The Top 15 New(*) Books I Read in 2020

And here. We. Go.

I am currently on book 137 for 2020, and depending on how much time I spend reading over the next several days I’ll likely be on 138 or maybe 139 by the time the year ends, but one of those is going to be a reread and the other is not super likely to set the world on fire, so it is officially Safe to Put the List Together, and write what has consistently been my favorite post of the year during the time I’ve been writing here. This is the second year I’ve gone to 15 books; it didn’t feel quite as necessary as last year but I figure honoring 11% of my favorite books at the end of the year instead of 7% isn’t going to end the world or anything.

As always, these are books that are New To Me, not necessarily new releases, although a lot of them did come out this year. Also, don’t take the rankings too seriously– if I did this again tomorrow they’d probably be in a slightly different order– and in particular the top five or so were tough. Basically, I know you got some gift cards for Christmas, hie thee to a local bookstore and pick something up; they’re all good.

Here are the last seven years’ worth of lists:

15. THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES: A BIOGRAPHY OF CANCER, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. This is both the oldest of the books on the list, dating all the way back to the hoary days of 2010, and the first book on the list that I actually read. In fact, I started it in 2019, after last year’s list was written, but didn’t finish it until the first week of January. Siddhartha Mukherjee has shown up on this list before, with The Gene: An Intimate History coming in at #14 last year, and despite their relative positions I think Emperor is a stronger book. It is, as the title states, a history of cancer, or rather a history of cancers, as the book makes repeatedly clear that part of what makes this disease so difficult is that there are so many different types of cancer and it affects the body so differently depending on where and when it appears. It’s a fascinating piece of work; a little less technical (and thus a touch more accessible) than The Gene, which was already impressively accessible, and frankly everyone knows someone who has passed of cancer, so you’re going to feel a personal connection to this book while you’re reading it whether you want to or not.

14. DOCILE, by K.M. Szpara. There are a couple of books on this list that need to come with content warnings, and part of me kind of feels like Docile needs to come wrapped in brown paper with a big sticker on the back that says Are You Sure? on it. It’s a book about free will and brainwashing and capitalism and sex slavery, set in a future where debt has been made inheritable and people are literally signing decades of their lives (and sometimes their entire lives) over to the few remaining ultrarich to act as their servants in order to erase their family’s debts. They are given a drug that makes them into a Docile, which is basically a pliant, personality- and free-will-less drone who exists only to do the will of their masters. When they are released from their contracts, they remember nothing from their time as a Docile. And they don’t always come back right. The main character is Elisha, a young man who becomes a Docile but refuses to take Dociline, meaning that he is expected to perform exactly as the other Dociles but actually feels and remembers everything he is experiencing.

It’s a hard book to read, on a lot of levels, but this was another real early read in the year and it’s really stuck with me. I don’t know that I want a sequel or anything but I’m definitely in for whatever Szpara comes up with next.

13. ANGER IS A GIFT, by Mark Oshiro. I read two different books by Mark Oshiro this year, this and Each Of Us a Desert, and I went back and forth several times on which one deserved to be on this list more. I feel like Desert is a better book on a technical level, so to speak, but Anger is a Gift affected me emotionally far more than Desert did, so it gets the nod. This is another book that’s going to kind of beat the hell out of you while you read it; it’s the story of Moss Jefferies, a young man from Oakland, California who lost his father to police violence six years before the events of the book begin, and is still struggling with panic attacks and PTSD from the aftereffects of his dad’s murder. Now a high school sophomore, Moss is forced to deal with the increasing militarization of his urban high school and, as he finds himself drawn further into demonstrations and protests, has to reckon with police violence again. There is a sequence in this book that made me so angry I nearly tossed the book across the room, and it was harder to read it as a teacher than I think it might be for most people, because I spent a substantial amount of time very, very angry with the adults who are supposed to be protecting the kids in this school. This book is technically YA, the first of several on this list (I read a lot of YA this year) and it’s probably the most adult-feeling of the books on the list. I’m greatly looking forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

(Disclaimer: Mark read, and enjoyed, The Benevolence Archives: Vol. 1 for his Mark Reads Stuff series on YouTube. I wasn’t familiar with him before this happened– someone else got him to read my book– and while I’m not going to lie and pretend that that series wasn’t the reason I picked up Anger in the first place, it’s not the reason Anger is on the list.)

