Category Archives: books

New and Upcoming Books I’m Excited About: February 2014 Edition

So I’ve got to share some news. Not Turtleduck Press news — these are other people’s books I’m talking about. I’m excited about them and hope you will be, too.

First up, a new release by YA author Megan Crewe:

The Worlds We Make by Megan Crewe

Out now. This is the third book in her YA apocalyptic trilogy. In her world, society is brought to its knees by an influenza epidemic, leaving Kaelyn struggling to do the right thing, or even to know what the right thing is. It’s a quieter, more reflective series than is usual in this genre. I’ve read the first two books and can’t wait to read the finale.

Second, an adult fantasy novel by Katherine Addison, otherwise known as Sarah Monette:

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Out in April. Monette is one of my very favourite authors. Last year I read a book she co-wrote with Elizabeth Bear, and loved it so much that I promptly flipped back to the beginning and read it again. The Goblin Emperor has been listed on her Wikipedia page as “forthcoming” for years. I’m beyond thrilled that it’s finally (almost) here.

Speaking of Elizabeth Bear, she writes a lot and, much as I love her, I have trouble keeping up, but this spring will see the conclusion of her current fantasy series:

Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear

Out in April. It’s an epic fantasy trilogy set on a world inspired by the Asian Steppes. Need I say more? (The first book is called Range of Ghosts. You’re welcome.)

Finally, Suzanne Collins doesn’t really need my help with promotion, but I’m sharing anyway: Mockingjay is finally out in paperback as of next week! (Which may also mean the ebook will drop in price.)

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Your turn! What recent or upcoming books are you excited about?

Reading Recap 2013

A Companion to Wolves coverWelcome back to the blog! I hope you had a lovely holiday season and are getting back to real life with renewed vigour, or at least looking forward to the return of light and warmth. I know I am!

It’s time again to look back on a year of reading. Today I’m sharing the best books I read in 2013, and looking back on my reading and buying habits over the year. Because who says writers can’t also be numbers geeks?

Best Books in 2013

Disclaimer: I’m always playing catch-up in my reading, so these aren’t the best books published in 2013, just the best I read that year. For SF&F “best of” round-ups that are more current, check out Tor.com or io9.com.

And now, in no particular order, my top 7 books of 2013:

1. The Hair Wreath and Other Stories by Halli Villegas. Short story collection. My review is here.

2. A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin. My response from a writerly perspective is here.

3. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I never did blog about it, but this literary fantasy novel was popular enough when it came out that it probably needs no explanation.

4. Cripple Poetics by Petra Kuppers and Neil Marcus. Poetry chapbook co-written by two disabled people as they fall in love.

5. A Companion to Wolves by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear. My review is here.

6. XKCD by Randall Munroe. Yes, I follow the webcomic, so I’d read all the strips before, but it’s still awesome to have and read in book form. And it hits all my geek buttons.

7. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins. My analysis of the book versus the movie is here.

What I loved about these:

  • the numinous in unexpected places
  • sense of wonder in settings or concepts (e.g., a circus full of wonderful things)
  • sophisticated worldbuilding (e.g., fantasy politics in GRRM; wolf psychology in A Companion to Wolves)
  • psychological depth (e.g., the Girl on Fire coping with life after survival; poetry; the boy bonded to a she-wolf and facing the consequences)
  • sense of surprise – whether a really big twist or something that made me laugh

Catching Fire book cover

Reading Habits in 2013

And now, on to the stats…

Genres

I read 31 books over the course of the year — about 10 more than in each of the previous three years, thanks to having a six-month sabbatical from work. I expect that number to drop back down to normal levels in 2014, alas.

  • 9 were adult fantasy (4 last year) and 5 were adult SF (4 last year)
  • 1 was non-genre adult fiction (3 last year)
  • 2 were YA fantasy (0 last year), 2 were YA SF (3 last year), and 1 was non-genre YA fiction (0 last year)
  • 5 were non-fiction (1 last year)
  • 1 was an anthology or collection of short stories (3 last year)
  • 1 was poetry (0 last year)
  • 3 were “other”, in this case graphic novels or webcomics (0 last year)

14 of the books were from my to-read list (8 last year).

