Life Update

Life always finds ways to make things interesting, doesn’t it?

A few weeks back, I went to the doctor to get a few things checked out. Honestly, considering the way some of my problems were adding up, I was worried it might have been lupus, even though House episodes tell me that’s never the case.

I got the results of the battery of blood tests the doctor sent me for. Turns out House was right. It wasn’t lupus.

It was a severe vitamin B12 deficiency.

One that typically takes about 20 years to get this bad.

One that could have killed me in about 10-15 years, after disabling me by essentially destroying my spinal column and my mental faculties.

Got to say, that was a bit of a shock.

Evidently, since I’m not vegan (sorry, everyone who insists that humans were never meant to eat animal products, but meat, dairy, and eggs are pretty much our only source of vitamin B12), am not a heavy drinker, am not over 50, and have never had parts of my digestive system removed, the only thing that could have caused this is a problem with my innate ability to properly absorb the B12 that I ingest. This isn’t going to change. I’m going to have this problem for the rest of my life. I am going to have to take supplements (in case I still can absorb some B12) and injections until I’m dead, to keep my levels from getting this critical again.

The good news is that B12 deficiency is a slow decline, so once my levels are normal, I could not take a single supplement and it would still probably take years and years to get this bad again.

The bad news is the damage being deficient in B12 can actually do. Turns out that fatigue issues, depression, and concentration problems? They’re the tip of the iceberg. Vitamin B12 is essential to making your DNA function properly, so without it, you run the risk of nerve damage, dementia, heart problems. As it is, I’ve already noticed some issues crop up over time that could well be explained by me being so low in B12 for so long. Numbness in my fingers, a weird tendency to having my nerves be permanently damaged after trauma or injury (I have 3 spots on my body where my nerves have 2 modes: no sensation, and OW, IT HURTS, WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME?!), and my long-term depression already comes with a side order of psychotic issues like delusions and paranoia when it gets really bad. All of these could be because of the B12 problem.

Some might be reversible. The fatigue and coordination and brain fog? Apparently totally fixable, and the doctor says that a few weeks of B12 injections should have me feeling loads better. I can’t begin to tell you how much I’m looking forward to that!

I also can’t begin to tell you how weird it is to know that I have been on a steady decline pretty much since I hit puberty, if the doctor is to be believed about the timeline. That my whole adult life has been spend unhealthy and getting worse in drips and drabs, and through nearly all of it, I’ve blamed myself for letting myself get this way. Too tired to get exercise? Don’t want to put up with the pain and fatigue that going for a walk will bring? Pfft, everyone pushes past that, so you’re just lazy. Logically, I know that mentality is BS. But when you’ve heard it from so many people for so long, you internalize it even as you know it’s wrong. You take in those comments that you’re a hypochondriac, and the follow-up comments that say everybody has these problems, and you don’t let them go.

Doubly so when they’re said by doctors. (I once had a doctor blame me for being anemic when I was continuing to lose blood quicker than I could replace it, thanks to a tumour. It’s not hard to blame yourself when everyone else seems to be blaming you too.)

Funny enough, for as long as this has been going on, for all the times I’ve gone to doctors reporting symptoms that fit the profile, none of them tested my B12. I didn’t fall into any of the risk categories, really, but it’s one quick blood test, and then a dangerous possibility could have been confirmed or ruled out.

So yeah, now I’m on a treatment plan that’s not only easy and tolerable (weekly injections for 6 weeks, followed by monthly injections, plus a daily supplement), but also cheap (it’ll cost me about $20 every 3 months). That should stop the decline and wipe out a lot of the problems I’ve been facing for years and possibly reverse some of the more severe issues to boot.

Let’s just say I’m now a strong advocate for people getting enough vitamin B12 in their diets. Because seriously, if you don’t have an absorption problem, then making sure to eat some eggs or drink a glass of milk every day is definitely preferable to early-onset dementia followed by your heart giving out before you’re 50.

SPFBO Review: Demi Heroes, by Andrew Lynch

Buy from Amazon.com
Rating – 7/10
Author’s website
Publication date – March 20, 2016

Summary: Lucian Huxley wants to be a hero. To be the one who kills the dragon, defeats the rabid horde, and slays the princess. No, wait, saves the princess. Right now his job is to clean up after Moxar Lightshield, the real hero. Real heroes don’t do their own dirty work. That’s where Lucian and his companions, or anyone else willing to put their lives on the line for a trivial amount of money, come in. In a world filled with magic, unruly bandits, and fearsome ogres, Lucian has his work cut out. But this time the Company has offered him the chance to make his dreams come true. Will he succeed and become the hero he’s always wanted to be? Or will he fall at the hands of the God Killer?

Review: I was initially on the fence about this book. On one hand, the writing was decent, and the early few chapters hinted at something I hadn’t actually seen before in my years of reading fantasy novels. On the other hand, books intended to poke fun at things and be humourous often fall rather flat with me, and there’s as much chance that I’ll dislike them for the humour as I’ll like them for the story.

Demi Heroes turned out to be one of those books that I liked. Largely because it riffs on some concepts that many storytellers rely on as a given. People will always be in the right place at the right time. Things will work out in the end.

Demi Heroes is the story of Lucian, and the group of Company workers who basically make sure all that actually happens. They’re the ones who make sure that the Hero of the story doesn’t get held up by wrong directions (unless, of course, that leads to the Hero’s story being more compelling), that the ancient artifacts are in place when the Hero arrives at the ancient temple, that the villains provide a challenge but never so much threat that the Hero’s death is a certainty. They are they unsung grunts behind every Hero’s quest, the hidden hands of the masterminds who profit from the tourist trade when Heroes take down tyrants and defeat vicious dragons. Heroes always have help, even if they’re unaware of it.

Only now, the Company Lucian works for wants to approach things in a slightly different way. Instead of clearing the way for current Heroes and making their lives and stories that much better, they want to start from scratch, chronicling the rise of a Hero from his beginning, not after he’s already gotten underway. Lucian is offered the chance to fill that role, to become a man who can change the world and have stories told about him and have a team of his own working behind the scenes to make it all come together in a way that others will want to hear about.  But only if he does well in his latest job to help Moxar Lightshield take down the villain who seeks to kill a god.