12. YOU SHOULD SEE ME IN A CROWN, by Leah Johnson. So, uh, compared to the rest of the books on the list, this one is maybe going to stand out a little bit? Y’all know me. I like speculative fiction, stuff with dragons and wizards and ghosts and unspeakable evils and laser guns and exotic alien worlds. Even when something is set in the “real world,” I like to see a tinge of the supernatural here and there.

You Should See Me in a Crown is basically a Disney movie set to prose. It’s the story of Liz Lighty, who ought to be a superhero, a young nerdy Black girl attending an ultra-rich Indianapolis high school. She has her entire life planned out– the college, the extracurricular activities, the careers afterwards– and then critical financial aid falls through and throws the whole thing into doubt.

So she decides to run for prom queen, which for some reason comes with a massive scholarship award at her high school, and she and her friends basically Voltron up to marshal the forces of all the not-traditionally-popular kids at the school and make Liz the prom queen.

It’s fucking delightful. Like, this book ought to have a giant blinking NOT FOR LUTHER sign on it, and it was bloody delightful. I loved Liz, I loved her fumbling, tender relationship with Mack, her girlfriend, and I even managed to buy into the high school being a real place by the end of the book. (Every so often I wonder if my high school was really weird or if every other portrayal of high school is nonsense. I was on the prom committee in high school. The “popular kids” were largely also the geeks and the nerds. It was a weird place.)

11. THE WEIGHT OF INK, by Rachel Kadish. Now, this book, on the other hand, should have come with a giant blinking FOR LUTHER sign on it. I was a Jewish Studies and Religious Studies major in a previous life, and have a Master’s Degree in Hebrew Bible, so if you hand me a book that’s basically about a couple of historians digging through a recently-discovered treasure trove of documents written by a female Jewish scholar and philosopher in London in the 1660s, I’m going to be halfway done with the damn thing before you actually get finished handing it to me. The book bounces back and forth between the two historians reading the documents in the modern day and the blind rabbi and the woman who is scribing for him (and, later on, writing her own treatises and corresponding with the likes of Spinoza) in the seventeenth century, and it’s probably the densest read on the list but Damn is it rewarding. This was recommended to me after a post where I complained about not really appreciating Literature, and this is the closest to Literature of everything I read this year, but don’t hold that against it. If you’re into history or really any kind of scholasticism at all this book will have something for you in it. Beautifully done.

10. THE VANISHING HALF, by Brit Bennett. We’re on a bit of a roll here, as both this book and the next one could probably be termed Literatures as well, but don’t hold that against any of them. The Vanishing Half is a multigenerational family saga, the story of a pair of inexplicably light-skinned Black twin sisters, born in a Southern town so small that it doesn’t appear on any maps.

On their sixteenth birthday the twins flee their home together, heading to New Orleans, and several years later one of them abandons her sister and runs again– to marry a white man who has no idea of her race or her background, and to disappear into wealthy white society. The other sister marries the darkest-skinned man she can find and eventually ends up back at home again.. Both women have daughters, and their daughters’ lives interact at various points throughout the story, neither of them having any idea who the other is or even that they have any cousins in the first place. The book starts in the Deep South and as it moves from the 1950s to the 1990s it widens its scope across the country. Bennett’s writing is lovely, and her characters feel like real people even when they’re placed into a setting that can at times feel a little metaphorical.

9. CONJURE WOMEN, by Afia Atakora. This book is a great example of something I was talking about earlier, a book that is mostly rooted in the real world and classy enough to be a Literature but works in just enough of the supernatural to keep weirdos like me interested. I read Conjure Women and The Vanishing Half pretty close to back-to-back, and they have a lot of similarities– both are family sagas to one extent or another, although this one doesn’t have literal twins in it, setting the relationship between an enslaved woman, her daughter, and their master’s daughter as the relationship it explores. The mother is a midwife and a healer, and her daughter Rue is reluctant about following in her footsteps, and is assigned as a playmate to the master’s daughter, Varina. Then the Civil War hits, and … well, things get interesting.

