Review: A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

a closed and common orbit coverA Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers (UK link, US link) is a sequel to The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. The interesting thing to note though is that it follows a completely different set of characters. The main characters of Common Orbit, Sidra and Pepper, appear in Long Way, but only in a few places. On the flip side, the main characters from Long Way are mentioned a few times but they never actually appear in Common Orbit. This means it’s possible to read Common Orbit without having first read Long Way. If you do read the books out of order, then the events of Common Orbit will give spoilers for a single plot thread of Long Way but not the main plotline. I heartily recommend both of these books and you can tackle them in whichever order you choose.

A Closed and Common Orbit is a story about figuring out who you want to be and making a purpose for your own life – which doesn’t have to be a purpose given by an outside force. It has two plotlines interwoven. The “present” plotline is focused on Sidra, an artificial intelligence program recently, and illegally, installed in a kit designed to mimic a human being. She has to deal with her new body, the restrictions imposed on her by her programming, and the fact that getting caught would mean her death. She navigates her new existence with the help of her friends Pepper and Blue, and later a new friend Tak (not to be confused with a character of the same name in the previous book). The “past” plotline tells of Pepper’s history. She was originally Jane 23, one of a group of girls genetically engineered to work in factories, her entire life focused on the tasks she was given. At the age of 10, she had never seen the sky and had no idea that there was a world outside her factory. This plotline tells of her escape from the factory and how she grew up, learned the skills she needed to survive, and came to the place where she is first encountered in the previous book.

The two plotlines come together towards the end of the book with the events of the past plotline becoming critical to the present plotline.

While there is some action, the story is primarily a character-driven one, dealing with the emotional growth of these two people, how they cope with their circumstances, and how they choose to define themselves. There is an underlying layer around the subject of exploitation, with both Sidra and Jane created for the purpose of performing task for their “owners”.

The story is very well written so that it tugs on the heartstrings and makes the reader invested in the lives of these characters who have gone through some awful things. The book deals with the after effects of those things – with characters having panic attacks and nightmares, struggling to deal with massive changes as they come out of traumatic events into somewhere safe. Even in the rich and imaginative setting, the emotional reactions of the characters feel grounded in reality.

Well worth a read and, as I said at the start, you can pick these books up in whichever order appeals to you. I found I actually liked this book better than Long Way, which surprised me because I really enjoyed that book too. Five stars. This one has been added to my favourites list.

Audio Dramas

I usually recommend and review books on this blog, but story telling can come in many forms and I wanted to talk about some audio dramas that I would recommend.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy

This is an old series, the original incarnation of this amazing collection of things. Many people are aware of the book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (UK link, US link), but not all of them know that there was a radio play first. The radio play and the book (and the film and the TV series and the game) start off basically the same way, but then head off in different directions, so if you’ve read the book and its sequels you will still get a new story by listening to this radio play.

My dad had the whole original series recorded on cassette tapes when I was a kid, taped from the radio as it was broadcast, but the series is now available on CD (UK link, US link) as well as places like audible. The first two “phases” of the radio play are the original drama written specifically to be heard as an audio drama, the third and fourth are adaptations of the books which don’t work quite as well because what works on a page and what works in audio format are not quite the same.

The story follows the adventures of Arthur Dent, rescued from Earth moments before its destruction by his friend Ford Prefect, who turns out to be an alien. What follows is a romp of humour and silliness through time and space, with the characters ending up in utterly bizarre situations. It’s completely ridiculous and amazing. If you’ve read any of Douglas Adams’ books and enjoyed them, you will love the radio play.

The Confessions of Dorian Gray

I’ve talked about this before and I’ve listed the series on my queer reading list even though it’s an audio drama rather than a traditional book. The premise of the series is that Oscar Wilde wrote his book based on a real person, who didn’t die at the end but continued living on as an unaging immortal. Dorian lives on through the decades, encountering (and often fighting) supernatural creatures while just trying to have a good time.