This is a book for people who always ask why only the hero’s story gets told, why we don’t see the story from any perspective but the one to whom it’s all really happening. (Largely because doing so tends to not make for the greatest story, as interesting as it could be if done well…) Lucian’s story is a wonderful cross between watching a play and getting to peek backstage to see behind the scenes. Lucian himself isn’t a capital-H Hero the way the Company defines them, though nobody can deny that his “stagehand” role puts him in the hot seat as he faces down bandit hordes and ogres and unfortunate political incidents in order to further Moxar’s story. Lucian and his team have their task, but they’re picking up clues about the God Killer as they work too, and more than once Lucian wrestles with whether it’s better to keep your head down and do your job, or whether advancement and ethics mean doing something completely different and taking a more active role in what is supposed to be someone else’s story. There’s a fun meta-aspect to it all, reading a story about a story-maker (or perhaps it would be better to compare him to an editor?), who is both hero and aspiring Hero, trailing in a Hero’s wake while doing heroic things in the process.

Demi Heroes relies a lot on tropes, unsurprisingly. Company-aided Heroes are paragons of goodness and strength and morals, always bearing the burden of defeating evil wherever it may be found, which is practically a textbook definition of the kind of hero we see in many stories through the ages, and also the kind of hero that has fallen further from favour in recent years as readers crave more nuanced and morally-grey protagonists in their fiction. The story takes a bit of a satirical tone when it comes to those classic tropes, as even in the context of the in-book world those Heroes are to no small degree molded, almost custom-made, for the people who want to hear stories about them and feel inspired. They’re archetypes, not real people doing things that real people do. It’s not that the Hero didn’t kill a dragon, but the dragon was drugged and not as dangerous as it would normally be, so that the Hero can properly kill it and make people feel good about Heroes.

But even as the book pokes fun at tropes and archetypes, it falls prey to them with pretty much every other character. These days, admittedly, it’s hard to write a character that isn’t tropey, since so many things have been done that even inversions of tropes have becomes tropes themselves. The know-nothing know-it-all. The mage who can’t properly use magic. The bard who can’t sing. The man whose appearance is brutish and terrifying but really he wants to heal people instead of hurt them. They’re not really clever inversions, not any more than someone writing a vampire who feels faint at the sight of blood. Funny for a moment, until you realise that dozens of people before you also thought it was funny for a moment when they did it. Lucian and his party aren’t much more original than the character of Moxar Lightshield.

Which, honestly, may well have been Lynch’s intent, since making fun of classic character roles is a big theme here, as well as looking behind the scenes at the people who make stories happen. Lucian’s party may well have consisted of such characters specifically because the Company wanted that kind of party around, because they were characters they felt people wanted to hear about. So we have a storyteller writing about a company of storytellers trying to tell a story about people aiding in creating a story. It’s all very head-twisty and fun, and I think the fun of the implications made up for the characters not always being particularly strong or original.

Demi Heroes doesn’t bring much new to the table, but it does bring an uncommon twist to an old story, and it was certainly fun to read. A bit slow in places, but curiosity to see how it all played out kept me going even when I felt things were lagging a bit, and Lynch’s writing was fairly smooth and decently detailed to boot. If you’re in the mood for some humour in your fantasy, then give Demi Heroes a try.

How to Become a Trusted Reviewer

For those who follow me on Facebook, you may have seen that last week, I posted a couple of pictures of some absolutely mind-boggling stuff that I got for review. I recently became part of the Amazon Vine program, which is an invite-only review program that works pretty much how you’d think: you request some of the items on offer, they send it to you free of charge, and you’re expected to review it within 30 days. I was and still am absolutely thrilled to become part of the program, because it means that someone has deemed that my opinions are of note, and worth something. It’s an awesome moment of validation.

But as expected, the flood of private messages came my way: “How can I get into that?” “How can I get all that free stuff too?” “What do I have to do to be part of that?”

…Has anyone ever seen the movie, Ratatouille?

(Bear with me; I’m actually going somewhere with this.)

In Ratatouille, the movie’s antagonist scoffs at the idea that “anyone can cook.” Of course, by the end, he gets the implication that was in that phrase all along. It’s not that everyone can cook. It’s that a good cook can come from anywhere.

It’s the same with reviewing. Anyone can review. In the same way that anyone can cook.

It’s that easy. The thing is, it’s also not that easy. It requires actual work, and that’s the stuff a lot of people who don’t review don’t get to see. They just see the piles of free stuff, and all they know is, “Wow, that person’s getting free stuff and all they have to do is say whether they like it or not.”

So with all that in mind, I want to break down some of what it takes to “get into that.”

Find a venue. It doesn’t matter if you start a blog, a YouTube channel, or just use your Amazon account, but in order to talk about things and be taken seriously, you need to find a place to do so where people will listen.

Be passionate about something. Now you need something to talk about. For me, it was books. The reason I started reviewing books was the stunning revelation that I read a lot, and I had opinions about what I read. That’s it. I figured putting them down on the Internet seemed like a good idea. Maybe it’d generate some discussion. Maybe not. But I wrote my opinions anyway. And I kept doing that. I’ve been doing that now for over 6 years.

Let me stress that. 6 years. More than. Some people get bigger, some people get big more quickly, but regardless, I’ve still put over half a decade of my life into sharing my hobby with people. I was not some overnight success.

It doesn’t matter if you’re passionate about books, movies, car parts, model trains, whatever. But pick somewhere to start, something that will keep you going.

Be patient. It took me 3 months of regularly reviewing anything and everything I read before I was offered my first review copy. It was a book of trivia; not really related to the kind of stuff I reviewed, even if I was less focused on SFF then than I am now. As for getting to the point where I got that invite to Amazon Vine? See my previous comments about doing this for over 6 years. True, I haven’t been as diligent about cross-posting reviews to Amazon as I could be. If I had been, maybe this would have happened a few years sooner. Maybe. It’s impossible to say. Either way, it takes time, and if you’re not prepared to invest time, then reviewing probably isn’t something you actually want to get into.

