There are some stories that pull you into the book, and remind you just how magic books like this can be. I was lucky enough to read two books like this recently.
First up is Margaret Rogerson’s Vespertine.
This is a story about a girl who is, literally, a saint. Artemesia inherits a powerful relic which helps her in her fight against revenants. Artemesia is a truly good person, but as Molly Templeton says over on the Tor site, being a saint isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Published October 2021 by Margaret K. McElderry Books.
The second book is Brian McClellan’s In the Shadow of Lightning.
This is the first in his new series and while I enjoyed the first Powder Mage books (I only read the first three), I love this one so much more.
It’s a story about a mage who works with glass, a former soldier, now drifter, who learns his mother has been murdered. He goes home to find out whodunnit, and to complete the task she was killed doing. Meantime, some of the bad guys use his mother’s murder as an excuse to raid the closest city-state. Note, this is a vastly understated summary of the plot. It’s a lot grander than that. There’s politics, battles, new discoveries and a unique magic system.
Even though it’s nothing like it, Sherlyn says it reminds her most of Brandon Sanderson’s Way of Kings in the feel and grandeur of the book and yes, it does a bit.
Published June 2022 by Tor Books.
These are the type of books you stay up until 4am on a worknight to finish reading.
As a child I used to think that willows were such tidy trees. They grew ‘trimmed’. That is, their fronds always reached a certain level and then stopped growing, as if they’d had a haircut. As I got older I realised that yes, well, they were actually trimmed. Cattle loved willow trees, and if you had cows in the same paddock as a willow tree, the cows would munch on the tree, chomping up as far as they could reach. Hence the neat line.
I’m no spring chicken, as my mother used to say. How old? Let’s just say so old that I saw Abba live at Ripponlea, and the pirate king’s purple pants first time around (as well as the second). Confused? I’m being deliberately so. 😊
I grew up on a farm. Not a farming family but surrounded by farmland. We lived in the old farmhouse, leased out when the farmer built a new one. We loved it. We had our home, our half-acre of vegetables, and we had the creek.
The farm was on the river flats, and we lived near a creek. Back in those days the creek didn’t run dry. In winter, it flooded—the farmer had a boat with an outboard motor, and they’d use that during the floods to get to the cattle. In summer we swam. At our own water hole, or as we got older we were allowed to take an old tyre and float down to Willow Bend, the popular swimming place a couple of kilometres down the road where all the young kids went. Of course, we had to walk home afterwards, but that was never a problem for us. I don’t know what happened to the tyres. I think we must have rolled them home with us.
Distance was never a problem. Sherylyn’s best friend, for example, lived twelve kilometres away. She, or her friend, would always be at each other’s places. They rode their bikes.
Willow Bend was so named because of the willow trees. They were everywhere and because it was a public area, rather than farmland, it was also the first place I saw willows that grew down to the ground. Willows grew all along the creek, too, and even out into the paddocks.
There are no willows there now. There’s no creek. It’s too dry for them. The times, as a great singer once said, are a’changing. I’m glad I had the pleasure of enjoying the willows along the creek.
Trawling through the Kindle Unlimited novels, I find one I like. Two powerful sorcerers—husband and wife—save the world, but end up dying as a result, leaving their twelve-year-old son an orphan. The boy is taken in by a tribe high up in the mountains and learns to survive in the hostile, icy environment. (I know, it sounds ordinary here, but bear with me, I’m summarising the plot. The start was promising.)
Naturally, with two such powerful parents, the boy’s a prodigy. Oh, and did I mention, if the bad guys knew he was alive they would not be happy, as his parents destroyed their efforts to take over the world? As a result, he hides the fact that he’s a sorcerer, even though he’s been well taught and is already as powerful as his parents. Ten years later the boy has grown up, learned how to survive in the harsh wintry environment. He is asked to take a bunch of freed prisoners across the mountains to safety.
The prisoners, who have all been captured in the last six months, have one thing in common. Every one of them had been travelling to the kid’s former hometown to train under the two famed sorcerers—his parents.
Wait! What? The parents have been dead ten years. Let me reread that section and see if I got that right. These people have all been captured recently.
I reread the section. No. Definitely dead ten years. And the kid needs those years to become familiar enough with the deadly environment to be able to take them across the mountains safely.
Wait. I get it. It’s one of those books where the reader knows more than the characters. The former prisoners don’t realise the parents are dead. Or maybe someone is impersonating them. Okay. I think it’s it bit too obvious and the characters should have picked up on it, but I’ll wait and see.
Two pages on the group talks about fight that saved the world—which they all know about, and they know the sorcerers involved were the ones they were supposed to be training with. They also know the parents are dead.
But … but, these people were captured in the last six months. The last one had been in the prison only five days. They all had families willing to support them and send them to mage training.
It never even crossed the orphan’s mind to query it, either. They were his parents, and they’d been dead ten years and he didn’t even ask, “Hey, you know they’ve been dead ten years so why are you going to them for training now?”
Hmmm. Spoils the book a bit for me, but I’ll keep reading. Maybe it will work out.
