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Book of the Month: The Unicorn Evils by Elizabeth Bear and Emma Bull

I looked through the books I’d read last month, and it turns out that this was the one I enjoyed the most. It’s not a traditional book, you won’t find it in a library or a bookstore (at least not yet), but it is the latest installment in one of my favorite new series.

Followers of fantasy & speculative fiction should know Elizabeth Bear and Emma Bull already. Bull basically invented the genre of urban fantasy with her 1987 War for the Oaks, and Bear has been churning out revolutionary work for the past several years. (Her latest, Chill, is finally out!) Together they are two of the co-creators of Shadow Unit, a free online fiction project that combines an interesting new use of social media for storytelling and some really, really good writing.

Shadow Unit ScreenshotShadow Unit is a little hard to describe, although it makes plenty of sense if you just dive in. (Start with the Getting Started page — the homepage lists the most recent works first.) It’s kind of like a fake TV show: each large installment is an “episode,” and there are deleted scenes posted as “DVD Extras” in between episodes (and sometimes as hidden links within them). At the same time, some of the characters maintain personal blogs on LiveJournal — but the LiveJournals are contemporary with the current date, while the episodes are often dated a year or more in the past, so although the characters don’t discuss plot points explicitly before they happen, these things will influence their conversations (and give readers plenty of hints to drive themselves crazy with while waiting for a new episode).

The Unicorn Evils is one of several novel-length episodes of Shadow Unit, the premiere of the third season, and a stellar example of serial storytelling done well. Over the previous dozen episodes and hundreds of LiveJournal posts we’ve grown attached to these characters, come to know them and feel for their problems, and now they’re beginning to take it all apart. (Both Bear and Bull tend to be horrible to their favorite characters, as you’ll know if you’ve read any of their other work; Shadow Unit is no different.) This isn’t an episode to start with, but it is one to look forward to. While Shadow Unit is a crime procedural (in the spirit of Criminal Minds rather than CSI), and there’s a great deal of grotesque fun in cataloging serial killers, the real heart of the project is the characters. Oh, it’s a terrible cliche to say it, but it’s true — I could care less about the plot of the next episode (I know it’ll be good), but I want to know if Reyes and Chaz are getting along this week, how Sol is taking retirement, how much Daphne’s improved at taking herself seriously in the field.

I know it’s hard for libraries to collect digital works: they don’t go through the same kind of quality control process that print does, and they’re not listed in catalogs or purchasing orders. If a library wanted to start collecting online fiction though, or was just interested in more intense, thoughtful speculative fiction with plenty of racially, sexually and gender-diverse characters, written by award-winning authors, they could do a lot worse than by starting with Shadow Unit.

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How was your Do Nothing But Read Day?

Okay, I admit, I didn’t exactly do nothing but read, I still had Christmas presents to make. But I did put a book on in the background — the audio book of Tolkien’s Children of Hurin, read by Christopher Lee. It’s pretty maudlin (lots of doom and…okay, mostly doom) but I do love Tolkien’s prose, and Christopher Lee has an amazing talent with the languages. (Yep, I’m one of those Tolkien nerds.)

The rest of the day I read Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle, an epic medieval alternate-history fantasy about fourteenth century Burgundy, a Carthage that never existed, and a female mercenary captain who became famous through the writings of her devoted followers. It’s a wonderfully compelling book; even the fight scenes are both readable and believable (read: bloody and confusing), and every single one of the characters is compelling, even Ash’s useless noble husband. I’m particularly impressed that there are only two characters I tend to get confused (a Richard and a Thomas Rochester, similar English names are doom for me), since often in books with a cast of thousands there are a bunch of interchangeable people to fill in the background, but I never get that sense with the mercenary company in Ash. I’m reading the epic 1100-page British edition, but in the US it was published in four volumes; the first is A Secret History: The Book of Ash.

Do Nothing But Read Day

My fellow Madison library school student Amanda has come up with a genius idea — Do Nothing But Read Day, scheduled for Sunday, December 20th. It’s stuck in there right between finals week (for those of us who still have finals week) and holiday insanity, on one of the shortest days of the year. Sign up and promise to spend all day in your pajamas with a couple of books and a mug of hot chocolate!

I confess, this is probably what I would have been doing on December 20th anyway, but I look forward to being joined by plenty of others who would rather Do Nothing But Read. What will I be reading? Well, I want to get through some of the library books I’ve had checked out for *cough* more than six months now, so I’ll be digging into Ronald Hutton’s Witches, Druids, and King Arthur, about English mythology, and Charles Nicholl’s Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe. And if that gets too heavy for me, there’s a Georgette Heyer on the to-read stack as well. Oh, I’m looking forward to this already.

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