Review: “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” (Short story)

I don’t normally review short stories because I read quite a few and I don’t often get time to reflect on them and write up those reflections here, but I’m making an exception, in part because this is a pretty exceptional story (and in part motivated by a tone-deaf review I read which seemed to miss the point of this story completely. I won’t link to it. If you’re desperate to know, trawl my Twitter feed for my reaction).

Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies appears in Uncanny Magazine, Issue 13.

You can read it (or listen to it) here: http://uncannymagazine.com/article/talons-can-crush-galaxies/

issue13coverv2_large
(Cover art by Julie Dillon, www.juliedillonart.com)

I first read Brooke Bolander’s work with her rightfully acclaimed And You Shall Know Her By The Trail of Dead, which was published in Lightspeed Issue 57 (Feb 2015). That story went on to be a finalist for Nebula and Hugo and set a high bar.

And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead - illustration by Galen Dara
(Art by Galen Dara, 2015, which accompanied Bolander’s story in Lightspeed, 57)

Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies is a much different story, and much shorter, but it packs much of the same punch.

Bolander has a talent for an opening. In And You Shall Know Her… that was in a first paragraph with deep hooks in it. Here, she has boiled that down to one sentence:

“This is not the story of how he killed me, thank fuck.”

One of the most remarkable features of this story is how compact it is. It comes in at barely more than 1,000 words, but it’s full to the brim. It’s as lean and muscular as a prizefighter, not a word wasted.

Bolander’s opening paragraph makes the thematic purpose clear. For all the otherworldly elements, (copper feathers, wing stubs, immortality, multiple realities, black holes and parallel universes, to name but a few), this is a story about our world: a world in which the victims of violence become anonymised and the perpetrators become celebrities, where women’s brutalised bodies are ignored at best, displayed as warnings or entertainment at worst, and where excuses are found for nice boys from good families.

But while the reader can make connections between this story and the Stanford rapist, the Steubenville rapists, the likes of Ted Bundy, this is not a story about them. It’s a story which deliberately and explicitly ignores any temptation to sympathise with, or even to explain or understand, guys like that. It doesn’t want to tell their tale. This is someone else’s story; not theirs.

With theme established, Bolander delivers the main narrative in sparse but descriptive detail. Each piece of information is a bullet-point on a list, and we as readers must bring these discrete facts together. We co-create the narrative. I’m not always convinced by this as a story-telling form, but this proves that the technique–done well–carries power.

The final paragraphs bring it all back together, and broaden the scope from the gritty detail to the epic scale suggested by the title.

This is an excellent short story. A galaxy full of stars for it, from me, provided it is a small galaxy with 5 stars in it (or a crushed galaxy, perhaps, wherein 5 stars remain).

 

 

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NaNoWriMo 2016

Last year I took my first run at getting 50,000 words written in the month of November. This is the goal of NaNoWriMo, but I consider that my efforts ran parallel to, rather than within, that program. I certainly used NaNo… as impetus to write more and more frequently, but I didn’t sign up to anything or really participate in the community of it.

This year, more of the same.

Here’s last year’s results:

You may need to zoom in to make sense of that

You may need to zoom in to make sense of that

I made it, by the skin of my teeth. The novel I worked on with those words needed extensive reshaping and revisions and edits, but it’s a 90,000+ manuscript now which I completed in February of this year.

Since then I’ve written half a dozen short stories, and made starts or false starts on five novel projects. Clearly I’ve got a problem with diving into an idea and then wandering off to a new idea rather than sticking through.

So, this year I want to get more than 50,000 words in the next 30 days, and I want them all on a single project. I’ve got one with two versions I’ve abandoned, one at about 5,000; the other just shy of 10,000. I’ll maybe draw on work already done in these, but quarantine those words from my monthly total. Adding some of those to the 50k I want to write this month would probably be enough put me in range to finish the novel draft by the end of the year, based on an 80,000 goal.

Whether you’re doing NaNoWriMo, or running alongside like me, or if you’re a professional FT author for whom 50,000 words a month is just you doing your job, I wish you the best of luck. Feel free to check in here, or on my Facebook page (link should be in a menu to the right of this post) or on Twitter (@jmmelican) and we can arrange some writing sprints or similar.


