Born in a Treacherous Time: Book Review

As some of you know, I like torturing quizzing authors about their books before I spill my review. Jacqui Murray has been everywhere sharing her latest, Born in a Treacherous Time. To be honest, I wasn’t sure about paleo-fiction. Paleo fiction? Hmm. But, Jacqui is immensely talented, and I’ve enjoyed her other books, so I figured I’d give it a go.

Well, move over Jean Auel (Clan of the Cavebear), Jacqui Murray has written a mesmerizing book! And I have to rave a little.

Her world-building is fascinating, and one of the things that most impressed me was her full immersion into the prehistoric timeframe that shares so little with our current way of life. I didn’t sense, at any point, that modern sensibilities were leaking into the characters or action. The ancient humans were deftly integrated into the harsh landscape and its primordial life, perfectly balanced between primate and human. The meticulous care taken to create this reality was stunning. What I wanted to know was – how did Jacqui stay on track? How did she keep the characters so honest to the developmental time in history? Here’s her response:

Jacqui Murray

What a great question, Diana.

The short answer is, I spent a lot of time living in Lucy’s world (of Homo habilis). I started by reading everything I could get my hands on about life in that era (a lot of paleo topics like paleoclimate and paleogeology). But scientists have so few artifacts of those ancestors, I had to dig deeply into the worlds of the Great Apes (the animals that came immediately before upright man)—apes gorillas, orangutans. Through the sensibilities and work of women like Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas, I gained tremendous admiration for these predecessors who ultimately shaped man. In fact, now, when I look at one of these creatures, I no longer see an animal; I see a human. Primitive but with the seeds of who we are.  I am disgusted at the barbarian practice of using apes for drug testing as though they are less than human. They aren’t less than me, just different.

Once I grounded myself, I had to remember Lucy’s world had no fire, no clothing, no religion or art, no music, no spoken language, no symbolic names (their call signs were sounds). No cultural rules. Attachments revolved around survival not emotion. And her animal instinct was super-charged with her brilliant brain. As I wrote, I had to make sure I was true to those guidelines.

Here’s an example. I knew hunting (which to them was scavenging carcasses) involved long periods of waiting while the alpha predator finished its meal and other scavengers got first crack at the remains. Lucy would crouch in grass (early human bottoms didn’t allow them to sit yet), the humidity pressing in, the crawly creatures biting through her hair/fur, the sun beating down or maybe rain. I had to remember Lucy didn’t care about any of this and never relaxed while waiting. She was always busy smelling what was around her, smelling for those who hunted with her to know where they were, sniffing to find other scavengers who might try to take her food. She was weaker than every predator in her habitat with worse offensive and defensive capabilities (flat teeth, dull nails, thin skin). But she did have a brain that could plan, think, and problem-solve (in a primitive fashion).  Other animals could do that but their actions were based in instinct. Lucy’s was driven by her growing intellect.

Over all, I kept Lucy honest to her true self because I developed absolute respect for her, who she was, her primitive moral core, her ability to never feel sorry for herself. She’s who I would love to be in a sense but I’m simply not tough enough!

***

And now for my review:

Move over Jean Auel (Clan of the Cave Bear) for Jacqui Murray. I went to bed right after dinner last night because I had to finish this book and would have stayed up all night to do it. What a fabulous read.

Born in a Treacherous Time takes place at the very start of mankind’s development – we are inventive, communal, thoughtful, emotional beings, but still deeply rooted in our animal origins, fully integrated into the harsh volcanic landscape and with the creatures who share our world. Survival is an ongoing challenge and hunger a constant companion. Overlaying the struggles of daily life is the threat of man-who-preys, the next generation of mankind.

The story follows Lucy (Woo-See) through a period of years. She’s a strong character, a healer and a hunter who’s eager to learn new skills that not only make her an asset to her group but leave her an outsider. There are a number of compelling characters, fully developed and distinct, with a wide range of personalities.

No doubt, Murray did her research, but so little is truly known about this time, that I’m certain she had to employ her imagination as well. The world-building is meticulous. Murray deftly presents a world as seen through the eyes of those who inhabit it. She created words (and hand-signals) to describe the landscape based on the characters’ observations: “Night Sun” instead of moon, “Fire Mountain” instead of volcano. Her attention to creating a logical and detailed reality is stunning. I was honestly enthralled.

