The Tree’s Gossip

“Perhaps it’s time to teach you summoning.”

This was completely out of nowhere, in the middle of lunch, a thin vegetable soup that Yarrow had spent almost the entire morning poking at. Yarrow nearly dropped her spoon; as it was, she could not contain herself from gaping at her teacher like an idiot.

“Summoning? As in, spirits? D-demons?”

“ ‘Demon’ is a very broad term,” the old woman said dryly. “And most of them look on it as an insult, so maybe pick another word to call ‘em by.”

“Alright. But — well — summoning!” Yarrow tried to collect her thoughts. The first truly witchy thing since she’d come up the mountain! “What — can I ask what brought this on?”

Nettle gave a gusty sigh. “Anthracite’s gone and stuck his beak in fey business. It’s only a matter of time until Her Royal Nibs decides to interfere aboveground. And that means getting backup from other places. You might as well learn it now, before you have to.”

It was gibberish, all of it, as far as Yarrow was concerned. But she wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the eye, or however the saying went.

Especially since it looked like some of her questions might finally be answered.

Continue reading “The Tree’s Gossip”

The Apprentice

Yarrow first met Anthracite as a mistake.

She was still getting used to answering to the name “Yarrow,” which was the first of her problems, because any witch worth her salt never answered to the name she was born with. Names were powerful things, more powerful than nail clippings or strands of hair. Only blood came close. If one of the long-leggedie-beasties of the forest got ahold of your real name, you could say goodbye to sense and wit and freedom.

Anthracite wasn’t just a long-leggedie-beastie, though, and more’s the pity: he was the crow-headed ferryman of the dead.

The second of Yarrow’s problems was connected to her first, and it was this — that she had only been a witch for three weeks. Where other young people in the village her age were taking on apprenticeships as chandlers, carpenters, spinsters, and blacksmiths, Yarrow had taken up an apprenticeship with the forest witch. She was an old woman, her hair pure gray and her face as wrinkled as a walnut, her clever fingers gnarled and spindly-long; and when she had knocked on the door and settled by the fire, Yarrow’s parents had taken the news … reasonably well, all things considered.

“Reasonably well” included such behaviors as turning pale (her mother), turning bright red (her father), making angry comments about how the witch ought to get out of the house before her hide got tanned (her mother), and pleas for the witch to reconsider (her father).

The witch Nettle had been undeterred. And Yarrow, after the initial shock of having someone tell her that she had the knack for magic, had been intrigued. It was the curiosity in her: once you got Yarrow by the curiosity, then she had you, and she’d not let go for love nor money ’til she found the answers to her questions.

(That was her third problem. But we’ll get to that shortly.)

Continue reading “The Apprentice”

the name’s the thing

Well, so I’ve talked about linguistics, now I guess it’s time to talk about names. Or rather, how names matter. This time, we’ll be scrutinizing Tolkien’s Silmarillion.

When I was in middle school I bragged about reading the dictionary for fun, I think mostly to establish my nerd cred. A sham, naturally. I think I was still mainlining EragonRedwallArtemis Fowl, and Harry Potter instead of actually studying anything. (Probably reading the books under my desk, too. Actually I think I did get in trouble for that in my ninth grade biology class. Whoops.) But the dictionary my parents have – not the huge, unabridged, old one with pages so yellowed they’re orange, but the slightly new-ish one with the gray cover – has a section in the back with male and female names, alphabetized, and their name meanings, and that I did read.

Buddy, that name section of the dictionary was like heroin for my little developing writer brain. I went on a streak, in middle school, where I spent nearly every day after school feverishly typing at my dad’s old Dell desktop, and I crammed it full of half-finished drafts with heroes called Danae and Romulus and all sorts of things. I’ve posted a few of those half-finished ideas before – I don’t have any of the files saved, un/happily, but some of them stuck in my brain quite vividly. Rest in peace, Tess and James, my Pirates of the Caribbean rip-off. I’ll never forget how I had one of you climb up to the crow’s nest of the ship and then jump off and land on the main deck, upright, without breaking a single bone in your body. Truly it was a miracle of illogic.

Anyway! Even if you don’t painstakingly curate the names of your characters the way twelve-year-old me did, the names of characters matter. A Jim and a James and a Jamie might have the same base name, but James is more formal, and Jamie is more gender neutral, and Jim is solidly masculine, possibly even lumberjack-like.