This series is a mix of humour and horror, made up of half hour episodes. There is some ongoing story between episodes, with some recurring characters as well as some plotlines that span multiple episodes (especially in series 3) but for the most part each episode works on its own so it’s easy to dip in and out of. Some of the episodes veer more to the horror side of things, some to the comedy side, with others feeling like fantasy adventures. Even the stories that are written like horror stories still have plenty of humour in them to keep them from being too dark. This series is a lot of fun, with some great characters and a lot of depth even for a character who is largely in it for his own pleasure.

I put it on the queer reading list because Dorian, the protagonist, is either pansexual or bisexual, as well as there being a number of other queer characters who show up, including the recurring character of Simon (canonically gay) and Toby (“the love of Dorian’s life”). One story has Oscar Wilde as a character, another has a character clearly based on Alan Turing.

Juno Steel (The Penumbra Podcast)

The Penumbra Podcast produce audio dramas and make them available over the internet for free. There are some standalone stories, but most of the stories they write fall into one of two series – The Second Citadel (a fantasy series involving knights fighting monsters, including a disabled knight and a female knight both desperate to proof themselves) and Juno Steel.

The Juno Steel stories are my favourite of their work, which is why I’ve highlighted them specifically here. Juno Steel is a detective written in the style and using many of the tropes of a noir detective – but set on Mars. The stories are a lot of fun, with great humour (especially in the interactions between Juno and the thief Peter Nureyev) and an interesting plotline. Most of the stories are two parters, with each part being between 30 minutes and 50 minutes long. These two part stories tell a tale which feels complete in itself – with beginning, middle, and end – but which tie into longer plotlines that span across the series. The plots themselves are interesting and engaging, but it’s the humour that brings me back to the series.

There are some fun characters. I’ve mentioned Peter Nureyev, a thief and conman with a dry sense of humour who has amazing chemistry with Juno, but there’s also Rita, a secretary who can seem utterly stupid in some ways but then show utter genius in others. She cares for Juno deeply and will make decisions to protect him whether he likes it or not (like locking him in his apartment when he’s ill).

Welcome to Night Vale

This is a podcast that went viral and became a model for podcast drama success. The series is based around the community radio of a fictional town called Night Vale and each episode has Cecil, the local radio presenter, talking about recent events, upcoming community activities, local issues, and similar. This all sounds perfectly normal for a local radio show – except that the town is strange in every conceivable way. Monsters run city hall, librarians are horrific creatures that eat stray readers, there’s a dog park no one can enter patrolled by robed figures, blood sacrifices are a part of everyday life, there’s a teenage girl whose entire body consists of a single hand, another teenager who changes shape every few minutes, angels who no one is allowed to acknowledge, an underground city beneath the bowling alley, strange lights in the sky, a glowing cloud on the school board, the list goes on an on, getting stranger with each episode.

Although many of the things that the episodes focus on could be seen as horrific, there is a lot of humour in this series. There is still the horror element (the Faceless Old Woman is incredibly creepy) but also romance between Cecil and the beautiful scientist Carlos, as well as some moments of drama (the scene where Cecil’s portrait of Carlos gets broken is heart-breaking) and some instances of excitement and triumph.

Each episode has a focus or plot, but there are also longer plot threads that flow through several episodes, as well as running gags and recurring characters, not to mention running gags and recurring characters that turn into important plotlines. There are a lot of episodes now, more than a hundred, so catching up on the back catalogue will take some time.

The show has also spawned two novels and a series of live shows that tour the world. The live shows have their own storylines so they can be listened to separately from the podcast and so that listeners of the podcast won’t be missing anything critical if they can’t attend the live shows. I’m excited to say that I have a ticket to the live show in London in October.

Get a free book!

omega rising coverUntil the end of October, I am offering a chance to get hold of a free copy of Omega Rising, the first book in my Codename Omega series. 100 copies of the ebook are available – but it’s first come, first served so sign up quickly.

