Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts is newly out from Laksa Media. Edited by Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law, it has stories by Kelley Armstrong, Suzanne Church, Gemma Files, James Alan Gardner, Bev Geddes, Erika Holt, Tyler Keevil, Rich Larson, Derwin Mak, Mahtab Narsimhan, Sherry Peters, Ursula Pflug, Robert Runte, Lorina Stephens, Amanda Sun, Hayden Trenholm, Edward Willet and A.C. Wise. The intro was written by Julie E. Czerneda.
The stories in the anthology seek to, as the editors put it, “explore the delicate balance between mental health and mental illness,” and a portion of the anthology’s net revenue is being donated to the Canadian Mental Health Association. (Laksa Media’s motto is “Read for a Cause, Write for a Cause, Help a Cause” and you can learn more about their philosophy here.)
My own story, “Tribes,” might be said to be about sweeping your problems under a rather large rug. I have only had my contributor’s copy in the house for a day, so I’ve barely dipped into the stories here. But it’s an exciting ToC, and a cool project, and I’m delighted to have been a part of it.
I am newly back at work after a thoroughly fun-filled week in London, where Kelly and I devoured one incandescent play, seven museums, multiple castles, some exquisite cream tea and scone combos and Tube Stations beyond count. We posted highlights and selfies as we went, along with dance videos.
One of the social media things I’m incredibly enchanted by, with regard to my own photography, is watching my Instagram map fill up with little tags of the places I’ve been and seen. This is a snippet of my posting activity for the period when we were gone.
If I had nothing but time to spend on zooming in and out on this map, attempting to create the maximum density of Polaroid-shaped images that prove I Was So Totes There!, I would do little else. Dinner would burn and the children would starve. One Of the main reasons we walked through Covent Gardens was so I could fill a blank spot on the map.
One of the other geeky things I did was accept a Fitbit challenge from a friend who perhaps should have guessed I’d walk as much or more if I was on vacation. He did very well, though–I didn’t quite walk him into the ground. Still won, though. (This concludes the unattractive gloating portion of our post.)
I didn’t mention this online while we were travelling, but I killed my camera on the first night.
This wasn’t an entirely terrible thing. I have been engaged in low-grade waffling about my birdhunting camera for a fair number of months now. It was somewhat elderly, but not so frail it couldn’t have been donated to a good home. Like all of my cameras, it was a point and shoot, but for a P&S it has an enviable zoom for nature photography, and it let me get good candids and some appealing faraway details on architecture and other inaccessible pretty things. But I haven’t done much birding and wildlife shooting since moving to Toronto, and Birdhunter was heavy. I have wee, wimpy overused wrists, after all. The thing was also always a bit of a lemon: glitchy in minor but irritating ways. I was trying to figure out what I wanted in my next camera. I did a lot of thinking and feeling and maundering and I won’t spell it all out here, lest someone mistake this as an invite to advise me. I hadn’t reached any conclusions.
So I took it to London and, on the first night in a bathroom stall at the globe, hung it on a hook that did not support its weight. Smash! So all but the first hundred or so of the 1572 London pics in my Flickr Album were shot with the iPhone. I have a set of lenses for the phone, a gift from a friend, and I experimented with them for a couple of days–I’d been meaning to do that, so hurrah! Then I decided to just keep it simple.
Upshot: most of the pictures I got are ones I’m quite happy with. I grieve for the close-up I would have gotten of that fox in Kew Gardens. I got so close! (The reason: an old lady was chumming the lawns with bread.) I wish I’d had a shot at one of the parrots. But the phone worked decently well for tourist pics, and the next phone, with a better set of lenses… that may be the route I take until I’m ready to start seriously birding again.
Why, yes, I did say dance videos. Here’s Kelly performing at the Tower of London.
Some of you may have already seen my new Cynthia Sheppard cover on the The Nature of a Pirate Amazon page and/or when I posted it on social media, but here it is again for your delectation. Isn’t it beautiful? My editor very kindly gave me a version without the art, too, so that I can have a Sophie icon that doesn’t have random pieces of alphabet all over the place.
These three books now have, between them, some of the most thematically appropriate, well-matched and flat-out nicest covers I’ve seen on any trio of novels, and I love them all with every cell of my circulatory system, up to and including the big glob in the midst.
In related news, Tor Books has reissued Indigo Springs and
Blue Magic with new covers, and these too are very pretty indeed. I think they’re very appropriate to that universe, and the seeping magical blueness that causes so much trouble for Astrid Lethewood and her poor doomed magic-contaminated friends.
Here they are:
And it was an endless cascade of unexpected delights.
Kelly and I went with a friend to see Alan Cumming’s cabaret show on Saturday night. It’s available as an album and I recommend looking at the set list, because his idea of a sappy song might match what you imagine. To give you an idea, there’s an original condom commercial, Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes,”–that one I knew he’d pick–a thing by Miley Cyrus, something called “Mother Glasgow” (which comes with an annotated version for those of us who aren’t Scottish) and “Complainte De La Butte.” The patter is included in its entirely too, and Cumming is hilarious.
It was the best concert I’ve had since the magical evening when I first saw Jonathan Coulton. He is a stunning performer: every cell of him is electrifying.
