Friday, July 19, 2024

How Not to Write a Series or {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review: The Giver Quartet by Lois Lowry, Part 3 by Karen S. Wiesner


How Not to Write a Series

or {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review:

The Giver Quartet by Lois Lowry, Part 3

by Karen S. Wiesner


Note: Be aware that there are spoilers for all the books in the series in this review that will span the next three weeks in order to give adequate summaries for all four titles along with in-depth individual and series reviews. 

The Giver Quartet, young adult fiction, by Lois Lowry features various places in a dystopian world that would seem to have no connection save for the map provided in the slipcase of the hardcovers and also available online. That statement is a little bit of an exaggeration but not by much, as we'll see over the next three weeks. 


For the past two weeks, I've provided full summaries of the four books contained in this thought-provoking series as well as individual reviews. This week, I'll conclude with a thorough exploration of the tragic, overarching themes in each book. 

Before I jump into that, I'll tell you that, in 2014, a movie was made of The Giver with Jeff Bridges, as a long-time champion of seeing the book come to fruition, playing the Giver and Taylor Swift cast as the "daughter" of The Giver, Rosemary, who wasn't a large character in the book itself. Clearly, she was expanded a great deal because it was said she (the Receiver of Memory before Jonas) died years ago in the story, requesting that she be released from the horrible memories she was given. In other words, she allowed herself to be killed so she didn't have to live with the burden of such atrocities committed in the past. 

The book and the movie are very different, as I suppose they had to be. In the book, the governing body of elders is all but faceless. Only the nameless Chief Elder is even vaguely defined there--and really not enough to form an opinion about her. No motives for why the past members created a society marching to the almost religious tune of "Sameness" are ultimately ascribed to the Elders, but there's a general assumption that the strife and division that led to violent wars were so horrible and devastating, someone decided it couldn't ever happen again. Better to be mindless, thoughtless automatons than people with differences, individuality, and free will. Remove the need for cultural memories and human connection, morality and good and evil, and life is grand. For who? Not for the majority of humanity, I'd speculate after reading all the books. 

For the story to be understood in that visual form, of course the movie had to impart the government with motives. This fact made me wonder if there was a justifiable reason for why the governing body in the book thought they were doing the right things by creating a society like this. Even if I can't imagine anything that could rationalize it, I desperately wanted to hear the explanation. In any case, the film extrapolates because there's nothing offered on that count in the book. Shouldn't it have been a thing in the book, though, as it was in the movie? In retrospect, it strongly feels like that was missing from the story, even though Lowry was clearly telling a simple story of a boy living in a complicated world (for which there is no explanation) who's had the veil lifted from his own mind. In his limited point of view, the answers to his questions couldn't be provided, nor did he have the power to change anything but his own life along with the one he chose to rescue. But it does feel a little like a lost opportunity with this series as a whole because the perspective of the characters Lowry chose to portray these individual stories through is far too limited to actually tell the full story in each book. 

Not only that but the POV characters, almost unilaterally, lack the curiosity and ambition to find out and act on the answers they discover. In most cases, they uncovered a little bit of the truth and retreated. Was flight to another place or, alternately, foolishly hoping to continue their existence as they had before in the place they call home a viable solution? Is hoping something good will come of their mere presence within the community--being the change they wanted to see--enough? Either option seems woefully optimistic, given the almost unchanging stasis the villages in this setting seemed locked into within this series. Even in the film, no lasting impact is made by the fight for justice and freedom. There, the Chief Elder refuses to provide freedom to the community, saying dismissively that "freedom is a bad idea because when they are left to their own devices, people make bad choices". The ending shatters like glass beneath a sweeping statement that sees the group as one body, not its individual parts who may or may not fit into such a generalized assessment. No, that was not remotely good enough. Nor, I say, was the ending presented in the book. 

Additionally, one reviewer aptly describes The Giver as "a story of a government keeping humanity bottled up in one man, the Giver" and comments on "how dangerous and cruel this burden can be". I do believe that's another reason why the author never told the story behind the governing body in the Community. Lowry was focused almost entirely on The Giver and The Recipient, Jonas and what they were doing to keep society in a state of cultural-memory lacking dormancy the Elders had decided was best for it. The author's scope was narrowed on that situation alone, resulting in the same kind of horror in which a train wreck is witnessed. The reader is so helpless as to wish he or she had never walked out the front door that morning. Or, more aptly, had never picked up the book in the first place. 

Not surprisingly, the anti-government themes have made The Giver a banned book for countless years. On this one point, I stand with Lowry about that situation--it's not okay for an organization (especially one with any kind of agenda) to make choices about what the population as a whole is allowed. That's ironically the theme of this entire series, and yet it wasn't something Lowry ran with in any of the books. She gives a hint at the injustices visited upon an unsuspecting population and yet nothing is done to rectify them by the main characters, who maybe should have felt much more compelled to act, either then or when they got old enough to actually deal with the corruption. 

Once I finished reading all four stories in the series, I was left with mixed feelings. Lois Lowry is an award-winning author of some of the most beloved young adult stories ever written. I have no doubt she deserves the accolades she's received. Her stories are unique, thought-provoking, and undeniably compelling--haunting even. The Giver is counted by many as one of the most important books ever written, as evidenced by the fact that it's required reading for many schools around the globe. These are the stories she felt compelled to tell. I can't claim she did them wrong. I can only admit I left them disappointed and thoroughly disillusioned. 

An inescapable problem I had with the four stories was that the author didn't seem to want to finish telling them and/or she didn't/couldn't tell the tales from all the necessary angles to make the plot feel fully realized--and all conflicts were so similar as to be nearly the same from one book to the next. An interview the author participated in on her website offers some crucial insight into why this was the case: "Many kids want a more specific ending to The Giver. Some write, or ask me when they see me, to spell it out exactly. And I don't do that. And the reason is because The Giver is many things to many different people. People bring to it their own complicated beliefs and hopes and dreams and fears and all of that. So I don't want to put my own feelings into it, my own beliefs, and ruin that for people who create their own endings in their minds… I like people to figure out for themselves. And each person will give it a different ending."

As a writer myself, this type of uncommitted withdrawal from story and character liability, frankly, horrifies me. Any book I write is my story. I own it in every sense of the word. I want to tell it in every aspect without letting someone else do that important work of development for me. I just do not want other people to have their hands in the telling of my story. In that way, I take full responsibility for it and everything involved in its creation. To do any less in my mind is lazy; at worst, it's irresponsible. Additionally, for my part, as a reader, I sure the heck don't want to write another person's story for them, which is essentially what Lowry is forcing her audience to do! I want to read what an author has conceived of on his or her own. Those who can't write a book themselves almost certainly don't want to be given only part of a story that requires them to fill in the missing pieces on their own. Beyond that, those who are capable of telling a story on their own may not feel right about finishing someone else's work, as I wouldn't. I freely admit I've never read Lowry's other books, and I'm unlikely to after completing this series, in large part because I'm afraid she won't finish the story she started, preferring to leave important details out rather than deprive readers of the opportunity to do that vital work for her. 

