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Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting Dynamic Characters and Effective Viewpoints
Nancy Kress
The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment's Notice
Todd Henry

Help me with names! - quick fun survey

Hey everyone, I usually write stories set on other worlds, where I can make up whatever names sound good to my ear. Even my debut novel, The Last of the Ageless, is set far enough in Earth's future that I made up all the names. When it comes to real-world names, it's a little trickier. 

Can you help me by taking a quick survey because I need to decide which names to use. SurveyMonkey says this survey will take you 6 minutes.

Here's the link... feel free to pass it on to other science fiction reader friends of yours, too.

I appreciate your input!

Awesome urban (London), epic fantasy

A Darker Shade of Magic - V.E. Schwab

Loved this book! It's a fantasy of parallel worlds on a spectrum of magic. Grey London has almost no magic. Red London has magic. White London bleeds magic. And Black London? It succumbed to magic. None of them really resemble our world.

As a reader, I absolutely loved it. There were twists I didn't expect, characters who stayed true to themselves even through insane events, and a beautiful setting. It's also refreshingly non-romantic! Kell, the main character, is a man intent on his duty to his family more than anything. And Lila, also a POV character, is in it for the adventure. They don't "cling" to one another... none of those romancey tropes.

They do kiss at a couple points, but without any reference to wanting to go further. It's more about the heat of the moment, and the passion of having survived, and the hope that they will continue to survive.

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For being what I would call an epic fantasy, this book had surprisingly few characters. As I writer, I found its adherence to fantasy tropes particularly interesting. It had to have kings and queens, and yet in a way it leans into an urban fantasy setting at times.

Grey London is essentially "our" London, but it still has kings and queens in power... Interesting.

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I was almost thrown from the book at one point when Lila swears "Christ," but then I realized she's from Grey London, which is sort-of our world. It still took a moment of pondering for me to figure out if that was a slip-up.

There were also, interestingly, omniscient scenes on occasion, mixed in with the close-third viewpoints of Kell and Lila.

Huge fan theory spoiler, potentially a spoiler for the next book:

I assume Lila is the Grey London's Antari, since she has an eye missing.

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It did a great job of wrapping up plot threads but leaving some loose for a sequel. The descriptions are lush, the writing fantastic, and it's a great read. Check it out!


A surprisingly satisfying combo of two of my least favorite genres!

Shards of Honour - Lois McMaster Bujold

This book combined one of my least favorite SFF genres, space opera, with one of my least favorite genres in general, romance, and yet I found it a very compelling read. Lois McMaster Bujold is clearly a master storyteller.

If I were suggesting this book to someone, I'm not sure I'd call it a "science fiction romance," as it's often labeled, however. "Romance" brings all of its tropes with it... the chase, the misunderstanding, the angst, the happily ever after, etc. This book isn't really like that. For one thing, the would-be lovers come to respect each other and depend on one another long before they broach the topic of love or even kiss for the first time. In fact, Vorkosigan proposes marriage before they've ever had their first kiss. So it's not the type of romance you'd recommend to most romance readers. It's more of a relationship story.

The structure of the story was also interesting. I think it would've been less jarring to me if its disparate parts had been labeled as Parts:

You have the exploration and capture part, ending in: 

Cordelia's awesome and brave escape even though she has mixed feelings about leaving.

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Then you have the part where she's back with her people and then: 

captured yet again, this time by the worst of the worst, before being quickly reunited with Vorkosigan. This part would include her time as prisoner down on the planet with the rest of the prisoners, and ending in her escape from her own people's psychiatrists.

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Then you would have the third and final part, 

being when she goes to find Vorkosigan at home. This part is really more of an extended denouement.

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I love how, unlike other books, we get a chance to not only imagine what live must be like when the characters go their separate ways, but to actually see it, and to see how it is every bit as miserable as they feared.

There were also great scifi ideas in this book, like the uterine replacement canisters, so that war rape victims could give the babies back to the rapists at the conclusion of the war, and the abortion would be on their heads, not the rape victims'. The canisters were designed to allow the fetus to live and be born if chosen.

I also like the nationalities (empires?) and how the different groups had their own distinct cultures and political systems.

Also... for those who are concerned about starting a long series, this book (and indeed I believe every one of her books in this "series") is a STANDALONE. So be not afraid, dear readers!

