Monday, July 6, 2015

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway: An Uncanny Review

Back when Uncanny Magazine had its Kickstarter, some excellent human helped support the magazine by sponsoring a blog post of their choice. That excellent human selected a book review of Nick Harkaway's novel, Angelmaker. After a long and patient wait on their part, I am writing this review in fulfillment of that support. Thank you, excellent human!

And now, the review.

So, the first thing that I need to tell you is something of a spoiler. I know, I know. You are now rolling your eyes and thinking to yourself, Kat, you do not understand how this review business works, but let me assure you, this is needful information.

Let me explain. Angelmaker, a book that I love, and loved again as I reread it for this review, is the first thing I read after my beloved dog, Sam I Am the pug, died. Part of the reason that I chose Angelmaker as this book - aside from the bits where many many people whose opinions I respected told me it was wonderful - was that one of the characters in the book is Bastion. Bastion is a very elderly pug, with only one tooth left in his mouth, and he is completely blind. Sam I Am had most of his teeth, and some of his vision, but he, too, was a very elderly pug. And let me tell you, Bastion is perfect, both as pug, and as book character. (So perfect, in fact, that I sent Mr. Harkaway a collection of weepy, heartbrokenly grateful messages on twitter immediately upon finishing Angelmaker, to which he responded with great kindness. He is an excellent man; buy all his books.)

Here's the spoilery bit: Bastion lives.

I really really needed to know that part, the first time I read this book.

Not everybody in Angelmaker does. Which I suppose is to be expected in a thriller populated by mad scientists, evil fiends, a vast and sundry assortment of the criminal element, some completely bonkers monks, lawyers, and Edie Banister.

Edie Banister is the 90 year old lady spy who belongs to Bastion. Just imagine James Bond, as played by Maggie Smith. That's Edie. (Actually, someone please make an Angelmaker movie where Maggie Smith is Edie, because that would be perfect.) I fell in love with her somewhere around page 50. Lots of people fall in love with Edie. She's that sort of lady.

Her story wraps itself around that of Joe Spork, who repairs clocks, and is the son of one of the most notorious gangsters in London. And at first, it's hard to see how the stories connect. At first, it looks like Harkaway is simply pulling all of the cool stuff he knows out of his brain, and throwing it on the page to see what sticks. But you keep reading, because it is really cool stuff. And there are people like Edie Banister in these pages.

And then you realize how the pieces start to fit. And then you realize, the pieces all fit, that Harkaway is writing a beautiful, elegant clockwork, as beautiful and strange and glorious as anything else in these pages. You are reading a book where someone can say "Never mind, never mind, let's get to the part where we smite the unrighteous. I've brought my most alarming teeth!" and you smile and grin and wish you had some alarming teeth, because you'd like to go along and smite the unrighteous, too.

Angelmaker is a brilliant book - brilliant both in terms of flash, and of intelligence. It is full of tremendous, complicated, interesting characters. It will break your heart, and make you think, and make you cheer. And the dog lives.

I highly recommend it.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Temporarily open to manuscript clients

In the past, I have offered manuscript critique services. I mostly closed that down at the beginning of this year to do things like move and focus on my own writing. But I currently have a period of somewhat fewer deadlines, and I've been getting emails wondering if I could work with people. So I am temporarily reopening the doors.

What this means is, if you have a manuscript you'd like some help with, I may be the person to do it.


Here's who I am: I have approximately 30 professional short fiction sales. My work has been performed on NPR, included in a year’s best  and a best of anthology, and was nominated for the World Fantasy Award. My novella with Maria Dahvana Headley, The End of the Sentence, was chosen as one of NPR’s Best Books of 2014. I am a graduate of Clarion at UCSD, and am represented by Brianne Johnson at Writers House. My debut novel, Roses and Rot, will be out from Saga Press in 2016. Additionally, I have a Ph.D. in English Literature, and have taught at the undergraduate and graduate levels at the University of Minnesota, and Stonybrook University. I have also taught an Intro to Writing SFF course with LitReactor.


Here's what I do: I help you edit for content - so, this is not copy editing, or line editing, or the kind of thing where you have someone read over your manuscript for typos. In fact, unless I can't understand it, I'm going to leave your sentence-level prose alone. What I will do is offer you feedback on character, plot, theme, overall story, that sort of thing. I'll also be sure to include feedback on any specific questions that you have. 


What you need: A completed manuscript. This can be anywhere from your hot mess of a NaNo draft to something that you think is polished enough to start querying with. I'm not here to judge, I'm here to help you make things better. While I primarily write SFF, I'm happy to work with writers in any genre.

If you think you're interested: Contact me at KatWithSword@gmail.com. We'll talk about exactly what you're looking for, my rates, and the turnaround time for your manuscript. I'm happy to answer any questions. Please note: This is a temporary opening. Right now, my plan is to be open to new clients for a month - until July 15th - with a very small number of spots that I will schedule for later in the year (so, if you know today that you want to work together, but your book won't be finished until August, still get in touch, and you many be able to reserve a spot for then.) But depending on the amount of interest, I may close sooner.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Grace of Kings

I have pretty much been excited to read Ken Liu's upcoming (7 April, 2015) debut novel, The Grace of Kings, since the sale was announced. Ken is one of my favorite short fiction writers - "The Paper Menagerie" and "The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species" are just two of the many stories of his that I have loved. I love the intelligence of his writing, his gift for language. So I was thrilled to receive an advance copy of The Grace of Kings

(Here is the disclaimer that not only will my debut novel, Roses and Rot also be published by Saga Press, I share an editor with Ken. So please feel free to apply that filter to what comes next.)

The short version of this review is that I loved the book, but for close to three hundred pages, I was not at all sure that I would.

My eyebrows went up when I read the list of major characters. There did not appear to be a lot of women in the book, which, honestly, seemed a surprising choice from a writer that I knew well could write complex and interesting women. This wasn't someone who I thought would fall back on the facile excuse of "but it's epic fantasy, so I don't need ladies."

I trusted Ken. I liked his writing. So I kept reading. And at the beginning, all of the expected hallmarks of epic fantasy are there. There are rebellious boys who get caught up in history. There is a cruel ruler, and others, crueler still. There is a champion, seemingly touched by the gods. There are the gods themselves, as powerful and petty as any pantheon. And it's really well-written stuff. Ken's prose is as terrific as you would expect from reading his short fiction. His pacing is great. But there were almost no women.

Here's the thing. I have become increasingly less patient with books (movies, television shows, any media really) that don't have women in them. Or that have a woman, maybe two, but they're basically a name walking around in a dress. Life's too short, there's too much to read, and if you can't figure out how to get interesting women as characters in your novel without a really, really good reason for their absence, I'm going to put the book down. 

Jia, though, Jia was great. She was smart, she had skills. Jia's husband, Kuni, one of the main characters of the book, was smart enough to recognize how great Jia was. I loved her. I loved them as a couple. I kept reading, wishing that I'd see her again. 

But at that point, I was a couple of hundred pages in, and reading mainly on authorial trust, and the hope that some of the other women promised in the list of characters would show up soon, or that Jia's role would suddenly change dramatically and result in a lot more on-page time. I was pretty sure that this was going to be a book where I diplomatically said "Yes, Ken is very talented; I'm just not really an epic fantasy person" if I ever had to talk about it, and on the inside, I would be extremely grumpy. 

Somewhere around page 300, things changed. I'm not going to go into all the ways how - spoilers, dearie - but they changed. More women showed up, and had more time on the page, and they were well-written. Interesting, unique, fully realized characters. Bigger than the conventions of their roles. It also became clear that the absence of women in the earlier pages (and indeed, carrying on - there are more, but there are never many) was a deliberate authorial choice. 

Because at this point in the book, it begins to become clear that The Grace of Kings isn't really all that interested in hewing to the expected hallmarks of epic fantasy. It's interested in subverting them, in interrogating them. In exposing what living by them does to a person, and to a world, and in looking at the places - and people - that epic fantasy as a genre often forgets. I was struck by how grey in moral tone the book was - not gritty, not grimdark, but they kind of grey that happens when people are complex, where the world is complex, and where people may genuinely want to make it better, but there is no agreement on precisely what better means. I was struck by how real - and how potentially glorious, and potentially tragic - the world felt as a result.

