Thursday, February 29, 2024

Intermediaries on the Internet

Another post by Cory Doctorow about how good platforms go bad and, by extension, how the internet goes bad:


Why didn't the internet, as promised, "disintermediate the world"? Because in many situations we NEED "middlemen." Doctorow cites publishing as an example. While some authors self-publish and accomplish all the steps of the process themselves or directly pay others to do them (such as cover artists and freelance editors), most of us prefer to have someone else handle those tasks. And even the totally independent self-publishers typically need platforms such as Amazon, Draft2Digital, etc. to sell their work; very few earn money solely by hand-selling their books one by one, like the eccentric wordsmith Doctorow describes in his essay.

"The internet did disintermediate a hell of a lot of intermediaries –- that is, 'middlemen' –- but then it created a bunch more of these middlemen, who coalesced into a handful of gatekeepers." The gatekeepers, as he sees it, are the problem. Online sales of almost anything we might want or need on a single, convenient website is a service most customers value. The problem arises when a giant internet retailer locks out its competitors and/or restricts what customers and third-party sellers can do with the products. We don't hate intermediaries as such, according to Doctorow; we hate "powerful intermediaries." His solution -- for governments to enforce competition-supportive laws.

While I can't deny monopolies are generally a bad thing, except in public service spheres such as utilities and roads, I also highly value the convenience of being able to buy almost anything from Amazon, a website that remembers my address, past purchases, and payment methods and that has been reliably trustworthy with that information so far, as well as fast and efficient. Moreover, I like the capacity to sell my self-published e-books on a site that most potential readers probably use regularly. I love knowing I can find almost any book ever published, a cherished fantasy of mine in my pre-internet childhood and youth. I'd have a hard time getting along without Amazon if it vanished. Yet doubtless the abuses of which Doctorow accuses it are real, too.

As for one area in which powerful middlemen exploit their near-monopoly to perpetrate blatant ripoffs: In the Maryland General Assembly's current session, they're considering a law to forbid companies such as Ticketmaster from buying up most of the tickets for a high-demand event and reselling them at extortionate prices, among other protective measures:

Ticket-Scalping Bill

Despite such abuses, I endorse Doctorow's conclusion that, overall, "A world with intermediaries is a better world." In past centuries, people "in trade," who at first glance seem to add no value to products they profit from through their own middleman activities, used to be scorned by the upper class and regarded with suspicion by their customers. (We encounter the stereotype of the cheating miller in Chaucer's CANTERBURY TALES.) But what would we do without them?

Margaret L. Carter

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

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Trademarks, Keywords, And Bother

Some superstars get to trademark a word and buy themselves trouble, and others have to persevere for many years before their brand and image is shielded. 

As far as I know, no one has trademarked "Begotten" (if you noticed my text link), but I believe that the chorus of that hymn and the lyrics of many others contain the word "evermore".

Writers may remember extreme concerns a few years ago when either a publisher or a best selling author appeared to attempt to trademark a term which was widely used by most romance novelists. In fact, at least as of a review in 2017 on FindLaw, publishers and novelists may trademark a book title or the name of a series.

Legal blogger for, Sean Peak wrote a fascinating article about six trademark disputes over famous words.

Lawyer and legal blogger  Monifa Hall of the GreenspoonMarder LLP Intellectual Property blog describes the heroic saga of how it took Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson until very recently to acquire full ownership rights to “The Rock” trademark. One of many fine points she makes is:

"Johnson’s proactive approach to trademarking “The Rock” demonstrates the importance of taking decisive steps to protect valuable assets from potential infringement or misappropriation"

Meanwhile, legal influencer Igor Demcak of the trademark lawyers group Tratmatm has written two interesting blogs that are well worth reading.

One is about trademarked keywords, and the pitfalls of using other peoples' words, especially on Amazon.

For a relatively unknown vendor (debut author, for instance), it is tempting to get noticed and to show up when readers search for specific words by using the names of more famous authors or books or series. Indeed, and as Igor Demcak says,

 "The use of appropriate and well-researched keywords can lead to higher visibility, more clicks, and ultimately, increased sales."

The bother comes when one chooses inappropriate or shoddily researched keywords. 

Igor explains Amazon's policy, and then discusses the risks of trademark infringement, which might include their product being removed, their account being suspended or closed, and legal action taken by the trademark owners.

His list of What-To-Dos before using a powerful keyword is essential reading for authors who want to avoid bother and heartache... or worse.

The other blog by Igor Demcak that I wish to recommend today concerns trademark bullying.

It's a What-To-Do if you used a trademarked word in your promotion, and face overly aggressive enforcement.

He writes:

"One of the defining features of trademark bullying is the imbalance of power between the parties involved. Typically, the bully is a large corporation or well-established entity with significant financial resources and legal firepower, while the target may be a small business, entrepreneur, or even a non-profit organization. In many cases, the mere threat of litigation is enough to coerce the weaker party into compliance, regardless of the validity of the trademark claim."

Igor goes on to describe some interesting real-world cases where a trademark owner overstepped, but the legal process was cripplingly expensive for the little guy, and also to offer good advice for persons who feel that they are being bullied unreasonably.