And if a character goes by James, but his mom keeps calling him Jamie even after he’s repeatedly asked her not to, that right there matters – especially if the author treats that as a symptom of a bigger plot point. A coming-of-age story is the first thing that comes to my mind with that example. But there are any number of other possibilities you could explore.

And when a character changes their name … or someone else gives them a new name … then it gets even more interesting.

Continue reading “the name’s the thing”

I thou thee!

Time to talk about linguistics as it pertains to literature — specifically Les Mis, and even more specifically Valjean and Javert. This is going to get pedantic and also very passionate, so buckle up, y’all, it’s gonna be a fun ride.

Several languages — French, Dutch, German, Russian, just to name a few — use two forms of address when speaking to another person (2nd person). French has a handy flowchart here which explains the difference pretty succinctly.

Basically, if a stranger bumps into you on the street, and you don’t want to get into a fistfight, you call them “vous.” But if you do want to get into a fistfight, you call them “tu.”

The nouns and verbs in French to describe this phenomenon, of addressing people in/formally, are tutoyer/tutoiement and vouvoyer/vouvoiement. The same way that gender is hammered into every single part of speech in French (even the chair has a gender, which, that doesn’t make sense to me but you do you, chair), so is in/formality. It’s not something they really emphasize in written literature because to them it’s just as natural as swimming is to a fish. For native English speakers, though, it’s a struggle to convey that cultural and linguistic difference without a couple paragraphs’ worth of explanation.

English used to have an in/formal dichotomy in the 2nd person address. “You” used to be the way a person addressed their teacher or king or possibly their parents, and “thou” was the way they addressed their friends, their children, and their underlings.

The interesting bit about English in/formality is that nowadays the “thee” form is only actively consistently used in places like Rite One of a Christian Protestant church service. We call God “thee” — we address Him informally.

(Yeah, there’s a theological reason for that, but I am not anywhere near qualified to answer that question.)

But in modern media depicting ye olde days, the “thee” form is used pretty haphazardly, addressing any old person any which way, when back in the 1600s that really wasn’t the case. If a princeling talked to some commoner on the street, the prince used “thee” on the commoner; if the commoner used “thee” back at the prince, he would probably have been beaten for the impertinence. There’s a reason all the best Shakespearean insults start with a “thou” — it’s purposefully conveying, through the dang pronoun even before you get to the good part of the insult, that the speaker is the hearer’s superior in every possible way.

With that in mind …

… Javert calls Valjean “tu” throughout the entire book — when he knows it’s Valjean he’s addressing.

Continue reading “I thou thee!”

oh, the horror

Full disclaimer: I’m not, nor have I ever much been in my life, a horror fan. Coraline and Over the Garden Wall is about as spooky as I get, and that’s mild-kiddie-Halloween level. Just like the occasional sprinkling of paprika is about as spicy as I get: it’s not spicy in any way that actually counts.

Gore? Humungously not my thing. Jump scares? Nope. Psychological shenanigans? If it’s got cannibals/incest/people turning into mindless monsters and losing all their humanity? Yeah, that’s a no.

Hey, I watch Game of Thrones for the politics, not … that other stuff. And I can always plug my ears and take off my glasses when the going gets grody. But I won’t read Poe’s “The Black Cat” more than once, and there’s an episode of Doctor Who that I will not watch because of the whole humans-losing-humanity-unwillingly thing. Yeah, the water on Mars one. That one. Awful. Does it technically count as horror? Maybe not to veterans of the horror genre, but it gives mid-twenties me the same willies that a cartoon brain-eating alien gave seven-year-old me.

Actually, that brain-eating alien still gives me the willies.

So take what I say with a big old honking grain of salt.

On the other hand, I freakin’ love the Resurgam trilogy by Joan Frances Turner, which is from the point of view of a zombie and absolutely involves the whole cannibalism thing, and goes into meticulous and nearly poetic detail about the process of corpse decay. It even has the personification of death as this eldritch non-being that is everywhere and everything, and – spoiler alert – is about to swallow the entire planet into nothingness.

But despite the whole zombies-and-existential-dread thing, I don’t think that DustFrail, and Grave count as horror books. Because even with the apocalyptic setting, there’s always a shred of hope, and – spoiler alert – the characters we care most about make it out unscathed. Or, if not unscathed, at least scathed in a way they can accept.

