Operation: Polyglot

I guess I officially have a new hobby: learning new languages. I always thought it would be cool to be a polyglot, but it never seemed practical to learn.  I mean, I was fluent in Spanish at the end of high school, but haven’t used it much since, even after moving to California.  What would be the point of learning a bunch of languages nobody else I knew could speak?

Well, I finally found an excuse.  Writing secondary world fantasy, I generally don’t invent new languages to go along with the cultures, but I do need naming languages: that is, a consistent way to name characters and places within the world that will sound consistent and be evocative of the atmosphere I want to create.  If I push that a step further, though, and have more than one culture, one of the best ways to differentiate characters is through their dialogue and speech patterns—speech patterns that I can set using foreign languages as a base.


English: “Arabic Language” in the Arabic Al-Bayan Script (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, over the last months, I’ve spent over 40 hours learning Eastern Arabic; ninety 30-minute lessons in an audio program that fits conveniently into my evening commute.  I have no practical daily use for the language, of course, but one of the cultures in my latest project has a language based on Arabic (the other is based on Basque, but there was no readily available audio course for that!), so I figured that would be as good a place to start deepening my understanding as any.

(photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just last week, I finished with Arabic and began learning French. I chose it partly to give myself a break (for the record, French is so much easier than Arabic), and partly because I’ve been reading the Temeraire books aloud to my husband, and I always hated not knowing how to pronounce the French words.  I’m going to have to steel myself at the end of 30 lessons to switch to Polish, which I expect to fall somewhere in between in difficulty.  Eventually I’ll return to French to get beyond the basics, but I want to be able to converse with my Polish grandma when I visit over Christmas.

Because I already knew Spanish, I was expecting to have trouble with mixing up the two Romance languages.  What I didn’t expect was to mix up French with Arabic, not because they’re alike, but because I managed to ingrain Arabic well enough that my brain is now going to that as my default second language.  It probably doesn’t help that the audio program is structured the same for every language, right down to the narrator’s voice.  I expect (hope!) the effect will wear off after a couple weeks.

Even though I started to enhance my writing, my new hobby has had an unintended side-effect: taking up some of the brain space I previously spent on my writing.  Some of the time I previously spent living in my created worlds is now spent living in my new languages, cutting into my productivity.  In future, I will probably need to pace myself, but for now, since I’m not on deadline and I’m enjoying the learning, I think it’s worth it.

Keep a lookout for posts on some specific differences between English and the new languages I’m acquiring, and my thoughts on how they might be useful in making realistic foreign dialogue without resorting to actual foreign words or dialects.  Until then, maʿa s-salāma! (مَعَ السّلامَة)

WoGF Book Review: Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper

This is my eighth book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End.

I really enjoyed Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper.  Much more than I should have, given that so much of the bones of the book was built out of such well-worn tropes.  Our hero is a foundling (I’m still waiting to find out he’s a lost prince) who gets in trouble because of his magic, and is whisked away by a wise old mentor to a school for magic on a tropical island.  Not only is he an excellent swordsman, but it turns out that he has more and stronger magic than just about anybody and ends up saving the day after hardly any training.

To top it all off, the reason his magic got him in trouble?  There’s an evil, thinly-veiled, not-quite-Catholic church to stand as a beacon of hypocrisy, backwardness, and suppression of knowledge.  As in, “ye shall suffer not a witch to live.”

Despite all that, the story drew me in.  The characters were fully fleshed out beyond their archetypes, and the prose was engaging.  The plot didn’t follow the cookie-cutter shape of the tropes, either; for one thing, the protagonist was twenty, not twelve or sixteen, and he had a pretty traumatic past, so there was a lot more skepticism and frustration and less wide-eyed wonder than usual.  Perhaps also because he was older, the story didn’t get bogged down at the school with endless scenes of lessons, but instead focused on the relationships he formed there and just enough of what he learned to move things forward.

And then there was the music.  As a musician, I love seeing magic systems that involve music, and it was that music that caused me to pick the book up in the first place.  I made the mistake, though, of reading Peter Orullian’s “The Sound of Broken Absolutes” (from the anthology Unfettered, edited by Shawn Speakman) immediately after, and before writing this review.  It truly has a musician’s magic system, replete with technical descriptions of resonance and harmonics, musical notation, the mechanics of throat and mouth, and even how to rebuild a broken instrument.  Songs of the Earth has none of that.  Its magic is much more wild and fluid.  It’s a lovely metaphor, actually, the energy of the earth as music that can be accessed and channeled as magic.  I’ve always thought music was rather magical, so it makes perfect sense to me.  The descriptions are beautifully poetic, evocative of nature and emotions in the same way as music—exactly as it should be.

My New Ergonomic Writing Habitat

A few months ago, I wrote a post about my ongoing struggle with back pain.  I am happy to report that I’ve been doing much better, in large part because I finally got myself an actual desk for writing.  Here’s what the old setup looked like:

My "comfy" writing chair

My “comfy” writing chair

Short-term, it is actually a pretty comfortable chair, but sitting in it for hours every day, hunching over a laptop, was torturing my poor back.  You’ll notice the lumbar roll, which was my meager attempt a couple years ago to give my back the support it needed.  In hindsight, I think it may have actually been counterproductive; compared to the bare chair, it was comfortable enough that I didn’t notice for too long that I still had a problem.