Review: ‘Road Brothers’ by Mark Lawrence

Disclaimer — All the way back in 2013, elsewhere on this site, I sung the praises of Mark Lawrence‘s Grimdark Fantasy trilogy, the books of the Thorns: Prince, King, Emperor. They’re very good. If you haven’t read them and you like that sort of thing, you should check them out. Unexpectedly, my faint voice of high praise reached Lawrence himself and he has such a commendably fine memory (or perhaps more commendably, fine record keeping practices) that he offered me the opportunity to read ‘Road Brothers’ a little earlier than many and for free. He didn’t specifically ask for a review (I don’t think), but I intend to give one and in the interests of open transparency, I felt you should know about how I came to read it. I judge this a fair & frank review, but you’re welcome to make your own judgement too.

First, the spoiler-free:
This is a collection of short stories set in Lawrence’s ‘Broken Empire’ and featuring characters from the two series he has set in that world.
If you know these characters, you learn a lot more about them, get to spend more time with them, understand their histories, gain insights into the thoughts and motivations which inform their actions… all of which is great if you’ve read the earlier books. I have, and I enjoyed (most) of these stories largely for those reasons. More on that later.
I wouldn’t recommend this collection as an entry-point to Lawrence’s work, but in this I’m in accord with the author himself. It opens with the advice to people who haven’t read his earlier work, and who are picking this up without that existing familiarity with his world and characters, not to buy the book.
The author. Telling potential readers. Do not buy this book.

It’s a gutsy move, but consistent with a similarly gutsy decision Lawrence made at the end of his first series and explained in the postscript of Emperor.
So if you’ve read Lawrence’s other books, this is definitely worth your time and money. If not, look elsewhere first and come back to ‘Road Brothers‘ when you’re ready.
Spoilers ahead:
image via Goodreads

image via Goodreads

You’ve been warned
.
.
.
The positives:
Much of this is exactly what you are expecting, and that’s likely a good thing, because you’re expecting well crafted stories with a strong sense of character and a a bit of black humour and a hard edge and difficult moralities. This book delivers all that. Blood, betrayal, lies deception, the callous and banal cruelties of which humanity is so exceedingly capable. Weak men pretending at strength, strong men worn down, widowers and one-time fathers bearing the great burden of inconsolable grief.

Lawrence has a gift for metaphor and simile. He scatters quotable bon mots and wry observation throughout these stories. He often holds up a critical mirror to our own world in the world of his Broken Empire. He asks if ours is less Broken, after all.

To the complaints:

