Broken Blade by Kelly McCullough

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 56 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

Trouble wore a red dress.

That’s the first sentence of Broken Blade by my friend Kelly McCullough.

When I jotted that first line down for this podcast, I thought to myself “That sounds more like the start of a noir detective story than a fantasy novel with mages, assassins, and gods, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized Broken Blade shares an awful lot of DNA with a classic private-eye mystery. Aral is a down-on-his-luck “shadow jack” who escaped into the bottle after the death of the goddess he served.  Falling from professional goddess-blessed assassin to a poor, unsavoury almost-all-purpose freelancer isn’t a million miles away from the stereotypical ex-cop who becomes a seedy private eye.

And this story has several mysteries. Who is this mysterious woman in red? What does she really want? How does that tie into the future of the city? And what does Aral’s old friend (who’s supposed to be dead) have to do with it all?

A nice departure from the detective stereotypes is that the femme fatale isn’t the type who needs constant rescuing — she mostly needs help from someone who has a slightly different set of skills. Maylien’s relationship with Aral is one of equals — or rather, each is superior to the other in important ways, and this balances nicely. They rescue each other, they each struggle with their own personal demons, and they both have adorable familiars — hers is a tiny gryphon.

I can’t believe I’ve gotten this far without mentioning Triss. Triss is Aral’s shadow — literally. He’s a creature from the “everdark,” and he is bonded to Aral as his familiar. I adore Triss. The relationship between Aral and Triss is the heart of the book for me. They love each other, but Triss is saddened and ashamed at what Aral, who was once known as Kingslayer, has become. Triss is part best friend, part grumpy-judgey uncle, part conscience, and part dragon. Yep — that’s right, he’s a miniature dragon. Well, dragon shadow. But he can manifest enough to get scritches on his scales from time to time.

Another thing I enjoy about this book is how it feels like it’s taking place before the backdrop of a well-developed universe, but it’s not shoved in our faces. It’s very clear that the author and the characters know a ton about the world, but we don’t stop the action for an explanation of anything unless it’s important to the plot at hand. This book feels lived-in in the best way, so every time we learn something new it feels like it’s unspooling naturally.

Also, apropos of nothing, it’s clear this book was written by someone who really gets librarians.

This was my second time reading Broken Blade. Kelly is working on a new Blade novel, and before I dive into the new chapters he’s posting on his Patreon, I wanted to re-read all the previous books in the series. I went in with a teeny bit of trepidation because I loved it the first time through, and you never know if the suck fairy will have visited in the intervening years. I was mightily relieved to discover I enjoyed this book even more the second time through. Having read the rest of the books in this series (which I think gets better and better with each book), it was really fun to re-visit Aral’s origin. I noticed things I’d slid over my first time through that pay off later. That’s always fun.

So if you need a distraction right now as much as I do, you could do much worse than diving into the world of Broken Blade. You could stop reading after this book — it has a satisfying ending, but if you do want to go on (and you probably will), there’s lots more great stuff ahead.

 

Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 55 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

I killed my first man today…

That’s the first sentence of Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky.

If I had read a description of Guns of the Dawn, I probably wouldn’t have read the book. So I’m pretty glad I never bothered to do that. It came highly recommended by some friends, so I bought it and dug in without seeing anything more than the cover.

This is a book about war. Not my favourite topic. It also has a very regency novel vibe to it — another thing that doesn’t tend to strike my fancy. If those things are up your alley, I urge you to run, do not walk, and nab this book because you’ll probably like it even more than I did.

It follows Emily Marshwic during and before she is drafted and sent to the awful, swampy front lines of a war between her country, Lascanne, and its neighbour, Denland. Lascanne has run out of men to send, and while it is quite unthinkable, the king has begun drafting women to be soldiers.

As I mentioned, this novel, while in a fantasy country where the king can anoint warlocks to shoot fire from their hands in service of their nation, feels very much like a regency novel. The trappings of society are of great importance to Emily and her sisters. They live in a large house on an estate. The Marshwic name is noble and well-respected, for all that the family has fallen in stature after the suicide of Emily’s father — a fate he was driven to by the deplorable Mr. Northway, who became the mayor-governor when it should have been Emily’s father. Skirmishes of words with Mr. Northway are the only battles Emily is familiar with before she “takes the red” and becomes an ensign in the King’s army.

The book chronicles her life both at home and on the front lines, by starting each chapter with Emily’s letters from the front. The rest of most chapters take us through her life, starting well before the draft, covering her training, and then we watch her grapple with what it means to be a soldier, a woman soldier, and a woman.

