How I won NaNoWriMo while working full time

Image by <a href="">mohamed Hassan</a> from <a href="">Pixabay</a>It’s that time of year again when thousands of writers worldwide try to crank out 50,000 words (sometimes an entire novel, sometimes a solid foundation for one) in 30 days. I won’t be doing NaNoWriMo this year because I’m not at the drafting part of my writing cycle. I participated in NaNoWriMo 2018, and it’s that experience I’m going to write about, because it was the first year I won NaNoWriMo while working full time.

When NaNoWriMo rolled around last year, I was working a day job – the kind of 9-5, full-time gig I haven’t had in years, and had never seriously tried to write around. I was, honestly, terrified: I’d been hired in May of 2018, and in my first few months on the job had drafted nothing. I’d done work of any kind on a piece of fiction save for a few small copy edits on Shadow Game, my Expansion Universe novella written the year before. I’d dreamed of the stability and focus that having a reliable paycheck could give me, but at the same time I was wondering if I’d made a devil’s bargain: would working full time permanently sap me of the energy and free time I needed to write?

NaNoWriMo would be the acid test. I was due to start work on the third novel in my Expansion series while Alliance of Exiles was with my developmental editor. If I could manage to write the first 50,000 words of that novel in 30 days while working full time, then having the coveted day job didn’t have to mean putting the brakes on my writing career.

The short version? I did it. I’m going to share three strategies that helped me win NaNoWriMo while working full-time.

1) You have to have a plan. As an organization, NaNoWriMo promotes giving in to your unfettered creativity during the month of November and following your draft wherever it takes you. This is great for brainstorming, but not so great for writing a book–even a first draft. To win NaNoWriMo, especially when work and other responsibilities compete for your attention, you have to have a plan.

I started planning my NaNo novel in October, starting with the very basic plot arcs for each major character, and working my way down to outlining scenes in the rough order I planned to write them. I found Dan Harmon’s story circle to be enormously helpful in developing those plot arcs in a short amount of time.

I also planned around the NaNoWriMo challenge itself: I stocked up on tea and snacks, chose some easy, big-batch recipes so I wouldn’t be stuck cooking when I should be writing, and decided what reward I would get for each 10,000-word milestone. I was introduced to the concept of milestone rewards by author and vlogger Rachael Stephen in her invaluable NaNoWriMo prep series. For every 10,000 words I wrote, I’d get myself a little something: a fancy coffee, a game app, a T-shirt I’d been coveting. It was a surprisingly simple way to keep motivated, on track, and accountable during what can sometimes be an interminable slog.

2) Technology is your friend: Expansion Volume 3 was the first novel I wrote entirely in Scrivener, an app designed for writing longform works. It’s no exaggeration to say Scrivener’s powerful organizing and time management tools helped make it possible to do NaNoWriMo while working full time.

Scrivener has three levels of granularity: the binder, where individual scenes are organized and which displays your actual draft; the outline; and the corkboard. Both the outline and the corkboard let you look at your entire work in progress from a bird’s-eye view, while the binder displays your notes and synopsis for any currently open scene. You can even open up notes while staying in Focus Mode. If I needed a reminder of my plan for the scene or a detail I didn’t want to omit, I could open the note to remind myself and then keep on writing without exiting the window.

Scrivener also helped me cut down the time I took to start writing. Rather than creating one long continuous document, like Microsoft Word does, Scrivener creates individual documents for each of your scenes and organizes them in a column on the side of the drafting space. You know how when you close and reopen a document in Word, it takes you back to the beginning? Scrivener’s scene binder structure means you can click on the scene you were last working on and take up where you left off–no scrolling required. I also invested in the Scrivener app for iOS, a lean but still robust mobile version that syncs with the desktop program. Getting the sync to work was a bit of a learning curve, but once I figured it out the Scrivener app was a gamechanger: I’d open it on my phone and write during snippets of free time throughout the day, and then sync that work seamlessly into the draft.