Think critically. So you’re asked to review an MP3 player. “Sweet!” you think. “I get a free MP3 player! All I have to do is use it and say what I think!” Hold up. It’s not that simple. Nobody’s going to trust you as a source of good information if all you say is, “I like it.” While you’re using it, you have to pay attention. Does it have the storage capacity the manufacturer says it does? Does it need a program to add music or is it just a matter of dragging files over? How long is the battery life? Does it have any other functions; if so, you have to test those too. Reviewing isn’t just saying if you did or didn’t think a thing. It’s saying why. Be prepared to back up your opinions. That MP3 player’s battery is supposed to last for 30 hours but it died after 10? The buttons won’t work? It’s supposed to sync with certain programs and yet doesn’t? It overheats while charging? Your reviews are for prospective buyers, and you need to be able to tell them exactly what you’d want to know about whether or not you should spend money on a thing.

Writing. Writing, writing, writing. You have to get decent at writing. Or if your reviews aren’t text-based, then you have to get decent at speaking. You need to be able to convey your thoughts so that other people understand them. Think that’s easy? Sure. If you have some natural skills with writing, then it might be. But thnk hao mny ppl onlin tok liek tihs, and then ask yourself if that’s the impression you want to give when convincing people that they should pay attention to your opinion.

Social media. Part of the point to all this is to convince others that your opinion is a trustworthy one. Which means making sure other people see your opinion to begin with. Which means cross-posting reviews to multiple websites, and also building a social media presence. Seriously, the majority of hits to this blog come from Twitter. But keep in mind that building a social media presence means more than just spamming links to your stuff over and over. You need to interact with people. Get in conversations. Get to know people, let them get to know you, and maybe then they’ll check out the stuff that you talk about.

It all happens silently. Remember my paragraph about testing the MP3 player? That ties in to this. Reviewing something may seem like all it takes is half an hour to write up a few paragraphs, but what nobody sees is the time behind the scenes, where you’re testing, writing, editing, etc. When it comes to reviewing books, most of my work takes place where nobody sees. Nobody sees me sitting and reading. They don’t see me writing. They see the end result, and it’s typically only other reviewers that really appreciate how much work goes on behind the scenes, because they’re also doing their own work behind the scenes. The review itself is just the tip of the iceberg.

Be prepared to have everyone be jealous of you but for nobody to think you should make money. Plenty of people wish they could get freebies. Freebies are awesome. Even if all the previous stuff I mentioned hasn’t deterred you, then keep this in mind: unless you are phenomenally lucky, this will never be more than a hobby. You will not be able to pay the bills. You will not be able to earn money, except maybe in drips and drabs through affiliate links. You may get called greedy if your blog is ad-supported or if you start a Patreon account. People will argue that anyone can do what you’re doing, so you don’t deserve to get paid no matter how much work you put into it. The stuff I get through Amazon Vine? Is usually only finally mine after 6 months, and even after that period, I’m not allowed to sell or gift anything I’ve gotten. I’m free to keep it or outright destroy it, but not to make any money off something that at that point is technically mine.  It’s to stop people ordering a bunch of random stuff and writing reviews and then turning around and making hundreds of dollars of essentially-new merchandise, and I totally get that, but it’s part of a common mindset that goes along all levels of reviewing.

I wish I could pay my rent in coffee-makers. But, alas…

I want to stress that I’m not saying that reviewers should charge for reviews. I’m not talking about demanding payment. I’m talking about how weird it is that people think your work isn’t worth money, even at the same time they say they wish they could do what you do. It’s like we place a lot of value and yet no value on things, and so long as they’re things then it’s okay, but if dollar signs come into it, then you’ve crossed a line. It’s weird to me, and frustrating, because I’d love to be able to even pay a bill from the work that I put into reviewing, but I’m told that it’s actually more acceptable for me to take a sledgehammer to a slow cooker than it is to sell it for $50.

This is a way of thinking that will undoubtedly encounter if you choose to start reviewing stuff. I mention all this not as a way of ranting and railing against the system, but to warn people that yes, this will probably happen, and yes, it’s weird, and no, there’s nothing you can really do about it.

All that sound okay to you? Because that’s what it’s taken to get where I am today. To get to the point where people trust me enough to send me the occasional bit of expensive merchandise for review. 6+ years, a lot of learning and improving, a lot of trial and error, a lot of feeling like a failure, and 95% of what I do being behind the scenes. Anyone can do it, absolutely. You, reading this right now, can totally get in on the game at any moment, if you want to. There’s no entry fee. No licenses or certificates required. Just a lot of patience and hard work.

To understand all of this, you have to take a step back at look at it from the point of view of the companies. Companies send you things in the hope that what you say will generate more sales for them. They’re taking a small financial hit by giving something away for free, in the hope that it will result in more money later when trusted voices tell others that their product is a good thing to buy. That’s why I put so much emphasis on trust and regularity and building a presence. You need to convince companies to take that chance on you, and for that you need to convince others that what you say is worth listening to.

If you want to do it for the free products, then by all means, go right ahead. But I want people to be aware of the fact that you don’t get that to start. There’s nothing wrong with a goal. If you want to work your way up to being part of the Amazon Vine program, more power to you. I’m pretty freaking thrilled with my brand new microwave, thanks, and nobody will convince me that’s not awesome. But know what you’re getting into. I’ve found that when people ask me what it takes to do what I’m doing, they get really discouraged at the knowledge that I actually worked at getting to this point, and that they’d have to do the same. They expect, I think, that I’ll say it’s all really easy. Just click a few stars on a few rating pages and BAM, people will be lining up to hand over free goodies.

Let me put it this way. If it were that easy, I’d have had to do even more work than I have, reviewing hundreds more products, for any company to think I’m worth sending a free microwave to.

Still want in on this gig?

SPFBO Review: The Dragon Scale Lute, by JC Kang

Buy from Amazon.com
Rating – 6/10
Author’s website
Publication date – February 29, 2016

Summary: Kaiya’s voice could charm a dragon. Had she lived when the power of music could still summon typhoons and rout armies, perhaps Cathay’s imperial court would see the awkward, gangly princess as more than a singing fool. With alliances to build and ambitious lords to placate, they care more about her marriage prospects than her unique abilities. Only the handsome Prince Hardeep, a foreign martial mystic, recognizes her potential. Convinced Kaiya will rediscover the legendary but perilous art of invoking magic through music, he suggests her voice, not her marriage, might better serve the realm. When members of the emperor’s elite spy clan– Kaiya’s childhood friend and his half-elf sidekick (or maybe he’s her sidekick?)– discover mere discontent boiling over into full-scale rebellion, Kaiya must choose. Obediently wedding the depraved ringleader means giving up her music. Confronting him with the growing power of her voice could kill her.