The world-building extends to characters as well, and I loved that none of them had “modern” sensibilities that would have tainted the believability of the story. No one is squeamish about raw food or bodily functions, and death is viewed as a natural occurrence. The characters have many of the natural abilities and acute senses of the animals living around them, yet unlike their animal cousins, their understanding of the world grows with each experience.

Best of all, as a reader I became quite attached to these primitive humans, empathizing with their struggles, losses, and choices. There is a depth of emotion, spirit of community, and generous nobility that stretches through the hundreds of thousands of years to our current lives. A captivating book that I recommend to any reader who enjoys adventures, exquisite world-building, or works of historical fiction and prehistory.

Want a book that will keep you up all night?

Here’s a global Amazon link: Born in a Treacherous Time.

Check out Jacqui’s blog too: Word Dreams

 

 

Worldbuilding Part 4

Back in December, I finished up a world-building series at The Story Reading Ape. Then the holidays invaded and things got a little crazy! I’m delighted to finally share Part 4 here. I hope you enjoy. Happy Writing!

***

Many thanks to Chris for letting me chat about world-building. It’s been a pleasure to hang out, and in this final post of the series, I want to share thought-starters for each of the major systems that make up a world.

Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson, in a discussion about world-building, stated that writers don’t need to completely change every major system in a world. Pick a few big elements that are linked to the plot and then dabble with the details on the rest. Let your imagination run wild.

The Environment

Whether designing a natural or human-made world, give it personality – strengths, weaknesses and quirks, and a complex diversity of elements that both support and sabotage the characters’ efforts. Don’t forget to account for food, water, air, and shelter, and to employ all the senses in descriptions. Think outside the box. You may have longer or shorter days, worlds without seasons, animals or plants capable of communicating, a parallel spirit realm. Your world may exist only in dreams.

Create a map, for your reference, at least. Maps physically “ground” the world by establishing terrains, distances, and regional resources, locating population centers and geopolitical borders. Not building a planet? Map your city or space station.

History

If you look at our current “real” world, ancient history still has a huge impact on identity and choices. Robert Jordan went back about 3000 years in his world-building – a long time, I know. But going back 300 to 1000 years isn’t uncommon, particularly if there’s been ongoing tension between groups or a common past that has splintered.

Create a time line. In the distant past, simply outline major events. As the timeline moves closer to the present story, increase the level of detail and shorten the gaps. Consequential events may occur daily in the last months or weeks before your book actually begins.

Government

Even a gang has a government. Someone is calling the shots….

Continue Reading:  World-building: Thought Starters – Guest Post by Diana Peach…

World-building: Common Mistakes in Speculative Fiction – Guest Post by, Diana Peach…

Just in case you didn’t get your fill of World-building, I’m over at The Story Reading Ape’s blog with another installment. Swing on by if you want to learn about what can go wrong! Happy November!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

World-building is a balancing act between alien complexity and Earth’s familiarity. If authors make characters and settings too alien, they risk confusing readers and interrupting the reading experience. But the other side of the coin – applying Earth qualities, standards, and cultural norms to non-Earth planets and societies – isn’t any better.

We’re so used to Earth and the way we live and behave, our customs, values, and social rules that they become invisible to us. They become the “givens” of human life, and often, we attribute them to other non-Earth worlds and cultures. Our ways of life are rooted in thousands of years of history. Other planets have different historical trajectories that produce alternate ways of life that feel normal to the characters.

Here are seven things to look out for when world-building:

Your society doesn’t “function”

Did you ever read a book where none of the characters work…

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World-building: From Imagination to Reality – Guest Post by, Diana Peach…

For those fans and writers of speculative fiction – here’s another dive into worldbuilding! I had the great pleasure of guest posting on The Story Reading Ape’s blog earlier this month. If you missed the post and are all broken up about it (ha ha) here’s Part II. 😀

(Some of you are so lovely to leave comments at both sites. Please, no need, unless not doing so gives you hives; your time is way too precious. I do check both and reply at both. Hugs.)

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

World-building is an important part of any writer’s preparation, and the speculative genres offer some wildly fun opportunities. There are no boundaries. The imagination is unleashed. The setting of the story can be as “fantastic” as the writer desires.

But fantastic also has to be relatable and plausible.

Relatability is a must when it comes to the main character(s). If a reader can’t relate on some emotional level to the protagonist, a book is going to struggle. Why do I mention this with world-building? Because in speculative fiction some or all of the characters may not be human.