3) You have to be flexible: It helps if you can hold two contradictory thoughts in your brain – plan rigorously, but be willing to change that plan up. You may have to apply this to both your schedule and your draft. I originally planned three writing sprints of 500, 500, and 700 words throughout the day. I was going to get up half an hour early, at 6am, to give myself time in the morning to write, do the next 500 words at lunch, and then the final 600 ish after dinner.

I am not a morning person. After the first 4 days of getting up at 6, I was tired, irritable and having trouble concentrating on both my work and writing. I decided to switch my wake-up schedule back to 6:30 and write more after dinner to make up for losing that initial block of time.

Being flexible can apply to your manuscript, too. I started drafting Expansion #3 while Alliance of Exiles was still in need of developmental edits. As a result, some of the necessary characterization wasn’t in place for the third volume. My editor had shared with me that a particular character needed to be more antagonistic in both the second and third book, but without having done that work in Alliance of Exiles, it was proving impossible for me to write that character in a way that felt realistic, fluid, and like it agreed with what came before. But rather than stall out on the draft, I put that plot thread on pause and worked only on its parallel thread, where the work that came before felt more solid.

For writers like me who have a day job, NaNoWriMo is all the difficulty of making room for creative work distilled into 30 days of pressure-cooker production. By having a plan, making judicious use of technology, and being flexible when my initial plan warranted it, I was able to win NaNoWriMo while working full time, and prove to myself that my day job need not stand in the way of my writing.

Have you participated in NaNoWriMo while working full time? How did it go? What helped you find the time and energy to write? Share your strategies in the comments!

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Women’s Book March: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

This time I read Binti by Nnedi Okorafor! I’d heard a lot of good things about Okorafor’s writing, and especially the Binti series of space opera novellas, so I was excited to finally read it for the Challenge. However, my experience was a bit of a mixed bag.

The title character, Binti, is a member of a future version of the Himba tribe, a real culture residing in the desert of Namibia. She’s also a mathematical prodigy and the first of her people to be invited to attend Oomza University, a planetwide university dedicated to learning and discovery. However, her route there takes her through regions controlled by the Meduse, sea jelly-like aliens who have been locked in a stalemate with the dominant human culture, the Khoush. When Meduse invade her passenger ship, Binti must use her wits, resourcefulness, and ability to connect with the aliens to survive long enough to get to Oomza Uni.

Binti typifies that sense of pleasurable disorientation that comes from being dropped in medias res into an unfamiliar cultural and historical context. The world of the novella has not only diverged from ours in time, but is also being told from a point of view that I don’t often encounter as a white Western reader. I didn’t know about the Himba tribe until I read this story, and it’s wonderful to see Okorafor’s speculation about how the Himba might embrace and perfect certain technologies — such as the astrolabe, a kind of communicator/ galactic Google maps/personal database — while maintaining other elements of their traditional culture.

However, Okorafor’s very inventiveness gets a little out of hand when it comes to uniting the worldbuilding with the plot. Objects and concepts central to the plot are not explained, and as a result the story’s twists and resolutions feel a little convenient. Take the astrolabe: my description above is my best guess as to what it does, but its function(s) are never clearly established. Likewise, Binti is supposed to be a master harmoniser–a skill crucial to her establishing communication with the Meduse–yet just what a harmoniser does is never explained.

It’s clear that Binti is the tip of a very big iceberg of a fictional world that Okorafor has put a lot of a loving effort into creating. I wish more of that world and its workings had been revealed on the page.

Already read Binti? Let me know what you thought in the comments!

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Women’s Book March: No Man of Woman Born (Rewoven Tales) by Ana Mardoll

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

This time around, I read a collection of reimagined fantasy short stories by Ana Mardoll!

I’ve been a longtime Twitter follower of Ana Mardoll, but this is my first time reading xer fiction. This is also the first book by a publicly nonbinary author I’ve featured in the Challenge. Mardoll identifies as genderqueer in her profile and answers to she/her and xie/xer pronouns; to be respectful of that I’m going to use both to refer to xer.

