We at Shiny Book Review receive many review requests, so when a request came in from Leo Champion — who once wrote a review for SBR — we discussed it and decided to accept it as it has been two whole years since Mr. Champion’s review and he has not been actively involved in the running of SBR in all that time.
Now, on to the review!
Leo Champion’s LEGION is about Paul Mullins, a bright, well-educated American citizen living in the year 2215. Mullins, an advertising exec, gets drunk after finally receiving word that he was about to be promoted into the position of his dreams . . . then wakes up the next morning to find himself the newest member of the United States Foreign Legion, a branch of the U.S. military formed to deal with what’s euphemistically termed “colonial conflicts” — in other words, extraplanetary colonies that would rather be independent rather than paying tribute to the good ol’ U.S. of A.
Mullins quickly finds out that there’s no escape from his drunken pledge; instead, he’ll have to spend five full years in the USFL before his enlistment is up. And, much like the French Foreign Legion and other fabled groups made up of a bunch of roughnecks and misfits, most of the people Mullins serves with are radically not to his taste.
But as he goes through training, then serves in combat, Mullins finds a number of kindred souls, including his company commander, Lieutenant James Croft IV. Croft, you see, has a similar background in many ways to Mullins, excepting that Croft opted for West Point instead of Boston University, then opted for the USFL rather than the Army because he wanted to see actual combat rather than push a bunch of meaningless papers.
Wisely, author Champion avoids throwing Mullins and Croft together too quickly. Instead, they develop on separate paths that end up putting them in the same place at the same time on the colony world of New Virginia, just as the Second Insurrection is about to break out.
Lives will change, blood will spill . . . and the only question remaining is this: Will Mullins and Croft get out alive? And if so, how?
Everything else — and I do mean everything — is for you to discover. But if you enjoy military science fiction, LEGION will definitely keep you up long past your bedtime.
The pluses of LEGION are many. Champion’s writing is crisp, clean, and rings with authority. His grasp of military behavior, tactics, and training is stellar. The characterization is outstanding — Mullins goes from a rather naïve Yuppie hotshot to a competent soldier, while Croft quickly discovers that officers often carry the heaviest burdens on their souls and that second-guessing is just part of the territory. And Champion’s conception of twenty-second century America — complete with corrupt politicians, unthinking regular Americans who blindly put their faith and trust into these same corrupt politicians, and citizens of other countries desperate to become American citizens (perhaps hoping that the American “Shining City on the Hill” somehow exists somewhere outside of myth and legend) enlisting in the USFL as that’s the only way through toward American citizenship — is also plausible.
In addition, Champion’s tale could be seen as allegory. We have corrupt politicians now. We have blind, unthinking American citizens now. And assuredly we already have citizens of other countries enlisted in the various branches of the U.S. Armed Forces in order to eventually become American citizens now.
So the conceit of having Mullins, an average, unthinking American forced into waking up and taking charge of his life (albeit because he was shanghaied into the US Foreign Legion), rings true on both levels. And I liked that very much.
However — and I really wish I did not have to say this — there are two drawbacks here to LEGION that I must point out.
First, the year is 2215. Yet the men in the USFL are issued M-16s. Still. And that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, even if the USFL is considered the most expendable force in the entirety of the American military.
Granted, there is an internally consistent reason that Champion gave that works for his story, and because of that, I was willing to suspend disbelief while reading LEGION. But every time I came up for air, I thought again about this . . . and it still did not make sense. (Sorry.)
Second — and this is much bigger sticking point — there was only one female soldier in the entirety of LEGION.
You read that right. There was only one female soldier — that being a Naval Commander who blows up an extraterrestrial stronghold — in the entirety of LEGION. And that completely blew any suspension of disbelief out of the water.
Look. I can believe that Mullins would never see a female USFL soldier during his training. Segregated training is the norm in the American military, and it has been since women became an important part of the U.S. Armed Forces.
But I cannot believe there are no women in the USFL. Because that is absurd.
Here’s the deal — if men are given the option after stealing, lying, cheating, blowing things up, and even murdering people of going into the USFL rather than to jail, why aren’t the women?
Surely there are female prisoners out there who’d much rather go deal with Chauncy, the USFL’s intimidating stronghold, than rot in jail for years on end. So where are they, and why wasn’t any mention made of them in this book?
But worse even than that, there’s an insurrection in New Virginia that’s causing massive unrest. We see man after man in the colonial militia, and we’re told that these men start shooting guns at around age five or so, which is why they’re so difficult to kill.
Yet with all those fervent men who are willing to blow things up and run the American military off the planet (including the USFL), wouldn’t you expect to see at least one fervent woman soldier here and there, too?
And yet, there weren’t any. Which again is absurd.
And finally — and this was the most problematic point of all — I didn’t even see a female doctor or nurse, not in the USFL, not among the colonials. And that’s just wrong.
Bottom line? Leo Champion is a writer to watch. He’s got boatloads of talent. LEGION is entertaining, solid, has moments of humor and got nearly everything right. In fact, I kept getting absorbed in LEGION to the point I didn’t want to put it down . . .
. . . but every time I did so, I wondered where the Hell the women were.
Because of that complete and utter implausibility, the final grade for Champion’s otherwise sparkling debut is a B-plus.
–reviewed by Barb
Vera Nazarian’s COBWEB BRIDE is the story of what happens once Death comes calling, asks for his “Cobweb Bride,” and then leaves again after saying he will not do his job until/unless his Cobweb Bride is found. The world is thrown into chaos as animals cannot be killed for food, anything left on the vine does not ripen, and most importantly of all, people do not and cannot die. Because of the urgency of the situation — Death had best get his Cobweb Bride quickly, or people could starve but be left in an undead state, and those who truly need to die cannot — a number of women, mostly young, from the Kingdom of Lethe and its environs go in search of Death to find out if any of them could be his bride.
Persephone (Percy) Ayren, a sixteen-year-old young woman from the Kingdom of Lethe, is one of the many young women from all over Lethe who goes to find Death in order to find out if she’s Death’s bride or not . . . but as she’s the principal player in a large ensemble cast, it’s easiest to start with her. Percy is the overlooked middle sister from a rural family, and she hasn’t been treated well by her mother, Niobea (though Percy’s father loves her dearly and so do her sisters). Percy sees herself as ordinary and mostly has hidden her talents, including a rather odd one of being able to see the shadow of death as it approaches. So when Death’s call resounds throughout Lethe, she’s among the first to answer as she figures she won’t be missed.
