“Owl Be Home for Christmas”

Diane Duane

This is a pretty direct follow-on to my last review, and similarly was written before Christmas. And while it’s the same kind of thing—a small, not saving-the-world scale story in a universe I love—it’s also very different. Because “How Lovely Are Thy Branches” takes place within the main timeline of the books, but this was based on a real event, and was thus locked to a specific point in time. Which happened to be something like a decade later than the rest of the series.

It’s a commentary on how well Duane has written the series to be timeless that it’s easy to forget that, prior to the New Millennium rewrite, these were all taking place in, what, the 80s-90s? That timelessness, though, made it very surprising to realize that, in jumping up to approximately now, a lot of time had passed.

And that’s what really hit me, in reading this. It’s a glimpse at the future of these characters I love. I’ve gone from being along for the ride as they grow up to seeing them as adults, and the places they’ve made for themselves. It’s a bittersweet reunion, and it makes me want to know everything that happened in between. Kit did a doctorate? In what? Nita’s working with Irina? How did that happen? What else have I missed?

All that, and there’s also the sense that the series has grown. I remember that 90s-inflected, Don’t Say Gay treatment of Tom and Carl in the original edition of the first book. In point of fact, I remember explicit statements that they weren’t together, just coworkers who’d decided to buy a house together.

And now, here in 2020, we get to see them waking up together. Poking fun, “are you calling me old?” “I seem to remember telling you I like older men…”

This was such a short story, and it pulled on my heartstrings way more than I was expecting it to. I think this one may be slightly better for someone new to the series than the last, given that there’s less need to actually know who the characters are to understand what’s going on—although it actually has direct references to “How Lovely Are Thy Branches”—but the broader context of how this world works would still be confusing. So hey, why not pick up the box set, it’s a pretty good deal.


“How Lovely Are Thy Branches”

Diane Duane

As a bit of a peek behind the scenes at how far out I occasionally write these reviews, I read this over Thanksgiving weekend, which was approximately the perfect time to read it. Great way to kick-start the Christmas spirit!

It’s been long enough since I read any of the Young Wizards book that this feels like a strange homecoming; everything is familiar, but some of the details I can’t quite recall. The introduction mentioning where, exactly, in the timeline this took place was a helpful bit of grounding, and I loved some of the little world-building touches like Carmela having employee-level access to the systems at the Crossings. (Which, really, makes a lot of sense—not only is she good friends with the guy running the whole place, but she saved it from an invasion. That’s the sort of thing that does tend to earn one the Keys to the City or equivalent.)

The Interim Errantry series is a nice, lightweight part of the greater universe, and exactly the kind of thing I love to see in more established universes. Everything can’t be huge-scale, this is the apocalypse/save the world type adventures! There’s gotta be time for regular life in between—or, if there isn’t, then it’s worth exploring that these people aren’t able to have regular life. Since that isn’t the case, it’s nice to see some of the little moments like these.

It’s such a nice little story, I love it. I really doubt that it’d be a good starting point for the series, since there’s a whole lot of existing characters that don’t get introduced particularly well, but if you already know the franchise, go read it.


“Stealing the Elf-King’s Roses”

Diane Duane

I picked this up for a reread as a break from my “read all the ebooks I’ve got” project, and upon finishing it was surprised to find that I’d never written a review. Well, no time like the present to correct that!

In short, I adore this book. It’s a truly wonderful piece of alternate-history fiction, and the way that’s expressed is done so very perfectly. I’ve got the revised edition, which includes at the end some of the author’s notes about the differences between the worlds it takes place in and ours—and yes, worlds, plural, one of the divergences is the discovery of interdimensional travel, but it’s clearly stated that we’re due to figure that out soon. But even without that, it feels like if you were given the chance to ask Duane about anything in here, pull at any of the strings, she’d have a bunch of notes already prepared. My favorite moment of this is a couple words in passing, where the characters are finally shocked enough by something to say it full out, and suddenly their previous swear of “Suz!” makes more sense: “Suzanne H. Christ!”