In her introduction to No Man of Woman Born, Mardoll lays out the inspiration behind the collection: despite a deep love of high fantasy, xie noticed that traditional high fantasy and fairy tale narratives exclude people like her: genderqueer, nonbinary, transgender, bi-gender, and other folks whose genders don’t match those they were assigned at birth.

No Man of Woman Born asks a deceptively simple yet simultaneously subversive question: what if the classic gendered prophecies of high fantasy were fulfilled by someone with an identity outside the prescriptive gender binary?

The collection’s title is, of course, a reference to the famous Shakespearean prophecy, “No man of woman born shall harm Macbeth”. The stories in this collection are each built around such a prophecy, seemingly insoluble within the bounds of the gender binary. While Shakespeare found his workaround in the form of a Caesarean section, Mardoll’s characters show such paradoxes to be failures of perspective, language, and worldview that exclude their lived experience — until the prophecy’s fulfillment reveals the truth.

As in real life, their gender identities are an essential part of their stories, but not all of their stories–as Mardoll says in the intro, “these characters aren’t special because they’re trans, they’re special and they are trans.” In the best tradition of high-fantasy adventure stories, the characters within these pages are resourceful, inventive, brave, and compassionate. I thoroughly enjoyed reading their adventures and will definitely be checking out more of Mardoll’s books.

Already read No Man of Woman Born? Let me know what you thought in the comments!

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Women’s Book March: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

No matter how much I love the radical scientific extrapolations and handwavium of space opera, sometimes I get a craving for rigorous, technical hard science fiction–the kind whose calculations have been checked over by physicists for accuracy. The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal is that craving satisfied and wrapped in a gripping alternate history tale that pits sexism and racism against an overwhelming need for humanity to work together to escape ecological catastrophe.

When a huge meteorite destroys Washington D.C. in 1952, it sets off a series of climatic changes that could render the Earth uninhabitable in mere decades. Elma York, a computer and a former World War II pilot with the Women’s Air Service Pilots, is working for a nascent NASA when the disaster hits. She and her husband Nathaniel join the International Aerospace Coalition, or IAC–part of an accelerated, international effort to establish viable colonies in space. Despite her and other women’s vital contributions to the space program’s efforts to put a man on the moon, the IAC resists allowing women to join the astronaut corps. But Elma’s desire to go into space is so strong she won’t rest until she and every qualifying woman has a chance to.

There’s so much I loved about this book: rigorous science, a richly imagined alternate history, and a main character whose trials, successes and growth had me glued to the pages. Elma is determined, smart, and does her best to help other women in similar positions as herself. At the same time, she struggles with sometimes debilitating social anxiety, as well as prejudice due to her gender and Jewish heritage. Yet she also has her own blind spots regarding how she has benefited from whiteness, especially at the beginning of the book. Part of Elma’s growth in the book involves gaining awareness of the racist systems that affect the Black and Asian women on her team, and trying to use her privilege to get their voices heard, too.

It’s equally inspiring, and often harrowing, to watch her deal with her anxiety as she gains fame as the “Lady Astronaut” and circumstances conspire to place her in the spotlight.In a society in which people with mental illness often have their symptoms belittled or are encouraged just to “push through” them, it’s very heartening to see Kowal treat anxiety disorder as a condition deserving serious consideration and one that is possible to live with given the appropriate treatment.

Give this book a shot if you’re into alternate history, hard science fiction, and well-developed female characters of diverse backgrounds!

Already read The Calculating Stars? Let me know what you thought in the comments!

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Women’s Book March: The Creative Fire by Brenda Cooper

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

My last Women’s Book March read for July is The Creative Fire by Brenda Cooper! This book explores what might happen if a revolution of the proletariat broke out on a generation ship traveling between the stars. Ruby Martin is a young “gray” (so named because of their gray uniforms), one of the repair and maintenance workers on the generation ship The Creative Fire.