One of many tips, which is a pain to follow, but should be done by any serious business person not only in trademark disputes, but anything business-related is:

"Document Everything: Keep detailed records of all communications, including cease-and-desist letters, emails, and phone conversations. Document instances of abusive behavior or unreasonable demands, as this information may be useful in defending against future legal action or filing counterclaims."

All the best,

Rowena Cherry 


Friday, February 23, 2024

Karen S. Wiesner: The Hit List: Young Adult Series Favorites {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review: Divergent by Veronica Roth

The Hit List: Young Adult Series Favorites

{Put This One on Your TBR List}

Book Review: Divergent by Veronica Roth

by Karen S. Wiesner

In the first half of the 2000s, Young Adult series were all the rage, dominating the attention of teenagers and adults alike. Several that became household topics at the height of their popularity, enjoying fame as both book and movie series, seem to have fallen by the wayside since. Even still, I find many of those unique tales are well worth returning to for a fresh perspective. Over the next month or two, I thought I'd revisit a few series that would make any hit list of past favorites.

Divergent captured me the very moment Four (Tobias) made an appearance. Before that point, only the very unique, unexpected plot kept me turning the pages. The basic story here is set in a dystopian future where society is divided into each faction, each dedicated to a particular virtue in order to remove any one person exercising independence and freewill, which is seen as a threat. Those who don't fit nicely into any of the factions, or refuse to, are factionless and live on the fringes of society, poor and shunned. Those who are divergent are required to hide within their chosen factions because such a thing is illegal and feared. As one might expect, in this series, one of the factions wants to dominate all the others and set up their own leader.

Although this series has been around a long time and, if people wanted to read it, they probably already have, in fairness, I'm including this disclaimer: Warning! Spoilers ahead!

I didn't find the initial chapters particularly well written, though I didn't notice that as much as my first taste was of the audiobook of the first book in the series, listened to nearly from start to finish on a trip across the country. After that, I knew I had to read the rest of the series, but I started by reading Book 1 myself. The beginning was underwhelming, but I kept reading more out of intrigue of the faction concept until Four became the highlight of the book and, in my opinion, the series. The main character, Beatrice (who becomes Tris after she makes the choice to join Dauntless instead of remaining in Amity), never won me over. There was almost nothing likeable about Tris after, in the first few chapters of the first book, she stood up bravely and changed her whole life to join the faction that best fit her, even when it meant leaving her family. In fact, the major issue I had with the series was that this weak-playacting-strong heroine who turns into (sorry for the bluntness but it's the most accurate description) a total bitch and basically disintegrates her way through the series until she just gives up at the end and sacrifices herself needlessly, making everything they'd fought for worthless. Tris and Four's romance in Divergent, Book 1, is beautiful, passionate, worth every effort they made to be together when it was forbidden. It was simply breathtaking. But that fragile miracle was destroyed by the author's mistreatment after the initial series offering, and the relationship was hard to even look at in what followed.

Four was the whole reason for following the story to its bitter, disappointing conclusion. His character was complex, admirable, strong and yet vulnerable. If this series had been written from his point of view instead of Tris's, it could have been all it was meant to be. I think the author must have agreed with that because she followed up the trilogy a year later with a collection of short pieces (a prequel and disjointed other not-quite-a-story offerings, retelling parts of the first book) from Four's viewpoint. Unfortunately, this set of contributions felt too little, too late for me, after the crushing letdown of the last two Divergent books, which, albeit exciting, suspenseful, and very readable, did little but show us Tris shattering beyond repair when Four's love and their efforts leading the rebellion should have been able to heal her. Always, she was stuck in Book 1--in all she'd lost instead of finding any new motivation and purpose in her life. How unfair to Four and all who followed her lead.

A movie adaptation was made with the intention of it being four movies--the final book Allegiant was split into two (just like for Hunger Games' Mockingjay). However, the second part of the film was never completed, for which I've always been grateful. The Allegiant movie ended on such a high note. For the first time, we see Tris in a good place, finding strength and healing with Four, proud of their accomplishments and ready to begin a new life, rebuilding their world, for all. Why would fans have wanted to see the outcome of the second part of the book, where Tris sacrifices herself for absolutely no reason and leaves Four grieving? The end of the book relegates the reader to a sense of such devastation that there seems no reason to go on. I prefer to accept the movie's conclusion as the proper ending that should have been provided by the author.

While researching this review, I found that yet another story was added to the series four years after the last. We Can Be Mended was a short-story epilogue taking place 5 years after the final book in the trilogy. It's Tobias's redemption story--along with another character from the original trilogy, in a romance that I'm not sure I could feel right about accepting. As much as I disliked Tris, the thought of her best friend taking her place in Four's life just seems like a tragedy pile-on. I do intend to read it, but I don't have high hopes for being satisfied by this ending any more than I was with the previous.

Ultimately, I recommend this series, mainly for the first book, for the strong, admirable hero, for Four and Tris's early romance, and for the unique story introduced here.

Next week, I'll review another favorite YA series published in the early 2000s.