On top of that basic complaint, I find myself confused about the purpose in telling stories with protagonists that may become the heroes in their own lives and may even make their small part of the world a better place for a few others close to them, yet these "heroes" are completely powerless to stand against the Powers That Be while they're children and seemingly even after they get older. Point of fact, in Book 1, Jonas ran away from the sheep-like community with Gabe, essentially leaving everyone else living there to an eternity of blindness, under the moot care of selfish leaders and the one person--The Giver--who could have freed them all…yet didn't, couldn't, wouldn't…and we never find out why he prefers to be so ineffective against such horror. In Book 2, Kira had an opportunity to escape to a better place to live with her father and best friend Matty. Instead, she valiantly stays where she is, believing she can somehow make her home a better place, but how she can do that doesn't seem likely or even possible, nor is the reader told concrete ways she could attempt to make a meaningful difference in her community. In Book 3, Matty gives his life to allow Kira to be reunited with her father and to meet her soulmate. To what end? For what purpose? For the greater good? No. Seemingly just for a select few--the ones quite literally in closest proximity to him at the time--Kira and Jonas, and his dog. In Book 4, Kira and Jonas seem mostly interested in their own small world with their marriage and family. Jonas is no longer Leader. Seer is gone. While they're helpful in reuniting Claire and Gabe, and that's a good thing, the terrible world around them isn't getting any better. No one seems to care enough to do anything to deal with those who are either ignorant or arrogant. Individual lives are improved in each book, nothing more, nothing less. Is that really the overarching story that should have been told in these books? I don't discount the worthiness of making life better for yourself and the ones you love, but doesn't it seem…well, a bit selfish? In fiction, isn't the point to portray heroes who try to do more than simply exist beyond the moment? 

The major issues I had with The Giver Quartet are: 

1)    The author didn't create worthy protagonists with the drive or skills necessary to combat the evil in the world they live in. All the characters were far too young to be given the role of savior as well as too passive do what needed to be done--at that time or in the future. The adults in the story were content to live with the situations they were in. So the children cast in the starring roles either ran away from problems or learned to live with them, too, rather than confronting and revolting against them. In some cases, they were physically unable to fight injustice, especially on the large scale that was needed. To me, as n author, that speaks of not "outfitting characters properly" (as Dwight V. Swain calls it in Creating Characters) for the tasks readers want to see them undertake. In fiction, we want larger-than-life heroes who can change the world, compelled to stand up when others can't or won't. Even children's books these days have protagonists who are capable of might, valiant deeds. Lowry did give each of her characters some kind of "magic" power and yet even that couldn't save anyone but themselves for the most part. Why? Why not do more with these characters? Why not outfit them better for the task? Why focus exclusively on characters that aren't up to dealing with the conflicts? 

2)                   In some ways, the world in The Giver Quartet was simply too big. So much of each of the books was devoted to world building aspects (the first one, especially, at least three-fourths was devoted to describing the situation and setting). By the time the story actually started for these characters, it was essentially over for them. It was almost as if the author said to the protagonists: "Now that you've got a taste of the problem we're living with in this place, here are your choices, but you only get one option. And you'll have the next two minutes to decide what you should do." Readers were given a fleeting, longing glimpse of an overwhelming conflict within this shocking world that they wanted to see rectified, followed by a rushed response on the part of the protagonist, and little more to flesh out the entire scenario in the satisfying depth it needed to be in order to fully realize and resolve it. 

3)                 Similar to what's in the last point, the author didn't try to live up to the potential of the similar plots by telling the stories in their entirety. If you want to tell a story, tell the whole story. In fiction, no one wants to hear part of a story. How frustrating is that?! Essentially, too many things that felt necessary are missing from each of these books. The scope of the main character in each was too limited to provide what was lacking, so the reader couldn't see the conflict fully realized and fully dealt with. In other words, almost all across the board, the villains and the problems they caused couldn't be seen through a wide enough lens to be clear until it was far too late. The protagonists weren't up to the task of meeting the challenges before them, then they were rushed out of the book with the hounds of hell all but on their tails. All of that led to outcomes that could never be gratifying to any reader. In this way, none of the stories felt finished, the conflicts just left dangling there, unresolved by the ones readers were led to believe would be handling them. I would say most of the scenarios presented as conflicts felt abandoned--by both the author and the main characters who should have been allowed to provide resolutions for them in each book. And that was just sad. Undeniably, each book is memorable, but more so like a trauma that was so brutally scarring, healing could never be an option. 

4)                      Finally, while I think Gathering Blue, Book 2, was my favorite entry of the four, I can't help believing the series would have been better if Books 2 and 3 weren't part of it. I strongly think Son should have been the sequel to The Giver. Period. Gathering Blue and Messenger felt like distractions to the unified story being told in Books 1 and 4 and would have been better presented as completely separate and unrelated to The Giver and Son. Certainly, the story would have been much more cohesive and satisfying if readers had left the astonishingly abrupt ending of The Giver and gone straight into Son. In that way, the latter could become the companion to the first, as it was touted to be. In the author's defense, I'm pretty sure the publisher was left to decide how to package these books after they were cobbled together to become a series. In exactly the same way, the unifying story told in Gathering Blue and Messenger would have been much more effective if the two had been offered in a similar companion story unit, ascribing a different world and time period altogether to them outside of the series they were thrust into like a square peg in a round hole. In all honestly, the romance between Kira and Jonas was little more than a mention anyway, not important or particularly interesting--and yet that was the forced connection that was intended to tie all the books together. Simply put, it didn't really work. 

My overall sense is that this disenchantment I left The Giver Quartet with is what happens when a series isn't planned in advance or planned well. This isn't to say that the books aren't well-written; they are, or I probably wouldn't have pursued reviewing them at all. I guess I've always believed that if you can't say something nice in a review, it's better to say nothing at all. So I will state emphatically that these books are definitely worth reading, despite all my loud qualms. 

I'm left with the belief that the author wanted to create stories that had a message. Was the message simply to make you think about reality--that most people who existed in the past, currently live, and those to come in the future have, do, and will strongly disagree with how our leaders are running things, and yet we do nothing about it? Is the message that there are no larger-than life heroes in The Giver world nor the one we live in?  That no act is too small to be heroic? This was true in the case of Jonas, who risked his life to save Gabe; in the case of Kira, who insisted on staying within a corrupted community she hoped to make better with her gift; in the case of Matty, who gave his life to make the world better for two people he cared about; and in the case of Claire, who risked everything for the chance to know the child she gave birth to. 

Undoubtedly, this series made a lasting impact on me, but maybe not in the way the author intended. If the books had been published as two separate sets, in worlds distinctly removed from other each, and if the author hadn't limited the viewpoints or, better, chosen more proactive characters to effect actual change in their communities, I think I could have liked these stories much more and been able to recommend them wholeheartedly. As it is, my highest recommendation with what we've been given as a series is to read Book 4 directly after reading Book 1, then read Books 2 and 3 to fill in any holes. 