13 of the books were part of series (consistent with the numbers from last two year, though not the proportions, since I read so much more this year).

Authors

I read books by 23 different authors (not counting collaborations or travel guides), of whom 12 were new to me this year (6 last year) and 11 were new-to-me books by previously read authors (7 last year).

9 of the authors were male, 14 female. Last year was a 6/9 split – almost identical proportions.

To my knowledge, only 2 authors were persons of colour (both women). I keep resolving to do better in this regard and falling short.

Publishing

Of all 31 books, 14 were published in 2008 or later (last year, 12 were published in 2007 or later).

The only self-published books I read were the two Turtleduck Press novels and a webcomic anthology or two.

Buying

5 of the books were gifts, 2 were secondhand, 2 were borrowed. None of these were ebooks, obviously.

10/31 of the books were ebooks, including 4 travel guides and 2 from TDP. (The other four included one big fat fantasy novel that I didn’t want to lug around, two novels that I bought to bring with me while travelling, and one that I bought in ebook form for no particular reason.) Last year 5/21 were ebooks, so the proportion has gone up from about 25% to 33%, but the travel is skewing the numbers. We’ll see how it goes this year, especially since I now have a smartphone as well as a dedicated Kobo ereader.

Other Reading Recaps

If you’re the curious type and/or need more book recommendations to add to your list (excuse me while I die laughing…), here are some other bloggers’ reflections on their year in books:

And looking ahead:

Your turn! How did your reading go this past year? What were your favourite books in 2013?

A Tradition of Books for Christmas

Christmas with bookIn my family, we have a long tradition of giving each other books as gifts. I can’t remember a single Christmas where no-one has gotten or given a book.

Some years I’ve ended up with a big, delicious stack; other years, one or two volumes, or even none, as I’ve been a giver instead of a receiver of books. They’ve ranged from secondhand paperbacks to quality editions, from literary classics to Star Trek tie-in novels to the latest in whatever SF or fantasy or historical series I was obsessed with that year.

My family first discovered Harry Potter through a holiday catalogue put out by a local bookstore, the dearly departed and sorely missed Greenwoods’ Bookshoppe. That year, I read the description of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone — I’d never heard of it, nobody had back then — and decided to buy it for my brother, who was just the right age. He loved it. I might have loved it even more than he did.

Speaking of Star Trek tie-ins, I discovered Star Trek in 1992, just at the beginning of my teens. At that time Star Trek: The Next Generation was on its first run, so that’s what I watched, and initially what I read, borrowing all the tie-in books from my Trekkie aunt. But she was also an avid fan of the original series (TOS). For Christmas that year she gave me a copy of her favourite TOS novel, Uhura’s Song – getting me hooked on a whole new series.

More recently, my mom started giving my siblings and me books she hoped would serve us well as new adults heading off on our own — books of recipes, books on decorating your first apartment.

My immediate family doesn’t have any young children in it right now, but you can bet that if and when it does, I’ll be buying kids’ books for Christmas, and I’ll do it with glee.

Your turn! Do you buy books as holiday gifts? Have you noticed a theme or themes to your buying over the years?

If you liked this post, you might also like The Best Christmas Stories Ever, featuring my favourite seasonal books, movies, TV specials, and even a radio show.

Christmas Gift Ideas from Turtleduck Press

You knew I was obliged to do one of these, right? *winks* Don’t worry, we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled non-promotional content on Wednesday.

Turtleduck Press has been working hard at putting out good stories for the past three years, and we’ve amassed a variety of books designed to appeal to a range of SF&F and romance readers.

(All but one of them are available in your choice of ebook or print. Click on the covers below for more info!)

If you like…

…season-themed SF&F anthologies: you might like Winter’s Night (a variety of winter-themed stories and a poem) or Seasons Eternal (one longish short story for each season, set in a world where the seasons have stopped changing), edited by me and contributed to by all the members of Turtleduck Press.

Winter's Night anthology cover

…urban fantasy, paranormal romance, banter, or modern takes on mythology: then you might like Shards by Kit Campbell.

Shards by Kit Campbell

…science fiction set in space but with a focus on character, banter, or m/m (gay) romance: then you might like Knight Errant, His Faithful Squire, Queen’s Man, or Captain’s Boy by KD Sarge.