Of course it wasn't until I got to the author's afterward that I realized I still haven't read about THE Vorkosigan, which is Miles, not Aral! At some point, once I feel that my reading has been diversified enough, I'm sure to pick up a Miles Vorkosigan book.


Republic of Thieves doesn't live up to the legacy of the Lies of Locke Lamora

The Republic of Thieves - Scott Lynch

I loved LLL but hated Red Seas Under Red Skies. It's rare that my husband Dorian loves a book that I don't, but that was the case this time, unfortunately. Maybe it's because I had high expectations, but it was only because I loved LLL that I kept reading at all.

First, every other chapter is set in the past, when the Gentlemen Bastards learn to act. And we already know how all that turns out. It's also the foundation for the strong romantic subplot in this book, which relies heavily on the usual romantic tropes that I dislike so much... Two people who have their heads up their asses but ultimately belong together can't stop tripping over themselves long enough to make their love last.

There are long passages where we're literally just reading a play within the book, which might be fun for thespians, but was uninteresting for me.

Additionally, between chapters there are sometimes real-world quotes or poems or song lyrics, which bumped me out of the world each time.

And finally, we spend about 10% of the book watching Locke wallow in pain, and then refusing to live. Their hatred and fear of the bondsmagi makes sense, but when they realize Sabetha is playing for the other side, they never once wonder what they may have on her that would've compelled her to be the bondsmagi's puppet.

But apparently neither does the author, because while they're warned not to collude, there's no punishment for their continued romance.

This book lacked all the clever thievery and heist themes of LLL. What you have are thieves who aren't thieving, bondsmagi who aren't doing much magic, and the lack of any true antagonist. It just fell flat for me, even the explanation of what Locke really is. It didn't live up to the legacy of The Lies of Locke Lamora.

Blood Honor

Blood Honor - Russell Blake Always nice to read a non-zombie apocalypse. I liked that we knew early in the story what caused the apocalypse and how the main character survived. He's your typical macho post-apocalypse survivor with the skills to stay one step ahead of the grim reaper, even when he does dumb shit like walk into an enemy stronghold and blow everything to hell as payback for them killing his grandfather.

The storyline and pace are great. It's a page turner. But this book definitely plays into right-leaning paranoia... I think the term "nanny state" is even used once. Lots of gun porn anytime they kill attackers and loot their bodies, which is often. Women tend to have a special status of either wife, matron, or potential love interest, not fighters.

Overall it's your typical disaster survival story, with little hope of a back to normal state. I wouldn't even really call it science fiction other than the details around what type of pandemic it is. It feels pretty hopeless and pointless except for a glimmer of hope around the girl.

The Path of Flames

The Path of Flames - Phil Tucker If you love A Song of Ice and Fire, most Brandon Sanderson books, and other epic fantasies, definitely give this book a read.

Write to Market: Deliver a Book that Sells

Write to Market: Deliver a Book that Sells - Chris  Fox This book changed my entire philosophy on writing. Build it and they will come just doesn't make sense. I love blending genres, but before I can build a cool career of genre-bending books, first I need to gain a fanbase and prove I can deliver what readers want to read. Unfortunately, when I read this book, I'd already finished writing Book 1 of an epic fantasy series. So now I'm trying to retrofit what I learned from Write to Market to this Book 1, even though it's an oversaturated market. At the very least, I've decided adding aliens into my epic fantasy isn't a good idea if I want to gain fans while I'm still a newbie author. But you can bet I'll be applying the knowledge I gained from this book on my NEXT series.

On Basilisk Station

On Basilisk Station - David Weber For some reason my writer brain intruded constantly throughout my reading of this book. Certainly my reader brain kept me reading, wondering what would happen next, but my writer brain would not shut up. I think part of that is because this is the first military scifi book I've read (ever? surely not?) and the first book I've read in omniscient point of view in a VERY long time.

In general, the story follows Honor Harrington and her first-time captaincy aboard the Fearless. Yet instead of being in third-limited as I would expect, the viewpoint would often shift into the minds of her subordinates. Sometimes a scene would start firmly limited in, say, her first officer's (exec's) POV and then shift to her point of view later. I found these switches endlessly fascinating because this is so rare in contemporary SFF. And yet clearly he pulled it off and readers love it!