If you're a reader who doesn't mind "lady and the tiger" endings and being left to wonder what will happen in the future of a tragic world, or if you're looking for nothing more than a thoughtful portrayal of a realistically traumatizing scenario where bad people win and good people put up with it while trying to make their own little patch of the world a better place, then you'll find what you're looking for here. In any case, I strongly feel a warning is necessary for this series: Don't go into reading it believing the overall story will be neatly wrapped up any point, that there are any answers at all here, and that the bad guys will be soundly defeated eventually. Read it for the thought-provoking scenarios presented, and that's what you'll get, nothing more, nothing less. 

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

Visit her website here:


Find out more about her books and see her art here:

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Thursday, July 18, 2024

Octopuses Rewire Brains

Sounds like a 1950s SF horror movie, doesn't it? Don't worry, they rewire their brains -- not ours -- in response to temperature fluctuations:

Octopuses Redesign Their Own Brains

An octopus has about the same number of neurons as a dog and, unlike mammals, has decentralized brains, distributed among its eight arms as well as its head.

The research described in this SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN article explores how octopuses adjust to cold (and sometimes heat) by "editing" their neurons in reaction to the environment. To adapt to seasonal temperature shifts, they "edit their RNA, which is a genetic molecule that carries DNA’s instructions to produce proteins." In addition to cold and heat, this RNA recoding can also promote adaptation to other environmental changes, such as oxygen level.

Most other cephalopods can also "recode the majority of neural proteins," but no mammals do it to anywhere near the same extent. Octopuses and their relatives may need this ability in order to protect their brains in changing environments because, being ectothermic ("cold-blooded"), they can't regulate their body temperature the way we do.

Wouldn't it be nifty if we could rewire our brains in response to environmental and internal factors such as food intake and energy output, to self-regulate our own weight at will? Some team of mad scientists should look into reprogramming the human genome to create that ability.

Other fascinating facts about octopus brain powers, including tool use and the ability to recognize human individuals:

Octopuses Keep Surprising Us

If not for the sad fact that octopuses not only lead solitary lives but also die soon after breeding -- all their offspring grow up as orphans -- and thus can't pass on learned knowledge and skills to the next generation, they might dominate the sea just as we dominate the land.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Friday, July 12, 2024

How Not to Write a Series or {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review: The Giver Quartet by Lois Lowry, Part 2 by Karen S. Wiesner


How Not to Write a Series

or {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review:

The Giver Quartet by Lois Lowry, Part 2

by Karen S. Wiesner


Note: Be aware that there are spoilers for all the books in the series in this review that will span the next three weeks in order to give adequate summaries for all four titles along with in-depth individual and series reviews.

The Giver Quartet, young adult fiction, by Lois Lowry features various places in a dystopian world that would seem to have no connection save for the map provided in the slipcase of the hardcovers and also available online. That statement is a little bit of an exaggeration but not by much, as we'll see over the next three weeks. 

Last week, I provided a lengthy summary to give a clear view of the world The Giver, Book 1 of the series quartet of the same name, is set in, as well as offering an introductory review. This week, we'll continue with Books 2-4.

In truth, Lowry didn't intend to write a series based on The Giver, and for that reason I can't really fault her for how ill-conceived the subsequent books are (more on those later). In fact, interviews with the author after the release of The Giver have her laughing at the idea of committing to a return to that world, saying, "That's like asking a woman in labor if she wants to have another baby next year…maybe down the road a little bit, not too far off, maybe I could get excited about it." Seven years later, what's called by the publisher a companion book was released. To me, that description is a big stretch. The first and second books of The Giver Quartet have almost nothing in common and only moot connections are made to the world featured in the first book. 

In Book 2 of the series, Gathering Blue, we're introduced to another dystopian community that's vastly different from the one previously detailed. According to the map, "the Village" is shown on the top right. In this society, the people are ruled by another council that makes all the decisions for the people and ironically calls itself Guardians. There are unabashed social classes depicted in this loosely gathered community. The council itself occupies the upper crust, along with those who are gifted, and these few receive the best of everything. The middle class scrap and fight for their leftovers. The poor, starving, and sick live in The Fen with barely tolerable, swamp-like conditions. 

The main character Kira is deformed, and by all the laws of the Village, she should have been abandoned as a newborn by her mother in the Field of Leaving, where everyone is told that beasts and certain death await. Orphans, those injured, lame, and ill, along with the old and outcast, are all dragged there to die. After Kira's mother's death, she has to prove to the council she can contribute to society or she'll be carted off to feed wild beasts. Her skill as a weaver of color is all that saves her. But the underbelly of this community is utterly rotten, not only within the council, but in the cruel, almost inhumane population that freely abuses and cages their own children and abides in open hostility with each other. Kira with her weaving gift, Thomas with his woodworking, and another child Jo from The Fen with her ability to sing, are all but imprisoned (though in a pampered sort of way) by the council. They're forced to use their gifts in order to allow the community leaders to control the future as they envision it. In the book, it's said that, during their annual Ceremony of the Gathering, a prisoner singer with chained, scarred, and bleeding feet wears the robe Kira spent the year repairing and enhancing and uses the staff Thomas has spent the year creating to tell the tale of their people's history and future. How exactly the council utilizes the gifts that contribute to the song in order to control the future is never made clear. There were no explanations or details given to make any of that understandable in the world readers live in. 

Kira is a compelling character the reader can't help rooting for with her strength, kindness, and tenacity, along with Matty, a filthy, smelly boy from The Fen, who has plucky enthusiasm and a fearless willingness to defy authority. Disappointingly, the villains in this story are never called out for their crimes, nor are their real motives and presumed machinations illuminated. While at least one of the council members is given a face, we learn almost nothing about him or the travesties he was (again, presumably) not alone in perpetuating. These leaders just continue on with the same old same old, seemingly with the main character and the talented ones that live with her maybe making a difference in the community's future with their gifts (though it's as uncertain how Kira, Thomas, and Jo will do this as how the councils controlled the people with a song). In any case, if and when any real changes are effected in this society, it happens off-screen. Ultimately, from what I deciphered at the end of this book and in the ones that follow, Kira, Thomas, and Jo chose not to find out more about the crimes of the council or to do anything but use their gifts somehow to try to change the council's attempts to influence the future for their own (presumably selfish) purposes. The author chose to make all of that vague and unsatisfying for readers. 

Matty disappears near the end of the book. When he comes back, he returns with many surprises for Kira. One of them is her blind father, who wasn't killed by wild animals in the Field of Leaving after all, as she was told he was many years ago. Christopher found his way to a distant place called "Village of Healing" (middle left of the map), where the injured who survived the Field have built a place of mending and acceptance for all outsiders. It's here that we're given the one connection between Books 1 and 2--in the off-hand mention of an unnamed boy from that place who came to the village with a child, and both were initially unharmed. Later, we discover these people are Jonas and Gabe from The Giver, Book 1. From interviews with the author, I'm unclear whether even Lowry realized who they were when she wrote them or if she later decided to make them characters from The Giver. I suspect the latter. 

