Adam Christopher is joining us today with his novel Killing Is My Business. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Another golden morning in a seedy town, and a new memory tape and assignment for intrepid PI-turned-hitman―and last robot left in working order―Raymond Electromatic. But his skills may be rustier than he remembered in Killing Is My Business, the latest in Christopher’s robot noir oeuvre, hot on the heels of the acclaimed Made to Kill.
What’s Adam’s favorite bit?
Ray Electromatic, eponymous hero of the Ray Electromatic Mysteries – if hero is the right way to describe a robot who pretends to be a private detective when he’s really a paid assassin – has a problem.
Actually, that’s not strictly true – Ray Electromatic has lots of problems. A six-foot-something-else bronzed titanium titan, clad, like any half-decent private dick, in overcoat and hat, Ray’s biggest issue is his memory. He only has twenty-four hours of it, tucked away in a little reel-to-reel tape behind his chest panel. When the tape is up, he heads home to the office and the tape is switched to a new one under the supervision of his boss, a room-sized supercomputer called Ada.
Which means Ray doesn’t remember a damn thing about what he’s done – the perfect cover for a hit-robot, but quite often Ray wishes he had a clue or two about what he’s been up to in Hollywood, California, 1965. It doesn’t help that he doesn’t quite trust Ada, either, and then there’s the shady federal agents and the even shadier private contractors from thrice-shady International Automatics to watch out for.
So sure. Ray Electromatic has problems, but he is – or was – a detective, so once he starts leaving himself clues about what’s going on, he’s in his element. Because if the dirty little operation that he and Ada run is in danger of discovery, well, he needs to know what’s going on so he can protect them both.
But Ray’s other problem, the one that would keep him up at night if he didn’t have to switch off, is that he thinks he’s human.
Okay, that’s not strictly true either. Ray knows he is a robot. But in this glorious and far-distant sci-fi future of 1965, Ray’s creator, the perhaps-not-so-mysteriously-deceased Professor Thornton, realized that the secret to true artificial intelligence was to use a template based on a human mind as the spark of creation. So Ray Electromatic is, in a way, Professor Thornton – not a duplicate or a clone, but an AI that shares some of his creator’s personality and tastes and even (although this isn’t supposed to happen) memories. Ray is his own robot, and he knows all about the template, and he absolutely knows he is a robot and not a human being, but that doesn’t stop him… well, thinking about things.
My favorite bit of Killing is my Business, the second Ray Electromatic Mystery, is in chapter one. Here, Ray is staking out his next target – Vaughan Delaney, a planner for the city of Los Angeles. Ray doesn’t know why Delaney has to die and he doesn’t care – Ada gets the jobs, he carries them out – but in the three weeks he spends watching Delaney’s office, Ray has time to consider the lives of the human beings around him. He watches them go to work, he watches them go home. He even gets some very human urges:
It was a busy street and the office got a lot of foot traffic, some of which even stopped to admire the car that was the same color as a fire engine parked right outside the door. Back on my side of the street there was a drugstore down on the corner that got a lot of foot traffic too. I watched people come and go and some of those people were carrying brown paper bags. Some people went inside and stayed there, sitting on stools at the bench inside the front window as they drank coffee and ate sandwiches.
I watched them a while longer and then I thought I’d quite like a sandwich and a coffee to pass the time. I didn’t need to sit and watch the building. Vaughan Delaney’s schedule was as regular as the oscillators in my primary transformer. I had time to spare.
I got out of the car and stood on the sidewalk for a moment, one hand on the driver’s door, looking over at the office building. A sandwich and a coffee still felt like a great idea. It was the kind of thing you got when you spent a lot of time waiting and watching. It helped pass the time, like smoking and talking about baseball with the boys and making your own flies for fly-fishing.
Of course, I had no need for a coffee or a sandwich. If I walked down to the drugstore and went inside and bought one of each I wouldn’t have any use for them on account of the fact that I didn’t eat or drink.
I was a robot.
And still as I stood there in the street the faint memory of the taste of fresh hot coffee tickled the back of my circuits. An echo of another life, maybe. A life that didn’t belong to me but that belonged to my creator, Professor Thornton.
A coffee and a sandwich would be a real waste, but maybe the drugstore could sell me something else. Maybe I could get a magazine. A magazine or a paperback book. That sounded fun. I had two hours to kill before I followed the target on his weekly jaunt around the City of Angels.
That’s Ray’s problem. He’s a robot who sometimes feels like a human, but he can’t do a thing about it, and he’s not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but what he does know is that even if he feels this way each and every day he won’t remember a blind thing about it, thanks to his limited memory tape.
I like Ray. He’s very good at what he does but he’s flawed and he’s uncertain about a lot of things. There’s an air of melancholy about him. He’s the last robot in the world, and he knows it, and sometimes he dreams of another life that wasn’t his.
And then he gets on with the job, because he’s a professional – another echo from Professor Thornton’s template.
Adam Christopher’s debut novel Empire State was SciFiNow’s Book of the Year and a Financial Times Book of the Year. The author of Made To Kill, Standard Hollywood Depravity and Killing Is My Business, Adam’s other novels include Seven Wonders, The Age Atomic and The Burning Dark. Adam has also written the official tie-in novels for the hit CBS television show Elementary, and the award-winning Dishonored video game franchise, and with Chuck Wendig, wrote The Shield for Dark Circle/Archie Comics. Adam is also a contributor to the Star Wars: From A Certain Point Of View 40th anniversary anthology.
Born in New Zealand, Adam has lived in Great Britain since 2006.
Josie Langdon leaned back from her microscope and rolled her neck to ease the kinks. After days spent staring at slides, her eyes strained to refocus on the university lab around her.
“How’s it going?” Stan Kozelka leaned against the lab door; his grin peeked out from his full beard. Of the other grad students, Stan was the only one who never harassed her. She was not sure he knew who her father had been.
Josie shrugged. “Larvae are still dying. They won’t kick into pupae phase.”
“Ah.” He crossed his arms and tilted his head, straggly hair falling into his eyes. “And you?”
The corner of her mouth turned up wryly. “Also dying.”
Stan winced. “That’s no good.”
“My own fault. I could’ve picked another topic for my master’s, but noooooo…” She groaned as she pulled a slide out of the microscope tray. “I don’t want to think about mosquitoes ever again.”
“Have you talked to Professor Hadley?”
“Not yet. She’ll say, ‘I told you so.'” Josie spun on her seat, turning her back on him. “I was so sure that if I knew the original mechanism and I had the gene map, I could repair the damage my– the West Nile Intervention introduced.”
“At least you pinpointed the damage.”
“Yeah.” She sighed and looked at the floor. “I know, I just–I wanted…”
“It doesn’t matter.” Josie tugged on her hair. “I can’t make girls. It’s still nothing but boys, boys, boys. It’s driving me crazy.”
“Is it…?” He stopped and Josie waited for the inevitable question about her father. The question about why she researched mosquitoes. The question Stan had never asked. He cleared his throat. “There’s a group of us going to the Alibi. Want to come?”
Josie let the tension out of her with a sigh. “Sure.” She turned the light off on the microscope, and put her slides away. “The Alibi is always fun.”
The summer the mosquitoes died began as the best one in Josie Langdon’s childhood. As she dived through the sprinkler in the front yard, the cold water sparkled as if someone had hung a beaded curtain upside down. She gasped with laughter, then turned and jumped through the curtain again.
“Hey, Jo-bug!” Her dad walked up the sidewalk, home early from work.
“Daddy!” She ran to meet him, dancing as the hot concrete steamed against her feet. He towered between her and the sun and made a small spot of shade for her to stand in.
Not minding that she dripped with water from the sprinkler, her dad picked her up and swung her around. She shrieked with laughter.
“Frank?” Josie’s mom came out on the porch. “What are you doing home?”
“We got the results from the release.” He grinned. “It’s unbelievable. The modified Toxorhynchites is going after males of the other genera, so—”
Josie’s mom laughed. “Frank, slow down I’m not getting all of that.”
He pulled her close and kissed her on the forehead. “Sorry, I’m so darn excited. MetroCorp sprayed to kill most of the mosquitoes, then we made an über-male from a type of mosquito that naturally attacks and kills other mosquitoes. So our modified one is not only breeding with the mosquitoes that carry the West Nile virus, it’s attacking and killing the other types of mosquitoes too.”
“Does that mean no more mosquitoes, Daddy?”
He swooped Josie up and swung her around again. He smelled nice, like her grandmother’s rum cake. “They won’t all go away, but it’ll mean a lot less bites for you, Jo-bug.”
The tinny sound of the ice cream truck echoed down the street, as the recorded electric music played the same eight measures of “This Old Man” over and over and over.
“Hey!” Her dad set her down. “Who wants an ice cream to celebrate?” He was already waving at the ice cream man and pulling his wallet out of his pocket.
Josie got an orange push-up. She remembered that.
The Alibi always reeked of smoke. Even though no one had lit up for years, the smell had soaked into the velvet paintings and the straw mats covering the walls. Tiki-kitsch grinned at Josie from every corner of the place.
