If you’re in the DC/MD/VA area, come to my Sunday April 23 book talk and reading at Soapstone Market in northwest DC! It’s a benefit for the local DC news site ForestHillsConnection.com – and the venue has fine coffee and good beer. Here’s the flyer –
It’s an article of nerd faith that, before Peter Jackson filmed it with pretty people, the weird kids read The Lord of the Rings. I was a weird kid, to be sure, and I read it. Half. I bogged down at the Ents, skipped ahead to Shelob, and then straight to Mount Doom. None of the appendices.
Truth? Weird kids read Michael Moorcock. Cruel decadent gods, civilizations in decline, addictions, hallucinations, family betrayal, doomed passion – and, at best, a personal morality jerry-rigged from friendship, adventure, and the faint hope inside a calloused heart.
In my world of young adult novels with obviously good heroes fighting obviously evil totalitarians – from A Wrinkle in Time through Harry Potter to Hunger Games – someone needed to take up Moorcock’s heavy-metal mantle of trippy morally-conflicted fantasy, where no choices are good and the only victory comes with pain and loss. Someone still needs to write for the weird kids.
Thank the stars, then, for Gregory D. Little, whose new novel Ungrateful Souls has just been published.
In Little’s strange, mind-bending fantasy novels, humanity long ago won a ruinous victory in a war against its vicious gods, imprisoning them in the Pit, a great bubble built deep in the hot lava mantle of their planet. The Pit requires constant maintenance, by smiths who still use the gods’ horrid soul-technology of wrightings, iron and crystal devices powered by the trapped souls of the dead.
Yet the Pit is a privileged place, with clean clothing, cool gear, and a safe space for teen angst. On the surface, humans live a rough iron-age existence in stone and wood huts, their only cities the colonized carcasses of the gargantuan monsters the gods once bred to oppress them. Some humans are still Blazing, their glowing eyes marking them as descendants of the godly, earning them fear and resentment from the unmarked Dims. All live under the heel of the Polistraat, a police force charged with keeping secret worshippers from freeing the gods, but grown self-righteous and brutal after centuries of their paranoid work.
Ungrateful God continues the harrowing journey of Selestia “Ses” Lucani, the conflicted heroine of Little’s Unwilling Souls series. She began the first book as a conventional young-adult heroine, with awkwardness, a secret destiny and big girl-crushes. She ended in a vastly darker place, betrayed by both her undercover-Polistraat lover and her god-possessed father, but now empowered to free the souls trapped in wrightings, turning these incredible machines into sand and dust. Her unusual eyes, one Dim one Blazing, give her the power to see “demons,” humans like her father in secret thrall to a god.
In Ungrateful God we find her in humble circumstances, making her way with a small force of Artisan Guild rebels to the remote unpoliced city of Ocypode, built on the shell of a crab so enormous that its barnacles house hotels and taverns – and with its own gravity, so that one lives on it in all planes, like an Escher drawing or the game Monument Valley. In Ocypode, society is breaking down in an uncomfortably godly way; some disappear while many more suffer nightly blackouts, unable to explain why they wake in different places than they went to sleep. When Ses’s fellow Guilders disappear, she must navigate the treacherous city while avoiding both the Blazings and the demons. Her only uneasy allies are Lach, of the insular race of Pilots whose ships bring new souls to power the Pit, and Hadrian, a demon enthralled by a rival god to the one behind Ocypode’s problems.
A secondary plot involves Murien, Ses’s Polistraat-spy lover, now undercover as a Pit apprentice even as the Polistraat itself has put the Pit’s smiths under martial law. Still faithful to the goal of keeping the gods imprisoned, Murien can no longer gloss over the Polistraat’s brutality. His betrayal of Ses weighs on him, and his attraction to the lovely Brea opens him to questioning what exactly the Gnaeus, the nasty Polistraat commander, has in mind.
