Why I Stopped Reading Books Written By Judith Tarr

Not about Krita or KDE… Instead it’s about my reaction to a blog article or two by an author whose work I used to buy.

Some time ago I read an article by Judith Tarr on Women In Science Fiction. It sort of pissed me off. Recently, she recycled this article on Charles Stross’ blog. The gist of it is that the world is unfair to women because readers stop buying sf/fantasy books by female authors when they are no longer pretty thirty-somethings, and that that is unfair. Now I noticed these articles because Judith Tarr used to be one of my favourite authors…

Personally, I don’t care whether the authors of the books I read are thirty or sixty, have tits or balls, although, to be completely honest, I probably read more books by female authors than by male authors. Sometimes I think it’s because most readers, these days, are women, and many women strongly prefer to read books written by their own sex, so it would make sense that more books by women get published. I didn’t do any research and did’t compile statistics, of course, but then, Judith Tarr also hasn’t done the statistics, that I could find. Sometimes I think I might be reading more female authors because for some weird cultural reason, female authors put more character interaction in their books, and male authors more — dunno, stuff that bores me. Like Malazan or Game of Thrones. Bad world-building, lack of interesting people, prosiness. Sometimes I think it’s just because I get recommended more books by female authors because I know more female SF/F readers than male readers, which is back to square one. I know that when I was sending manuscripts out, I thought I’d better use a female pseudonym. I probably was wrong, since it seems agents still prefer authors with male sounding names.

In any case, the reason I stopped reading Judith Tarr is simply because her books disappointed me more and more… We bought a lot of her books, but the one that started it was Ars Magica. That book blew me away. Not because the author was a sexy twenty or thirty-something. There is no backflap picture on the paperback. But, in fact, we thought Ars Magica was so good we went on buying her books, disappointment after disappointment.

In the nineties, a book-buying expedition to the American Book Center in Amsterdam would have us first check the T’s for a new Tarr, then the K’s for a new Kurtz, then the P’s for a new Pratchett. This was before the Internet, so the only way we had to figure out whether there was a new book by our favourite authors was to go to the bookshop. After the ABC we would hit Waterstones, to check the J’s for a new Diana Wynne Jones, and then the W’s to make sure there really wasn’t one. We’d end up buying second-hand books in the English Book Exchange, and go home with a dozen paperbacks each.

So… After Ars Magica, we got Alamut. That was quite decent, the bits with the ifreeta and her human sister in the cave where Aidan was kept were great. Oodles of interesting character interaction. The whole elves/magic stuff… Well, not so much. A bit standard and not really well thought-out, I felt back then. Then, A Wind in Cairo was short enough to finish before putting it aside. The Dagger and the Cross had a few nice bits, but was on the whole rather a disjointed read. But… Ars Magica was great.

So we got The Hound and the Falcon. I never got through the first few chapters. I thought, well, maybe the three volumes in one cover was just too heavy to read comfortably, besides, an early work, reissued, so let’s get The Hall of the Mountain King. First part in a longish series, which we never bothered to get the other parts of. Lord of the Two Lands failed to grip, Throne of Isis ditto.

Still, you never know, and Ars Magica had made a deep impression. By now, I didn’t dare re-read it, for fear it would disappoint as much as the other Judith Tarr titles we bought. So, when The Eagle’s Daughter was released, we hesitated. But the idea of a novel around a Byzantine Princess in Ottonian Germany was delectable. Unfortunately, the author seems to detest Byzantium and revere Rome, something which already was apparent in The Dagger and the Cross, and that took away some of the enjoyment of what, had it been better constructed, better told and contained more interesting characters could have been a great book. To me, nobody in the book came alive, and I did give it a good chance, three or even four times.

Pillar of Fire was the last Judith Tarr we bought. Our copy is chiefly remarkable for not having a single crease in its spine. It was a disappointment from page one.