The other biology students wandered over to the karaoke lounge and one of them wailed through a rendition of “Easy Money.”
Stan winced and twisted his gin and tonic in its circle of condensation. He had splurged on an actual lime and the smooth green rind sparkled among the ice. “The crazy thing is that on these camping trips, I have a hard time finding tadpoles because of all the fish that used to eat mosquito larvae.”
“That’s just it.” Josie laid her hand on the table and leaned forward. “I mean, as early as the mid-aughts, Glausewitz warned about the environmental imbalance. MetroCorp released them anyway.”
“Be fair. No one thought the über-male would be this effective.”
Josie sat back in her seat. Couldn’t there be one person who treated her normally? “You don’t have to protect me.”
She stared at her amber beer. “You’ve never made a crack about my dad and his ‘Frankenskeeter’, but you don’t have to protect my feelings.”
“Josie.” His brows twisted upward. “I’m not interested in your father. I’m interested in you.”
Josie looked away, suddenly warm. “Oh.” She slid her fingers down the pint glass, wiping the beads of moisture away.
Stan was quiet for a long time. Josie took a sip of her beer and looked towards the karaoke stage. “Easy Money” wrapped up his song and another grad student bounded toward the mike.
Stan cleared his throat. “So, um… have you thought about looking for egg floats from before the West Nile Intervention?”
“Yeah.” Josie pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes. “Me, and every other entomologist.”
“Then, you wouldn’t be interested in looking for egg floats while I catch frogs I guess?” He picked up his gin and tonic and sipped it, looking over the rim of the glass at her.
“Marsh lands won’t help. I mean, yeah, Aedes vexans laid their eggs in flood regions, but the idea of trying to find a place where it hasn’t flooded for the past…” In her head, she counted the years since the West Nile Incident. “Seven years?”
“Going to the mountains.” Stan took another sip. “They’ve got flash-flood warnings, if you’re interested in that sort of thing…” His eyes hooded into a studied nonchalance, as if he did not care which way she answered. He set the gin and tonic down carefully in the condensation ring, and did not look at her, but twisted the glass on the table. “Want to come?”
Josie almost said there was no point; mosquito floats were the size of a grain of rice and every entomologist in the world had already looked for them. Then her heart tripped. Stan already knew that.
He was asking her out.
It was a crazy biologist’s kind of date, but after months of uncertain flirting, she would take any move at all. “Sure. The mountains would be great.”
Stan looked up and smiled. “Good.”
Josie felt a flood of warmth and hoped she had not blushed.
In her memory of the autumn, Josie stood in her bedroom while her dad sat on her bed looking through her notebook. Each spiral bound page had a chart carefully drawn on it with line after line of sightings. Purple Martins, Starlings, Sparrows, Blue Herons… one Bald Eagle–the date she saw them, where she saw them, how many she saw.
She tugged on her scout uniform and straightened the banner of badges across her chest.
“Nice work, Jo-bug.”
He flipped backwards through the book. “You’ve taken bird-watching a lot more seriously this year.”
She frowned. “No I haven’t.”
“Well.” He held up a page from the previous year. “You didn’t record nearly as many birds last year.”
“There weren’t as many.”
“Josie.” He tilted his chin down and looked out from under his eyebrows. He glanced at the book and then back at her. “They should have told me at the lab if there was a higher bird-count this year.” He flipped through the pages again. “Are you sure about these?”
Josie remembered nodding as she pointed out the window; three hummingbirds flirted with the feeder. The year before she had only seen one.
Stan slept in the passenger seat of his car while Josie took her turn at the wheel. As the road rolled past, Josie stared out the window at the fields covered with netting. Flocks of birds swarmed, dipping and wheeling over the nets as they looked for any opening to enter. Beneath the nets, protected swarms of bees pollinated each sheltered flower.
She counted the links of the broken chain in her mind. No larvae? Fish that ate mosquito larvae eat other water bugs and tadpoles, which meant fewer frogs; fewer frogs meant more moths, flies and wasps. No larvae? No adult mosquitoes to spread avian viruses. Birds multiply over the land consuming the plentiful crops. The famine, which should have helped keep the birds’ population from exploding, had never happened thanks to those crops, and the sheer amount of food people threw away.
A dark blur flew across the road. A crow. It smacked into her windshield and bounced over the car. Josie shrieked and then laughed.
Stan jumped in his seat. “What?”
“I’m sorry.” A cloud of feathers fluttered after them. “I hit a bird.”
“No worries.” Stan eased his seat forward. “You’ve got a nice laugh.”
She glanced at him, but he was staring out the window at the fields. His cheekbone made a crisp line under his eye, before disappearing into his beard. Josie wondered if his beard was soft.
Why was the silence suddenly awkward?
Stan pointed to a rest-area sign. “Want me to drive?”
Josie nodded. “That’d be great.”
She eased the car off the interstate, into the parking lot of the rest area. Pigeons, crows and sparrows perched on picnic tables eating leftovers from the truckers and families passing through.
When Josie got out of the car, she bent over to stretch her tight muscles. A layer of ashy droppings covered the ground under every tree and the branches seemed to blossom with wings.
Under a sign that read ‘Don’t Feed the Birds’, a little boy scattered breadcrumbs for ducks while his mother watched.
“Crazy…” Josie snorted, and shook her head.
“Oh.” She shrugged. “I just saw The Birds for the first time.”
“The remake?” Josie could tell Stan was watching her, but she kept stretching.
“No, the original. Hitchcock.”
“Whew.” Stan wiped his brow with mock relief. “Thought I was going to have to take you back to the university.” He shuddered. “Hitchcock remakes…”
She grinned and nodded to the boy feeding the ducks. “I was thinking the movie must have been scarier before.”
In the edge of her vision, Stan shook his head. “I was a kid when it happened.”
“Me too.” She thought of her father. “All those diseases people were afraid of catching, and they were the major thing keeping the bird population in check.”
“Wonder what Hitchcock would say?”
“I told you so, probably.”
Stan laughed, rich and deep, bouncing through an octave. The corners of his eyes wrinkled, and his teeth shone from his beard.
Josie held out the keys, grinning. Their hands touched as he took them; he had calluses on the tips of his fingers.
For a moment, he stood close and she could see herself reflected in his eyes.
Stan wet his lips. “We should get going.” He turned around and got in the car.
Josie closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She let it out carefully as she opened her eyes. “Right.” Her voice was too small. “Let’s go.”
The summer after the mosquitoes died, Josie’s family piled out of the car as the horizon ate the sun and last orange glow escaped the western sky. Other families hurried to the stadium for the fireworks display.
Josie bounced anxiously from one foot to the other while her mom dug for the mosquito repellant.
“We don’t need that.” Her dad came around the car and shook his head.
“With her allergy, it doesn’t hurt to be safe,” her mom said.
“She won’t get bitten.” He looked at Josie. “Mosquitoes giving you any trouble, Jo-bug?”
“Nope.” Josie held out her arms. Mosquitoes used to leave giant welts on her arms and legs, on her neck, on her back, on anything the mosquitoes could reach. And the welts had itched for weeks. So, she knew, one hundred percent certain, no mosquitoes had touched her. “Not one.”
“You said they wouldn’t all die.” Her mom shook the can of spray.
“Numbers are lower than we thought.” He shrugged. “Think of it like a field test.”
“Josie is not a guinea pig!”
Josie stopped bouncing to stare at her parents. Her mom took Josie’s dad by the arm and pulled him to the side.
“Look! If you don’t trust me–” Josie’s dad held up his hands, as if he were pushing something away and walked off.
Josie stood very still as her mom came back with tension straining the lines of her face. “Well, Josie,” she chirped, “Let’s make sure you’re safe tonight.”
She shook the can of mosquito repellant and sprayed the white mist against Josie’s arms and legs. The fog chilled her despite the July heat.
She remembered shivering as she looked for her dad.
Stan had borrowed a friend’s mountain cabin, which sat on a hill close to the creek he wanted to check. The creek meandered down the mountain and then into a pond trapped between walls of earth and rock. Logs cut off its escape down the channel and gave refuge to a family of beavers.
Below the beaver’s pond, the sides of the mountain narrowed, forcing the water to trickle in a thin brook with tiny still pools nestling among the rocks. Stan had spent the last hour fishing in each pool with a small aquarium net as he looked for tadpoles.
Thunder rumbled overhead.
Josie looked up at the blue sky peeking through the canopy of leaves. “Should we head back?”
Stan glanced at his spattered and mud-stained clothes. He stood in one of the shallow pools below the beavers’ dam, wet to mid-thigh despite his rubber boots. “I don’t mind getting wet, if you don’t.”
Her shirt stuck to her back with perspiration. “I think it’s too late for me.” She looked back at the sky.
“Any worries about flash floods?”
Stan hesitated and tapped the aquarium net against his hand. “Let me get a few more tadpoles and we can go.”
The first drops fell on the pool, making gentle rings on its surface. Then the sky opened. Sheets of rain plastered Josie’s hair to her head in seconds.
“So much for that plan.” Stan had to shout over the sound of rain hitting the pond. He held his net out. “Think I can catch them falling out of the sky?”