Take a close look at the cover, there, which isn’t initially as striking as some of the covers to books I enjoyed this year (random note: 2020 was a great year for book covers!) but is probably among the best covers of the year once you read the book and realize what you’re looking at. This and Vanishing Half are definitely an example of a situation where if I put the list together tomorrow they might flip places on the list. If you liked one, you’ll likely enjoy the other so get ’em both with that gift card I know you have.

8. THE GIRL FROM THE WELL, by Rin Chupeco. LOL, this one is about an angry murder ghost in case you thought I’d forgotten what kinds of books I usually read. You might look at the cover to this and think to yourself wait, isn’t that the girl from The Ring? And, well (heh), you wouldn’t be entirely wrong, as the ghost in The Ring and the ghost in The Girl from the Well are both based on the same Japanese myth. This book wins the Can I Eat This Author’s Brain and Claim Their Powers award for this year, as it’s the book I’d most like to have written myself of everything on the list. It’s actually told from the perspective of the angry murder ghost, and Chupeco’s prose is creepy and alien in a really remarkable way; the ghost really doesn’t feel human at any point in the book, and that’s something that I feel could get out of control and ruin the book really easily if the author isn’t careful and skilled enough. I also read the sequel to this this year, The Suffering, which does have the ghost as a main character but is told through the perspective of another (human) character from this book. I enjoyed it quite a bit but it didn’t floor me as effectively as this one; Chupeco’s voice in this book is outstandingly well-done, and this was easily the scariest thing I read all year.

7. THE BURNING GOD, by R.F. Kuang. Right about here is where it started getting really difficult to rank the books, by the way, and if anything this book got downrated a little bit by being the third book in a trilogy, making it a little tricky to recommend on its own. I loved the first book in the trilogy, The Poppy War, and had some trouble with the second, The Dragon Republic, at least in part because I didn’t remember the events of the first book as well as I should have. So I reread the first two books before reading this one, and … damn, y’all.

This series is another one that could stand for a trigger warning or two. One of the central events in the first book is modeled on the Rape of Nanking, and it’s absolutely horrible, and none of the characters are ever the same afterwards. The first book ends with a literal genocide, as an entire nation is set aflame. PTSD, rape and drug abuse and addiction are major themes of the series. But, my God, R.F. Kuang, who is somehow only in her early twenties, is a hell of a writer, and if you’re not someone who feels like they will suffer lasting psychological effects from reading this kind of book, in the final evaluation it’s one of the finest fantasy trilogies I’ve ever read. I didn’t give Dragon Republic enough credit when I first read it– which was exactly why I did the reread– and while placing seventh on this list might seem like a drop-off in quality when The Poppy War was third the year it came out … like I said, don’t read too much into the specific rankings. But read the books. Definitely read the books.

6. SPLIT TOOTH, by Tanya Tagaq. Okay, I promise after this one I won’t use the phrase “trigger warning” again, and I won’t make fun of myself for being bad at Literature again either, but I’ve gotta do both for this book. Tanya Tagaq is a Canadian Indigenous author, and I read an interview with her where she describes this book, set in Nunavut in the 1970s, as a “mythobiography,” and that’s as good of a description of it as I can imagine. It’s not precisely a memoir, and it’s not precisely an autobiography either– I don’t imagine that Tagaq thinks she was impregnated by the Northern Lights, which happens to the protagonist in this book– but the mythical and supernatural elements of the book somehow manipulate the “real” events of the book into being more shocking than they might have been otherwise. This book is beautifully written– the prose is among the best I’ve ever encountered and probably 15-20% of the wordcount is actually poetry and I loved the hell out of it anyway. Growing up poor and indigenous in Nunavut in the 1970s was no picnic, and this is another one to be careful with, as child abuse and neglect and sexual assault are definitely themes, but this is an amazing book and among the best surprises of 2020, as I effectively bought it blind when I realized I hadn’t read anything by indigenous women yet in my #52booksbywomenofcolor project and more or less grabbed it at random. I love it when that works out.