Beyond that, the story is weird and fun, and the whole ‘mix of universes’ thing, with the politics that comes from having all these different timelines coming together, makes for a fascinating setting. And, of course, I absolutely love any book that showcases great friendships, and doesn’t fall over itself trying to shoehorn in a love story.1

Overall, this book is a delight, and I heartily recommend it. Pick it up directly from the author’s ebook store, and browse around while you’re there—I love everything of hers that I’ve ever read.2

  1. It was, apparently, a common complaint with the earlier edition that the cover art and title made it sound like a romance novel; I assure you, a romance novel it is not. You’re welcome to read it as if it is one, though, and I bet you’ll find your expectations subverted in a very fun way!
  2. Citation: I’ve got a quote from one of her books as a tattoo.

“The Big Meow,” or, “a better ending than I even bothered to hope for”

Diane Duane
I don’t think I’ve done a review of one of Diane Duane’s books on here before, but that’s not for lack of reading them — it’s just that I’ve been reading them since significantly before I had a habit of writing book reviews, or even a blog at all. The Young Wizards series is something I’ve read and reread and reread again; I’ll pick up one of the books for a reread almost as often as I reread Tamora Pierce.
A quick bit of context, then: the Young Wizards series is set in a universe1 where wizardry is real, and has a very distinctive purpose: slowing down entropy. Wizardry is based on language; wizards learn a special language, the Speech, that was used by the gods to create the universe. With those abilities, they fight the good fight, acknowledging that, yes, one day entropy will win, the universe will die… but they’re not going to let that happen any earlier than it absolutely has to.
The Big Meow is the third in a spin-off trilogy of sorts, following the team of feline wizards that maintain the worldgates at Grand Central Station.2 As in the second book, though, they don’t spend much time on their home turf; most of the book is set in Los Angeles, and there’s some fun to be had as they try to get used to the West Coast style.
Perhaps my favorite thing about the book, though, is how well it handled a certain issue: representation. The protagonist is a cat, and Duane does an excellent job of guiding the reader through that mindspace, through the different perspective given by an interspecies difference. The part that stood out to me, though, was how this, as a side effect, made for a surprising bit of queer representation. Rhiow, the protagonist, was fixed; as a result, this book, written before the word ‘asexual’ had even begun to enter into the public sphere with ‘gay’ and ‘bisexual’ and everything else under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, has an asexual protagonist. The first two books did too, and it feels entirely natural; Rhiow just has a different perspective on certain things, and cracks a few jokes about it with her coworkers. It’s not treated as a big deal at all.
In this book, it becomes a bit more of a focus, as we get a bit of a love interest subplot. And it’s handled quite well: there’s a bit of angst about the whole “I’m fixed and that makes me broken” thing, but her friends are quick to give her a loving whack upside the head, and help her stop seeing that difference as a negative and instead as just a difference. It is, possibly, the best bit of asexual representation I’ve ever read, and it’s quite touching.
Plot-wise, I think I enjoyed this one more than either of the others in the trilogy; the first goes a bit weird in places, and the second has a very cool setting that gets a bit confusing. This, though, doesn’t get lost at all, and the storyline is fun and beautifully creepy. It’s a bit fitting that this book, the one set in and around Hollywood, feels absolutely the most cinematic of the three. I’d totally recommend giving it a read.3
(And, while you’re at it, go read the rest of the series — the Young Wizards books are amazing. Pick up the New Millenium Edition box set, it’s totally worth it.)

  1. Well, technically, a collection of universes, but I digress. 
  2. Public transit: also useful for wizards. 
  3. Normally this would be an Amazon link, but Diane Duane runs her own ebook store, which I’m quite in favor of as it means the majority of the sale goes to her instead of to Amazon. 

