SERIES SATURDAY: Beth Cato's Blood of Earth Trilogy

This is the first of a new series of posts about … well, series. I do so love stories that continue across volumes, in whatever form: linked short stories, novels, novellas, television, movies. I’ve already got a list of series I’ve recently read, re-read, watched, or re-watched that I plan to blog about. I might even, down the line, open myself up to letting other people suggest titles I should read/watch and then comment on.

For this inaugural edition, I’m going to ramble on a bit about a recently-concluded trilogy which I absolutely loved:  Beth Cato’s Blood of Earth Trilogy.

 

BloodofEarth-triptych.jpg

The Blood of Earth trilogy is a magic-infused alternate history with steampunk trappings. The setting is various cities in the western United States, plus a short jaunt to Hawaii at a pivotal moment. It is 1906, just before the great San Francisco Earthquake. The United States and Japan have formed a powerful alliance called the Unified Pacific. China has been subjugated by Japan while Chinese in America are ghettoized, stereotyped, and removed from all chances at equal opportunities. Tensions along the western seaboard are mounting as Chinese residents are treated with less and less humanity – at the same time that the Unified Pacific also seems to be having political disagreements with the British (who have their own insurrection going on) and Russians (who are moving to control the Alaskan oil market).

Kermanite, a mined ore that can hold earth-generated magical energy for later use, is the “power behind the throne.” It’s used to power items small and great, allowing this alternate Earth to have flying ships and weapons which are steam-punk in design and execution if not operation. Some people are more capable of wielding this earth-magic than others; Wardens are stationed around the world to monitor, absorb, and control the energy released by seismic activity. The Wardens are all men – because the idea that a woman could wield such power is just unthinkable in this society. And the idea of a woman of mixed heritage holding such power is not only unthinkable, it’s unfathomable.

Enter Ingrid Carmichael: a powerful magic-user hiding in plain sight as a secretary to a powerful San Francisco-based Warden because women shouldn’t be able to do even an eighth of what she can do. Trained by Warden Sakaguchi from childhood and past the untimely death of her mother, Ingrid is strong-willed. But also knows how to blend in – half Black, half Pacific Islander, and a woman, she kind of has to be able to navigate the anti-Asian, and specifically anti-Chinese, sentiments around her.

Ingrid’s best friend is Lee – a Chinese teen servant/surrogate son to Mr. Sakaguchi who has secrets of his own that come into play as the series progresses. Mr. Sakaguchi is a surrogate father to Ingrid as well, given the disappearance of her own father when she was a small child.

Early in the first book, Ingrid meets the handsome, smart, secretive Cy, who is on the run as a Deserter, trying to leave warmongering family history behind. Cy is accompanied by his best friend from the military academy, Fenris – an incredible mechanic/engineer/pilot who is full of heart but acts gruff and uncaring. Fenris, as it turns out, is transgender. Cato works this fact in smoothly, as just another character fact no more or less important than Ingrid’s heritage or Cy’s family history.

Outside of Mr. Sakaguchi, the rest of the Wardens we meet are questionable at best, enemies at worst. When we meet Warden Blum – a powerful Japanese politician – and Warden Roosevelt – yes, Teddy Roosevelt – we’re not sure if they will be friends or foes to Ingrid. Roosevelt is the one “real” historical supporting character in the series. His presence grounds the story in our own history. Cato’s portrayal isn’t always flattering, but I think she captures the real Roosevelt very well – for every national park he created, he said or did something to marginalize people of color, and Cato captures that dichotomy so very well.