There are no limits to alien design from physical features to intelligence to social and cultural norms, and writers can stretch those limits to create some unusual encounters and conflicts. Aliens that completely baffle us are fine, but rarely are they protagonist(s). The main character(s) needs to possess some “human” emotional content…

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World-building: Settings for all Genres – Guest Post by, Diana Peach…

I had the great pleasure of guest-posting with Chris, The Story Reading Ape on the writerly topic of world-building – something I can talk about until I’m plumb out of breath. 🙂 Hop over if you’re interested. Happy Weekend!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

As a fantasy/science-fiction writer, I’ve stacked up a bit of experience with world-building that I’ve wanted to share, and The Story-Reading Ape’s blog is the perfect venue.

Now don’t run away if you don’t write speculative fiction. Clearly, world-building is a key part of bringing fantasy and science-fiction stories to life, but it plays a role in all fiction, and in some non-fiction as well.

Setting as Character

Most of us probably agree that the physical places within our stories need to feel authentic. But if we create them as mere backdrops to the action, we’re missing an opportunity to enrich our readers’ experiences. In great fiction, setting plays a role in the story. It’s changeable, a help, a hindrance, a metaphor, a mood, possibly even a character in the drama.

Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson is a proponent of the idea of setting-as-character and builds a “character profile” of the…

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Creating Magic Systems

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Writers of speculative fiction—whether fantasy, paranormal, superhero, or science fiction—are dealing with supernatural or hyper-scientific systems that stretch our reality and knowledge of the known.

As writers, our job is to create realities where these systems are understood by the reader and feel natural and integrated into the speculative world. A reader’s immersion requires that our systems are cohesive, logical, and well explained.

Brandon Sanderson (Elantris, Mistborn) refers to these systems, regardless of whether they are fantasy or science fiction, as “magic systems.” Both adhere to the same storytelling principles in order to bring the magic/technology to life.

He distinguishes between “soft magic” and “hard magic” and suggests that they lie on a continuum.

The far end of the soft magic continuum is full of “wonder” and has few rules. The magic users have mysterious abilities and can do whatever they wish with little limitation. Wizards and gods are good examples of characters that tend toward softer magic though they will often be subject to some rules. Rarely is someone with soft magic a main character or they’d simply wave their wands through every obstacle.

Hard magic lies on the other end of the spectrum, and here is where the rules come into play. In this case, the magic becomes an integral plot device in the story. According to Sanderson, an author’s “ability to solve problems with magic in a satisfying way for the reader depends directly on how well the reader understands the magic.”

So what does the “hard” end of the magic system need for reader understanding?

  1. Origin – What is the source of the magic? Where did it come from? If people have different powers, why?
  1. Simplicity – Some of the best magical systems have very little complexity but a great deal of depth. Magic users have to work to make the system fit their needs.
  1. Limitations – What exactly can the magic do and what can’t it do? Be specific.
  1. Flaws/weaknesses – These are the holes in the magic. What is its foil? When doesn’t it work? Is there a cost to the user?
  1. Tools/Activators – What does the magic need to function? Does it need a special item, something ingested, an initiation, a mutation?
  1. Early introduction – Establish the magic parameters early and foreshadow any change in abilities. Beware of adding magic just when it’s convenient (deux ex machina), especially near the end.

Remember that when crafting a magic system, the limitations and flaws are usually more interesting than the strengths (no different than crafting interesting characters). What the system can’t do is more intriguing than what it can, and it’s the system’s deficiencies that create the challenges and obstacles for the characters.

The number of rules an author employs is what slides the magic system along the continuum. But that’s not the only way soft and hard magic can be blended. Some stories will use hard magic to drive the story, but add little elements of soft magic to increase the sense of wonder.

Magic is no small matter! It will have an impact on the world, nations, cultures, governments, and religions. It will impact power hierarchies, livelihood, family, self-esteem, danger and destiny. Take some time to think about how the presence of magic impacts the overall world. The more your magic system is woven into your world-building, the more real it will feel to the reader.

Happy Writing!

Thirsty Moon

Thirsty Moon

In my fantasy world, the Thirsty Moon ushers in the last of the summer’s heat. Rain is scarce and rivulets run dry in sandy streambeds. Late season gardens thirst for a long steady shower after weeks of waterless weather.

It’s a time for pickling and  stacking wood, blackberries and swimming holes. And now and then, a morning chill slides down with the stars, promising warm pies from cider-scented orchards and hinting of autumn.

The full face of the Thirsty Moon shines tonight, August 18th.