Review: I want to start off this review by stating outright that I’m not really qualified to talk about the accuracy of various cultural aspects of this novel. I have no background in Chinese studies, little knowledge of Mandarin Chinese beyond, “Yes,” “No,” “My name is [name],” and, “I want tea,” and I do not have any Chinese ancestry. So it should be left to people wiser and more knowledgeable than me to say whether or not this book has a good portrayal of Chinese culture at any point through China’s history. I’m not the one to make that judgment.

The story is based on historical China, at least, though for me it lies somewhere between historical fantasy and secondary-world fantasy, given that as much as there are referenced to the country being called Cathay, the Great Wall, and a load of other little things that peg it as historical, it also makes references to multiple moons, which makes me think secondary-world. Either way, the feel is very much “ancient China,” with a few other cultures thrown in for good measure. It does make it a welcome change from the glut of western-based fantasies, for certain.

I do like Kang’s writing style. it’s fluid, it’s clear, and it moves the story along well. There’s some good detail in here that manages to balance giving the reader a good image of an unfamiliar culture without bogging the whole thing down with too much description in an attempt to explain everything that might not be 100% clear to every reader We don’t need to know exactly what Dian-xia translates to in order to pick up that it’s the formal title of the princess.

From the description, the story is largely about the young princess Kaiya, though to be perfectly honest, Kaiya’s part in the novel could have been skipped without losing very much. She has magical talent that manifests through music, reportedly powerful enough that she could subdue dragons, but for the most part, her chapters involve her mooning over Prince Hardeep, a visiting noble from Ankira who has little personality and spends his time on the pages trying to guide Kaiya into doing exactly what he wants her to do. The story happens to Kaiya, not because of her, and it gets tedious to read. Pretty much until close to the end, the most contribution she makes to the story is to agree to marry an abusive lord for political reasons. And practice musical magic while thinking longingly of Hardeep.

Kaiya may play a greater role in the story in the rest of the series, but here she’s largely passive and not particularly interesting. Even looking at it from the standpoint of young romance, I couldn’t really get into her sections. Hardeep wasn’t that interesting or developed, and it seemed like her only interest in him stemmed from his good looks and the fact that he was nice to her. And from that she’s willing to go along with dangerous and troublesome ideas for literally no other reason than because he says so. We don’t really see anything from his perspective, so all we see of him is through he eyes of someone besotted, and even that doesn’t make him compelling.

Far more interesting were Tian and Jie, who have far more defined personalities, infiltrate political plots, take part in espionage and combat and all sorts of things, and generally do more to uncover the meat of the plot than Kaiya does. I would have rather read the whole story from Jie’s perspective, honestly, than flip back and forth between her and Kaiya. She takes a more active role through the whole book, is sarcastic, is in a great position to provide commentary on how people don’t take her seriously because of her presumed maturity… Seriously, Jie was the star of this book, not Kaiya.

There’s a rather unique cultural mish-mash going on in this book that is worth talking about, and I feel I can at least comment on it even if I don’t make any “this is wrong/right” judgments. While the story is told in a Chinese-inspired area, and there are mentions of other places that I believe are inspired at least by India (and possibly a couple of other places I couldn’t entirely identify), there’s also some pieces of western Europe and its mythologies thrown in. Both Asian- and European-style dragons are said to exist. There’s mentions of elves and dwarves, and though no really solid description is given of either of them barring the fact that elves have pointed ears, it seems a fair assumption that they’re the elves and dwarves that we think of when we think of Lord of the Rings, for instance. These people aren’t commonly seen in the book, having their own homelands and own affairs to tend to, but they do show up every now and again. Often with Cathayi names, though that might be a nod to the culture they’re all hanging out in rather than their actual names, I’m not sure. Regardless, there are enough references to other places and cultures that The Dragon Scale Lute feels like it’s taking place in one small part of a much larger world, which is something that I often see ignored in fantasy novels. Unless characters are actually traveling that larger world, any multiculturalism tends to get left by the wayside, and it was good to see something where that wasn’t the case.

While the overall combination of political intrigue and magic and a non-western setting definitely made this book stand out to me, I think its real weakness is the utter lack of character in Kaiya, who is ostensibly the main character of the whole story. The writing was decent, but it wasn’t enough to really keep me going through sections in which nothing related to either plot or character-building actually happened, and that spoiled what could otherwise have been a really good book, especially considering that Kaiya’s POV was about half of the novel. Maybe it would appeal to younger readers or those who enjoy a mooning one-sided romance, but that’s not the sort of story that appeals to me, and that aspect rather spoiled it for me, unfortunately.

SPFBO Review: Touch of Iron, by Timandra Whitecastle

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N
Rating – 7/10
Author’s website
Publication date – May 13, 2016

Summary: Is the Living Blade real or just a legend?

With it… Prince Bashan could win back his kingdom. Master Telen Diaz can free himself of the burden from his past. Owen Smith sees a once-in-a-lifetime chance to gain untold knowledge.

…but for Noraya Smith, the Living Blade will bring nothing but suffering and sorrow.

Review: First off, I want to take a moment to praise the person who did the cover art for this book. I don’t usually talk much about cover art, but this is an exception largely because it’s notable that a self-published book has such high-quality art. When most people think self-pub, they usually associate it with covers that look slapped together in MS Paint, or that have okay art on the cover but not really the sort of art that one usually associates with book covers. But let’s be perfectly honest here; if you hadn’t seen that this review was for a book associated with the SPFBO, would you look at that cover and think that it was a traditionally-published book, with all the associated work and assistance that goes into getting an awesome-looking cover? I know I would.

And it’s interesting how that can be the difference between attracting readers and not. As much as we saw we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, we do exactly that all the time. We see a book’s cover and we decide from there whether we even want to look at the back-of-the-book description. It’s the first impression, that one that you don’t get a second chance to make. And so far as I’m concerned, it’s worth pointing out when books do that well, especially in a field where the pervading stereotype is that they don’t.

Anyway, enough about cover art. What did I think of the book itself?

The story centres around Nora, a young woman who left her village with her twin brother, and who runs headfirst into trouble pretty much immediately. She encounters Diaz, a half-wight pilgrim who is assisting a fallen prince in attaining the legendary Living Blade, the sword that once cut down the gods and that will allow the prince to regain his throne. But there’s opposition, naturally, and Nora is half-pulled into a deadly quest and half walks there willingly. But as much as Nora moves forward and seeks the training she desires, she can’t entirely escape the past that shaped her all along.