But while the presence of Roosevelt and cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and such make the world familiar, it’s the magic and the way it works (for peace and for war) that is the most impressive part of the world-building. Magical creatures exist, ranging from the almost-unknowable (giant snakes that live in seismic fault lines and whose movements generate the earth-magic at the core of the story), to the mighty (Chinese guardian spirits called Quilin, the goddess Pele) to the human-ish (kitsune, selkies) to the tiny (colonies of sylphs). Cato’s explanations for how magical energy is generated, the sickening effects it can have on those not talented enough to hold and control it, the way the Kermanite stores it and releases it – all feel so complete, so true, that every time the ground shakes I wonder if someone nearby is absorbing the energy to protect the rest of us. And the uses to which the magic is put feel very true to our own world. Some people just want to use it to heal (Reiki and acupuncture specialists), help (Ingrid) or build (Cy and Fenris, peripherally), while others want to use it to control (various wardens/politicians) or destroy (the Japanese government and certain insurrectionists). And while our main characters clearly choose sides/roles early on, there are many characters who start out believing one choice is correct and come to see the opposite (telling you who would spoil too much of the second and third books).

The character-building is as impressive as the world-building. Almost every main and supporting character has an arc to be explored. Some of those arcs build slower than others, and there’s at least one character I wish had had more of a storyline, but they all get to have their own moments and lives even while serving the main plot. Even tertiary characters have personality and a living energy often missing from characters who come on stage only to serve a brief purpose / propel the action forward. Ingrid is a wonderfully strong-willed lead character, but that’s not her only trait. She’s insecure about her abilities and what effect they will have if she can’t control them; she’s sometimes head-strong to a fault; she swings from too-trusting to too-suspicious (sometimes at inconvenient times); she pushes herself beyond her limits to save others; she is funny, smart, and romantic. In other words, real and well-rounded. And Cy is almost totally the same – the old saying “opposites attract” is put to the lie here – without subverting Ingrid’s lead role in her own story. And make no mistake: though surrounded by interesting subplots for her group of supporting characters, this trilogy is Ingrid’s story – Ingrid’s fight to hone her abilities, uncover her family’s past, defeat the enemies and save the day. Beth Cato is a fantastic author, and I’m sure she could tell interesting stories in this world without Ingrid if she really wanted to – but she couldn’t tell this story without Ingrid involved every step of the way, up to the very satisfactory end of book three, in which all plots and important subplots are wrapped up.

So: read the Blood of Earth trilogy if you like magic-infused alternate history, strong female leads, diverse supporting casts, steampunk-ish technology, and legends come to life. I’d be surprised if you were disappointed at all.

READING ROUND-UP: March 2019

Continuing the monthly summaries of what I’ve been reading and writing.

 

BOOKS

To keep my numbers consistent with what I have listed on Goodreads, I count completed magazine issues and stand-alone short stories in e-book format as “books.” I read or listened to 14 books in March: 13 in print, 1 in e-book format, and 0 in audio. They were:

1.       Lightspeed Magazine #106 (March 2019 issue), edited by John Joseph Adams. The usual fine assortment of sf and fantasy short stories and novellas. This month’s favorites for me were Maria Romasco Moore’s “Self Storage Starts with the Heart,” Ashok K. Banker’s “A Hundred Thousand Arrows,” Kat Howard’s “Those Are Pearls,” and Vandana Singh’s “Of Love and Other Monsters.”

2.       The Backstagers Vol 1: Rebels Without Applause, by James Tynion IV, Rian Sygh, others.  Sort of a “male Lumberjanes in a high school drama department instead of a summer camp” in set-up and tone. Wonderfully diverse cast (gay, straight, trans, white, black), very very cartoony art. The characters are wonderful, but the world-building feels a bit loose and the plot progression a bit slow; I personally would have liked a bit more sense of the underpinnings but your mileage may vary.

3.       The Backstagers Vol 2, by James Tynion IV, Rian Siygh, others. This one swings a bit in the other direction, with tons of details about the world-building and a much faster moving plot, including a resolution I thought would be much further along in an on-going monthly series (and I have no idea if the book is still being published, so maybe the quick resolution was because of impending cancellation?).  I really do like all of these characters, though, and their interactions make the cover price worth it.

4.       Firebrandt’s Legacy (Space Pirates Legacy #1), by David Lee Summers.  It is not easy to take a bunch of short stories published separately and out of order and whip them into a cohesive novel, especially if you’re trying not to lose the episodic feel of the stories themselves. Summers pulls it off excellently. There’s great future world-building, very likeable characters and several consistent believable threats to the main characters’ lives and livelihoods.

5.       Sal & Gabi Break The Universe by Carlos Hernandez. I posted a full review of this earlier. Short version: near future SF with middle-grade protagonists without the usual dystopian trappings and with a very healthy sense of humor. I loved it.

6.       That Ain’t Witchcraft (InCryptid #8) by Seanan McGuire.  The third InCryptid novel featuring youngest Price sister Antimony, her boyfriend Sam, and their friends brings several plot threads to a wild conclusion. In the process we learn more about the legend of the Crossroads and Crossroads Ghosts. Fast-moving and tons of comic-book trivia snark.  There’s also a back-up novella featuring oldest Price child Alexander, his girlfriend Shelby, and their Gorgon friends investigating a mass kidnapping. The novella has hints of what the next novel will likely be about, so perhaps don’t read it until after you’ve finished the main novel.

7.       Hexhunter (Hexworld #4) by Jordan L. Hawk. Hawk continues to develop this alternate history, magic-is-real-and-the-cops-use-it, world full of romance and sex. Each book follows the development of a new witch-familiar pairing, and this volume brings together two long-term supporting characters who must work through much personal baggage while investigating the murder of a nun by a snake familiar. This one also advances the series over-arc about corruption and the distrust between “normal” humans and those who wield magic.

8.       We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson. The first book I’ve managed to read this year for the 2019 To Be Read Challenge is one I should have read a long time ago given my love for Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” and novel The Haunting of Hill House.  A full review appeared on this site a week ago.

9.       Oroonoko, by Aphra Behn.  I’m still not completely sure what to make of this novella from 1688. It’s a compelling story by an early female author not writing under a male name, and it’s very clearly anti-slavery. At the same time, it trades on the “noble savage” trope quite heavily.

10.   I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb.  The second book this year from the 2019 To Be Read Challenge list, I posted a full review earlier this week. I wish there were an audiobook version of this narrated by the author herself; I think I’d have connected more with her voice if I could hear her voice. Still, I learned a lot about Pakistan history as well as Malala’s personal story.

11.   Captain Marvel, Volume 2: Stay Fly, by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Marcio Takara, David Lopez and others.  This one’s been sitting on the graphic novel pile for a while, and I’m glad I read it a few days before seeing the Captain Marvel movie. It’s a fun read, although not quite as fun or engrossing as the first volume in this iteration of Carol Danvers’ adventures.

12.   Liars, Mistruths, and Perception, by Kate Fox.  I am not, as I’ve said often, a big poetry reader. Still, Kate’s short ruminations on real life speak to me. Definitely recommended.

13.   Ms. Marvel, Vol 1: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona and others.  I’ve heard good things about Wilson’s Ms. Marvel since the first issue collected in this volume came out back in 2014, but as with DeConnick’s Captain Marvel run, I am only now getting around to reading the series. I really enjoyed the way Wilson set up the origin so that I didn’t have to understand, or run out and buy, a big Marvel event that I missed because I haven’t bought monthly comics issues since approximately 2010. Probably my favorite graphic novel read of the month.

14.   Forget the Sleepless Shores: Stories, By Sonya Taaffe.  A great collection of densely written, horror-tinged short stories. Can’t say more here because I’ll be writing a review for Strange Horizons later this month.

So fourteen books in March, which Goodreads tells me is twelve ahead of goal for the year.

 

STORIES

I have a goal of reading 365 short stories (1 per day, essentially, although it doesn’t always work out that way) each year. Here’s what I did read and where you can find them if you’re interested in reading them too (with some short notes for stories that really stood out to me). If no source is noted, the story is from the same magazine or book as the story(ies) that precede(s) it:

1.       “The Synapse Will Free Us From Ourselves” by Violet Allen, from Lightspeed Magazine #106 (March 2019 issue), edited by John Joseph Adams.

