“And that’s where she came from,” Janie said. “Gov’ment made her. I found her in the holler back in ’72, then took ’er home. She’ll turn 17 soon, and she’s still my baby.”
“Mom, that’s so embarrassing-”
“Well, it’s true, sweetie.”
Crowe smiled. “That’s a…a very interesting story, Mrs. Huffman. How did you keep from getting caught with a chimera for 17 years, especially after the war?”
“Easy,” Dani answered. “I just worked hard to make a lot of friends. Like Stacy, or Dr. Worthington, or my teachers. If you make friends with someone, they’re a lot less likely to turn you in to the goverment or get you killed.”
“I’ve noticed you’re very friendly! Do you have any ideas, Dani, why the government made you that way?”
The spider’s head shook, her eyes blinked simultaneously. “No, not really.”
“Why did the government make you, Dani? The Americans are powerful. Why did they need to make a chimera? Why didn’t they hide or destroy you when they signed the accords?”
Dani wrung he front claws. “Well… I cain’t tell you for certain, but I can say what I learned when they first caught me… ”
Ever wonder “is my writing/book/character worth a dime?” Well, there’s a few things you can do in order to make sure. None of them are fool-proof, and all of them have their pitfalls, but you can improve your work and have new and improved ways to ensure you’ve done things the best you can.
Also, long article today. Fair warning.
Reading Level Test
This test won’t be able to tell you if your book makes sense or if it has deeper artistic merit, but there is something to be said about the ability to string together words into a sentence. Your story idea could be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but it won’t matter if you can’t communicate it.
Probably the easiest (and safest) way to do a readability test is through MSWord’s “editor” function (used to be spellcheck, for you fellow fogies). Unfortunately, the new version of MSWord makes you go through all of the spelling and grammar “mistakes” before the analysis will show up. If you are writing a fantasy, sci-fi, or other piece with a lot of non-standard words, the MSWord built-in statistics might not work for your whole book. However, you can copy a more manageable selection into an alternative document and perform the test on that. Sampling errors may apply.
In MSWord, your output window will look like this:
Don’t let a “low” grade level scare you. A book with a sixth grade level score will be easy to read for a large number of people, which is good. I took the excerpt Penguin offers for A Game of Thrones, and the Flesch-Kincade Grade Level on MSWord was 5.6. Remember: the grade level your book is scored doesn’t mean the book is for kids or isn’t literarily sound. It means the book may be easier to read. If you’re writing fiction, remember that most adults who read for fun aren’t going to seek a book that will force them to look up words every few minutes. They’re going to put down books with sentences so wordy they’ll have to re-read them. A book for adults should be easy enough to read that they won’t have to try.
However, let’s think about this from the other end: if you go much lower than a 4th-grade level, your sentences may feel repetitive or so simple that a reader could get bored. A children’s book has simple sentences so children can learn to read different words and gain confidence. Once that confidence is built, they can move to grander sentences.
In my opinion, anything between 4th and 8th grade should be sufficient for an adult fiction. YA shouldn’t be much different in terms of reading requirements, just in the grander content and character age.
If you don’t have MSWord or you have too many fantasy words in a passage, online tools such as this one exist.
Number of Characters
This isn’t like Twitter – it’s not a count of letters. It’s a count of how many persons are in your book.
Because, believe me, it’s far easier to get your book filled with too many characters than to not have enough. Don’t believe me? Think of your favorite episodes of TV: many people love those episodes with just one or two characters trapped in a cave, or a spaceship, etcetera. The episode “Fly” in Breaking Bad is this way. These “bottle episodes” are hugely popular because they explore the activities and relationship of only a couple characters, or maybe even just one character.
If you’re in my audience or if I’m in your audience, though, we’re probably thinking about fantasy, sci-fi, or some other form of fiction. So let’s use a good ol’ standard: The Hobbit. J.R.R. Tolkien’s prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy has 40 characters, and that’s including everyone from Bilbo and Smeagle to Carc, a raven. That’s a fair amount of characters, because you can keep up with them.
Here’s another way to think about it: how often do you introduce a new character? I once beta’d a book (probably for a young person, so I’m sure they’ve improved since) which included something on the order of 200 characters for 100,000 words. That’s literally a named character introduced, on average, every 500 words. Tolkien’s The Hobbit has 95,000 words. On average, that’s a new character every 2,400 words. I find that if you have at least 1,500 words per character, you’re going to be fine. I aim to be right there where The Hobbit is when I write a novel.