This is also one of the few military scifi books I've read. I found its conventions interesting and in some ways very similar to hard scifi, in that there are MASSIVE infodumps throughout this novel. There's even one in the climax, generally a no-no of contemporary writing. And yet Weber pulls it off. For me as a reader, I found myself skipping over whole paragraphs of explanation about how a particular weapons system works.

Yet unlike hard scifi, this book was extremely concerned with relationships between characters.

First, Honor has to take charge of a new crew and gain their trust. They start the war games as heroes for a brilliant maneuver, but then come out beaten down once their secret is revealed. Then they're banished to Basilisk Station and her crew again gives her the cold shoulder. Yet most of these relationships are told rather than shown. And even Honor's reactions to them are often told rather than shown, at least early on in the book. And yet again, it clearly works, because I, like so many other readers, was drawn in.

As a reader, I found the basic plot rather predictable (obviously her special weapons will be a big deal in the climax, her crew will come to love her, her plan to patrol Basilisk will foil the invasion plans somehow, etc.), but that actually helped in a way. It made me sink comfortably into an unfamiliar genre in an unfamiliar POV about an unfamiliar topic.

I'd also like to pull out this big quote from David Webber from milscifi.com about why gender equality in futuristic scifi only makes sense. (Of course!)

"[Far-future science fiction where] women continue to face the same sorts of barriers that they've faced in the twentieth and twenty first centuries (and earlier) irritates the heck out of me. In my opinion, it criminally short-sells women, who I don't think are going to put up with that sort of treatment in technic societies that far in the future. It also presupposes that the majority of men are too stupid to figure out (given enough time; I did say it was far-future science fiction where this bothers me) that denying half the human race the opportunity to contribute to its fullest capability is self-defeating, as well as morally wrong. And, finally, if we're on the right track with our current notions of gender equality (which I obviously think we are), then by the time we get a thousand or so years into the future, the notion of female equality with men ought to have all of the burning significance to the citizenry of the time that Pharaoh's policy towards the Hittites has for us today. It will be a done deal, a settled question, and the notion that we might go back to treating women as second-class citizens will have all the appeal of the notion that we might go back to the days of African slavery. The idea will simply be so absurd and so socially and morally reprehensible that it will be an automatic nonstarter. So I think that it may be that one reason I create so many strong, capable female protagonists in traditionally 'male' roles is as a vote on my part in favor of the notion that racial sanity will finally get it right and keep it that way."

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making - Ana Juan, Catherynne M. Valente Just not my cup of tea. I can't even really articulate why, strangely. But if you want a few awesome stories based on fairy tales, I can recommend these:

[bc:Uprooted|22544764|Uprooted|Naomi Novik|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1420795060s/22544764.jpg|41876730]
[bc:Enchantress from the Stars|1450946|Enchantress from the Stars|Sylvia Engdahl|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1361891016s/1450946.jpg|8205]
[bc:Enchantment|7973|Enchantment|Orson Scott Card|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1388707953s/7973.jpg|506063]

City of Stairs

City of Stairs - Robert Jackson Bennett In a way, this book is post-apocalyptic. What happens if you kill the gods whose essence suffuses the land and buildings themselves?

For me, this book was a bit too long. At its heart, it's a murder mystery. Yet as time goes on, the book becomes less concerned with the identity of the murderer, and more concerned with the mystery the victim uncovered and what it all means.

While the protagonist Shara is generally the one uncovering mysteries, it's her cohort who's mainly doing the main action. I found this a little bizarre. He slays the giant monster, yet she takes all the credit in the last half of the book. Same goes for taking out the flying ships... I thought this was going to be a bigger deal, but their defeat was almost an afterthought, and then he crashes the last one into the god and jumps off in a somewhat anticlimactic way.

I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that the ending reminds me of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin.

I really liked Shara's relationship with her on-again, off-again lover. His struggle with his sexual orientation made complete sense in this world/culture. I thought making his brother look so similar to him was an odd choice. I was expecting... something magical, a miracle of some sort, to be responsible for his inconsistent actions/appearance. I also wasn't really sure he was dead when the god finished with him. If I'd known he was dead immediately, his actions would've felt more heroic, but Shara rushes off without even bothering to check if he survived.