Well, that’s not quite true. We never got anything by Caitlin Brennan or Kathleen Bryan (by now the internet existed and put us wise), but after the first article mentioned above, I got her “Living in Threes” It was cheap, and, well, I remember Ars Magica as a really good book. “Living in Threes” is not a good book. It’s construction is shoddy, it’s world-building is basic, the characters are cardboard cut-outs. It reads as if it was written without any focus, as if the author had better things to do, things that took up all the brain-power.

I stopped reading Judith Tarr, not because she’s gone invisible because she’s a middle-aged woman and I’m a man who only notices under-thirty women, but because, after reading a bunch of her books I found that I’d better read books by other people.

Like… Aliette de Bodard, Virginia deMarce, Esther Friesner, Irina Rempt and a host of other people… R.A. Macavoy is surprising, Caroline Stevermer never fails to enchant, Mercedes Lackey is usually diverting, when one has flu, Karen Mills sets the standard for bickering characters, but is often entertaining, Katherine Addison has really original world-building, Genevieve Cogman’s worlds are weirder and her characters deeply interesting and Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria — well, a bit mixed, the first part was far more interesting than the second part. And let’s not mention the woman everyone always mentions when it comes to SF, who is being called a “smurfette” by Judith Tarr: Lois McMaster Bujold, maybe a bit too fond of Dorothy L. Sayers, but still putting down an incredible universe full of interestingly interacting characters. Oh, and I shouldn’t forget Pamela Dean. Connie Willis, on the other hand, is a bit Judith-Tarrish, in that one book, Bellwether, really gripped me, and all the other books bored me. Well, To Say Nothing of the Dog had good bits, though there the Dorothy L. Sayers worship definitely was too much. Liz William’s SF Singapore is incredibly fascinating, and I’m saving some of her books so I’ve got something stashed away for a rainy day.

I could go on, though, mentioning authors and books, and it’s already late. Let me conclude: I’m sure women are being disciminated against, and I can be convinced men find it easier to get their SFF published. But I stopped buying Judith Tarr’s books because I didn’t like reading them, not because the author became a middle-aged woman.


I first encountered Terry Pratchett’s work in 1986, when Fergus McNeill’s Quilled adventure game adaption of the Colour of Magic was released for the ZX Spectrum. Back then, Fergus was a bigger name in my mind than Terry Pratchett. I enjoyed the game a lot, but couldn’t get the book anywhere — this was 1986, the Netherlands, no Internet, Oosterhout, so no bookshop carrying any fantasy books in English beyond Lord of the Rings.

When I was in my first year in Leiden, eighteen years old, studying Sinology, a friend of mine and me, we went to London for a book-buying expedition. Forget about the Tower, the V&A or the National Portrait Gallery. We went for Foyles, The Fantasy Book Center and the British Library. I acquired the full set of Fritz Leiber’s “Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser” series, Frank got Lord Dunsany’s autobiography, I got Clark Ashton Smith’s collected short stories and Lord Dunsany’s Gods of Pegana (straight, apparently, from the rare books locker from the University of Buffalo).

I also bought Mort.

That was the first Terry Pratchett novel I read, and I was hooked. I read and re-read it a dozen times that week.

When I first met Irina, we had an overlapping taste, but very few books in common… The first book I foisted upon her was Equal Rites. I think, I’m not so sure anymore, I recognize books by their colour, and all my Terry Pratchett paperbacks have vaguely white splotchy spines by now.

If you look at our fantasy shelves, it’s easy to see when I got my first job. That was 1994, when I bought my first Terry Pratchett hardcover. Since then, I’ve bought all his books in hardcover when they were released.

I fondly remember the Terry Pratchett and discworld Usenet newsgroups, back when Usenet was fun. alt.books.Pratchett, alt.fan.Pratchett. The annotated FAQ. L-Space. Pterry.

Deciding that, well, sure, I couldn’t wait for the paperback, and would get the hardback, no matter what. Seeing the books’ spines go all skewed with re-reading.