So yes, here’s the test:
[Number of Words in Book]/[Number of Characters in Book]
And that’s it. It’s up to you if you want to include unnamed characters, which I tend to do. I keep a running list as I write.
I love these tests because it can help you realize when you’ve done something accidentally wrong, and it does so in a recognizable fashion. The tests I’m going to suggest are based on the Bechdel Test and theMako Mori Test.
The Bechdel Test is a very basic test for female representation. In this test, the requirements to pass are:
Have two female characters with names.
These two characters talk with each other about something other than men.
That’s it. It’s also incredible how many books fail – including the aforementioned The Hobbit. You can also apply similar characteristics to characters of color, LGBTQ+ persons, persons with disabilities, or whatever.
There are two caveats to this test I want to talk about, though: one is that, sometimes, it doesn’t make sense to pass. Let’s say you’ve got a story set on a war ship in WWII. It’d take a very special situation for a woman to be on the ship, much less two. To pass the Bechdel test in that situation would be odd. Similarly, if you don’t have multiple races present in the location or setting (i.e. Ancient China or pre-exploration Australia), you might not be able to pass the test with a racial slant.
The other caveat? There are stories that would fit a feminist slant without passing the Bechdel Test.
For example: Mako Mori was a character from the 2013 film, Pacific Rim.
The Mako Mori test requires the presence of one female character who has her own plot arc, and neither that character nor that arc exist to supplement or serve a male character. To me, this test helps detect one thing the Bechdel Test can’t: tokenism. You can pass the Bechdel Test and have those characters still not matter. Once again, the test can also be applied to any sort of diversity marker.
Just to be real, though: there is no single way to get this right. You can do any number of tests, any amount of study, have sensitivity readers, everything – and still fail. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try or that your shouldn’t include diversity in your books. It just means you will always be limited by your own life experiences, and learning is the key to your expansion.
Mary Sue/Gary Stu Test
Someone out there is inevitably asking: what is a Mary Sue/Gary Stu?
A Mary Sue (we’ll just use Mary Sue for now) is a character who has too strong powers or overworked personality traits. Physical appearance can be indicators of Mary Suedom, especially as they veer away from anything “normal.” As a whole, I classify Mary Sue traits as almost anything that can be “cringey” but not in a “creepy, touchy uncle” kind of way.
Think: something a teen would write (poorly). Something a middle schooler would think so dark it makes a black hole look light. See the wordy and very crude/insulting/awful/potentially-triggering Coldsteel the Hedgeheg meme below for the most stereotypical Mary Sue nonsense:
But for those of us who don’t have a main character named Coldsteel the Hedgeheg, there’s more reasonable tests like this unsupported one. That test is no longer suggested by its creator, and I understand: the scoring at the end doesn’t really work. I suggest it, though, so you can think about what’s going into your character and what other people could see. Not all of these things are bad for every character, and often nuance can make many of the Mary Sue traits work. Breq/Justice of Toren from Ancillary Justice is an example of a Mary Sue that works. What’s important is to know what sort of pitfalls you may have fallen into. It’s more useful as a thought-provoking test than anything else.
That’s right. You can do all of the above alone, in the comfort of your own home, without a single scary foray into the minds of others. If you want to share your writing – for what is writing but a plan to share an idea with someone, even if that someone is a future version of yourself? – you’ll want to get a second opinion.
That’s where beta readers come in. Get opinions on your diversity, your character quality, and some idea of common grammar mistakes you make. Try to get a variety of readers, and have fun.
For more information on beta reading, I’ve got a slew of articles under “Beta Reading” on my Writing Resources Page.
Do you put your stories through other sorts of tests? Let me know in the comments, or look through the comments for additional thoughts!
I was sterilized in the first round of cuts. I failed the test and, with me bein’ in the right age range, had to go to the doctor and get gutted. Ovaries, gone forever. Children, gone forever.
At first, it didn’t bother me. I had welfare ’til the day I died ’cause I accepted my summons to the doctor, and me an’ Brett were in love. Unlike a lotta folks, the sterilization didn’t take that away from us. I s’pose it wasn’t somethin’ hormonal between us, but somthin’ deeper. Maybe it was the weed. Lord, we smoked so much weed back then.