She tilted her head back and laughed. Her shirt clung to her like a second skin. Josie raised her arms to the liquid sky, knowing it did nice things for her body; it lifted her breasts and made her waist look long and narrow. When she lowered her arms, Stan was watching her, the net forgotten in his hands.
Four beavers dove past them, scampering up the side of the hills that held the creek. She and Stan turned to watch the animals claw their way up the hill. Their flat tails left a line in the mud.
Stan understood before she did. “The dam.” He threw the net down and grabbed Josie’s hand.
She splashed after him. Under the driving percussion of the rain, she heard a low rumble. A wall of water rushed into the pond and the dam groaned. Stan pushed her up the side of the hill. She scrambled, her feet sliding in the mud. He clawed up next to her.
The dam broke.
The water splashed up the sides hungrily and grabbed for Josie. Stan held tight to her. She pressed her face against the earth, clinging to it as the water surged below her.
The water pushed the logs in front of it and roared away from them. They climbed higher, scrambling over the edge of the embankment. In minutes, the pond emptied, leaving only a channel of water cutting through the mud. Breathless, Josie lay facedown at the top of the hill. Stan sat beside her, his hand resting on her back.
She rolled over to let the rain wash the mud from her face. Stan studied her, his face open and exposed to the worry beneath. Josie sat up. She leaned close, put her hand on his thigh, and kissed him.
His beard was soft.
Josie sat in the back seat of her parents’ car at the end of the summer. She was hot. She wanted to go home. Her mom and dad stood outside, talking with a man in overalls. He shook his head and gestured to the field behind him where blueberry bushes squatted beneath the weight of birds. Other cars slowed at the U-Pick sign, and then drove past.
Her family had done that at three other fields.
Josie leaned her head back and looked at the ceiling of the car. If she let her eyes unfocus, the tiny holes in the ceiling liner moved and made the ceiling look farther away than it was.
She focused and unfocused her eyes. Far, near. Far.
Her dad yelled.
Josie jumped and craned her neck to see. She could hear the angry tone of his voice, but not the words. He thumped his chest and pointed at the field covered with birds. The farmer spat and walked away.
Josie’s breath skittered in her chest. Her dad stood next to the field, his shoulders bent. Then he picked up a rock and threw it at the birds. They swarmed up in a dark cloud and settled again on the bushes as if they had always been there.
He shook as though he were laughing.
Josie’s mom put her arm around him and rocked him, like she did when Josie skinned her knee. They stood for a long moment before turning to walk back to the car.
When they opened the doors, Josie leaned forward to ask what had happened. She stopped with her mouth still open.
Her dad’s cheeks were wet.
“Let’s go home.” Her mom touched his hand lightly.
Putting his hands on the wheel, he nodded. “Okay.” He looked over his shoulder and tried to smile at Josie. “Sorry, Jo-bug. No blueberries this year.” He looked forward at the writhing field. “You were right about the bird-count.”
She remembered that. He had said she was right.
Stan lay on the cabin’s bed with his head thrown back and one arm over his eyes. Josie ran her fingers through the hair on his chest. He wrinkled his nose and turned to smile at her.
Reaching up, Stan traced the line of her jaw with his finger. Ran it up her cheek and back down her nose, lightly. Her skin tingled with a trail of his touch.
“You’re a remarkable woman, Josie Langdon.”
She kissed his palm. “Why do you say that?”
He stroked her hair as he considered her. “Everything you went through as a kid and you’re still so… vital.”
“Vital?” Her mouth twisted, as she deliberately ignored the first part. “Interesting compliment.”
Stan laughed deep in his chest. “I’m not good at compliments.” He hesitated, and then smiled bashfully. “I have a confession to make.”
She held her breath.
“I–When you came to the university, when I met you I…”
“I googled you.” He plucked at the sheets. “I feel weird about it now, but I wanted to know everything about you, and I figured people had pestered you enough. I didn’t want to be one more person who quizzed you.”
The stillness melted out of her and she rolled on top of him. Her hair shrouded their faces. “Stan. You can ask me anything you want.” She grinned. “Or do you know everything already?”
He pulled her down and kissed her. “What’s your favorite color?”
“Food?” He took her thumb in his mouth.
“Ahi tuna, lightly seared.”
“Movie, but answer carefully.” He brushed the inside of her wrist with his lips. “This could be a deal-breaker.”
“Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast,” Josie gasped as he nibbled her elbow.
He ran his hand down her spine and traced tingling circles in the small of her back. “Interesting choice.”
His hand stopped. A single vertical crease appeared between his eyebrows. “What’s the question you hate the most?”
Without hesitation she said, “How did I feel when my father killed himself?”
Stan wrapped his arms around her and pulled her tightly to him. She buried her face in his shoulder, letting him smooth her hair with his hands. The roughness of his voice surprised her. “Are people idiots?”
“Yes,” she said.
Stan’s sudden laugh vibrated through her breastbone, rumbling in her ear. She slid to the side, her sweat-damp skin clinging to him, and giggled as the tension broke inside her.
Stan rolled onto his elbow and kissed her again. “If I call the school and tell them the flood washed the road out, will you stay longer?”
“Good.” He laid his hand on her leg and smiled at her. “Then the only other question is, ‘How do you want to spend the rest of the week?'”
Josie pulled him closer. “You already know the answer.”
Josie leaned against her bedroom door with her knees pulled tight to her chest. She could hear her parents fighting. She held her breath as she listened.
Her dad shouted. “No, I will not calm down!”
Murmuring incomprehensibly in the background, her mother answered him.
“I can’t find any! They’re all dead. Do you get that? They’re dead! I can’t undo the damage. I can make plenty of boys in the lab, but the girls die in larvae. Nothing but boys, boys, boys.”
His laughter cut through Josie’s door.
“Yes, siree. I built what they asked for. Look at that.” Her dad paused, and then shouted, his voice tearing from his throat. “Go on! Look at it!”
Silence. Josie closed her eyes and prayed for the quiet to continue.
“Langdon’s Frankenskeeter.” His voice sounded too jolly. “I’m on the front page of the newspaper! Why? Because I did what they fucking asked me to do!” He laughed and laughed and choked on sobs. The raw, angry cries hurled themselves at Josie. She plugged her ears and wept.
Josie remembered crying until her throat hurt.
The sunset slid through the trees and gilded Stan’s car. In their cages, the frogs chorused as if singing of pond and stream. Josie handed a cage to Stan and scratched her arm while he stowed it. Wrapping her arms around his waist, she stood on her toes to kiss the nape of his neck.
“Ah, Josie.” He sighed and leaned back against her.
She rested her head against his shoulder. “I don’t want to go back.”
In the evening sun, his body radiated heat and comfort. Josie squeezed him tightly. She could see his cheek wrinkling with a smile. He brushed his fingertips along her forearms and looked down.
“Wow.” He traced a circle on the back of her wrist with his finger. Her skin prickled where he touched.
“Where’d you get that?”
“What?” Josie released him and pulled her arms back. On her right wrist was an angry red welt. It itched. Josie sucked in the moist air. “Oh my god.” Her knees felt weak.
“Josie?” Stan took her hands and bent down to look in her eyes. “Are you okay?”
She looked up. “That’s a mosquito bite.”
Stan grabbed her shoulders, his eyes huge. “Are you serious?”
The itch drove through her memories. “I was allergic to them when I was a kid. Nothing else did this.”
“But they’re extinct.”
“Aedes vexans laid desiccation resistant eggs in places that were infrequently flooded. The eggs could be dormant for years. They pupate within four to five days of egg hatch.”
“The beavers’ dam?”
Josie scratched her arm and slowly grinned. Stan laughed and swooped her off the ground. He spun her round, the trees twirling dizzily past. Josie shrieked with laughter. He set her on the ground and kissed her.
“I want to see if I can catch her.” She kissed him back and bounced on her toes. “She might be the only one.”
“What’s the good of that?”
“I can make boys in the lab.”
“What if it’s not a her?”
Josie scratched the welt on her arm. “Boy mosquitoes are vegetarians.”
Stan threw his head back and hooted. He kissed her again and ran to the cabin, shouting over his shoulder. “I’ll grab a specimen jar!”
Josie could hear him throwing cabinet doors open as she turned in a circle with her eyes closed, listening for the whine of a mosquito. Josie whispered, “I found them, Daddy.”
Stan leapt out of the cabin and dumped a jar of tadpoles into a salad bowl. He dried the jar out with his shirt and held it out to her, beaming. “Aren’t you glad you came?”
Josie pushed the jar to the side and slid her arms around his waist. “I’ve been glad for a week.” She tilted her head up to kiss the tip of his nose. “Remember that.”
Kay Kenyon is joining us today with her novel At the Table of Wolves. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy meets X-Men in a classic British espionage story. A young woman must go undercover and use her superpowers to discover a secret Nazi plot and stop an invasion of England.
In 1936, there are paranormal abilities that have slowly seeped into the world, brought to the surface by the suffering of the Great War. The research to weaponize these abilities in England has lagged behind Germany, but now it’s underway at an ultra-secret site called Monkton Hall.