Knight Errant by KD Sarge

…science fantasy, genetic tinkering, or paranormal romance: then you might like Fey Touched by Erin Zarro (and watch for the sequel, Grave Touched, coming in April!).

Cover of Fey Touched by Erin Zarro

…poetry about broken love or about living with disability: then you might like Without Wings or Life as a Moving Target by Erin Zarro.

Without Wings by Erin Zarro

…YA novels about stepping through a portal into a magical universe: then you might like Hidden Worlds by Kit Campbell.

Hidden Worlds by Kit Campbell

We also have lots of SF&F short stories available to sample for free on our website, but if you’d like to support the authors and get your own copy (ebook only), we’ve collected our favourites in The Best of Turtleduck Press, Volume 1.

Best of Turtleduck Press, Vol. 1

And finally, if you’re not inclined or not in a position to buy one of these yourself this Christmas, but would like to support Turtleduck Press, you can still help by:

  • spreading the word — the biggest barrier to success in publishing (after quality, of course!) is getting noticed, and word of mouth is super important
  • leaving reviews – again, reviews on sites like Amazon, Goodreads, or LibraryThing, or your own blog if you have one, help authors get noticed
  • letting us know how we’re doing — if you want to see us do more of something in particular, or just want to send encouragement, we’d love to hear from you in the comments
  • buying or recommending another author’s book – Sure, we’re technically competitors, but really, the more people read, the better it is for all authors and the publishing industry as a whole…so go out and buy someone’s — anyone’s — books this Christmas!

Strong Girl Characters: YA and MG Classics

From Anna by Jean LittleA couple of months ago, I wrote about strong female characters in SF and F. Today I’d like to revisit some of the characters who inspired me as a younger reader and writer. If you have a budding reader — of any age — to buy for this season, consider the following recommendations lists…

Middle Grade Novels

Amy from M.M. Kaye’s The Ordinary Princess. Amy is a princess cursed to be “ordinary” – she’s not beautiful or good at embroidery or dancing like her sisters. But while lacking in traditional royal virtues, she has a wide independent streak. When her parents try to marry her off, she runs away into the forest to live on her own terms. No ass-kicking here, but plenty of resourcefulness and gentle humour, and an age-appropriate romance on her own terms.

Anna from Jean Little’s From Anna. Unlike most of the novels here, this one is historical fiction, following a German family who emigrates to Canada ahead of WWII. While the shadow of the Nazis lurks in the background, the plot rests solidly on the difficulty of fitting in to a new place. Anna is hampered by having bad eyes and poor English, but her stubborn streak may prove to be her greatest strength.

Cimorene from Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Like Amy, Cimorene is a princess who doesn’t want to be married off, so she runs away to cook and clean for dragons instead, and her life gets much more interesting from then on. Her employer, Kazul the King of the Dragons, is actually female, and she befriends a pretty awesome witch in the forest of the title. Even when she eventually does get married and have a child in subsequent books, her awesomeness is not diminished. (Fellow Turtleduck Press author Kit Campbell did a series of posts on these books, starting here.)

Nancy Blackett from Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. In this series set (and written) in 1930s England, two groups of children sail small boats around a large lake and have adventures that include a strong dose of imagination. Nancy Blackett is the captain of the boat named Amazon, and she lives up to the name – she’s the ringleader of all the adventures, and a fearless pirate whose favourite expression is “Shiver me timbers”. Who says girls can’t be pirates? (Though you will notice her strength is fairly masculine in form.)

As a bonus, Nancy isn’t the only strong girl character in the series — Titty Walker from the Amazon‘s rival boat, the Swallow, is a thoughtful dreamer who gets her moments to shine, and a later heroine, Dorothea Callum, is a writer and storyteller to balance her scientific-minded brother Dick.

Ronia the Robber's Daughter by Astrid LindgrenRonia from Astrid Lindgren’s Ronia the Robber’s Daughter. Lindgren is better known for creating Pippi Longstocking, but I have just as much love for the less off-the-wall Ronia. She grows up in a castle in the woods, running wild among a band of robbers and befriending a boy from a rival band. Pure fantasy? Yes…but what’s wrong with that?