We was smokin’ when we found the egg. A gov’ment truck barrelled through the mountains where we lived, and the back door swung open. A box landed in the holler, so me an’ Brett went to investigate. Higher ’n kites, we took the egg home with the hopes to hatch a dragon.
I loved the egg. It was robin’s egg blue, shiny like a gemstone. The first few weeks we had it, I’d light up a bowl and just look at the beautiful thing. I thought ’bout the dragon inside, wondered if it’d imprint itself on me like the Queen of Dragons.
Before long, though, we ran out of propane and money. Though I didn’t know it’d be forever, gone now were the days I could laze about and smoke a bowl whenever I wanted. Brett and I got jobs to pay for heating the egg. I turned it, cuddled it, cooed at it. I loved my dragon inside, my Daenerys. My baby.
Bret…Brett never knew this. I never told him. But a couple weeks after I stopped using weed, I candled the egg again.
The thin strands we’d thought were the wing-fingers had thickened. I could tell they weren’t wings. I turned the egg while I looked at it through the sunlight, felt the fragile shell.
Then it hit me like a shoe at a political rally – it wasn’t a dragon. It took me a few more days of studyin’ to figure it was a spider.
Lord have mercy, I near ’bout had a heart attack. I realized Brett and I had gotten some crazy Yank disaster, that the box we’d took the egg from was labeled “Top Secret” for a reason.
But I couldn’t tell him. The thing inside the egg, no matter what it hatched to be, was my baby. Mine. The Yanks had taken any other baby from me, and I had taken their secret baby from them.
And she hatched. I didn’t care that she was a spider, ’cause she was crying for me. Her mommy. I wiped the egg gunk from her precious little body, cried ’cause I didn’t know what to feed ’er, ’cause I hadn’t prepared. I rocked her to sleep, held her tight.
A couple months after we’d had her, she wrapped a couple claws around my hand. I stroked her head – she was havin’ some awful headaches at the time ’cause the Yanks didn’t design her skull to be the right size – and sang to her, “Hush little baby, don’t say a word, mama’s gonna buy you a mocking bird…”
She latched onto my finger and sucked on it like a baby. She definitely knew how to bite to make it hurt, so I knew she’d done this out of a longing for comfort. She couldn’t suck a tit, not with them lips, but she wanted that comfort of a pacifier or a bottle. Something.
“If that mocking bird don’t sing, mama’s gonna buy you a diamond ring…”
I loved her from the moment we found the egg, but it’s that moment I pick out as the time I knew she was my baby. Mine. Not someone else’s failed dragon, not a stolen creature, but my baby. Through thick and thin, sickness and health – ’cause lord have mercy, there’s been a bunch of sickness – I’d be there. And so she took my heart, ripped it right outta my chest, and kept it for herself.
Oh, no, I ain’t bein’ literal. I’m bein’ figurative, you limey bitch.
I let her suck on my finger as I finished my song. I cuddled her in her blanket, lulled her to sleep, then took her to the bedroom. Her black body stood out against the pink sheets we’d gotten her. The cloth diapers I’d made and sewed velcro on fit so awkwardly, but they were so cute I wanted to cry.
I spun the little mobile over her crib. It didn’t have music – we were too poor at the time – but her eyes followed the wood cutouts spinning. Brett had done a good job makin’ and balancin’ the thing.
I’d get her a real room, one day. One that wasn’t shared with us, one that had a working ceiling fan and a computer and everything a child could want or need.
When I couldn’t finish Outlander, I freaked out that I was a bad reader and just yanked for any old audiobook at my library so I could finish something.
This was that book.
A Court of Thorns and Roses Author: Sarah J. Maas
2015 Amazon Link
Honestly I have no idea what this one’s going to be about heading into it, but I’m guessing it’s supposed to be like store-brand Game of Thrones going by the title and date of publication.
When I first started reading this book, I thought it seemed a lot like The Hunger Games series. It used words like “blood” and “roast” and “roses” more than should be theoretically possible. It contained a main character who was a hunter using bows and arrows. That character, Feyre, was a woman, and she had useless sisters (sure, Katniss had one sister, but whatever). If you have a problem with Collins’s writing style, the writing style of this book won’t please you.
The plot, as well, was pure disappointment. About 1/3 of the way through, I thought to myself, “Is this Beauty and the Beast but with characters sexy in the way Edward was sexy in Twilight?” That is to say, “are these creepy, immortal pedophiles stalking this young woman and giving her Stockholm syndrome?”
