Poem forthcoming in Star*Line

I am happy to announce that “Notes of a Rebel Princess to Herself” will be appearing in the official magazine of the Science Fiction Poetry Association.


STAR WARS Rogue One: Cassian & K2SO Annual #1- Duane Swierczynski and Fernando Blanco

I’m not usually interested in Star Wars novels and comics, though I love the films. Lately, that’s been changing. Elizabeth Wein is writing Cobalt Squadron, taking her pilot-centric stories to a galaxy far, far away. Claudia Gray, a solid and creative if unspectacular writer, gave us the story of how Leia joined the Rebellion. And both authors contributed to the anthology From a Certain Point of View.

More relevant to this post, Alexander Freed did a fantastic job with the Rogue Onenovelization, bringing additional depth to the characters. I’d particularly latched on to Cassian Andor, the rebel spy who’s seen (and done) too much, and loved getting his point of view in Freed’s version. Cassian works with snarky, tactless droid K2SO, who provided most of the movie’s humor. In the novelization, there’s a neat bit of backstory where K2SO offers to have his memory wiped when he stumbles on Cassian holding a blaster and crying. I was excited that they got their own comic, even though it wasn’t going to cover that incident, but rather their first meeting.

Reader, I should have stuck with fanfic.

The comic is occasionally funny but mostly dull. It’s missing a real antagonist–there’s K2SO, whom we already know will end up on Cassian’s side eventually, and there are some faceless storm troopers. One of the strengths of Star Wars has always been its great villains, but none of them put in an appearance.

Nor are there many supporting characters. The two agents under Cassian’s command who sacrifice themselves towards the end are seriously underdeveloped. They communicate with each other by scent, a neat gimmick that however undercuts the story, as they have hardly any dialogue. I couldn’t even think of a single difference between the two, or a defining trait of either.

Cassian himself doesn’t get much development either, and K2SO’s, though entertaining, is predictable–he gets reprogrammed. No one learns, no one grows, all the choices are simple. For comic whose main character’s appeal is partly in his dark backstory and willingness to do morally gray things for a righteous cause, this was disappointing.

Finally, the adventure aspect–the thrilling peril and last minute escapes–was completely perfunctory. There’s a secret place, they break into it, the alarm goes off, they fight their way out and take off just in time. The end. That’s the bare bones of a story, not a story itself.

All in all, I was not happy.

Five October Releases I Can’t Wait For!

Fall is here, bringing with it Halloween, pumpkin spice, and some of this year’s most highly anticipated book releases! From the new Philip Pullman novel in the world of His Dark Materials to the 40th anniversary Star Wars anthology to the latest YA from John Green, October is going to be a busy month for publishing.

This list includes both those eagerly-awaited titles and ones that are less well known, but no less exciting!

51wsvwg-otl-_sx331_bo1204203200_1. A Skinful of Shadows – Frances Hardinge

Having heard great things about The Lie Tree and Fly By Night, I’ve been keeping an eye on Hardinge’s releases, waiting for the one that will really grab me. This English Civil War fantasy, featuring a girl on the run from scheming relatives and ghostly possession across war-torn 17th century England, may just be it!

Out October 17th.

51yjlk890rl-_sx329_bo1204203200_2. Turtles All the Way Down – John Green

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I have OCD. I didn’t know that children’s books megastar John Green, author of Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, suffered from the same condition. Now he’s drawing on that experience for the story of Aza, who is “living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts”–but it’s also got a reclusive billionaire and Star Wars fanfiction.

Out October 10th.

from-a-certain-point-of-view-cover3. From a Certain Point of View
Elizabeth Wein and many, many others

Speaking of Star Wars fic, this collection of forty stories set during A New Hope–each from a different character’s perspective–celebrates the fortieth anniversary of the classic space adventure. I’m especially looking forward to the short story by Elizabeth Wein (of Code Name Verity fame–I’ve reviewed her The Pearl Thief and The Winter Prince here and here). It looks like will be written from the perspective of one of Leia’s captors, but I don’t know anything more.

Out October 3rd.

51agvobnv1l-_sx328_bo1204203200_4. The Stone in the Skull – Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear is another favorite writer of mine, and she returns from a year-long sabbatical with The Stone in the Skull, set in the India analogue of her Eternal Sky universe (I reviewed Shattered Pillars from the previous Eternal Sky trilogy here). In addition to the setting and author, this book also has its characters going for it, particularly the Dead Man, a bodyguard whose charge has died. Here’s an excerpt, in which the Dead Man gives some (possibly hypocritical) advice:
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Out October 10th.

61f7blrxqil-_sy344_bo1204203200_5. The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage – Philip Pullman

And finally, the long-awaited “equel” to Pullman’s bestselling trilogy–The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. Taking place when protagonist Lyra was only a baby, this start to a new trilogy will deal with the massive flood referenced in the other books. Hopefully the time period means we’ll see more of Lyra’s parents, a magnetic and ruthless couple with a love-hate relationship.