Messenger, Book 3, is Matty's story, and takes place six to seven years after The Giver and Gathering Blue. The place he lives is inhabited by those who sought refuge after being "discarded" or escaped from other places in this fictional world. Matty lives with Kira's father Christopher (called "Seer"). Kira didn't come to this village with Matty in the last book, believing she could still do good where she currently lived. 

Jonas is revealed cryptically (in otherwise, his name isn't explicitly said) in this book to have become Village "Leader". Matty is given the task of being the Messenger, the only person who can cross the forest between their village and Kira's unharmed. He's also found that he has another gift--the ability to heal living things by touching them. This depletes him in the process, an omen for the future. 

Someone called "Trademaster" has arrived in the village and exchanges gaming machines for a person's best qualities. Yes, you read that right, and my response to what I expect is your puzzled look is that I'm not at all sure why the author chose this weird angle for her story. The effect on the town is profound. People who had previously been kind and generous, always willing to help others, including outsiders, change radically because of the Trademaster's deception and nefarious agenda. They vote to close the village to outsiders. Leader and Seer plead to be allowed three weeks before the wall that keeps all others out is finished being built. Only Matty can go to Kira's village in time and bring her back before the way is shut. But the journey is dangerous, with the forest now sick and violent toward anyone who enters, I presume because of the Trademaster's evil. (Sigh, no explanation is given for how such a thing could be done or what powers beyond trickery the master of trade possesses to force such an unnatural situation.) 

While I liked Matty from Book 2 and he was interesting in this story as well, I can't say I thought this story was well-conceived--especially the villain and how he goes about seducing the townsfolk. The author writes this book and all the others in the series from such a limited point of view, and her characters are simply never curious or ambitious enough to find out the full details the story needs in order to bring a plot full circle, from adequate illumination of the conflict to satisfactory resolution. Who is the Trademaster and what does he really want? How does he pull off these exchanges that somehow make people who were good and kind into monsters? He showed up in the final two books in the series and he was never explained well enough to make sense to me, or to allow me to suspend belief about his abilities, utilizing slot machines to trick people into giving up the things that matter more in life than a few pieces of candy that come out of the games as prizes. What?! If readers had been allowed to find out more about the villain's powers, his motives, if plausible scenarios about how his evil worked were presented, maybe this story could have been genuinely moving. As such, I left it disappointed and very, very disconcerted about the cruel ending that didn't seem fair to me. 

This short book moves devastatingly into Book 4, Son, which brings the reader back into Jonas's village in Book 1, before he fled with the infant Gabe. In this story, the tale of Gabe's biological mother Claire is told. The baby's birth was traumatic, and Claire is reassigned to work at the Fish Hatchery instead of being allowed to go through it again. Eventually, she stops taking the pills that repress her emotions and curiosity. No longer passively accepting her fate and forgetting the child she'd birthed, Claire seeks to identify her son. 

Part one of this story, Before, is nearly over before it begins, ending, naturally, when Jonas flees the Community with Gabe. Claire eventually goes in search of him in Part two, Between. Unfortunately, the Trademaster, who was shortsightedly banished in the last book and free to continue doing harm to anyone he encountered, offers her a very bad trade in exchange for being taken to her son. 

In part three, Beyond, she ends up in the lower right of the map as an old woman, her youth stolen in order to gain what she's wanted most since her son was born. We learn that Jonas and Kira are now married with children (something that happened off-stage between Books 3 and 4 of the series). For his part, Gabriel longs to discover his mother, feeling like he was orphaned without explanation. I was bothered that Jonas didn't seem to have continued to take care of the infant once they arrived in this village. He and Jonas know each other, yes, but the relationship didn't strike me as close as it should have been. Gabe knows of the old woman who showed up out of nowhere in the lower village, but he isn't aware at first and then outright doesn't believe once he's told she's his mother. 

Part one of this story was compelling, seeing Jonas's world from a whole different perspective. As when The Giver ended so suddenly, being propelled into the next part of the book almost felt shocking because everything changed between the two parts, so it was almost like starting a brand new story with a character that might have been a different person for how vast the alterations were in Claire. The segue between parts two and three felt the same to me--drastic and abrupt. That Jonas wasn't willing to tell Gabe everything he knew (or at least hemmed and hawed about it for far too long to be more than contrivance), especially after Jonas and Claire met and the truth was revealed, felt a little too much like author convenience in my mind. When Gabe is finally convinced that Claire is actually his birth mother, he has no choice but to deal with the Trademaster once and for all. In order to do that, a magical power called veering is all but handed to him from the moment he realizes he needs it. I fully anticipated a bad ending to this story, but luckily the author didn't do what I fearfully expected. What follows is tragic, frustrating, and yet for the most part a fitting ending to the series. 

The last three books in this series follow the same pattern as Book 1 with innocent young adults being the ones to discover the horrors perpetrated for countless generations against their communities, usually by greedy leaders. These children are helpless to act against such a force, and therefore little or nothing presumably changes. Perhaps the author was hoping readers would accept a "Be the Change" attitude in these powerless heroes? Or maybe she just wanted to show that sometimes in life nothing gets better with time. People just keep making the same mistakes and/or are powerless to act against those who seek to control them. Only those in charge--the wealthy and powerful--hold the cards of change. If the latter is the case, then that lesson was slammed home mercilessly four tragic times in the course of this series. Next week, I'll conclude with a thorough exploration of the devastating themes in The Giver Quartet. 

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

Visit her website here:


Find out more about her books and see her art here:

Visit her publisher here:

Thursday, July 11, 2024

Stories as a Survival Strategy

A project at John Hopkins University explores how stories enhance learning and memory:

How the Brain Processes Stories

They've even set up a writing contest for flash fiction works to be used in the study. (Open only to Baltimore residents, however.)

According to Janice Chen, one of the professors involved, “Understanding stories is part of the fundamental anatomy of the brain.” Liife consists of "a series of events," and our brains process events into stories.

As a familiar example goes, "The king died, and the queen died" isn't a story; "The king died, and then the queen died of grief" is. This processing function is one reason why it doesn't bother me that the four gospels disagree among themselves about the details of some incidents. Of course different people, retelling the same events, often recall them differently. Each person's mind creates a narrative meaningful to him or her. That doesn't prove the event never happened at all.

Arranging facts into a narrative structure makes them easier to remember, and accurate memory is necessary for survival. Chen notes that "stories across all formats are equally useful at transforming fleeting events into permanent memories." Moreover, narrative helps us learn about cause and effect. We are "programmed to crave" stories for the same reason our brains motivate us to seek food and sex -- for survival.

This study reminds me of discoveries about "mirror neurons," which enable animals as well as humans to empathize with others of their kind and learn by watching someone else perform an action:

New Light on Mirror Neurons

Thus we can also grow empathy, learning to perceive the world through the minds and senses of others, by "witnessing" their actions in stories whether oral, written, acted, or filmed.

As C. S. Lewis says in AN EXPERIMENT IN CRITICISM, "But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see."

Just a few ways in which fiction and its creators are vitally important to the human species!