But Lethe is not a stand-alone kingdom; no, indeed. It’s part of an altered Renaissance landscape, so the countries we know as France, Germany, etc., are still there but not necessarily in their current positions. Lethe is part and parcel of an Empire called the “Silver Court,” where the Infanta Claere Liguon has just been killed by Marquis Vlau Fiomarre of Styx (another kingdom allied with the Silver Court) due to an apparent blood feud. But because Claere cannot die — and because Claere has retained more of her essential humanity than most of the undead — she spares Vlau’s life, asking him to accompany her on her journey to find Death and see if she might be the Cobweb Bride Death’s looking for.
And because Claere is both noble in spirit and already dead, she figures she won’t be sacrificing very much to be one with Death.
Vlau, of course, goes along with Claere, and eventually they meet up with Percy and the gaggle of young women who’ve joined up with her. The reason Percy is leading this pack of young women is because of one notorious newly-dead noble, Duke Ian (“Hoarfrost”) Chidair, who tries to keep any potential Cobweb Brides away from Death for the Duke’s own spiteful reasons. Percy, the other girls with her, Vlau and Claere all go in search of Death, eluding Duke Ian and his men and searching for Death everywhere they go . . . but it will not be easy to find him.
Providing they do find him, will any of them be Death’s Cobweb Bride? And if not, what will happen to the world at large? (Further reviewer sayeth not, at least as far as the plot summary.)
I enjoyed COBWEB BRIDE very much, mostly because Ms. Nazarian’s prose, once past the first third of the novel in particular, is something to savor. (Like a fine wine, except without the calories.) Between the excellent storytelling, the haunting and elegiac descriptions, and the flawless characterization, I found COBWEB BRIDE to be one of the toughest books to put down I’ve read during 2013.
Note that COBWEB BRIDE is definitely dark fantasy, as Ms. Nazarian doesn’t shrink from the nastier problems caused by Death refusing to take anyone into his embrace. Pigs get butchered, then keep screaming in pain because they cannot die. People freeze to death, then get up and walk home, scaring everyone in sight and sometimes doing horrific things as they know they’re dead and nothing seems to matter. And the balance of power starts to slowly shift away from those who are trying hard to rule honorably in the way they’ve always done toward those who wish to find a way to use Death’s refusal to allow anyone to die until he gets his bride as a shorthand path toward nation or empire building — because there are now many things worse than death, and humanity is finding out about all of them.
But ultimately, COBWEB BRIDE is also life-affirming, too. And it’s because of those two things — and the balance between those two things (literally, life and death) — that COBWEB BRIDE is not only one of the most original fantasies I’ve ever read, but also one of the most memorable.
In other words, if you think you know the ending to Percy’s story, you’d best think again.
That being said, there’s one minor drawback to COBWEB BRIDE, which I alluded to in this review’s title: it’s quite slow to start. We see a whole lot of why Percy decides to go in search of Death, which is important and essential information . . . but it’s not conveyed at the same rate of speed as much of the rest of the novel.**
Providing you stick with this slow start, though, the rewards of COBWEB BRIDE are many.
Bottom line? Don’t miss COBWEB BRIDE. (And bring on the sequels!)
– reviewed by Barb
** Note that this one minor drawback is the sole reason COBWEB BRIDE did not receive an A-plus. (It’ll just have to settle for an A. Oh, the horror.)
Mario Livio’s BRILLIANT BLUNDERS is about five great scientists — Charles Darwin, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein — and the biggest things they got wrong in their illustrious careers. To lay out the case that such eminent scientists made these huge mistakes is only one part of Livio’s narrative, however, as Livio also explains how in at least two cases (Darwin and Einstein), the two of them actually got something wrong by getting something right.
Confused? Don’t be, as I will explain.
Livio starts with Darwin, whose epic ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES failed to take into account the prevailing theory of genetics. Pre-Mendelian genetics believed in something called “blended heritage,” which basically said if a mother and a father combined to make a child, the child would be one-half the mother and one-half the father rather than one hundred percent himself. This “blending” would preclude any possibility of the species actually improving itself, because whatever genes were already there could only be combined. By definition, they couldn’t really create anything new.
However, Darwin was actually right in what was happening (if he weren’t, I doubt we’d be having this discussion, nor would Livio have bothered to write so much as a paragraph about him), even though he was wrong about how it came about. Darwin did try to explain what he saw, but as he didn’t know anything about Gregor Mendel nor Mendel’s experiments, he didn’t have the vocabulary to make any sense.
This was one of the two errors Livio points out were actually correct, but the reasoning behind them was wrong. But the second was a much bigger deal, as it dealt with something Albert Einstein called the “cosmological constant” in his General Theory of Relativity (one of the few things that most students remember about their science classes is the equation E equals MC squared, where E equals energy, M equals mass and C equals the speed of light, and this is one of the pillars of Einstein’s overall theory). The cosmological constant is something Einstein added to his equations because he just couldn’t figure out how the universe was able to keep going without collapsing utterly — Livio states that Einstein’s theories were generally “elegant,” and this cosmological constant was added for that reason.
However, Einstein later disavowed the cosmological constant, as he didn’t see the need for it. Yet contemporary scientists have seen that the universe is still expanding and accelerating, and the cosmological constant does seem to play a part in understanding exactly what’s going on.
So Einstein was wrong in Livio’s estimation twice. First, Einstein didn’t have enough reason to throw the cosmological constant into his equations in the first place (even though it helped them balance, or made them look better, whichever works depending on how much physics you actually understand). And second, Einstein took the cosmological constant out when it really did make sense — it was just too far ahead of its time.
