Updates …

30 Aug

Hi, everyone

It’s been a very busy three weeks for me.

First, I’ve finished the first draft of Ragnarok – the third and final book in the Twilight of the Gods series (otherwise known as the Nazi Civil War). I’m just waiting on the cover and some editing before uploading it to Kindle – the paperback edition will probably be along a couple of weeks or so afterwards. I’ve also signed a contract to bring all three of the books out in audio, so hopefully they’ll be available in a few months.

Second, I’ve completed the second set of edits for UnluckyAngel III (I might have to change the title). I don’t have a due date yet, but hopefully it will be out soon.

Third, in line with my ongoing plan to bring more books out in paperback, I’ve just completed the edits for all three Outside Context Problem books and intend to edit No Worse Enemy and When the Bough Breaks tomorrow. Hopefully, they’ll be out in paperback in a few weeks too. (The Empire’s Corps has already been reissued.) If you have already purchased the eBooks, you should be able to get the updated versions from Kindle.

Fourth, my current plan is to write The Hammer of God – Angel IV – starting from next week, wrapping up one arc and setting the groundwork for a second. I hope to have it completed, at least in draft form, before I go to Fantasy Con By The Sea, but it may have to wait until I get back.

Fifth – and final – I’m looking forward to HONORCON. Hope to see you there!

Chris

Reissued, The Empire’s Corps!

29 Aug

Reissued, in Kindle, Kindle Unlimited, Audio and Paperback, The Empire’s Corps! Book I of a best-selling 12-book military science-fiction epic. Purchase a copy now – US, UK, AUS, CAN – and then check out free samples from the later books here! (And if you already own the kindle edition, you can get a FREE update from Amazon.) Download a free sample, then purchase your copy now!

Nuttall_cover_final

You Should Never Speak Truth To Power…

The Galactic Empire is dying and chaos and anarchy are breaking out everywhere. After a disastrous mission against terrorists on Earth itself, Captain Edward Stalker of the Terran Marine Corps makes the mistake of speaking truth to power, telling one of the most powerful men in the Empire a few home truths. As a result, Captain Stalker and his men are unceremoniously exiled to Avalon, a world right on the Rim of the Empire. It should have been an easy posting…

Well, apart from the bandits infesting the countryside, an insurgency that threatens to topple the Empire’s loose control over Avalon, and a corrupt civil government more interested in what it can extort from the population than fighting a war. The Marines rapidly find themselves caught up in a whirlwind of political and economic chaos, fighting to preserve Avalon before the competing factions tear the world apart. They’re Marines; if anyone can do it, they can.

The battle to save the Empire starts here.

All reviews, comments and shares welcome!

Race Fail IV: Or Perhaps We Should Just Shut Up About Race

24 Aug

Hopefully the last. But who knows?

Of all the reactions to the fireside report, the most depressing – and the most predictable – was this one. And it included this quote:

Not surprisingly at all, people lost their fucking minds. Wait. Let me be more specific: ignorant, racist assholes lost their fucking minds. Why? Because they’re ignorant, racist assholes.”

It is a general rule of debate, particularly when dealing with people who learned to debate on the internet, that anyone who plays the race card is:

a) unable to back up their arguments,

b) aware that he/she is unable to back up their arguments

c) trying to appeal to emotion in the hopes of concealing ‘a’ and ‘b.’

It does not work. Well, it can make someone – who is insufficiently immunised to the general level of what passes for debate on the internet – back off in disarray, but it cannot change the cold hard facts on the ground. Indeed, all it really does is force people who want to question not to question, which is no way to actually win an argument.

And while the – unnamed – author of the above rant does try to back up his assertions, it runs into two major problems.

First, the report methodology is so badly flawed that the results are effectively meaningless. This is acknowledged, to some degree, but the authors fail to grasp just how bad this actually is. It is impossible to separate black – or non-white – authors out from the herd with any degree of genuine reliability, thus their conclusions may be completely inaccurate.

Second, the report fails to take any other factors into account. Why were the submissions rejected? Was it the first submission for a particular writer or his tenth? (Or whatever.) Did the writers follow instructions? Were their submissions suited to the anthology? In short, was every factor – apart from race – excluded from the study?