2.       “On The Shores of Ligeia” by Carolyn Ives Gilman

3.       “A Temporary Embarrassment in Space-Time” by Charlie Jane Anders

4.       “My Children’s Home” by Woody Dismukes

5.       “Self Storage Begins With The Heart” by Maria Romasco Moore

6.       “Ambitious Boys Like You” by Richard Kadrey

7.       “A Hundred Thousand Arrows” by Ashok K. Banker

8.       “Those Are Pearls” by Kat Howard

9.       “Of Love and Other Monsters” by Vandana Singh

10.   “Emergency Landing” by Seanan McGuire, on the author’s Patreon page.

11.   “Bridge of Sighs” by Kaaron Warren, from Nightmare Magazine #78 (March 2019 issue), edited by John Joseph Adams

12.   “Carry On” by Seanan McGuire

13.   “The Measure of a Monster” by Seanan McGuire, novella published as a free extra story in the paperback of her InCryptid novel That Ain’t Witchcraft.

14.    “Tiends” by Sonya Taaffe, from her collection Forget the Sleepless Shores: Stories (Lethe Press)

15.   “Chez Vous Soon” by Sonya Taaffe

16.   “Little Fix of Friction” by Sonya Taaffe

17.   “On the Blindside” by Sonya Taaffe

18.   “Notes toward the Classification of the Lesser Moly” by Sonya Taaffe

19.   “Another Coming” by Sonya Taaffe

20.   “Last Drink Bird Head” by Sonya Taaffe

21.   “The Boatman’s Cure” by Sonya Taaffe

22.   “The Dybbuk in Love” by Sonya Taaffe

23.   “Like Milkweed” by Sonya Taaffe

24.   “Imperator Noster” by Sonya Taaffe

25.   “The Salt House” by Sonya Taaffe

26.   “And Black Unfathomable Lakes” by Sonya Taaffe

27.   “The Face of the Waters” by Sonya Taaffe

28.   “The Creeping Influences” by Sonya Taaffe

29.   “Drink Down” by Sonya Taaffe

30.   “Exorcisms” by Sonya Taaffe

31.   “When Can a Broken Glass Mend?” by Sonya Taaffe

32.   “On Two Streets, with Three Languages” by Sonya Taaffe

33.   “The Trinitite Golem” by Sonya Taaffe

34.   “All Our Sal-Bottled Hearts” by Sonya Taaffe

35.   “The Depth Oracle” by Sonya Taaffe

36.   “Latvian Angel” by Matthew Lansbaugh, from One Story #250 (February 14, 2019), edited by Will Allison

So that’s 36 short stories in March, leaving me still slightly behind for the year so far. (March 31th was the 90th day of 2019.)

 

Summary of Reading Challenges:

“To Be Read” Challenge: This month: 2 read; YTD: 2 of 14 read.

365 Short Stories Challenge: This month:  36 read; YTD: 88 of 365 read.

Graphic Novels Challenge:  This month: 4 read; YTD: 14 of 52 read.

Goodreads Challenge: This month: 14 read; YTD: 43 of 125 read.

Non-Fiction Challenge: This month: 1; YTD: 3 of 24 read.

Read the Book / Watch the Movie Challenge: This month: 0; YTD: 0 of 10 read/watched.

Complete the Series Challenge: This month: 0 books read; YTD: 0 of 16 read.

                                                                Series fully completed: 0 of 3 planned

Monthly Special Challenge: I may not do something like this every month, but since March was Women’s History Month, I decided to try to read primarily women authors, and I did a pretty decent job of it. Of the 14 books I read, 8 were written by women. Of the 35 stories, 9 women authors wrote the majority (32 total; Sonya Taaffe accounts for 22 of them, Seanan McGuire for 3).

April’s challenge: read titles primarily from small press publishers.

