What I Read this Summer
and What I'm Reading Now
The first thing I tell students who take my elective SF/F writing class is that they can't be a writer if they don't read, and that their class-assigned reading doesn't count. When each class meeting opens I ask them to briefly recount what they've been reading in the SF/F vein that week, why, what's good about it and what lessons they can take from it.
When it comes to reading, I try to practice what I preach. And since during the school year reading is inevitably slowed down by the endless grading of papers, I have to really get after it in the summer. What follows are the highlights of what I read or reread since this summer started and am reading now that it's ending.
A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman.
As an amateur WWI history buff, of course I've read Tuchman's amazing account of the opening weeks of the Great War, The Guns of August. I finally decided to dive in to her account of the daily life of Europe in the latter half of the 14th century as soon as this summer began. Instantly I wished I'd read it years ago, before I'd begun writing The Paladin Trilogy. I never went into Paladin with a particular era or region in mind, but there's no doubt that Tuchman's book would've helped to inform some aspects of the world that emerged in the writing.
My major takeaway from this book is, really, that the 14th century was damned weird. That's entirely too light a summary of such a dense (meant as a compliment) treatment of the subject, but really, what was with the pointed shoes? Tuchman is constantly pointing out how the pointed shoes, or poulaines, were constantly the subject of sumptuary laws. Apparently they were considered quite the menace, and no law seemed to bring them under control.
Tuchman fills the book with rich detail; the specifics of some rituals of feudal homage are particularly bizarre. Her account of peasant rebellion is riveting, and when she shows, via primary sources, exactly what nobles thought of the poor, I felt there were some direct echoes in political rhetoric today. Even the medieval poor, you see, had it too easy, according to the rich, and required a constant and firm hand to keep their natural, habitual laziness from ruining them.
There isn't any aspect of medieval life Tuchman doesn't touch on, from the corruption and schism of the church, medicine, astrology, diet, marriage, to the ambition and over-reach of medieval warfare. The planned French invasion of England, involving a massive pre-fabricated fortress to cross the channel in several ships seems to me the ultimate expression of how the warfare of the day was largely untenable. Armies were rarely, if ever, given achievable goals or deployed using a modicum of sense. In the case of that fortress, only pieces of it got there, seized by the English and displayed as a trophy.
If you have even a layman's curiosity about medieval history and you haven't read Tuchman yet, do it now. If you want to write fantasy informed by medieval European history, it's practically mandatory.
This spring, so not quite this summer, I read three fantastic novels back to back; Elizabeth Bear's Karen Memory, Ken Liu's The Grace of Kings and The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis. Technically they fall outside the scope of “what I read this summer,” but all of them are worth your time. All of them are on the shortlist for “Best new book I read this year.” In fact, they probably are the shortlist. The latter, in particular, has stuck with me, as it made me go back and reread (in a largely confused haze) some of Spinoza and the other philosophers whose ideas it incorporated. If you've ever wanted clockwork golems and wildly alternate history that makes you examine the question of whether or not free will can be said to exist, go read it.
I also read the third novel of Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher Saga, The Time of Contempt. Like, I think, most American readers, I came to The Witcher via the video games, and have had to wait as the books become more widely available in English translation. In the games, Geralt of Rivia seems a pretty clear power fantasy, so it was somewhat refreshing in this book to see him much more limited. In fact, the bulk of the book really followed Ciri, and I felt it really helped inform my appreciation of her character fresh off having played The Witcher 3.
I also did some rereading this summer. I decided at some point that I wanted to do a big reread of most, if not all, of Guy Gavriel Kay's work. To my mind, Kay is probably the best living fantasist (other candidates; Ursula K. LeGuin and I'm not sure who else, but I'd take suggestions) and it had been years since I'd read any of his older work. I decided to start with the one Kay novel that I hadn't really sharply remembered, A Song for Arbonne.
Folks, I was so glad I did.
It was also fortuitous that I read this book shortly after Tuchman, whose treatment of courtly love certainly informed my rereading of Arbonne. I believe I'd read it in high school, so the intervening 20 years certainly made a difference as well. After this reread, it might just be vying with Tigana for my favorite Kay novel of all. If you haven't read it, or there's been a space of time since you did, go give it a first or second try. I kept stopping mid page in a mix of awe at the grace of the prose and frustration at my certainty that I'd never write a paragraph or a sentence as good as the one I just read.