And the answer is yes, yes that was what the book was about. If you’ve watched/read/heard glancingly about Beauty and the Beast, there’s no real reason to read this book. There’s no surprises.
There were some attempts made to show the character wasn’t a terrible pushover, and there were obvious struggles to get Feyre not to seem brainwashed (they failed). Something that bothered me a lot though was how many times she was covered in blood. It seemed like every other chapter she became drenched with blood and talked about it profusely. Sure, you can do that once or twice a book, but this was ridiculous.
1/5 Discoball Snowcones
I spoiled it above because I said it was Beauty and the Beast. Sure, there was the “epic battle scenes” where Feyre has to defeat the witch who put the spell on the Spring Court (fey Tamlin’s castle thingy), but really there was nothing to the book. People on writing websites keep wanting revamped fairy tales, though, so I guess this fits the bill.
But why Beauty and the Beast? It’s a terrible story, really. I don’t see why someone would want to start with that as an inspiration.
It’s the beginning of December, so there’s something new in the air! Stick around!
Rebecca Crowe, her legs crossed, held a pad of paper on her lap. Dani and Janie sat next to each other on her interview couch, stage lights bright on their faces.
The newswoman, prim despite the strange company, looked at the camera and read her lines from the teleprompter. “Hello, and welcome to a very important BBC News Special Report. Tonight you will see an interview with who – or what – may be the most important person of our era. Though no gore, cursing, or sexual content is included in this broadcast, what you’re about to see will shock you.”
She turned her head to another camera, one that captured her and the couch with the guests. “I’d like you to meet Daenerys Charlotte Huffman, who goes by Dani, and her adoptive mother, Janie Elisabeth Huffman. Dani, could you tell the viewers at home why you’re on the show?”
Dani’s legs crumpled inward, and her claws pawed at the place on her shirt next to the lapel microphone. “I – I’m a spider girl.” She closed her eyes, glittery eyeshadow sparkling in the stage lights, then said, “A chimera.”
Crowe, without missing a beat, asked, “A chimera, like the ape men created by Fiendish Dr. Kim of North Korea?”
“Oh, I hope not,” Dani replied. “I’m not like them. You see, I can think and talk, and I have lots of friends who love me. The ape men couldn’t do that.”
“I see. Janie – you’re the adoptive mother of Dani. You’ve told me you named her, kept her, raised her. How did you, a sterilized woman from humble beginnings, gain the trust of the American government? How did you get the honor of watching this magnificent creature grow up?”
Janie bit her lip and shot a glance at the interrogator. “You know, this sounds jus’ like what them MP’s and crazy folks were askin’ me back in jail-”
“This isn’t jail,” Rebecca interrupted. She flicked a finger, sending a crew member into motion. “This has nothing to do with the American government, in fact. You can leave out any details you want, sweetie.”
Janie heaved a sigh, looked to Rebecca. “Alright. But I don’t want her,” she pointed at the interrogator, “Gettin’ a copy of this.”
The makeup artist whimpered. “You won’t eat me, will you?”
“What? No.” Dani reached onto the makeup artist’s table and sorted through some of her goods. “How much this stuff cost? I ain’t never seen so many bottles and compacts afore in my life.”
The interrogator took the bottles away from Dani and replaced them on the table. “Just make her look real. I don’t want anyone to think what they’re seeing is computer-generated or part of a costume.”
“And how do I do that? She’s an actual spider-”
“Chimera,” the interrogator interrupted. “A spider is a pathetic creature you or I can squish beneath our feet. Dani is the result of billions of dollars of investment to create the perfect soldier, and we’re here to flush all of that down the drain. Can you achieve that for us?”
The makeup artist bit her lip. “You could start by taking off that ridiculous clothing.”
“No! I won’t go on TV without clothes. You can’t make me.” She picked out a bright red lipstick. “How ’bout you just make me pretty?” She wiped the lipstick over her lips, leaving behind a red marking reminiscent of human lips yet obviously false. “There.”
Janie stood and examined the desk. “Here. This eyeshadow’ll look good. Close your lids.” She powdered the backside of the eight black eyelids, making them sparkle. Janie’s hair, up in a fresh braid, wrapped around her head like a crown. Her eyes were thickly lined, her lips a dark red and cheeks a bold blush to stand out for the camera.
The makeup artist moved in, watching what Janie did. “This is the weirdest thing I’ve ever done.”