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Excerpt from Thirsty Moon, Eye of Fire

The days ambled by, and Mirah’s garden transformed, weeds pulled in an ever-widening circle, beds edged, produce picked and preserved. She lugged water from the well, determined that her life would flourish, no longer choked by fear and loss. Her modest bounty she shared at the forge, delivering a basket now and then of just-picked greens. Brend smiled when he found her silhouetted in his doorway, her invitation hanging in the air between them.

At day’s end, she left him leaning on the doorjamb, arms crossed, watching her walk into the dusty lane. She strolled past her home, admiring her neighbor’s gardens, the round-bellied pumpkins and hard-shelled squash, bee balm and buttercup crowding each other for space in the sun.

Not long ago, Wyn told her that the myth of a person’s life entailed more than a compilation of facts, the particulars of one’s history. More importantly, one’s myth rose from the way a person was perceived by others and by what one believed about oneself. Myths were amorphous, changeable, imbued with feeling, rich with dreams and reflections. They could be altered by a change in perception or a change of heart.

Not ready for home, she climbed a narrow path to the meadow above Taran Leigh, a path she knew well, like the myth of her life. The air carried a hint of coolness, signaling the coming of fall. Pulling herself up over a stone stile at the top of a small rise, she paused, drawn from her reverie. The meadow unfolded before her, awash with blue dannies fluttering endlessly, delicate petals raised to the sun. The flowers filled her with memories as if they lingered there only for her to find.

When she stepped into the meadow, the petals closed around her, bearing her as if on a wave. Floating through them, she touched them with her fingertips, felt their soft kisses. In the center of the meadow, she surrendered her burdens, lay them down with her fear to be carried away with the flowers when the wind came. The graceful alder bent its branches, alone in the waterless sea. She gazed up at a sky as blue as the dannies and saw a glint of copper wings, a dragon coming for her.

Coming Next Week!

A Great Book Where Nothing Happens

I get such a kick out of all the different types of writers and books and readers there are in the world. It’s just plain thrilling. The best part is it reinforces the notion that we can all focus on writing the stories we love, and if we write them well, there will be readers who’ll enjoy them.

And, of course, those who don’t, but that’s not the subject of this post and really, does it matter? If we’ve done the hard work and produced a quality book, it’s still not going to appeal to everyone anyway, so why stress about it?

I just finished reading The Goblin Emporer by Katherine Addison. I thoroughly enjoyed it even though nothing happens in the book. Yeah, nothing happens. There are probably 2 pages of action out of 447. I know some readers who would rather spend a night with the stomach flu, bowing to the bowl, than suffer through the lack of a riveting plot.

Yet to me the book was engaging. The pace was graceful, and the main character, a goblin named Maia, was exquisitely real, his emotional life written with meticulous care. I wanted to jump into the pages and hug him. It’s one of those books where you’re pulling and pulling and pulling for the main character. Even without a plot.

Maia is the youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor of the Elflands and has lived his entire life in exile, lonely, uneducated, and missing his dead mother, the only person who ever treated him kindly. When his father and brothers are killed in an “accident,” he is heir to the throne and completely ill-equipped for the intrigue and subtleties of court politics. He’s a kind, sincere young goblin, whose gentle approach endears him to some and leaves him vulnerable to others. The entire book takes place during the first winter of his reign and covers the painful steps he takes coming into his own.  Maia’s journey is far from over by the end of the book, but there’s a glimmer of good things ahead.

Yes, there is a character arc, a modest one. In The Goblin Emperor, it’s the only forward progress in the book, because, yup, nothing else happens.

Aside from those of us who live for character-driven books, how did Addison achieve such wide appeal with a book lacking any hustle and bustle? Partly, in my opinion, by making the extraordinarily clever choice to tell the tale with goblins. Goblins characters and their goblin world switched up the entire story into something unique. I wonder if I would have liked the book as much if Addison wrote about an average human boy. Hmmm, probably not.

Addison’s world-building was complex, a whole geography and history, customs and rituals, philosophies and religions backing up the narrative. I got a kick out of most of it, particularly the character descriptions, the precise style of speech, and elaborate clothing. I will mention one significant challenge: the names of most of the places and characters were confusing – unpronounceable and so similar to each other that, other than the main players, I didn’t know who was who. And yet I still loved the read.

For me, this book reinforced a few notions about writing:
1. Write what you love, that story bursting to be told
2. It isn’t necessary to conform to methods and rules
3. Bust the paradigms and be wildly creative
4. Write the absolute best book you can
5. There are readers who will enjoy your words.

