Traveling with Ursula Le Guin

changing planes coverJust finished Changing Planes, a recent collection of short stories by Ursula Le Guin.  The narrator tells us of her travels to 15 other planes, part travelogue, part anthropological essay, and part satire.  LeGuin often writes nontraditional stories, and this entire collection seems to defy standard definitions of a story, all of the stories lacking even a protagonist.  The stories typically start with a sweeping history of a world and then climax by zooming in on some small part of it, a specific person or group which is perhaps not what you would expect, or some cranny of the world that’s especially unique or astonishing.  Sometimes these closing revelations have surprising emotional power, especially considering how non-story-like they are. The best example is probably the “Flyers of Gy,” which was originally published in Scifiction and is still available in the online archives. Like Le Guin’s classic “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” it’s a great example of a story that breaks the rules and is still compelling and powerful.

As you can imagine, the stories often read more like world-building notes than they do like stories, but even so Le Guin has such skill that her world-building notes are more intriguing and entertaining than many an action-packed story. I’d recommend this collection if you’re already a fan of Le Guin and just want to soak in more of her fabulousness.  If you’re new to her, it’s not her best work and probably not the best place to start.  Her classic novel The Left Hand of Darkness or story collections like The Birthday of the World would be better introductions.

On a more personal note, at the start of the week I bent over to clean up a broken glass, and a pain shot through my back … a pinched nerve.  As a result, had to work from home most of the week, and typically routine activities such as putting on shoes and socks have been quite an adventure.  Physical therapy is helping, though, and, on the plus side, I’ve been getting a lot of reading done…

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Garth Nix is the Master

sabriel coverJust finished Sabriel by Garth Nix.  I’ve read a lot of good young adult fantasy in the past year or so, but this is definitely one of the best.  The story follows Sabriel, the young daughter of the Abhorsen, a special kind of wizard who makes sure that the dead stay dead.  Sabriel has grown up outside the Old Kingdom, in the mundane world where magic has been forgotten.  When her father disappears, she’s discovered that his title as Abhorsen has passed to her, and she has to return to the Old Kingdom to rescue her father and save the Kingdom…

Nix has created a rich world, with magic that’s actually governed by rules and has limitations.  Even better, the rules are interesting and limitations make sense. The whole concept of magic being created through “charter marks” is great, and leads to lots of other fun corollaries, like creatures constructed out of charter marks or the paperwing as a means of transportation.  (I definitely need to get myself a paperwing.)

Garth does a great job of making sure his heroine is overwhelmed by the task at hand but is still strong and capable – always a hard thing to balance.  In Star Wars, Lucas manages it by giving his heroes almost no preparation, but has them quickly rise to the occasion because “the Force is strong with them.”  (Or, if you prefer the prequels, they have a high midi-chlorian count.)  Nix gives his heroine some strong innate abilities inherited from her magical Dad, plus a bit of schooling – but not nearly enough, because she was raised outside the Old Kingdom where magic dominates.  This also means she’s not quite clued into all the bad stuff that’s been happening in the Old Kingdom, which of course adds to the fun. (Plus, there’s a curse that stops anyone else from bringing her up to speed.  D’oh!)

It’s going to be hard to resist picking up Book 2 in this series the next time I’m at the book store…

Story Out in Realms of Fantasy

I got my contributor copy of the latest issue of Realms of Fantasy, which includes my story, “Tío Gilberto and the Twenty-Seven Ghosts.”  First thing I have to say is, it’s so cool to see this story in print!  Especially in such a great magazine, and especially after that long couple months where Realms had closed and it seemed like the story would need to find a new home. I’m really glad that Realms seems be having such a successful re-launch.

Second thing I have to say is, I *love* John Kaiine’s illustration for the story. I look at that gorgeous painting and think to myself, that is a gorgeous work of art.  And then I think, whoa, something I wrote was the original inspiration for that work of art.  Sort of mind-boggling.  And, I have to admit, I thought it would be a hard story to illustrate, what with 27 out of 30 significant characters being invisible.  But Kaiine did it masterfully, showing a scene where the protagonist is performing in front of his uncle Gilberto and a room full of ghosts.  The empty mismatched chairs (a feather boa flung over one of them), the piano and the black and white television in the background, the wisps of smoke from Gilberto’s cigarette giving the entire painting an ethereal feel…. He’s managed to cram in so many little details from the story, but, more importantly, I think he captured the feel of it – a sense of lighthearted fun, but with something haunting just beneath the surface. 

Last thing I have to say is, I’m honored to be in some pretty amazing company on this table of contents: Kristine Kathryn Rusch, William R Eakin, S.E. Ward, and Jay Lake.   I have a feeling I’ll be up late tonight reading their stories….

Brilliant First Lines from Aimee Bender

girl in the flammable skirtJust finished The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, a short story collection by Aimee Bender, one of my favorite writers.  She mostly writes surrealist, magic realist, and just plain weird stories, but due to the mysteries of bookstore shelving you can usually find her under (plain old) fiction instead of fantasy & science fiction.   Among her many talents is her knack for brilliant first lines. E.g.:

I’m spending the afternoon auditioning men.  They don’t know it.  This is a secret audition, come as you are. (“Call My Name,” The Girl in the Flammable Skirt)

There was an imp that went to high school with stilts on so that no one would know he was an imp.  Of course he never wore shorts. (“Drunken Mimi,” The Girl in the Flammable Skirt)

There were two mutant girls in the town:  one had a hand made of fire and the other had a hand made of ice.  Everyone else’s hands were normal.  The girls first met in elementary school and were friends for about three weeks.  Their parents were delighted; the mothers in particular spent hours on the phone describing over and over the shock of delivery day. (“The Healer,” The Girl in the Flammable Skirt)

Ten men go to ten doctors.  All the doctors tell all the men that they only have two weeks left to live. (“Death Watch,” Willful Creatures)

At the party I make a goal and it is to kiss three men: one with black hair, one with red hair, the third blonde. Not necessarilly in that order. (“Off,” Willful Creatures)

So.  (An Invisible Sign of my Own)

Gardner Dozois (science fiction editor, guru, and Clarion Writers Workshop Instructor) says that in a good story by the first page you already should have established an interesting character(s), in an interesting setting, dealing with an interesting situation. Bender usually manages to do all those things in just one or two lines, and with an interesting voice to boot (and often with a laugh or two as well).  She seems to casually do that thing that all good fiction does – reveals the fantastic in the ordinary and the humanity of the extraordinary.  Put her on your must-read list.