5. SAVAGE LEGION, by Matt Wallace. We are about to enter into a series of “first books of fantasy series,” as four of my top five books this year are Volume 1 of what will turn out to be at least trilogies if not, in some cases, longer. I just took a break for lunch, as I’ve been working on this post for three hours, and I swear to you that I sat back down and again considered rearranging the next set of books, so call all of them the best book of the year if you want. I won’t tell anybody.

At any rate, Matt Wallace’s Savage Legion is a hell of a book, and what was the most fascinating thing about it for me was the way it somehow manages to simultaneously absolutely bathe itself in tropes and cliches of the genre and come off as something fresh and new, and frankly that’s a hell of a trick to have pulled off. Legion employs the rotating-third-person-POV construct that’s become popular since Game of Thrones came out, but the really interesting thing about it is that you don’t figure out that several of the characters you’re reading about are the bad guys until everything starts slowly knitting itself together at the end. His characters are definitely modern, as he manages to knit together an interesting, diverse cast of POVs without succumbing to The Nation To The South Is Like This and The Dwarves Are Like That sorts of tropes. Also worth pointing out: one of the POV characters is in a wheelchair, which I think is the first time I’ve seen that in a fantasy novel. Generally when fantasy interacts with disability it’s to cut off a limb in combat or sometimes to have a character who is Blind But Not Blind, and I swear I wrote that before realizing that GoT does both. This is not that, and this book deserves a lot more attention than it got.

4. LEGENDBORN, by Tracy Deonn. Let us first take a moment to appreciate that cover, please.

Legendborn is not only the first of a series, it’s author Tracy Deonn’s debut as well, and … man, I loved it. I loved it. Much like Wallace’s Savage Legion and Kuang’s Poppy War, this book starts off feeling very familiar and very tropey. YA can get away with that to a slightly larger degree than books that are supposedly aimed at adults, but it’s still there nonetheless. The main character is not quite off at college, as she’s in high school, but she’s participating in a program that is located at a college and she lives in a dorm. And she’s off at a party and she Witnesses Something She Shouldn’t Have Seen, and then there are Secret Powers that Must Be Hidden, and there’s a Secret Society, and then like thirty pages into the book Tracy Deonn starts pinpointing exactly what you think is going to happen and gleefully curb-stomping the hell out of all of it, and yes eventually there’s a Powerful Boyfriend and a Smolderingly Sexy Antagonist who is the Boyfriend’s protector and best friend but hates the main character because of Secret Reasons, and this is one of those books that is difficult to describe properly because it sounds so clichéd but you just have to trust me that Tracy Deonn knows exactly what she’s doing and everything is going to be delightfully subverted by the end, and there’s even a Big Twist at the very end that I absolutely did not see coming and led to a fun bit of self-examination where I had to decide if I’d missed it because I’m white.

This is the third YA book to appear on this list, and as I’ve already said I read a lot of YA this year, but you absolutely should not let that get in the way of your reading this. Go get it and put it in your head now, please.

3. LEONARDO DA VINCI, by Walter Isaacson. There’s always at least a couple of nonfiction books on this list, but Leonardo da Vinci was the first one that was in serious contention for the top spot. This book is a combination of a biography of Leonardo himself and a book about art history, and it is filled with pictures of his artwork and detailed analyses of his paintings. This is the second book of Isaacson’s I’ve read, his first being a biography of Benjamin Franklin, and I will likely read his biography of Einstein sometime this year. Isaacson’s thing is that he really likes writing about geniuses, and the most notable thing about this book, above and beyond the fact that Leonardo himself is endlessly fascinating, is the sheer enthusiasm that Isaacson brings to discussing his subject. Art history is one of those things that I don’t personally know a whole lot about, but I love listening to and reading people who do know a lot about art talk about it, and both parts of the book were done exceptionally well. Descriptions of art can slide into the sort of half-gibberish that music reviews can turn into if the author isn’t careful, and I have to admit that a lot of the time I’m taking his word for it when he does things like describe facial expressions of the various subjects of a painting and such, but this is an amazing book about an amazing person and I very strongly recommend it even if you don’t necessarily think Leonardo is someone you want to spend 600 pages with. Because, seriously, you don’t want to read about Leonardo da Vinci? Quit being weird and go pick this up.