My BS meter started ticking the moment I read the summery. I do have some experience in these matters, as a writer, a slush reader and (to some extent) an editor. As I have noted before, at no point was I ever asked for my race; indeed, I was rarely asked for anything more than contact details, email address and suchlike. I find it highly unlikely that any editor could comb through a batch of submissions and successfully weed out the ones sent in by non-whites, not without excluding a great many white authors too.

In short, I don’t believe there is a problem.

The reason I don’t believe there is a problem, going all the way back to the first article I write on this topic, is that writing skill is not dependent on race or gender or sexual orientation or whatever. I have read and enjoyed books by people from all walks of life – and people about whom I knew nothing. I rarely bother to do anything more than read the back cover of a book before I decide to read it or not – I certainly don’t bother to look up the author just to make sure he fits my preconceptions first. And really, what sort of idiot does?

***

The bitter irony of this whole affair – and the original Race Fail – is that writing and publishing is a field where racism shouldn’t have any real influence. It is easy, if you happen to own a store and you don’t want any black employees, to make sure that no such people are ever hired. You always interview your staff beforehand, don’t you? But for a publisher? It’s not so easy to make sure that no non-whites get through the door. A writer who is genuinely fearful of being rejected on the grounds of race can easily assume a false identity – and, with all communications over the internet, who’s to know?

(True story – I never met any of my publishers before they purchased and published my books.)

But this article – and the response to it – touches many buttons. And some of them have really been jabbed too many times already.

I think it is fairly safe to say – and studies have confirmed this – that mandatory ‘diversity sensitivity training’ not only heightens awareness of diversity, it makes the problems it sets out to solve worse. People, as this report notes, resent being treated like dull children (particularly when whoever wrote the instruction book really needs some sensitivity training himself <evil grin>). You go into the training thinking of your fellow employees as your friends, your comrades in the struggle to remain sane in the workplace; you go out seeing them as a minefield of triggers, people who can explode (and cost you your job) at any moment. What person wants to risk exposing himself when anything can be taken as a ‘microaggression?’

And you can’t even be told what not to do because the rules keep changing!

Everyone has – or has heard of – a horror story about ‘affirmative action gone mad.’ The lousy employee who cannot be fired, no matter how badly he behaves, because he would claim discrimination and sue the company. Or the total incompetent who was promoted over more qualified people because he met some diversity quota. Or the guy whose violent threats were ignored because of his religion. Or the employee who told an off-colour joke and was summarily sacked.

And in the publishing field, where racism is largely irreverent, it is the sudden demand for non-white authors and non-white characters instead of good authors and well-rounded characters.

All of the above stories might be hugely exaggerated, of course. But the bad ones are the stories people remember.

The problem with most suggestions for ‘diversity’ is that they come across as hugely accusatory. There isn’t a person alive who likes being accused of something, particularly when they know damn well that they’re not that something. Each of the proposed ‘national conversations about race’ start with the assumption, clearly stated or implied, that racism exists and it’s all the fault of white people. No one likes being accused of anything …

… Particularly when, as now, the accused has to defend himself from a charge of racism (and it is impossible to prove a negative) instead of forcing the accuser to prove his guilt.

The point – when it comes to fandom – is that fans should be fans. There should be no such thing as a white Star Trek fan or a black Star Trek fan – just Star Trek fans. Star Trek fans do not, as a general rule, want to attend a conference where all the panels sound off about diversity – they want to attend conferences where they discuss how best to pry Star Trek away from JJ Abram and give it to someone who really understands the series. Diversity merely draws lines between fans, making them hate and suspect one another rather than enjoying their fandom.

Honestly! The whole ‘black stormtrooper’ debate – if it was anything more than a marketing ploy – could have been solved easily with two lines of dialogue.

Poe: You don’t look anything like the guy they used as the clone template.

Finn: They flushed him out of the cloning program. That guy couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.

Just imagine the laughter echoing round the cinema after that!

Look at it this way. You have a nice little Star Trek convention. Then all those Babylon 5 fans want to join, bringing with them panels about why Babylon 5 is completely original and vastly superior to Deep Space Nine. You object to this – on the grounds that you run a Star Trek convention – and they make a fuss about discrimination. All of a sudden, you’re the bad guy. And then fans of Transformers arrive and start a feud over the most important question in their fandom – is there any fate too cruel for whoever wrote the live-action movie? And then three different factions of BSG fans arrive …

… And by this point, you’re no longer a Star Trek convention and pretty much all of your original fans have gone.