Kim Tavistock, a woman with the talent of the spill—drawing out truths that people most wish to hide—is among the test subjects at the facility. When she wins the confidence of caseworker Owen Cherwell, she is recruited to a mission to expose the head of Monkton Hall—who is believed to be a German spy.
As she infiltrates the upper-crust circles of some of England’s fascist sympathizers, she encounters dangerous opponents, including the charismatic Nazi officer Erich von Ritter, and discovers a plan to invade England. No one believes an invasion of the island nation is possible, not Whitehall, not even England’s Secret Intelligence Service. Unfortunately, they are wrong, and only one woman, without connections or training, wielding her talent of the spill and her gift for espionage, can stop it.
What’s Kay’s favorite bit?
Kim Tavistock is on an undercover mission to find a spy among the English gentry. She is a guest at a grand English home along with a handsome German, supposedly a businessman, Erich von Ritter.
In this scene, Kim Tavistock, an animal lover, has rushed out into a rain storm to retrieve two puppies who bolted from the house. The maid will be blamed, but their escape was really Kim’s fault. The puppies belong to Georgi, her unpleasant hostess for the weekend. Kim and von Ritter have looked for the puppies in a gazebo on a spit in the river near the house. Now they are stranded by the rising water.
One of the things they discuss is how the recent outbreak of paranormal abilities–called the bloom–will affect world affairs. During this scene, Kim hears from von Ritter a strange word: chorister, that becomes her first clue to an operation that threatens England.
I love this scene because it is the first time that Kim is alone with the man who will become her adversary, an elegant and charismatic German spy. The scene foreshadows their future relationship: fraught with tension and tinged with attraction despite their opposition and the stakes of the game.
“We can wade across,” Kim said.
Von Ritter shook his head. “No. The river is too fast. It is rising even as speak.” The spit was a torrent, a second arm of the river.
“I suggest we wait it out,” he said. “The river was to crest this morning. Give it an hour.” He reached into the pocket of his suit and retrieved a cigarette case. He snapped it open, and offered her one.
Using his lighter, he lit her cigarette, then his own. “I am afraid Georgi is forming up a firing squad. Your maid is done for.”
She inhaled the smoke with a rush of pleasure. “But the puppies will come home full of mud, having had an adventure.”
“All the worse, if they had fun,” he said, smiling.
“I suppose you’re right.” Clotted fog rolled down the river, enclosing them in whiteness. “It’s freezing out here.”
“Take my coat.” He unbelted his trench coat.
“You’ll be cold,” she protested but, cigarette dangling from her lips, she shrugged into the trench coat. As they sat on the bench, Von Ritter draped the slicker over both of them, and with his arm around her shoulders, warmth returned. She was acutely aware of their shoulders touching, the intimacy of the shared garment.
They smoked, listening to the river rushing by. Von Ritter seemed content to enjoy his cigarette. But silence was against her purpose.
“How do you happen to know Georgi?” Kim asked.
“We met in Bonn when she was on holiday and by chance we were both on the same train down the Rhone Gorge.” He turned to regard her. “Are you warm enough? Here, come closer, or we will never make it to luncheon.”
“I thought you said one hour,” she chided, but sidled in to him. Heat radiated beneath the rain coat, but whether it came from him or was a flush of her own, she could not tell.
He went on, “Georgi has the German viewpoint. Very forward-thinking, unlike some of your countrymen.”
“I can’t pretend to agree.”
“No, I should not like you to pretend.”
“Is the water rising?” she asked, trying to see the spit through the gazebo door.
“I cannot tell from here. I would have to get up from our snug nest to see,” he said good-naturedly.
From far in the distance, someone was calling for the dogs.
After a few minutes, Kim ventured, “There may be a war. Your country and mine.”
“It need not come to that.” He adjusted his arm around her shoulder. “Lean in to me. For warmth. It does no harm until we are enemies.”
It was only sharing a rain slicker in a storm, and even if he was a Nazi, he could hardly be motivated to throw her in the river.
“We do not need a war of arms. It is rather a war of ideas,” he said. “We are on the eve of a great change, Miss Tavistock. The bloom. It has changed everything. It is a new regime, hovering so close we do not think to look up to see it envelop us.”
The rain crackled on the gazebo roof, streaming down off the eaves. “We don’t know what it will really mean for any of us,” she said.
“It means that great men will rise.”
“It means that great leaders will become prophets of change. We have such a man in Germany.” He glanced sideways at her. “Whatever you may think of us.” He flicked his cigarette into the river. “In this country you have no great men. Churchill is a nineteenth century throwback, still yearning for empire. The bloom has brought us to a new level. Men of high Talent who direct destinies. Choristers, if you will.”
He paused as a gust of wind brought a torrent of staccato pattering on the roof. “A figure of speech.”
“Such an interesting word.”
“Yes, as though we’re all singing the same song.” She added, trying for an ironic tone, “Deutschland Uber Alles.”
“Perhaps. But a chorister will bring you down.”
She had not heard the word before, and thought that perhaps he had used the wrong English word. “Do you mean Hitler? He is a chorister?”
“No. One of your own,” he said.
He stared at the river. “I did not think you were so interested in politics, Miss Tavistock.”
“Well, I’m interested in most things.”
“Ah, the reporter. Saving animals. It is all very noble.” He separated from their embrace to turn to look her at her. “You would have made a good German.”
She met his dark gaze, wanting to appear friendly, but not in a way that would arouse suspicion. “I think not.”
Kay Kenyon is the author of thirteen science fiction and fantasy novels as well as numerous short stories. Her work has been shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick, Endeavour, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and twice for the American Library Association Reading List awards. Her latest work, from Saga Press, is At the Table of Wolves. Publishers Weekly called it “A superb adventure, worthy to launch a distinguished historical fantasy series.” Book 2 in the Dark Talents novels, Serpent in the Heather, will be published in April, 2018. The audio edition will be out on August 15. Kay is a founding member of the Write on the River conference in Wenatchee, WA where she lives with her husband Tom and her tabby cat, Winston.
Michael F. Haspil is joining us today with his novel Graveyard Shift. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Alex Menkaure, former pharaoh and mummy, and his vampire partner, Marcus, born in ancient Rome, are vice cops in a special Miami police unit. They fight to keep the streets safe from criminal vampires, shape-shifters, bootleg blood-dealers, and anti-vampire vigilantes.
When poisoned artificial blood drives vampires to murder, the city threatens to tear itself apart. Only an unlikely alliance with former opponents can give Alex and Marcus a fighting chance against an ancient vampire conspiracy.
If they succeed, they’ll be pariahs, hunted by everyone. If they fail, the result will be a race-war bloodier than any the world has ever seen.
What’s Michael’s favorite bit?
MICHAEL F. HASPIL
Mummies. Ancient Egypt. From a young age, the allure and antiquity of olden Kemet fascinated me. Regrettably, much of my attention was due to the fun stories tied to the pseudoscientific — Von Daniken and the like. Don’t even get me started about Stargate. As I write this, a set of Anubis Jaffa armor stands behind me, no joke.
I’ve also had a fascination with the builder of the third largest pyramid at Giza. Think of those pyramids and try to name them. There’s the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops), the Pyramid of Khafre (Chephren), and there’s the third pyramid, the Pyramid of Menkaure (Mykerinos) which people usually forget.
Menkaure was the penultimate pharaoh in the fourth dynasty of the Old Kingdom. Herodotus sings his praises as a good and just ruler. I had it in my head to write a historical fantasy story that would tell of his reign and maybe why it was short. That required significantly more Egyptological research to tell the tale properly. I had my work cut out for me. So I shelved the project for a time.
When I set out to write GRAVEYARD SHIFT, I knew I wanted the protagonist to be a kind of vampire hunter people hadn’t seen before. The old trope of vampire’s disdaining sunlight became my clue. Why not a character who worshipped the sun? Not simply for religious reasons, but because he drew power and protection from it. Menkaure immediately jumped to the forefront and my mind filled in the story about how he became a mummy and how he came to find himself in modern-day Miami, passing for human and working as a detective.
There was one problem. In most stories concerning reanimated mummies, they are creatures of evil, willing to sacrifice everyday humans to whatever cause they follow. I wanted Menkaure to be a hero, perhaps not in the traditional sense, but certainly not a movie monster. Then I remembered an old story by Edgar Allen Poe. Some Words With A Mummy is a satirical take on the Victorian practice of throwing mummy unwrapping parties. Poe pokes fun at the supposed sophistication of his era. Poe’s mummy is extremely different. He’s a person who wakes up after a prolonged sleep. He has a drink and some conversation and doesn’t curse anyone or hurl sandstorms at cities.
That showed me the way to Menkaure’s character. He’s an ancient king. Like Shelley’s Ozymandias, his throne, his subjects, his monuments, and his nation lie in ruined antiquity too horrible to contemplate. Menkaure atones for sins he believes he committed more than forty-five hundred years ago. He is jaded and tired and numb to the atrocities of the contemporary world.
My favorite bit? Broken as he is, he’s still a king somewhat reluctantly serving his subjects. He’s a good guy willing to stand between the darkness and the light as humanity’s guardian against primordial evil. And that’s why I love him.