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, February 22, 2024

Hooking Without Overwhelming

One of my publishers hosts weekly author chats. I recently read the transcript of a chat that warned against "overwhelming" the reader. Specifically, it discussed the hazard of overwhelming the reader in the opening scene of a book or story.

We know the importance of quickly hooking the agent, editor, or reader. We've heard that an agent or editor has to be reeled in with the first page or sometimes the first paragraph (depending on the giver of the advice) to avoid rejection. What pitfalls loom in that first look? By "overwhelming," the editors in the above-mentioned chat referred to inundating the reader with either unnecessary details or too many characters, especially named characters, right off the bat. The reader needs to know the setting (place and time), important details that "move the story along," and maybe a selection of secondary characters. Above all, the protagonist must be introduced in a way to make the reader care about her.

Another caution mentioned was not to plunge into an "action" scene right away. We need a reason to care what happens to the protagonist before seeing him or her in a crisis or life-threatening situation. A violent fight scene doesn't mean much if we don't know the participants or the stakes involved. The same principle applies to starting with a sex scene, unless writing erotica or erotic romance, and even then the scene will appear pointless if it doesn't reveal character and advance the story.

Before the inciting event, the big change in the protagonist's life, occurs, there should be a glimpse of her normal life, even if very brief. Especially if it's a violent or otherwise shocking event. I have slight reservations about this guideline. We could think of successful novels that deviate from it. One that leaps to mind for me is MISERY.

King's novel starts with the protagonist already injured from a car accident, waking to consciousness in the home of his "number one fan."

A big pitfall to avoid: Starting with backstory. The early pages should always move forward. Frontloading backstory is a besetting authorial sin of my own. I've read books by prominent authors that violate this one, too. A brief opening shows the hero in some dire plight. Then they answer the rhetorical question, "How did I get here?" with several chapters of backstory. Techniques like this probably shouldn't be tried until the author has attained a similar level of expertise and popularity.

One of my favorites of my own works, FROM THE DARK PLACES, originally started with the heroine's gazing at a photo of her late husband and immediately falling into a reverie that leads into a whole chapter about their meeting, their marriage, the birth of their daughter, and the husband's untimely death. Fortunately, I received and followed the advice, "Don't do that!" The book as published begins with present-day action and gradually weaves in, when appropriate, the only parts of the backstory the reader needs to know, the crisis birth and the husband's death.

My husband and I violated the "don't plunge straight into action" guideline in the second volume of our "Wild Sorceress" series by starting in the middle of a battle. In this case, I believe the problem is slightly mitigated by the fact that this is a sequel to a book any reader who buys the sequel has probably read. In the first volume, we transgressed a no-no the chat doesn't mention, starting with a dream sequence. In our defense, it's clearly a dream, not a bait-and-switch, and it has an immediate, clear bearing on what the character is now facing in real life. Still, I would probably resist doing it that way today. It also commits another alleged fault that many editors and readers detest, starting with a character waking up and preparing for her day.

One of my favorite bestselling fantasy authors begins a novel published a few years ago with a life-threatening battle that turns out to be a simulation! I'm astonished that the publisher let her get away with that blatant bait-and-switch!

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt

Friday, February 16, 2024

Karen S. Wiesner: The Hit List: Young Adult Series Favorites {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hit List: Young Adult Series Favorites

{Put This One on Your TBR List}

Book Review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

by Karen S. Wiesner

In the first half of the 2000s, Young Adult series were all the rage, dominating the attention of teenagers and adults alike. Several that became household topics at the height of their popularity, enjoying fame as both book and movie series, seem to have fallen by the wayside since. Even still, I find many of those unique tales are well worth returning to for a fresh perspective. Over the next month or two, I thought I'd revisit a few series that would make any hit list of past favorites.

What an odd idea for a series! As a very basic summary, kids from each district are forced to compete in violent, brutal "games" to the death as punishment for the past sin of rebelling against the controlling state--all for the entertainment of Capitol citizens. When I first heard about this series--the first three books published between 2008 and 2010--I just could not buy the premise. The concept was beyond ridiculous to me. Parents would never allow it, and who the heck did the Capitol think it was to punish anyone for anything? They participated in the same wars in the past. Active and ongoing retribution following a war is just not done after a succession of fighting and a peace treaty is agreed to by both sides, is it? I admit to being the opposite of a war buff. Also, that people in the future could be as barbaric as in the times of the Roman gladiators didn't sit well with me either. I read the trilogy the first time, never buying the premise for an instant. I had a visceral reaction, especially, to how the author treated Peeta. I wasn't a fan of Katniss. Only one decision she made was one I could agree with--and that was how she handled the poor, pathetic rulers in Panem after the war. I remember writing  a violent review that I've since lost.

A decade passed and a new book was released--a prequel to the series. Though I had very bad memories of the original trilogy, I thought I'd give it another shot. My perceptions about everything changed. Buying the premise still wasn't easy, but I managed this time, and I found Katniss a much more sympathetic protagonist this time around. Here was a mere girl with so few choices in her life. Everything she did was so that those she loved could survive. I still didn't like what was done to Peeta, but I was grateful, as before, that he at least had something of a happily ever after here. I even enjoyed all four of the movies, which closely followed the books, at this point.