Happy Writing!

Writer as Witness

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As storytellers, we create settings and characters with enough authenticity to entrap readers in our imaginations. The goal is to elicit feelings somewhere in the broad spectrum of human experience, to personally invest the reader in the outcome of our tales.

Frontyard1.dianapeach.jpgA sense of reality and plausibility in our stories aids us in that task. External intricacy adds texture as it paints pictures in a reader’s mind. Our own emotional landscape is fodder for our characters’ souls.

I love the idea of writers as witnesses. We are observers of details, the ones with personal knowledge of hidden imagery and feelings, which we attest to through our words.

In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron encourages artists to become witnesses, to take time out of each day to observe our outer and inner worlds with curiosity, as a way of enriching our store of experience and ultimately our art. She suggests occasional artist’s vacations, to gather experiences foreign to our daily routines.

Frontyard3.dianapeach.jpgI frequently wander about in zombie-like unconsciousness. My familiarity with my routine and surroundings allows my brain to dally elsewhere, usually embroiled in developing scenes, prodding characters, and plugging up plot holes.

Unless I make a mindful choice to engage, I don’t.

I wrote a post back in October called Emotional Writing about a necessary willingness to explore painful feelings. This is tough work: witnessing our own agony and blindness, picking through our hearts with an observer’s impartial eye. And how far are we willing to delve into someone else’s experience, to embrace it as our own?

Frontyard5.dianapeach.jpgToday I’m another kind of witness. If I sit still and pay attention, I see cloudy light reflected on rain-slick leaves, the diamond patterns of stained glass at the end of a dark hallway. Gossamer cobwebs thread the air around the old chandelier. The dog snores on the couch and rain drips from sagging gutters to patter on the metal roof. It’s chilly this morning, and Pinky the cat has commandeered my sweater. If my nose weren’t stuffy, I might smell coffee brewing.

Any one of these details may end up in my writing today.

I share a few photos of moss growing in my yard. I would have never witnesses the beauty if I hadn’t taken the time to look.

Pearseus Trilogy: Epic Adventure with Great Action

I finished two reads yesterday. One was the IRS Instruction Manual for Personal Income Tax Form 1040. The other was the Pearseus trilogy by Nicholas Rossis.

The tome was dull, convoluted, and hard to understand. I found it extremely difficult to follow as if the author actually intended it to be confusing. There were whole sections that I merely skimmed. The IRS clearly needs beta readers and a paid editor!

81N9Ac-uLgL._SL1200_Now…on to Pearseus! A thoroughly entertaining read!

(Sorry, Nicholas, if my intro gave you a coronary).

The Pearseus trilogy is an epic adventure that chronicles the feats of four protagonists that become embroiled in the complex political and philosophical factions of a multi-dimensional world. Ultimately, they play key roles in saving the planet’s inhabitants from annihilation.

This is one of those tales that balances nicely between science fiction and fantasy. Though many of the beings and events have a fantastical feel to them, they have alien versus magical origins. Earth technology still exists, but is limited and barely understood. I enjoyed the occasional resurfacing of Earth artifacts, wisdom, and colloquialisms.

The overall feel of the trilogy reminded me of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. The sweep of the story is epic in nature and new people, beings, information, technology, and weapons routinely come into play, modifying the scope of the protagonists’ goals and challenges, and upping both the dangers and the means to overcome them.

61K71C0IBpL._UX250_One of Rossis’s strengths is his meticulous world-building. Pearseus is a planet claimed by three different sets of inhabitants. Refugees from the Earth spaceship, Pearseus, seized the world from the First, who previously usurped it from the native creatures and terraformed it to their liking. This layered history of conquest serves as a major source of contention in the plot. At the same time, Rossis gives the globe’s current nations distinct political and cultural identities with a realistic smattering of political maneuverings, back-door alliances, and betrayals.

The trilogy has quite a bit of philosophical discussion as the varied cultures play against each other. These unhurried moments are interspersed between great action scenes, and they lessen as the plot picks up speed and zooms toward its conclusion. Action descriptions are skillfully done, effortless to follow, and frequently bloody. The main characters and supporting cast are well-rounded, believable, and easy for the reader to identify with. Teo, a despicable power-monger, is particularly engaging and I looked forward to his scenes.

All in all, a great choice for epic fantasy and science fiction readers.

Order from Amazon here: Pearseus Bundle   or   Book I: Rise of the Prince.