The other three scientists — Lord Kelvin, Hoyle, and especially Pauling — got a number of things wrong amidst all the good they did otherwise. All three took different ways of dealing with their errors, however — Kelvin denied he’d made any even though he’d drastically miscalculated the age of the Earth, Hoyle knew he’d only gotten things partially right (his “steady-state universe” theory was wrong, but much of why he was convinced that theory would work was correct) but was such a curmudgeon that he couldn’t completely admit it even to his closest friends, and Pauling was extremely generous in defeat (as he nearly found the structure of DNA before scientists Watson and Crick, but made a terrible blunder in the chemistry that even new students wouldn’t make that led him completely down a wrong path) — which just goes to show the vagaries of humanity in full measure.
And that, partially, is the point of BRILLIANT BLUNDERS. Because you see, errors are common in science, as science definitely does not always proceed in a straight line from point to point.
Oh, no indeed — science proceeds like everything else in life: It’s messy. It’s complex. It’s filled with personalities. (There’s a really great story that Livio includes about how Hoyle was treated abominably at a scientific presentation that proves that in full measure.) It goes off on tangents. And a whole lot depends on what Livio calls “serendipity” — that is, if you get the right people together at the right time and in the right place, good things can happen providing you’re able to recognize the good things at the time and figure out how to explain them to your colleagues.
So how do scientists get anything done? Livio makes a strong case that it’s a combination of perspiration (read: hard work) and inspiration. Then it’s trial and error (most likely the latter) before any new scientific theory is disseminated. And then, after all the other scientists have weighed in, a theory proceeds to be assimilated and used — or not.
Bottom line? If you’ve been looking for a book that explains in clear language to laymen the important theories of these five scientists, then lays out the case for each scientist’s “biggest blunder,” this book is for you. And even if you haven‘t been specifically looking for information about scientific mistakes, there’s so much interesting information here about how scientific discoveries actually get made that this book is still for you if you have any interest in science whatsoever.
–reviewed by Barb
Doc Holliday is on his deathbed, dying of consumption in a Colorado hospital. His recent adventures have taken quite a bit out of him, and there is little that 1880′s medicine can offer him anymore. As he lays in his bed, though, an owl which had been watching him from the outside flies into his room and turns into the great Apache medicine man, Geronimo. His past dealings with Doc Holliday lead him to know that the man, even on his deathbed, is a dangerous individual, and Geronimo offers him a choice: a longer life in exchange for stopping some paleontologists from plundering Indian lands in Wyoming. Of course, Doc is a little confused at this, because as far as he knew, Geronimo lived much further south. When Geronimo explains his reasoning, Doc agrees, and his mediocre health is partially returned.
Thus begins Mike Resnick’s latest Weird West tale, The Doctor and the Dinosaurs, another fascinating take on the Old West — steampunked! (review of the first book in the series, The Buntline Special — this link is for a review of the second book, The Doctor and the Kid)
Doc quickly finds the closest saloon (it’d been a long time since the man had a drink, and he gets cranky) and, while proceeding to enjoy the partial health restored by Geronimo, is greeted by his friend Thomas Edison, who had arrived with Ned Buntline to say goodbye to the man they had believed to be on his deathbed. Surprised, they find out the reason that Geronimo has kept Doc alive, and agree to assist him in stopping the two greatest paleontologists of the time — Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh — before the Comanches raise all of the dinosaurs in their sacred burial grounds and kill everything in the West.
As Doc arrives in Cheyenne, Wyoming, he quickly discovers that there is a title bout for the boxing heavyweight championship of the world between the champion, John L. Sullivan and a local champion, Bill Smiley. Refereeing the match is none other than his old friend Theodore Roosevelt, the main reason that Doc is interested in the boxing match at all. With Doc firmly entrenched in his mission for Geronimo, Theodore agrees to assist his friend, since it will be a good old romp of an adventure and, as the book moves along, that’s all Theodore Roosevelt really wants.
Part of the allure of the book (or the series, for that matter) is the careful blending of the steampunk within the Wild West as our memory and fanciful books portray it to be. There are less showdowns in the town square and more drinking and gambling, and while Doc Holliday is a stone-cold killer, he doesn’t go out of his way looking for fights. Indeed, one of the primary reasons that I love this series is the author’s portrayal of Doc Holliday. The only other man to ever capture my preconceived notions of the man was Val Kilmer. Resnick does a wonderful job showing the edginess of Doc without coming off as an unlikable character, primarily by surrounding him with a very likable cast of characters (Ned Buntline, for example, is a stark contrast to Doc Holliday, and it completely works).
While The Doctor and the Dinosaurs seems like a reach at first, the author does a wonderful job in drawing you in to the story while setting up the finale. The story does meander a bit as Doc travels between the two rival camps of paleontologists, but this is a temporary distraction and only slows the story down briefly until Doc Holliday and Theordore Roosevelt come face to face with a beast of nightmares.
Filled with suspense and drawing upon the legends of men and steam-driven machine, The Doctor and the Dinosaur is a highly-recommended read and wonderful addition to Mike Resnick’s Wild West series. Solid, solid work, and a must buy book for the lover of the Old West.
–Reviewed by Jason
One of the good things we at SBR are able to do from time to time is to interview writers, editors and/or publishers (well, so far we haven’t had one, but the year is young). Today’s chosen
victim — er, writer and editor, is the acclaimed Stephanie Osborn, author and rocket scientist, who consented to doing one of the most wide-ranging interviews we’ve ever had. Three of her novels in her “Displaced Detectives” series have been reviewed at SBR (here and here), while her nonfiction work with scientist and author Travis S. Taylor, A New American Space Plan, is reviewed here.
SBR: Ms. Osborn, thanks for coming to visit with us today.
Stephanie Osborn: Thank you for asking me!
SBR: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
Stephanie Osborn: You know, I didn’t want to be a writer in my youth; I wanted to be a scientist and work in the space program. I’m not sure when I first decided to become an author. I had some notions about a possible novel franchise after the very first Men In Black movie, which I adored, and my husband Darrell encouraged me to pursue it. That’s when I discovered there were many books in me. But of course, the rights were all tied up, and the only publisher with the rights didn’t take unagented submissions, and being yet-unpublished, I couldn’t get an agent at that point. However, somewhere in there is when I realized I could do this, and that I liked it and wanted to do it.
SBR: Your most popular solo series is possibly the Displaced Detective series, which brings Sherlock Holmes into the modern day, where he solves crimes with the able assistance of hyperspatial physicist Skye Chadwick. How did you come up with the idea to meld both mystery and science fiction in this way?