It’s not a good analogy. But I think it explains why fans are growing annoyed with diversity.

It’s never easy to balance the need to appeal to old fans and draw in new ones. The Force Awakens, despite its colossal problems, largely manages it. Star Trek 2009 largely failed; Ghostbusters 2016 failed completely. And part of the reason Ghostbusters failed was because it failed to keep the original fans as well as failing to draw in new ones. It’s writers and producers showed utter contempt for the fans and so they moved away.

But really, appeals for ‘diversity’ are even worse. Because the people screaming the loudest for diversity are not the ones paying the bills.

They’re not the ones suffering either. Opinions of affirmative action and positive discrimination tend to go downhill sharply when there is a very real risk that the holder might be affected. It’s poisonous for the very simple reason that merit is perceived to be sorely lacking in anyone who got ahead because of it. And because humans are tribal creatures, one bad experience with someone from another tribe contaminates relationships with the rest of the tribe.

And this is tragic. Because we are all individuals.

Science-fiction does not have a race problem. What it does have is a number of commenters who just won’t shut up about race.

And this is destroying us. Because diversity is largely irrelevant to writing. It doesn’t matter if the latest set of Hugo winners are white or black or bug-eyed monsters from mars – all that matters is that they are good writers. Why talk about the colour of a writer’s skin when you can talk about their work?

‘Racism,’ once again, is being used as a stick to beat people. And people are tired of it.

***

One of the best pieces of advice I was given, for an ongoing relationship, was to build on the positive rather than dwelling on the negative. And what’s positive about publishing, particularly in this day and age? It can be done without anyone seeing your face, without anyone knowing who you truly are. If you are genuinely concerned about being rejected because you are not a straight white male, give yourself a penname and remain in the background until your books are published.

Rejections happen. Yes, they do; you may just be starting out, you may have made a tiny mistake, you might just be unlucky enough to encounter an editor who has a headache when he reads your work. But do not give up! Keep going, keep learning … don’t stop! And don’t tell yourself it’s futile. We live in an era where people such as myself can make a living merely through publishing on Amazon Kindle. It is not hopeless.

Many of the suggestions put forward by commenters are badly flawed, threatening to divide fandom more rather than bringing it together. Their focus on skin colour rather than merit is laughable, particularly in this industry. All they are doing is poisoning the well.

Writers should be writers, first and foremost. Characters should be characters, first and foremost. Let us concentrate on what unites us …

… And remember, it’s meant to be fun.

Race Fail III: Quality and Incomprehensibility?

22 Aug

So.

One of the comments made about the recent Fireside Report – and its ultimately flawed methodology – is a suggestion that Science-Fiction written by non-whites (I have a peculiar loathing of the term ‘People of Colour’) is harder for whites to understand. Such works are written from a very different cultural background and can be quite different from more mainstream pieces of work. Accordingly, editors – who are overwhelmingly white (and politically liberal) reject these pieces of work.

Is this actually true?

I agonised backwards and forwards over this question for hours before deciding that the answer was ‘maybe.’

Some time ago, I read The Satanic Verses. I found it to be a rather tedious read. Indeed, I suspect that it would have vanished without trace, if Khomeini had kept his mouth shut. I certainly have no great inclination to read it again.

Now, the reason I mention that particular book is that I was told, some time afterwards, that it was written in a distinctly Iranian style. Indeed, that in many ways the book was a masterpiece. I have no idea if that was actually true or not, but I didn’t think much of the book when I read it – I considered it to be grossly overrated. But yes, it’s possible that I don’t have the cultural background to meet the book on its own terms.

But really, one doesn’t need to look for a non-white author to run into cultural incomprehension. Many of Jane Austin’s novels suffer badly from ‘Values Dissonance,’ simply because the cultural background of the novels is very different to modern-day British society. Even Sherlock Holmes can run into problems because readers are often unfamiliar with the ins and outs of Victorian/Edwardian society. Unlike more modern books, these books are written by people who assumed – correctly – that their first readers would understand the background and wouldn’t need detailed explanations of why Lydia marrying Wickham – who was in his late 20s to her 15 – was so important (instead of having him arrested for statutory rape).

There are plenty of more modern books – Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell, for example – where the author does an excellent job of explaining society while at the same time telling an entertaining story.