Simply follow this link and enter your name and email address to be sent your free copy. You can also choose to sign up to my mailing list to receive publication news about future books.


Jenny Harding has no money, no qualifications and no career history. A job working security for a big tech firm seems too good to be true. Maybe it is.

She is tasked with hunting down a group of thieves who have been stealing sensitive technology. Caught up in a battle involving alien forces, Jenny has some important questions to answer:
Who are the thieves?
What’s their real purpose?
And is she on the right side?


Omega Rising is available to buy on Amazon (UK link, US link). The Codename Omega series is continued in Traitor in the Tower (UK link, US link) and Hidden in the Signal (UK link, US link).

Submissions

A couple of days ago, I was on the train and near to where I was sitting, a mother and daughter were having a conversation. I wasn’t deliberately eavesdropping, but I couldn’t help overhearing some of their conversation and at one point they started talking about the fact they were both writers aspiring to get published. The mother was talking about sending the work to agents. She said a few things that made me want to jump across the carriage to correct. I couldn’t do so at the time because it was a crowded train and there were people sitting between us, as well as it being awkward to just barge into someone else’s conversation.

But I’ve been thinking about that conversation and the things I might have said if I’d been sitting right next to them.

The woman said at one point that you don’t need to have a completed book to go out and hunt for an agent or a publisher. She said that you send out a synopsis and sample chapter but don’t need to have the rest of the book finished.

There is a grain of truth to what she said. When you submit a book for consideration, you do send out samples rather than the whole thing. Most publishers ask for the first three chapters and a synopsis (a summary of the whole book) but this can vary. Some publishers ask for a number of words or a number of pages instead, and the length of the synopsis can vary (500 word, 1000 words, 1000-2000 words, 2-3 pages, 1 page, etc.). If you are sending your book out, it’s vital that you check the submission guidelines of the publisher or agency you are approaching and tailor your submission according.

The main point I would question though is her assertion that you don’t need to have the book finished. If you are working on a fiction book, you should have the book completed before you send the samples out. There are a few different reasons for this. The first is simply: what will you do if they say yes? If you send out your three sample chapters and an agency or publisher comes back and says they like it, you have to be ready to send the rest of the book. You don’t want to get a positive response but have to go back and say that you’re only halfway through writing the book. The publisher is not going to wait.

The other big reason is that books change over the course of writing them. When I started writing Child of the Hive, Rachel wasn’t a character. I didn’t plan on her at all. I just needed someone to interact with Alex and Will at one point and I gave her a name. But then she kept coming back… and developed a crush on Drew… and insisted on being part of the plot. By the second half of the book, the story doesn’t work without her and I had to go and write her back into the opening chapters so that she wouldn’t just appear out of nowhere. If I had submitted the story when I’d only written the first three chapters, the synopsis and opening I sent would have only vaguely resembled the finished book. I had some major changes with Shadows of Tomorrow too. When I started that book, Cassie was the main character, but I realised a few chapters in that Gareth was the one making all the decisions and participating in all the action. I completely rewrote the opening chapters to focus on him as the main character to avoid confusing people as to who was the protagonist. Maybe writers who stick more closely to their initial plans than me won’t have this issue, but I wouldn’t be able to submit opening chapters at the start of the writing process because I would need to completely change them at a later point when the story changed.

A related point to this is that you shouldn’t submit the first draft of your book. When writing, you should go through different drafts. For me, the first draft is about getting the bones of the story down, working out the rough flow, and getting the plot sorted out. The second draft is about fixing the plot holes, making sure the whole thing hangs together, and, where necessary, inserting new characters into the beginning because they refused to get out of the story. The third draft is then all about tidying up. This is where I improve confusing sections, cut the boring bits, and fix the wording in places where it’s a bit awkward. I also attempt to hunt typos but I struggle with this. I only submit the story after all of this.