Although this series has been around a long time and, if people wanted to read it, they probably already have, in fairness, I'm including this disclaimer because The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is fairly new: Warning! Spoilers ahead!

I went into Ballad… eager to figure out what the heck was wrong with President Snow, how he could possibly justify all the horrible, selfish things he did, what explained his madness. I didn't get anything I was looking for, other than more questions, more shock at just how abysmally the author failed at trying to explain Snow's behavior. The book is, wrongly in my opinion, written from Snow's point of view. While I believe that antagonists should be well-rounded, with strong justifications for any evil they've perpetrated, as well as good traits, the author immersed us too far into Snow's character to ever see him as a villain. He wasn't at all … until he was. And then we were left wondering, what the hell? What changed that this young, seemingly virtuous person who seemed on the edge of starting a revolution in the Capitol that he suddenly turned his back on worthy ideals? Everything he did for most of the book seemed to be pointing us toward him finding a way to change the constant penance visited unfairly upon those who lived in the districts and were barely getting by, treated like animals and mere entertainment. Now this person we thought we knew as good abruptly became such a heartless monster. How was it that Lucy Gray's plight hadn't made any impact on Snow if he could leave behind anything resembling a conscience in order to do what he ultimately did, turning against everything he'd seemed to stand for in the first three-fourths of the book?

Instead of answering the questions the Hunger Games Trilogy left us with, we were overloaded with even more. I can't understand the motivation of the author to write a story about Snow that doesn't really explain what motivated his lifelong cruelty after he betrayed everything he was moving toward in redeeming the districts. Could it really be that everything he did all along was simply because he couldn't bear to be hungry, couldn't stand the thought of allying with those he considered beneath him? When the truth about his two-faced betrayal became clear to me, reading the book, I felt sure I must have missed something. I went back and restarted the chapter only to come to the same end. My niece had the exact same reaction, went back and re-read…nope, Snow is proving he's a traitor to the districts, has been all along. What?!?

I didn't want to watch the movie when it came out in November 2023, but I couldn't resist. The movie was a very faithful adaptation, with some of the most beautiful music imaginable. Even though I remained confused about why the author bothered writing a book that didn't answer any of the questions that needed logical reasoning, I admit I enjoyed the movie. Despite my reservations, I also enjoyed the first three-fourths of the book. I just don't understand. It's all senseless to me. But I easily recalled my deeply disturbed reaction the first time I read the trilogy. When I came back to it a decade later, my perceptions were radically changed. Maybe the same will happen if I come back to Ballads years from now.

In any case, I'm left with recommending this series for the reason that anything that inspires such a passionate response in me is worth my time, even if I'm not fully satisfied by it and I wish the author had done many things differently. Even long years after the first publication of these stories, their impact is undeniably powerful.

Next week, I'll review another favorite YA series published in the early 2000s.

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, February 15, 2024

Gender Pronouns in SF

This week T. Kingfisher's new horror novel, WHAT FEASTS AT NIGHT, was published. Sequel to WHAT MOVES THE DEAD (a retelling of "The Fall of the House of Usher"), it features the same narrator, "sworn soldier" Alex Easton. The language of Alex's homeland, Gallacia, a tiny imaginary country in central Europe, has at least six personal pronouns. In addition to the typical masculine and feminine, they have a pronoun for rocks (and inanimate objects in general, I assume) and one applied only to God. Pre-adolescent children go by a special non-gendered pronoun, which is also used by most priests and nuns. Someone learning the language who accidentally calls a child "he" or "she" must apologize profusely to avoid suspicion of being a pervert. Sworn soldiers adopt a nonbinary identity and the pronoun "ka" (subjective) or "kan" (objective and possessive).

The idea of having a unique pronoun for God appeals to me. It would avert controversy over whether the Supreme Being is masculine or feminine. In much of Madeleine L'Engle's nonfiction work, she uses the Hebrew word "El" as the divine pronoun for that very purpose.

The masculine, feminine, and neuter system familiar to us is far from universal in real-world languages. French, of course, has only masculine and feminine, no neuter. Even "they" is gendered. Recently I was surprised to learn that Mandarin has no gendered pronouns at all. Japanese, on the other hand, has a daunting variety of pronouns with diverse shades of meaning. There are first-person pronouns used primarily by men and others primarily by women. I've read that Japanese women in positions of authority face the double bind of either referring to themselves in the feminine style and appearing weak or using a male-type version of "I" and sounding masculinized.

A chart of Japanese personal pronouns:

Japanese Pronouns

Until the 19th century, their language didn't even include a term for "she." A word was adapted for that purpose to provide an equivalent for the same part of speech in European languages.

As far as imaginary foreign or extraterrestial languages in speculative fiction are concerned, some authors embrace the concept of inventing pronouns, while others actively dislike and avoid it. At the time of writing THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, Ursula Le Guin fell into the latter category.

Le Guin discusses the gendered language she used in THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, on pages 16 and following of this essay:

Is Gender Necessary? Redux

The italic passages on the right sides of the pages express her later, revised thoughts about the topics covered in the original essay.