On a side note, it's sort of fascinating how many fantasy novels out there treat or take inspiration from the Albigensian Crusade, huh? I can think of at least 2 others besides this, but I'm not going to name them; maybe you can in the comments.
At the moment, I just finished reading Django Wexler's The Shadow Throne, second in The Shadow Campaigns. Less military and more politically focused than The Thousand Names, it's a brisk fantasy take on the French Revolution. It's hard to talk about without spoilers, I think, but there are some fascinating things happening in this series. For one, it's hard to pinpoint any one character as the protagonist. Our viewpoint characters (specifically Marcus and Winter) are working for someone (Vhalnich) without often knowing many details of the overall plan or picture, much less the endgame. Certainly we're rooting for them, and their allies, but we don't really have a solid grasp on the motivations or goals of the man pulling all the strings. In case it's unclear, I mean all of this as a compliment. If you like flintlock fantasy, I don't think you can go wrong here; one part musketry, one part demonology, ½ part gender identity and woman-disguised-as-soldier narrative, a dash of history, shaken over your laughter at eye-wateringly stupid radicals. Smooth and satisfying.
Oh, and last but certainly not least, Joe Abercrombie's Half a War, the conclusion (?) of The Shattered Sea. I've loved everything Abercrombie's written, but I think this trilogy was, on the whole, probably better than The First Law books, with Half the World in particular being my favorite among all of his work. Again, it's hard to say too much in praise of it without spoiling. So the best thing you can do is go get all three books, read them, and get back to me.
Well this post is already carrying on a tad long, but I'd be remiss if I didn't include this here. Early on in the summer I read Nimona by Noelle Stevenson, which lured me in by playing with super-villainry and shape-changing in hilarious ways, only to try and punch me in the heart (it's doubtless shriveled and black, more a lump of coal than a vital red muscle, but it's there) later on. I mean this in the best possible way.
Monthly, I read fewer titles than I once did. If I had to give up all my hobbies – books, videogames, action figures – and eat only ramen noodles and boiled potatoes, I'd still find room in my monthly budget for Knights of the Dinner Table. Having just read #223 this week, my love for this comic and magazine is just as strong as it was when I bought issue #36 off a rack in a mall newsstand (remember those?) back in college. That #36 – and every single issue since – is long-boxed and carefully stored.
My love for G.I. Joe is no secret to any of you reading this who know me or even follow me on Twitter. I still read every monthly Joe comic, but my favorite, of course, is the continuation of the old Marvel storyline still written by Larry Hama. In the hands of a less interested, less competent, less character-oriented storyteller, the Joe book could have been simple hackwork meant to sell toys. I'll argue forever that Hama elevated it beyond that, and continues to do so. This month's issue, #212, features visual and storyline call backs to #36, from June of 1985. I was blown away by that. The continuity, not of plot, but of character and tone that Hama has achieved over decades of working with a toy property simply staggers me.
Also this summer I was sad to see my favorite hack-and-slash style book of all time end its amazing run; I'm speaking of Skullkickers, written by Jim Zub, art by Edwin Huang, colors by Misty Coats. If you've ever played D&D with a bloodthirsty group, you'll love Skullkickers. Many of the player-characters from the aforementioned Knights of the Dinner Table would fit right in to the Skullkickers milieu. The takeaway here is that you should be going to www.skullkickers.com and beginning to read it online right now, and then you should buy the trades and collected editions as they come out.
Also monthly (or as publication allows) reads; Saga, Rat Queens, Bitch Planet, Star Wars and Darth Vader. I teeter back and forth on reading Secret Wars but usually give in. I'd talk about all of these but I've already gone on too long and my kettlebells are calling. Their voice is the nightmare of iron; it is the song of ruin and pain unending, and the only way to cease the horrid wail is to go lift them. Repeatedly.
What'd you read this summer? What are you reading now? What are you excited to read in the coming months (besides Ordination, of course)? Sound off in the comments. Comments may be lightly moderated; I'm not here to run an argument clinic.