Little writes engagingly, full of sensory details and wry asides. Even as the settings and visuals grow grow ever more hallucinatory – and much larger in scale (I did say, gargantuan monsters) – he always keeps things grounded in the other senses of Ses’s rough existence: the clamor of taverns and markets, the feel of rough cloth, the smell of bad tavern food and unwashed bodies – especially, like any teenager, her own unwashed body. Even the magic of the soul-technology requires believable work to craft and use.
Little also keeps a tremendous number of plates spinning. It’s impressive to see how this complicated plot, so dependent on multiple histories, comes together into a clear yet phantasmagorical climax. Ses’s despairing awareness of humanity’s dependence on trapped souls offers a theme for today’s reader as complex as the real questions of climate change, without ever being didactic. Ses’s character develops believably, seemingly ever more sensitive to the world after each hardship. I’m not sure even she could say clearly who she fights for, but the reader knows her heart.
In contrast with the glories of Ocypode, the Pit scenes sometimes let me down. Murien’s anger clouds his judgement too conveniently, as does his devotion to the lovely Brea, who has sparks of intelligence but still seems unworthy of all the adoration she inspires.
Still, it’s always hard for the sheltered to seem interesting compared to the unsheltered, be they in Hogwarts or the Pit – and at the end of Ungrateful God, there is no shelter left, a greater storm to come, and Ses is not the only one who pays a painful, damaging price.
If you’re a weird kid, or you used to be, Ses Lucani is the heroine you’ve waited for. Looking for the heir to Michael Moorcock? Check out Gregory D. Little!
My guest post for the Fictorians, a site on writing fiction, discusses sexual tension and its different roles in different stories. It’s part of the Fictorians’ month-long Tension series.
Read it at:
As Facebook gently reminded me —
Like everybody, I have opinions about the world, and in these contentious times, it’s very tempting to share them. Everyone else is, and I talk prettier than many. Why not join the fray? Ooh, ooh, you’re discussing politics, or climate change, or guns? I can do that too!
I drafted three different posts on things political. One even got into my WordPress dashboard, until I deleted it.
Truth is, I just don’t want to be a public intellectual.
It feels irresponsible to say this. In the face of the great activists of the past, and today’s popular writers who still manage worthy columns (or at least snarky tweets) – and often get slagged by some fans for voicing opinions they don’t like – it seems weak to say, nah, I’m out.
I’m out. While it might feel good to get something off my chest, people aren’t waiting around to hear what I have to say about today’s crisis. Or, if people are, they don’t just want it once. If I start down that road, I have to stick with it, have to make it a bigger part of my life and thought.
Perhaps this would be virtuous, but it wouldn’t be singular. Many good people already discuss the state of the world, plainly and well, after actually investigating it and reporting on it. If I want to change the world in favor of my political beliefs, I’m better off writing checks.
Or, writing novels.
Not that I’m going to be ripping tales from today’s headlines. That’s not my thing. More to the point, the political power of good fiction is often indirect. Fiction can say complicated things to culture, often better than it says simple ones. There are political ideas in my novel The Demon in Business Class, but they’re neither immediate nor partisan.
The “messy ground where the worldly meets the divine,” as my back-cover text promises, is a place in the mind. My characters in their big world might inform your opinions about tomorrow’s crisis, whatever it is, but only by example and analogy.
That’s my contribution. We’ll see if it’s enough, over time.
I love my current first draft.
This is a shocking and unfashionable thing to say. Everyone laments their first draft. It is the shoals of mediocrity on which our dreams founder, or at least so tells every clickbait online writing workshop. Complaining about the horror of that first draft is required. Even really successful and also good writers do it, and always have.
I love mine. I banged it out for NaNoWriMo 2015, in fewer than my allotted thirty days. Yes, I know that’s a long time ago (I sold a book in the meantime!), but that length of time is supposed to make clear how awful the first draft is, as the scales of hope fall from my more jaundiced and persnickety eyes.
Alas, I love it, blazingly. I have reread it more than once, with comments from my writing dojo NoveltyDC, and each time I am in a better mood.