Is this true of non-white writing?

I don’t know.

Certain non-white writers – NK Jemisin in particular – are very good at explaining their world to us in the course of their story. Both The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Killing Moon establish two very interesting worlds – The Killing Moon showcases a very different society and renders it comprehensible. (This book deserves extra credit for not only devising the society, but explaining why other societies regard it with genuine and understandable horror.) Other books – science-fiction, fantasy, thrillers – may be written by non-white writers, but writers who are culturally identical to their white counterparts. It is simply impossible to tell the skin colour of the authors by reading them – and really, why would you want to try?

In fact, the suggestion that black works are somehow incomprehensible to white readers carries a very odd set of implications.

Publishers – smart publishers, at least – need to publish books that sell. It’s every publisher’s dream to get his hands on the next JK Rowling. If there are books that are incomprehensible to the vast majority of the reading public, why would publishers publish them? Why indeed?

Now, I suspect that someone will put forward an argument that boils down to ‘if you build it, they will come.’ Publishing books written by non-white authors may turn off white readers, but it will attract new black readers. Is that actually true?

I suspect the answer to that question is no. The problem facing publishers – and comic writers, movie producers, etc – is that the people who make a fuss about including diversity are not the ones buying their product. People buying books don’t buy them because they give a damn about identity politics, they buy them to be entertained. White readers may be put off because of an invasion of Social Justice Bullies; black readers may be put off by characters that are effectively pandering or stereotypes (or grossly unrealistic) rather than actual rounded characters.

The blunt truth about publishing (as I have noted before) is that publishers get far more submissions than they can possibly handle. It isn’t uncommon to have your work rejected after you failed to hold the slush reader’s attention for more than five minutes. Things that prove you’re a sloppy writer – not following submission guidelines, for example – can get you rejected without ever having your work read. It is highly unlikely that the editor will pay enough attention to you to determine your skin colour, if you’ve bothered to include it in the cover letter. Black or white or whatever, if your work doesn’t meet the minimum standards, it’s going to be rejected.

But if you get through this barrier, you generally get to work with an editor.

Editors are wonderful people – behind every successful author stands an editor. Imagine them as the typical Drill Instructor from Camp Pendleton. They’re not out to be liked, they’re out to shape up your work so it succeeds in the open market. The editor will say things like ‘your plot hinges on Abdullah not being able to inherit his mother’s wealth without a wife – why is this so? You haven’t explained it.’ And you will realise that it is a great deal easier to correct these problems before the book hits the presses and people start asking these questions in reviews. A good editor can turn a promising manuscript into a great one.

(To put this in some context, each of the Schooled in Magic books has had two editors poking and prodding at it.)

And so, if there are cultural references in your books that are incomprehensible to your audience, an editor should be able to point them out and show you how to improve them.

But there is a seductive way to cope with the problem, in the short-term, that leads to long-term disaster. Insist on publishing writers because of their skin colour rather than their talent! Insist on staffing your publishing division with men and women who have nothing in common with your audience! (Although a cynic would probably say this was already true.) And accuse anyone who doesn’t like your work of sexism, racism or simply being unwilling to meet your book on its own terms.

And while this may get you somewhere in the short term, in the long term it will merely discredit publishing still further.

The problem with many of the proposed solutions (to a problem that may not actually exist) is that they are fundamentally misplaced. They represent earnest solutions that are, at best, purely cosmetic. It is more important, for example, to have a black editor or a female publisher than to actually put competence ahead of ability. They prefer to parcel out the deck chairs on the Titanic than patch up the hole before the ship sinks.

The market always wins. Always. And if what you’re producing isn’t selling, you have a problem. Not your readers. You.

Race Fail II: Measuring the Unmeasurable

18 Aug

One of the fundamental problems facing bureaucrats – among others – is that, as they lose touch with what’s actually important, they find themselves struggling to find newer and better ways to measure things. For example, bureaucrats charged with monitoring education in a given country might decide to judge a school based on how well its children do in a single exam. But this leads to the inevitable end result of teachers deliberately teaching to the test and a slow rise in the number of exams until actual learning is pushed out of the classroom.