Catastrophic Attraction Complex: Book Edition

“Catastrophic Attraction Complex.”

I’m not sure where I first heard this phrase. I’ve done Google searches that only bring up the times I’ve used the phrase in my own blog posts and guest blogs, so I might even have made it up myself. Who knows. What I do know is: it’s the phrase I use to describe those attractions that are so intense, immediate and pervasive that common sense and logic fly out the window. We all have them, but they’re different for everyone. Usually when I refer to my Catastrophic Attraction Complex, I’m about to talk about my attraction to men (and occasionally, yes, women) with red hair, from the strawberriest of strawberry blonds to the most merlot of wine-dark gingers. In fact, a look back at a 2012 guest blog about My Literary Crushes on Roofbeam Reader’s site shows a preponderance of redheads. But that’s a whole different post from today’s topic, which is….

My Catastrophic Attraction Complex to Matching Book Cover Designs.

I’m sure at least some of my fellow bibliophiles will be able to empathize with me here.

Now, I’m not talking about books by the same author in the same series that have consistent cover design elements (like every volume of the Dresden Files having Harry, with hat and staff, in a dramatic pose above or below the book’s two-word title, or Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael books all having a nicely-painted medieval dead body in a box under the book’s title). It’s a given that readers of such series want all the titles in said series to match, and get very upset when, say, the publisher decides to start issuing the series in hardcover after years of issuing it only in paperback.

I’m also not talking about an author’s non-series books all being reissued with common cover design elements (as seems to happen every few years with the works of Stephen King). If I own most of the author’s non-series works in earlier editions, I’m usually not interested in buying newer editions just to get the covers to match. (Now, if I don’t already own most of those works, sure – a few years ago Lawrence Block brought some of his long-out-of-print crime fiction out as LB’s Crime Classics, with a very simple matching cover design, and I ate that up. Likewise if the re-issues have new material added, as when Titan Books re-issued a bunch of Philip Jose Farmer books with matching cover designs and new forewords and afterwords by Farmer scholars.)

What I’m talking about primarily is publishers bringing out themed sets of books by different authors all with the same front, spine, and back cover design. (I recently asked the hive-mind on Twitter if there’s an industry-specific term for this other than “trade dress,” and so far the response seems to be “no,” but I look forward to hearing if there is one.)

I fall, and fall hard, almost every time.

The most obvious examples in my personal library right now are the ever-enlarging collection of slipcased hardcovers from The Library of America, which I started purchasing intermittently several decades ago and which I may never successfully complete as a collection, and several bookshelves worth of the complete-to-date run of titles from Hard Case Crime with their matching spine logos and painted retro-crime-pulp covers (there is still hope, however dwindling, that I will someday read every HCC title; at least I’m keeping up with current releases).

And this doesn’t include the shelf of Lawrence Block HCC titles!

And this doesn’t include the shelf of Lawrence Block HCC titles!

My friend Dave (who enables and encourages my weird “must have them all” book-buying habits) can tell you all about my frantic NYC bookstore searches to find all the volumes in HiLo Books’ “Radium Age of Science Fiction” after discovering all but TWO of the series in a book store in Chelsea Market. Yes, reader, you know me well – I bought them all, then spent months tracking down the remaining two. (My obsession with buying books in actual book stores as opposed to ordering online is the topic of a whole different post.) Something similar happened upon discovery of Knopf Doubleday’s “Vintage Movie Classics” series, although I didn’t find the majority of those in one store to start with.

Vantage Classics covers.jpg

When I first started traveling the country for my full-time job twelve years ago, I also started haunting used-book stores. Mostly to fill in or rebuild paperback series I’d lost over the year (Perry Rhodan, Doc Savage, Tarzan, and the like). But then I started seeing these Wordsworth Editions anthologies of supernatural stories, all with sleek black/grey trade dress covers.  Now I have a bookshelf of them, although I’m pretty sure I’ve a long way to go to have all of them.