Whitecastle writes an interesting world in Touch of Iron. It’s not stand-out unique, but it does play with some interesting elements. I admittedly haven’t seen too much with wights (outside of books based on fantasy RPG worlds, that is), let alone half-wights, so that was an unexpected addition to the story. The way twins were handled also caught my attention, with their relation to certain deities. Not the first time I’ve seen anti-twin sentiments in a secondary-world setting, but it’s another rarity — at least in the books I’ve read over the years — so it was cool to see. Both the issue of half-wights and the viewpoint of a twin allow for some good presentations of prejudice and racism to show through, although it was fairly minor, and mostly dealt with through hiding and contemplation of what people might think, rather than showing any overt animosity toward certain characters. Nora has strong feelings about people not abandoning newborn twins to the elements, as is tradition, but she only openly opposes such treatment in one scene, and doesn’t really force the issue with others who believe that twins are cursed or unworthy.

Not that I can blame her. Not everyone is made to fight every fight, and Nora’s cause wasn’t the equal treatment of twins. If expedient, she would pretend to be somebody’s wife, or student, or whatever was needed at the time; it wasn’t her priority to force the issue at every step, however much it may have rankled her. It was more important to find the Living Blade, to be trained by Diaz, to survive.

Of course, this “you can’t right every wrong” attitude in especially difficult to deal with when rape is involved. And it comes up more than once. So, consider this a bit of a trigger warning in regard to this book: if that sort of treatment of rape is one that’s particularly triggering for you, then maybe this isn’t the book for you. It’s difficult to read, in any case, and as much as I can understand the cold practicality behind not being able to save someone from being raped to death if all it will accomplish is you dying too, that doesn’t make my blood boil any less.

I found Diaz talking about his heritage to be something that provoked reflection, and it resonated with me to a degree. I’m paraphrasing, but he talks about how humans consider him half-wight, and wights consider him half-human, and so he fits in nowhere. That struck a chord, and I imagine it will do something similar to readers who feel torn between two halves of themselves, be it culturally or racially or through some other aspect of themselves.

Though while the world that Nora moves through isn’t a monoculture (there are regional differences in dress, food, manners, etc), there are strong common threads through every place that we see. Every area she travels feels the same way about twins, for instance, and for the same reasons. Every place knows the same legends, about the same gods, with no real differences, or even slightly different interpretations that fit their particular subculture a bit better. It’s hard to tell if this is due to a lack of more detailed culture-building, or because it’s difficult to tell the scope of Nora’s travels. Though at one point she spends months going from one place to the next, that could be only a small part of the world, equivalent to, say, crossing the United States. You’ll find differences between the east coast and the west coast, but not so many that you’ll find an entirely different and unfamiliar way of living. It may be that Nora’s travels only take her that far, when the rest of the world is much larger and much more varied. It’s hard to say.

Whitecastle’s writing is a treat to read, polished and with good flow, even pacing, and a good balance between realistic dialogue and observant narration. I loved the dialogue that Whitecastle writes, and I think it’s safe to say that it’s probably my favourite aspect of her writing. Her characters live through their words, they pop off the page and feel like real people you might talk to on the street, and I loved that! Definitely a skill worthy of praise, right there.

One weakness that I saw in the novel, however, was a general lack of character motivation, or at least my understanding of it. There was plenty of action to drive the story along, lots of events to keep things moving, but I found myself struggling to figure out why any of it was happening in the first place. I mean, yes, there’s a fight scene because bandits are attacking, but why are they attacking? Owen wants to be a pilgrim, but why? Master Cumi betrays everyone, but why? Reasons are given, but they don’t really seem to explain what properly motivated the character in the first place. Especially with Master Cumi. We know that she uses a type of magic that’s seen as evil (in part because of the potential it has to harm as well as heal, but her reason for betraying people seems to be little deeper than, “I’m tired of pretending that evil isn’t inside me, mwahaha!” We don’t really see her be dissatisfied with healing instead of harming. We don’t see her struggle with moral choices. We don’t even see her mutter angrily under her breath. We just see her arrange for a buttload of people to die so that she can go somewhere else and openly practice the kind of magic she uses, instead of hiding it. So we get an explanation, sure, but because we see no real demonstration of her motivation beyond her outright saying it, it feels hollow and weak, and entirely unlike the character we’d gotten to know by that point. Character motivations sometimes get revealed much later on into the story, but by that point they often feel like afterthoughts, because we’ve seen so little of what’s been pushing characters to do anything beyond reactions through most of the story.

Aside from that, though, there’s a whole lot to like about Touch of Iron, and at least at the moment, I think Whitecastle’s novel stands a strong chance of being passed to the final round in the SPFBO. And even if it doesn’t go further, it’s still a good novel that’s worth reading, and there’s plenty of potential for the story to go further. Touch of Iron is a self-published novel that could go far, carried on the strength of Whitecastle’s writing.

Strangers Among Us, edited by Susan Forest & Lucas K Law

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Forest’s website/Law’s page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 8, 2016

Summary: There’s a delicate balance between mental health and mental illness . . .

Who are the STRANGERS AMONG US?

We are your fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and lovers. We staff your stores, cross your streets, and study in your schools, invisible among you. We are your outcasts and underdogs, and often, your unsung heroes.

Nineteen science fiction and fantasy authors tackle the division between mental health and mental illness; how the interplay between our minds’ quirks and the diverse societies and cultures we live in can set us apart, or must be concealed, or become unlikely strengths.

We find troubles with Irish fay, a North Korean cosmonaut’s fear of flying, an aging maid dealing with politics of revenge, a mute boy and an army of darkness, a sister reaching out at the edge of a black hole, the dog and the sleepwalker, and many more.

After all, what harm can be done…

Review: I was thrilled to hear about this anthology, and yet disappointed at the same time when I realized that it wasn’t exactly getting much advanced attention, especially when social reform and visibility for those with disabilities are hot topics on so many lips these days. Maybe it’s because the book’s primarily Canadian, I don’t know, but either way, I haven’t heard nearly as much as I’d hoped about this anthology, and it’s a damn shame because it’s a great collection filled with powerful stories from some amazing authors.