Janie filled her brush again. “I’ve seen this news channel a couple times afore. You should’ve had enough practice turning monsters into people, you should know how to do the opposite for Dani here.”
“Mom! Gah, stop embarrassing me.”
“What? All them leftist celebrities are monsters.” Janie clipped the eyeshadow box closed. “Now, I cain’t claim to be an expert, but anything else we’ve tried has been a disaster. You’ve let her shower, and now her face is about as fancy as it can be.” She tugged on the spider dress. “Too bad we didn’t make it out with something better for you to wear.”
Dani rolled her eyes, just the hint of sclera showing. “Mom, stop being this way.”
The interrogator lifted her chin. A hand waved at her from a different room, calling her. She checked they hadn’t taken her gun, then left the makeup artist, Dani, and Janie to argue about colors and shimmer on their own. Her steps were quiet, determined, as they took her to the open door.
Rebecca Crowe, impeccably dressed in a modern grey coat with padded shoulders and slacks with creases on the front, waited at the door. “What is this all about?” She looked the interrogator up and down. “And who are you?”
“Who I am doesn’t matter. This,” the interrogator gestured to Dani in the other room, “Is about a young girl with her entire life ahead of her, but a country that wants to cut it short. I’m here to stop that.”
“And how am I supposed to help you do that?” Crowe crossed her arms. “What is this about?”
“I know how governments work. You, your crew, and this station could be living off American money for as long as you want. You just have to play your cards like I say, then leave the country as fast as you can until I tell you it’s safe. Understood?”
Crowe leaned against the door frame. “Go on. Tell me how this works.”
“You make a film recording Dani and her mother. Interview them, have them play volleyball, I don’t care. Make a copy, give it to me, then fly out of here. I take it to my government, tell them the cost of keeping the video secret, and that’s how we play it.”
“Alright. What do you get out of it, then? How much could I ask from the Americans before they’d refuse me?”
“Their number’s probably higher than anything you could reasonably imagine. A billion a year? Two billion? Both are still cheaper than another Chimera War.” She cleared her throat. “For my part, I will ask for Dani’s and her family’s freedom, my own freedom, and no change in my status within the…” she paused. “Within the military.”
Crowe nodded. “A billion a year should satisfy me and my crew.” She held out a hand to shake. “I’ll take your deal.”
The interrogator took the offered hand. “I look forward to making this work.”
The small commuter vehicle sputtered, on the last few volts of charge, into a parking deck in San Fransisco. The western sun hung large and orange over the horizon, and the air smelled like that special, Bay Area combination of salt and garbage. The interrogator drew in a breath and held it, contentment on her face.
She put the vehicle into park, then looked into the back seat and tapped Dani’s claw. “Dani,” she whispered. She tugged on Janie’s hand. “Janie, Dani – wake up. We’re here.”
Janie roused first. She rubbed her forehead, pushed her hair back. “Time for action, Dani. C’mon, girl.”
Dani stretched her limbs, taking up most of the room in the car, but stopped when her dress – a couple emergency blankets Janie had sewn together with floss – threatened to tear. “Whew. It’ll be good to get out and stretch.”
The interrogator stuffed one of her pistols into a shoulder holster, then covered it with a shell jacket. “Just don’t be too big about it. This is a large city, but there are eyes and ears everywhere.” She opened the car door, stepped out, and scanned the parking garage. “Come on. Let’s go.”
Janie and Dani opened the back doors and followed the interrogator to a small fire-escape door. They entered the stairwell, which smelled of sweat and piss from people who occassionally chose to turn the landings into the bathroom, then exited a couple floors above. They entered a couple of glass doors with clean-cut block letters, “BBC America.”
“Should I wait outside?” Dani asked.
“No,” the interrogator said. “Safest place for you is inside these doors. Once they even have you on closed circuit TV, I’ve got enough blackmail to keep you alive forever.” She puffed her chest. “Just stay behind me. A week’s been enough to get used to you, but I need to be on top of my game. I don’t want people to realize I’m afraid of chimeras.”
The interrogator entered, followed by Dani and Janie. She walked up to the front desk, tapped on the marble. “I’m here to see Rebecca Crowe.”
“She’s busy. I can leave her a number-”
“Not this busy.” She pointed to Dani. “Did you not watch us come in? I brought an American chimera with me.”