Overall, a very well-developed, fully fledged world. I would definitely consider reading more fantasy from this author in the future.


Uprooted - Naomi Novik I'm having the biggest withdrawals I've had in forever from a book. I'll write more later, but for now, I'll just say the NPR quote on the cover is spot-on: grab this book and be sure to clear your schedule. I could barely focus on work at all on Friday, since I was dumb enough to start reading it on a Thursday.

Maggie for Hire

Maggie for Hire - Kate Danley Here's what made me want to read this book. From the author:

"Although Maggie has a male sidekick, her value is her own and whether they end up together or not has nothing to do with her journey. When I wrote Maggie, I was rebelliously pushing back on a theme I was seeing in the urban fantasy genre: that in order for a woman to be successful, she had to end up entangled romantically. The urban fantasy women (at the time) were always being saved by some guy. They were incompetent and stumbling upon victory. They were smooching vampires and dating werewolves. They were unable to overcome evil unless there was some big strong someone there to fight the monsters for them in the final battle. What I decided to do with Maggie was to have a heroine who was really good at her job, who really liked what she did, and who didn't need to be saved by anyone." - Kate Danley

But I'd forgotten all about that quote while reading it, and "Will they or won't they?" was strong with this one. They won't. Which was refreshing in its own way, but from the author's comments, you wouldn't expect a romantic angle at ALL, right? I found it a little tiresome.

It's true that Maggie is kickass and very good at her job. In some cases, I almost felt like she was TOO good. Fight scenes had little tension, because she could literally throw a stake and it would pierce and kill the vampire.

If she's this good in Book One, it doesn't seem like she'll have much of a character arc, and I like to watch characters grow.

I suppose most of my complaints are really more of a critique of the urban fantasy genre in general. I've tried this, the Iron Druid series, and Dresden, and I'm starting to get a handle on it now. They're episodic, exciting, and fun, but in no way deep.

What I absolutely loved about this book was the blend of real world technology and magic. More than the other urban fantasy series I've mentioned, this book walks the line between scifi and fantasy. And I love that.


Diaspora - Greg Egan Pronouns are a difficult part of the language to change, say the linguists. Nouns, easy. Verbs, easy enough. It took me a little while to get used to ve/vis/ver, but I eventually got the hang of it. But that was only the beginning. I would suggest that to read this book you need to be very adept at quickly learning language. The overwhelming number of new terms and ideas made this book challenging, but I accepted that particular challenge.

This book begins with the formation of identity itself. It was fascinating, watching how human-like minds are created in a transhuman world. The machine smashes together hundreds of variables to create a new person. Once I got over all the new terms, I enjoyed this part. I found myself telling other scifi readers about it.

But from there, the plot completely disappears. This new identity, Yatima, goes to chat with a character that was never mentioned before and isn't introduced at all... about a math problem, essentially. It's random and seemingly pointless. The characters seem to have very little motivation to do much of anything because of their transhuman nature. This was odd to me, because the synopsis I read on Kindle sounded promising.

After sticking with it a little while longer, I found I could never distinguish between different types of people, whether they were in cyberspace or meatspace (or if there's even a difference in this universe), and how they got from place to place.

With a million different terms, a lack of clear plot direction in the beginning, and a missing setting, I gave up on this book.

So I suppose you'll need to be a HUGE lover of hard science fiction to really latch on to this book. And you'll really need to love math. This book is all about the idea, and leaves everything else behind.

You guys know I love scifi, but I need concrete characters, plot, and setting to grab me. This book had none of the above. I wonder if this is what regular scifi feels like to non-scifi readers.

The Martian

The Martian - Andy Weir A good book is one where even knowing the ending in advance doesn't spoil the story. I haven't watched the movie yet, because I wanted to read the book first, but obviously, you can't help but hear a few spoilers along the way anytime a big movie like this comes out.

At first, I really got into the story. Even though it's told through journal entries, it starts off mid-action, which was awesome. But after that... the first 20% of the book was a little tough for me to get into. That's because you never really find out much about the main character or his life up til now. It's almost like he didn't have a life before the story started. Of course he does mention what he was trained in and specialized in, but that's about it. No idea if he has a family back home on Earth or who will miss him if he dies. Except Mom. And eventually you find out there's Dad, too.