There are flawed and burdened and broken women here, but significantly fewer of them and cast in lesser roles. In some stories, none at all. In others stories perfunctory or peripheral appearances. This is ‘Road Brothers’ after all, but Lawrence’s female characters are so significant and complex and interesting in his novel-length trilogies that their absence (or at least their lack of centrality) is felt here. It’s not that he can’t write women well, it’s just that here he doesn’t seem as interested in their stories as in the stories of his men.
If binge-reading, these stories take on a sense which might be called ‘consistency’ but is perhaps more a sense of sameness. Again the village raided. Again the murdered family. Again the man’s need for revenge. Again the witty remark, the clever ploy, the fortunate hand of fate. Always, always, burning thatch. Lawrence here burns a hell of a lot of fictional thatch.
This complaint only occurred when I read several end-on-end. When I spaced things out, about a story a week, the problem wasn’t so apparent.
My top three stories (and an honourable mention):
Sleeping Beauty
Know Thyself
Rescue
Bad Seed
To the specifics:
Below, my thoughts story by story. I took these notes contemporaneously, sometimes immediately upon finishing the story, sometimes as I was reading. I’ve cleaned them up for spelling, grammar, etc, but they’re otherwise my thoughts as they occurred.
Rescue –  Makin’s story. Very short. Effectively three scenes and heavy on memories and Makin’s internal thoughts. It becomes, quickly, Jorg’s story, even while Jorg takes no action within it. Makin loses centrality in his own story. Does a good job explaining his back-story and his loyalty/connection to Jorg.
Sleeping Beauty– This was a strong story, and perhaps because of being back in Jorg’s head and in first-person it felt more familiar to the Broken Empire. I got Resident Evil vibes from the bunker. Lawrence intertwined sci-fi and fantasy elements well (as he does in his long form writing) with the additional thread of the fairytales. The Goldilocks diversion wasn’t necessary to the tale, but worked. The revelations about the hook briars was good, but does this retcon his scars from the novels?
Bad Seed – great first line drops always to a slow build, and the little play on the 6th Sense twist is obvious early but confirmed late (in the sense it was confirmed after being obvious to the reader for too long. Guessing the twist a moment before the reveal is exciting. Guessing it and waiting on the ever-more-obviously-inevitable reveal, less so). The gap between childhood and adulthood is well-written. The loss of the family in a manner repetitive to others (Makin’s notably) felt unnecessary. We had no real connection to wife/sons, so would a burnt house not be enough to set him off? If he’s a natural born killer, why does he need the family-loss motivation? Surely the soldiers’ arrivals are sufficient motivation. He wanted to go to war, but war came to him. The scene in the field was very good, but the latter fight (1 v 6) was best when it was general ‘he threw himself amongst them’, rather than the blow-by-blow which slowed things down and made it all a little overly described. This especially the case when those blows rang at odds with a farmer who had done no violence for years. Throwing the perfect sword stab, sliding and cutting…
The skill in the writing elevated the story. The passage on a farmer’s relationship to killing (as contrast to soldiers’), and on tendons and slaughter and such were all poignant and offered depth to the narrative.
The frisson of meeting Jorg through Red Kent was good fan-service, as was the explanation for the name as a growth from the Old Tongue. Unlike Makin’s this was Red Kent’s story throughout.
Nature of the Beast: Sabitha (as with Lynch’s Locke Lamora stories?) It’s interesting that Rike’s story is not in his head (as others have been). The author’s note at the end of the story addresses this. Afemale first person protagonist, but even with a view from within her head, she’s secondary. This is not her story; it’s Rike’s. More burning thatch. Stakes are suddenly life and death and why we should care about either is never well established. We’re not sure if we should care about her curse or her death, and we’re given no real reason why we should. The curse is the link back to the main books, but while thematically ambitious (that compassion is a curse and a cause of suffering) I would have loved more exploration of that theme. Without it, the curse loses some of its gravitas.
Select Mode:
I had read this before as stand-alone.
Now, as then, this seems an earlier effort. I’m not sure where it comes in ML’s writing chronology, but the prose seems an earlier iteration, less practised and assured than he becomes with experience. I like the concepts here, of slow time, of the post-apocalyptic ruins, of meaning created in misunderstanding. But overall, for reasons I’m not sure I can entirely explain, I didn’t enjoy the story as much as I was intrigued by those elements of it.
Mercy
Another Makin story?
Oh. It’s a Gorlan story. Did we head-hop, or was that my misreading from the start?
And that ending left me wondering what was the point of having read it. Some minor tweak late to misdirect the real threat from a known character to an unknown? It then became a climax played out between two characters I didn’t care much about because they hadn’t been made important to me. Both were significant only in how they related to Makin. Put him in and his gravity pulls the narrative toward him. Take him out and the vacuum he leaves is too great.
A Good Name.
Intriguing first line. Concern creeps in that this is going to be mired in noble savage tropes, but I think Lawrence avoids falling for that. The exoticism is filtered throughout the story, rather than dwelt upon or fethisized. Usually, this is done deftly, but sometimes with a heavy hand. Snaga’s introduction is at best a convenient contrivance. I don’t get Harrac’s motivation here. He didn’t want to wait a few hours but then he gives years in service with Snaga. Why? Then a head-hop? It’s Snaga’s story now? Only briefly.
I loved the character in the Broken Empire books and he fascianted me for his (seemingly misplaced) loyalty to Jorg and in Jorg’s dependence on him. Here, with his younger version, I didn’t feel the same way. He didn’t feel like the same character, whereas the farmer who would become Red Kent felt like Red Kent even before he was (that makes sense, trust me). Younger Rike was obviously Rike. Makin too.
Choices:
Lawrence does an opening line really well, but some feel as though they were crafted independently of the story they open and then bolted on to draw the reader in. Gorgoth and… Jane. What were those parents thinking? That’s a strange pair of names to give. The ‘darkness is patient…’ line is a killer line. Lawrence sure knows how to write those lines. The descriptions here are well done, and I like the quest/journey through the ruins. It has a little the feel of a video game. The fight scene with the bot is a bit silly/contrived. Sudden introduction of Jorg feels rushed/forced.
The Secret:
The different structure here offers promise. The narrative within a narrative, interwoven timeframes, flashing back and forward. It’s good to see Lawrence experimenting with form. His novels and several of these stories are first person perspective, so this is a fresh approach.
The ‘lie’ which Sim reveals was revealed far before the narrative means to reveal it, or perhaps was obvious enough that the reader should have been expected to ‘get it’ before being given it. The explanation of Sim’s diversion is unnecessary. Again Jorg twists the piece to himself.
Know Thyself:
Where Jorg’s presence, or even nearness, seemed to drag other stories off their tracks a little, here he is at once absent and central from the start. It is Jorg’s actions which provoke the narrative here and thus he belongs in the gravity well of the story. Where elsewhere (to varying degrees) he felt like an intruder, here he truly belongs.
But it did make me think of the dog (Justice) again and I never wanted to think of the dog again.
Gomst is an interesting character and the hints at an interesting past are deft and full of intrigue.
I like that the focus shifts from Jorg to William, and that it is through Jorg that we get the first earnings of William
Hope you enjoyed the review. If you’ve read this far you’ve probably read the stories already, but if you just skipped to the end for my verdict it is thus:
This is a good collection of Grimdark Fantasy stories which I’d happily recommend to fans of the genre and of Lawrence’s other work.