She critiques her own refusal to invent new pronouns for the alien society in the novel: "I still dislike invented pronouns, but now dislike them less than the so-called generic pronoun he/him/his, which does in fact exclude women from discourse; and which was an invention of male grammarians, for until the sixteenth century the English generic singular pronoun was they/them/their, as it still is in English and American colloquial speech."

This 2020 article by Ryan Yarber analyzes Le Guin's essay in depth, going into detail about the issue of personal pronouns:

Beyond Gender: Exploring Ursula K. Le Guin's Thought Experiment

As for this issue in real life, people have tried to introduce invented third-person pronouns in order to get away from the awkwardness of "he/she" or using "they" as singular. No such system has widely caught on. While languages freely borrow nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs from each other, the basic structural components are far more stubbornly resistant to change.

Margaret L. Carter

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

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Not Bad

"Two wrongs don't make a right," directly contradicts "An eye for an eye", which notion of equal justice predates Exodus, and is thought to come from the ancient Mesopotamian Hammurabi's Code of justice.

On the other hand, two negatives, sometimes make a positive... and sometimes they are just emphatically, doubly negative, as in "I can't get no" which is followed by a consummation devoutly to be wish'd, be it peace, respect, sex, relief.

Take "not bad". It is a grudging way of saying "good". "Not terrible", "not useless", "not without merit", "not wrong", "not incompatible" etc. also do the same thing. The figure of speech is Litotes. Sometimes described as verbal irony, litotes is when an affirmative is conveyed through the use of two negatives.

"It is not that I don't want to do it..." is a cautious preamble to an excuse. In other words, I would perhaps like to do something, but I cannot or won't follow through. "It's not unusual" is usually followed by a "but" clause. It's not unusual to see a cow, but it is unusual to be attacked by one.

"You can't say that I didn't warn you," is a gentler way of saying, "I told you so!"

If a person is "not unknown" to the authorities, it probably means that that person has a history as a troublemaker, at the very least.

"Not" does not have to be the first negative in the sentence. It could be "No", as in "no dearth", "no shortage", "no paucity". 
"Never" does the job, as in "Never underestimate", "never forget".
One could start with "failure".
Consider self driving vehicles. If the whiz-bang car failed to avoid the pedestrian, (fail/avoid), that would mean that the car hit the pedestrian.
Use of the double negative is either a sophisticated literary device, or it is the opposite. One has to have ones wits about one, or one can get lost in the negatives. It is one thing to decry a failure to do something (which is only singly negative), quite another to lambast some folks for their failure not to toe the line.

Possibly during Lent, I might fail to abstain from chocolate.
No doubt, at some point during the Football game, an overeager defensive lineman will fail to refrain from stepping over the line of scrimmage and getting offside.
Here is a good explanation of the use of litotes, and also an exhaustive list of links to other literary devices.

All the best,

Friday, February 09, 2024

Karen S. Wiesner: {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review: Fractal Noise, A Fractalverse Novel by Christopher Paolini

{Put This One on Your TBR List}

Book Review: Fractal Noise, A Fractalverse Novel

by Christopher Paolini

by Karen S. Wiesner

In the previous two weeks, I reviewed Christopher Paolini's previous Fractalverse novel, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, in an article called "Combating Big Book Overwhelm with Audiobooks"; I also reviewed "Unity", An Interactive Fractalverse Story. The Fractalverse Universe encompasses all known space and time, binding everyone everywhere as fellow travelers.

Before we get started, a word of explanation about the order of this series is necessary. Here's what's currently available in the order the stories were published:

1.     To Sleep in a Sea of Stars (2020)

2.     "Unity" (2021)

3.     Fractal Noise (2023)

Influenced by an intense nightmare he'd had while writing Inheritance, the fourth in his Inheritance Cycle, Paolini wrote an initial draft of Fractal Noise (originally a novella) but wasn't happy with it and set it aside. Eventually, he moved on to To Sleep…, also set in the Fractalverse Universe. This project took him much longer than he intended to finish--years--and only after he completed that did he go back to Fractal Noise. With new ideas and direction, he did a major revision and it became a 300+ page novel. It's unclear when "Unity" was written but I'm going to guess soon after To Sleep… was completed, probably before he revised Fractal Noise into a novel. In any case, the chronological sequence of the three stories is the exact opposite of the publication order:

1.     Fractal Noise

2.     To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

3.     "Unity"

According to the timeline included on the website, the Great Beacon on Talos VII, which is the focus of Fractal Noise, was discovered between 2234 and 2237. It was the first alien artifact discovered in the universe. Twenty-three years later, between 2257 and 2258, the events of To Sleep… took place, starting on the moon Adrasteia. "Unity" follows To Sleep… chronologically, and within the "Unity" story, on a doctor's report, the date is listed as "2335" so it's been just over 75 years.