“Interim Errantry 2: On Ordeal,” or, “origin stories are actually interesting when they’re new”

Diane Duane
And really, that’s the long and short of it: the origin stories for three characters in Diane Duane’s marvelous Young Wizardsseries. And they were very interesting origins – the third, there were hints about in the rest of the series, but the first two were entirely new. The second was very unexpected, as well – more vicious, and sadder, than I’d thought.
But rather than talk about this book specifically, I think I’d be happier talking up the series as a whole. I haven’t really had a chance to write about it here before, but it’s been one of my favorites for ages. I received the first book in the series as a birthday present years and years ago,1 and promptly fell in love.
It’s been mentioned in both college and graduate school application essays. It drifts through the way I look at the world. I can name chunks of my value system that clearly come from these books, and I can trace my interests – up to and including my major and planned career path – back to the way these books taught me to look at the world.
Before I ever read Peter Parker’s thoughts on responsibility, these books were teaching me that having power meant you should use it to help others.
And they taught me that names, and really all words, are very powerful things.
They’ve been hugely influential to my life, and I happily recommend them to everyone. Start at the beginning: the first book, the delightfully-titled So You Want to Be A Wizard, should be in your local library. If not, I’d recommend picking it up directly from the author: she certainly deserves your patronage. Regardless, go start reading.

  1. I don’t remember exactly how many years it was, but I can tell it was sometime that in elementary school, based on where the birthday party was and who I can recall being there. 

Games Wizards Play

Oh man oh man oh man, I love Diane Duane. She’s one of those writers that I’ve been reading forever, I grew up with her work.1 And I think all of it is wonderful. Duane does a good job of keeping her website up to date, and I follow her blog and her Twitter account pretty closely, so I’ve known this book was coming out soon. Unfortunately, I was on a bus driving around California when it actually came out, and didn’t have any time to spare for reading2 so it had to wait until now.
But man was it worth it. I loved this book, oh so very much. It’s full of beautiful little hat-tips – S’ree’s appearance, early on, was a nice little moment, and it allowed the slow-burn story of what she’s doing with her life to expand a little more. Sker’ret also poked his head in once or twice, and he’s doing quite well for himself, apparently. Carmela, who over the course of the series went from “deeply annoying” to “quite possibly my favorite character” has become a wonderfully-Involved3 person, a bit of a power player on the galactic playing field. Which I love, because she’s not a wizard – she’s just got a talent for languages and a skill for making connections.
The core plot of the book was an interesting one- once every eleven years, all the young wizards of Earth get together, throwing their best and brightest into an Invitational where they show off their spellcrafting skills. Our main characters are a bit too long in the tooth for that, though, and instead get tapped to mentor the younger folks. Dairine got paired with a young Iranian girl whose introduction had my laughing at how uncomfortable Dairine got, while Kit and Nita, always a team, got handed someone who I, personally, referred to as “an annoying startup of a human being.”
And with that as the backdrop, they were off to play. Nita and Kit spend a lot of time worrying about the change in their relationship, trying to figure all that out.4 Nita, of course, has to deal with the mess of visions that the future is throwing at her – which are, intentionally, baffling to both her and the reader. Dairine, meanwhile, has showed some of the most amazing growth as a character that I’ve ever seen – when she first was introduced, she was a powerhouse burning like a star: fierce, bright, untamable. Since then, her power levels have dropped rapidly, to a far more normal level, and while she spent a while being very upset about that, the loss of first her mother and then Roshaun forced her to grow up fast. And she did: as a mentor, she’s amazing, becoming both a friend and a protector for her mentee. I adored it.
One moment that I wasn’t quite sure I liked: the introduction of two queer characters. The first was something that’s been a long time coming, I’d say – a bit character from two books ago reappeared as a wizarding friend of the main characters, and mentions in passing that he’s gay. Nita has a little epiphany at that,5 and while still staggering from that finds out that another of those bit-characters is asexual. Plot wise, that one-two punch made sense – it was the confusion from the first coming out that led to the conversation about the second, but taken from the standpoint of a reader like me it seems a little bit forced. This is, what, the tenth6 book in the series, and you introduce your only two queer characters within a couple pages of another? It whiffs a little of tokenism.
That little bit aside, I’m going to have to stop myself now, because otherwise I’ll get into too spoilerific of territory. There are a couple new characters introduced that had my cackling with laughter or almost literally pushing my nose into the book to read with more scrutiny,7 and in a similar vein we got to see a lot more of Irina and find out more about her life.8 And the end of the book, oh lord, that ending. It’s a good thing neither of my roommates were around while I was reading it, because the delighted noise I made would probably have frightened them. It’s a perfect ending, in Diana Wynne Jones territory, and it made me so happy. This has been one of my favorite books I’ve read in the past year, and I seriously recommend it to everyone.9