‘Illuminae’ Review

In the interests of full disclosure, the authors of this are known to me: I met Amie at a convention some years ago and have kept contact with her (infrequently and mostly electronically) ever since. I was invited to a launch in Melbourne, where I met Jay. I think they’re both great authors and great people, so to the extent that those opinions affected my reading of their book, I declare my bias.

I’m going to (do my very best to) keep this spoiler-free, so read ahead freely, whether you’ve read the book or not.

 

Credit: amiekaufman.com

Credit: amiekaufman.com

 

Firstly, ‘Illuminae’ is a beautiful book. It is a triumph of type-setting and visual text effects. It is creative and chaotic in a wonderful way, playing with form and experimenting with the construction of each page. It shifts between text-types, one moment you’re reading emails, the next a transcript of an interview, the next a chat log, the next a scientific report. This potentially confusing collision is expertly handled, so that the narrative is formed from each of these things in part and from their interaction and overlap. It’s a method for a modern age, an information age, where a great volume of seemingly disconnected facts are made to coalesce into meaning by their relationship to each other, and the inferences of the reader.

The construction of the novel suits its audience. It is clearly and primarily meant for Young Adults, but I am far from young, and I found it engaging and interesting. It does not condescend. The foul language is redacted by black bars (a conceit allowed by the central conceit that this novel is a collected dossier of documents, and that the person for whom it is being collected has asked for the swearing to be censored) but not entirely absent. Like the narrative more generally, it is hinted at on the page but exists really in the mind of the reader. Other than this allowance to the YA audience, this novel would not be out of place on adult shelves. It deals with deep emotion and the ideas it explores have complexity and meaning: the value of love, sacrificing the few for the many, the strength of familial bonds, the human response to tragedy.

The narrative itself starts as a fractured romance, two young lovers, separated by circumstance, on a quest perhaps to find one another again and make amends for past mistakes. Or perhaps not. With ‘Illuminae’ there’s the sense that it will be free to pick its own direction, should it wish. The threat or promise of subversion runs through it at every stage. As with the different forms it takes, ‘Illuminae’ has a free approach to genre. Strong Sci-Fi elements complement the Romance and provide a foundation for elements of Horror and Mystery. It is each of these things, at various stages, and none exclusively.

The characters are well-drawn, and I found myself invested in both Ezra and Kady, and in them as a couple. It is well-balanced, but ultimately Kady’s story, more than Ezra’s. Of note, the secondary characters are plentiful and support the main cast well. Each is given a sense that they have a story of their own, and a life of their own, beyond the text. They don’t exist merely to serve the protagonists. Details of each life are provided, often to heighten the tragedy of death or to raise the stakes of a conundrum. The author’s drew upon their friends for the many hundred names and identities they needed, but there are also nice little pop cultural references, characters with namesakes from The Wire, or from the author’s favourite bands. These provide Easter eggs which reward the attentive reader.

The plot has plenty of twists and turns, meandering at a relatively sedate pace in the early stages before shifting into high gear and delivering a fast-paced, page-turning, late-night, one-more-chapter-Mum, final act. There are questions to be answered, false leads, double-crosses, betrayals, confusion, misunderstandings. Most impressive were the shifting alliances, the way a character could be seen differently by the different protagonists, or the way a seemingly irredeemable character would be given an opportunity to redeem themselves. The form helps here, in that we can head-hop with relative ease and see from multiple perspectives. This is more so the case in the first half, whereas the last half of the book beds us down into a more traditional (albeit nearly omniscient) narrator.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Illuminae’, and would recommend it without hesitation. Certainly it’s a great book for the teen in your house or in your life. For anyone with a creative mind, or an interest in narrative craft, it serves as a fascinating exploration of the possibilities of form and alternative modes of storytelling.


What ‘The End’ means (to me).

So recently I had the opportunity to write those final two words of a manuscript…

These two words

These two words

…and I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on exactly what those mean, in this context.

The first thing I did after typing those words, was to go back to the first chapter I wrote and re-read it. It sucked. It was about 1800 words long, as a chapter, and 900 of them were dead-boring info-dump exposition back-story. They read like I was writing to myself and still trying to figure out what was going on and how it all worked. Which of course they did, because that’s exactly what they were.