Stephanie Osborn: Wow. You know, I really don’t know. I had gotten back into a spate of reading everything Sherlock Holmes I could get my hands on ― I’ve done that periodically since childhood, when I discovered Holmes ― but there wasn’t a book out there that was quite what I was looking for. So I decided to write it. I deliberately set out to do something different, to expand the range of what the Great Detective could do, and I think I succeeded rather nicely.
SBR: What’s so attractive about Sherlock Holmes, and what’s the key to Arthur Conan Doyle’s enduring appeal?
Stephanie Osborn: I really don’t know about Sir Arthur. That might sound kind of snarky or arrogant and I don’t mean it like that at all: I just don’t like to analyze an author’s work to the level that it would take to answer that question, because literary analysis always took the magic out of the book, to me. For whatever it’s worth, I think it has to do with his ability to generate these fascinating and unusual characters.
But Holmes was the first in what became a long line of characters like him ― though there were mystery and detective stories before him, he started the detective genre as we know it, AND he has a certain cachet due to his intelligence. I like to say that he had Spock Syndrome before there was a Mr. Spock to name it after.
SBR: Skye Chadwick, the heroine in the DD series, is a hyperspatial physicist. Explain how you came up with her character.
Stephanie Osborn: Well, that’s pretty simple. I wanted to give Holmes a female to interact with, someone to actually work cases with. After all, this is the 21st Century, and, well, equality, you know. But I recognized right off the bat that she would really have to BE his equal or he wouldn’t bother with her. Then I realized that if she was the scientist responsible for developing the project that brought him over from his home universe, she’d have to be bloody brilliant from the get-go, and he couldn’t possibly gainsay the fact. And the character formed from those beginnings.
SBR: What are books five and six in the Displaced Detective series going to be about? And what’s their ETA?
Stephanie Osborn: Book five is titled, A Case of Spontaneous Combustion. It starts out with a tiny village in England being wiped out – every living thing in it killed – by a phenomenon that appears to be a case of mass spontaneous combustion, but turns out to be something very different. Holmes is called in to investigate – without Skye – and hijinks ensue. I got the contract for it a couple weeks back. It should come out sometime in the Spring of 2014.
Book six is something that has been banging around in my head for awhile now, and this past weekend it congealed. I wanted to do a supernatural-based Displaced Detective story, something about a haunted something-or-other that Skye and Sherlock end up investigating, but I’d been going to set it in a European castle, either in the UK or on the continent. Well, I’d just been to CONtraflow science fiction convention in New Orleans, Louisiana! Wonderful, young convention, growing fast, lots of fun. Just as much fun, though, was going to the French Quarter and exploring. NOLA has the reputation of being the most-haunted city in the world, and it turned out to be perfect for that book concept. Scenes started coming to me as soon as we started walking around! I started writing it the next day, during the convention! It wouldn’t wait! It’s going to be called Fear in the French Quarter.
What was to have been Book six, now Book seven, is in work also. I call it A Little Matter of Earthquakes. Suffice to say that seismic activity is heating up in the Pacific Northwest, in a fashion that is not normal. When one of Skye’s friends is killed in a phreatic eruption of a Cascade volcano, she and Holmes go to the funeral and discover the abnormality. Skye’s curiosity gets the better of her, and soon they find that there’s about to be a very VERY large, not so natural disaster unless they can stop what’s happening. I have to finish six & seven before I can get any idea of a time frame for when they might appear in print. But it shouldn’t be long for either, I don’t think.
Book eight is actually finished, but it requires five & seven (and maybe six) to help it make sense. (Yes, I wrote ‘em out of sequence.) It’s called The Adventure of Shining Mountain Lodge. Rangers in Rocky Mountain National Park find an illegal immigrant in the middle of nowhere, in January, and he’s dying…of radiation exposure. His clothing is filthy with radioactive dirt. The FBI and the CIA are contacted, and the CIA believes it may have to do with rumors of a possible dirty nuke. Sherlock and Skye are called into the investigation, and they have to find out what’s going on and stop it before the rumors become reality.
I’ve been accused of giving my books jawbreaker, long titles. But that’s only for the Displaced Detective series; there, I’m trying to evoke the names of the adventures that Sir Arthur recorded: The Sign of Four; The Valley of Fear; A Study in Scarlet; The Hound of the Baskervilles; The Final Problem; The Adventure of the Empty House, etc. Other books, not so much. The Fetish, Burnout, The Y Factor, stuff like that. Granted, Burnout has a subtitle that renders it kind of lengthy, but the publisher felt it was needed.
SBR: Speaking of Burnout, what drove you to write that novel?
Stephanie Osborn: Burnout: The mystery of Space Shuttle STS-281 was my first novel. It’s a science fiction mystery about a space shuttle disaster that turned out NOT to have been an accident, and the ensuing investigation and cover-up. Its tag line is, “How do you react when you discover that the next Shuttle disaster has happened…right on schedule?”
It started off years ago when I was a payload flight controller for Shuttle Spacelab missions. A bunch of us were discussing what to do in the event of a “catastrophic malfunction,” and how we might be able to get the bird and its crew down intact. I went off still thinking, and eventually realized that, if said “malfunction” was in fact no accident, it might make for a good book. It made Amazon’s Top 25 Overall list, and Fictionwise’s top 25 science fiction, when it was released, so I guess other people thought so too.
The scary, distressing part for me was that in the process of writing the novel, and doing all the research to get it right, I pretty much predicted what ended up happening to shuttle Columbia on her final flight ― and she had a friend of mine aboard. Oh, I’m not saying that Columbia was anything other than pure, awful luck of the draw. But the overall scenario of re-entry, loss of thermal integrity, loss of aerodynamic stability, breakup…I got the orbital inclination, incoming trajectory, even the overflown states and debris field, all correct according to what really happened to Columbia. I…was not best pleased. My writing mentor had to talk me out of trashing the manuscript. I ended up dedicating the book to the Columbia crew.
SBR: Did your scientific background help you with Burnout? (Sometimes, here at SBR, even we must state the obvious. Apologies in advance.)