But it didn’t. It was just a plot hole right through the whole book. And the silly thing was, except for a minor sub-plot about an arranged marriage, there was no reason I could see for them to be going to those sorcerers in the first place. They could have gone to anyone who could teach magic.
That arranged marriage, by the way, had been arranged between the orphaned son back when he was an unorphaned two-year-old and one of the prisoners. The boy disappeared for ten years, the parents were demonstrably dead, and yet the parents still sent the girl off to marry him.
No. I don’t buy that. I wouldn’t send my precious daughter off to a strange town to marry someone who disappeared ten years ago. And what’s this correspondence with the parents? It had to have been ten years ago, as well. After all, they’re dead, and everyone knows it.
I kept expecting the parents to reappear, but they didn’t and except for the fact that the travellers got kidnapped going to their house, they never came into it again.
It felt to me like a story where the author had started one story and as the story was written it changed, as stories do, but the author refused to deviate from his original plot line. Or maybe he didn’t give himself time away from the work. A plot hole that big would have been quite noticeable six months away from the story, or if a beta reader read it.
The fixes would have been quite simple. Like send the former prisoners to some other sorcerer for training. Change the romance sub-plot a little. The kid would still have to avoid showing his powers even as he uses them to get across the mountain—which is what the story was about. Sadly, this story didn’t get that time, and I only read to the end of the story because, as I said, I was waiting for the twist that would explain the plot hole.
I took two weeks off work to do a road trip. We went west, along Great Ocean Road, and across the border into South Australia, up to Robe. The weather in that first week was glorious.
I have to say, the southern coast is beautiful. You forget how beautiful it is sometimes. Lovely coastal beaches in parts, wild and rugged in others.
There were more tourists than I expected. This was the end of the shoulder season, getting close to winter so I thought it would be quiet. It wasn’t. I confess I would hate to do the same route in the middle of summer, just because of the sheer number of people. We were also lucky there weren’t a lot of overseas travellers—who often do bus tours—because apparently when the bus tours are running it’s horrible on the road because it’s wall-to-wall buses. (Not denigrating the buses, by the way, as I do a lot of cruising and I’m usually one of the ones on the buses elsewhere, it’s just stressful being a driver on the road with them.)
It’s the first time we’ve been away since the onset of covid. Some things have changed. Some things had probably changed beforehand, but since we hadn’t done a true road trip for years (we love our cruising) this was the first time we’d come across it.
Everyone books online now
It used to be that on a road trip you started looking for a motel from around 2pm onwards. When you saw a place you liked, you’d check if the vacancy sign was lit. If it was, you’d walk into reception and ask for a room.
This time around, that threw people. Everyone, but everyone, booked online beforehand. We had one big hotel where the poor girl behind the counter had no idea what to do (I think she was new) and had to ask the manager for help.
Change in the makeup of the tourists
This one is logical. Great Ocean Road is one of Victoria’s biggest tourist attractions, and on the agenda of most overseas tourists who come to our state. (It’s worth seeing.) But given covid, and travel restrictions, this time most of the tourists were local.
So much building going on
So many new houses were being built. You’d reach the outskirts of a town and find a brand new estate under construction. Or drive through a town that looked as if it had nothing—lucky even if it had a general store—and find massive McMansions being built on acreage. It feels as if in another ten or twenty years the whole of the southern coast will be built up. Rather like Queensland’s gold coast is now.
That’s going to be interesting.
As I said, it was beautiful weather. The first week was fantastic. The second week turned blustery and cold, but we managed to avoid most of the heavy rain, even when we chose to sightsee.
A shout out to all the councils along the way
When you’re travelling, you use a lot of public toilets. Most of these are maintained by the council, and on this trip they were uniformly clean and usable. Even the occasional drop toilets. On past road trips, facilities have been hit and miss.
My body is aging faster than I want it to. There are things I can’t do any more. For example, I have a bad knee (osteoarthritis) which restricts how far and how fast I can walk. I can’t see as well as I used to, and sitting at a desk all day is creating havoc with my back. Sigh. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw (and others), youth is wasted the young.
The time most of us begin to become comfortable with our bodies is around middle age. Which, I suspect, is why there are paranormal fantasies where the woman gains power, part of which is the ability to control aging, and chooses to retain her middle-aged body.
I get this. Back in my early middle-age I would have agreed with that decision.
Nowadays, not so much. As my own starts to wear out, I say give me the body that can walk all day and get up and do the same the next, and the next. The body that can eat almost anything and if I overindulge, just eat less the following day. The skin that retains its elasticity.
Please, give me the body of the twenty-year-old.
Provided I keep the wisdom and the confidence of my older self.
I love mystery novels. They’re my favourite genre after speculative fiction, and I like nothing better than getting lost in a good whodunnit.
Funnily enough, despite the fact that I love mysteries I can’t read true crime. Just knowing that the book is about real people—usually being murdered—takes away that layer that allows me to suspend disbelief. The layer that says, ‘this is a story’. Instead, I find myself thinking, ‘this happened to real people’.
I had a similar experience recently reading, of all things, a regency romance, where some of the things that happened to a woman in a story came a bit too close to how women really were treated in that era and how they were became, technically, a husband’s property. The story had a happily ever after, it was a regency, after all, but … just, no.