What you send to a publisher or agent should be the best book you can possibly make it and that means revising the book before you send it off. Not everyone needs three drafts. Some people who spend more time on the planning stages can probably do it in two because they have less plot hole hunting to do, but the fact remains that you still have to work on the story before it goes out. Just because the publishers and agents only ask for the opening of the book in a submission, it doesn’t mean you should submit when you’ve only written that far.

You might have noticed though that I specified ‘fiction book’ near the start of this post. The rules are slightly different when submitting a non-fiction book. Usually, you will submit sample chapters along with some information about the book (the target audience, what it’s similar to, what its unique selling point is, etc.) and a breakdown of what you will cover (similar to the synopsis). When submitting a non-fiction book, what you are submitting is a proposal for a book you intend to write. You don’t necessarily have to have finished writing it in this case, but as before, check the guidelines on the website of whatever publisher or agency you are thinking of sending your submission to.

The Confessions of Dorian Gray

I’ve just added some new items to my queer reading list – The Confessions of Dorian Gray (series 1 & 2, and series 3). I wasn’t sure about whether to list these as they are an audio drama rather than a normal book, but Amazon has them listed as audiobooks and the box sets have a record on Goodreads, so I figured they were close enough to count.

The stories are based on the premise that Oscar Wilde wrote The Portrait of Dorian Gray about an actual friend/lover of his, but that Dorian didn’t die at the end of the book and instead lived on until the modern day fighting demons, ghosts, monsters, and other supernatural threats. Dorian’s sexuality isn’t specifically labelled but I would describe him as pansexual because he will sleep with anyone he finds attractive, whether they be man, woman, or blood-sucking vampire.

The first two seasons are a selection of stand-alone stories that take place over the course of Dorian’s long life, often jumping forward a few decades between them. The third season has a more long-term arc. The stories themselves are still episodic in nature but there are plot threats that span between them, including a romance arc between Dorian and a male character that crosses three episodes.

Dorian is written based on the hedonistic character of Oscar Wilde’s book. He gets character development over the series, but he remains in it for the pleasures of life – be they sex, drugs, alcohol, or murder. It’s very refreshing in this story how open Dorian is about his sexuality, talking about being attracted to different genders without any hesitation of qualms, but it’s hard to forget that he is also written this way to be amoral and his sexuality is part of that portrayal. It follows the trope of bisexuals/pansexuals being sex-crazed, party animals and there are times when Dorian talks about his “sins” (hopefully referring to all the murder, but vague enough that it could also be including his sexuality). Some listeners may have problems with this portrayl. However, what I think redeems the story however is that there are episodes and arcs where Dorian is shown to care for people as people. There are some stories where he falls in love and these vary. There’s a story where he falls in love with a woman, another where he falls in love with a man, and then there’s his relationship with the murdering vampire (lots of canon bloodplay kink in that pairing) who he describes as the love of his life.

The story also has minor queer characters who appear for an episode or two. One of my favourites is Simon, who has a fling with Dorian in one episode and falls in love with him only to end up jaded when Dorian doesn’t love him back and just perceived what they had as a casual thing. Simon ends up having a marriage of convenience with a lesbian so that he can get ahead in a business run by homophobes and so that she doesn’t get cut out of the will of a very wealthy but very bigotted relative. Then there’s the fact that Oscar Wilde himself is a character in the first episode. It’s clear that while Dorian is a horrible person (but a brilliant character) that’s because of who he is and not because he’s into men.

I do recommend this series as a great fun set of fantasy/horror stories. I haven’t listed seasons 4 and 5 on my reading list because I only list books I’ve read (or in this case listened to) but I have got those on order and suspect I will add those to the list once I’ve heard them.

Alien aliens

I recently read The Long Way To a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (UK link, US link), which is a great book for a lot of reasons, but one thing I particularly liked about it is that the aliens really felt alien. That may seem like a strange thing to say, but sometimes in science fiction you get alien species that are basically humans but with pointy ears or green skin. Some are given characteristics of a minority group for the sake of analogy, and some get exaggerated physical traits or, sometimes, mystical powers, but in a lot of ways they feel like humans.