‘The End’ then just meant the end of the first draft, and the first draft sucked in many ways, which is fine. First drafts are meant to suck in many ways. You need–I have found and other wiser writers have said–to give yourself permission to suck in that first draft. Chuck Wendig has said that the draft is where you make the words and the editing is when you make them not shitty (or words to that effect). So having shitty words didn’t bother me so much. I accepted that was part of drafting and that I would begin soon the task of making them not shitty.

Thus, The End is the beginning

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

But it is more than that. ‘The End’ is a culmination of all the work that got you to the point where you’ve written a story. That Wendig link above gives 25 reasons why it’s important for you to ‘finish your shit’ and I can’t compete with 25 (especially when there are, contained in those 25, all of mine and more). So I won’t talk about why it’s important for you to get to ‘The End’. I’ll talk about why it was important for me.

This is the third time I’ve been able to type those words and each time I feel like I’ve put them on a draft which was better than the last draft I put them on. Not only that, this time it was the quickest draft I have written, the shortest length of time between setting down those first uncertain words and concluding the story which grew from them.

I started planning this story on 7th July 2015 and wrote the first 20,000 words or so in that month before putting it aside and going back to the revisions on my previous novel. I picked up on this one again in September 2015, with this story still only 20,000 words. I wrote ‘The End’ on 7th Feb 2016, by which time there was 91,454. That means over 70,000 in under 6 months. Given this was around a full-time job, two young kids, Christmas, birthdays, family visits, life-in-general, I think that’s a decent pace. I can improve on it, but it’s significantly quicker than my previous efforts. Partly this is because of general improvements in my process and craft. Partly this is because of NaNoWriMo.

I had been very skeptical of being involved with NaNoWriMo before. The idea of sacrificing quality for quantity and churning out words for the sake of words seemed at odds with how I wrote, but I decided in 2015 to use it as impetus to get a few more words on this Work in Progress. I never expected to get 50,000. And then I did.

My daily, weekly, and monthly totals

My daily, weekly, and monthly totals

Nano wasn’t too hard at all for the first 21 days or so. I had done significant planning beforehand, I had a really clear idea of where the story was going and who was doing what with/to whom and when and where and in what sequence and why and such.
But it wore me down. That fourth week was a chore. You can see I skipped two days in that week entirely. I basically gave up. But a big day spent sitting for several hours at a cafe yielded over 6,000 words and put me back in with a chance and my stubborn competitiveness helped get me over the line.

I started November with 25,000 words, and that had been the work of July, September and October. By the time December began I was over 75,000 and planning to finish by the end of the year.

I barely wrote at all in December. I was so fatigued by the November efforts I basically did nothing for a week and then I wrote a bit in the second and third week before Christmas etc hit and I did nothing until January was pretty well underway. I decided I’d try and finish by the end of Jan and missed that goal too, but only by 7 days.

Part of the problem was that I felt so close. I figured another 10-15 (on top of my 75) would get me there, and I was writing that basically weekly throughout November, so how hard could it be? But the push to get words down had taken a toll. Those words weren’t always according to the plan, and the plan had to change, and that’s fine, but I found I had lost my direction. I had to go back and re-write and re-shape and then plan again and draft again and cut and create. It was a tough process. I ended up cutting 10,000 words back out over January and the start of Feb. The last three chapters took forever and changed many times.

And so when I did finally get to write ‘The End’ it was deeply cathartic, to know that it was done, and all of that effort had led to a moment where I could feel, briefly, that the story was told.

Thus, The End means a time to celebrate.

Me, celebrating

Me, celebrating

 

So what now?

Now I have sent the finished draft off to beta-readers. I won’t look at it now for a month. Then I’ll print it out, chapter by chapter, make my own notes and consider the feedback from my readers and start the process again. Because ‘The End’ is the beginning. And one day in a April or May I’ll be able to come back to ‘The End’ having revised the draft and ‘The End’ will again mean that it is a time to celebrate and reflect.

In the mean-time…

I started something new today. It’s just a series of thoughts and ideas, a totally different story in a totally different world to the last two I’ve written, but I think it has some legs and somewhere to go.  I have 6,000 words down, of which about half are genuine words and the other half notes and planning and reminders and suggestions.

It’s a near-future sci-fi with cyberpunk influences and it opens with a Hemi-powered Charger, some old lovers, a night drive, a quiet bar, a secretive job offer, a computer chip, an ambush, a knife fight and plenty of gunfire.

So the process begins again. Hopefully in six months I’ll get to ‘The End’ of this one.