While this book’s topics may not be my usual fare, I’m very glad I read it. This is most definitely a book about war, but it in no way glorifies war. It examines war through a variety of lenses and comes to very reasonable and realistic conclusions about it. The characters are well-drawn and likeable. And most importantly, Emily’s inner life and struggles are compelling and relatable.

If any of these elements sounds like your thing, I will again exhort you check it out because I expect you’ll be glad you did.

Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 54 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

My earliest memory of her smells like blood.

I remember just enough.

I woke in twilight, a violet dimness, and looked at the hospital bed next to me: reek of dried blood and disinfectant, the unfamiliar profile of a pale girl visible through a clear mask.

That’s the beginning of Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed.

Ok, right up front, I’ll cop to the fact that one of my favourite things about this book is that part of it is set in Edmonton, and it’s where both the main characters live. I’ve never read a book set where I live before, and that in itself was a really delightful experience. I could tell it was in Canada right away when Nick offers to use a toonie to buy a vending-machine drink for Johnny. But it wasn’t until later, when Johnny mentions a couple local colleges (Grant Mac and NAIT) that I was sure we were here in my own adopted city.

But this book isn’t about Edmonton, it just happens to be set here–probably because I think the writer lives here. No, this book is about friendship–a friendship forged in blood. It’s about inequality. It’s about the different ways people navigate through the world depending on their class, race, and gender. Oh. It’s also about monsters. Terrible, eldritch elder creatures, infinitely more powerful than puny humans, from before the dawn of time. And you might have guessed it, they want in, and they want to rule.

Nick is a just-turned-18-year-old. He’s of Indian descent, by way of Guyana, so imperialism and conquest are a part of his family’s heritage. He was born in Canada, but still deals with the racism that comes of being a poor brown person in Canadian culture. Johnny is practically Nick’s exact opposite. She’s a petite blond waif of a 17-year-old white girl who is an utterly brilliant and uber-rich scientist. She started inventing miracle products when she was three.

So while yes, this book is about evil monstrosities trying to tear their way into our world, what grabbed me about it was the journey these two heroes take–how they each struggle to accept the other’s worldview, and how globe-trotting to solve ancient mysteries necessarily shapes and takes a toll on their unlikely friendship.

I won’t say how the book ended, but I will say I found it  satisfying and well earned in terms of the decisions each character makes.

If you want a little piece of Alberta with a healthy dose of magic and monsters, check out Beneath the Rising.

 

WFH – Day Thirty One

It takes forever to shut down.

Not a whole lot has changed about my WFH routine since days one, two, and eight.


DIFFERENT: Drawer

The big thing is I now have a drawer. Steven suggested I put my work laptop away and out of site instead of just closing it and sliding it out of the way to slide my personal laptop into its place. Turns out I had an empty drawer right next to me, so now when I’m done for the day I put away the laptop and the adapter that lets me plug into my external monitor. It’s nice ’cause they never catch my eye and remind me of worky work stuff when it’s not worky work time.


I’m really quite settled in, and I’m slowly switching over to the phase where I dread having to someday go back into the office. That doesn’t seem imminent, so I’m trying not to think about it much. Yet.

I hope whatever your situation is that you’re weathering it as well as can be hoped.

 

TPK Microfic – Flessa’s Twine

While I was carving a chicken yesterday, my mind was wandering, and I came up with this little scene for one of my Total Party Kill characters. If you listen to the “Dragonforge and Associates” seasons of the podcast, this will make perfect sense. If you don’t, here’s where to start!


INT. DRAGONFORGE RESIDENCE – RUMPUS ROOM

Flessa sits on a beanbag chair in the corner, making complicated cat’s cradles with a piece of thin twine. Occasionally she tosses one pattern into the air and catches it in a different pattern on her fingers.

RISWYNN: Flessa, be careful with that twine. If it lands wrong, you could strangle yourself.

FLESSA (brightly): You can’t strangle someone with this kind of twine. It’s too thin. It’ll break!

A beat

FLESSA: Boss? Do you have any thicker twine?

RISWYNN: *facepalm*

MELECH: *starts searching his bag for thicker twine*


I thought I’d written a post about Flessa, but looks like I haven’t? Maybe I’ll change that. Closest I could find was this post about the campaign as a whole.

WFH – Day Eight

I’m not even wearing regular socks anymore.

After eight days of working from home, I’ve definitely made some adjustments since days one and two.