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Sunday, July 07, 2024

Crossing the (Edge) Line

Apparently, crossing the edge line pavement marking is discouraged, but it is not illegal. That unbroken white line on the right side of the motorway, between the "slow" lane and the rumble strip or the area where you might pull off to the side if stopped by a policeman is primarily there to help drivers in bad weather know where the edge of the road is.

To find out more than you ever wanted to know about Edge Lines and other painted lines on roadways and pavements, look here:

Good to know. Why am I telling you this? 

Well, it is always good to know your rights. One might be pulled over for crossing that white line if a patrol officer suspects that one is driving "impaired" or "distracted". However, that might not be the worst of it.

What happens when blues and twos appear in your rear view mirror? You pull off, and might have to brake quite heavily, not of course to brake check the officer, but if the side of the road is running out of room.

Unbeknowst to most, your car might chalk up that swerving and braking and leaving the road to horrible driving, it might report your behavior indirectly to your insurance agent, and your insurance premiums might go up.

Catalina Sanchez of the Electronic Freedom Foundation gives her own examples of tricky driving, and explains how car makers surveill their customers and sell the results of their snooping to data brokers and insurance companies.

I think that that crosses the line!

Earlier in the spring, another EFF blogger, Thorin Klosowski, wrote a very good guide to figuring out what your car knows about you, and how to opt out of as much creepy surveillance as possible.

By the way, that organization appears to be fund raising, and any link to any of their articles may default to a sign-up-and-give page. Just try again, you can read the good stuff without paying. How hypocritical it would be of EFF if it were any other way!

All the best,

Rowena Cherry 
EPIC Award winner, Friend of ePublishing for Crazy Tuesday   

Friday, July 05, 2024

How Not to Write a Series or {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review: The Giver Quartet by Lois Lowry, Part 1 by Karen S. Wiesner


How Not to Write a Series

or {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review:

The Giver Quartet by Lois Lowry, Part 1

by Karen S. Wiesner


Note: Be aware that there are spoilers for all the books in the series in this review that will span the next three weeks in order to give adequate summaries for all four titles along with in-depth individual and series reviews.

The Giver Quartet, young adult fiction, by Lois Lowry features various places in a dystopian world that would seem to have no connection save for the map provided in the slipcase of the hardcovers and also available online. That statement is a little bit of an exaggeration but not by much, as we'll see over the next three weeks.  

Book 1, The Giver, was published in 1993. Books 2-4 were released between 2000 and 2012. I actually read the first book three times over the course of 15-some years before I realized it was actually part of a series. I was in a bookstore in March of this year and saw the boxed set there. Because I do vividly recall being disappointed and stunned with the ending each time I read it, wishing there could be more closure, I bought it and started reading immediately. I also watched the movie at some vague point long ago. 

The Giver is a very slow, strange story about a 12-year-old boy named Jonas who lives in an equally strange world that initially seems like a utopian society. The author never gives any sort of timeline for the series, beyond that it's set in a future period and universe. It simply exists and no past events can root it in actual reality. The focus of the first book in the series is a town referred to as only "The Community" (on the map above, it's the northernmost left area). Here, the people are isolated and cut off from the rest of the world. In this place, pain and difficulties have virtually been eliminated, favoring "Sameness". Here, they lack color, climate changes, differing terrain, freedom, individuality, and, though a semblance of equality is maintained, certain members of society are nevertheless clearly more favored than others. What this means in practice is that the members are ruled by a body of elders who make all the decisions--like inflicting color blindness on everyone (on the map, this town is rendered in black and white for that reason), assigning everyone roles that have very definite consequences in their life quality, drugging them so they can't feel emotions or sexual desire and don't question the way things are and have to be, essentially quashing any considerations of rebellion or merely learning something beyond what they're allowed. 

Further, babies are genetically engineered, artificially inseminated into very young Birthmothers who aren't allowed to nurture or even know anything about their own offspring. Only children who thrive and are deemed able to contribute to society continue to exist. If they don't and aren't, they're "released". No one in this society, not even the nurturers, questions this. They don't realize they're actually killing the babies. In the same way, the old are released when their time comes, and everyone believes this is some kind of blessing for everyone (kind of like in the early dystopian fiction story, 1967's novel Logan's Run and the possibly better known film of the same name, where everyone who reaches the age of 21 or 30, depending on whether you're reading the book or watching the movie, is forced to participate in a ritual called Carousel, in which a pleasure-inducing toxic gas kills them). 

Life is peaceful in the Community, if a little boring and confining, for those who do what's expected of them. They live their lives in family groups consisting of a husband and wife who don't have sex, brought together through the Elder council's own form of online dating--science and proper matching lead to those who apply for a spouse finding exactly the right person to complement them. Later, the couple can apply for children--one girl and one boy. The children attend school until they reach the age of 12, when they're assigned what will become their life's work. 

During the annual Ceremony of Twelve--something that smacked of being pulled right out of the Divergent Series by Veronica Roth, but of course that has to be the other way around since the first book in Divergent came out in 2011--Jonas is singled out to become the next Receiver of Memory. While highest honor and responsibility are given with this role, the separation Jonas feels is profound. His trainer is called The Giver, and he's very old, the only person in the Community to have access to books about the past and cultural memories. He alone has carried this burden, as the one before him did, and as Jonas will now be required to do. The Giver councils the Elders on the past in order to better the Community and avoid the mistakes made before. The Giver transfers these colorful memories that were passed down to him from the previous Giver to Jonas. If a Giver leaves or is missing from the Community, all the memories would pass back to the people, which would disrupt everything, all semblance of life as they know it. (How does it work? I'm not really sure. It's stated as simple fact and never questioned nor explained.) 

As I said, this is a very slow story and it's told in an extremely passive tone (something that can be said of all the books in the series), which actually makes a lot of sense--at least in Book 1--because this society is very repressed. Since they feel little, they don't realize so many things they're doing are wrong, even horrifying. Only after Jonas is given the memories does he realize all the Community is missing--color, passion, the need to learn and grow and share memories. Only through these things can they truly connect with each other. 

Jonas also realizes at that time that the baby Gabe his nurturer father has been bringing home in order to help him thrive is being evaluated by the Elders. In other words, if Gabe doesn't soon prove he's worthy to join and contribute to their society, he'll be released--killed. There's a horrible scene in the book where Jonas watches his father murder a newborn baby--injecting him with a drug that kills him, putting the lifeless body in a box, and sending him off like dirty laundry all while being happy and not having the slightest clue what release actually means. Beware, those who are particularly sensitive, because that's disturbing in the extreme. Do I think it should have been left out? By no means. This story required it. Sometimes in life, even alternate life in fiction, cruel realities need to be described in order for the impact to be truly felt. In this case, it was the catalyst for Jonas to take drastic action to save a life he deemed worthwhile. The author did this as tastefully as possible. Be assured there was nothing gratuitous about the scene. 

It's at the end of this story that Jonas finally becomes fully aware of what's happening in this sterile place. Almost before the story has really begun, Jonas flees into "Elsewhere" (the dense, dangerous woods beyond the Community) with infant Gabe in order to save his life. The ending is shocking and abrupt, to say the least, and many of Lowry's fans assumed--like I did--that Jonas and Gabe died at the end of The Giver. While Lowry stated she's "always kind of surprised and disappointed" by that reaction, she found her own ending optimistic (because Jonas and Gabe happen upon a house with warm lights burning inside, the strains of music playing). 