As for suggested reading order, I would have to say either Fractal Noise or To Sleep… should come first; it doesn't actually matter which. "Unity" should follow the reading of To Sleep… regardless of what order you read the two novels. I prefer following chronology as a general rule for all series, but the author felt that To Sleep… "would be a better introduction to the Fractalverse". I read To Sleep… first because it was published first. I followed that with Fractal Noise because it was published second. I only found out about "Unity" after going to the author's website. If I'd had a choice, I would have read Fractal Noise first, then To Sleep… and finally "Unity". Make of that what you will.

I have to comment on the fact that I didn't understand the connection between the two novels published in the series beyond that they shared the same world. I wasn't sure if there were characters in common, a plot, place, or something else. It wasn't until after I read both books (and the short story) and then listened to the audiobook version of To Sleep… that I finally figured out the connection between the two novels: Alien artifacts. That's what ties the two books together, other than the shared universe. The first alien artifact was discovered in Fractal Noise, the second in To Sleep… The question whether the same alien species created both artifacts is much tougher to answer, and I couldn't find a definitive answer to that anywhere online and it's lost in the combined 1,184 pages of the two books. But at least I discovered that there really wasn't any other connection between the two novels beyond the shared universe and ancient alien relics. Sounds simple, but it was frustrating not knowing that. I always feel like crucial information that most readers will wonder about needs to be included in the series blurb. Saves on wear and tear of reader nerves to know something unifying like that upfront.

So, the focus of Fractal Noise is the anomaly found on Talos VII, an otherwise uninhabited planet. From space, the stellar survey crew onboard the SLV Adamura sees a pit fifty kilometers wide, definitely not natural. This giant abyss is broadcasting a signal, to whom or what, is unknown. Eventually (in To Sleep…), this hole is called the Great Beacon. A small team is sent out to check it out, and most of their journey has to take place on foot with limited supplies and protection. The group of four consists of (to be blunt):

1)    A stereotypical religious fanatic who believes no one and nothing matters other than divine will. This woman is one crack away from becoming the next Interstellar Psycho. Bad luck for everyone involved: She's made the team leader.

2)    An opinionated tough guy with a chip on his shoulder who starts out as fun and personable, but then becomes the religious fanatic's archenemy as he vies for control of the team and the mission.

3)    A spineless weakling who will cave to whoever's strongest at the moment, incapable of doing anything but flying into the wind from one moment to the next, especially after he's injured so badly, he has to be carried the rest of the way.

4)    A scarred-from-childhood man so immersed in his grief from losing the woman he loved--the woman he's only realized in retrospect that he mistreated before her violent death by a tigermaul--that he doesn't really care about anyone or anything except in reflex. This person is Dr. Alex Crichton, a xenobiologist.

Alex is the main character. None of the other three major characters are really given more than a brief sketch in terms of fleshing out. We learn very little about them, beyond what's absolutely needed to tell the story, and so the book always felt a little lopsided to me. I might have learned too much about Alex, who became a little sickening since he was a train wreck personality, and not nearly enough about the other three pivotal characters. The loss of personal information became harder to take especially as the first two characters disintegrated in their escalating conflict with each other, the third became less and less useful to the team as he cringed away from their ongoing battle, with only Alex trying to keep the peace--mainly by staying out of the argument altogether. Alex is also the one who ended up picking up the pieces in the fallout and kept them moving forward steadily toward their goal. Clearly, he should have been team leader, but until someone is under duress in the field, I guess it's hard to know who might crack first. I suspect the captain of the ship believed he'd chosen the last person who seemed capable of falling apart as the team leader. Bad call leads to big mistake.

The conflicts with each other, the conflicts of their individual pasts that are motivating and driving each of them, and the conflict with the relic they're moving toward steadily despite all that's preventing them from reaching it are intriguing. The tension culminated, small outbursts becoming bigger and bigger, the results of the team’s in-fighting and bad luck making the journey even more stressful. I truly enjoyed the trek across the planet to the beacon, providing constant suspense with the internal conflicts of the team, physical injuries, the mission in jeopardy nearly from the beginning, and the things thrown in their way, like the growing, deafening noise, "turtles"--creatures that were obviously guarding the broken beacon's equipment, and numerous equipment failures.

Earlier, I said that the *focus* of Fractal Noise is the beacon. However, it's in no way the *purpose* of the story. If you don't want spoilers, don't read the next two paragraphs bracketed with asterisks:

**Within the pages of this book, you don't ever learn what the beacon is, who put it there, why it was constructed, what it was supposed to do or supposed to contact. You learn nothing important about the Great Beacon by the end. It's simply a relic that might have been covered over by the sands of time if not for the signal it was sending out that unfortunately captured attention from this crew and later the world. By the time the story To Sleep in a Sea of Stars rolls out, humans still don't know anything solid about that ancient artifact. In that book, it's revealed that they're called whirlpools by the Wranaui and that there are many of them around the universe. The Wranaui allies believe the Vanished created them but even they don't know for sure. But none of the species can even venture a guess what they're for.