According to Cooper, Ruby is loosely based on Eva Perón, the wife of Argentinian president Juan Perón and a political leader in her own right. At the beginning of the story, Ruby is prepared for a life of drudgery repairing robots, with no possibility of moving to other levels. Her one creative outlet, singing, seems like it will only remain a pasttime until a shipwide emergency throws her in with Fox, a “blue” from the higher levels and a music producer. Ruby seizes the chance to go to the blue levels with Fox, where for the first time she sees the chance to be a voice for her people.

Although the premise drew me in–generation ships! Art as a vehicle for revolution!–I ended up feeling decidedly lukewarm on this book. The story left too many questions unanswered, including why The Creative Fire began its multigenerational journey in the first place. There is a single comment made about collecting samples from other planets to bring back home, and that the grays are revolting in part to ensure they receive an equal portion of the payout for the samples when they return. However, we never learn what these samples are, what makes them valuable, or even what form the payment on their return would take.

Of course, we’re reading a novel here, not a cargo manifest. I wouldn’t have minded the lack of backstory if the main story were compelling. Although Ruby starts out with a clear motivation to improve life for her people, her arc gets a bit muddied when she actually begins to acquire fame as a singer. This could’ve been a solid growth arc in itself if the revolution’s stakes and costs had felt more urgent and immediate. However, the events Cooper chooses to focus on don’t put the reader in the thick of it: we spend more time hearing about the pitched battles and coups than witnessing them firsthand. Additionally, a persistent lack of sensory details made me feel like I was watching a televised version of this revolution instead of being there.

To its credit, The Creative Fire makes me want to learn more about the life of Eva Perón. Perón did much in Argentina to improve the lives of working families and women, and has been memorialized in fiction before in the musical Evita.

Already read The Creative Fire? Let me know what you thought in the comments!

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Women’s Book March: vN: The First Machine Dynasty by Madeline Ashby

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

Madeline Ashby’s vN is one of the gnarliest, most biological takes on humanoid machine intelligence that I’ve come across. What do I mean by “biological”, you ask? After all, isn’t that a contradiction in terms when we’re talking about synthetic humanoids? Take a gander at the book’s back cover copy:

Amy Peterson is a von Neumann machine – a self-replicating humanoid robot. For the past five years, she has been grown slowly as part of a mixed organic/synthetic family. She knows very little about her android mother’s past, so when her grandmother arrives and attacks them, young Amy wastes no time: she eats her alive.

The humanoid vN of Ashby’s universe are a synthetic lifeform that grows, matures and eventually reproduces in direct proportion to how much nourishment it receives. Amy has been kept small by being fed a restricted diet of synthetic food, but as a result she’s constantly hungry. With the much larger meal of her granny onboard, she quickly matures to an adult size just as the world starts treating her like an adult: public footage of the attack reveals that in Amy, and Amy alone, the failsafe that prevents vN from harming humans has stopped working.

She finds herself on the run, from a government that wants her threat contained, from her mother’s murderous sibling androids, and from her granny, who has survived as a partition on Amy’s memory drive and emerges to fight her for control of her body and destiny.

The concept of the failsafe owes its roots to Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, specifically the first one: A robot shall not harm a human, or through inaction, allow a human to come to harm. Indeed, there are many loving references to other works of robotic fiction, video games, and anime throughout the book, from Bladerunner to Silent Hill to Neon Genesis Evangelion. I found these subtle enough to be appreciable if you get the reference, without requiring it to enjoy the story.

vN is more than a referential simulacrum of geeky nostalgia, however. At its heart it is a deeply interesting and human story about what it means to truly be able to give consent and make your own choices when your very programming (or genes, social conditioning, etc.) is urging you to act, feel, and believe a certain way, and to support interests that aren’t necessarily your own.

Already read vN? Let me know what you thought in the comments!

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Women’s Book March: The Outside by Ada Hoffmann

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

One of the goals of this challenge is to introduce my followers to more books written by women and femme people. I’ve also been trying to showcase literature written by women of multiple identities: women of color, queer women, neurodivergent women, etc. Ada Hoffmann is the first author for the challenge who fits this last category (as far as I’m aware): her author bio says that she is autistic, as well as queer and genderfluid, and her debut novel The Outside is an #ownvoices autistic and queer story.