In the horror panel at LTUE, they talked about the horror genre as a loss of control, as something horrible and irrevocable happening, as fear being present and inescapable throughout the story.

In a horror story, even victory counts as a failure. It is impossible to win.

… Huh. I guess that one Doctor Who episode does count as horror after all.

But all of that only means that the dressing of the story, the setting and the species and the time period, are very nice and indeed important things to pay attention to — and must be integrated with the plot — but they do not drive the plot. The Resurgam trilogy takes place in a world where mind-numbing hunger razed society to shreds, but it is never hopeless, and the characters’ victories matter. Zombies and all, they cannot be horror books.

Meanwhile, a story with no supernatural trappings whatsoever can be the worst living hell a body can imagine. Have you looked at the battered women statistics recently?

Horror lives wherever it can. It isn’t where and when you are that counts — it’s what you do.

rainy day movies

Today was the kind of rainy Monday that makes you wish you were still in bed. The kind of day that makes you want to camp out on the couch with a mug of hot-beverage-of-choice (in my case, coffee) and watch a movie.

My rainy day movie tends to be Coraline. Yep, the stop-motion animated film with the creepy button eyes. Somehow the combination of stop-motion and the lullaby soundtrack music and all the loving care put into production — did you know that all of the dolls’ clothing was handmade, and Coraline’s tiny sweater was hand-knitted with miniature needles? — just makes for a lovely comfort movie. I can probably recite 90% of the dialogue from memory, I’ve seen it so many times. The animation is phenomenal, the script is tightly written, the music is alternately soothing and just the right amount of discordant. Laika puts care into all of their productions, and it shows.

Keith David as the voice of the cat doesn’t exactly hurt, either.

I know it’s a creepy kind of movie, with a few images (like the Other Father’s distorted face as he seems to become more candle wax than person) being a bit disturbing. If I had seen it as a kid, it probably would have given me nightmares. Disney’s The Black Caudron certainly did, and I didn’t see that one until I was ten. But as a teenager when I first read Coraline the book and delved into Neil Gaiman’s oeuvre, I found a little more horror in stories like “The Last Temptation,” which was also sort of designed with young readers in mind, and which I still enjoyed … unlike “24 Hours” in Preludes and Nocturnes, which was very much not for youth consumption, and if I never read it again it will still be too soon.

This begs a question about what exactly constitutes horror, and how different people see it as different things. But that’s probably a question for another post.

The book Coraline is stark and lonely and it’s got its fair share of existential dread along with the eldritch monster to be beaten. The movie Coraline still has all its teeth — it hasn’t been tamed or tamped down in any way — but it’s less about the existential dread and more about the relationships people build with each other. It makes for a brighter, warmer story — a comfort story — a well-used story, at least in my case. I can’t think of a single rainy morning or afternoon where I haven’t thought, “hum, I want to put on Coraline in a few minutes.” And maybe there’s another movie I’d rather watch instead, but my default for rainy days will always be Coraline.

What’s your rainy day default?


It’s Easter Monday – happy Easter, by the way – which means it’s time to go over NBC’s live broadcast of their version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ, Superstar!

I’ve had opinions about this musical for two years longer than I’ve had opinions about Les Mis, so buckle up.

Norm Lewis as Caiaphas was perfect of course. The Annas was pretty good too. Backstory: the reason I ended up actually wanting to see this particular version of JCS was because of Norm Lewis as Caiaphas. Norm played Javert in the 25th Anniversary Concert for Les Mis, and also on Broadway; the guy is fantastic. So whatever else went on with JCS Live, I knew that the Caiaphas would be perfect. And I was right; and Annas and the other Pharisees were excellent too. “This Jesus Must Die” is the best number in the whole production.

Alice Cooper was … eh, he was alright as King Herod. Fumbled a line, didn’t have as much flair as I expected actually. I mean, come on. It’s Alice Cooper. I expected a bit more vocal diva. He wasn’t horrible, he wasn’t bad, he was just kinda alright. And that in and of itself isn’t a bad thing – not every cast member can be a powerhouse – but if the guy’s one of the three people you’re putting on the marquis to sell the show, you kind of expect him to be a powerhouse. Sorry, buddy. I like your cover of “This is Halloween,” though.

Sara Bareilles was great, as expected. She made a really wistful Mary Magdalene, balanced the sweetness and the belting very well, which of course is her calling card. And man, she delivered. The few trills and embellishments she made didn’t detract from her songs. They reminded us that, oh yes, this is Sara doing the singing. Nice. Solid performance, 10/10 good Mary Magdalene.