The receptionist lifted a brow and bent to see over her tall desk. “Oh god, what a costume-”
“It’s not a costume,” the interrogator said. “That is 100% American-made, bulletproof chimera.”
Dani waved a claw sheepishly.
Her face now white as a sheet, the receptionist sat back down and drew her holographic computer up. She pressed a red button, then said to the chest-up image of a woman, “Rebecca Crowe? This is the front desk. A huge piece of news just showed up, and I think you might want to come down-”
Rebecca Crowe, a perfectly British woman complete with crooked teeth and no-nonsense bun, interrupted, “What is it? Did Brangel Lee show back up, ready to do that interview?”
“No, ma’am – it’s…it’s some army lady here with a giant spider. The spider says he’s a chimera.”
“I’m not interested in the San Francisco homeless problem.”
“It’s not that – it’s a real, honest to goodness giant spider! Look!” She turned the computer around so the Crowe could see the guests.
Crowe’s eyes widened. “Send them upstairs. Get them into makeup.”
“Pah! You’ve never had such adventure. How do you expect to write about space warriors or musketmen if you’ve never been one?” He leans over a bit and lights a pipe, but as he puffs the smoke has no scent. He’s not exactly real. He’s a figment, a muse.
Or so he’s led me to believe. Otherwise this smoke crap’s going to make me sick one day.
I type with nimble fingers despite his prodding. “If you’re such a stone-cold killer, why don’t you tell me how to write this? Get through this battle scene so I can go on with the politics I’m better at?”
“I will! I am your muse, after all. I’m also better at politics than you, so you can rely on me to help with that.” He clears his throat, straightens his bow tie, and puffs on his pipe. “Now, let me point you to some first-person accounts of a similar battle to the one you’re writing. It’ll tell you about how you trap them on a peninsula, burn their houses, and shoot the enemy as they swim across a river. It’s genius strategy, I tell you, genius.”
“Sounds like a massacre, not a battle.”
He points his pipe at me. “A massacre that worked, by the eternal. Did what it was supposed to.” It isn’t long before he returns the pipe to his mouth, puffing once more.
I put down my pen with a clack. “Do you just want me to chat with you instead of getting this done?”
“By no means! I just think you should wait until I get in a passion and write a first draft. Then you can flog my drivel and reminiscing into shape, and then we’ll publish.”
“Yeah. Rely on me to get published.” I snort. “Good plan.”
“It sounds like we are in total agreement then! You shall wait, and I will get out my pen to write something you can fix up. You won’t let me down, will you?”
I sigh. “I’m just going to do this myself. Even if your writing is realistic, there’s no literary quality at all.”
He puffs. “What happy circumstance! It seems we’re in agreement. I’ll get that rough draft done soon, after I finish this pipe. Perhaps after get some more reading done, maybe after Christmas, things like that.”
This was written as a response to D. Wallace Peach’sMeet the Muse. I’ve never thought much about my muse before, but I guess it’s probably a stodgy old man in a long-tailed tuxedo with a pipe. Then again, I’ve been told I’m really an old man anyway. Image is provided by D. Wallace Peach as well.
I’m reading whatever awful thing I want to this month, and what better way to do so than to read a historical fiction about the bloody first battle of the Civil War? I don’t know, so stick around to find out!
I was researching a different Civil War battle – Chickamauga – for one of my books, and I found that Chickamauga was the 8th of a 10 book historical fiction series set in the American Civil War.
Well, since I’m (sort of) working on a Civil War historical fiction with a slice of magical realism on the side, I thought I’d at least start this series and see if I wanted to read all the way through to Chickamauga. I worry a lot about how historically accurate I need to get, since those Civil War reenactment people are INTENSE.
This is going to contain some spoilers for the book. I don’t know how I’m going to get around it. I’ll keep the main spoilers in the spoilers section, but, you know, fair warning.
When I started this book, it seemed quiet and good enough. It was about a white family in Culpepper County, Virginia, which is too close to Manassas for the community to be unaffected by the battle. There is a backdrop of looming war, but the main story is about the sheriff of a town shooting a man in self defense and, to assuage his southern mother’s heart, joining the confederacy as penance. He has 3 brothers and 1 sister who live on the farm with their widowed mother, and they run around getting into social trouble and fostering ideas about horse races.
Extended sequences focused on a lone stallion that jumped fences back at the farm, luring away mares and running off when he was done. He was un-tamable, strong, free. One of the brothers dreamed of catching this wild horse.