It’s got half-finished ideas that I now can’t remember, areas that need major restructuring, a lot of plodding exposition. Some of my best supporting characters – like the smuggler with a tail – are on far too briefly. Late ideas may turn out to be organizing principles. No doubt I will rewrite almost every sentence in it, reorganize it, wrestle it. I may occasionally kick it. It will take a lot of work. Even then it will be niche, strange, uncommercial and standalone.
It’s going to be great.
What is wrong with me? How did I get to this place? How did I find joy and wonder in my work while others gnash teeth and tear hair? It isn’t my success to date, which is tiny; nor is it my upbeat disposition, which is pure fakery. So what is it?
Here’s a thought – I love it because it’s a draft. It may be made of words, but it’s not a novel yet. It’s been work of course, the work of felling trees and forging nails, but this is the lumber and hardware and cleared ground, not the finished house. It’s a pile of words and ideas, and for that, it’s just fine. Well, maybe I will need a few more words.
The draft is the start, the lumber and blueprints. It will not house or warm you, not without a lot of work to come. It’s just a stage.
Get excited. And get to work.
Apologies to Greta Garbo… Happy New Year! Here’s some recent Tony-media for you to enjoy!
Today my interview with author Raymond Bolton appears on his website. It’s certainly the most personal public conversation I’ve ever had, a story of insecurity, confusion and doubt, redeemed by the help of colleagues and the business model for Honest Tea.
Castle of Horror‘s Jason Henderson interviewed me for the Castle Talk podcast. It’s an unusual discussion, since it focuses on Demon‘s non-fantasy elements – corporate life and the travails of the business road-warrior, and how that culture defined the book’s style and language.
Finally, as a New Year’s present to my wonderful editor Vivian Caethe, I posted a video of my December 1 2016 reading on my public Facebook author page. It’s about forty-five minutes, with a short intro about my inspiration, three passages (in eight voices) from the book, and a bit at the end about marketing and promotion – which, as readers of this blog know, took over my creative life in the months leading to the Demon launch. (Those who’d rather listen can find the audio through this link, or the first comment on the FB video post.)
I think it’s official now: I have fallen out of the habit of writing. I don’t mean to say “I’m not writing” or #amwriting – just that over the past year it’s been an ad-hoc effort, when the mood takes me.
I’m not in a panic – I have a new project, and I am even taking a class so that I have a talented writer to hold my nose to its grindstone. I am simply surprised not to be more weird about this.
I suspect it’s because the effort to market Demon turned out to be so creatively interesting – something akin to the difference between writing the play and acting in it.
Plays close, of course. Demon, I hope, will keep going. Perhaps the better analogy is to a previous album, songs on which I will perform for years after – but I’m more likely to perform the old songs if I keep coming out with new ones.
I don’t know if it will rise to the level of a New Year’s Resolution – and that would be a telling thing if it had to – but I need to start cultivating a writing habit again. That means approaching it with scheduled regularity for the next long while.
For me that means hours, not words. My colleagues often post their daily word counts, but that method never worked for me, probably because I don’t just write while I write. Like Penelope, I undo my work as I go, though unlike her I do it first thing in the morning. Even during the headlong charge of NaNoWriMo 2015, I couldn’t keep myself from editing, especially once I was three-fourths of the way to the 50K word count. People who write productivity books cluck and ruffle feathers, and isn’t that an analogy that’s not going anywhere kind to them? Stepping back….
I feel a pressure to keep it neat, akin to a bricklayer making sure to scrape away excess mortar. Perhaps that comes from the huge amount of words I threw out of early Demon drafts, and my desire not to write so inefficiently again. Perhaps I am just afraid the words will dry.
Perhaps, in my process, whatever it is, words can dry, and I’d be a fool not to respect that – whatever reality or self-indulgence that woolly concept implies to my number-crunching colleagues. They write them and I write me and I dry.
I get the rest of this week to play and shop. On Christmas night, I have to make a schedule. Maybe I should throw in a little time to exercise too. Or maybe that’s the New Year’s Resolution!