Were all his books awesome? No, of course not. Though I guess nobody will agree with me which ones were less awesome. And I sometimes got fed up with his particular brand of moralizing, even.

But, in my mind, Terry Pratchett falls in the same slot as Wodehouse and Diana Wynne Jones. Wodehouse had about thirty years more of productive life; and Wodehouse’ sense of language was, honestly, better. But Terry Pratchett’s work showed much more versatility, though there, Diana Wynne Jones surely was the greater master. But there are books, like Feet of Clay, that I read, re-read and will keep re-reading.

An author of a body of work that will last a long time.

The First Betrayal

By Patricia Bray

I had to go to hospital for a small operation (that nonetheless entailed my first night in a hospital), so I had to have some light reading. This book looked like the most likely satisfying on the fantasyand science fiction shelves of the local bookshop. I had never heard of the author, which is a plus for me, and the world building seemed quite nice, even if a little derivative, with strong echoes of late Byzantium and a map that looked a bit like the Black Sea. And despite being the first of a series, it didn’t seem the usual hackneyed first part of a polylogy, but a rounded story.

Turns out that it was good choice: there are interesting people in the book, shades of moral good and bad, the world building is as interesting as it seemed at first blush, the intrigue is complex, but not too complex
for my nose-stuffed-up-with-sponges-and-bandaged self. Only near the end it seemed as if Patricia Bray got into trouble: she has set up her various plotlines so that there simply isn’t good or bad anymore and it becomes difficult to emphathize with any of the protagonists. But that’s quite realistic, too, and the depictions of imperial politics, while not quite as convincing as, say, Psellus (who really was in the thick of it), are convincing.

Another strong point: the main protagonist’s condition remained a mystery to me for as long as it remained a mystery to himself, despite carefully crafted hints. To me that shows that this is a well-crafted story. I’m looking forward to the second story about Josan — even though the preview at the back seems to hint that he won’t survive the first twenty pages.

American Gods

By Neil Gaiman

Oh dear… Someone has been reading Frazer’s Golden Bough again, And where Wrede and Stevermer’s The Grand Tour is fun with dark edges, American Gods is weirdness with leaden edges.

It’s the kind of book you open, and then suddenly find that you’ve read sixty, maybe a hundred pages without the text leaving much of an impression. Fluent wordwooze, was my impression. And then it starts to get seriously weird and complicated.

Not to mention philosophical, but you need to bring a lot more than rehashed nineteenth century scholarly superstitions to faze me (fortunately the book has a happy ending, even if the bit just before the ending is just as unsatisfying as the ending to Cryptonomicon.) But I’m not impressed by a comparison between a television and an altar. That’s been done before, on Dutch television, too, or so I am told, not having one of the machines myself.

But in the end, a well-constructed story with some very interesting people in it — it’s just that I wish that these books would have an ending that was as good as the middle.

The Assassins of Tamurin

By S.D. Tower

I really wanted to like this book, no, I wanted to love it. It’s that rara avis, a single-volume fantasy book, set in a world of its own, not a bastardized Ye Olde or Ye Nowadaisy England. The world building is of a high order, better than mine. There are hints of China, but also of India, and many, many details that are quite unique, such as the names of plants and animals, many aspects of culture (such as the particular kind of ancestor worship) and religion.

The names are lovely: Lale, Tsunane, Kidrin — in the beginning of the book there’s attention to linguistic games, where we’re told Lale is a pun in the native language of the girl.

The plot is convoluted, and better carried through than in many Guy Gavriel Kay novels. The psychological insight is quite okay. Character development — very good, given the scope of this book. Exciting love interest, too, with a delightful bed-scene.

But somehow, the book is flat. Where an attempt is made at evocative language, the writing seldom reaches the heights at which it aspires, and degenerates in plodding lists of nouns, thankfully short lists. The book is told by the main character who looks back at her long and successful life, and frequently gives explicit asides. And this is done very well: the tone is right for this kind of person. The problem is, she already knows what was going to happen, and she is slightly amused and somewhat bemused at our interest. And maybe she’s just not much of a raconteur… Her story, with all its exciting details and all the world-building just never grows into a compelling page-turner. It was all too easy to put the book aside for something else.