Out October 19th.

Russian and Research: Interview with Among the Red Stars author Gwen C. Katz

Something a little different this time!30122938

Gwen C. Katz‘s debut novel, Among the Red Stars, is out October 3rd! It follows Valka, a Russian teenager who becomes one of the “Night Witches”–an all-female unit of Soviet bomber pilots in World War II. The blurb is vague on the plot, but I believe it involves a daring and unauthorized rescue that flips the damsel-in-distress trope on its head. Anyway, here’s the cover copy:

World War Two has shattered Valka’s homeland of Russia, and Valka is determined to help the effort. She knows her skills as a pilot rival the best of the men, so when an all-female aviation group forms, Valka is the first to sign up.

Flying has always meant freedom and exhilaration for Valka, but dropping bombs on German soldiers from a fragile canvas biplane is no joyride. The war is taking its toll on everyone, including the boy Valka grew up with, who is fighting for his life on the front lines.

As the war intensifies and those around her fall, Valka must decide how much she is willing to risk to defend the skies she once called home.

Inspired by the true story of the airwomen the Nazis called Night Witches, Gwen C. Katz weaves a tale of strength and sacrifice, learning to fight for yourself, and the perils of a world at war.

Katz kindly agreed to answer a few questions for this blog, with a special focus on her learning Russian and Russian-language sources. Below is the interview:
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Q: I read on your Twitter that you learned Russian for research purposes while writing this book. Tell us a bit about that, and how you became proficient enough to do primary source research.

A: I did four semesters of Russian and then worked independently in preparation for this book. A lot of English speakers rate Russian as a very difficult language but I found it rather intuitive (to read, anyway), possibly just because I have a fair amount of experience with foreign languages by now.

Q: What was the most useful source you accessed in Russian?

A: tamanskipolk46.narod.ru is a great Night Witches fan site with extremely detailed information about the different women that isn’t available in English, such as their ranks and how many missions they flew, along with many stories from their time in the war. rkka.ru has a ton of information about the Red Army, including lots of photos of uniforms and equipment.

Q: What Russian-language source would you love to be able to share with English speakers?

A: Raisa Aronova’s “Ночные Ведьмы” is surely the best history of the Night Witches. It is baffling that it has never been translated.

(Maya’s note: Raisa Aronova was herself a veteran of the unit.)

Q: How did learning Russian affect how you wrote Valka’s story in English?

A: You always try to emulate the patterns of the language your characters are meant to be speaking, although it’s impossible to capture fully. And of course there’s the bit where Valka mistakenly refers to an American plane as a “V-24.”

Q: The female soldiers and airwomen of the Soviet Union encompassed many different ethnicities. How did you research their diverse experiences?

A: The Soviet Union was a much more diverse place than most people realize. So I was disappointed to discover that Aviation Group 122 was a pretty homogeneous group. The only airwoman of color I was able to find was Kazakh navigator Hiuaz Dospanova. She had an incredible story: barely survived a crash, pronounced dead at the hospital, recovered and lived to fly with the 588th again. Originally she was in this book and she had a big subplot. But her story was too complex for me to give it the treatment it deserved, and my agent decided it should be cut. Maybe I’ll return to her in a future project!

Q: How did you approach including real-life people in your story, and integrating Valka into a well-documented group?

A: The women of Aviation Group 122 were such cool people that early on I decided I wanted to include the real historical figures in the cast instead of making up a supporting cast. This was a big challenge, since it exponentially increases the number of facts you need to check, and ultimately I had to move around a few dates and locations in order to get everyone where I wanted them. But it was a lot of fun thinking about how Valka would interact with all these different people!

Thanks to Katz for a great interview! You can preorder Among the Red Stars.

Katz is also an artist, and has drawn characters Valka (right), Iskra (center), and Pasha (left), pictured above. Check out more art drawn from the story at Katz’s gallery here.

And if you’ve preordered, get a free bookplate with another of Katz’s illustrations here!

Se non ora, quando? – Primo Levi

Primo Levi’s Se non ora, quando? (If Not Now, When?) is the first work of his that I’ve read. It recounts the journey of a group of Jewish partisans from the Soviet Union and Poland, whose efforts to survive and fight back against the Nazis take them on an odyssey across Europe to Italy.

Levi, though he was Jewish, a Holocaust survivor, and a partisan, was writing about an experience with which he was unfamiliar (that of East European Ashkenazi Jews) and lists his resources in the back of the book. He explains a lot of terms to the presumed Italian reader, who is probably unfamiliar with, for example, Yiddish insults. He mixes in unexpected humor and a clear literary voice with shocking violence and tragedy, resulting in a book that is easy to read despite its heavy subject.