  1. The other one is Tamora Pierce; the last time she came out with a new book, I stopped everything I was doing and reread the entire series up to that point, then the new book itself. 
  2. “You’ve got spare time? Nonsense, go practice your music!” 
  3. A term I’m borrowing from Iain Banks’ Culture series; to be Involved is to be a player on the galactic scale. 
  4. Ah, high school. 
  5. Which I found a little bit entertaining, because I can remember the same sort of epiphany waaaaay back when I first found out that not everyone is straight. What a weird time that was. 
  6. I’d originally written “thirteenth” here, but Diane Duane corrected me, and I’ve updated this page to be correct. 
  7. You’ll know who they are when they show up, they’re rather unforgettable. 
  8. Which was something else I absolutely loved about this book – the way that Nita, and Dairine, are both surrounded so constantly by figures of massive importance, and neither of them let it slow them down. Dairine goes through some tough negotiations with Irina, the bloody Planetary, and Nita gives a nickname to a being that exists on a scale quite a few orders of magnitude larger and more powerful than her.
    Which actually made for some very interesting foreshadowing for the reveal at the end of the book. 
  9. Bonus points if you pick it up from the author herself – she sells books and ebooks directly, on her website 

Young Wizards: Lifeboats

Hey, it’s been a while since I did a book review! My whole “read every book on my Kindle” project really slowed down when school started. I wonder why?1
This one is a bit of a cheat on that project, because I just got the book a week or so ago and have been slowly reading it since then. Nonetheless, I’m going to do a review.
So, let me start this off by saying that Diane Duane is one of my favorite authors. Seriously, she’s wonderful. The Young Wizards series is one of those things that I read growing up – I got the first book, So You Want To Be A Wizard, when I was in elementary school, and I (technically) own every book in the series now.2 It’s also wonderful because it feels like the characters grew up with me: when I started that first book, they were excited kids being dropped into a world of magic and adventure, just like I was when I first opened the book. By the time of Wizards at War – my first hardback in the series, which somehow gives it more weight both literally and metaphorically – they were in high school, taking the same classes I was. (And, in their spare time, fighting in a galaxy-spanning war, which I can’t really lay claim to without getting so metaphorical that I lose track of what I’m trying to say.)
Lifeboats is part of a three-piece cycle that Duane wrote, a ‘transitional trio’ that leads from A Wizard of Mars into the upcoming new book, Games Wizards Play.3
Some bits of the afterword, read last night right before I went to bed, stuck with me. And I think they’re very true. The book4 takes advantage of something Duane does that few other authors have taken advantage of: the ability to sell directly to the reader. Her eBooks Direct store sells DRM-free versions of most5 of her (and her husband’s) books. It’s a wonderful thing, and I’ve bought quite a few books that way. It’s a nice feeling to know that 100% of your purchase is going to the author, rather than being filtered through a supply chain and a publisher or two.
More importantly to the book, though, is the fact that Lifeboats was written entirely without the intervention of her publisher(s). It was direct-to-ebook, and that afforded her more freedom than normal. Going through a publisher, a book has to be marketable. It has to be something that people will buy. Market forces stop for no man.
Lifeboats, then, wasn’t a labor of economic forces. It was a labor of love. It was free to be whatever Duane wanted it to be.
And that showed: it expanded on a few side references from earlier books6 while dropping a couple others7 that I must now desperately hope get explained somewhere along the line.
And it was able to be something other than an adventure story following the hero around.
This wasn’t a ‘save the world’ kind of adventure. This was a ‘the world is doomed, try to save what’s left’ sort of thing.
The setting is a planet, close to the galactic core, that lives in the shadow of a moon almost the same size as the planet. The moon is an oppressive presence to our Earthling heroes, weighing down on them from above and providing a constant reminder of the doom that’s already underway: that moon is disintegrating, and as it does so it’ll wrack the planet below with tidal forces, earthquakes and tsunamis, all while raining pieces of itself down from above. A thousand Chicxulub impacts a week, and eventually something that’ll look like firing a bullet through a billiard ball when the metal core of the moon falls out of orbit and hits the planet with all the force that a sextillion tons of iron pick up by being in free-fall for weeks on end.
The main characters aren’t the main characters here: they’re just a viewpoint into a massive evacuation operation, a network of worldgates8 being used to evacuate the planet’s entire population, as well as a sizable chunk of the ecosystem as a whole and as much of the civilization’s cultural artifacts as possible. From Earth alone, something like 60,000 wizards were brought in to orchestrate the operation, and tens of other planets were also tapped for their wizardly resources. The scale of the operation is mind-boggling.
And we never get to see it, because we’re watching through Kit’s eyes as he acts like a cog in a much larger machine, keeping one of the worldgate complexes running while hundreds of thousands of people walk out of one of a set of small ‘feeder’ gates and into the larger upstream gate.
The book gets to spend more time looking at the relationships between the characters, expanding on the sort of thing that gets a few pages of introspection in one of the novels, but gets nearly a third of the book here.
And, quite frankly, I think that’s wonderful. It’s an expansion of the universe in all the best ways: the characters get more time in the spotlight, there’s a heck of a lot of world building, and we get to see people just… doing their jobs. It felt like a behind-the-scenes look into a world that I love, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
My only complaint is that it didn’t make good before-bed reading, because I wound up too invested in it and stayed up too late reading. And that’s the best problem for a book to have.

  1. Probably something to do with the fact that I’m taking 130% of a regular credit-load. Whoops. 
  2. I say ‘technically’ because there’s a few that were loaned out to people and never returned. I’m a bit more careful about keeping track of who I loan books to, these days. 
  3. I have a lot of excitement for that book and I have no idea when it comes out or anything. At this point, I know I’ll enjoy it, it’s just a matter of waiting or it to be released. 
  4. Actually more of a novella, I think, though the distinction between the two is a bit fuzzy and tends to change depending on who you ask and what time of day it is. 
  5. Not all, some aren’t available due to licensing restrictions from the original publishers. 
  6. I love any reference to the Crossings, and thus was overjoyed by the opening sequence of Lifeboats
  7. What happened at the Kola Superdeep Borehole? 
  8. Or, y’know, portals, for those who like the more boring words for things. 

My Favorite Books

I’m dropping this bit of introduction in at the start to explain a bit: I wrote this post about a week ago, and I’m posting it now because a) I was too ill to do anything yesterday, and b) Terry Pratchett, mentioned below, passed away on Thursday. He was an amazing writer, and a huge inspiration to me and millions of others. I was consciously aware of the fact that he was dying – his decline due to Alzheimer’s Disease is a matter of public record – and I’d even read his last book, Raising Steam, which was almost painful to read. It was an amazing book, capturing that sense of building something that made me love The Truth so much, and it managed to include just about every character he’d ever written – a tall order in a series that covered more than 50 books and pieces of spin-off media. And it hurt so much because it was so clearly a goodbye. He knew he wasn’t long for this world, and he was able to say goodbye in such a beautiful way. So I’m dedicating this post to Sir Terry Pratchett: you were a phenomenal man, and you will never be forgotten.

Continuing my trend of ‘favorite [category of media]’ posts, I’m gonna talk about some of my favorite books today! (I did that post about what I’m reading a little while ago, but this is more about the stuff that I’ll go back to time and time again.)

Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones

Easily my favorite book, this is (quoting the cover) a tour de force of a book, written as a response to her own “Tough Guide to Fantasyland,” which mocked the stereotypical fantasy novel. Dark Lord is set in one of those stereotypical fantasy novel, but from the other perspective: the ‘hero’ of the novel is actually a tourist, paying an exorbitant amount of money to an exploitative tour agency in order to go on an adventure in another world with magic and monsters. The book ignores those ‘heroes’ and instead follows the ‘dark lord,’ someone who was forced to take up the role to make the tourists experience a proper ‘adventure.’ In true DWJ style, the book starts off slow, but by the time you hit the midpoint of the novel, you realize that you’re physically incapable of putting the book down.

High Wizardry by Diane Duane

I had to think about which of Diane Duane’s books I wanted to mention – Omnitopia: Dawn was a strong contender, but I can still remember where I was when I got So You Want To Be A Wizard, the first book in her Young Wizards series (which includes High Wizardry). The series is one of my favorite of all time, and while I’m not entirely sure if the chronology matches up, I often attribute my wanting to be a programmer with the influence that the Young Wizards series had on my life. The idea that magic wasn’t some sort of inherent trait, but just the ability to convince the world to do what you wanted, combined with the concept that it was just a matter of saying a few words… Well, it got even better when, in High Wizardry, the concept of a computer as an instrument of magic was explored in a beautiful way that, aside from the very specific elements of the computer in question, still feels like science fiction.1

The Circle of Magic series by Tamora Pierce

I tried, I really tried, but I couldn’t pick just one. Honestly, her other major set of works, the Tortall series, is also amazing, and should probably show up as another contender on here, but I had to put the Circle first because it’s what I read first. It’s a beautiful exploration of a unique system of magic with characters that I fall in love with all over again every time I read the books.2 Seriously, go read them, I cannot recommend them enough. And I’m still hoping for a movie series, it would be perfect.

The Truth by Terry Pratchett

Another one where it was hard to pick from a massive series, The Truth follows the invention and growth of the newspaper and newspaper industry in Ankh-Morpork, the ‘big wahooni’ of the Discworld. I’ve read just about3 every book Sir Pratchett4 wrote,5 and I’ve loved very nearly all of them. But it’s this one that stood out the most to me – the sense of something being built, plus the characteristic silliness6 and just a hint of hair-raising horror make it my favorite out of his works.

Honorable Mention

I’ve also got to throw a plug for David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster in here, just because that was the other book that was a big influence on my footnote usage. Another one I read in high school english, Cloud Atlas, goes in here, because of how I reacted when I read the last couple pages of Letters from Zedelgheim. No spoilers, but I’ll just say that I was blissfully oblivious to all of the subtext going on, and when I figured it out on the second-to-last page I dropped the book and sat in silence for a while, and was rather inconsolable for the next couple days. I’ll also drop a plug for Robert Sawyer’s WWW trilogy, which has had a lot of influence on my ideas about artificial intelligence, and another for Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson, which is why I’m so hopeful about the future of 3D printing. A mention for Iain Banks’ Culture series, a beautiful, sprawling set of space operas which I adore. Finally, a shoutout to Patricia C. Wrede, who wrote both the Enchanted Forest series and the Frontier Magic series, both of which I would be happy to read another thousand times.

I read a lot, folks. Hit up those comments – have you read any of these books? And what are your favorites? I’m always looking for more to read!

  1. That is to say, it doesn’t feel out of date, at all. A ‘new millenium edition’ was recently released, which made it work out even better, but it honestly had aged beautifully before that. 
  2. I’m being deliberately vague about which series I’m talking about because, honestly, it’s true of both. 
  3. but not quite 
  4. He was knighted for his writing. Yes, he was that good. 
  5. I’m adding this footnote in as part of my editing sweep – I’ll admit to having had to blink back tears as I changed this to the past tense. 
  6. And footnotes, which clearly influenced me a lot.