Just to give you closure, I will tell you that at no point in the series do readers learn what happens to the Community. The overall tone of subsequent books in the series implies (to me anyway) that they just went on as they were, without the cultural memory returned to each of them, never enlightened about what they'd done and were doing wrong. When Jonas fled, The Giver, who'd simply gone along with the Elder's agenda for so many years, still held most of the memories and therefore would have had to train yet another Receiver of Memory. And that horrifying world just kept on spinning without change or salvation, maybe indefinitely. 

In other words, Jonas had been given the opportunity to save the entire community alongside the old Giver, as the two of them had planned before Gabe was sentenced to be released. They'd intended for The Giver to finish transferring the cultural memory to Jonas, then Jonas would leave the community, which would cause the memories to return to every individual. Instead, Jonas bravely, kindly chose to save Gabe alone. True, Jonas was little more than a child himself trapped in the heartless machinations of an adult world without pity or remorse, as was the helpless infant about to be killed simply because he made too many waves, required too much of the community to be left alive any longer. What a tragedy. 

I'm aware that Lowry's intention was to explore human connection and the power of memories with this story, which is admirable and well done, but I can't help wishing the author had been able to provide Jonas, undoubtedly the hero of the story, with more…more options, more power, more help from the old Giver and maybe others, more of anything that would have allowed him to change a system that had taken away everything that made life worth living. Above all, that's the story I wish I'd been told here. Instead, readers are left with the haunting reality of innocence and insight stolen willfully by selfish elders from generations of blind people in this community; with the old Giver too broken and weakened by the knowledge he alone carries to do what has to be done to save them; and with two children--Jonas and Gabe--who escape and survive but essentially abandon their own society for all time to short-sighted leaders. I can't be the only one who finds it hard to read a story in which there is and can be no victory; worse, in which there is no hope. Readers are merely shown cold, hard facts about a wheel that will keep on turning perpetually because there's no one powerful and selfless enough to break the pattern. 

Next week, I'll continue this article with summaries of Books 2-4 of The Giver Quartet. 

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

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Thursday, July 04, 2024

Copyright and Fair Use

Here's a new article by Cory Doctorow about copyright takedowns and the intricacies of the "fair use" doctrine:

Copyright Takedown Cautionary Tale

Fair use is a subtle, context-dependent matter, and according to Doctorow, many of what are popularly thought to be firm rules about what constitutes fair use are simply untrue.

This essay focuses mainly on copyright enforcement by social media sites, which often delete content in a draconian manner and make successful appeals by innocent uploaders difficult to impossible. For example: "Google’s copyright enforcement system is a cod-legal regime with all the downsides of the law, and a few wrinkles of its own. . . . And a single mis-step can result in your video being deleted or your account being permanently deleted, along with every video you’ve ever posted. . . . So for the average Youtuber, Content ID is a kind of Kafka-as-a-Service system that is always avoided and never investigated."

Even in this short article, Doctorow goes into great detail, illustrating the complexity of the issue. So much of this material is new to me that I don't have anything substantive to say about it, just that it's a bit scary. Recommended reading.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt

Friday, June 28, 2024

Of Proper Short Story Collection Assemblage or {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review: Rogues Anthology Edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois by Karen S. Wiesner


Of Proper Short Story Collection Assemblage

or {Put This One on Your TBR List}

Book Review: Rogues Anthology

Edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

by Karen S. Wiesner



Rogues, published in 2014, is far from the first anthology George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois have edited and assembled together. It's just one in a veritable showcase that doesn't skimp on a significant volume of diverse stories, as you can see from this listing: 

Ø    Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance (sci-fi and fantasy stories in tribute to this author's Dying Earth Series, published in 2009)

Ø    Warriors (cross-genre stories on the subjects of war and warriors, published in 2010)

Ø    Songs of Love and Death: All-Original Tales of Star-Crossed Love (cross-genre stories of romance in science fiction/fantasy settings published in 2010)

Ø    Down These Strange Streets (urban fantasy stories published in 2011)

Ø    Old Mars ("retro Mars science fiction"-themed stories published in 2013)

Ø    Dangerous Women (cross-genre stories published in 2013 "showcasing the supposedly weaker sex" "...if you want to tie these women to the railroad tracks, you'll find you have a real fight on your hands")

Ø    Old Venus ("retro Venus science fiction"-themed stories published in 2015)

With confidence, I'd have to say Martin is pretty much a household word at this point with his A Song of Ice and Fire series (HBO's Game of Thrones). I hadn't heard of Dozois, per se, before the Rogues anthology. He was a science fiction author and editor before he passed in 2018, the founding editor of The Year's Best Science Fiction anthologies (from 1984 through 2018) and editor of Asimov's Science Fiction magazine (1986–2004). He won many awards for both his writing and his editing. Not surprisingly given his contributions to literature, in 2011 he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. 

Upfront I'll confess that I'm not fond of short story collections for the chief reason that so few short stories are or can be well written. The forced brevity inherent in a short story is the very reason they don't usually succeed in engaging my interest, let alone my favor. To be a great story, all the elements have to be there--in-depth, three-dimensional characterization, conflict development, and world building. The shorter a story is, the worse this gets because there isn't time or space to capture everything required to draw readers into a story and commit themselves to following it through to the end. Literally (pun intended), a single (well- or poorly-chosen) word might spell the difference between a story making or breaking it for the reader. In essence, a short story has to have all the hallmarks of a fully-fleshed out story that equals the impact a novel counterpart has more hope of providing for its readers. This is a hard, some might even say close to impossible, achievement. 

Full disclosure, although I'm determined to try short story collections if their subject matter appeals to me, I've found that, in general, I'm lucky if I actually like a single story in an anthology. This is the largest reason for why I review so few short story collections. It almost seems unfair to spotlight a single story, holding it up as worthy, while basically spitting out "Eeh" or "Yuck" concerning all the other tales in that anthology that just didn't do anything for me, or (again, very commonly) I outright disliked. Short stories seem to have two extremes--either good or bad, no in-between. Word constraints see to that inevitability. Add to this another detriment: Most collections of stories tend to be at least 80-100,000 words in length, so they're huge. In print format, the price is usually exorbitant. Even in ebook format, they tend to be too expensive, especially considering how few stories I know I'm probably going to end up liking. Bottom line, to find one story I like in the same collection is rare enough to be something of a miracle. That's why Rogues is one of the few anthologies I've ever taken the time to review. That I liked multiple stories in Rogues is almost unprecedented, so it warrants the distinction of being formally reviewed by someone who isn't completely sold on story collections. 

I'm no stranger to anthologies myself--filling roles as a contributing author along with commissioning, assembling, designing, formatting, and editing them. The very first collection I'd ever commissioned and assembled, Mistletoe Marriages, was a Frankfort Award nominee. I contributed a novella to that anthology as well as sharing the credit for editing the four stories included with the other three contributing authors before it was  published in 1999 (currently out of print). However, my main editing experience was within the promotional group of award-winning authors I created--Jewels of the Quill--in 2004. The group was spotlighted in the September 2003 issue of RT Book Reviews and eventually disbanded in 2014. From 2005 through 2011, we produced two group anthologies every year. I commissioned each of these, working directly with the contributing authors, the publisher, and their copyeditor. Additionally, I assembled each one and handled all the formatting and cover designs (one of which was nominated for a prestigious award). I also contributed my own story to all fourteen of these story collections. (While all the group anthologies are now OOP, my offerings have all been republished in my own series or story collections.) Additionally, I was the lead editor on them. All the group anthologies received countless rave reviews as well as award nominations and wins. So I'm very familiar with each of these processes, and I learned a lot about their construction while I was handling them. 

I'd like to go over the importance of each stage in putting together a short story collection before I review at least some of the 21 stories included in Rogues. A facet of multi-story collections that few editors truly understand is the arrangement of the included stories. An editor has to look past an author's name and credentials and judge a story solely on its worth, which isn't easy to do. Even editors get too caught up in the popularity contest. However, for the sake of discussion, let's talk about a short story collection scenario where all that matters is quality. 

Depending on how many stories are included in any given collection, it's imperative that the first and last stories included be the strongest of the entire showcase. The first has to capture readers' interest so completely, they'll want to continue. Once that's achieved, their enthusiasm must be kept high. For that reason, it's a good idea to ensure the second and maybe even the third story is nearly as good (or as good) as the first. The final story, of course, is the one that will leave a lasting impression on readers, and must have been worth the wait for it at the end, slogging through the middle stories that are generally not as good as the others. 

I hate to say that, but it's been my experience that middle stories tend to be simply filler, sometimes readable but nowhere as good as the first and last should be. Like it or not, when an editor has commissioned other authors to participate in an anthology, some of the stories he or she receives sometimes fall short of the mark but they're still decent enough to be included. Editors worth their salt will cull bad stories, even if they're from otherwise usually solid authors--something I've had to do and, believe me, it's never fun. One terrible story can bring down the whole collection, though, so it simply can't be tolerated. When I was editing Jewels of the Quill anthologies, I retained the right to reject a story if it didn't come up to standard. The authors were aware of this from the start, so having it be common knowledge from the get-go made it easier to handle. As much as possible, I tried to work with the author to bring a weak story up to spec, but that wasn't always possible and I did have to make some hard decisions. 

How the middle stories are arranged is absolutely crucial to the overall effectiveness of an anthology. Rogues, for instance, has 21 stories included. That's actually quite a lot and some of the stories are pretty long. Many collections have a tremendous amount of stories but none of them are more than a few pages long (with little space for fleshing out, so many very short or "flash fiction" stories are subpar). The Rogues stories were longer than most usually are in collections, so there was a bit more time to develop the core elements in them. In any case, the more stories, the riskier it is for the editor(s). Yes, there are more chances to engage with the readers, but there's equally a higher likelihood of disappointing them. It's a very fine balance. 

So let's go over an effective strategy of arranging the stories in a collection with 21 stories. As I said, first and last stories have to be the best of the entire group. First one engages readers; the second (and third, if possible) stories should have them fully committed. At that point, the editor can start introducing some of the weaker stories, interspersing them with stronger ones. So story numbers 4 through 10 should be alternated between average and strong stories. #11 should be an extremely strong story. With potentially five stories forming a weaker chain than the rest, readers might find themselves unsure whether they want to continue with the rest of the stories, so the dead-center middle story should be another killer one that recaptures any flagging interest. From #12-18, the editor should again alternate between average and strong stories. Like for the beginning stories in an anthology, the bracketing end ones all need to be strong (so #19, 20 and 21) in order to provide a good finish that will have lasting impact and repeat read value for the collection. 

How did Rogues stack up to this challenge? As I said, I found 10 of the 21 stories worthy of being reviewed. The best stories in the collection were numbers 1, 2, 3, 11, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21. Unfortunately, there was too much of a gap between #3 and #11.

Here's another way to look at it: Ideally, there will be at least 13 really strong stories in any collection with 21 stories included. This would allow the best stories to make appearances in this order (interspersed with weaker stories which I haven't included in the following sequence): 

#1 #2 #3 #6 #9 #11 #12 #16 #17 #18 #19 #20 #21 

Ideally, the 10 strongest stories in Rogues should have been arranged in this order: 

#1 #2 #5 #7 #9 #11 #15 #17 #19 #21 

All in all, Martin and Dozois didn't do a bad job arranging the stories at all, but I admit there were places my interest waned a bit too much because of back-to-back stories I just didn't find compelling enough in a prolonged gap.

Now, let's get to the reviewing. I won't be reviewing any of the stories I had bland or unfavorable reactions to after reading, only the ones I actually enjoyed. While it's true that opinions are subjective, most of the reviews I read for the Rogues collection agreed with my selections. Even in fiction, the cream rises to the top while rocks sink to the bottom. 

I will note quickly before I start the reviews that each story in this collection is prefaced by a fairly in-depth biography for the author. The last paragraph of that included a short introductory blurb for the story. I highly applaud the editors for setting it up this way. I do like to know upfront more about any author I'm reading. More than that, I simply don't like reading any story without having first read something of a summary of what I can expect from the story I'm about to read. So few short story collections include either of these, especially presented in this very appealing manner.                                                                   

1)              Tough Times All Over by Joe Abercrombie (this was actually the very first story featured in the collection): In a city infested with rogues, thieves try to out-thieve each other to gain possessive of a certain, unnamed something. Point of view switches between each of these rogues in turn. This was just good, circular fun all the way around. This story was a nice opener for this collection--however, I'm not sure I would have put it first (or technically even second--I would have placed this one between #6 and #9 or #16-28.


2)              What Do You Do? by Gillian Flynn (technically was the very second story in the anthology): This story didn't know what it wanted to be in terms of genre. It was a mystery thriller, as many of Flynn's novels are, but included a paranormal twist. I can't begin to describe this escalating tale that I read with a dropped jaw pretty much from start to finish. By all rights, I should have been repelled by it. It starts (as the author usually does her stories) by setting up a thoroughly despicable character she can't possible expect most readers to root for. For the most part, I tend to full-on hate her characters and want to see the worst possible outcome possible for them--I actually feel dirty reading about such creeps, which tend to be the lead characters. Yet I was sucked into this story despite all this. Everything felt like it was coming out of left field, and it knocked me on my butt from the first sentence to the last. I was led on a merry chase through "corridors" intended to deceive and stun the senses. All my preconceptions and assumptions were like mocking funhouse mirrors, showing me time and time again where I'd gone wrong. No matter how many times I guessed right about where the author was going, she pulled the football out just as I was about to declare a goal (or whatever these sports ball outcomes are). She also twisted on the twist at the end and left me winded and disoriented. Bravo!