And with Strangers Among Us shining the spotlight on mental illness and society’s outcasts, well, let’s just say that it has some material that hits pretty close to home.

Some background – I’ve struggled with mental health issues pretty much since hitting puberty. A diagnosis of depression and poor treatment of that when I was a teenager kicked off the whole thing. Throw in a batch of neuroatypical issues as I grew older (obsessive-compulsive tendencies, Tourette syndrome, social anxiety, other things that put me squarely on the autism spectrum, and an unpleasant dose of psychotic depression — also called depressive psychosis), and yeah, it’s no surprise that awareness of mental health issues is important to me. I could go on at length about how all this has affected my life, but I know that’s not really what you’re here for. You’re here for the book review. But I wanted to make it clear that I have experience with being one of society’s outcasts myself. I know what it’s like to doubt your sanity, the very essence of yourself, and I know what it’s like to face discrimination from others over said issues. It’s not fun. The more awareness that can be raised about what mental illness is actually like, the better.

Plus, I’m all about trying to share Canada’s great literary talent. This entire anthology is written by authors who are Canadian or who have a connection to Canada; some of the stories are set in Canada, which is a nice change of pace when the majority of what I see in SFF takes place in the US (or what used to be the US) when it’s set in this world.

So Strangers Among Us focuses on issues just like that. They’re all written by authors who write speculative fiction, and indeed most of the stories sit under the genre headers of fantasy or sci-fi, but not all of them. One rather memorable story is about a man who cannot leave his apartment, who spies on people through a payphone, learning about their lives and fantasizing about heroically saving an abused woman, until the time comes when he is pushed beyond his agoraphobia and steps outside to actually do so. Nothing fantasy or sci-fi about that, but it was a strong story nevertheless, and it definitely earned its place among all the others.

There were a couple of stories that dipped into the old well of, “People see things that aren’t there, only wait, those things actually are there and that person’s really special!” A dangerous well to dip into, really, since there have been so many stories done in the past that almost present that as a handwave to mental illness, downplaying what many people actually suffer through in the attempt to provide some sort of supernatural reason why these people aren’t ill, just misunderstood. The stories that did that, though, did it well, I’m happy to say. One, which blended multicultural mythologies in a school setting, legitimately did feature a character who could see things others couldn’t, but that story didn’t seem to tackle mental illness so much as it tackled the idea of being deliberately outcast from ones peers. Another, in which a young Irish girl could see fay and was later diagnosed as schizophrenic, of course turned out to be schizophrenic, but the story didn’t say that schizophrenia isn’t a real condition. It absolutely is. It’s just that some people get misdiagnosed with it because that’s what fits the pattern of modern human understanding.

There’s a sense of both fear and hope in each story. Fear of the unknown, the things we can’t understand, the things that seem different; hope for a better experience and for better understanding. The little boy who can’t speak and would probably get a diagnosis of autism were he not living in a secondary world, he’s sold like an object and overlooked as being too stupid to understand, until someone hurts him and the things and people dear to him and he gets his revenge, however subtle and historically overlooked that revenge may be. The thread of mental illness that runs through generations of family, tearing apart relationships as a sister feels excluded and ignored by those around her as she sees how that commonality brings others closer together. A dystopian future in which the imperfect are Culled, either killed outright or else just cast into the wastes beyond civilization, only to find that there’s a future out there, and people who are accepting and accommodating of those who aren’t what society deems normal. The person who has no bionic upgrades or implants, referred to as a dog, is the only person awake to repair damage to a spaceship, and he’s forced to wake up someone whose upgrades are offline in order to assist him, forcing that person to be thrown into his unaugmented (and, by that society’s standards, pitifully disabled) world. There’s the idea that mental illness can strike at any time, to anybody, and it can change your life, but in every story there’s a repetition of the idea that it doesn’t mean you’re down for the count. You can contribute. You can make a difference. You can maybe make all the difference.

It’s rare that I find an anthology that I like every single part of equally; there’s nearly always one or two stories that just don’t resonate with me the way the others do. And this is no exception, really. There were, I think, two stories that just didn’t do it for me, though objectively they were still quite good. They just weren’t to my taste. Some stories took a little while to get going, but I ended up liking them in the end, more than I expected to. And I can’t deny that the subject matter they tackled was important enough to keep me reading each one even when I wasn’t enjoying them as much as I’d enjoyed others.

Overall, I’d say this was a fantastic collection of short stories, and one that’s absolutely worth reading, even if mental health issues aren’t a pet passion of yours. The publisher donates a portion of the profits from this book’s sales to mental health initiatives, too, which is a wonderful bonus, and it makes me doubly glad that I was able to get my hands on this and be able to spread the word about it a little bit more. It’s an important collection, a great one to dive into, and that uplifting thread of hope that ran strong was, to be perfectly honest, what I needed during a stressful time. Definitely check this one out if you can; it’s worth it, and you won’t be disappointed.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Books on my Radar (August 2016)

Every month has a glut of books that look awesome and that I know — I know — I will never get around to reading, whether or not I have a copy. But that doesn’t mean they’re not worth highlighting. So here’s a look at the books coming out in August 2016 that have caught my attention.

(Note – This is not a comprehensive list of all SFF books being released in this month. This is just a list of the ones that I have my eye on, for whatever reason.)

August 2016 SFF books

Strangers Among Us, by various authors
Amazon.com / B&N
August 08

Seoul Survivors, by Naomi Foyle
Amazon.com / B&N
August 02

Nevernight, by Jay Krisoff
Amazon.com / B&N
August 09

Ghost Talkers, by Mary Robinette Kowal
Amazon.com / B&N
August 16

The Obelisk Gate, by N K Jemisin
Amazon.com / B&N
August 16

An Accident of Stars, by Foz Meadows
Amazon.com / B&N
August 16

Spiderlight, by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Amazon.com / B&N
August 02

The Language of Dying, by Sarah Pinborough
Amazon.com / B&N
August 16

July 2016 in Retrospect

July has been a month of heat waves and vet bills, neither of which have been particularly pleasant. But it hasn’t been entirely bad, either. There’ve been some highlights, like my roommate and I starting a YouTube channel together, and working on embroidery projects, and other little things that keep me in check. But it has been difficult. Let’s just say that I’m not sad to see the middle summer month coming to an end.