A pity… But I would still by other books in this setting, just for the world-building.

PS: First time I used Krita to prepare the cover pic! I still need a crop tool, and then I can do everything with Krita I used to use xv or the Gimp for. (I’m no power-user)

Going Postal

By Terry Pratchett

I still buy every new Terry Pratchett as soon as it is published. Only… With this one, I hadn’t noticed until someone mentioned it on the rec.arts.sf.composition newsgroup. I must be losing my grip — or Terry Pratchett is losing his grip on me. That’s a possibility, too.

Going Postal is essentially exactly the same novel as The Truth. Young man goes and creates something, a big enterprise that changes the world. This version of that story is in fact most memorable for the fact that it is almost instantly forgettable and that it doesn’t invite re-reading either.

It isn’t Terry Pratchett’s trademark intrusive auctorial preaching, even, that makes Going Postal a bit dull. I don’t mind a good sermon, and I’m broad minded enough to admire a good sermon advocating a position I dislike, like Terry Pratchett’s particular brand of condescendingly superior humanism, and in any case, there is not more than a page or three, four, of connected sermon in this book.

It’s just that none of the people in the book start to really live, except maybe for the hangman. The protagonist is a bit dull, the love interest doesn’t get the good lines someone with her character sheet seems entitled to. The first villain, he could be interesting, but he gets short shrift, too.

I really don’t know what is going on in the 352 pages in the hardback edition. It’s not character development. It’s not couleur locale. It’s not exciting plot developments. I get the depressing feeling it’s mostly wordwooze. Sometimes the wooze is a bit funny, I did laugh two or three times, sometimes the wooze is slightly exciting, but I never got a good feeling about what it was that was exciting me.


By Neal Stephenson

I finally found an edition of Cryptonomicon that was actually luggable. I’ll be waiting a few years for Quicksilver and other, more recent Stephenson books to come out in a similarly handy format. I really hate the big trade paperback format. But I’ll probably buy more Stephenson books, something I wasn’t so sure about after finishing Diamond Age. But when I found Cryptonomicon I knew I had to give it a chance, if only because of the unanimous recommendation of my colleagues at Tryllian.

Diamond Age was in a sense a weird experience because the technology my company makes is a precursor of the networking technology that created the Diamond Age world. Cryptonomicon is in the same way interesting, but even closer to the skin. Operating systems from Finland, hacking in a variety of languages on network stuff and related security things are my daily bread & butter. And Stephenson does an absolutely admirable job of showing the mindset, introducing the technology and the issues and the possible (or probable) consequences.

Where Stephenson goes wrong, I feel, is in the more mundane things. I cannot believe for one moment that it’s possible to discover a great cache of WWII gold without it getting claimed by a) the government of the country where the cache is located, b) the governments of the countries where the gold was stolen from, c) the governments of the countries that had done the stealing, d) the descendants of the people who were the real victims of the war. There
are other places where I simply don’t believe plot elements, like the emphasis on some aspects of the prostate. Yes, you can get into prostate trouble from drinking too much coffee, but not from not having enough sex. That must be a fable so obscure not even Google knows about it…

Oh, and Stephenson apparently cannot write endings. That explains why his books are so fat, of course — but it’s a quite apparent in Cryptonomicon. The ending may, for all that I know, be highly symbolic, but it also falls flat. Which is a pity since the rest of the book was so intense that I frequently read four threads at the same time. Every time pov switched, I would put a bookmarker and thumb through to where the old pov continued. Of course, given my chaotic reading habits, that meant I was following all of them at the same time, only not in the order the author intended.