(I’m not going to list all the best-known classics about girls here, but I’ve mentioned some of my favourites over here.)

Young Adult Novels

Kim from Patricia C. Wrede’s Mairelon the Magician and Magician’s Ward. In this Regency world with magic, Kim is a street urchin (masquerading as a boy to avoid the inevitable fate of a girl on the London streets) who’s hired to burgle the wagon of a performing illusionist. But his magic turns out to be real – he’s no circus hack, but a true magician who’s gone incognito after being framed. Soon she’s learning how to do magic herself while helping her new friend clear his name. There’s some romance, especially in the second book (which has more about London Society and less running around in a circus wagon), but the real fun in this duology is the madcap capers that ensue.

Dragonsong by Anne McCaffreyMenolly from Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall trilogy. Forbidden to pursue the music she loves, Menolly runs away from home (sensing a theme here?), befriends some fire lizards (think tiny dragons – a more YA-friendly and more mellow version of Danaerys from Game of Thrones), and follows her dreams to Harper Hall. This series has been a gateway to adult SF&F for many a young reader, but beware — while the Harper Hall trilogy is safe, some of the other Pern books get pretty mature in their subject matter.

Vesper Holly from Lloyd Alexander’s Vesper Holly series. Think of Vesper Holly as a teenaged version of Amelia Peabody – a nineteenth-century adventuress who travels to exotic locations and solves mysteries. ‘Nuff said? (Lloyd Alexander is one of my all-time favourite MG/YA authors, and he has written a lot, so if you get someone hooked on him, he’ll keep them busy for a while!)

(This part of the list is shorter because when I was growing up, there wasn’t a Young Adult genre the way there is today. I went more or less straight from Anne of Green Gables to Anne McCaffrey, A.C. Crispin, Isaac Asimov, and other YA-friendly SF&F authors — and I think I’m pretty typical. But if you have more YA classics about girls that I’ve missed, please chime in!)

Picture Books

I also had a few favourite picture books about girls, both fairy tale retellings by Robin Muller. Tatterhood features a cursed but fearless princess who scours the world for her beloved sister, while Molly Whuppie and the Giant stars an equally fearless woodcutter’s daughter who rescues her two older siblings from certain death. Both of them got read to pieces in our house; they are utterly wonderful, if you can find them.

Your turn! What classic books about girls can you recommend for younger readers?

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like one of the following:

Turtleduck Press Cover Reveal: Shards

I’m excited to unveil the new novel release from my indie publishing house, Turtleduck Press. Shards, by Kit Campbell, is an urban fantasy/paranormal romance featuring an inquisitive Latina university student and a handsome guy who’s keeping supernatural secrets…secrets that have to do with her, and with a past she doesn’t remember.

Intrigued? Here’s the cover:

Shards by Kit Campbell

Shards comes out on December 1, and Kit will be guest posting here that week. In the meantime, you can read more about Shards over at Kit’s website.

(Apologies for the brevity of this post. I’m deep in the throes of novel editing…)

YA Gothic Novels

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba BrayJane Eyre. Wuthering Heights. “The Fall of the House of Usher”. All classic Gothic stories from the nineteenth century. But Gothic has never really gone away…or if it has, it’s baaaack (dun dun dun). This week on the blog, we’re looking at recent Gothic novels in YA.

Gothic Tropes

To recap from last week’s post, here are the main Gothic tropes:

  • An old, decrepit mansion in the wilderness.
  • A mysterious, emotionally distant master of the house (or sometimes mistress, if it’s not a romance).
  • A young woman (such as a governess) who is new to the scene.
  • An orphaned/unwanted child or children living at the house.
  • A terrible secret (sometimes supernatural).
  • The mood of horror, usually related to a moral transgression (such as a murder).

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

Libba Bray’s 2003 YA novel A Great and Terrible Beauty is a good example of all the main Gothic tropes.

The central character, Gemma, loses her mother early in the book (and her father is unable to care for her, so she’s essentially an orphan) and is sent away to a boarding school in the woods, run by a mysterious headmistress who knows more than she’s saying. There are secrets that Gemma must unravel, an old chapel, and supernatural goings-on. And there’s a mysterious, distant love interest.