Wadsworth Editions covers.jpg

About a year ago, I found Melville House’s reissue of George Eliot’s “The Lifted Veil” in a bookstore in Newark Airport, and found it was part of their “The Art of the Novella” line, all with matching cover designs. Yep, I’m a subscriber now.

Art of the Novella covers.jpg

I try to resist. I really do. I asked myself recently, “Do I really need to buy the complete Otto Penzler “American Mystery Classics” re-issue series when I have so many of the titles in dog-eared paperbacks I found in used-book stores over the years?”  The answer seems to be “Yes,” because I have a bookshelf with the full run Penzler has issued to date. (And it looks like a third series will be issued in Fall, 2019!)

Okay, the cover design changes from Set 1 to Set 2. Sue me.

Okay, the cover design changes from Set 1 to Set 2. Sue me.

There are, I think, far worse Catastrophic Attraction Complexes to have. And of my two, it’s probably better that this is the one I act uncontrollably and impulsively on (I may be catastrophically attracted to redheads, but that usually manifests as an inability to complete simple sentences around them; no rash impulses getting out of hand there!). Of course, the friends who have helped me move house in the past few years may not agree with this assessment!

SUNDAY SHORTS: Seanan McGuire Destroys Air Travel

The “Sunday Shorts” feature is dedicated to reviewing short stories and novellas, two forms I absolutely love.

My full-time job requires me to travel fairly frequently (anywhere from one to three weeks, depending on the month) and much of that travel is by air across the continental United States. I’m pretty comfortable with the process at this point (airport security and airplane seating being what they are), although I find that I’m likely to get motion sick if I try to read or watch anything during takeoff, landing or even slight turbulence. I’ve been in one (admittedly minor) emergency landing and experienced plenty of rough air and less-than-pleasant customer service on the ground. But I’m not afraid of any aspect of flying.

Even so, two recent short stories by Seanan McGuire, both posted on her Patreon, made me squirm uncomfortably. “Carry On” was first published last year (and is reprinted in this month’s Nightmare magazine) while “Emergency Landing” is this month’s Patreon story. Each turns a different aspect of air travel in an opportunity for emotional/psychological horror.

In our present day, airlines are charging more and more for “incidentals” (in-flight snacks and entertainment, extra leg-room, checked and carry-on luggage). “Carry On” is a brutal look at a possible future where the price of fuel justifies airlines charging passengers not just for the combined weight of their carry-on luggage, but also for the weight of the passenger and their clothing. Step on a scale with your bags, and be judged before entering security. Mary, the focal-point character, has saved for ages to be able to fly cross-country to see her sister and meet her new niece; but getting past the weigh-in without having to pay, in money and embarrassment, is not easy. McGuire really captures the indignities heaped, even now, upon travelers who are overweight. The tension of the wait, the bad weigh-in, the events that follow, the recognizable emotions Mary feels at the end, are all so real. Mary feels isolated even in a large terminal with hundreds of other people experience the same trauma she is. This is the second time I’ve read the story, and it once again made me cry for the main character.

“Emergency Landing” takes place almost entirely on a plane already in the air. The narrator describes her dash to make her connecting flight out of Atlanta, her initial impressions of her seat-mates, and then the plane takes off – just before the narrator sees missiles streak towards the airport they’ve just departed. The rest of the story is a tense game of “how much do we tell the passengers about what’s happening on the ground” and “what do we do about landing since our fuel can’t last forever.” The emotional stakes are just as high as in “Carry On,” but from a different direction. While Mary feels invisible among her fellow travelers, Caitlin feels too seen because of what they think she knows. The story moves fast as Caitlin’s fellow passengers move from anguish to fear to false bravado and Caitlin must decide whether sharing her knowledge will make things better or worse. It’s not often I describe stories or books as leaving me breathless, but this one did.  I also think that had this appeared in an anthology (it would have been perfect for Stephen King and Bev Vincent’s recent Flight or Fright), it would appear under Seanan’s Mira Grant name, given that the main character is an epidemiologist.