Anyone reading this would have found it frustrating not to learn anything worthwhile about the relic. Initially, it seemed like the point of the story, though the back cover blurb did make it clear that the "ghosts of the past" following the members of the team were the true focus. In the end, Alex came to grips with his past and his grief. That's the best thing that happened--the only bit of closure provided. I presume he made it back to the ship, maybe with the weakling still alive, and that's how Kira and the other characters in the time period of To Sleep… know the beacon even exists.**

Despite a bit of annoyance about not getting any part of what I felt the story was building toward, I did find the story worthwhile reading. I savored the journey, weathering the disappointment in the end, yes, but I remained excited about where this series could be leading. Of the three Fractalverse stories I've read thus far, Fractal Noise was my favorite. Maybe in subsequent books, we'll learn what the beacon in Fractal Noise was intended for. At the end of To Sleep…, Kira learned that the Maw had left seven other parts of itself in different locations within the universe, and she intended to track them down alone. Perhaps we'll learn more about the rest of her journey to either kill or convert those seven fragments, as she did before.

As a reader, I look for closure in a story and series, and I felt both Fractalverse novels left a lot of the opposite, though not in a way that could be described as a deal breaker. I accepted the loose ends, though I'm not sure all readers would be as forgiving, because I'm eager to know more about this world. I suspect the author will produce many other stories that are connected to the universe but not tied closely to them, leaving even more fragments littered around the Fractal galaxy. Eventually, there may be a way to tie them all together--what I'm ultimately hoping for. In the meantime, there has been talk about either a film or TV series adaptation of To Sleep… with the author and his sister already writing scripts and presumably too occupied for Paolini to work on the next installment in the series. I look forward to hearing more about whether the visual adaptation goes forward, assuming that, in some way, the events of Fractal Noise and "Unity" will be included in that. At this point, until the author gives us a clue, who knows what might happen next in the Fractalverse? If you have any conjecture, leave a comment.

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, February 08, 2024

Parallel Lives in Different Worlds

Speaking of living one's life over again, have I mentioned Jo Walton's novel MY REAL CHILDREN before? Having reread it last week, I'm impressed anew by its unusual approach to alternate history, possibly unique. At least, I don't remember encountering anything else like it. The British protagonist's personal timeline splits into two at the end of her Oxford education, and the story follows both of her lives in two separate worlds from that point in early adulthood to her old age.

The prologue introduces the elderly Patricia in a nursing home. As the nurses often note on her chart, she's Very Confused. She remembers her life as Tricia, in which she accepted Mark's proposal at the crucial point of divergence, but also her life as Pat, in which she refused him. Did she have four children plus multiple miscarriages and stillbirths, in an emotionallly abusive marriage from which she escaped in middle age, or three children in a fulfilled, mostly happy life with love, travel, and success as a writer? After the prologue, chapters alternate episodes from the timelines of Tricia and Pat, each helpfully labeled with the years covered in that chapter.

Interestingly, neither of her worlds corresponds to the history we know. Therefore, the reader can feel no temptation to prefer either timeline as "real." Both alternate Earths are more scientifically and technologically advanced than ours, having colonies on the Moon by the 1990s, at the end of Patricia's life. In one history, there's a multi-national research station; in the other, two mutually hostile lunar military bases confront each other. In the latter world, President Kennedy died from an assassin's bomb; in the former, he served out his term and declined to run for reelection in 1964. In one history, international chaos, local wars with a constant threat of nuclear holocaust, and repressive political systems even in advanced Western nations plague the world. The other timeline, although of course not perfect, enjoys prosperity, widespread freedom, international cooperation, and relative peace.

In the novel's most intriguing twist, Pat leads her fulfilling life in the dystopian world, while Tricia suffers through her miserable marriage in the much better world. Suppose she could relive the decisive conversation with Mark and make one timeline definitively real. Which would she pick? Ordinarily, I snarl in frustration at novels that leave the reader hanging at the end. This book's "Lady or the Tiger?" conclusion, however, strikes me as perfect. What alternative does Patricia choose? What SHOULD she choose? Leaving that question open makes the ideal culmination for this thought-provoking narrative.

Margaret L. Carter

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

Friday, February 02, 2024

Karen S. Wiesner: {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review: "Unity", An Interactive Fractalverse Story by Christopher Paolini

{Put This One on Your TBR List}

Book Review: "Unity", An Interactive Fractalverse Story

by Christopher Paolini

by Karen S. Wiesner

Last week, I reviewed Christopher Paolini's previous Fractalverse novel, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, in an article called "Combating Big Book Overwhelm with Audiobooks". The Fractalverse Universe encompasses all known space and time, binding everyone everywhere as fellow travelers. In order to really understand "Unity", you had to have read and understood To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, so this review is filled with spoilers. If you haven't read To Sleep… and want to before learning all the basic details, you might want to come back to this review later.