The bureaucrats in this example are not openly malicious. But, in reducing thousands of helpless children and hundreds of even more helpless teachers to numbers, they have done vast damage to education. The children are trapped in a school system that is severely dysfunctional, while teachers have no choice but to cooperate on pain of losing their jobs.

When it comes to writing, what’s actually important?

It does not matter if the writer is black or white, male or female, straight or gay; it simply does not matter. All that matters, the only thing that matters, is writing skill. You need to be a good writer. That’s all.

Now, writing is actually a learned skill. To put this in some perspective, I started writing in 2004, had my first rejection in 2005 and kept going until I finally enjoyed some success (through self-publishing) in 2012. I had my first book contracts with small presses within the same year. That’s eight years of rejected manuscripts from various publishers.

And when I look back at my first manuscript, I cringe. I made a whole string of mistakes, any one of which would be more than enough to justify the rejection I received. What was I thinking?

Ok. Why am I saying all this?

Last week, as my regular readers are aware, this article was published. I responded to it on my blog. (As you can tell, I wasn’t impressed.) And quite a few others have also responded, ranging from Larry Correia  and P Clark to NK Jemisin. Jemisin, in particular, attacked the publishing industry in a savage bundle of tweets.

Now, the problem facing the publishing industry is two-fold. First, they have no way of knowing the race of whoever submits a story unless they are told specifically. I have never been asked my race, not once. Second, they have to concentrate on what sells – what makes money – rather than anything else. But leaving all that aside for the moment, Jemisin asserts that she – a well-known (and very good) black author – received a number of hasty requests for short stories in the wake of the fireside report.

I find that quite believable. The cognoscenti who govern much of the publishing industry these days are more sensitive to appearance than reality, to feels rather than cold logic. Their instinctive response, when faced with such an (apparently) damning report, would be to seek cover by virtue-signalling as loudly as possible. Jemisin, quite rightly, scorns this pathetic attempt to take cover. But there seems to be a shortage of other black authors they can look up in a hurry.

Or is there?

The thing about affirmative action (or positive discrimination or whatever else you want to call it) is that it is poisonous. Anyone who benefits from it – or appears to benefit from it – arouses suspicion that they did not truly earn whatever they got, that they did not truly deserve it, that they are profoundly unsuitable for it. These suspicions might be completely misplaced, but they are not easy to dispel. And if something happens to confirm these suspicions, it can be disastrous.

If someone comes to me and says ‘X is a great black writer, my response would be ‘so what?’

Skin colour does not have anything to do with writing skill. What does it matter if X is black or white, male or female, etc, etc?

But if someone comes to me and says ‘X is a great fantasy writer,’ my response would be ‘cool, I’ll look him up!”

Because I read fantasy, among others; I’ve read and enjoyed writers from Rowling to Sanderson, Jemisin to Clarke. I love fantasy books! I’m not saying that I have enjoyed every fantasy book I’ve read – I have a whole list of books I didn’t like – but generally I will try a new fantasy author at least once.

The point here is that people are becoming increasingly suspicious of ‘affirmative action’ policies. If you have to market a writer on the grounds that he or she is non-white, or homosexual, or whatever, it strongly suggests that their submissions were accepted because of those traits. And none of those traits have anything to do with writing skill! Being marketed as a ‘diversity’ writer might easily damage a writer’s career outside the elite literacy circle.

People read to be entertained, not hectored. People are turned off by being scolded, for being told they should like this instead of that – this probably explains why the recent Ghostbusters movie was a flop.

What counts in writing isn’t the colour of your skin, it’s the number of satisfied customers.

I’ve been reading fantasy and science-fiction since I was five (I learned to read early). In all of that time, I have only ever deliberately looked up an author’s appearance once. (I was going to meet him at a convention.) I do not, as I said in the last post, waste my time looking at the author’s photograph before I buy or borrow the book. I read the blurb, decide if I want to read the whole book and then do as I see fit. Is there any reader who does otherwise?

If you are a writer – of any skin colour – prepare yourself for rejection. You will be very lucky if your first completed story – or novel – gets through the first set of gates. Do not give up. Write your next story while waiting to hear back from the first. (That’s what kept me going when I finally got the rejection letter.) Submit that story, get on with the third … and keep going.

Do not fall into the trap of assuming you’ve been rejected because of colour, gender, politics or whatever. The editor doesn’t know you from Adam. Trust me on this – no editor has the time to waste looking you up. If you haven’t told him you’re [whatever] he doesn’t know.