One particularly common example of this is in terms of gender, sex, and physical relationships. In films in particular, but sometimes in books, alien women look like human women but with some superficial appearance changes. Alien races appear attractive to humans in standardly human ways. Alien races have two genders and follow stereotypical patterns of gender dynamics. It is as though every species in the universe is based on the template of white, European gender dynamics.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a refreshing change from this approach. In this book, there are several alien species, and there is an emphasis placed on how different gender and sexuality would be for these different species. So there is a species where every member of the species starts out female but becomes male later in life. There is a species that coexists with a parasitic virus so they are all referred to as they because they consider themselves a joint organism – the host and the virus. There is a species that has three different families as a standard – the family that raises the children is not the same as the family that provided the genetic material. This species doesn’t consider children to be people until they reach adulthood.

There is a sense of a vast and complicated universe, with every species having their own biology that influences their behaviour and attitudes. This is a complete contrast to another book I read recently (which I won’t name because I didn’t enjoy it) where every single character from half a dozen different species would have fit right in with a gathering of middle class white Americans (plus every single character in the book was male, except for the protagonist’s love interest who showed up for about a page and a half).

When it comes to science fiction, that old adage of “write what you know” is less applicable than ever, because the point of science fiction is to explore the unknown. When writing alien species, we should think about the variety of biology that exists even on our own planet, and imagine the implications of a sentient alien race having more in common with say bees or clownfish than humans. Those differences can be in everything from their methods of communication (the aliens in The Bride by Janine Ellen Young (UK link, US link) live in a vacuum so they don’t have verbal communication but communicate using viruses), or in terms of family dynamics (in Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon (UK link, US link) the alien young are protected by an older person who doesn’t have offspring of her own), or in terms of gender and sexuality as discussed with regards to The Long Way To a Small Angry Planet. When coming up with an alien race, let your imagination run wild or look at some of the weirder species on Earth for inspiration and design aliens that really feel significantly alien from us.

False Starts

Sometimes it’s difficult to figure out where your story starts, the style that fits it, the way it wants to be told. When I was starting the Codename Omega series, I had the pieces of the story. I had fragments of plot and beginnings of characters, but whenever I sat down to start writing, the story faltered. The flame of inspiration sputtered out within a couple of pages. Something just didn’t feel right, just didn’t grab me and make me want to sit down and tell the story. Except that’s not quite true. I definitely wanted to tell the story – but I didn’t want to tell the story this way.

When I started writing the first book in the series, I thought it was going to be like the other books I’d written up to that point, Child of the Hive and the book I was at the time trying to find a publisher for, Shadows of Tomorrow. I thought it would be an ensemble story told through a group of characters with a range of different viewpoints. I thought the main characters of the story were going to be Navy, Knight, Princess, and the others of Nuke’s team. But there was a character lingering in the back of my mind. I wanted one of Mrs Grey’s team to switch sides. I knew I had to make sure that the change of allegiances felt genuine, that the character’s justification made sense, and the more I thought about it, the more this character seemed like the interesting one, the one with a story to tell.

So I tried again. I sat myself down at the keyboard certain that this time the story would work. I had my new protagonist and it was time for her to get to work.

Except the story petered out in the first couple of pages. Again. Something still wasn’t right.

I’m not sure how many times I started and stopped that story before it started working for me, but it must have been at least half a dozen, probably more than ten. It was OK though, because I kept trying new angles until I found the one that worked. Something clicked and the story started to flow and before I knew it, I had a first draft.

The reason this springs to mind now is that I have another story that’s behaving in the same way. I’ve tried starting this story three times now and it doesn’t feel right. I have a bunch of ideas floating around in my head but they won’t cooperate and get on the page in any way that seems to work, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving up on this story. It just means I have to try and find a new angle. I’m going to try starting in a new place or with a different character, looking at the story from a new perspective. I have all the pieces of a good story as long as I keep trying to find the place to begin.