Stephanie Osborn: Oh, I couldn’t have written it without my science background, AND my experience working Shuttle program. I had to lay out a scenario that made sense on several levels, and that proved very complicated.
SBR: You’ve said that Burnout is in some senses the most personal novel you’ve ever written. Can you explain that?
Stephanie Osborn: Well, there was the Columbia connection, which was personal enough in that I lost a friend, Kalpana Chawla, and I lost the bird I worked with the most.
But the two main characters of that book are special to me. It’s kind of funny, really; I’ve been “accused” on numerous occasions of making Skye Chadwick, from the Displaced Detective series, my own personal “Mary Sue” ― meaning she’s supposedly a fictional version of me. Truthfully? She’s no more me than Holmes is; every character I write has some facet of me in it, or I couldn’t relate to the character well enough to write it. I’ve written a couple of books with strong female leads in them, and somebody always wants to make ‘em out to be my Mary Sue(s), especially if they have any sort of a science background. But Crash Murphy and Mike Anders, the protagonists in Burnout? Well, they’re different. If you combined them into one person and flipped the gender, it really WOULD be me. Astronomer and Shuttle flight controller, rolled into one. I’m fond of those characters. But nobody ever accuses me of making THEM Mary Sues. I guess it’s because they’re male.
SBR: Let’s talk about another series you’ve worked on where you’ve never once been accused of writing a “Mary Sue” character, the Cresperian Saga. What’s that about?
Stephanie Osborn: The Cresperian Saga is a series of books by several authors, about Earth’s first contact with extraterrestrials when their starship wrecks in our solar system. A few of the lifepods make it to Earth, but most of the crew (and it was a small city) dies in the disaster. Said alien lifepods land scattered around our planet, and the beings within use their shapeshifting abilities to try to blend into the general population.
The first book, Human By Choice, was co-authored by Travis S. Taylor (my writing mentor) and Darrell Bain. When it came time for book two, Travis and his wife were expecting their second child and he was snowed, so he bowed out. Lida Quillen, publisher of Twilight Times Books, tapped me to step in, so The Y Factor was written by Darrell Bain and myself, with Bain taking the lead. But Bain is up in years, and his memory isn’t what it once was; this series has a huge cast of characters over the entire story arc, and he didn’t like having to keep up with them all. I thought he was doing fine, but I suspect what it amounted to was that he just didn’t like keeping up with ‘em. I can understand that. So for book three, The Cresperian Alliance, I took the lead. I’m currently working on book four, Heritage. Hoping to get it out in the next six months or so. But it’s harder than my usual writing, because the concept wasn’t mine to begin with.
SBR: The Cresperian Saga sounds fun to read, but as you just said, it sounds extremely difficult to write as it wasn’t your original concept. What interests you so much about this series, and what makes it different from other “aliens versus humans” movies and books?
Stephanie Osborn: The concept of discovering an alien race when THEY crash into YOU, because they don’t know you’re there, is kind of different. And the problems that the aliens have with our form, our cultures, were to my knowledge unique.
SBR: How challenging was it to come into this series in Book Two, and how did that process work between you and Darrell Bain?
Stephanie Osborn: It was difficult at times, and fun at others. First and foremost was getting familiar with that world, that universe, and coming up to speed with the fictional tech. I respect Mr. Bain greatly; he’s a popular e-book writer, and I learned from him. But we have different philosophies, and sometimes we disagreed about what should be in the manuscript. Still and all, we’re both professionals, and we discussed and went back and forth, and what resulted was, if I do say so, a pretty darn good couple books.
SBR: You’ve also written some shorter works. One of them, Starsong, is meant for children. What sort of things did you do differently while writing this story, if anything?
Stephanie Osborn: My only change from the usual is in keeping in mind that it is a children’s book, and as such I have to be careful about: 1) the language used (both the basic,” not having characters cursing,” and vocabulary, choosing words that wouldn’t be over the heads of the readers) and 2) making the themes appropriate. I wrote it because my parents wanted me to write a book that my nephew (then in elementary school) could read. By the time it made it to print, he was in late junior high school and too old for it. Oh well.
SBR: How did you think up the mythos behind Starsong?
Stephanie Osborn: The same way I do all my stories…it just sort of comes to me. It’s a blend of Tolkienesque and Native American voices, when you get down to it.
SBR: Since Starsong is a bit of a departure for you, being fantasy and intended for children, how has it been received?
Stephanie Osborn: It’s been received very well, but has yet to find a large audience, unfortunately.
SBR: Another of your shorter works is The Fetish, a story from the Burnout universe. What brought that particular story to mind?
Stephanie Osborn: In Burnout, Dr. Mike Anders rather impulsively buys a lapis fetish necklace at a trading post on an Indian reservation during their efforts to get to Las Vegas undetected. The Fetish is the story of how that necklace came to be. It was an EPIC Award Finalist in the short category.
SBR: Tell me about your typical writing routine. When you’re coming up with a plot, how do you get everything to all come together in your head so you can write about it?
Stephanie Osborn: I spend a lot of time staring into space and daydreaming. Seriously. People watching me would think I was goofing off. But there are certain things I have to have in hand before I can start writing, or anything I set down is rambling gibberish.
I have to know my protagonist(s) AND I have to have the antagonist(s). The antagonist does not have to be human, or even a sentient being. Sometimes a force of nature is the best bad guy around. But I have to know who or what it is. And I have to have the names of the principal characters.
I have to have an idea about what the general problem is ― that is to say, what is the source of the drama, the conflict? Is there more than one conflict?
Once I get these things, once they come to me, then I will daydream a scene, whatever grabs me most about the conflict. It’s almost always a climax of some sort, possibly even the main climax of the book. And once I have that, then I can start writing. And it takes however long it takes. I can push it to some extent but I have to have those things, or it’s pointless to write. Better to go off and work on something I’ve already started. John Ringo is a friend of mine, and he calls this process “ideating,” or, “to ideate,” pronounced, “eye-dee-ate.” Sometimes brainstorming, either with my husband or another writer, can help this process along, and John and I have ideated together once or twice.