So at first this is a heavily plot-driven book. It's only after watching him try, try again for a while that I started to build up sympathy and really start to get into the character's head. From around 20% onward, then, I couldn't wait to read what would happen next.

There are a few times where the catastrophic events he's dealing with seem a little anticlimactic, but that's due to two things: 1) We only find out about it afterward, in the journal entries and 2) He's a slightly unreliable narrator in the fact that he's talking to himself, and in order to stay sane and deal with the problems at hand, he has to talk himself up. So instead of despairing, he'll say, "I'll think about this more later." Like, no big deal, a solution will come to me.

I loved his sense of humor and his snarky thought processes. Like how he's first at everything (almost) on Mars. Until the end, when Vogel mentions that even Mark can't say that he's been to Mars twice!

Sometimes the sheer number of numbers gets tiring, but overall the hard science fiction nature of this doesn't detract from the story unfolding in the way that hard scifi often does. I enjoyed it from start to finish and would recommend it mainly to experienced science fiction readers.

Ready Player One

Ready Player One - Ernest Cline I was surprised to discover that this book is partly apocalyptic! It's set in a dystopian world after bombs have fallen and overpopulation boomed. That warmed me to it a bit, but overall, my main complaint with the novel is that it really, really feels like a debut novel. The main character is a bit too proficient at everything. In fact, he rarely fails at anything he tries. For instance, he hacks and physically sneaks into the enemy's stronghold and out again, no problemo.

I was glad that some of the main characters are females, because otherwise this book is heavily male dominated. Some of that is, perhaps, a product of who Halliday was. But when the author info dumps every. single. author. movie. video game. AND hobby the guy ever had (all in the first 15% of the novel), they're all dudes. When we find out who the geeks vote in every year as their representatives in government, they're dudes. When any creator of anything at all is mentioned, it's a dude.

Interestingly, there is a slight awareness of this toward the end, when a character mentions that the OASIS is the best thing that ever happened to minorities, because now everyone can pretend to be a white male, yay! So take from that what you will. The main characters are a diverse crew.

There also seemed to be some random plot holes, or at least spots where it wasn't clear to me when his friends had gotten the keys already. I thought they were ahead of him toward the middle of the game, but yet there's a point where he sends them all the info he has on the middle key and middle gate. Very confusing. Also confusing as to whether he has his ship shrunken in his pocket or not at one point.

As for the geek factor... the sheer volume of infodumps really killed my enthusiasm for the geekspolsion going on in the early part of the book. I had very little reason to keep picking it back up other than the hype I'd heard both online and from friends.

In many cases, the geeky references only tangentially touched on my own fandoms. The SFF authors and books mentioned were familiar, but those were really just part of an infodump, not integral to the plot. There are a few mentions of Firefly (Kaylee is the name of a ship until—surprise—the main character renames the ship with a dude name), World of Warcraft, etc. but not many other modern video games. (Had the protagonist been inside of Mario Bros, Age of Empires, or Civilization, I would've been all about it!)

For the most part, the book heavily focuses on 80s geekery, so all the references to the clues and puzzles of the games the main character has to fight his way through were lost on me... I vaguely remember watching WarGames. Never heard of Zork or Tempest. Never watched School House Rock. I would have trouble recommending this book to anyone not steeped in 80s geekery.

The ending redeemed much of the meandering plot for me. Though I still think Shoto should've been the one who got to kick the Big Bad Guy's ass.

Overall, it's a fun ride if you can get through the first fifth!


Pandemonium - Daryl Gregory A unique world... a compelling main character... and a story that goes meta. I loved it!

Unfortunately there were also several points where I really had no idea what was going on, and then would wait through an "intermission" scene to find out... only to have the story continue like nothing had happened. This happened with surprising regularity, leaving me feeling thrown from the story. After seeing the frequency, I assume the author meant for this to feel like he was letting the reader put the pieces together, but the way it was written didn't feel that way at the time.

I still definitely recommend it to lovers of the science fiction and fantasy genre who are looking for something that really gets our culture and that breathes new life into the genre.

I also shelved this as apocalyptic even though it doesn't fit squarely in that subgenre... it's more like an alternate present.