Singularity Sky

By Charles Stross

Having hung out on rec.arts.sf.composition for quite some time, Charlie Stross is not an unknown to me; besides, his blog is in my blogroll. So when Singularity Sky turned up in the local bookshop in Deventer, I didn’t hesitate to buy my copy. It is, by the way, quite a measure of success to get your books into the four metres of English language science fiction and fantasy Praamstra stocks.

Knowing Charlie Stross for a write-a-holic who writes like the Krakatoa erupts, only more  frequently, it is a bit hard to take his books seriously: after all, they are slapped together, so must be slap-dash, mustn’t they? Disregarding the editing and polishing, that is. Even so, I don’t think I’m propagating an untruth if I say in public that I feel that Singularity Sky isn’t the most constructed of books. Particularly the ending, where a certain batman by the name of Robart turns out to be a Highly Ranked Person, or where Rachel turns out to have been ordered by a certain department of the UN it’s best not to know too much about to do something, that reeks of finishing up out of a tight spot.

The book itself is, perhaps, slightly uneven. The beginning is chaotic, with no main character to bond with; the middle feels like an extended allegory (with two layers: the Festival is both the Internet and the Edinburgh Festival, and the Festival Fringe is, of course, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the ultra-weird fringes of the Internet (which I’m not going to link to because they don’t deserve the pagerank), and the New Republic is the RIAA, going with conventional weapons against something c.w.’s are utterly irrelevant to. And then the third part gets a strong, and utterly believable (even though I felt the emphasis on Rachel’s martial prowess a bit of a forced inversion from common tropes, if tropes is the word I want), love interest. Nice couple.

Of course, at the end, there’s the final disconnect. The life Rachel and Martin live in Plotsk (weird to read this book in Steinbach-Hallenberg, near to Schmalkalden, the original Fachwerkhaus town) seems pretty ideal to me, myself: living together, keeping house together, with a nice technical challenge and a good, going business. The only thing lacking is a gaggle of daughters.

Oh, and I think a case — not that I do so, mind! — can be made for considering censorship as a way of routing around damage in its own right. Vide my not linking to the weirder fringes of the Internet, something Charlie Stross has done himself on occasion. Alas, Charlie Stross lets his personal opinion seep through just as much as Terry Pratchett does. He thinks a person is only adult when he is completely self-reliant and independent; I rather think someone only reaches adulthood on becoming a parent. And others again (and me too, sometimes) equate that moment of matriculation into adulthood with the moment one realizes ones duty to society and community and puts hand to spade. But these are random thoughts engendered by a perfectly fine book; a book that’s better for making me think. I will buy more Stross if I come across it.

(An interesting assumption in Singularity Sky is that a secret service man would want to keep his observation hidden from the observed. As Claudia Rusch shows in Meine freie deutsche Jugend, the Stasi observed so observable that even a seven-year old could not help noticing the agents. In a totalitarian state, Heisenberg doesn’t hold. It doesn’t matter whether the observed changes his behaviour because of the observation: if he changes his behaviour from Staatsfeindlichkeit to conformism because of the observation, fine, the state has been saved. If he is provoked into actions constituting a danger to the state, fine, then he can be apprehended and made away with. It’s a win-win situation for the state to have ubiquitous and visible surveillance of all its citizens.

Which is why the EU really wants to monitor all our internet traffic. Europe is rapidly moving into a surveillance state, led on by the Netherlands, and most people around here think it’s a good idea.)

Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary

By Pamela Dean

Pamela Dean used to frequent the rec.arts.sf.composition newsgroup with some regularity some time ago, and any number of times she has helped other people with issues with pacing in their work. Which she’s very well equipped to do, since she’s a master in that art herself.

  • Author: Pamela Dean
  • Title: Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary
  • Pages: 351
  • Published: 1999
  • Publisher: Tor
  • ISBN: 0-312-85970-8

I always think I’ve read more of her work than I do; but it’s really just Tam Lin and now this book. But both books have the same kind of pacing. What you get, basically, is what looks like a a straight and ordinary narrative about a group of people who know their English classics really well — with the occasional carefully placed remark that sends shivers down my spine. I won’t quote the first such remark in Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary, don’t want to spoil the fun.