Michael F. Haspil is a geeky engineer and nerdy artist. The art of storytelling called to him from a young age and he has plied his craft over many years and through diverse media. He has written original stories for as long as he can remember and has dabbled in many genres. However, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror have whispered directly to his soul. An avid gamer, he serves as a panelist on the popular “The Long War” webcasts and podcasts, which specializes in Warhammer 40,000 strategy, tactics, and stories. Graveyard Shift is his first novel. Find him online at michaelhaspil.com or @michaelhaspil.
Nancy Kress is joining us today with her novel Tomorrow’s Kin. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Tomorrow’s Kin is the first volume in and all new hard science fiction trilogy by Nancy Kress based on the Nebula Award-winning Yesterday’s Kin.
The aliens have arrived… they’ve landed their Embassy ship on a platform in New York Harbor, and will only speak with the United Nations. They say that their world is so different from Earth, in terms of gravity and atmosphere, that they cannot leave their ship. The population of Earth has erupted in fear and speculation.
One day Dr. Marianne Jenner, an obscure scientist working with the human genome, receives an invitation that she cannot refuse. The Secret Service arrives at her college to escort her to New York, for she has been invited, along with the Secretary General of the UN and a few other ambassadors, to visit the alien Embassy.
The truth is about to be revealed. Earth’s most elite scientists have ten months to prevent a disaster—and not everyone is willing to wait.
What’s Nancy’s favorite bit?
When I ask the writers I know if they like their early published work, I get various answers. Some do; some don’t; some wince. I’m a wincer about at least three of my earliest novels. When fans at conventions bring me the worst of them to be signed, I write on the flyleaf, “Please read something else!”
All of which points up the fact that over time, tastes change. Mine, yours, the reading public’s. I liked my dreadful book (and no, I’m not saying which one it is) when I wrote it, decades ago. Tastes in characters change, too. Once, until she became a cliched joke, “the scientist’s beautiful daughter” was a mainstay of SF. So was the comic minority sidekick and the rock-jawed starship captain.
What is now fashionable—even obligatory—is the kick-ass heroine. Katniss Everdean. Rey in Star Wars. Arya Stark. Breq of Ancillary Justice. Furiosa. Wonder Woman. And practically every single story I see from writing students when I teach. The kick-ass heroine is admirable. I admire her. She fights with swords or bows or finely honed martial arts. She commands magic. She defeats oppressors, saves medieval kingdoms and interplanetary empires, annihilates anyone stupid enough to lay a hand on her.
My protagonist is not a kick-ass heroine.
Marianne Jenner, of my new novel Tomorrow’s Kin (Tor), is smart, persistent, idealistic. She is also in late middle-age, has never been in a physical fight in her life, does not own a weapon and doesn’t want to. At the first whiff of danger, she sensibly hires a bodyguard. Scientist, grandmother, social activist, she is a sexual being (yes, at over 50!) with sometimes terrible taste in lovers. She is made vulnerable by her love for her difficult children and gifted grandchildren. Marianne affects large events, including an epidemic, an ecological collapse, and a global war, but not from carrying out a grand design. She has no grand design. She does the best she can with the various messes she finds, some of which she created herself. Like most of the rest of us, much of the time.
Marianne isn’t, of course, the only major character in the novel, which extends the story of my Nebula-winning novella “Yesterday’s Kin” ten more years. There is Jonah Stubbs, the colorful and profane entrepreneur of a privately built starship. There is Colin, five years old and able to hear in untrasonic and infrasonic ranges inaudible to “normal” humans. There is Sissy, exuberant assistant to Marianne, and her handsome, weapons-expert boyfriend, Tim. There are scientists trying to build a starship from alien physics, Americans bent on mayhem, and Russians bent on revenge. There are a very lot of dead mice, the result of an unexpected and disastrous ecological collapse. Here is Marianne, waiting to go on stage to give a pro-space speech:
Marianne stood in a small storage room somewhere in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at the University of Notre Dame, waiting to go on stage and staring at eight mice.
They were, of course, dead. These eight, however, looked unnervingly lifelike, superb examples of the taxidermist’s art. Why were they here, meeting her gaze with their shiny lifeless eyes from behind the glass of a tiered display case? Had they been moved to this unlikely venue from another building, to sit among cardboard cartons and discouraged-looking mops, because someone could no longer bear to be reminded of what had been lost?
Sissy Tate, Marianne’s assistant, stuck her head into the room. “Ten minutes, Marianne. Are those mice? Wow, it’s stuffy in here.”
“No windows. What about the—”
“They should have put you in the green room! Or at least a dressing room!” Sissy shook her frizzy cherry-red curls, which leaped around her head as if electrified. Two weeks ago the curls had been the same rich brown as her skin. Today’s sweater, purple covered with tiny mirrors, glittered.
Marianne said, “There’s a concert setting up in the big hall. No space.”
“That’s not the reason and we both know it. But at least you don’t have to worry about the storm—this one is going to miss South Bend. No problem.” Sissy’s head disappeared, and Marianne went back to contemplating mice.
Eight representatives of what had been the world’s most common herbivore, now existing nowhere in the world except for a few sealed labs.
Mus musculus and Mus domesticus, their pointed snouts and scaly tails familiar to anyone who ever baited a mousetrap or worked in a laboratory.
A deer mouse and a white-footed mouse, almost twins, looking like refugees from a Disney cartoon.
On the second glass shelf, the shaggy, short-tailed meadow vole and its cousin, the woodland vole.
A bog lemming, its lips drawn back to show the grooves on its upper incisors.
And finally, a jumping mouse, looking lopsided with its huge hind feet and short forelimbs.
“Hey,” Marianne said to the jumping mouse, of which no specimens had been saved. “Sorry you’re extinct.”
“You talking to a mouse?” a deep voice said behind her.
Marianne turned to Tim. “No, I was not talking to the mice,” she said with what she hoped was dignity.
Marianne is my favorite bit.
Other older women protagonists do exist: Kij Johnson’s Velitt Boe (“The Dream-Quest of Velitt Boe”), Ursula LeGuin’s Yoss (“Betrayals”), more. But not many more. Does science fiction have room for more such protagonists: not young, female, cerebral rather than physical, armed with nothing more than intelligence and a fierce determination to influence for good, rather than to conquer for good?
Nancy Kress is the author of thirty-three books, including twenty-six novels, four collections of short stories, and three books on writing. Her work has won six Nebulas, two Hugos, a Sturgeon, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Much of her work concerns genetic engineering. Kress’s fiction has been translated into Swedish, Danish, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Polish, Croatian, Chinese, Lithuanian, Romanian, Japanese, Korean, Hebrew, Russian, and Klingon, none of which she can read. In addition to writing, Kress often teaches at various venues around the country and abroad, including a visiting lectureship at the University of Leipzig and a recent writing class in Beijing. Kress lives in Seattle with her husband, writer Jack Skillingstead, and Cosette, the world’s most spoiled toy poodle.
Andrew Neil Gray and J.S. Herbison are joining us today to talk about their novella The Ghost Line. Here’s the publisher’s description:
The Ghost Line is a haunting science fiction story about the Titanic of the stars by debut authors Andrew Neil Gray and J. S. Herbison that Lawrence M. Schoen calls “a delicious rush of the future and the past.”
The Martian Queen was the Titanic of the stars before it was decommissioned, set to drift back and forth between Earth and Mars on the off-chance that reclaiming it ever became profitable for the owners. For Saga and her husband Michel the cruise ship represents a massive payday. Hacking and stealing the ship could earn them enough to settle down, have children, and pay for the treatments to save Saga’s mother’s life.
But the Martian Queen is much more than their employer has told them. In the twenty years since it was abandoned, something strange and dangerous has come to reside in the decadent vessel. Saga feels herself being drawn into a spider’s web, and must navigate the traps and lures of an awakening intelligence if she wants to go home again.
What’s Andrew and J.S.’s favorite bit?
ANDREW NEIL GRAY & J.S. HERBISON
After we’d completed the first draft of The Ghost Line, we printed it out, cut it into scenes and taped it to the picture rail in our dining room. It covered half the room and stayed there for weeks as we pushed and pulled at the story, leading to questions from visitors. More than once we found friends of our children standing transfixed, trying to read our scribbled edits and sticky notes and work out what these odd adults were up to.
As we read through the first complete draft, posted to the wall, we realized there was a hole at the center of the book. So we filled it with an ice rink.
Saga, the protagonist, is invited to the rink by their pilot, Gregor, after receiving some upsetting news. It’s a moment of kindness from a character who’s previously been gruff and unapproachable. We realized the scene could do several things: humanize Gregor, who risked being a stereotypical hard-drinking Russian, provide some foreshadowing for events to come, and finally show off our unique setting.
The Martian Queen is a luxury space liner created for the Earth/Mars run, mothballed for years, but still impressive. She’s a character herself in the novella. There’s a magnificent foyer, a fancy dining room, two casinos. But these are not uncommon. We needed something special, something that would really stand out. So we created the recreation ring: a circular multi-purpose space that spans the entire circumference of the passenger section of the ship, which itself is spun to provide artificial gravity while underway.