Now, if I AM writing on an existing manuscript, I will start the day’s work by going back to where I started writing the day before, or maybe a bit earlier. I will read through it, making sure it flows with what came before, and editing it for clarity, continuity, smoothness of wording, grammar, and the like. When I’ve read all the way through what I wrote the day before, I’ve effectively gotten into the flow, and I start in with writing the new material.
SBR: As you’re also an editor, can you discuss some of the books you have edited, at least so far as the types of books you’ve edited? What interests you about editing, and how is it different from writing?
Stephanie Osborn: Mostly science fiction of various types. Several were YA books. I’ve edited a number of books for my main publisher, Twilight Times Books, and a few more as a free-lance editor. I don’t think my publisher would want me to reveal which books I edited, but one of the free-lance jobs was just plain fun. Half the time I wasn’t sure if I was editing or just reading! The Flux Engine by Dan Willis is YA alt-history steampunk; it was a great book and I loved working on it. I’m looking forward to the sequel.
SBR: Let’s switch gears. You’re a well-known advocate for literacy. Tell me why this is so important to you.
Stephanie Osborn: I have always been a voracious, omnivorous reader. I cannot imagine my life without it. Reading is, and will be for the future of our culture, the primary means of communication of ideas and concepts and data between people. Without the ability to read and write, our civilization as we know it would collapse.
Unfortunately not only is illiteracy on the rise in our country, disinterest in reading is rampant among our young people. I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I have seen teens and twenties at science fiction and fantasy conventions walk by book dealers with noses upturned. I have had teens walk up to my table, scan my books with utter indifference ― or even contempt ― then pick up a business card and ask me to autograph it. If it isn’t a film or a game, they’re just not interested. After I left the space program, I used to do some tutoring, to get me out of the house mostly, and was shocked at seeing the same attitude toward great literature. Unfortunately, it’s an attitude I have encountered again and again.
How are we to continue our society, our culture, if the next generation doesn’t READ?! How do we communicate the most important concepts of our world? How do we teach them what works and what doesn’t? It isn’t possible to cram it all into a movie, into a game. The concepts of freedom, the lessons of life, good versus evil…this is the stuff of drama, of the great and less great literature. But they won’t read it, and in some cases, can’t.
There’s an old saying: Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Trite, but true nonetheless. And it applies here doubly ― historically, societies whose literacy broke down tended to collapse shortly thereafter; and how can the kids learn history if they can’t or won’t read about it?
If this trend continues, I shudder for our people.
SBR: You’re also a well-known advocate regarding treatment for panic attacks and/or anxiety disorder. This is a disease that’s become more prominent lately, partly due to the efforts of NFL Hall of Famer Earl Campbell. What is it, why is it important to you, and what do you think should be done about it?
Stephanie Osborn: Panic attacks are horrible. They can feel like you’re having a heart attack or like you’re going to faint, and sometimes you wish you would. Faint, that is. Because then you’d be unconscious and not suffering through it. You’re scared, your heart pounds, you can’t breathe fast enough, your whole body either flushes or the blood drains away into the vital organs and you get light-headed. It can be pure, abject terror. And it can happen for no reason that you can see.
The tendency to have these attacks on a regular or frequent basis is known as anxiety disorder. There are different categories, depending on severity, acuteness of attack, and to some extent, cause of the attack, because it can have many causes.
Causes can range from things like PTSD; to problems in the brain’s amygdalae, which processes fear; to problems in utilizing neurotransmitters, particularly GABA, but also including serotonin. It isn’t fun, and the sufferer isn’t always able to control it.
As it turns out, I have anxiety disorder. It trends in my family, and I have had it off and on since I was a child. It comes and goes, and I can go for long periods of time, even years, decades, with no problems. Then something may happen to stress me ― an event, or an illness, or the like ― and it will come back and hammer me. I’ve had counseling for it and have learned various relaxation techniques, which help. But if a full-on panic attack jumps me unexpectedly, those techniques don’t work too well because they require me to concentrate on the technique, and if you’re panicked, you aren’t going to think too well. So I try very hard to catch it on the upswing by recognizing the symptoms and working to relax. I also have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), where the nerve network in the gut is exceptionally sensitive, and it’s tied into the anxiety disorder: an IBS attack can trigger an anxiety attack, and vice versa. In general, nobody but my family knows I have it, at least to see it happening. I don’t necessarily announce it to the world. But I don’t make a secret of it, either.
Interestingly, it is never DURING an acute, stressful situation that the panic or anxiety hits. If I’m in the middle of an emergency, I will work through the emergency and do whatever is required to get through the situation safely. After it’s over, I may go into a corner and hyperventilate for a few minutes! During that post-emergency time, I’m apt to shake like the proverbial aspen leaf, and all I want is to be quiet and try to relax. I may or may not have a full-blown panic attack. Having a trusted friend or family member nearby is usually soothing, if I do. And I may have recurrences of that, off and on for a few weeks, if something happens to remind me of the emergency.
I want to emphasize: it isn’t dangerous, for the person experiencing the panic or anyone around him. We won’t go ballistic or postal; we aren’t scary crazy people. In general we aren’t confrontational, because confrontation produces stress, and stress will bring on the anxiety. We’re far more apt to want to retreat to the bedroom and just be very quiet. And we aren’t having a heart attack or the like, though it can seem like it sometimes. In so far as I can tell, the very fact that you have anxiety attacks seems to be an indication of a strong circulatory system. I suppose it stands to reason. If it weren’t for the fear it creates, fear that can last for days, weeks, or even months, it probably wouldn’t even be worth a note in the medical books.
But if you know someone who has anxiety disorder, the best thing you can do, if you see him or her in a panic attack, is to take the person aside into a quiet, low-stimulus environment, and help ‘em settle down. Just a couple words to let ‘em know you’re there, you get what’s happening, and you’re there to help. Maybe holding a hand gently, or laying a hand on a shoulder. Don’t babble. In fact, other than the initial, “It’s OK. I’m here, and I get what’s going on,” you don’t really have to talk (unless the victim wants you to talk to help get his/her mind off the panic, in which case, keep the conversation light and away from the focus of the problem). The person experiencing the anxiety needs as little stimulus as possible, and needs to be able to focus on relaxation techniques. (Slow, steady breathing, in various cadences, is the best that I’ve found. If the person is having trouble, offer to count softly: “In… two… three… four… Out… two… three… four.”) When the patient begins to talk again, s/he is starting to relax. You can chat then, but keep your voice down and in a soothing pitch until the person is obviously relaxed again.