And then, upon re-reading, the toil of ordinary life seems significant in all its facets, too, but that my just be my pattern matching mind, put into overdrive, returning spurious matches. Or it may have been the author’s intention, or it may have been subconscious work on the part of the author’s mind — whichever way, it does make for concentrated reading.

Of course, the characters in this book are as interesting as in Tam Lin; erudite, intellectual and interesting. A nice bunch of kids, in fact, even if I thought having a token black girl, and her churchy, too, was a little, well, not done. Even if it’s a plot point of sorts. Pamela Dean was perhaps wise in making her focal character an atheist, since she does not seem to be able understand religion very well. Even so, there is a scene that revolves around religious and irreligious people reacting to some supernatural occurrence that reads true to life.

Near the end of the book, the pacing becomes truly masterful. Again, I won’t spoil anything by giving something away, but I cannot resist quoting the London Underground announcer: “mind the gap”. A very satisfying part, this.

The conclusion, by contrast, is a little less satisfying. I’m not entirely surewhy — cannot seem to put the finger on the nub, but there’s something that seems to point to a sequel, and having suddenly add a whole new concept to the world seems to me to need a bit more foreshadowing. Or doing without.

The Interior Life

By Katherine Blake (Dorothy J. Heydt)

The Interior Life is a rather strange book, in many respects. It tells the story of a supposedly ordinary American housewife, a none-too-bright stay-at-home mom who married her high-school sweetheart. She has three children, a front and a back lawn, and, when the story starts, a very dirty house.

  • Author: Katherine Blake (Dorothy J. Heydt)
  • Title: Interior Life
  • Pages: 313
  • Published: 1990
  • Publisher: Baen
  • ISBN: 0-671-72010-4

Although I somehow doubt it is much more of a chaos than our own house. Anyway, it’s the very first morning that all three kids are at school — even the youngest has been enrolled. And when Sue with a kind of hopeless fatality starts doing the kitchen, again, she gets encouragement and visions from people in a fantasy world.

It appears that her own struggle in this world to attain order, efficiency, cleanliness and status is mirrored by the efforts of her counterparts in the fantasy world to combat chaos. Sounds both cherché and cliché when I write it down like this, doesn’t it?

Well, it isn’t, funny enough. Part of the attraction is the warm writing, full of human touches. Another attraction is the — presumably — accurate description of life in the American suburbs. Somehow, this milieu is much more alien, much more fantasy to me than the fantasy land from Sue’s interior life. Imagine someone who has a kitchen big enough to put an actual table in! And who still thinks that that’s too small… At first, Sue seems a bit silly, and her husband a stupid git, but they soon turn into people one cares for, as do Sue’s children, the baby-sitter, the boy from the record shop. And the villain is a truly horrible person, and very well drawn.

The people in the fantasy land, by contrast, really do seem nothing but reflections from Sue’s own mind; they never come to life, always giving a one-dimensional, card-board impression.

Fortunately, it’s quite easy to skip the fantasy-land bits, mostly, because the book is printed in about four fonts — not all of them easily distinguishable, though. This book was published by Baen, who promptly forgot to do anything about selling it, with the result that it’s really rare nowadays. Our copy is already disintegrating. Another result is that has become quite hard for Dorothy Heydt to publish her more recent novels. After “Point of Honor”, she completed another novel that I’ve had the privilege of reading in manuscript — but which still hasn’t found a publisher. The Interior Life got some good reviews, though, notably in the British edition of Dragon and by Jo Walton.

And that’s a pity, because Dorothy Heydt writes with a touch that’s as light as Connie Willis’, and her books often give the impression that there’s more substance underneath than Willis gives us. Oh, and on many pages there are eminently quotable snippets. But the cover is idiotic — it isn’t a princess clad in snow-white silk who rides through the lands of chaos, but a rather tough lady sensibly clothed. The book is quite explicit.