They entered a dim vestibule. There was a second set of doors ahead, and Gregor motioned to her to continue. She walked out into winter. He joined her as she gaped at the scene. They could almost have been outside on Earth. Snowflakes drifted down from a pale sky above. She could make out the shapes of white hills and trees in the distance. Before them, a glassy surface.
“Here.” Gregor handed her a jacket and motioned to a bench by the side of the doors. Several pairs of skates lay there, unlaced.
Saga’s breath plumed like smoke.
She turned to Gregor. “How?”
“It is normally pool with small beach.” Gregor zipped his own jacket and sat down on the bench. “You could swim laps of ship, see water above, make faces.” He pulled an exaggerated expression of surprise and wonder, pointing upward. “Look, it doesn’t fall on us!”
Saga glanced at the skates. “You froze the pool.”
Gregor smiled. “There is winter setting. You and Michel are not only ones who can make hacks. You and I, we are northern people, no? This is a little like home.”
Things get a lot worse after this. There are creepy, dark moments to come as the entities that have taken up residence on the Martian Queen on her long, empty voyage make themselves known. There’s drama and death and strange transformations. But when we were thinking about ‘our favorite bit’ we both came up with the ice rink scene. It’s a moment of playfulness and wonder and the comfort of home. A sense of the truly exotic — ice-skating in space — but also an activity we enjoy every winter.
ANDREW NEIL GRAY and J. S. HERBISON are partners in life as well as in writing. The Ghost Line is their first fiction collaboration, but won’t be their last: a novel is also in the works. They have also collaborated in the creation of two humans and preside over a small empire of chickens, raspberries and dandelions on Canada’s West Coast. You can find Andrew Neil Gray at http://andrewneilgray.com and @andrewneilgray on Twitter. You can find J. S. Herbison at http://jsherbison.com.
Wendy N Wagner is joining us today with her novel An Oath of Dogs. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Kate Standish has been on the forest-world of Huginn less than a week and she’s already pretty sure her new company murdered her boss. But the little town of mill workers and farmers is more worried about eco-terrorism and a series of attacks by the bizarre, sentient dogs of this planet, than a death most people would like to believe is an accident. That is, until Kate’s investigation uncovers a conspiracy which threatens them all.
Sure, a few intrepid wrigglers may have crept onboard Leif Erikson’s longboats; a cocoon or two may have clung to the soles of other forgotten European settlers—but the point is that of all the earthworm varieties living in the United States, more than 33% are as foreign to the Western Hemisphere as the Mona Lisa. The green forests of the Pacific Northwest, where I call home, was devoid of those pink, wiggly little critters that I love to see in my garden.
In a vegetable garden or a field full of browsing ruminants, an earthworm is useful thing. It swallows pieces of soil and rotting debris, digesting the bacteria it finds and expelling humic acid-rich casings (poop, for those of you who don’t speak garden-ese). Its movement through the earth carries organic material from the surface of the soil into deeper layers, feeding and oxygenating soil microbes who in turn nurture the plants around them. The food plants I grow are benefited by the work of the earthworm—just as, above the soil, they are benefited by pollinators like bees, butterflies, and beetles. Plants do not grow by themselves.
Needless to say, I spend a lot of time trying to encouraging plant allies in my own garden. I’m a composting fiend, always hoping to add beneficial bacteria to my veggie beds. I’ve planted hundreds of pollinator-attracting plants. I’ve established mushroom beds around my cherry tree. I’ve even purchased freeze-dried mycorrhizal soil inoculants that claim to help establish plant-friendly fungal and bacterial communities. I’d do just about anything to make the soil in my garden better for the plants I want to eat.
That’s why my favorite bit about An Oath of Dogs are all the little soil creatures I’ve managed to sneak onto the page. Hepzibah, a character whose diary gives us a taste of early colonial life, is incredibly focused on building good soil. European settlers in North America had no idea their plants had evolved to thrive in the presence of European soil organisms that were rare or unavailabe in the New World—that may be part of the reason their farms took so long to establish. But in the last fifty years or so, our understanding of plant and soil communities has flourished. With a better grasp of soil science, my colonists brought bales of compost and boxes of butterflies on their trip into space. They knew that people who need to eat need to encourage plant allies in their fields.
But never forget that every part of an ecosystem is connected. When we add new creatures to make it easier to grow something we like to eat, we can cause unexpected disasters. Today, scientists studying forest soils blame imported earthworms for erosion—and maybe even global warming. The honeybees Europeans brought to the U.S. helped wipe out native bee populations, leading up to the pollinator crisis we face four hundred years later. The ways we grow our food have vast effects on the ecosystems around us. And who knows what adding Earth organisms to a extraterrestrial environment will do?
That’s the question at the heart of my book, and it’s all wrapped up in my favorite stuff: soil science. I like to think of it as the dirty bits.
Wendy N. Wagner is a full-time science fiction and fantasy nerd. Her first two novels, Skinwalkers and Starspawn, are set in the world of the Pathfinder role-playing game, and she has written over thirty short stories about monsters, heroes, and unsettling stuff. An avid gamer and gardener, she lives in Portland, Oregon, with her very understanding family.
Sarah Kuhn is joining us today to talk about her novel Heroine Worship. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Once upon a time, Aveda Jupiter (aka Annie Chang) was demon-infested San Francisco’s most beloved superheroine, a beacon of hope and strength and really awesome outfits. But all that changed the day she agreed to share the spotlight with her best friend and former assistant Evie Tanaka—who’s now a badass, fire-wielding superheroine in her own right. They were supposed to be a dynamic duo, but more and more, Aveda finds herself shoved into the sidekick role.
It doesn’t help that Aveda’s finally being forced to deal with the fact that she’s been a less than stellar friend to Evie. Or that Scott Cameron—the man Aveda’s loved for years—is suddenly giving her the cold shoulder. Or that the city is currently demon-free, leaving Aveda without the one thing she craves most: a mission.
All of this is causing Aveda’s burning sense of heroic purpose—the thing that’s guided her all these years—to falter.
In short, Aveda Jupiter is having an identity crisis.
When Evie gets engaged and drafts Aveda as her maid of honor, Aveda sees a chance to reclaim her sense of self and sets out on a mission to make sure Evie has the most epic wedding ever. But when a mysterious, unseen supernatural evil starts attacking brides-to-be, Aveda must summon both her superheroine and best friend mojo to take down the enemy and make sure Evie’s wedding goes off without a hitch—or see both her city and her most important friendship destroyed forever.
What’s Sarah’s favorite bit?
Heroine Worship is the sequel to Heroine Complex, my debut novel starring Asian American superheroines who fight evil, sing bad karaoke, and have ridiculous adventures together. Although the core cast is the same, we switch narrators. Book 1 was all about Evie Tanaka, a put-upon personal assistant and wallflower who needs to embrace her superpowers and step up and become the heroine she’s meant to be. Book 2 focuses on her longtime best friend/former boss Aveda Jupiter, aka Annie Chang, aka San Francisco’s most fabulous superheroine. The Aveda/Annie of Book 1 was a bit of an antagonist to Evie—demanding, drama-seeking, and diva-esque. But in Book 2, Annie must deal with the fallout from her behavior in Book 1, as well as the fact that she and Evie are now co-heroines—and that for the moment, Evie is definitely the star of the show.
As you might imagine, it ain’t pretty.
But even as Annie grapples with her increasingly frustrating identity crisis, she remains an unstoppable force of nature. Her quest for perfection means she’s always in motion, always doing things. In an early draft of the book, I had her retreating to a more passive role, stymied by the fact that the city she protects is currently demon-free. But a smart beta reader pointed out that Annie would find something to do, as she always does. She would make something for herself to do. And this is how one of my favorite scenes was born.
Because I decided that during this demon-free lull, Aveda/Annie would take a proactive stance by trying to build her and Evie’s superhero personal appearance empire. As she says: “We were like Olympic athletes, and this is what we did between Olympics.” Of course, Evie’s not terribly interested and not all the personal appearances Annie’s asked to do are particularly glamorous—hence the scene where the fabulous Aveda Jupiter ends up appearing at a children’s birthday party.
Here’s a snippet:
My public was not as adoring as I’d expected.
They were also much louder, stickier, and a good two decades younger than I’d expected.
“THIS IS BORING!” one of them shrieked, smearing sparkly frosting all over her ruffly pink dress. “SUPERHERO LADY IS BOOOOOOORIIIIING!”
That started up a chant of “BO-RING! BO-RING!” amongst the partygoers. Because, of course.
“Letta,” I hissed, as I surveyed the unruly mob in front of me. “You didn’t tell me this was a children’s birthday party.”
“You didn’t ask.” She gave me a mildly injured look. “The personal appearances form on your website doesn’t have a place for that info. All it asks for is time, date, and if the facility in question has an adequate supply of fire extinguishers on hand.”
“Ugh.” I couldn’t think of anything more eloquent to say. She was right. I’d have to get Bea to fix that.
In the meantime, I’d have to deal with . . . this.