Reviews

An Accident of Stars, by Foz Meadows
Black Fairy Tale, by Otsuichi
The Obelisk Gate, by N K Jemisin

SPFBO Review: The Narrowing Path, by David J Normoyle

I may have only reviewed 4 books, but I read 7, which I’m counting as impressive considering all the other stuff going on, plus the heat sapping my energy and will to do anything more complicated than lie on the floor and melt into an unpleasant puddle.

Other posts

I looked at some of July’s SFF releases that had caught my attention. That’s pretty much it, really.

Next month

I’ve got a couple of regular reviews due, but I want to spend August focusing more on SPFBO books. With luck, maybe I can get 3 read and reviewed, and that should almost catch me up to where I probably ought to be by this point. It’s been slow going this year, for a variety of reasons, but I’m still committed. Just be patient and bear with me while I sort stuff out.

The Obelisk Gate, by N K Jemisin

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 16, 2016

Summary: This is the way the world ends, for the last time.

The season of endings grows darker, as civilization fades into the long cold night.

Essun — once Damaya, once Syenite, now avenger — has found shelter, but not her daughter. Instead there is Alabaster Tenring, destroyer of the world, with a request. But if Essun does what he asks, it would seal the fate of the Stillness forever.

Far away, her daughter Nassun is growing in power – and her choices will break the world.

Review: It’s probably no surprise to anyone to see me rate this book so highly. After all, I loved The Fifth Season, so there was every chance I’d love its sequel just as much. Especially with it being a book by N K Jemisin; I don’t think I’ve read anything of hers that I haven’t loved. I had high hopes for this novel when I started it, and I wasn’t at all disappointed.

If you thought the story in The Fifth Season was complex, just wait until The Obelisk Gate picks up steam. It’s not hard to keep track of events and new information, but there’s a lot of it, and it comes at the reader as hard and fast as it comes at the characters. There’s a lot to take in, a complex and changing world, characters having their previous way of life turned on its head, and everything they knew turns out to be deeper and more twisted than they could have imagined.

The story continues with Essun, living in a community of orogenes and non-orogenes together, trying to weather the beginnings of the Season that looks like it will utterly destroy everything humanity has accomplished, trying to learn from her dying mentor what she needs to do in order to set things right before he dies. She hasn’t forgotten her goal to hunt down the man who killed her son and kidnapped her daughter, Nassun.

Nassun, on the other hand, is still with that man, who drags her all the way to a place he heard about where orogenes can be cured of their terrible and dangerous affliction. But that’s not exactly the case, as Nassun learns, and as her power grows, she uncovers a great deal about the world, its history, and its potential future.

And that, my friends, is probably the worst description you’ll ever read of this book. it doesn’t do it justice. But to say more would include spoilers. I could talk about how orogeny is revealed to be a kind of magic, or how a group of stone eaters seem to want humanity wiped out and are working to accomplish that goal, or how the moon is coming back and somebody has to orogenically catch it and return it to a stable orbit, and that may save the world or destroy it, or any number of amazing aspects to this story that are worth talking about, but every one of the amazing things that hooked my attention would ruin bits of the story for those who haven’t read it yet, and this book is one that’s truly worth not being spoiled in advance.

Fortunately, there’s more than can be talked about that won’t spoil anything for anyone. For instance, the parallels of how orogenes are treated to how people of colour have been and still are treated in various parts of the world. It’s hard to hear characters call someone a rogga, or a rogga-lover, and not think back to a certain word that begins with ‘N’ that’s used in similar ways. It’s hard to read some of the quotes from in-universe books that refer to orogenes being inferior, inhuman, and only good so long as they’re used like slaves, and not draw some comparisons from our own history. It’s painful, and difficult to be confronted with, because it talks about racism without talking directly about racism. The analogies are there for all to see, but sometimes people are only open to something when it’s couched in other terms. I can’t say for sure that it was Jemisin’s intent to have all of it sink unconsciously into readers’ brains, or whether she just intended to draw analogies and let that be the end of it, but from personal experience, I’ve noticed that people seem more willing to accept something when they’ve accepted that thing in another form.

Morality comes into play, unsurprisingly; specifically, shifting morality. The world is different during a Season. That much is established from the beginning. Animals and plants change in response to catastrophe, or else they don’t survive and they die off. But that has nothing to do with morality. The way humans act does, or so it can be argued. What’s unthinkable in one circumstance might be accepted in times of crisis. Cannibalism is treated as a thing that nobody really wants to do, for instance, but when there are people are starving and you’re trying to last for as long as you can, it become acceptable, just a part of life, to eat your own kind in order to survive. One less person eating from stores of food, and their body nourished you for a time. To kill someone when they become too a big a drain on resources. Brutality becomes an everyday thing, distanced from thoughts of cruelty and disgust, because these things that are unconscionable in one time become necessary in another. It was an interesting thing to explore, placed into the story in little pieces, bits of dialogue here and there, and the way characters treated it was realistic and sad at the same time.

Similar to this was the running thread that sometimes cruel things must be done for a person’s own good. Or at least, the idea of it, rather than the veracity of it. How many of us haven’t argued against someone doing something for their own good when it’s not actually what you want or need? Is it right or wrong to demand a change of someone’s identity that will make it easier for them to get by in the world? Is it better or worse to remove someone’s pain if it also means removing their strength? Save a flawed world, or destroy both the bad and the good within it? Questions with no good answer, a dozen arguments for against each side, and they come up time and again in The Obelisk Gate. I loved reading about how different characters dealt with these ethical dilemmas, the arguments that they made, and what that revealed about them as people.

I also, and possibly especially, loved seeing Nassun’s growth. She goes from somebody who needs rescuing, a somewhat nebulous goal in The Fifth Season, to a powerful person with a growing sense of individuality and purpose as The Obelisk Gate progresses. She manipulates her father in order to save herself, still feels some affection for him while fearing him and his anger. She learns things that orogeny can do, including things she’s already been taught it’s not supposed to do that it actually can. Her relationship with Schaffa is a complicated one on both sides, with mixed honesty and deception, and it made all of their interactions that much more interesting. Honestly, after a while I began reading Essun’s sections of the story with a bit of impatience, because I wanted things to shift back to Nassun’s perspective so that I could see more of her development. It wasn’t that Essun wasn’t interesting, but more that Nassun held more potential in my mind, and I wanted to see how her part in the story all plays out.