DIFFERENT: Hair

Remember how I said I wander around with bedhead on weekends, but on work days I brush it and put it in pigtails? Yeah, that didn’t last long. I might randomly brush it and pull it back at some point in the morning before my lunchtime shower, but it’s not exactly likely.

DIFFERENT: Clothes

My goal of wearing “weekend work pants” lasted about two days. Last Monday I rolled out of bed and pretty much went directly to my computer—pyjamas and all. It was a nice try, but I don’t think I needed pants that are remotely “real”. I did throw some nicer comfy pants on after my shower today, and that was neat, but I’m finding it’s not something I need. Likewise, wearing regular socks seems to have fallen by the wayside. Comfy, puffy slipper socks have become the norm when I need them. Or I just go barefoot if it’s warm enough!

DIFFERENT: Exercise!

I’ve been doing a good job at staying active at lunch. I mostly still hop on the elliptical, but some days when I’m feeling particularly tired or stressed (or both, like today), I do some yoga instead. This is the session I did today, and it was perfect. Very gentle, relaxing stretches, and it was quite meditative.

WORKING ON IT: Scheduling

I still find myself staying logged in longer than I need to some days, so I’m trying to police myself better about logging off when my shift is over.

DIFFERENT: Dongle

I have a nifty dongle that allows me to use my big, external monitor with my work laptop. It’s great! I’ve decided to keep that dongle in a drawer with a bunch of other cords and dongles. I could leave it plugged into my work laptop, but it kinda sticks out, and the convenience of having it there already is far outweighed by the feeling of satisfaction I get closing that drawer on the dongle at the end of a work day. And then opening that drawer the next morning really puts my brain in a “time to start the day!” gear.


I think what this all boils down to is that I’m learning what works for me. Some people need to get dressed in real clothes to feel like they’re able to focus on work. Turns out, I’m not one of those people. I have plenty of friends who work from home all the time who never bother with many of the tips and tricks I’ve seen online, and they’re really successful! So I’m not judging myself for working in my pjs and slipper-socks. If it works for me, it works for me!

I hope whatever you’re doing is working for you too. Stay safe out there.

WFH – Day Two

Work socks! And Friday is jeans day!

Day two of working from home felt smoother than day one did. I still think I’m not working at my top speed, but I wasn’t when I was in the office over the past couple weeks either. Worrying about a pandemic scatters one’s thoughts. Who knew?

I figure I’ll keep noting wfh items here as they crop up. So there may not be work-daily posts, but who the heck knows anything these days? Maybe there will.


MODIFICATION: Spouse Time

On a normal office-workday, I wake up Steven to say goodbye and get some hugs and snuggles before I leave the house. Now that I’m just in the other room, I’m not waking him up before I leave because that would just be rude. (He rarely falls back asleep after I wake him, even though he doesn’t need to get up that early. He also stays up waaaay later than I do.) This morning, I took a short break after he was awake to pop in and say good morning. It made a bigger difference to my state of mind than I’d’ve expected, so I’ll definitely make sure I’m not sacrificing important together-time.

DIFFERENT: Hair

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been showering at lunchtime instead of before work, so my morning hair routine is necessarily different. On a weekend, I just wander around with bedhead. For wfh purposes, I’ve been brushing my hair and putting it in pigtails to feel a smidge more human/professional. (Then I do it normally after my lunchtime shower.)

DIFFERENT: Shower

Yep—still sticking with the lunchtime shower, so in the morning when I wake up, I’ve been washing my face with Neutrogena face wipes. It helps make me feel a little more together and with-it. (I generally try to avoid using lots of disposable stuff when I don’t need to, and this is my biggest mental-health exception to that. There’s something about washing my face in the sink that really stresses me out, so this is my bougie concession to my brain’s nonsense.)

MODIFICATION: Casual Friday

In the office, we can wear jeans on Friday! I know my pj pants or my “weekend work pants” are more comfortable than jeans, but I wanted to feel some solidarity with my distant coworkers, so I put on jeans today (as you can see a tiny bit of in the picture above). I also decided to wear “proper” socks today. Yesterday I padded around in slipper socks all day. Today’s purple cat-socks are a wee bit more professional.

DIFFERENT: Coffee

I forgot to mention this one yesterday. I had pretty much stopped drinking coffee at work. (I only drink decaf except in really extreme circumstances, so I don’t need the caffeine boost.) I decided it would feel more morning-at-the-officey to have a cuppa joe at my desk, so I’ve been making myself some decaf each morning.