I studied the mob again. It wasn’t actually that much of a mob. There were only about fifteen of them. Fifteen sugared-up, hyper five-year-olds, who had probably been expecting . . . I don’t know. What did five-year-olds like?
“Mommy, I thought we were getting Queen Elsa of Arendelle!” the birthday girl shrieked. She was the one who’d been smearing frosting all over her dress. She regarded me with narrowed eyes. “She is not Queen Elsa of Arendelle.”
No, I was not. Though I was surprised these kids had apparently never heard of Aveda Jupiter. Maybe they weren’t from San Francisco?
“Elsa is, uh, busy today, sweetie,” the birthday girl’s mother said in the weariest voice ever. “So we got you a real life superhero. Isn’t that cool?” She turned to me, wild- eyed, like, Back me up, here?
Birthday Girl, refusing to be placated, crossed her arms over her chest and shook her head furiously. “I want a cool superhero. I want Evie. Not . . .” She eyed me up and down, disdain leaking from her every pore. “ . . . her friend.”
Oh. So she did know who I was. Sort of.
And of course it gets much, much worse from there. I love that this scene allowed me to explore a stage of Annie’s identity crisis in a fun, funny way. I love that it let me revisit one of my favorite locations from Book 1—the whimsical and formerly demonic cupcake-infested bakery Cake My Day, which readers may remember from Heroine Complex’s opening scene. I love that it showed me, once again, how a great beta reader note can add such nuance and truth to a character. But what I loved the most about writing this bit is the fact that I didn’t know going in exactly how Aveda was going to handle things, how she was going to deal with being totally humiliated and having her confidence and superheroine bravado take such a big hit. As it turns out, she handles it as she handles most things: she presses on, tries to make it work, and flat-out refuses to give up.
Unlike Queen Elsa of Arendelle, she can pretty much never let it go—and even though that sometimes works to her detriment, it’s one of the things that makes me love writing her.
Sarah Kuhn is the author of Heroine Complex—the first in a series of novels starring Asian American superheroines—for DAW Books. Heroine Complex is a Locus bestseller, an RT Reviewers’ Choice Award nominee, and one of the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog’s Best Books of 2016. The sequel, Heroine Worship, is out now. Sarah also wrote “The Ruby Equation” for the Eisner-nominated comics anthology Fresh Romance and the romantic comedy novella One Con Glory, which earned praise from io9 and USA Today and is in development as a feature film. Current projects include a series of Barbie comics and a comic book continuation of the cult classic movie Clueless. Her writing has appeared in The Toast, The Mary Sue, Uncanny Magazine, AngryAsianMan.com, IGN.com, Back Stage, The Hollywood Reporter, StarTrek.com, and the Hugo-nominated anthology Chicks Dig Comics. You can visit her at heroinecomplex.com or on Twitter: @sarahkuhn.
Laura Lam is joining us today to talk about her novel Shattered Minds. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Laura Lam returns to the near-future SF world of False Hearts with the speculative thrillerShattered Minds.
Carina used to be one of the best biohackers in Pacifica. But when she worked for Sudice and saw what the company’s experiments on brain recording were doing to their subjects, it disturbed her?especially because she found herself enjoying giving pain and contemplating murder. She quit and soon grew addicted to the drug Zeal, spending most of her waking moments in a horror-filled dream world where she could act out her depraved fantasies without actually hurting anyone.
One of her trips is interrupted by strange flashing images and the brutal murder of a young girl. Even in her drug-addicted state, Carina knows it isn’t anything she created in the Zealscape. On her next trip, she discovers that an old coworker from Sudice, Max, sent her these images before he was killed by the company. Encrypted within the images are the clues to his murder, plus information strong enough to take down the international corporation.
Carina’s next choice will transform herself, San Francisco, and possibly the world itself.
What’s Laura’s favorite bit?
My favourite bit of Shattered Minds is my villain. Or my villains, rather, depending on how you view the book.
Boring villains can make for very boring stories. I’m not as interested in tales where the antagonist is evil because They Are Evil in All Capital Letters. I want to hate the protagonist, sure, but I also want to empathize with them—to be able to put myself in their shoes, to see them as a protagonist of their own stories, even if their motives are pretty awful.
As my previous books have all been in first person, I haven’t really been able to get inside the head of my villains in the same way I could with Shattered Minds. With Tila in False Hearts, the previous standalone in the same world that came out next year, she was a morally grey sister to her twin, Taema, but you knew she wasn’t truly evil. But writing a brasher, more manipulative character was really interesting, so in Shattered Minds, I dialled that up a lot.
In some ways, Shattered Minds is a tale of two villains rather than a tale of two siblings. The first villain is our protagonist, Carina. She’s a serial killer who doesn’t want to kill innocents, so she becomes addicted to the dream drug Zeal so she’s only killing people in her imagination. Carina is prickly and in many ways unlikeable, but my hope is that you still root for her. She, at least, has a glimmer of a conscience.
Roz, her former boss, does not. I saw a review recently that described her as “an unholy blend of Orphan Black’s Cosmina and Rachel” and I’m totally stealing that. She’s someone who finds emotions a hindrance. She’d rather engineer them out of people’s minds. She tried to do that to Carina when she was a teen. It worked for a time, but then the programming broke down, resulting in Carina wanting to kill everyone around her. When the book starts, Carina is forced to come out of the Zealscape and return to real life, to partner with a group of ragtag hackers to take down Roz and her employer. Carina is the one who got away, the proof of her failure. Roz will do anything—anything—to take her down.
Basically, Shattered Minds is a Frankenstein retelling, with Roz as the doctor and Carina as the creation. The reader follows Carina through her quest to take down Sudice, and also Roz in her quest to find her. Interspersed throughout the story is a flashback narrative, from Roz’s point of view, about when they worked together three years ago and Roz started to suspect that Carina was a much bigger threat than she ever could have realised.
Roz is my far my favourite villain. I hope you might love/hate her too.
Originally from sunny California, Laura Lam now lives in cloudy Scotland. Lam is the author of BBC Radio 2 Book Club section False Hearts, the companion novel Shattered Minds, as well as the award-winning Micah Grey series Pantomime, Shadowplay, and Masquerade. Her short fiction and essays have also appeared in anthologies such as Nasty Women, Solaris Rising 3, Cranky Ladies of History, and more. She lectures part-time at Napier University in Edinburgh on the Creative Writing MA.
Curtis C. Chen is joining us today to talk about his novel Kangaroo Too. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Set in the same world as Waypoint Kangaroo, Curtis C. Chen’s Kangaroo Too is bursting with adrenaline and intrigue in this unique outer space adventure.
On the way home from his latest mission, secret agent Kangaroo’s spacecraft is wrecked by a rogue mining robot. The agency tracks the bot back to the Moon, where a retired asteroid miner?code named “Clementine” ?might have information about who’s behind the sabotage.
Clementine will only deal with Jessica Chu, Kangaroo’s personal physician and a former military doctor once deployed in the asteroid belt. Kangaroo accompanies Jessica as a courier, smuggling Clementine’s payment of solid gold in the pocket universe that only he can use.
What should be a simple infiltration is hindered by the nearly one million tourists celebrating the anniversary of the first Moon landing. And before Kangaroo and Jessica can make contact, Lunar authorities arrest Jessica for the murder of a local worker.
Jessica won’t explain why she met the victim in secret or erased security footage that could exonerate her. To make things worse, a sudden terror attack puts the whole Moon under lockdown. Now Kangaroo alone has to get Clementine to talk, clear Jessica’s name, and stop a crooked scheme which threatens to ruin approximately one million vacations.
But old secrets are buried on the Moon, and digging up the past will make Kangaroo’s future very complicated…
What’s Curtis’s favorite bit?
CURTIS C. CHEN
My favorite bit in Kangaroo Too is the Planned Parenthood health center on the Moon.
(To forestall nitpickers: yes, I know Kangaroo calls it a “free clinic” in the book, but he’s speaking colloquially.)
At one point in the story, Kangaroo needs to meet with an extralegal contact, and the contact chooses a Planned Parenthood facility that he has after-hours access to through family connections. When I first plotted this out, it wasn’t important exactly what kind of location they met in, as long as it was private and unofficial. And I had a lot of leeway with the contact’s backstory.
I had thematic reasons specific to this story for choosing Planned Parenthood to be their meeting location, but I also had personal motivations. The future depicted in the Kangaroo-verse is not a dystopia; humans are still dealing with a lot of the problems we have today, plus a few new conundrums, but science and technology have continued to improve our lives. And I wanted that future to include Planned Parenthood.
As I’m writing this, Republicans in the US Congress are trying to roll back a lot of progressive government health care initiatives. Part of the latest proposed legislation would defund Planned Parenthood, which receives roughly $500 million in federal funding every year–more than half of its annual revenue. I hope that doesn’t happen, because we need Planned Parenthood.
Founded in 1916, Planned Parenthood provides health education, sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing and treatment, contraception, and, yes, abortions to people who may not have access to compassionate care elsewhere. Planned Parenthood health centers saw 2.4 million patients in 2015. I know people who received essential health services from Planned Parenthood when they were too poor or too scared to go anywhere else. I know people who are alive today because of Planned Parenthood. And a civilized society ought to provide for all its people, not just the most privileged.