SBR: Getting back to your writing career, what sorts of awards have you been nominated for? (Not that this is the be-all and end-all, of course.)
Stephanie Osborn: I have been an EPIC Finalist twice, once for The Y Factor with Darrell Bain, and once for The Fetish. I have also been a finalist for a few other awards, not so prestigious. My experiences with awards have not been good in general — you generally have to pay a fee (the smallest I’ve encountered is $50) for every category you enter, and the final results tend, in my estimation, to be…unusual at best, questionable at worst. Like the time L. Ron Hubbard won a category for a book he wrote…over a decade after his demise. I’m proud of the EPIC finalists, and I consider that award an excellent one; I stay away from most others, these days.
SBR: Two interesting things have happened recently regarding your Displaced Detective series, as an omnibus edition has been released by your publisher, Twilight Times Books, and more interestingly yet, The Displaced Detective Suite, an album put together by composer Dan Hollifield, has also been released. How did these two things happen?
Stephanie Osborn: I couldn’t tell you how The Case of the Displaced Detective Omnibus came to be! That was a complete surprise from my publisher! I was on travel and when I got home she emailed me to surprise me with it. I’m very, VERY pleased, because this is the first omnibus that Twilight Times Books has ever produced, and I’m thrilled that it’s mine.
As for The Displaced Detective Suite**, it is a duly licensed “derivative” work, available in CD and mp3 download, from Amazon (CD), CreateSpace (CD), and Bandcamp (download). Bandcamp also has a lovely bonus track that comes with the album, but didn’t fit on the CD. The album itself is a blend of instrumental and electronica, and could readily be a film score. Each piece causes me to think of the scene(s) that inspired it, and they play out in my mind’s eye as the music plays.
How did it come to be? Well, I’ve known Dan Hollifield for some years; he’s a very talented man. He’s also a fan, particularly of my Displaced Detective series, and one day he presented a song to me on Facebook. It was a solo violin with background instrumentals, what later became the track called, “Meditations of a Displaced Detective,” and I immediately fell in love with it. It evoked a mental image for me of Holmes, yanked from his original life and plopped into the modern world, knowing no one, wondering how he was going to fit in, to make a life for himself. I could “hear” it as either what he would have played during that time if he’d had access to a violin, or what a movie director would use as the theme for that part of the story. I raved over it to Dan, and one thing led to another, and suddenly he was working on more music. Next thing I knew, we had a licensing agreement in place, and he was nearing completion on an album. I’m absolutely blown away by the music.
Since my husband is a graphics artist and does most of my cover art (as well as many other TTB books, and several other publishers too), Dan and I approached him for the album artwork. He agreed, and that was the last thing we needed. The day I got my own copy of the CD, I danced around the house before I even opened it!
SBR: (Not sure what to say to this, though admittedly we’d be tempted to do the same thing in your place.) Thanks again for this wide-ranging, comprehensive interview, Ms. Osborn.
Stephanie Osborn: Thank you most kindly for having me, and especially for allowing me to ramble!
SBR: Our pleasure.
** Note: SBR will feature in coming weeks our first-ever music review, the subject of which being Dan Hollifield’s Displaced Detective Suite. Stay tuned.
Karen Myers‘ second novel in her Hounds of Annwn series is THE WAYS OF WINTER, a clever pun on how the Fae and their friends move around (via “the ways,” which are mysterious for more than one reason). As this is the second book in Myers’ series — the first being reviewed here at SBR back in June — it quite reasonably takes up more or less where Myers left off at the end of book one, TO CARRY THE HORN. Her hero, (mostly) human George Talbot Traherne, is now married to Angharad the Fae artist and living in his great-grandfather Prince Gwyn ap Nudd’s Fae domain, wishing that life would stay slow for a while so he and his new wife could continue their honeymoon in peace.
But that is not to be.
Instead, a crisis of a rather unusual sort crops up: A rock-wight, Seething Magma, makes contact with George while he’s out on a mission of mercy. She comes in search of her child (yes, rock-wights have children), who’s being held captive by a very unscrupulous Fae overlord by the name of Madog. Because the ways are literally byproducts from how rock-wights move from place to place, Madog has found it convenient to have his own little way-maker. And even if Madog knew that he was holding a sentient child (regardless of the unusual form), Madog is the type of evil, devious creature who absolutely would not care whatsoever.
The reason we have to worry about Madog and his evilness isn’t all because of Seething Magma’s child, mind you. Madog also has isolated one of Gwyn’s villages, Edgewood, by the expedient of blocking the way in and out. As this particular village is recovering from a long stay by Gwyn’s villainous sister Creiddylad, who’s since been exiled, and is now being ruled by Gwyn’s young foster-son Rhys, Gwyn sees the blocking of the way as an act of war.
Which, of course, it is.
Because George has a talent for feeling the ways (knowing whether they’re working properly or blocked, knowing precisely where they are within a fifteen mile radius, etc.), Gwyn sends George to check the situation out. Unfortunately, George is quickly captured, then tortured, all because Madog isn’t content to hold Seething Magma’s child.
Oh, no. Madog wants Seething Magma herself, thank you, and will accept no substitutes.
So what’s to do? Will Madog get his way? Even if he doesn’t, what will happen to George? And will Seething Magma ever be reunited with her child?
All of that’s for you to read, but if you enjoy Welsh mythology and/or Arthurian mythos, you should enjoy much of THE WAYS OF WINTER.
Now’s when I normally try to sum up a book’s strengths and weaknesses. But that’s a real problem with this novel, mostly because the plot itself — while extremely convoluted in spots — is interesting, but some of what happens within it strains credulity. Furthermore, the editorial issues I mentioned in my first review for TO CARRY THE HORN are still present, and may have even worsened:
- There are paragraphs within the first third of the novel where it’s extremely difficult to figure out who’s speaking because of odd, distracting attributions that may or may not go with the dialogue.
- Ms. Myers doesn’t seem to like to use italics for normal quoted thought, which in some ways is understandable due to needing to show how Seething Magma communicates (where Ms. Myers quite sensibly uses italics). This is very challenging to sort out as a reader, but if you stay all within one style in a paragraph — whether it’s first person quoted thought or third person — it’s usually fine.