After about half of the book focusing on this sheriff who unwillingly killed a man, this horse which refused to be caught, an upcoming horse race, and an impossible passel of corn pone and various pies, I asked the question:
Is this a cowboy book?
So I looked up the author. James Reasoner is one of those people who usually writes in the genre I call ‘bad cowboy books.’
And that’s genuinely what this book was.
To be honest, with a book named Manassas rather than Bull Run, I already went in worrying it was going to be a southern apologist story (battles are named after the nearest town/city in Southern histories, after the nearest river in Northern histories). A cowboy story isn’t the worst thing that could have happened, but it’s pretty darn close.
1/5 Discoball Snowcones
For a while, I had it in my head the Fogarty fixation of Will Brannon was going to be interesting. There were hints at a greater Northern conspiracy to kill off a crack shot before the war started, but it fell completely flat. The mystery was nothing, just silly, as it does turn out to be the Fogarties who backstab Will during the battle. Using the cover story of Yanks being the killers, they pursue Will and end up getting killed by the sharpshooting ex-sheriff himself.
The actual battle only happened in the last couple chapters, and the preparations leading up to it didn’t make much sense. I didn’t look it up, but I have a hard time believing supply lines were so bad right at the beginning of the battle. Some of the Southern honor culture just felt off, since it tipped into cowboy honor more often. There was just a lot wrong with this book.
Next week is the 5th Monday in the month – stay tuned for something fun and bonus!
The interrogator left the cabinet near the window and threw open the kitchen door. Gun still in her fingers, eyes scanning each of the four towers, she made a mad dash to the identified van and pulled open the sliding van door. Dani, never far behind, jumped into the open door before the interrogator joined.
“Dani!” Janie sat up in the front seat. “Dani, thank God, my beloved baby girl!”
Dani stuck a claw between the front seats and scrabbled to get as much vantage as possible.
The interrogator pulled Dani out of the way. “Reunion later! Go!” She pointed to the facility gates, secured by a chain and a few ancient hinges. “That gate’s the weakest point – ram through it!”
Dani sat back on the bench in the second row, and Janie fought back tears. She pressed the button to start the car, released the emergency break, and set off toward the gate.
“Faster!” the interrogator shouted. “I chose an armored vehicle – the bullets won’t matter unless they hit the windows, and even then we might be ok.”
The screens showed the draw on the battery’s electrical reserves as Janie put the pedal to the floor. The van rammed the gate, which flew off its hinges, and Janie stopped. The gate fell to the ground, and Janie backed up to go around it.
“West,” the interrogator said. “Nearest water is Reno, and they’ll know it’s our only option. Road’s there – take it. We can’t afford to get lost right now.” The interrogator climbed up between the front seats and pointed to part of the console. “Dani, rip this out.”
“What? Like, just rip it out-”
“Yes. It’s GPS – they’ll track us. The rest of the car will function without it.”
A few strong claws reached up between the seats, pried out the GPS and governor computer, then ripped it from the console. “What do I do with it?”
The interrogator took the box from the spider and tossed it out her window. “It’s already going to be too easy for them to find us. Reno’s got the only major water supply within a reasonable distance, so they know what road we have to take. Our only hope is that they can’t follow us when we do go offroad” She leaned back in her seat. “That’s why I stole a bunch of water from the banana tree supply and put it in the back of the van. We’re going to need to hide, cleverly, for a week or two.”
“What’s a banana tree?” asked Dani.
Janie interrupted the silence when the interrogator didn’t answer. “It’s supposed to be extinct, ain’t it? You crazy Yanks, wasting water in a desert on a banana tree…Speakin’ of crazy, you sure you know how to hide? How to run from the gov’ment?”
The interrogator nodded. “I was in the Chimera War. I was in the force that made its way to the Pyongyang gulags. If you wanted a safer person to be with, you couldn’t have chosen better.”
“Alright. Let’s say I believe you ’bout that. What’s yer grand plan when we get to Reno?” asked Janie. She eased up on the pedal, increased the mileage she could get from the battery. “You good at hidin’ us for decades to come?”
“No,” the interrogator said. “I can’t hide a chimera for that long. But I am very good at something else: espionage. Blackmail. Leverage.” She smiled, leaned on Dani’s side, and closed her eyes. “After Reno, we steal a new car and go to San Fransisco. I have contacts there who can help us. Wake me when we have about twenty miles of battery left.”