There’s even a new teacher to stand in for the governess, although usually the governess is the POV character. In this case, being YA, the story focuses on the (quasi-)orphan instead.

Bray’s novel explicitly explores the theme of last week’s post, the Gothic and the feminine. In the story, Gemma and her friends discover a form of magic that stands in for, and ties in with, their chafing against the restrictions of Victorian society and their awakening as women. They’re curious about love and sexuality, but there’s no approved outlet; they’re desperate to control their own lives and feel empowered, but society won’t permit it. Magic gives them freedom — but with limits and dangers attached, because this is a Gothic novel, after all.

(I should point out that this is the first in a trilogy. Books 2 and 3 are titled Rebel Angels and The Sweet Far Thing.)

A Gothic Reading List

Other recently published Gothic novels for YA readers include:

  • Sharon Cameron – The Dark Unwinding and A Spark Unseen (steampunk)
  • Leanna Renee Hieber – The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, The Darkly Luminous Fight for Persephone Parker, and The Perilous Prophecy of Guard and Goddess (another boarding school story, or at least that’s where it starts…)
  • Kenneth Oppel – This Dark Endeavor and Such Wicked Intent (retelling of Frankenstein)

Your turn! Do you like Gothic stories? What do you like about them? What books can you add to the list?

The Gothic Novel and the Feminine Touch

In celebration of Halloween, we’re talking Gothic fiction this week. That’s a big genre, ranging from Mary Shelley to Edgar Allan Poe. But what I’m particularly interested in are stories that exemplify the core of the genre — novels like Jane Eyre and The Turn of the Screw.

What tropes do these stories have in common? Here’s a clue…

This recent edition features Heathcliff at his most, er vampiric.

This recent edition features Heathcliff at his most, er vampiric.

Gothic Tropes

  • An old, decrepit mansion in the wilderness.
  • A mysterious, emotionally distant master of the house (or sometimes mistress, if it’s not a romance).
  • A young woman (such as a governess) who is new to the scene.
  • An orphaned/unwanted child or children living at the house.
  • A terrible secret (sometimes supernatural).

As with all horror, there’s something wrong in the setting — a moral transgression that has resulted in something terrible. The young woman has to solve it and right the wrong. The master is mixed up in it — it’s his secret, though usually some of the servants are helping him keep it. Sometimes the young woman and the master are involved in a romance, which can’t be consummated until the secret is uncovered and robbed of its power.

Clearly Gothic stories are highly gendered — think of the young innocent woman (and children) in danger, or the brooding Gothic heroes like Rochester and Heathcliff. But more than that, it’s always a woman coming into the man’s house.

So what’s up with that?

What This House Needs is a Woman’s Touch

Maybe This Time coverThe Gothic house is cold, run-down, loveless…kind of like its master. Only the young woman can turn it into a home and rescue the children (and, if it’s a romance, warm the heart of the Gothic hero). Sometimes she fails — as in The Turn of the Screw or Wuthering Heights. Sometimes she succeeds — as in Jane Eyre or Maybe This Time, Jennifer Crusie’s modern-day retelling of The Turn of the Screw.

(Side note: Maybe This Time is quite different in tone — it’s got heavy romantic-comedy elements — so don’t pick it up expecting a dark, broody psychological horror tale, even if many of the plot elements are the same.)

But the young woman isn’t always a virginal, innocent type. Jane Eyre is virginal, all right, but she’s pretty cold herself, thanks to her own upbringing as an orphan (in a cheerless boarding school run by a harsh master — almost a Gothic mansion in its own right); it takes meeting Rochester for her to develop passion. Andie, the heroine of Maybe This Time, isn’t young — she’s already been married once — but she’s certainly cheerier than the other denizens of the house.

The Maiden and the Crone

Jane Eyre coverYou’ve heard of the mythical three stages of womanhood, yes? Maiden, mother, crone?

If we can accept that the young woman is more-or-less a maiden, who develops into a mother (and wife) over the course of the story, then what about the crone?