And keep writing. Success comes with hard work.

I wish there was a shortcut, but there isn’t.

Don’t be a [whatever] writer, to borrow Heinlein again; be a writer who happens to be [whatever].

Long-term Projects

18 Aug

Here is a question for my readers.

As you know, the Twilight of the Gods series will be wrapped up within the month (maybe six weeks, depending on the cover) and The Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire was recently completed with The Barbarian Bride. I have been spending the last few days – when I wasn’t writing Ragnarok – scribbling down notes for two space opera trilogies. So … which one would you like?

The Social War

Historically, the Social War was perhaps the oddest revolution in history. The Italian cities didn’t want to gain their independence from Rome, they wanted to be Roman. In this far-future take on the concept, there would be a revolution for better status against a hegemonic power.

The Young King’s War

The Galactic Empire has recently reunified after a prolonged period of unrest, under the rule of Emperor Hadrian I (the Old King). In a bid to cement his rule and ensure a steady succession, Hadrian I has crowned his son Hadrian II (the Young King) as co-Emperor. But as Hadrian II grew older, he started to resent the sheer lack of actual power (to make matters worse, his brothers had power of their own) and started to plot against his father, triggering a massive civil war. (Loosely based on the Revolt of 1173–74.)

So … choose one?

Chris

Past Tense: Freedom and (Women’s) Rights

15 Aug

Any feminist who is against modern technology is an idiot.

-John Ringo

Fair warning – spoilers for Past Tense.

PastTense_med2

Back when Past Tense was being edited, Christine Amsden (one of my editors) asked why Julianne – Lord Whitehall’s daughter – came across as weak and unconvincing. (We did a little fiddling to make it clear that she had a more important role in the commune than was apparent at first glance.) But Julianne’s weakness – and she is weak – owes a great deal to her position in life.

Let me put this into some context.

When you are a child, the level of freedom you enjoy – even something as simple as going to bed at 9pm or 10pm – depends on your parents. You have no inherent right to set your own bedtime – your parents set it for you and you have no ‘legal’ recourse. Your parents have the right to make decisions for you and supervise your life. The average parent, I suspect, does not see his or her children as being capable of making his own decisions.

This is how women were largely regarded in the past – and in present-day states like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.

To use Saudi Arabia as an (extreme) example, women are allowed to work … provided they have permission from their male guardian (father, brother, husband). It does not matter, legally speaking, if the woman wants to work; if her guardian says no, she can’t work. She is regarded as a minor in the eyes of the law; she has no legal recourse, no way to escape. She can’t even leave the country without permission from her guardian. Her freedom is wholly contingent on what her male relatives are prepared to permit her to do.

This was unfortunately true throughout much of human history. Women who were allowed to manage their own affairs were quite rare. Even a Ruling Queen might be expected to concede power to her husband. A woman accused of adultery could not legally defend herself; a woman who separated from her husband would find it very hard to get a divorce (and she might lose her children, if there were children). Those who say that women were protected in those eras ignore the simple fact that women were powerless, that their protection depended upon women playing the role society handed them. A woman who stepped outside society’s norms – by becoming a prostitute, for example – also stepped outside its protections.

You might ask why women didn’t resort to extra-legal measures. Why not poison a wife-beater … or simply slit his throat while he slept? But a person born during that time would know the answer. Without the husband, who would look after the wife and children? Who would provide for them? The husband’s relatives might take the house, kicking the wife and children out; the wife might discover that she had no legal standing unless she married again as quickly as possible. And if she’s too old to bear children again, she might not even be able to remarry.

And there were other problems. Women were often smaller and weaker than men – and medical care was awful. Death in childbirth was quite likely; infant mortality was staggering. (Julia Caesar, the wife of Pompey the Great (perhaps the richest and most powerful man of his time) died in childbirth.) Women did not have an easy time of it even when they were wealthy and powerful (or married to the wealthy and powerful).

Julianne has a striking amount of freedom, by the standards of her era. (Emily notes that Whitehall is the most progressive father in his era, which isn’t saying very much by the standards of ours.) And yet there are limits to how much defiance she can show. She cannot stand up to her father without running the risk of being ordered to marry someone her father chooses – or worse. Sneaking around and learning magic from Emily – like a Saudi girl learning how to drive – is her only realistic course of action.