(Also, one more thing: this book wins for the best book as a physical artifact for the year. The paper is creamy and thick and the book feels great, and since it’s full of artwork that is begging for analysis the print itself is of a really high quality. I only spent like $12 on it brand new, and that’s ludicrous.)

2. BLACK SUN, by Rebecca Roanhorse. We’re back to Volume One of A Fantasy Series territory here, and Rebecca Roanhorse has become one of my favorite authors over the last several years, someone whose books get bought on release day and leapfrogged over whatever else happens to be in the queue at the time.

Anyway, let’s stare at the cover for a moment.

Black Sun is second-world fantasy, heavily influenced by Mesoamerican history and culture in much the same way that The Burning God is influenced by Japanese and Chinese culture. And you’re about to see another theme between this and the book that ended up being my favorite of the year, because the thing I loved the most about both books was the worldbuilding. I don’t know how many books are planned for this series but I hope it’s a million, because I could read about this world forever. It’s also one of those books where the ending kind of upends the status quo that’s been set up throughout the book, so we’ll see where Roanhorse goes with the second volume, which hopefully will be out really soon.

1. SCARLET ODYSSEY, by C.T. Rwizi. This has been the frontrunner for most of the year, and I did go back and forth a couple of times on whether I was going to have it or Black Sun as the top book of the year, but in the end it won out. And, well, there are some definite similarities between the two: second-world fantasy inspired by a culture that you typically don’t see a lot of in fantasy literature, this time being Central Africa rather than Mesoamerica, and absolutely outstanding worldbuilding. What ended up giving Odyssey the edge was slightly stronger characters and a more detailed (and math-based!) magic system, existing alongside multiple detailed religious systems and a complicated politics to boot. This book also features rotating 3rd person POVs, although it’s clear that 18-year-old Musalodi, a mystic who achieves a place of power and influence among his people and is immediately sent forth on an Important Quest, the actual purpose of which is to get rid of him, because men aren’t supposed to be Mystics and no one in his home really wants to deal with him. Genderflipping traditional roles is kind of a thing throughout this book, and Salo’s journey and the people he encounters along the way are all fascinating. There are also hints at another culture, possibly much more technologically adept, sort of on the outside of the events of the story but watching closely, and I can’t wait for the sequel, Requiem Moon, which comes out in March and which I’ve already pre-ordered. It is the best book I read in a year full of good books, and you need to read it.

HONORABLE MENTION, in no particular order: TERRA NULLIUS, by Claire G. Coleman, A SONG OF WRAITHS AND RUIN, by Roseanne A. Brown, THE VANISHED QUEEN, by Lisbeth Campbell, MOON OF THE CRUSTED SNOW, by Waubgeshig Rice, THE FIVE: THE UNTOLD LIVES OF THE WOMEN KILLED BY JACK THE RIPPER, by Hallie Rubenhold, SPIDERLIGHT, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING, by Alexis Henderson, and DEATHLESS DIVIDE, by Justina Ireland.

RIP, Rachel Caine

Rachel Caine passed away last night. I have twenty-three books by her in the house, with one preordered (what I assume will be the final book in the excellent Stillhouse Lake series) and three more freshly ordered and on the way, as I decided to get off my ass about finishing the Great Library books. That’s without having read anything from what’s probably her best-known work, the fifteen-book Morganville Vampires series. And once those incoming four are all in the house I might have half of her books; the total is approaching sixty, many of them bestsellers.