As expected, Jemisin’s poetic writing shines in this book, stark and evocative and beautiful. That perfect bled between stream-of-consciousness and complete narration, which I think it something of a signature style by this point. Difficult to pull off, but brilliantly effective and hooking readers when it’s done right; and by damn, does she ever do it right! She tells such wonderfully creative stories in such a unique way, and the two aspects come together and become something breathtaking, transformative and important.

I can’t recommend this enough. It’s not one you can jump into without having read The Fifth Season, or else you will be utterly lost, so if you haven’t read the first book yet, then definitely do so before picking this one up. It’s a powerful story that takes you on an incredible journey of destruction and survival, struggle and hope, and after finishing this only yesterday, I already can’t wait to see how the rest of the story continues in the next book. To say that I enjoyed it would be an understatement. Jemisin is a creative genius, and I eagerly anticipate what she does next.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Black Fairy Tale, by Otsuichi

Buy from Amazon.com

Author’s Wikipedia page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 10, 2016

Summary: A raven who has learned to speak from watching movies befriends a young girl whose eyes were ruined in a freak accident. He brings her eyeballs he steals from other people, and when she puts them in her eye sockets, she sees memories from their original owners. Desperate to make the girl happy, the raven brings her more and more eyeballs. This is also the story of a young girl, Nami, who has lost her memories and cannot seem to live up to the expectations of those around her. The stories intertwine in a haunting, dreamy, horrific narrative evoking the raw and universal need for love.

Thoughts: This is a very strange book, one that’s easy for me to talk about but difficult for me to feel like I’m reviewing properly. It starts off rather slow, picks up in intrigue, throws in a whole load of body horror, slows right down again, and then kind of ambles along with the rest of the supernatural mystery that makes up the majority of the book, tying it all together near the end. As far as YA novels go, I can’t say I’ve ever read anything else like it, and even now I’m not entirely sure what I think about it.

It starts off with a fairy tale about a raven, who learns to talk and develops a friendship with a little blind girl who doesn’t realise that her conversation partner isn’t human. The raven begins stealing eyes for her, and wearing those eyes gives the girl glimpses into the lives of the people they were stolen from. Only she begins to have nightmares of a terrifying black monster who attacks and kills people, the last memory stored in the stolen eyes.

Then we cut to Nami, who loses an eye in a terrible accident, and along with the eye loses her memory. She gets a transplanted replacement, which starts to show her memories from its previous owner when it gets visual triggers, and Nami begins to unravel not only the life of her new eye’s donor, but also the circumstances surrounding his death. Her lack of memories and change in personality causes heartbreaking friction with her family and friends, and she decides to leave home and travel to the donor’s hometown, to solve the mystery behind his demise.

Eventually we get a third perspective, cut in between Nami’s chapters, where we follow Shun Miki and his strange and terrible power to prevent death. It’s very specific, and rather stomach-churning. He can inflict wounds on creatures and the wounds will neither get infected nor cause death, no matter what he does. He starts out, as any young psychopath does, on insects, moving to animals, and eventually trying his abilities on humans. This is where the body horror begins, and if you’re squeamish, I urge you to be cautious with this book because you will be reading about people grafted to each other, flayed alive (and kept alive, because none of the wounds inflicted cause harm) and their innards played with and repositioned, and similar. I found these chapters particularly difficult to read, since body horror is, evidently, one of my squicks.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Shun Miki’s activities were discovered by the young man whose eye is now in Nami’s possession, but the mystery is in his true identity, and the story is mostly Nami trying to uncover that and bring closure to a very weird set of events. This is partly why the story moves so slowly. Nami speaks to a lot of people around town, thinks she finds the right info, only to run into obstacles, rinse and repeat. Standard mystery fare, in that regard. Not much action or tension really occurs until near the end (and when it does, be prepared again for more body horror), leaving Nami’s chapters feeling slow and Miki’s feeling weirdly uninteresting, largely because he’s so lacking in emotion to begin with. His manipulations of the human body leave him more curiously detached than anything else, and so in addition to the uncomfortable material presented in his sections of the story, most of the driving force is in seeing into the mind of someone who’s extremely mentally ill. Nami’s sections are by far the most interesting, I’d say.

Otsuichi has a knack for disturbing material, there’s no denying that. As slow as the story can be sometimes, there’s a bit of trainwreck appeal to it all, because you want to keep reading and see the gory details laid bare before you. The biggest drawback that I’ve seen to his writing so far (assuming the translator has done a decent job with translation, that is, since I don’t have the skill to read the original version) is in the way the story is so distanced from the reader. We always see the action, but are never a part of it. The story’s good, the writing’s good, but I’ve found that I haven’t really been able to sink into the book the way I can others; it seems like I’m always just in the helicopter, circling overhead and watching it all happen rather than really riding on the shoulders of the characters themselves.

While the raven story at the beginning may seem weird and a bit of a non-sequitor, it does tie back in eventually, which made me happy since at first it seemed like it was a very weird and inappropriate introduction. But it serves to drive home a big theme that runs through all 3 different stories: doing the wrong things for the right reasons. Or at least, what you believe are the right reasons. The raven attacks and disfigures people because he wants to make the little girl happy. Nami runs away from home and leaves behind the scraps of her life in an attempt to solve a murder mystery. Miki assaults and manipulates people’s bodies to his own curiosity, but also to save and prolong their lives, and he does what he can to keep his victims comfortable. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone does horrible things in the belief that they’re doing the right thing for someone.

So, did I like this book? Yes and no. It was written well, the story was compelling, and I think it would make a great horror movie, but the distanced feel throughout, combined with the discomfort I got from the sheer amount of body horror, made it too uncomfortable to really say that I enjoyed it. It was interesting, and definitely an uncommon offering on the YA bookshelves, but I don’t think I’d read it again, and I can’t say that it will appeal to a wide audience. Learning to tell the difference between something bad and something that I didn’t like (and similarly, the difference between something that’s good and something that I did like) is tough, but I think in the end I can say that yes, this was a good book, but no, I didn’t really like it. But your mileage may vary; it body horror doesn’t get to you the same way it gets to me, you might well find Black Fairy Tale to be a classic of YA J-horror novels. It has the potential, for certain.

(Received for review from the publisher.)