#Ownvoices literature, or stories about people of a certain identity or multiple identities, written by authors who share those identities, has gained prominence as a hashtag on Twitter and other platforms. The #ownvoices movement calls for better representation of non-white, non-cis, non-hetero, and yes, non-neurotypical identities, written by authors whose stories are informed by their lived experiences as people with these identities.

I’ve been looking forward to reading The Outside for a long time. As an autistic femme myself, I’m frequently looking for good autistic and neurodivergent representation in media, but I rarely find it. Often we are simply not represented at all, or when we are, it’s as magical savants or socially inept proto-adults. The Outside succeeds beautifully both as a piece of good #ownvoices autistic representation and as a gripping, imaginative space opera.

Dr. Yasira Shien, the protagonist of the The Outside, is an autistic queer woman whose research on the cutting edge of physics, alongside her also neurodivergent mentor, Dr. Evianna Talirr, promises to unlock an infinitely renewable source of power for a human-built space station. But when disaster strikes at the Talirr-Shien reactor’s activation, tearing a hole in reality into the unreal spaces of the Outside, Yasira is tasked by the machine Gods that rule human civilization to find her missing mentor before more people die.

Hoffmann has created a rich, unique space opera universe in which human-built AI attained sentience and then Godhood centuries in the nvoel’s past. In exchange for providing humans with protection, advanced technologies such as warp drives and stargates, and figures of worship, the Gods absorb the souls–the personalities and memories–of mortals after death to sustain their own cognitive processes. The system has worked for hundreds of years, but it’s more of a stable dystopia than a utopia: for people like Yasira who aren’t particularly devout, it can uncomfortable; for heretics, those who question the basis of reality, it can be deadly.

The Outside is a reality parallel to our own, one whose physical rules don’t follow those of our world. Contacting Outside creatures can destabilize our reality. While the Outside is inspired by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, which populated space and other dimensions with incomprehensible monsters, Hoffmann puts her own spin on it throughout the book, suggesting that communication even with things as different as Outside beings is possible if we learn to listen.

Yasira Shien is a wonderful protagonist: a smart lateral thinker (yet not a savant), empathetic, with a strong sense of justice. Realistically, her autism sometimes helps and sometimes hinders her, and it’s inextricable from who she is without ever being all she is. It also gives her valuable perspective into her mentor, Dr. Talirr. Their relationship in particular is very richly drawn: by the end, both the reader and Yasira understand that Dr. Talirr was damaged by being forced into a box that wasn’t made for her, yet we can sympathize without ever wanting her to succeed.

In case it isn’t obvious by now, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to both neurodivergent and neurotypical readers. Seriously, stop reading this blog post and go pick up The Outside. And when you’re finished, check out Ada Hoffmann’s blog, where she keeps a frequently updated roundup of the best (and worst) representations of autistic people in books and other media.

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Women’s Book March: Negative Return by Jessie Kwak

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

Jessie Kwak’s Durga System series is fast becoming one of my favorite indie reads. The first novella, Starfall, introduced us to the infamous Bulari crime lord Willem Jaantzen and his devoted crew; Negative Return zeroes in on the story of how one of those crew members, Manu Juric, first joined up with Jaantzen, and it’s a wild ride.

Manu Juric is a street smart, independent hitman who doesn’t want to be anyone’s underling. But when he takes on a contract to assassinate Jaantzen on behalf of another crime boss and is captured by him instead, Jaantzen offers him a simple choice: join his crew for an upcoming heist, or die. Manu is pragmatic. He’ll join Jaantzen’s crew, play along, and wait for his chance to take the boss out and fulfill his contract. But of course things are never that simple in Bulari!

I loved getting to know Manu as a character: at first he comes off as brash, flirtatious and charming, and he is all those things, yet as the story progresses we also see his hidden depths. He is highly skilled at reading people and situations and can manipulate them to his advantage; yet often as not, he uses his powers for good to protect the people around him. His role in Starfall was relatively small, so it’s great to see his backstory and learn more about the other crew we met in the first novella.