She is, by any measure, one of my favorite authors– I probably have more books by Stephen King and I might have more books by Seanan McGuire, who is similarly prolific– but that’s it.(*) Rachel had already survived a battle with breast cancer earlier in her life and was diagnosed … last year? Earlier this year? Fairly recently, one way or another, with an aggressive soft-tissue sarcoma that finally took her away from us last night. She’d been open on her various social media feeds about the cancer and the toll it was taking but was writing until very close to the end; recent tweets from her still refer to the forthcoming Stillhouse book as the “newest” in the series and not the “last.” Hell, for all I know she’s written three more of them and they’re just waiting to be published. She was fast enough; it wouldn’t really be a surprise. Various surgeries and chemotherapy didn’t work, and I suspect by the end she was going through something very similarly to what my mom had to endure for the last months of her life, where the wounds from ostensibly lifesaving surgery simply wouldn’t close up and heal. Her assistant more or less officially took over her Twitter feed on Friday, letting us all know that it wouldn’t be long, and the official notice that she was gone came this morning.

I never met Rachel; she was reasonably active on the con circuit so if she hadn’t gotten sick it probably would have happened eventually, but you can’t read eight thousand pages of someone’s work and not feel like you know them on at least some level. I think we would have gotten along pretty well, and one way or another, she will be missed.

Fuck cancer.

(*) It is literally hours later, and because this is exactly the type of nerd I am I eventually found myself unable to not determine this for sure. Total number of Seanan McGuire books: eighteen. First count of Stephen King books: at least 38, but his are spread throughout the house and are in a bunch of different types of editions and there are a few titles that we have more than one copy of because before marrying me my wife occasionally bought books on her own. I would not be surprised to discover that I missed as many as half a dozen, but that would probably be cancelled out by the ones we have duplicates of, so let’s say “around 40,” call it a day, and hope that my brain doesn’t demand further clarification at 4:00 in the morning.

#52booksbywomenofcolor, October update

Technically, this could be my final update if I wanted to– my goal for the year was to read 52 books by women of color, and while I’m not finished with A Song Below Water, it’s been chosen as the 52nd book and it won’t take to the end of the month to finish it. But there’s still two months in 2020 (God help us all), and five authors– S.L. Huang, N.K. Jemisin, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and Rin Chupeco– were represented twice. There’s also a new book by S.L. Huang on my unread shelf right now. So I figure the new goal is 57 books by 52 women. And after that I might go ahead and get started on 2021’s goal of reading books from as many different countries as I can.

I reviewed a bunch of these, but if there’s anything you’re curious about, feel free to ask. Also, here’s the rest of the list:

Author Interview: Lisbeth Campbell, author of THE VANISHED QUEEN

Hey, all, Luther here. I got to see a VERY early draft of The Vanished Queen, and made some comments and suggestions, so I got to read an ARC before it came out. It’s good. You should read it. This is Lisbeth’s debut novel, and she agreed to do a brief interview with me. The book releases today, everywhere finer novels are sold.

Tell us a bit about yourself.  What made you into an author?

I started writing when I was a kid and knew by the time I was a teenager that I wanted to be a writer. After that it was just persistence. There have been long fallow spells but I always come back to it. I was a voracious reader as a child – I would check out 10 library books and be done with them within a few days if it was summer vacation – and I loved the worlds I was able to experience in reading. So I think part of what got me going was the desire to recreate the moments I especially liked. Then I discovered worldbuilding of my own, and I was unleashed. When I was younger, I wrote a lot of poetry too, because I revel in language, but it didn’t stick the way storytelling did.

What was your journey with this particular book like?  I’m fascinated at how different the final version was than the one I read a few years ago; I don’t think I’ve ever revised anything that significantly.

This book was the book that would not let go. I started in 1995, I think, and wrote something which had curses and plagues and demons and quests and meditations on historiography. It went through multiple revisions and even got to go out visiting once, but nothing happened. 

In 2015 I picked it up once more, thinking that the market had changed and I could fix stuff in just a few months. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha….. I beat my head against a wall for a long time, scrapped the second half for the umpteenth time, and realized that Mirantha, the missing and presumed murdered queen, belonged. Once I brought her in as a character through her journal I didn’t know what to do in the present of the novel. That was when I sent it to you. 