So at the end, while there could have very easily been a point where I bounced off of the book, I'm glad I kept reading. I do think The Grace of Kings is extremely well-written, and I am looking forward to reading the next book in the trilogy. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Some of my favorite 2014 reads

Yesterday, I put up a list of all of the things I had published in 2014. Today is when I tell you about the things that other people wrote that I read and loved in 2014. This is an incomplete list, partially because the vast majority of my books are packed in boxes in another state, and so I can't look at my shelves as a reminder, and also because I am behind on my short fiction reading. (This means I am even more grateful than usual for the recommendation/ here's what I wrote posts that other people are putting up.)

Novels

I wrote a post for SF Signal on some of my favorite 2014 genre novels, and you can find that here. I wish that I had remembered to include Maggie Stiefvater's wonderful Blue Lily, Lily Blue on that list - it's the third of her Raven Cycle books, and they are all wonderful.

In terms of non-genre books, my favorites were essay collections - Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist, Eula Biss' On Immunity, and Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams. It was a good year to read smart women thinking about things.

Short Fiction

Novella

I loved John Scalzi's novel Lock In, but I loved the prequel novella, Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's Syndrome even more.

"Grand Jeté (The Great Leap)" - Rachel Swirsky (Subterranean Online)

Novelette

"Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (the Successful Kind)" - Holly Black (the link goes to the reprint in Lightspeed, but it is originally from the Monstrous Affections anthology.)

Short stories

"How to Get Back to the Forest" - Sofia Samatar (Lightspeed)

"A Dweller in Amenty" - Genevieve Valentine (Nightmare)

"If You Were a Tiger, I'd Have to Wear White" - Maria Dahvana Headley (Uncanny)

"The Quality of Descent" - Megan Kurashige (Lightspeed)

"When It Ends, He Catches Her" - Eugie Foster (Daily SF)

"The Fisher Queen" - Alyssa Wong (F&SF)

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Things I published in 2014

Here is the fiction that I published in 2014. There are links included when available, for ease of reading. 

Novellas

The End of the Sentence - cowritten with Maria Dahvana Headley. (Subterranean) There's also an ebook version, if that's more your thing. NPR chose this as one of their best books of 2014, something that still makes me grin when I think about it.

"Hath No Fury" - Subterranean Online

Short Stories

"Variant Text" - Offline (This is the name of the magazine.)

"Locally Grown, Organic" - in HELP FUND MY ROBOT ARMY!!! and Other Improbable Crowdfunding Projects edited by John Joseph Adams

"A Different Fate" - Lightspeed

"A Meaningful Exchange" - Lightspeed

"A Flock of Grief" - Lightspeed

"To Hold the Mirror" - Interfictions

"The Saint of the Sidewalks" - Clarkesworld

"The Very Fabric" - Subterranean Online

"All of Our Past Places" - The Journal of Unlikely Cartography

"Dreaming Like a Ghost" - Nightmare

"Migration" - Uncanny

Monday, January 5, 2015

New

I didn't write a year-end wrap up post, and I didn't write one to start the new year. 

Partially, it was because the whole turning the page on the calendar thing wasn't the most important part of the early days of 2015 for me. That was actually the thing that happened on 3 January, 2015, when I watched my brother Joe stand up in church with an amazing woman, Jess, and speak vows and make commitments to each other, in front of family and friends. I'm so happy for them, and I wish them calendars and calendars worth of years of happiness together.

But there was an end and a beginning, and the calendar turned over.

2014 was a strange year for me. In one way, it was amazing. I sold my debut novel, Roses and Rot, a goal I've been working towards since I came back from Clarion in August of 2008. I'm so happy, and so proud, and so excited for you all to be able to read it. The End of the Sentence, the novella I wrote with my friend Maria Dahvana Headley, has had an amazing reception, and was selected by NPR as one of their best books of 2014. I moved out of the Twin Cities, to New Hampshire, something I had been wanting to do for a while. A lot of good things happened.

But before all of that, a lot of hard things happened, too. I've never had a year filled with so much fear and uncertainty and doubt. And so I'm glad it happened, and happy to be out of it.

I have a calendar for 2015. It's the kind you hang on a wall, with squares for each day, organized into a color palette. It's soothing. I wanted a calendar where I could see each day, and each month, and mark out long term plans, which is a thing I haven't had to do in a while. New place, new way of being in this life. I wanted the organization, the goals and deadlines, to feel beautiful somehow when I looked at them, the colors flowing into each other, so easily.

