a great many of them, but there have also always been open-minded individuals who look past perceived differences to find a common ground.

This novel is about both kinds of people, and about the Other who goes amongst them. It’s also about necromancy and war and love and sex and art and adventure and monstrous horrors and abuse and the undead and alchemy and Ray Harryhausen-style animated skeletons and growing up. I wish we lived in a time where it wasn’t a Big Idea that someone different from the majority deserved respect and the right to be left alone, but as much as the book deals with differences between the modern world and the early 16th century, when you look at the history, it’s the similarities that really catch you off guard.


The Enterprise of Death: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog.