Review: Moth


Moth by Daniel Arenson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I read this book because, you know, it was free on Amazon, and it seemed like a good entry into Arenson’s oeuvre. This was, I believe, the first book that Arenson wrote and published… and unfortunately it shows.

Let’s recognize the good stuff: the setting is interesting and unique. The world is divided into two halves, a day half and a night half, following a poorly-understood catastrophe in the distant past which caused the world to stop turning. The night half of the world is expecially intriguing, as Arenson has built a fascinating culture and ecology based on a place that never sees sunlight, and he manages to convey most of how the night side works without resorting to infodump. There are some really beautifully described scenes, mostly on the night side of the world, and some excellent battles towards the end.

Furthermore, there are some very clever subversions and reversals of expectation in the presentation of the two halves. Initially we’re given to understand the inhabitants of the night as monsters, creatures who live in eternal darkness, but after a few chapters we move into the POV of one of the night-dwellers. From her perspective, the day-dwellers are demons of fire, creatures who inhabit the realm of blistering light and who emerge from the heat to kill for inscrutable reasons.

But there are numerous problems with the story. We start out in bog-standard Fantasyland, with characters who are pretty stock. We have the Clueless Farmboy who must become a warrior, the Tomgirl (complete with an foreshadowed romance with the Farmboy), a pair of Sidekicks distinguished solely by the fact that one is fat and the other is skinny, a Noble King, and an Evil Priest. All of the creativity seems to have gone into the night half of the world, but since half the story takes place in the day, that means that half of the book is dull and cliche.

The night half of the plot has its own problems: the protagonist of that half of the story leaves early on on a quest, but she’s then presented with a series of irrelevant obstacles which mostly serve to assure that she’s still in the place required by the plot when the end of the book comes. And there is a second subplot which takes place in the dark (which I won’t give details about because of spoilers), which shows up very late, never impacts the main story, and then abruptly closes with no resolution. I can only assume that that plot thread exists to set up elements of the sequel, but it doesn’t pull its weight in this book.

Overall, I would not recommend this book very highly, except as an introduction to the world. The good news, though, is that I’m reading some other books by Arenson, and they get better. Much better.

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The Lone Genius and the Committee


“Designed by committee” is considered an insult for a reason. Things which are designed with decision-making input from multiple people usually turn out terrible, because there is no unifying vision which can create something beautiful from the conflicting ideas of the committee members.

But the popular alternative, of the lone genius, is not much better. The lone genius doesn’t have input from anybody outside his head, and so he often winds up with something which is appealing to his idiosyncrasies, but not to anyone else.

(Yes, there are individual exceptions to both of these rules, but the preceding generalizations hold.)

The winning model seems to be “individual ownership with collective feedback.” An individual owns the project and has final decision-making power; there is no collective veto or decision stress which comes from needing to pacify multiple conflicting parties. But that individual’s decisions are constrained and informed by feedback from peers and managers, who can help the individual step out of their personal vision and accomplish something which is intelligible and appealing to a broader audience.

I have seen this work in both software and writing. I would not be surprised to hear that this basic model works for all endeavors that require any kind of creativity.

Location scouting for “Storm Bride”


A little while ago I posted on headcasting for Storm Bride based on pictures that I found on the internet. I promised a post about the locations of Storm Bride, which is late, but better late than never.

For a refresher, here’s the map of Storm Bride:

The Land of Storm Bride (Click for bigger image).

The Land of Storm Bride (Click for bigger image).

The story begins at the shore near Prasa, when Saotsa washes up on a sea stack called Six Pine Rock. It looks something like this:

This one would be called Zero Pine Rock.

The city of Prasa like in a wet coastal region, and the extended family called the enna lives in lodges together. Prasa is a pretty big city; it has about 30,000 people in it at the time of the story, which is much bigger than any real-world settlements in the Pacific NW before the arrival of Europeans. But I imagine that it looked something like this, stretching quite a ways back along both shores of the Prasa river, with lodges marching in rows away from the shore:

The Prasa skyline (adapted from a picture of a Haida village)

The greater size of Prasa relative to any real-world settlement is one of the big changes. Unlike the other tribes of the Pacific NW, the Prasei are not just fishers and foragers, but have a variety of domesticated crops which drives a larger population size.

The Yakhat hail from a distant part of Aratasa known as the Bans. This is an amusing story, because I originally conceived of the Bans as a sort of hilly marsh, in which lowland areas perennially flooded, but hilltops served as sites of permanent structures, where the people lived during the flood season. I didn’t know whether any such place actually existed on the earth, until I saw this picture:

The Bans (actually a settlement of Marsh Arabs)

This is exactly what I thought the Bans should look like, and I was excited to see that something very similar to what I had imagined actually existed.

Finally, much of the action of Storm Bride takes place away from the rainy coast, on the high, dry plains which are in the rain shadow of the White Teeth Mountains. Just as I imagined the coast of the Pacific NW as the setting for Prasa, I took the inland parts of Washington state, across the Cascade Mountains, as examples of what this area looks like.

The plains, with the White Teeth mountains in the background

Imagine the tents and cattle of the Yakhat spread across those hills, and it’s just about perfect.

Me and Storm Bride on Conlangery


I’m a few days late posting this (because reasons), but I’m very excited to post this interview I recently did with the folks on Conlangery, about the languages of Storm bride, and a bunch of other questions regarding fantasy literature and language creation. You can listen here:

We talk about:

  • How I got into linguistics and conlanging
  • Why there’s only two sentences of actual conlang in Storm Bride
  • Why most fictional languages in SFF suck
  • Ursula K. LeGuin’s Always Coming Home and other SFF works that at least try to get it right
  • How to present strange phonologies without terrifying your readers
  • Cultural appropriation issues when conlanging based on an real languages and cultures
  • Other stuff that I can’t remember.

This was the most fun I’d had in a while! Hope you like listening.

Headcasting for “Storm Bride” based on photos I found online


Here’s Keshlik, the primary antagonist of Storm Bride:

Keshlik, except it’s actually Tatsuya Nakadai

I do this a lot: I use pictures of people and places that I find online to set the mood for the things in my books. For people we typically call this “headcasting,” and I’m not sure that there’s really a common term for locations, but let’s call it “location scouting”. In this case, I am extremely excited to pick Toshiro Mifune as my visual stand-in for Keshlik, because Toshiro Mifune is awesome, and both his look and his on-screen personas fit the character of Keshlik. (One could pick nits here, such as the fact that Mifune is Japanese and the Yakhat are not based at all on Japanese culture, but it would be silly to whine at that level.) Update: Actually, the person pictured above is not Toshiro Mifune but Tatsuya Nakadai. I was misled by the fact that the picture is like the 2nd Google image result when searching for “Toshiro Mifune”. Thanks to commenter Jor for pointing this out.

So how about Uya?

A 19th-century Tlingit woman in dancing regalia.

A modern Tlingit woman in traditional dress.

There are a few nitpicks here: the nose ring worn by the woman in the top picture is not something that I imagine for the Praseo culture. The woman on the right looks exactly right, except for the fact that her coat/cape thing isn’t quite as cool.

Both of these women are Tlingit, a Native American people of the Pacific Northwest. Here’s a very cool article and photo essay about Tlingit culture, which shows off more of their traditional clothing and jewelry, as well as explaining some of their current challenges. And here’s the dirty secret about why I use real-world cultures for inspiration about stuff like that: I’m not very good at imagining unique visuals. For whatever reason, my world-building imagination runs very easily to political systems, religions, rituals, family structures, and history, but I have a hard time figuring out what these things look like. So I tend to look for human cultures whose designs and symbols resonate with me and seem to match the rest of the setting that I’m developing. In the case of Storm Bride, the culture, religion, and political structure of the Prasei are not drawn from the Tlingit at all, but the visual style and symbolic elements are.

Finally, there’s Saotse:

A sad woman, probably from Scotland.

This was actually the hardest one to find. In the first place, Saotse should look like an old white woman in clothing similar to what Uya has, but for good reasons this is a hard thing to find pictures of. More importantly, I started by trying to find pictures of “old icelandic woman”, which reveals that the oldest women in Iceland are evidently about 25 years old. Saotse originally comes from a place called Kalignas (though this name never appears in Storm Bride) which is somewhat similar to Iceland in climate and culture, but having given up on that particular search I eventually came across the woman above, who is (I think) actually Scottish. Oh well. She looks sad, which is Saotse’s major personality trait at the opening of the novel, so it works out. I guess.

Next week I’ll try to show you some pictures of the locations in Storm Bride.

Review: The Shadow of the Winter Palace: Russia’s Drift to Revolution 1825-1917


The Shadow of the Winter Palace: Russia's Drift to Revolution 1825-1917
The Shadow of the Winter Palace: Russia’s Drift to Revolution 1825-1917 by Edward Crankshaw
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are certain kinds of history books that tell you as much about their author as about their subject. In the worst cases, you learn almost nothing about history except the historians opinions of it, but in the better cases the conflict of interpretation between the facts and the historian’s narrative creates a view which is more sophisticated and nuanced than either a plain chronicle or a pure editorial would be. This is one of the better cases.

The Shadow of the Winter Palace is the story of the last four Tsars of Russia: Nicholas I, Alexander II, Alexander II, and Nicholas II. Conveniently, these four reigns are bookended by two different attempts to remove the Tsar: the failed Decembrist revolt of 1825, and the more successful Bolshevik revolution of 1917. But it’s not merely about these man and their revolts, because the economic and social changes which occurred in Russia during this period are a mirror of the changes across Europe as a whole, and the end of Tsarist Russia created one of the empires which dominated the 20th Century. But Russia is a funhouse mirror, not a straight reflection, with all of the features of the Western European revolts either squashed to illegibility or expanded grotesquely.

This is where Crankshaw’s own perspective becomes important, because Crankshaw is a Whig. In an early chapter of the book he writes this:

The development of other monarchies at least reflected the running conflict between the will of the monarch and the expressed ideas and demands of the highly articulate interest groups over which he presided. Thus there was a long story of compromise and adjustment, expressing itself in constant movement and manoeuvre, and tending always, now rapidly, now slowly, towards one clearly recognisable end: the visible broadening of the base of a once feudal society to take account of the needs and aspirations of a steadily broadening spectrum of the subject peoples. This dynamic conflict was weak in Imperial Russia…. Thus there was no gradual and organic evolution, no public preparation for inevitable change.

This might be the clearest statement of the Whig view of history that I’ve ever seen in a history book. And this conflict drives action of the history in Crankshaw’s telling. There is a zeitgeist, a spirit of the age, which drove all of Europe, including Russia, in the direction of greater liberty and equality and away from autocracy. But in the case of Russia, the zeitgeist was constantly frustrated by the volkgeist, the spirit of the Russian people themselves, who could never quite get with the program. Crankshaw complains earnestly of the inability of the Russians to produce moderates. It seemed that every Russian leader and politician was either a reactionary or a revolutionary, and solid, reliable liberals were seldom to be found and wielded little influence. And so the history of Russia in the 19th century was largely one of chaotic oscillation between autocratic absolutism and terroristic revolutionary violence. Crankshaw repeatedly laments the lack of any tradition of self-rule in Russia, and this lack is what he ultimately blames on Russia’s failure to develop any secure democratic institutions, lurching rather from the Tsars to the Communists, whom Crankshaw clearly sees as two sides of the same coin.

The story, though, is brilliantly told. Crankshaw is a crackling good prose stylist, offering up beautifully evocative paragraphs like this one, about a murder that occurred during the Decembrist revolt:

Quickly realizing he could do no good, Miloradovich prepared to return the way he had come but as he turned his horse he was shot in the back and killed. The man who did the shooting was a civilian, Peter Kakhovsky, a gifted intellectual of extreme purity of motive in whom the conviction of the necessity of regicide burned with a gem-like flame. Determined to kill, expecting to die, this brilliant and terrible apparition, his slender form bundled up in a sheepskin coat, his delicate features surmounted by a shabby top hat, shot to kill with that indiscriminate ruthlessness which was later to characterise a whole generation of revolutionary terrorists. If he could not yet murder the Tsar, he would do the next best thing.

And another, describing Count Arakcheyev who served under three Tsars:

This dire and sinister creature, the only man who knew how to manage [Tsar] Paul, was an army officer, then in his late twenties, who had been dismissed from a staff appointment for excessive brutality and an uncontrollable temper: a noteworthy achievement in the Russia of that time. He was said to have bitten off the ear of a recruit on the parade ground in one of his frequent rages. But he had a virtue: he was loyal to his master, absolutely and unspeculatively as a savage police-dog is loyal to its handler.

The whole book is like that, an exhilarating read with heroes and villains (but mostly villains) sketched in vivid language and bright colors.

The story begins with the accession of Nicholas I, which triggered the short-lived Decembrist revolt. Nicholas was disgusted by the necessity of putting down a revolt at the very beginning of his reign, but he handled the matter as he handled everything, with military precision. Crankshaw condemns him as a reactionary, which he was: he firmly opposed any attempt to deviate from the principle of Tsarist autocracy, and what reforms he permitted were largely procedural reforms meant to make the civil service more efficient. And yet, on nearly every other measure he was quite successful. During his reign Russia began the process of industrialization, grew in prosperity, and was secure on all of its borders. Only a few dark spots stand out: he failed to undertake necessary agricultural reforms, and was sluggish in getting railroads and factories built, which had long-lasting effects on Russia’s economic development. And his military did very poorly in the Crimean War, the last military encounter before his death, which caused his reign to go out under a cloud.

His son, Alexander II, was an incompetent reformer. Both elements of this description come through very clearly. He emancipated the serfs, accomplishing one of the major goals of frustrated reformers from his father’s generation, but he did so in such a way that many of them were worse off than before, and he gained little popular support for it. He created the zemstvo system which was supposed to introduce local representative government to the provinces, but the zemstvos lacked necessary authority to do very much, and instead became sources of resentment and occasional revolutionary fervor. The latter part of his reign was marked by a wave of terroristic violence that resulted in the deaths of dozens of government officials, culminating in his own assassination. This was the thanks he got for attempting to reform the system, and his reign in contrast with his father’s set the theme for the 19th century in Russia: the reactionaries die of natural causes, while the reformers are killed by the radicals they try to appease.

Alexander III succeeded his father, and pursued policies more like those of the reactionary Nicholas I. And in this he was remarkably successful. With great efficiency he put down the revolutionary elements which had bloodied his father’s reign, and reigned over a period of remarkable peace and stability. But Crankshaw doesn’t much like him: he titles the chapter on Alexander III “The Peace of the Grave”, because he had no interest in continuing his father’s programme of reform. And yet, given what happened to the reformers, it’s hard to say that he was wrong to do so, as his reign is by most objective measures the most stable and successful of any of the Tsars after Nicholas I. Alas, he died of illness after a brief and uneventful reign, giving the reigns of the country over to his son, Nicholas II, the last.

Nicholas II was nothing like his namesake. Crankshaw depicts him as constantly incompetent and out of his depth, relatively disinterested in ruling, and lacking the strength of will to balance the contrary forces of reaction and revolution within Russia. A great number of major reforms happened under his reign, but Nicholas himself took almost no role in directing them, and they failed to do much to prevent the rise of revolutionary fervor. As the situation in Russia grew more extreme, Nicholas withdrew from active government, giving more and more power to his ministers. And so it should not be surprising that during WWI there was a revolt in St. Petersburg, led by a coalition of revolutionary groups. Nicholas abdicated.

Crankshaw ends the book abruptly here, not covering the last several months of the Tsar’s life. This seemed like an odd choice at first, but defensible. What later happened to Nicholas and his family was a personal tragedy, but he political life of the Tsars ended with the abdication. The farce of Nicholas II’s reign turned, a few months later, into one of the most famous murders of the 20th century, a contrast which seems all too fitting as an epitaph for the Tsars.

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Myself on “Storm Bride” at SFSignal


I recently wrote a guest post for SFSignal about Storm Bride and the question of “Strong female characters”. Allow me to quote myself:

I think it was because I read one too many cover blurbs for fantasy and urban fantasy novels with female protagonists. There was a depressing regularity: The leading woman will carry a gun, sword, or other weapon on the cover. She will look at the viewer either alluringly or defiantly. Her voice will be snarky. She will be “tough”. If it’s a more traditional fantasy, she’ll declare her disdain for princessy pursuits and traditional femininity. If it’s a contemporary fantasy, that attitude will be written in her torn jeans, tattoos, and the mysterious (but attractive) scar above her eye.

She’ll be, in other words, a Strong Female Character™.

And then I go on for another 700 words.

Head on over here to read it..