3)              The Inn of the Seven Blessings by Matthew Hughes (this was the third story included in the collection): A "small god" of luck falls into the hands of a thief when the devotee who was supposed to free the small god and return it to its full power is kidnapped by a band of cannibals. Clearly, this isn't a meal anyone who abstains from eating human flesh would want to attend…unless it means bargaining with the small god for a lifetime of good luck in exchange for the rescue of its only hope for escaping the cauldron. But once the thief has done what he and the small god have bargained for, the devotee (a hedge sorcerer that serves a powerful spell slinger) double crosses the thief and the small god. Now there's hell to pay. And, yes, this story was just as much fun as it sounds.


4)              The Meaning of Love by Daniel Abraham (technically this was the 11th story featured in the collection): This story was one I was looking forward to, as I'm a huge fan of The Expanse Series by James S. A. Corey (the joint pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). In a world where life is cheap and everyone is out for #1, love and friendship are rare and almost undefinable things. This story took most of its pages to develop, but the last of it went in a direction I didn't anticipate at all, making it seem a lot like two separate stories that were merged together, and I'm not entirely sure it was successful. I'm also not certain I understood what the point of it was. Disparate as it was, it was well-written and absolutely never boring or predictable.


5)              The Caravan to Nowhere by Phyllis Eisenstein (technically, this was the 12th story in the collection): A minstrel is convinced to join a traveling merchant caravan through a desert with evil spirits, mirages, and dangers he's never conceived of in his wildest imaginings. By all rights, I couldn't help thinking as I read this story that it shouldn't have been as compelling as it actually was. I think what really fascinated me was that this story was very similar to Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead (which I'll be reviewing later this year), but not quite the horror that tale is. True, the bard angle interested me just 'cause I've always found Old World bards intriguing. This particular minstrel has the unusual ability of being able to "fast travel" from one place to the other. Instead of doing that, he chooses to ride one of the caravan's camels. His motivation starts out being the means of crafting new song material but ultimately he finds himself immersed in the lives of his fellow travelers. Because he's come to care for them, he's no longer content with just completing the journey with a new song. He wishes for a happy ending, which may be impossible.


6)              The Curious Affair of the Dead Wives by Lisa Tuttle (actually the 17th story in the collection): Complete with a Sherlock Holmesian title, this 19th century detective story tells the very strange mystery of a woman both missing and dead--and neither! What a clever whodunit with all the wonderful twists and turns a reader could want, told from the point of view of a young, female Watson sidekick to a brilliant detective (with a few intriguing flaws). Together, they undertake a case that provides no monetary compensation, only the satisfaction of a good--if rather odd--deed done.


7)              How the Marquis Got His Coat Back by Neil Gaiman (the 18th story featured in the anthology): In this adventure set in London Below (first featured in Gaiman's Neverwhere novel) he who is one with the shadows has lost his one-of-a-kind coat with 30 pockets "11 of which were obvious, 19 of which were hidden, and four of which were more or less impossible to find…" Similar to Puss in his wondrous boots, "Marquis de Carabas" loves his coat and refuses to let it go at any cost. While I confess that I've tried to read many of Gaiman's works before, including Neverwhere, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book, I've never been able to get into them, though everything about them seems right up my alley and he's undeniably a talented author. This story is the one that captured my interest from the first, irresistible sentence. I read it straight through to the end. I'm sure Gaiman didn't intend it, but I couldn't help picturing the intrepid rogue as Disney's sweet, swashbuckling Zorro, Puss in Boots, casting about with his adorable, gigantic eyes. That visual just added more pizazz to an already great story. If anyone's wondering, I think this story is considered Book 1.5 that fits in the London Below series following the first installment, and coming before Book 2, The Seven Sisters. But you don't have to read anything but this story to know what's going on.


8)              Now Showing by Connie Willis (technically the 19th story in the collection): A night out at the movies for a college student nursing a broken heart over the scoundrel she still loves turns out to be infinitely more complicated than simply buying a ticket to the show. Set in a future time (based on references to movies with currently unmade--and very highly anticipated at least to me!--sequels, like Back to Back to the Future, The Return of Frodo, and Oceans 17), and punctuated throughout by rave movie reviews, this little romantic "ditty about Jack and" Lindsay is anything but predictable.


9)              The Lightning Tree by Patrick Rothfuss (the 20th offering in the anthology): This story apparently features a character from one of the author's Kingkiller Chronicles series. Bast is a mysterious "errand boy" who teaches his lessons and learns one or two of his own in the course of one very busy day. This tale blew me away. I'm not even sure why, considering how lazily it unfurled, almost as if absolutely nothing was actually happening to warrant a story being told. That said, the boy was (superficially) like a simple and clever Tom Sawyer yet he was a changeling--someone and something different--to everyone he encounters. I found him irresistible. Bast is a being that knows how to make the most of every single moment in his day--for work, play, and everything in-between. As soon as I finished the story, I started looking for other stories about Bast and found the author has written a series where this character is featured. In each of the novels of the trilogy, a single day is covered. (Note that there are also prequel, in-between, and companion stories, so there are technically more than three books in this series.) In any case, the series flows into each other day by day, so three books means three consecutive days in the chronicling. That means they probably shouldn't be read out of order. However, the author intended The Lightning Tree to be a story within that series, like an off-shoot, so reading this one before the others is a good way to get a taste of what's in store for the main series. Unfortunately, there's a bit of a A Song of Ice and Fire thing going on with this series. The author has been promising the final book that would "conclude Kvothe's story" and complete the current arc for years but the release has been delayed by decades (for many reasons). Because of that, I'm very wary about jumping into another series where I may never get the full story. When I start a series, I like to binge-read it all the way through. That's simply not possible here. Sigh! More writers should be adamant about writing the whole series from start to finish before the publication starts. It helps to prevent the author from becoming "paralyzed" in writing (fame, success, and expectation often clash head-on, causing burnout and/or writer's block) in mid-series. But enough of that. This leads us very appropriately, into the final story in this collection, the very one I bought the anthology for.


10)          The Rogue Prince, or, A King's Brother by George R. R. Martin (technically the 21st story in the collection): This is a prequel to A Song of Ice and Fire, the basis of House of the Dragon television series (Season 1 focused on this and other characters of his time period; we'll see what Season 2 holds). If we're going to get very specific, this story is just a very long excerpt from Martin's Fire & Blood, which is anything but a dry historical accounting of the Targaryen family (which I've read from cover to cover twice now). Daemon Targaryen is the king's brother, never destined to become king himself, though he'll be damned if he doesn't try. This means plunging the entire world into a war fueled by his obsessive desire. I'm actually amazed how Martin wrote such a compelling history that isn't presented as fiction at all. It's just deeply engrossing. I read his 700-page+ historical account cover to cover almost in one sitting both times I read it. This particular bit of that history is set 172 years before the events of A Song of Fire and Ice, during a period of time known as the "Dance of the Dragons". The devastating war of succession as House Targaryen declines is told. If you like this story, you'll love the TV series as much as I do.

This collection of stories far exceeded my expectations. I'm anticipating picking up more of these Martin/Dozois anthologies in the future. If others are worthy, I may also increase my reviews of story collections here on the Alien Romances Blog.

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

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