Well, as it happens, the young woman usually isn’t the only woman in the story. Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and The Turn of the Screw (and Maybe This Time) all have a housekeeper who isn’t able to keep the house running as it should. Of course, she’s not the mistress of the house. She’s also not young and marriageable — which makes her the crone, and therefore somehow unable to provide a “woman’s touch”.

The Madwoman in the Attic

I love how this cover screams "horror pulp", unlike the Jane Eyre cover, which screams "serious literature". Wuthering Heights has some fun pulp-y covers too.

I love how this cover screams “horror pulp”, unlike the Jane Eyre cover, which screams “serious literature”. Wuthering Heights has some fun pulp-y covers too.

Besides the young woman and the crone, there’s one more female trope in Gothic fiction: the proverbial “madwoman in the attic”. That’s (the first) Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre and Miss Havisham in Great Expectations (though interestingly enough, Great Expectations has a male hero). You could also argue to include the governess in The Turn of the Screw, who turns from maiden to madwoman over the course of the story — a common reading is that the ghosts she sees are hallucinations.

So what’s wrong with these women?

In the standard approach, they’re symbols of repressed feminine power. For example, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys retells Mrs. Rochester’s story from her own point of view, which exposes racial issues as well as feminist ones.

They’re also symbols of broken transitions and unfulfilled roles. Miss Havisham’s fiance left her, which is why she wanders around in her wedding gown for decades. Mrs. Rochester has gone mad early in her marriage (which may or may not be Mr. Rochester’s fault, depending on your reading) and is therefore unable to fulfill her role as wife. In Maybe This Time, one of the ghosts plays double duty as the “madwoman” due to her untimely death.

Again, it takes the maiden-turned-mother to put things to rights.

Next week, we’ll delve into Gothic stories for younger readers and examine some interesting edge cases…

Your turn! What do you think of my theories? Am I out to lunch? What’s your take on the feminine and the Gothic? Which Gothic novel is your favourite?

You might also enjoy my review of the Gothic film The Woman in Black.

Best of Turtleduck Press, Vol. 1If you liked this post, check out the latest anthology from Turtleduck Press, which features TWO Gothic short stories — one from me and one from Kit Campbell, whose novel Shards is out next month.

 

Strong Female Characters: Many Ways of Being Strong

The Hunger Games movie posterI’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of strong female characters. (Yes, I know, I’m late to the party.) What does “strong” mean? Which characters and traits qualify?

Kick-Ass Female Characters

A lot of “strong female characters” in the media are physically strong – kick-ass women who can fight and take names. Think of Mako Mori from Pacific Rim, Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, Buffy, Zoe from Firefly, Kira Nerys from Deep Space Nine. In books, you have Tamora Pierce’s Alanna and just about every urban fantasy heroine.

But that’s not the only kind of strength. In fact, it’s a masculine strength. Alanna is celebrated because she becomes a knight – she’s “as good as a boy” at masculine pursuits. One of the books in the series is even called The Woman Who Rides Like a Man. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of Alanna, and I don’t mean to single out Tamora Pierce, who was writing girls in fantasy at a time when not many were.

Other Ways of Being Strong

Sansa Stark in "The North Remembers"But what about other ways of being strong?

Women and girls whose strength takes a different form — one might even say a non-masculine form — are often not seen as “strong characters”. For example – and I’m as guilty of this as anyone – in A Game of Thrones, everyone loves Danaerys Targaryen and Arya Stark and Brienne of Tarth, but who likes Sansa Stark? Not me.

Yet Sansa is learning to play the women’s role in the “game of thrones” better than any of the other young women whose POVs we get – and she’s learning from the best, Cersei Lannister and, in her own generation, Margaery Tyrell.

Maybe she deserves a second look.

(For a great article about Sansa, read In Defense of Sansa Stark. And another: Sansa Stark Does Not Kneel.)

Being Yourself

Pippi Longstocking coverI grew up reading girl characters, and you can probably guess some of them. Anne of Green Gables, Laura Ingalls, Pippi Longstocking, Ramona Quimby, Trixie Belden, Menolly from Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall trilogy, Lyra Belacqua from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

Each of these is quirky, unafraid to do her own thing, resourceful and clever, rebellious against society to some degree (although several of them “settle down” in the end, or show signs of heading that way), and often flawed (like, say, real women). Some of them are more “girly”, others are more “tomboyish”, but they all dance to their own drummer.