Erik Grönwall as Simon the Zealot was .. really good. Really, really good. Strong belt, lots of passion, hit a nice high note at the end, sustained his notes well. So … why wasn’t this guy cast as Judas instead? I’m just asking. This guy has potential. He was a strong member of the ensemble, but he could have been a real powerhouse if he’d been given the opportunity.

Jason Tam as Simon Peter was also a nice solid member of the ensemble, again, lots of passion. His final denial (in a song titled “Peter’s Denial”, who’d’a thought it) was a desperate frightened scream, and man, it worked. I wanna see more of these guys.

Ben Daniels as Pontius Pilate was pretty decent. He’s no David Burt, but I’m pretty sure only Anthony Warlow would be able to match David Burt for sheer British snarly menace. Ben Daniels is also a tenor, as far as I can tell, and the Pilate role was definitely written for a baritone. But he put his all into it, and the result is a Pilate who genuinely wants to be good but ends up doing evil anyway.

John Legend was .. wait for it … legendary.

The actor for Jesus I’m most familiar with is Steve Balsamo of the original cast album. That dude had a pair of pipes – he hit the high notes as hard as possible, and held them longer than is normally possible for human lungs. He also didn’t embellish the notes at all, just sang them straight, no trills and no frills. John Legend hits it from the other direction – he keeps to the lower register for the most part, and does trills almost every line, and he holds his notes a reasonable amount of time. But here’s the thing, though: Trills and frills and dipsy doodles can be annoying if that’s all you do, and you don’t put any power behind your notes; but John Legend puts power into everything he does, so they weren’t annoying at all. His “Gethsemane” is a very different kettle of fish from Steve Balsamo’s, but it’s just as good, because they both put all of their passion into it.

Meanwhile, Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas was … sweet.

Which is an extremely weird adjective to associate with Judas Iscariot, the ultimate traitor.

He went for the Zubin Varla riffs, the same ones from the original cast recording, which … I don’t know, it’s a bit odd considering how far John Legend deviated from Steve Balsamo’s performance in the original cast. This Judas is very pop-y, if that makes any sense. I mean, JCS is a rock opera, but he doesn’t belt the way you’d expect in a rock opera. In fact he doesn’t belt at all. For contrast just look at Drew Sarich as Judas in Amstetten 2005, who super leaned into the rock aspect and belted every line he could. – and actually, Brandon Victor Dixon doesn’t even lean into the rock aspect as much as Zubin Varla did either. On the one hand, the way he did “Damned for All Time/Blood Money” does a damn good job of making Judas reluctant to betray Jesus, and there’s a solid ten seconds’ silent hesitation before he actually does so. And for “Judas’ Death” he’s impressively torn up about it. But on the other hand …

… Where’s the anger? There’s no anger! And not even a hint of spite! You’re telling me that Judas Iscariot, ultimate traitor, isn’t even a little bit angry at the man he betrays?

The point of JCS is to portray both sides of the betrayal, and to explain that Judas had reasons for what he did. The lyrics do indicate a certain level of not only frustration but anger and vindictiveness that Judas feels towards Jesus. Brandon Victor Dixon is a decent vocalist, but the way that he delivered the lines didn’t exactly say “anger” to me. There’s despair and love and anguish in there, sure, but those are nuances that I look for to balance out the anger. It’s like putting all the garlic and onion and celery you could ever want into a chicken soup, but leaving out the dang chicken.

And this is exhibited the best in “The Last Supper.” John Legend is pouring all his passion into his lines, but with a sad-sweet-despairing Judas, what’s usually almost a fight scene is instead … really vocally unbalanced. “To think I admired you – well, now I despise you!” are words that should be hurled like arrows, like daggers, like a freaking fireball. Instead they’re almost whispered. “The Last Supper” is the opening number in Act Two, and it should start off with a punch! And with John Legend as Jesus, it does! But then Brandon Victor Dixon opens his mouth and … it kind of falls apart. I’m sorry, buddy, I really am. I’m sure you’d make a wonderful Peter. But I’d pick somebody else as Judas.

And honestly – if you’re gonna pick a guy from Hamilton to play Judas, why not pick Leslie Odom Jr? Or do you not think he’d work as well in the glittery shirts?

Or Erik Grönwall would look pretty good in the glittery shirts too. Just saying.