Here's a very concise summary of that nearly 900-page book:

On an alien world, the heroine, a xenobiologist, Kira blunders into an underground hole where an artifact was left by an alien culture long, long ago. An ancient xeno seed left there resurrects enough to infiltrate Kira's body, inside and out, so she and the alien become one. This thing is called the Soft Blade. After Kira's taken into military quarantine, the ship they're on is attacked by Wranaui, aliens that worship the Vanished--the beings that originally hid the Soft Blade in the underground reliquary. In her attempt to escape, Kira causes an explosion that joins a piece of the Soft Blade to the doctor in charge of testing Kira and to one of the Wranaui. What's created from this is a corrupted being called the Maw. Floating in space, it grows and spreads malevolently. It converts a planet into interstellar ships that are used by the Maw's corrupted warriors. There's a whole plotline about a lesser bad guy that takes up hundreds of pages. But the Maw is the real enemy in the universe. A faction of the Wranaui join humans in the fight. Long story short, the Maw and the Soft Blade merge so their minds are joined. The Maw is subdued, the Corrupted unmade, and the Maw's mass is converted into a space station--Unity--intended to serve as an embassy so humanity and its new alien friends, the Wranaui, can hammer out a peace treaty.

I only discovered "Unity" when I went to the website to find out what else Paolini had to offer in this universe. There, I came upon an interactive short story that was laid out in a similar fashion (though much less complex) to the Choose Your Own Adventure "gamebooks" that were published from 1979-1998. I devoured these as a kid, even if the stories weren't always fantastic. The concept was what captured me. They were a precursor to the videogames I would soon come to embrace as an adult, making them my most favored hobby in lieu of watching TV. In a Choose Your Own Adventure story, the reader is the protagonist who makes decisions about how the story will proceed and end. Frequently, a wrong choice leads to a bad ending--in other words, "Story Over", and the reader has to choose another path to try to reach a good ending. The number of endings included in each adventure varied--Wikipedia's write-up talks about as many as forty-four in the early titles to as few as seven in the later ones.

As I said, the "Unity" interactive adventure was much less complex. There were never more than three choices as to which direction to go, and most didn't end badly. Only occasionally did a bad choice lead to a "You're dead" ending. So you had to go back a page and choose another path, or simply do the opposite of what you did last time. Fairly uncomplicated. I did die once or twice, lol, but I enjoyed it nevertheless.

In the time since the events of To Sleep in a Sea of Stars concluded, Unity has become an advanced space station where both humans and Wranaui abide in peace. It's the last place anyone would expect a murder to take place. You play the investigator trying to piece together what happened. The story is fun and well-written, especially with some backtracking involved if you choose a wrong path. It won't take you longer than a half hour, possibly much less if you're faster running through it and don't die. If you want to partake, you can start your adventure here: or here:

A print version was in the works, as Paolini explains in a Twitter post (you can access it from the link I posted in the last paragraph). He actually shows in a video the print edition that was designed with gorgeous, original, custom artwork. The cost with print on demand was apparently prohibitive, so unless there's a "Kickstarter" (global crowdfunding platform initiative), the online version that's available free on Paolini's website is all there is or ever will be available for "Unity". I say, enjoy it for what it is. This is the kind of thing that's intended to be interactive and doing it online just streamlines the process. All the artwork is also free on the website for you to enjoy.

Next week, I'll talk about the publication, chronological, and optimal reading order of all the installments in the Fractalverse series as well as review Paolini's newest offering in the Fractalverse. Finally, I'll extrapolate about where he might go from here in the series.

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, February 01, 2024

Groundhog Day

February 2 is almost upon us -- Groundhog Day, aka Imbolc (Celtic) or Candlemas (Christian). Here's a brief overview of its history:


This date constitutes one of the major seasonal milestones of the pagan year, halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Originally the festival of the goddess Brigid, it morphed into the feast day of St. Brigid in the Christian era. According to the website above, Imbolc marked the beginning of spring. Maybe in the British Isles, but definitely not around here!

Since the official first day of spring falls approximately six weeks after February 2, it's logical for the emergence of groundhogs (in North America) from their burrows -- woodchucks or badgers in Europe -- to signal six more weeks of winter. If you assume that's what the animal's shadow portends, your guess has a high chance of being correct. I wondered for years why seeing his shadow would forecast a longer winter. Wouldn't bright sun lead us to expect an early spring? Eventually I realized clear weather in winter is likely to be colder, while warmer air holds more moisture and thus might produce a cloudy day. So the association of sighting a shadow with the prospect of continued freezing temperatures makes a certain amount of sense.

Oddly, the alleged predictions of the famous groundhog of Punxsutawney, PA, have consistently more often than not been less accurate than chance. Nowadays, why don't the handlers "translating" for him consult a long-term weather forecast before making their pronouncements?

The movie GROUNDHOG DAY presents an initially funny but gradually darkening exploration of "What if you could live your life over?" The hero of the film, of course, just lives one day over -- and over and over. The compulsion to keep repeating that day until he gets it right leads to a downward spiral of nihilistic despair rather than optimism about getting a fresh start, until he changes his attitude and sincerely tries to do better. In the midst of its humor, the movie raises the grim prospect that getting a do-over in life might not turn out so great as we'd hope. What if every attempt to fix some mistake in the past created a fresh disaster? Luckily for the protagonist's future and the viewer's satisfaction, he does eventually get it right. In that respect GROUNDHOG DAY resembles A CHRISTMAS CAROL. In an interesting coincidence, the same actor, Bill Murray, stars in both GROUNDHOG DAY and SCROOGED as the selfish cynic needing reformation.

Margaret L. Carter

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