Notice something else? The only one in the above list who can literally kick ass is Pippi Longstocking, who is so strong she can lift her horse above her head. And that’s only one of her character traits. Her general quirkiness and independence are far more predominant. She’s not particularly feminine, but she’s not masculine either. She just is.

And that’s the way it should be.

Further Reading

If you’re interested in reading more, I recommend the following articles:

Women in SF and Fantasy – my own recommendations of female characters and writers. (YA version coming soon!)

I Hate Strong Female Characters – Sophia McDougall explains why the term itself is problematic.

On the Subject of the “Strong Female Character” – Chuck Wendig argues that strong just means “well-written”.

Strong? Weak? How About Women with Agency – Shoshana Kessock proposes a different measuring stick.

What’s in a “Strong Female Character”?” – Juliette Wade celebrates “feminine traits”.

Your turn! What’s your definition of a strong female character?

Book Review: A Companion to Wolves by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear

I don’t usually do book reviews here, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, I’m not up on the latest releases — I’m always scrambling along a couple of years behind. For another, it’s just easier to put out a list of books on a theme with short descriptions for each.

But I recently read one that I loved so much that…well, I finished it and immediately flipped back to the beginning to start again. (I’ve only done that once before.) I’ve been avoiding writing this because it’s difficult to put into words why I loved it so much, but I have to try.

A Companion to Wolves coverThe book is A Companion to Wolves, by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear. Both of them are solo writers as well: Bear is a prolific writer of all sorts of speculative fiction, while (to date) Monette has published one four-book fantasy series and a couple of anthologies. I haven’t read all of their stuff, but I heartily recommend both of them to anyone who will listen.

With A Companion to Wolves, they take several well-worn fantasy tropes — telepathic animal companions, small groups of magic-users living apart from regular society, young protagonist drawn to magic despite disapproval from his family, society under siege from magical beings — and twist until the tropes are fresh again.

If you love these tropes, don’t worry. They’re not warped until they’re unrecognizable; rather, they’re treated with reverence. Monette and Bear clearly love these kinds of stories too. They just want to know what makes these tropes tick, what happens when they are really, thoroughly explored.

They’re also interested in running quickly through the obvious to get to the interesting stuff. So yes, the young protagonist — Isolfr — is drawn to the magical sub-society, leaves home, bonds with the coolest animal, and faces opposition from some of his new companions who have been there longer. That’s all a given. What about the real questions that arise from this setup?

For example, the telepathic animals in question are wolves. They live in a pack, they act like wolves (as opposed to humans in wolf form), and most pertinent to the themes of the story, they mate like wolves. Without going into detail, this isn’t an easy path for their human companions to walk, especially for Isolfr, who was raised to believe that the wolf-bonded men were unnatural in their inclinations, but who can’t bear to reject the she-wolf — the “queen wolf”, destined for leadership — who has chosen him as her own.

(Don’t worry. It’s not as unnatural as you might be thinking. Remember how telepathic animal bonding stories work?)

Against these themes of coming-of-age and questioning of sexual identity, the bigger story that plays out is the society-under-siege plot. In this case, the society is more or less pre-Christian Scandinavia, if you squint, and the danger — the reason the wolf-bonded men exist — is from marauding trolls and wyverns from the north. Winter encroaches, the danger grows more grave, and Isolfr is put to the test.

But there’s more. I won’t spoil it, but this is one twisty book, with some masterful plotting and worldbuilding. As a writer myself, I wish I knew how the authors pulled off some of what they did, because wow.

Monette and Bear also do a truly fabulous job of showing the close friendships that develop among the men, making the wolves feel like wolves (and, at the same time, companions worthy of love and respect), and differentiating among a large cast of characters. Their sentence-level writing is beautiful and evocative without calling too much attention to itself — unless, say, you happen to know a little something about this stuff, in which case you might want to drink it all in on multiple levels.

A Companion to Wolves is the first in a planned trilogy. The second book is called The Tempering of Men, and I’m saving it because sadly, the third book isn’t out yet. I wish it were. I can’t wait to spend more time in this world.