- However, when you see paragraphs upon paragraphs where someone’s thought is in first person (without a “he thought” attribution behind it), then in the same paragraph there’s a bunch of stuff in third person, then again in the same paragraph there’s another thought back in first person without an attribution, that is incredibly distracting.
Look. I really like Ms. Myers’ style. I like how she plots. I like her characterization. I like that her Fae world has good people and bad with a wide variety of motivations, just like what we see every day in our normal lives. I enjoy what she’s doing, but there are just too many editorial mistakes for me to give this the grade it would’ve received without them.
Furthermore, I had a really difficult time dealing with the torture part of the plotline. I’m not saying Ms. Myers shouldn’t have done it, but the way she did it was quite vexing in and of itself because there was actually a bit of distance between George and the torture that I truly didn’t understand.
Yes, all the screaming you’d expect is there. There’s some thought of what George’s new wife will do without him. And I do realize George has an uneasy relationship with Cernunnos, who helps George withstand the torture a whole lot better than someone without that relationship. But there’s something about those scenes that made my Editor Voice scream loudly, “Barb, something’s not right there!”
Also, without giving spoilers, I will say that I’d expected a whole lot more from the ending in the way of an emotional payoff. But did not get it.
Bottom line? Ms. Myers is a promising writer, but THE WAYS OF WINTER is too uneven in tone and most particularly in editing to wholeheartedly recommend despite some true invention and some nice, involving writing here and there.
Because my letter grade must reflect the editing problems, the final grade for THE WAYS OF WINTER is a C.
– reviewed by Barb
Dorothy Ours’ nonfiction epic BATTLESHIP: A Daring Heiress, A Teenage Jockey and America’s Horse is about the 1930s-era Grand National champion horse Battleship, son of the legendary Man o’War. But before you can discuss eleven-year-old Battleship’s epic win at the British Grand National Steeplechase at Aintree, you need first to look at Battleship’s owner — Marion du Pont Scott — to see first why she believed in Battleship at all.
Marion du Pont was mad for horses from a very early age. Her brother loved horses, too, but her brother was allowed to sit on the du Pont corporation’s Board of Directors, while Marion (despite all her business acumen) was not due to her gender. Marion was a trailblazer in the horse racing industry for a number of reasons, partly because she trained many of her horses herself early on, and partly because she was an award-winning rider at a time very few women were active in the horse racing industry. Marion mostly rode astride, too, rather than sidesaddle, as she found it just wasn’t possible to accurately judge what her horse was able to do any other way.
Now, why did Marion du Pont get away with this? While her father’s fortune played a significant role in getting Marion’s foot solidly in the door as a judge of horseflesh, Marion’s own knowledge and willingness to learn was what kept her in the game.
Ours depicts Marion’s life with her first husband, Thomas Somerville, her second husband, film star Randolph Scott, and her later years after she divorced Scott, and shows her to be a modern women in just about every respect — a woman ahead of her time, for certain. Marion was ladylike, yes, and knew how to eat with royalty and all the other clichés told about the very wealthy, but she also keenly enjoyed the business of horse racing. And because of this, Marion was able to make herself a full-fledged career as an owner and breeder at a time very few women were able to do so.
The one constant in Marion’s life was horses. She loved them, loved horse racing of all sorts, on “the flats” (Belmont, the Preakness, the Kentucky Derby, etc.) and the steeplechases, including Aintree. She knew what types of horses were likely to do well at each type of event, and she wasn’t willing to give up on a horse she believed had more potential yet to be shown. Which is why she bought three important horses — Battleship, Annapolis (also out of Man o’War), and Trouble Maker — and entered them in various races.
Ours’ command of horse racing is formidable, but her researching ability is even better. Consider, please, that Ours had to go back to various newspaper clippings and whatever stock film footage was available in order to look at Battleship’s epic win — which was well-documented, as Battleship was the first-ever American-born and American-bred horse to win at Aintree. But she also looked and found a great deal of evidence of Annapolis’s career and the aforementioned Trouble Maker — a big bay gelding with a heart like a wheel and, as Ours depicts him, as game of a horse as may have ever raced. Trouble Maker won the 1932 Maryland Hunt Cup (the Grand National of American horse racing), and ran at Aintree in 1933 but did not win, instead finishing fifteenth.
In fact, Trouble Maker quite steals the show from Battleship in many respects, as Trouble Maker’s career was obviously what Marion du Pont Scott wanted for Battleship. Trouble Maker, while not in the United States Horse Racing Hall of Fame like Battleship or Man o’War, was a particularly good horse with a winning personality, a horse that would run all day for you whether he felt well or ill. And it’s a credit to Ours’ writing that when Trouble Maker takes a particularly hard fall after a jump during his last race, I just couldn’t help wishing he’d get up and finish as he’d done so many times before, even though I knew he was done for.
The teenage jockey who rode Battleship at Aintree was a young man by the name of Bruce Hobbs, who came from a legendary training family and was mad for horses from a particularly young age. Marion du Pont Scott liked him when she met him, and apparently felt he had steady hands and a very good feel for Battleship, a horse that needed careful handling by someone with steely nerves and an excellent grasp of how Battleship raced (saving something for the finishing kick was essential, as Battleship was definitely a strong finisher). And as Reg Hobbs, Bruce’s father, had the training of Battleship while Battleship was in England acclimatizing for his try at the Grand National at Aintree, well, Bruce riding Battleship was as close to a done deal as it ever gets in horse racing.
The whole story of the late-blooming Battleship, his owner Marion du Pont Scott, his jockey Bruce Hobbs, and all of the incredibly vibrant people surrounding them — not to mention the incredibly vibrant horse Trouble Maker — is well worth reading. It’s cinematic in scope, rich in depth and nuance, and absolutely wonderful to behold.
Bottom line? If you love horse racing, women’s history, history of the 1920s and 1930s, non-fiction epics, or all of the above, you will love BATTLESHIP. The writing is stellar, the research is excellent, the historicity is outstanding and the command of the large cast of characters is top-notch.
– reviewed by Barb