You told me very usefully that it was a ghost story, and I reconfigured a lot of the early stuff, but I still ran into a dead end. So I sent it to a professional editor and asked for big picture comments. She told me that my prose was lovely and the bones of the story were good, but that even with the journal I was not letting the queen have her story. She also said Anza, one of my main characters, was too passive (as you note below).

So I gave Anza a personal stake: her father had been executed by the king. She had a reason to fight. Suddenly the rest of the story became a lot clearer. Her connection to Mirantha, which had always felt crucial to me but had no good basis within the narrative, was a connection of shared grief. I wrote and revised that draft in slightly less than a year.

I got an agent whose completely understood the story, and I revised again with her guidance, three times. After it sold I did three more revisions for my editor. All of these revisions focused on the last quarter of the book and making it more revolutionary. So by now all that is left of the very first version is the characters and a few early scenes, which have been much reworked. I’ve saved everything, and who knows, the outtakes might turn into a story or scenes in another novel.

How much did the “real world” impact on how you wrote this story?  I know this book was started prior to the Current Unpleasantness, but I imagine it’s difficult to write a book in 2020 about a resistance against the rule of a despotic king without certain parallels forcing their way into the story.

The election of 2016 and its aftermath significantly affected the writing of this book. The story I wanted to write had always been about resisting tyranny. After 2016 I was writing to a different audience than I had been (including myself). I was writing for Americans who needed a vision of how to resist tyranny because of real life. The story was not just about Anza and Mirantha; it was suddenly deeply personal. I did not try to avoid parallels – I sought them out.

One thing in particular was added when I was incandescent with rage at the outcome of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. Nothing had ever made it so clear how much women are silenced and disbelieved. Mirantha’s situation became much more vivid to me, and I gave her my anger. I have always been fascinated by Cassandra, so the theme of the disbelieved woman was already present, but I sharpened it after seeing what happened to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.

Let’s talk about Anza herself a bit.  Where did she come from?  She was a very different character in the version of the book that I read– quite a bit more passive, for one thing, and straight, for another.  I’ve seen you talk about how her bisexuality sort of forced its way onto the page; (feel free to reword that) how much about her characterization surprised you?

The change in Anza from a witness to an active resistance fighter was because her passivity was dragging the book down. I do believe that witnessing can be an act of agency, but it just wasn’t working here. As soon as I gave her a personal motive (stakes!!) and altered some other things about her backstory, which I won’t go into here because spoilers, the book acquired much more strength and shape. 

As far as her sexuality goes, she was attracted to her roommate in my head in one of the very early versions, but I let the roommate go and the bisexuality with her, partly because I didn’t know what to do with the bisexuality and partly because it was a distraction. When I picked the book up again in 2015, Anza got the hots for every attractive young person (female or male) who crossed her path. But her bisexuality was still distracting from the rest of the story so I kept it out. At some point I realized that what was really going on with her was her coming to realize she sucks at relationships. Her self-discovery is not about queerness. It’s about learning how she screwed up in her interactions with people. And that story is not a distraction from the story of revolution, which is a story of relationship. So I let her be bi. I like queernorm worlds, because that is how the world ought to be.

As to where she came from initially, I have no idea. My characters just emerge on their own and do their own thing.

Any plans to continue with this world in the future?  Any other projects you’d like to let us know about?

Right now I have no plans to continue with this world. But I can certainly see a novel set ten or fifteen years later that plays out what happens afterward. 

My big novel project at the moment is something I am describing as a mash-up of The Secret History, Richard III (Shakespeare version), and “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” with steam trains. The elevator pitch tag line is “Political intrigue, dangerous magic, and found family.” It’s about a nine year old king who is dethroned by his uncle. One of the characters has a back story involving magic and murder at college. That’s as much as I want to say, because there’s always the chance that it will crash and burn. I sputter out at times, and publishing is weird.

I want to thank Lisbeth for popping by and talking to us about the book today. The Vanished Queen is available in hardcover and ebook, and you can follow Lisbeth on Twitter at @fictionlisbeth or find her on the Web at lisbethcampbell.com.