Negative Return is a fast-paced heist story in Jessie Kwak’s signature style, with a surprising depth of characterization alongside the explosions. Space opera fans owe it to themselves to check out this series.

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Women’s Book March: The Unseen World by Liz Moore

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

Though it’s shelved as literary fiction, The Unseen World really makes me want to claim Liz Moore as a science fiction writer. The last 5% of the book makes a solid case for the story being at least technically sci-fi (I’ll get to that), although the majority of this engaging, heartfelt novel is set against the recent historical background of early computing and artificial intelligence research taking place in the 1980’s.

Ada Sibelius (yes, she’s named after that Ada) is a thirteen-year-old prodigy being raised by her eccentric father, David, who runs the Boston Institute of Technology’s computing lab. When David begins succumbing to early-onset Alzheimer’s, Ada faces the prospect of losing not just the person who means the most to her in the world, but also the life they’ve built together. And when evidence starts coming to light that suggests David isn’t who he says he is, Ada must grapple with a legacy that threatens to cast her family history in an entirely new light.

I loved this book. I was caught off guard at first by Moore’s plain, straightforward prose–more straightforward than what I’ve been conditioned to expect from a literary novel. The rich complexity of the characters and the unfolding of the book’s central mystery snuck up on me until, without realizing how I’d gotten there, I was devouring chapters to see what happened next while simultaneously not wanting the book to end.

We discover the story of David’s life right alongside Ada, watching as she deals with each piece of the puzzle. What is revealed transforms not just her understanding of her father’s past, but also the direction of her own life.

Now, for that last 5% I mentioned: Both David and Ada research and develop software, including an early prototype chatbot, ELIXIR, based on the AI “therapist” ELIZA developed by Joseph Weizenbaum in 1966. Weizenbaum developed ELIZA to show the superficiality of communication between humans and machines. However, he became disturbed when many of his human volunteers attributed human feelings to ELIZA, despite knowing it was just a program. Some people even wanted to be alone to talk to it.

ELIXIR plays a similar role as emotional support, confessional, and diary for both David and Ada in The Unseen World. The last 5% of the book provides an intriguing glimpse of a possible future direction for chatbots such as ELIXIR and ELIZA. I can’t be more specific than that without getting into spoilers, and if any of the above interests you, you deserve to discover this deep, textured novel for yourself.

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Women’s Book March: The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

The Tea Master and the Detective is a tautly focused murder mystery in space starring one of the oddest odd couples I’ve read about in quite some time.

The Shadow’s Child is a shipmind who once flew military troops through the mind-bending unreality of deep spaces. After a traumatic accident left her terrified of accessing deep spaces, she scrapes by blending teas for human passengers to help them tailor their neurochemistry for various tasks.

She is approached by Long Chau, a mysterious woman doing business under a nomme de guerre (Long Chau apparently means Dragon Pearl and is, to The Shadow’s Child‘s sensibilities, obviously a fake name). Long Chau wants a blend that will maintain her sanity in deep spaces–no small task when she’s already riding on several custom drug blends of her own. But when the two of them discover a body in deep spaces who may have been murdered, some hard questions arise–including about Long Chau’s own mysterious past.

I will always be down for a story with a living ship as a protagonist, and de Bodard does an amazing job creating The Shadow’s Child as an individual with a past, a family, hopes, fears and dreams. In a genre that often treats AIs and cyborgs as singular creations, it was especially nice to see references to The Shadow’s Child’s mother and younger siblings, as well as the society of shipminds she participates in. Her developing relationship with the prickly Long Chau is also fascinating to watch, and suggests, to me at least, that this isn’t the last adventure these two will have. I sincerely hope it isn’t.

This novella was my introduction both to Aliette de Bodard as an author and also to her Vietnamese space opera Xuya Universe, a series mostly of short stories and novellas as well as one novel, On a Red Station Drifting. However, you don’t have to have read the other stories to enjoy this satisfying standalone novella.

Already read The Tea Master and the Detective? Let me know what you thought in the comments!

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