Les Mis, overview

I’m almost exactly a month late for Victor Hugo’s birthday (the man would have turned 416 on February 26th), but it’s never too late to talk about the man or his work. As far as I know, there is no other author who has managed to motivate a city to completely renovate and curate a crumbling building that had been around for several hundred years, just because he thought architecture was kind of cool.

As far as I know, there is also no other author who would mail someone else a live bat in an envelope. Yes, Victor Hugo was that kind of guy.

Though Lord Byron had a pet bear in college, so who knows, really. Those Romantics were all pretty crazy no matter which side of the Channel they were on.

Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris is probably the single most influential book he ever wrote, purely because we can see the concrete effects it had in the real world. I could natter about that one, but Lindsay Ellis is much more eloquent on the subject than I am.

No, what I’m qualified to talk about is Les Mis.


Fans call it The Brick because, well, you could probably kill a man with a hardback version. I own six different English translations of the book, some in hardback and some in paperback, because I wrote my senior thesis in college about the differences in those translations as well as translating a few passages from original French into English myself. (Does that establish my nerd credentials? I hope so.) My favorite translation is Fahnestock and MacAfee (FMA), but Hapgood is also really good for getting the historical context of the original text, although I do have a few bones to pick about the tutoiement and vouvoiement in that version. (And … that’s a subject for another post.)

The Denny translation is an okay starter if you’re just dipping your toes into the novel for the first time, though the translator does … take some liberties with the original text. A lot of the original punning is lost, and that’s just a crime.

The Isabel Hapgood English translation of Les Mis is actually available online for free, if you’re ever interested, and handily separated into the discrete chapters/sections for ease of browsing. Let it not be said that classic literature is only for rich snobs. Anyone can be a book snob, rich or poor. Equal opportunity snobbery.

I’ve nattered about Les Mis before now, and if you already know what I’m talking about, it’ll mostly make sense. But if you don’t know what I’m talking about, well, it’s a bit like car jargon. They go on and on about this and that and the other, specs and doodads and stuff, and meanwhile your eyes glaze over and you wait for the salesman to run out of breath.

So! In the spirit of not blabbering on incomprehensibly! Here is a brief run-down of the main characters in Les Misérables:

Continue reading “Les Mis, overview”


The fun thing about getting to whack people with swords (in a safe environment, with proper equipment) is that, along with meeting new and exciting people and getting to do something that makes a pretty excellent ice breaker, I also learned some things.

Shocking, yes, absolutely.

The downside: I wrote Singing in Key before I knew .. uh, anything about swords, and looking back, it really shows. My fingers are itching to go back and edit. Can’t do that, of course, because it’s already published and if I start, then I won’t be able to stop. It’s already out there. I gotta let it go.

The upside: Every other book I write is now going to be informed by this class, and every future class I take. What I now know about overhand/underhand blows, blocks, strong or weak binds, I can put that into the Iron Gentry series and my writing will be stronger for it. And what I know about sword fighting can translate into other types of action scenes as well. And now that I have this foundation, I can build upon it.

Guys, I really can’t recommend it enough. If you’ve got a local HEMA chapter (Historical European Martial Arts), sign up for a beginner’s class. The beginning classes usually provide the equipment for you, it gets you out of the house and meeting new people …

… and eight weeks of waving around a plastic sword is a hell of a lot of fun.

LTUE 2k18 recap

Life, The Universe, and Everything at Provo, UT is over now — yesterday was spent entirely in transit, and the jet lag has been properly dealt with. I attended for all three days, and my editor/cover designer buddy came with for days two and three. This was my first proper con, let alone writers’ con, and I think I’ve been stuffed so full of new ideas they’re coming out of my ears.

It was amazing.

As advertised, this was a con (or symposium) for the craft and business of writing, as opposed to a con designed for fandom. Indie distribution, school visits, construction of ancient languages, the tips and tricks of writing mystery … I learned something new at every single panel I attended. I have so many notes to write up.

And I have a long list of things to read, too. Research of course, and novels written by panelists and people I met at the book signing. Between new things to read and my own writing projects, I think I’ll have enough to keep me busy until Thanksgiving at least — at which point the word “audiobook” comes into the conversation. (And wouldn’t you know, there was an LTUE panel on audiobooks, too.)

Most of all, it was just awesome to be around fellow writers for three solid days. I can’t wait to do it all again next year.