On a more teacherly note, my spring course at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, which bears the not very poetic name “Advanced Speculative Fiction Workshop” launches this April. If you might like to be part of the workshop, the link is here.
I had to do a fair bit of pondering before I set out to write this essay, which kept it from happening as quickly as I would’ve liked. There were a number of reasons for this, some of which were circumstantial–the holidays, other stuff–and some of which boiled down to wrapping my head around what to say and how to say it.
The Flame in the Maze is Caitlin Sweet’s sequel to 2014’s The Door in the Mountain from Chizine Publications ChiTeen imprint. Taken together, the two novels are a retelling of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, starting around the time the latter is born and wrapping up, as the myths do, with Theseus sailing away from certain death in gory masculine triumph.
The broad strokes of the story follow those of the myth, so I’m going to be spoilery in a very particular way, in that I’ll assume that you know those strokes. That there’s an inescapable maze, for example, built by Daedalus, and a girl named Ariadne who tells Theseus how to hack the labyrinth so he can slaughter its resident monster and get out.
Sweet’s beautifully nuanced retelling centers around some arguably lucky individuals who are blessed by the gods–godmarked, the Minoans and Greeks call it–and, occasionally, are even born to them. Daedalus’s miraculously crafty hands are a gift from on high, for example, as are the bird-like characteristics of his son, Icarus. Theseus, meanwhile, is a bit of a telepath.
The first book is largely the tale of Ariadne… it has an ensemble cast, but its story is driven by her. Gorgeous, an accomplished dancer, a bona fide princess and malicious to her rotten core, Ariadne is consumed by jealousy for her godmarked sisters and brothers. She’s got a little sister who can open any lock, for one thing. The real focus of her rage, though, is her little brother Asterion, who transforms into a fusion of boy and bull whenever he is exposed to extreme heat.
In The Door in the Mountain, Ariadne plays upon her father’s significant personality defects and convinces him to build the labyrinth of myth as a prison for her brother. She maneuvers him into demanding Athenian sacrifices to Asterion and has the satisfaction not only of seeing her brother imprisoned but of forcing him onto a diet of soylent green and paltry temple offerings.
But although she seems to have pulled off the perfect villainous plan, the cracks are already setting in. A slave girl, Chara, who loves Asterion, has slipped herself in with the latest batch of sacrifices to see if she can save him. And although Ariadne has enlisted the prince Theseus to assassinate her brother, it turns out he’s just not the sort a fellow a girl can trust.
There’s also the minor issue of her father’s eroding mental health. He’s got some ideas whose realization might result in something truly apocalyptic.
The Flame in the Maze reads a little like a time travel novel when it picks up the action from The Door in the Mountain. This illusion prevails due to the fact that the story really gets underway once Theseus is in the maze… but the various character threads require Sweet to bring us up-to-date with people who’ve been trapped in the Labyrinth, and elsewhere, for years. (I love time travel of all sorts, so this section is a little like ravishing a box of bonbons.)
Icarus and his father Daedalus, for example, were locked up by King Minos, not in the Labyrinth but in an isolated cavern elsewhere, with nobody but each other for company. We get to see how they coped. And each set of Athenian sacrifices, the ones tossed into the Labyrinth at two year intervals and presumed dead at Asterion’s horns, has met a slightly different awful fate from the previous cohort.
The story loops back to catch each thread, until the reader and everyone else is, more or less, finally in the same moment. By then, escaping Crete entirely is the only thing any of the characters can hope to do, for there is no stopping the king from achieving his world-shattering plans.
Though Ariadne sowed almost all of the seeds of the story in the first novel, she is very nearly an afterthought in the second. She’s reaping a whirlwind of her own construction, and it’s too powerful for her–for any of them–to dial down. Understandably, nobody is deceived by her anymore. Still, I missed her scheming in this second book. She is the true monster of the story, after all, and even though her brother becomes genuinely fearsome over the course of his imprisonment, it is interesting to compare them, the calculating master villain on the one hand, the helpless prisoner to magical appetite on the other.
Sweet’s take on the familiar myth is true enough to make the story recognizable, and yet its points of difference are numerous and–no surprise, if you know this author’s work–heartbreaking. There are plenty of surprises, and they all feel just right. Of these, the most poignant is the fate of Icarus. Everything that happened to him absolutely wrecked me.
I also came out of the first book shipping Asterion and Chara, and their ultimate fate makes perfect sense. (Other readers will be happy with it too, I think. I hope.)
Different versions of the original myth disagree on whether Ariadne was deliberately abandoned by Theseus on Naxos or if she slept in and was left behind by mistake. Her fate is the final mystery of this book, the last piece of a puzzle as intricate as the Labyrinth itself, and it slides into place with the sureness of a well-wrought lock clicking shut. Perhaps the greatest success of The Flame in the Maze is that it makes you feel as though you won’t get out of the Labyrinth; its author takes you to one of those fictional places you carry ever after, a combination of scar and badge of honor, and a chamber of horrors occasionally–very occasionally–illuminated by its best characters’ moments of humanity and compassion.
Author’s note: Caitlin Sweet is a friend of mine, and that gets one a friendly reading. I can’t claim strict impartiality–though, really, I’m never impartial where books are concerned. If I finished it, I loved it. I will also tell you for free that Sweet did an interview for my The Heroine Question, and you can read that here.