That’s the piece of advice I want to give you: find a different angle. If you’re struggling to know where to start, pick a different character and explain how they got involved in the story, try changing it from first person to third person or vice versa, start it earlier, start it later. It’s OK to get frustrated sometimes, but that doesn’t mean that the story isn’t worth writing.

Cover Art Cross Stitch

Child of the Hive cover cross stitch 1Child of the Hive cover cross stitch 2My efforts to transform my book covers into cross stitch continues. My latest piece is for Child of the Hive, the first novel I ever had published (UK link, US link). This piece of embroidery is nearly complete and should hopefully be finished by this time next week.

 

At this rate though, it’s taking me longer to sew the covers than it is to write the books.

Wheelchair martial arts

In my Eastercon highlights post, I mentioned that I would be doing a separate video on the wheelchair martial arts demonstration performed by Al Davison. It just took me a few weeks to pull together the videos. This session started with a couple of choreographed fights and then went into general advice for fights, specific self-defence tips for wheelchair users, and discussions of how fights are done in martial arts films. The videos I have are just a few snippets from the demonstration.

If you have an opportunity to watch Al demonstrate in future, I highly recommend it.

As well as being a martial artist, Al Davison is a comic book artist. He is crowdfunding an autobiographical graphic novel and you can support his art on Patreon. You can also follow him on Twitter and Tumblr.

Review: How to Save the World by Tam MacNeil

How to Save the World coverHow to Save the World by Tam MacNeil (UK link, US link), not to be confused with one of the many other books with the same or similar name, is a book that walks the line between fantasy and science fiction. Monsters are rising from the sea and emerging from the forests, death gods who call to the people nearby. Anyone who hears their song is drawn to them and filled with the urge to commit suicide. A man named Cameron runs the company who produces mech – huge metal machines that can fight against these monsters. The mechs are designed to be driven by a human being, but the experience is horrifying. In this world, Alex and Sean are assassins working for Cameron, killing anyone he sends them after. They decide to escape their life by killing Cameron but when the attempt fails, Sean manages to get out and start a new life but Alex is caught and forced inside one of the mechs.

When I first started this book I had my doubts about it. For the first couple of chapters, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to connect with Alex or Sean, who we see committing murders without seeming to care about it. How wrong I was. It didn’t take long for the book to start exploring their history, the way they protect each other, and their desire to have a better life than the one they’re forced to endure. Once the book got going it was very easy to have sympathy for both of them and some parts of the book were absolutely heart-wrenching. I was in tears in places.

The story deals with some very dark themes and difficult issues. There are explorations of rape, child abuse, grooming, suicide, grief, and some scenes that can only be described as torture. These issues are dealt with in a very respectful way and it really tugs on the heart-strings, but it could be a very difficult read for some people because of how real the emotion feels.

The book is definitely driven by the emotion. There is some mystery and a fair amount of action, with the characters working to, as the title says, save the world from the monsters, but really the core of the book is the emotional journey between Sean and Alex.

The relationship between the two main characters is beautifully written. We get to see their history and the background behind their interactions as well as the moments on the page. It works in a very layered way. You can genuinely feel how much they love each other. The interactions with the other characters is great too, and there were some brilliant moments where we get to see the two main characters through the eyes of characters like Mad and Rak. We spend so much of the time in this book inside their heads that it’s interesting to see what they look like from the outside.

The only criticism I have of this book is that it needed a better editor. There were a lot of typos and there were several points where a new chapter or section started with a pronoun and it took me several paragraphs to work out who was the viewpoint character for this bit. A chapter would start with “he” and I would spend a page trying to work out if this was Alex or Sean, only to find out this bit was from Rak’s point of view. I through me out of the story. It’s a shame because otherwise this was a brilliant book.

Very emotional and highly recommended, but do be aware of the fact it tackles issues of rape and abuse. Five stars.