#C2E2 Roundup

We had a good time! Other than having to park a full 27-minute walk away from the venue, that is. That’s a decent length for a walk in the cold, and my watch asked me on the way to and from my car if I was working out or not. No! I’m just trying not to die.

Also, when we got there, there was absolutely no signage that there was a security line or a bag check to go through? Just literally a few thousand people all milling around being confused, because no one knew why they were there but everyone stood in the huge mob because they felt like they ought to?

We had our badges already, and they were already activated, so I literally moved a barrier aside and the three of us went in. Somebody tried to follow us and got sent back, and tried to get security to go get us too, but they didn’t. For some reason I found that hilarious. I didn’t find out until after the show that we’d actually dodged the security line; as I said, no signs at all, just a lot of confused people in a herd. I wouldn’t have jumped out of line if I’d have known that, but … whatever, I guess. I thought it was will call, I swear. 😀

I feel like there were a ton more people at the show than the last time, but more on that in a few minutes. I had goals! Nerd goals! First one: meet Gail Simone and Al Ewing. Well, Al wasn’t at his booth at all on Saturday, which was a bummer. But I met Gail!

So, interesting detail: Gail follows me on Twitter. And the account belongs to Luther, which, remember, isn’t my real name. So the fact that I automatically went into “I’m at a con” mode and told her to sign my graphic novel to Luther took me by surprise. Then I found out she was selling scripts and snapped one of those up too– that issue of Tony Stark: Iron Man contains what might honestly be my favorite single-panel joke in all of comic book history:

Gail’s husband accidentally told me something VERY COOL that might be coming out and I was immediately sworn to silence, but I wasn’t told not to tell you that I know something cool now. Which I do.

Authors! We ended up leaving before Robert Jackson Bennett’s signing, but my wife got Sam Sykes to sign a book, and I got autographs from John Scalzi and S.L. Huang:

By this point, I’d set precedent that books were signed to Luther, so I decided to roll with it. John was nice enough to let me take a picture with him, too:

On the Charizard: the boy put it on the table, and John immediately volunteered to sign it if he wanted, which he declined, not knowing who the hell John was. We only talked for a minute or two but he was very nice– in general, everyone was, unsurprisingly.

Also, I bought stuff:

New leather dice bag! Forgive the vast amounts of cat hair on the piano bench, there; it’s one of Jonesy’s favorite spots and I’m not about to retake the pictures somewhere cleaner.

Leather dice tray! It was either this or a tower, and I went with this instead, because of…

…the super fuckin’ cool obsidian dice I bought, which the salesperson made sure to point out are made of glass, and thus, honestly, are probably not the best choice to make dice out of? The price of the set, plus the box and the tray was frankly ridiculous, but much more reasonable compared to the first set I looked at, which were made of Damascus steel and priced at four hundred dollars. But fuck it: twelfth/third anniversary and we both saved up to buy cool shit at this show and I was ferdamnsure going to buy cool shit.

Oh, and I ran into my friend Verna Vendetta, who I met at Starbase Indy a million years ago:

The only real fail of the show, at least for me, was the sparse number of cosplayer pictures I took. Turns out that 1) it’s way easier to get people to let them photograph you when you’re at a booth, and 2) it really was hugely crowded, so most of the time if I saw somebody I might have tried to get a picture of in other contexts, the ridiculous number of people in between us made stopping to do so practically impossible. So I missed out on, say, the guy in the 12-foot-tall Bumblebee costume, because despite being near him there was no way I was going to get him to stop. So I didn’t get nearly as many pictures as I thought I was going to, but I did get a handful of them:

So, yeah: didn’t get arrested, spent lots of money, met cool people, walked seven miles, Achilles tendons currently really painful. I’ll call that victory! If you’d told me at fifteen that I’d not only eventually attend a nerd convention with a hundred thousand people there but that I’d have my wife and son with me and we’d be doing it on our anniversary, I’d have called you a liar. It’s good to be a geek.