It's a 16-month calendar. I have unused months, time unmarked. Where I know what happened already, but I don't have to write it down, not if I don't want to. I can let the colors stand on their own, a sunset.

I think that you can pick a day, if you need to. The day that's most important, or the day that's Tuesday. Decide that that's the day that things start again. That you step out of time, and see a wash of color, and know it's beautiful.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

On rejection, revision, and deciding not to

I've been thinking a lot about rejection recently. In part, this is due to a couple of conversations with my writing critique clients - one who wondered whether they should pull a story from circulation, due to the number of rejections it had received, one who had come to the conclusion that they absolutely could not face another rewrite of the thing they were working on. 

Now, these are both things I have felt in the course of my writing career, so it wasn't so much that I was surprised these other writers felt them too, but I was surprised at when. In both cases, the numbers were small. You could add them together, the rejections and the rewrites, and you would come up with five.

Now, let me be clear that the only thing I felt was surprise. I am not in any way judging those writers, or judging anyone who - at any point in their writing - says no. This is it. I am done with this project, I am done with writing altogether. It can be dispiriting, to realize that you need to revise a project, especially a major revision, one more time. Rejections are always hard, and they accrete. 

*****
I was not one of the people who knew all their lives, or at least relatively early on, that they wanted to be a writer. In fact, it was almost exactly seven years ago that I decided I wanted to see if I could write, and decided I was going to apply to Clarion.

I wrote four short stories. One was too short to use in my portfolio. I picked the best two of the remaining three. I got in.

I sold the first short story I wrote after Clarion. I sold the second one. 

Then for 18 months, I couldn't sell a damn thing, not that I wasn't trying. I was trying so hard that once, I got three rejections in one day.

That was not a particularly good day.

*****
I don't know any writer who hasn't gotten rejections. Even the people who look like they are out of nowhere overnight successes, whose careers look as if they have been kissed by the Muse, and the gods, and Lady Luck, even those people get rejections. The only way to ensure that your work will never be rejected is to stop sending it out.

My friend Monica Byrne, whose stunning debut novel The Girl in the Road, was published earlier this year, once put together what she called an anti-resume. She's very specific about her own rates of success, and rates of rejection. For example, The Girl in the Road - a book that got published in a major deal, a book I expect to see on a number of awards short lists - was rejected 67 times.

I find this oddly comforting. Not because I wish Monica anything less than stunning success and immediate recognition of her brilliance, but because it's proof of how subjective things are. 

When I started sending work out, I had this idea that it was either good or bad. If the story was good, it would get bought. If the story was not good, it would be rejected. This is not how things work. I've had many stories that sold, but were not bought by the first market that I sent them to. Rejection doesn't equal bad. It equals not this place, not this time.

*****
Then there is the topic of rewrites and revisions. For most of us, perfection does not spring directly off of our pen and onto the page. Sometimes the fixes are small - a second draft, a quick polish. Sometimes they are not.

I recently sold my own debut novel, Roses and Rot. I honestly cannot tell you how many revisions it went through, because of the way I worked on it, but I can tell you it went through three major rewrites. One of those rewrites was so major that I took a 65K word draft, and cut 55K of it. No, that is not a typo. And then I started rewriting. It was hard, it was awful, it was so bad that I ran into a friend when I went out to grab coffee one day, and he suggested I looked so feral that he was worried I might bite someone.

I didn't, but I could have.

*****
There is nothing wrong with deciding not to. Deciding that the shitty parts of a writing career outweigh the good ones, and you are putting down your pen. Deciding that a story, a book is irreparably broken, that trying to fix it would be nothing but a miserable slog towards an exercise in futility, and realizing that there are better things that you can do with your time and energy. When I send a story out, I have a list of markets that I am willing to work with. If I get rejections from all of those markets, the story goes in the drawer.

But if you're going to make that decision, make sure you are making it because it's the right thing for you at that time, not because you think that things should be easier, that no one else ever hears the words "I'm sorry, it's not right for us at this time," that no one ever does three or five or seventeen drafts to get things right.

Because we all do.