Fast forward to this spring.  After lots of online research, measurements of me and the available space, and several trips to go sit in every office chair I could find within 20 miles, here’s what I put together:


The key here is the laptop stand and the new keyboard and trackpad, which lets me put the screen at eye level and keep my hands down where they belong.  The chair is not as fancy as some available, but it’s got good support, and I was able to take off the arms (or rather, not put them on to begin with) to keep them from straining my shoulders.  There’s a footrest hiding under the desk that lets me adjust my chair to the height of the desk, and keep that neutral ergonomic posture that was so lacking before.

I won’t pretend this new desk has magically increased my productivity—it hasn’t—but back pain was an easy and guilt-free excuse to not write, and one that I am heartily glad to be rid of.

WoGF Book Review: Sword of Fire and Sea by Erin Hoffman

This is my seventh book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End.

Sword of Fire and Sea by Erin HoffmanSword of Fire and Sea by Erin Hoffman was a light, fun book.  By no means perfect, but quite enjoyable.

Captain Vidarian Rulorat is commissioned by the fire priestesshood to transport one of their own to a place of safety, beyond the reach of the Vkortha who are hunting her.  Thus, he sets himself a course that will change his life and change the world.

The magic system is one of elements—earth, air, water, and fire—the source of which are the four goddesses.  Most magic users are women, priestesses, and can wield only one element, but during the course of saving the fire priestess Ariadel’s life, Vidarian finds himself suddenly in possession of both fire and water magic, and the subject of prophecy.  The magic is never described in much detail, but I enjoyed seeing Vidarian stumble through discovering his own, rather than having a teacher on hand to give him all the answers.

The griffins were wonderful.  Sentient, telepathic, magical creatures, and fresher than the standard dragons.  It was nice to see their limitations, too; if they wanted to fly with humans, the griffins had to work together in twos or three to carry them in air gondolas.  I also appreciated that they were characters in their own right, not just talking extensions of their masters’ will.

The gender balance of the cast was great.  I think it actually skewed toward more females than males, because the priestesses were of course all women, but it’s always nice to see a fantasy culture where women are actually considered equal.  The crew of Vidarian’s ship seemed to be a pretty even split, and the other sea captain we meet is female—and to the characters, it was nothing remarkable.

I was a bit disappointed by the love interest.  She started out great, saving the whole ship from a pirate attack, but then it seemed like as soon as she became the love interest in earnest, all she did was get rescued and get jealous of Vidarian’s former fiancée.  And speaking of love, physical attraction is one thing, but Vidarian started calling her the woman he loves entirely too quickly for me to believe it.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I love that the quest started out as a very black and white goal, and morphed into an actual choice.  I’m not sure I like the love interest’s role in the choice, and I’m not sure I agree with Vidarian’s ultimate reasoning behind his choice, but I was glad he had to make it, and that it had real, immediate consequences.

I didn’t love Sword of Fire and Sea so much I’ll rush to read the next book, but it is going on my list.

WoGF Book Review: The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

This is my sixth book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End.

The Queen of AttoliaThe problem with trying to write a review of The Thief is that the only thing really worth dissecting is the twist ending, which of course I can’t do without spoiling the whole book.

I thought I was going to have the same problem with The Queen of Attolia, that anything I say about it would spoil the first book, but happily that doesn’t seem to be the case.  So I’m going to cheat a little on the challenge, and review the second book I’ve read by Megan Whalen Turner.

I went into this knowing that the second book was supposed to be much better than the first, but that there’s a really big twist at the end that makes the first book worth reading.  I haven’t decided yet whether knowing about The Thief‘s twist made for better reading or not—it certainly made it much easier to guess, but probably lessened the feeling of betrayal on finding out the first person narrator has been concealing things for the whole book.  But I wholeheartedly agree that the second book is better, and I actually found it to be more surprising than the first.

One thing The Queen of Attolia does that I don’t see often is show believable consequences to trauma.  It actually made the book start out rather slow, because after something terrible happens to Eugenides in the opening, he basically spends the first quarter of the book recovering (read: not doing anything).  I was actually beginning to wonder if the book had been over-praised.  Eventually Gen is knocked out of his funk and the story takes off, but the trauma stays with him. He doesn’t just bounce back unchanged, and I end up feeling so much more connected to him as a character because of it.

The other thing I absolutely loved about this book was the complex characterization of the villain.  The queen of Attolia does horrible things to Gen, and we hate her for it, but we slowly come to understand why she is so ruthless, and that her actions didn’t only hurt Gen.

The surprises in this book were so organic, I don’t think I would even call them twists.  Now that Eugenides’s character is firmly established from the first book and a half, it doesn’t feel like a cheat that he would keep his plans to himself, and the contents of those plans–well.  I thought they were perfect.  As events unfolded in their fullness, I had fun watching the subtext of the key players’ words and actions, and feeling like I was in on the secret.  I imagine some less attentive readers, or possibly the middle grade audience it was written for, might not catch the subtler clues, and therefore get a dramatic twist ending, but I didn’t feel like my reading experience was in any way diminished by guessing the ending ahead of time.

Oh, and I can’t close the review without at least mentioning the setting, which is an alternate Greece.  Totally different from the usual medieval European fantasy setting, and I love the way the gods are woven in and made an integral part of the story.

My verdict: The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner is absolutely worth reading, and while I wouldn’t recommend The Thief on its own, I believe that reading it first enhanced my reading of The Queen of Attolia.  So, go out and read both of them.  And then read the next book, too, because I think that might be the best of them all.