The novel is written in omniscient, with the narrator occasionally drawing back to comment, for example stating that he will not describe a massacre because that is not the point of this book. But for the most part (with a few detours into other characters’ minds), the narrator stays in the head of Mendel Nachmanovich Deutscher, a Soviet soldier dispersed from his unit, whose village has been destroyed and wife murdered. Living alone in the woods, he is inspired to fight back after meeting up with another dispersed soldier, Leonid, who has a mysterious and dark past. They journey from group to group before meeting up with Gedali, leader of a Zionist partisan group, and joining his all-Jewish (with one token Christian) band. Most of the characters, like Mendel, have nothing to go back to in Eastern Europe, but Dov, the oldest of the group, is from a Siberian village that has not been occupied, and he, though he is Jewish, declines to follow the group to what would become Israel. (The token Christian, on the other hand, is thrilled to follow the group on their long journey.) Though there are a lot of hints as to future developments in the Soviet Union and the Soviet takeover of Poland, there are no hints about the way Zionism will develop, and the characters are last seen in Italy, celebrating the end of the war and the birth of a child.

Though it’s not an especially character-driven piece (major developments in Mendel’s psyche are abruptly revealed rather than shown from inside), all the characters are distinctive, with my favorites being the above-mentioned Dov and the fierce and cold Line, an independent young woman who fights alongside the men and becomes Mendel’s lover for a time without ever “belonging” to anyone.

The narrative is episodic, but each of the episodes is exquisitely well-placed. In particular, the death of Black Rokhele after the end of the fighting, in a hate crime as they travel through Germany, comes as a shock even though she’s a minor character, because of its placement at a time when the characters seemed safe.

A thread I found fascinating was the interaction between the main characters and the non-Jewish Poles they meet on their journey, with gradual comprehension developing from initial mistrust. Mendel and Dov recognize themselves in a young Polish partisan who, like they once did, fights “for three lines in the history books”–to show that he and his people existed and fought back–rather than any possibility of survival.

Levi creates beautiful moments from the intersection of war and ordinary life–for example, the night the front finally catches up with them as they are celebrating the wedding of two of their members. He also shows his Italian patriotism (and perhaps an uncritical acceptance of the “Italians are good people” myth about World War II and the Holocaust?) with a long description of Italians and their national character as the main characters prepare to travel to Italy.

All in all, this is a beautiful, intense, and very readable book. I recommend it to people who, like me, speak Italian as a second language, because of Levi’s remarkably clear style.



The Ides of March – Thornton Wilder

A terribly clever epistolary novel by the author of Our Town and The Bridge of San Luis Rey, The Ides of March consists of four sections, each of which begins earlier and ends later than the last, each with a different theme. The first introduces the characters, the second deals with love, the third with religion, and the fourth with politics and death–specifically, the assassination of Caesar, who is the main character.

While it’s far from being historically accurate, Wilder gets points in my book for being upfront about the changes he made to history and about his intentions–more a “fantasia” as he calls it than a historical reconstruction. This is in contrast to authors like Conn Iggulden, who seek to minimize the extent changes they made (in the case of Iggulden, these are egregious changes to the same period as The Ides of March).

The book is dedicated to Lauro de Bosis, an antifascist writer (who had translated Wilder’s work) who died in plane crash after flying over Rome to drop subversive leaflets, and to Edward Sheldon, a physically disabled friend of the author’s who provided him with guidance, similar to the in-text relationship between Caesar and his correspondent on Capri, a severely wounded, reclusive torture survivor who is Caesar’s closest friend.

This last is the worst failure of a Chekhov’s gun I’ve ever seen. The mysterious correspondent remains silent throughout the text, yet is built up by other characters. I was expecting a letter from him to finally tie the plotline together and show us what was special about him, but he remains unknowable. Worst correspondent ever!

Some of Wilder’s changes didn’t seem to add anything to the text (eg having Cato alive messes with Porcia and Brutus’s motives without providing any interesting scenes) and his explanation for Clodia’s lashing out (that she was raped by a relative as a young girl) isn’t very well-explored and is a bit cliched.

I’m not making this book sound very appealing, but it’s a marvel of construction, taking the reader over the same ground several times without getting boring, and the characterization is very fine, particularly of Caesar himself, groping for a “limit [he] can respect” in the solitude of absolute power, as the other characters grope for this same limit in the social and ethical spheres. I’m not at all sympathetic to the historical Caesar, but Wilder’s Caesar can do the terrible things Caesar did and remain fascinating and complex.

The ebook version contains some extra material, including discussions by the author of what is fictional and real in the story and how he drew his conclusions. For example, the main trait of Caesar’s that he seized on was his famous clemency, and the Capri (non-)correspondent was inspired by a moment in De Bello Gallico when Caesar’s emotion breaks through for a moment in describing the death of an officer.

I now want to read Wilder’s Alcestiad, the beginning of which is sketched in the novel, attributed to Catullus.