East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

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Love, politics and fire: Aliette De Bodard’s Fireheart Tiger

This is sort of an instant review, jotted down real fast after finishing Aliette de Bodard’s latest novella for Tor.com, Fireheart Tiger. The new book dropped a few days ago, and I had been smart enough to pre-order itr, so I got it in ebook the moment it was launched.
And I read it straight away.

This will be a spoiler-free review, of this highly recommended, unusual fantasy story.

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The fun of being absent-minded

Today my plans were thrown in disarray because as the clocks struck midnight – or thereabouts – Amazon delivered the latest ebook by Aliette de Bodard, the novella Fireheart Tiger, that I had pre-ordered when it had been announced.
I tend to use preorders on Amazon sparingly, because my credit card is usually on a rollercoaster, and it’s unpleasant to receive the email saying “funds insufficient”. But it’s a good feature.
Of course, then I forget about the preorder, and the book turns into a surprise package.

I also had a brief discussion about miss De Bodard’s penchant for novella-length fiction – something some local readers find unpleasant, while I think it’s absolutely perfect. As I grow old, I find short stories and novellas to be a lot more to my taste than super-massive trilogies – and indeed, short stories, novelettes and novellas are also what I like writing, not just reading.

So, my planned day of writing was derailed by the new book – but I managed to write 2000 words of a new short story, a Gothic tale featuring a ghost (of course) and a monster, and a sinister finishing school for young women. Now I’ll let the story rest, and then I’ll revise it and send it to the prospect market for which I’ve written it.



Pickwick was the brand of the tea my grandmother used to buy – over forty-five years ago. The brand, I find out checking on Amazon, is still around – but they no longer use the coach as a logo. That’s where I first heard the name, and associated it to… well, horse-drawn coaches.

Later, of course, I learned about the novel – through a very funny adaptation produced by the Italian state television – back when our TV aimed at educating the masses while entertaining them. before reality shows, in other words. And then in school – I was bored to death by a simplified version in English I was saddled with, one summer, when I was in middle school. When I finally made it to the novel proper, in the first year in high school, I was taught it was an inferior work, a juvenile effort from the genius that would later give us Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. Pickwick Papers? Rubbish.

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One day in Ancient China

Back when I was in high school, a series of paperbacks was published in Italy, called “Daily life in…” – that would describe the daily life in Kublai Kahn’s court, or Napoleon’s France, or Peter the Great’s Russia. Small, black books with grim yellowed pages, these were the translations of a series of books originally published in France, and if you had an interest in ground-level history, so to speak, they were all that was available on a high-school student’s budget. I have a few here in a box somewhere. One of them is about Tang China.

And really, much as fun can be had from military history books and biographies, I still like the small-scale, day-to-day, man-on-the-street history: what they ate and what entertainment they enjoyed, what their lifestyle was like. It’s fun, and often one finds ideas for stories, and suggest world-building strategies.

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Another massive book haul…

One of the most frustrating, if minor, things out there, is the way in which promotions on Amazon are handled – so that maybe you get an announcement from an author’s Twitter account, “hey, my novel’s on sale for the next week!” and you go and check and no, it’s not.
It is on sale for customers from the US, or the English-speaking world, but on good old Amazon.it the ebook is still going for ten bucks.
Oh, shucks!

I subscribe to a service known as The Fussy Librarian, that hits my mail every day with curated special offers and free promotions. It’s good, and the frequency of disappointments is lower.
But still, the feeling of being promised a discount and finding out that no, not in our corner of the empire… well, it’s bad.

But sometimes life is good.

Case in point, a recent campaign that I’ve found out by chance, and taken advantage of straight away – Tor Books trilogies, on sale as single-volume massive ebooks. As I think I mentioned in the past, I’m no longer so hot about big fat thick trilogies (life is short) but sometimes the opportunity is just too good.

What got me going was finding out, while browsing the Amazon.it pages, the Amberlough books were on sale – Lara Elena Donnelly’s deco-flavored fantasy stories have been on my to-read list for quite a while, and at first I thought The Amberlough Dossier was a collection of shorter works set in the same universe as the novels; it is not: it’s the three novels, in a single ebook, for little over two bucks.
So I bought it.

And then saw there were more three-books collections going for the same ridiculous price. So I gave myself an allowance of twenty bucks (just what I got for selling a flash fiction), and went on a shopping spree…

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Storm Constantine (1956-2021)

I have just learned about the death of British fantasy writer Storm Constantine, popular for her Wraethtu stories and for her collaboration with Michael Moorcock on Silverheart. A strikingly original writer, I first encountered her work back in 1992, when I discovered the trade paperbacks of her first trilogy – The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit, The Bewitchments of Love and Hate, The Fulfillments of Fate and Desire.
In a beautiful style reminiscent of some of Tanith Lee’s works, the Wraethtu Chronicles were ahead of their time, in tracing the future history of humanity’s slow but inescapable replacement by a new species of hermaphroditic beings, the titular Wraethtu.

The stories were rich of atmosphere and tackled a variety of ideas and situations not often seen in commercial fantasy – which probably explains why Constantine’s novels developed a sort of cult following.

Constantine would later expand the series (that also came to include a roleplaying game), exploring further aspects of her future history, finally launching a publishing house devoted to her works (including expanded versions of her earlier books) and those of other writers she supported.
She published other series – most notably the Grigori sequence – and she also wrote a number of essays on magic, including a few spellbooks.

Often described as a writer of “shadow fantasy”, Storm Constantine was an impressive writer, both for her bold ideas and her sophisticate style, and she was also that rarest of creatures, a fantasy writer that would have been perfectly at home in one of her imaginary worlds.
She’ll be sorely missed.

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More options for February

I am going on with my plan to spend February (also) learning a new skill – because I think it’s fun, and because should it work, I could start collecting new skills, one month after the other. After all, that was what I always was about ever since I was a kid: my mother used to tell me to spend my summer vacations “doing something useful”, and I learned conjuring (the stage magic kind), tarot-reading, playing the flute and some french, some Spanish, some Japanese.
I guess she was hoping I’d find small jobs or stuff like that, like she would do when s he was a teenager – but she was a teenager in the ’50s, I was a teenager in the ’80s: the whole part time jobs ecology had changed, and all I was able to find was a contract job as a scarecrow…
But I always loved learning new stuff.

So, I made a list a few days back (WordPress will probably link the post below), I got some feedback, and it looks like knitting, harmonica-playing and juggling are the three top contenders. Of the three, my brother is averse to the harmonica (“it will feel like we’re in some kind of prison”), and juggling is better done in the open, so knitting is really looking like my choice – or at least, that was the state of affairs until Humble Bundle launched their latest book bundle, that is huge and is called Start Something New.

And I was not kidding about the bundle being huge. Drop one buck, and you’ll get seven volumes – cookbooks, a knitting encyclopedia (aha!) a book about redesigning your life, a Texas Hold’em guidebook…

But you can go up to over 20 bucks, and land a staggering collection of 61 books, each one covering a different skill.

And so yes, I put down a few bucks – knowing the money will go to a charity – and now I’ve increased my options. Texas Hold’em looks interesting, but I could also devote the four weeks of February to Feng Shui or book-binding, or some kind of creative, artistic craft.

But no matter what, I have now one week to decide – and then I’ll have a week to get all the necessary equipment to start my adventure in February.

Ideas, suggestions, odds and ends are welcome – just use the comments.