Because it was Christine who said this, I thought of Cassie Scot, the heroine of four of Christine’s books.

Cassie Scot is a squib, if I may borrow the Harry Potter term. She’s the daughter of powerful magicians – and sister to several more – but she has no power of her own. And this has inevitable consequences.

Throughout her four books, Cassie is constantly objectified. Not in the sense that she is treated as a sex object, but in the sense she is constantly treated like a minor child. She is powerless in her community. Her very safety depends on protection from her parents; later, when she loses that, her (eventual) love interest makes decisions for her, meddles freely in her life (sometimes without telling her) and generally continues the tradition of treating her as a cute but wilful child, rather than a grown adult in her own right …

And the hell of it is that he (and her parents) has a point. Cassie may act like a confident adult, but it’s based on other people, rather than on her inherent power (she has none) or human rights (she has none of those either). She is staggeringly vulnerable. And so is Julianne. And so were far too many women throughout history. The powerful women were often the ones who were born to power, like Queen Elizabeth.

There’s an article about Game of Thrones I read a while back (I haven’t read much of the books or seen the TV series.) This was often true of real life too. Queen Elizabeth I was a skilled ‘man-manager,’ even though she was the Queen. Her sister (Mary Tudor) and her cousin (Mary Queen of Scots) were far less skilful. Elizabeth was in consent fear of what would happen if one of her courtiers gained enough power to just take her, which hampered her ability to be an effective war leader. (Her generals would often ignore her orders, justifying it to themselves on the grounds it was what she would do, if she was a man.) This lead to an erratic balancing act that came all too close to disaster.

And while commoner women were often good at carving out niches for themselves, they were almost always very much second-class citizens.

These days, women have rights – and legal recourses. If a marriage goes badly wrong, a woman can go to court and get a separation. A woman can live on her own; a woman can work to earn money, to live a life apart from her former husband. And medical care has advanced to the point where death in childbirth is relatively rare and women are no longer enslaved by their reproductive systems. But this was not true in the past. Our understanding of the past is always limited unless we grasp the limitations faced by the men and women who lived during that era.

It was never suggested, in my entire life, that my parents would determine who I (or my sisters) would marry. But I have known people (boys as well as girls) who knew that their parents would eventually choose their marriage partners. They often felt they couldn’t defy their parents, because in doing so they would defy their entire community. This problem would not be strange to our ancestors, even those a mere century before us.

There is no shortage of romantic stories about women going back in time to marry a brave highlander, a handsome cowboy or a swaggering pirate. But most of those stories tend to overstate the romance and understate – badly understate – the hardships of the time. Or how few rights a woman would have, if her husband turned nasty.

And that is something we really need to remember.

***

It isn’t easy to bring this front and centre in Schooled in Magic, even though the powerlessness of powerless people has been a major theme in the book from the start.

Magicians are believers in power, nothing else. After female magicians became relatively common – after the ‘Curse’ was understood and defeated – sexism largely faded from the magical community. As happened in our history, the growth of self-made powerful women boosted the position of all women. Emily does not face blatant sexual discrimination in much of the series because she’s joined a community based on equality, with men and women competing on equal terms. Even during Past Tense, her position is somewhat ambiguous – Whitehall and Bernard consider her a honorary man (although they would never express it that way). Emily has relatively little to do with the other girls in the commune, save for Julianne.

Even in the ‘present,’ Emily doesn’t really spend any time with ‘normal’ girls. Alassa is royalty – and the heir to the throne. Imaiqah is from a merchant family, where daughters are educated and certainly expected to play a role in the family trade. Aloha and Cabiria (and Melissa) are from magical families, where power – magical power – is more important than gender. (The Gorgon, not being completely human, doesn’t count.) Only Frieda (and Nanette/Lin) come from profoundly (and not without reason) misogynist societies and neither of them really want to talk about it. Obviously, there are servants and suchlike – in Whitehall, in Zangaria and Cockatrice – but Emily doesn’t sit down to talk with them. They would be too awed by her to say a word.

Indeed, even back on Earth, Emily never had the opportunity to develop feminine social skills, let alone masculine ones.

Which means, unfortunately, that there are large swathes of her society that she won’t truly understand, or will only be dimly aware of … a problem that will only grow worse as she grows older.

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