Going back to whodunnits, however.
I watched a movie the other day on Netflix called Knives Out. It came out in the cinemas in 2019, and because of Covid I completely missed it, but it was what I would call a British whodunnit transferred to US soil. There were shades of Hercule Poirot—the detective is even called Benoit Blanc—and story is of a dysfunctional, monied family swirling around in a luxury mansion after the death of the patriarch, with everyone expecting to inherit.
In the tradition of those British whodunnits, it had a star-studded cast. Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Chris Evans, Christopher Plummer, and others. And, of course, it had a few twists to the story.
I enjoyed the story (once I got used to Daniel Craig’s southern accent, not sure I ever want to hear him do an Australian one) and I see there’s a second movie coming out, with another star-studded cast which I’ll watch as well. Right now, though, the US seems to be doing two types of television/movie well that was once thought of as quintessentially British. The whodunnit, if this is anything to go by, and period romance. Anyone watching Bridgerton?
Overheard. A group of university students discussing Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.
One of the students was adamant. “It’s not science fiction,” she insisted. “It’s fantasy.”
Now, by any measure, a book wherein the protagonist is an ambassador from another world come to convince the governments on this world to join a kind of galactic United Nations, a universe which has near light-speed spaceships, where the person travelling goes into cold storage for the trip, meaning that by the time they get home everyone they knew will be dead, is science fiction.
It’s almost hard science fiction, in fact.
In some ways I can see why she considered it fantasy. The world of Winter is so alien to us, so believable, and so much of the story is not about science, but about politics, relationships, and prejudice. Even so, the world of Winter does not have a mediaeval setting. It has 20th century technology. Trucks, portable heaters for the tent, and so on.
It was an interesting view from this young student. It took me back to the days when some fans claimed the only real science fiction was hard science fiction.
I went back to the office today. It was the first time in months. There was me, and about four others on my side of the building. About five out of 50-60 seats.
Every meeting room was full, a single person in each, all in Microsoft Team meetings with online colleagues working from home.
I admit, I didn’t want to go into the office, but our company insists that we have to go in now for two days every week. One day is a team day, where the whole team is to come in. Only a third of the team turned up. No one wants to come into the office yet.
I got to use my big Mac screen (beautiful resolution on that) which is about the only advantage of the day. Oh, and it was lovely and quiet. I was less happy about the commute, however, as the traffic was horrendous.
There are so many bad things to come out of the pandemic today I want to talk about some of the good things. It in no way negates the bad things. I suppose I’m looking here for the silver linings.
Working from home
No commute. Heavenly, not to mention a comfortable workplace. Pre-pandemic I had been hesitant about working full-time from home because I know from writing that it can be solitary and isolating. Sure, it’s nice to talk to people face-to-face, but there are ways to communicate and work well together even remotely.
There were bad things, too, like the fact that I worked far longer hours, and the house got far messier, but let’s not talk about that.
It reminded me how important location of the workplace was.
I don’t work in the central business district (CBD)—most big companies in Australia have offices in the CBD—I work half-way between the city and my home suburb. When I initially applied for the job office location wasn’t at all important to me but if I was going for a job now, it would be. I want to work close to my home. Now I have discovered that at home is even better still.
Enough said. I’ve spoken about this before. I’m not the only one, apparently. It seems to be a thing we all did. Less spending.
Being able to give most of my phone usage to charity
When I’m commuting, I’m online all the time. My mobile phone has a big data plan. Our phone plan allows you to donate data to a charity, and the charity (a reputable one) disperses that to children from low-income households so they have internet for their school requirements. I’ve always donated my excess data close to the end of the month. With I used the home fibre all the time, and hardly ever used the mobile at all. Nowadays I get a shock when anyone from work calls me on the phone, as we mostly use Microsoft Teams through the PC.
I could have changed my phone plan. Instead, I upped my donation to the charity. The kids needed it far more than I did.
Re-evaluating your life
This is the big one. All that time sitting at home has made a lot of people sit back and take stock. I was chatting with a florist the other day. She is busy right now, and one of her biggest classes is her six-week flower-arranging course which covers the business side of flower arranging, as well as everything else. People who have re-evaluated their work, and decided they want to do what they want, for a change.
I have certainly reconsidered my long-term plans. For example, why do I insist in living in the city? Why can’t I move somewhere else?
Particularly if I choose to work from home permanently.
The beautiful, golden days, warm enough to do things but not too hot to do them. The cooler nights, so you sleep better. The leaves turning.
The parrots, which arrive around now and move on in a month or so.
The corellas (white cockatoos) that swarm around the area, their deafening screech making it hard to hear anything else as they swirl overhead. The love the big shopping centre near us. They also love the trees. The whole flock will swoop down onto a single tree—Moreton Bay figs, or the liquid ambers—in the evening to feed. They strip the tree. In the morning you arrive out to a carpet of discarded seed parts all around the tree.
The corellas, of course, have screamed on to the next tree.
The collective nouns for cockatoos are a family, a chattering, or a crackle.