WAY DIFFERENT: Accidental Mocha

Today I made the genius move of putting chocolate oat milk into my coffee and had myself a very basic mocha. Steven accidentally bought a carton of chocolate last time he went out for oat milk, and it was a happy accident indeed! Might need to make that an on-purpose move going forward.

DIFFERENT: Exercise!

I am so proud of myself! At lunch today, I hopped on the elliptical trainer for 20 minutes before showering. I am so glad I didn’t fall into the “I’ll start that next week” trap. Better to get rolling with physical activity immediately. There’s always a reason to put it off. But today I ignored all those reasons, and I think I’ll be better off for it.

MODIFICATION: Snacks

I still haven’t gotten back to my mixed-muts-as-a-snack thing. I still had some leftover Thai food (the place we order from has incredibly generous portions), so I had that at my 11am snack time. I think that was wise, given that I exercised at lunchtime. Then for my 3pm snack, Steven brought me a Booster Juice after doing a quick grocery run for fresh foods. (He is very careful when he goes out–armed with alcohol wipes and hand sanitizer and doing all the right social distancing. So have no fear on that count.)


One thing I’ve noticed these past two days is that the day positively flies by as compared to a day in the office. I can’t believe how quickly 4:30 rolled around. (And then 4:45 because something “rushey” cropped up at the last minute because Fridays are always a shitshow.) I wonder if that’s just because this is all still relatively new. Maybe after I’m a bit more used to it, the days will begin to crawl. Only one way to find out—keep on keepin’ on.

Hope you all out there are keepin’ on too.

WFH – Day One

The view from my “new office”

Having been given the go-ahead to work from home, I am now living the wfh lifestyle. It’s not entirely new to me — I work from home every now and then. So I don’t need resources like Glenn Fleishman’s Take Control of Working from Home Temporarily, which is currently free! Hop on that if you’re joining me in wfh-land and need some help.

While this isn’t new to me, working from home more than a day or three is. So I’ve been doing some things the same as usual for an office workday, some differently, and some are a modified version of what I usually do. I thought I’d take note of these things as I go — as much for my edification as for anyone else’s!


MODIFICATION: Clothes

The dress code at work is business-casual. The dress code at home is pjs all day. I split the difference. I have a few pairs of what I call “weekend work pants”, which I wear when I have lots of podcast work to do and want to feel slightly business-ey. That’s what I wore today.

SAME: Breakfast

I have a breakfast shake every morning before walking to work, so today I made the same shake even though my walk was only from the kitchen to the computer desk.

DIFFERENT: Commute

I’m getting much less cardio now that I’m not walking to work and back every day. This is something I’m gonna work on. But not right away. Just getting my work setup set up is enough for me for this week. (And I did get some extra walking today because I had an appointment downtown.)

MODIFICATION: Desk

I do still work at a desk, but this one is much less ergonomically set up for me. I’ll be working on this over the coming days. I did pop by the office to grab a foot rest, which has helped, but I may need an external keyboard with a keyboard tray because this chair doesn’t go as high as I need for this non-adjustable IKEA table.

MODIFICATION: Screens

I have a lil dongle that allows me to plug my work laptop into the external monitor I already have at home. I had to fight with it a bit to get MS Office apps to look clear, but I prevailed! At the office I have two largeish monitors that are oriented in portrait mode (vertically) right next to each other. Here at home, I have the external monitor in landscape mode (horizontal) hanging over my laptop screen. I’ve had to re-arrange where I put each of the programs I use regularly. I need to train new muscle memory, so I was a little slower than usual today — always reaching for the wrong part of the screen. I expect with time, I’ll get used to this setup and be back to my usual speedy self!

MODIFICATION: Hourly Steps

At work, I try to hit the 250 steps-per-hour goal my FitBit tells me to get. It’s usually pretty easy to do this because the trip to the bathroom or around the floor is much farther than the same journey here in our apartment. So every time I get up for any reason, I do a circuit of our living room and kitchen. (You can walk all the way around one wall so I do at least one circuit every time.) I’ve mostly met my 250 steps each hour.

MODIFICATION: Snacks

At the office, I had a pretty steady routine of eating 2 tablespoons of deluxe mixed nuts at 11am and 3pm. Now that I’m home, those nuts seem much less tempting. Today I ate leftovers at my 11am snack break, and then had some caramel corn at my 3pm snack break. I didn’t have anything at lunchtime though (in part, because I was at an appointment). I will definitely be policing myself when it comes to food. It’s too easy to just binge whatever I want, whenever I want. (I did refrain from eating an ice cream bar after my Thai food — even though it was quite spicy, and my mouth would have appreciated it! So I’m feeling pretty virtuous.)

MODIFICATION: Shower

I took a shower at lunch time. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to make myself get up any earlier than I absolutely have to — especially not to take a shower if I don’t need to go out and see people. I am not a morning person. So a lunchtime or even evening shower may become the way of things.

DIFFERENT: Lunch

I usually drink another shake at lunch (protein+greens with coconut milk and coconut yogurt, same as for breakfast), but that’s honestly just ’cause I’m too lazy to get anything else ready to take to work. Now I have the whole of my fridge’s contents to work with, every day. So I had some leftover Thai food I ordered from a place in Chinatown (and tipped handsomely for). Will I default back to a shake when I have no delicious leftovers to divvy out and heat up? Quite possibly. Or I might start in on microwave meals.

DIFFERENT: Distractions

At the office, my distractions mostly come from my coworkers. Usually they’re asking a work-related question, but not always. There’s some fun random water-cooler talk too. Now that I’m at home, I’m finding I have far fewer interruptions to my work. Steven did have stuff on the TVs behind me, but I’m really good at tuning things out. The only thing that caught my ear today was when CBC switched over to their COVID-19 coverage. Dr. Deena Hinshaw is a rockstar, and I definitely took a short break to watch her statement.

DIFFERENT: Schedule

Today may not have been a great example for my daily schedule because I had an appointment downtown and also had to pick up some stuff (including the foot rest) from the office, so I wasn’t at my desk constantly. I say all of this to excuse the fact that I kept working a half an hour after my shift is actually over. It’s really easy to just keep working when you’re already at home. I’m gonna have to keep an eye on this on days when I don’t have an extended lunch period.


I know that all of this will evolve over the coming days/weeks/months(?), and I’m kinda interested to see how I tweak things as I go. Thus the blog post(s?) to help keep track of where I started and maybe where I’m going.

Nothing’s Changed; Everything’s Changed

Sadly, this is not my current state of affairs.

I’ve been wanting to write something about how I’ve been feeling through all this … waves hands at the world … but I’m having trouble getting my thoughts to settle down to even figure out how I’m feeling. I know I’m not at all alone in this, but I also recognize that everyone is feeling it in their own way.

The thing that’s the most difficult for me to wrap my head around is the fact that my life hasn’t changed. At least not yet. I don’t do the grocery shopping, and 80-90% of my social interaction happens online anyway. Most distressingly, my employer doesn’t have the IT capability to let all employees work remotely. I do have a laptop, and I’m set up to work remotely (which I do occasionally when the need arises), but we’ve been told we really should be in the office.

So right now, nothing is substantially different here. We don’t usually go out to eat, and we only see movies in the theatre a couple times a year. We do have semi-regular hang-outs with local friends, but those often get cancelled anyway.

Everything is the same.

But it’s not.

That’s what is twisting my brain around. So many of my friends are working from home for the first time (because their employers have IT systems that can handle it). They’re hunkering down in a way that’s new and different for them. The picture at the top of this post represents what my brain seems to think I should be doing these days, but I still have the same amount of day-job work, and I still have the same amount of home-job podcasting work (if not a little more right now).

In a way, I’m lucky(?) that so much of my life is pretty much “social distancing” at the best of times because there’s no learning curve. But on the other hand, the cognitive dissonance of going about my business while knowing that the world has already changed around me (and will change more, and for the worse, very soon) has my neural chemistry in quite the tizzy.

So if you’re not making many active changes (because you don’t need to), but you’re still struggling mightily, know that you’re not alone.

Take care of yourselves. <3

Predictably Warm and Fuzzy

Today wasn’t great, but it was a day where I managed to overcome my brain (and body) challenges to make some things work for me. That’s not something I achieve every day, so I’m taking a moment to be thankful I was as productive as I was.

In that spirit, I’m closing out the night with a very warm fuzzy thought. I may be asleep by the time Steven gets home from work, but when he does, I’ll be tucked warm and cozy in my blankies, and he’ll settle himself down on the couch and watch the highlights of the hockey games he had to miss because he was working.

It may sound so banal as to make you question why that’s a warm fuzzy, but there’s something comfortably wonderful about the cozy knowledge that we’ll be right where we belong. Especially on bad-brain days, I crave stability and predictability, so here’s to a night like many, many others.

And thank heavens for warm fuzzy thoughts because it’s currently -31°C (-24°F), and poor Steven is walking home! Then my walk to work tomorrow will look like this… brr

Wednesday morn -42C Sunny, Feels like -52