Finally, for the record, this is not just about interrupting pregnancies. None of the federal funding that Planned Parenthood receives is used for abortion services. This is about providing reasonable access to reproductive health services for the half of the human race that, you know, actually makes the babies. And if you’re against that, well, I imagine we disagree on a great number of things, and I’ve got better things to do than argue with you. I’m working to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.
Back to the novel: once I had picked Planned Parenthood for the secret rendezvous, I revised an earlier scene in which Kangaroo gets pulled into a conversation at a hotel bar while following a target. The original draft of that talk was pretty inconsequential, both plot-wise and character-wise, but now that the topic of reproduction was on the table, I had an opportunity to raise the stakes in a few different ways.
The other barfly wants to talk about the difficulties of maintaining a long-distance relationship; how much is Kangaroo willing to reveal about his own personal life? The topic of children comes up; does Kangaroo want kids? What are his own–wait for it–plans for parenthood? You’ll have to read the book to find out. And I apologize for nothing.
Once a Silicon Valley software engineer, Curtis C. Chen (陳致宇) now writes speculative fiction and runs puzzle games near Portland, Oregon. His debut novel Waypoint Kangaroo (a 2017 Locus Awards Finalist) is a science fiction thriller about a superpowered spy facing his toughest mission yet: vacation. The sequel, Kangaroo Too, lands the titular secret agent on the Moon to confront old secrets.
Curtis’ short stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Mission: Tomorrow, and Oregon Reads Aloud. He is a graduate of the Clarion West and Viable Paradise writers’ workshops.
You can find Curtis at Puzzled Pint Portland on the second Tuesday of most every month. And yes, there is a puzzle hidden in each of the Kangaroo book covers! Finding the respective rabbit holes is left as an exercise for the reader.
Sara Dobie Bauer is joining us today with her novel Bite Somebody Else. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Imogene helped her newbie vampire friend Celia hook up with an adorable human, but now Celia has dropped an atomic bomb of surprise: she has a possibly blood-sucking baby on the way. Imogene is not pleased, especially when a mysterious, ancient, and annoyingly gorgeous vampire historian shows up to monitor Celia’s unprecedented pregnancy.
Lord Nicholas Christopher Cuthbert III is everything Imogene hates: posh, mannerly, and totally uninterested in her. Plus, she thinks he’s hiding something. So what if he smells like a fresh garden and looks like a rich boarding school kid just begging to be debauched? Imogene has self-control. Or something.
As Celia’s pregnancy progresses at a freakishly fast pace, Imogene and Nicholas play an ever-escalating game of will they or won’t they, until his sexy maker shows up on Admiral Key, forcing Nicholas to reveal his true intentions toward Celia’s soon-to-arrive infant.
What’s Sara’s favorite bit?
SARA DOBIE BAUER
The Bite Somebody Series is rife with hilarious dialogue, sexy sex, and ridiculous situations that only a couple awkward, profane vampire girls could get themselves into. With the final book in the series—Bite Somebody Else—finally unleashed upon the world, it’s sort of emotional to think that it’s all over, and yet, the characters live on in my head … just like my favorite scene in Bite Somebody Else.
Whereas Imogene was the rough-around-the-edges / semi-evil sidekick in Bite Somebody, Bite Somebody Else is her beach romance. True, Celia once called Imogene a terrible influence, but even terrible influences need love on occasion—something Imogene is loathe to admit, especially when she starts falling for grumpy, uptight, 350-year-old bloodsucker Lord Nicholas.
Theirs is not an easy tumble in the sheets, which is probably why I love the following scene, about a third in, when Imogene and Nicholas wake up one evening to drink liquor-laced blood while reading the local Florida newspaper:
“I’m trying to read.”
She leaned her head on the back of the couch and yawned. “About what?”
“Mrs. Cleaver has lost her dog.”
She lifted her head and looked at him. If there was ever a man who looked snuggly, it was Lord Nicholas Christopher Cuthbert III, sitting there on her couch in pajamas that smelled distinctly him. Incapable of self-control, Imogene slid down lower on the couch and rested the side of her head against his shoulder.
“What else?” she asked.
“Mm, well, it seems someone is trying to buy out the old tennis courts down by St. Arthur’s, despite what locals consider a ‘rat problem.’ Could be lucrative or a horrible, life crushing mistake.”
She smirked. “Life crushing?”
He took another large gulp from the pitcher that was now dripping with condensation before handing it to Imogene.
She took a sip and set the pitcher down before curling her knees up and resting them against the side of Nicholas’s thigh. She then curled into a little ball, her head resting on him as she closed her eyes.
“More,” she muttered.
“The Drift Inn has been struck by lightning due to the depravity of its clientele.”
Imogene snorted and sat up. She smacked him on the shoulder. Then, like she was some character in one of those chick flicks Celia liked, Imogene leaned forward and kissed Nicholas on the cheek. He didn’t flinch but simply smiled as he continued to read the latest, thrilling news from Admiral Key.
There’s just something about these two strong, somewhat abrasive, and battle-ready characters being all soft and cuddly together that makes me melt. (Plus, I think Nicholas is freaking adorable.)
In every book, there has to be at least a bit of light in the dark, flowers on the tombstone, rum in the punch. Just as there are two sides to every story, there are many sides to every person. To spend time with Imogene and Nicholas while they snuggle in their PJs feels like a gift. It’s a moment of romantic respite between their snippy sarcasm and inane arguments.
With their defenses up in Bite Somebody Else, Nicholas and Imogene are two tough vampires who would never admit to weakness. On the couch in this scene, they’re two people trying not to fall in love … and failing miserably.
Sara Dobie Bauer is a writer, model, and mental health advocate with a creative writing degree from Ohio University. Her short story, “Don’t Ball the Boss,” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, inspired by her shameless crush on Benedict Cumberbatch. She lives with her hottie husband and two precious pups in Northeast Ohio, although she’d really like to live in a Tim Burton film. She is a member of RWA and author of the paranormal rom-com Bite Somebody, among other ridiculously entertaining things.
Christopher Husberg is joining us today with his novel Dark Immolation. Here’s the publisher’s description:
A new religion is rising, gathering followers drawn by rumors of prophetess Jane Oden. Her sister Cinzia—once a Cantic priestess—is by her side, but fears that Jane will lead them to ruin. For both the Church and the Nazaniin assassins are still on their trail, and much worse may come.
Knot, his true nature now revealed if not truly understood, is haunted by his memories, and is not the ally he once was. Astrid travels to Tinska to find answers for her friend, but the child-like vampire has old enemies who have been waiting for her return. And beyond the Blood Gate in the empire of Roden, a tiellan woman finds herself with a new protector. One who wants to use her extraordinary abilities for his own ends…
What’s Christopher’s favorite bit?
I love twisting and molding words to fit a narrative. I love doing what I can with the text to reflect what is going on within the text. It’s something I find personally invigorating as a writer. It doesn’t always happen, of course, and it isn’t always at the forefront of my mind when I’m writing–in fact, it rarely is–but when the opportunity presents itself, I enjoy experimenting a bit. Just such an opportunity came up with my latest novel, Dark Immolation, the sequel to Duskfall and second book in the Chaos Queen Quintet.
First, a bit of background. One of my favorite novels is The Truth About Celia, by Kevin Brockmeier. I love the novel for many reasons, but a section of the book in which Brockmeier uses a unique, head-hopping, third-person present omniscient point of view to jump from character to character as they interact with one another always stands out to me. It’s a pretty great section, and it fosters an intimacy with both the characters and the world in an incredibly innovative, efficient way.
I’d experimented with that same style and voice a few times as an early writer, and I’d always wanted to try something like it in a fantasy novel–the efficiency with which it introduces a world and a group of characters was too tempting to pass up. I’ve always been a fan of efficiency when it comes to writing; one of the best compliments I think I can pay a work is to say that it’s concise–it says as much as possible with as few words as possible. The third-person present omniscient voice just seemed an interesting and new way to approach the ever-shifting balance of just the right amount of world-building and character detail while still keeping the reader’s attention and generating a sense of progression–and doing it all in a relatively concise manner.
That said, I always want a reason behind everything I do as a writer (spoiler alert, this isn’t always the case, but I prefer it to be, and even when it isn’t, I like there to be the illusion of some greater reason behind whatever stylistic choice I’ve made). In the earliest draft of my first novel, Duskfall, I’d included a prologue that used this third-person present omniscient voice, but it didn’t make the final cut–it didn’t even make the first cut; I eliminated the scene before I’d even finished the first draft, because there was no reason for it.
With Book 2 in the series, however, I finally found a good reason.
The concepts of telekinesis and telepathy form the basis for one of the magic systems in the books called psimancy. By focusing on the influences of telepathy in the magic system, and by framing it with a character that found herself in a particularly disoriented and mind-bending state–to say the least–at the beginning of Dark Immolation (no spoilers!), I think I was able to justify it. Not only that, but it’s a tool I turn to multiple times throughout the novel, and one that I’ll continue to modify and tweak throughout the series. I’m pretty happy with it, and I hope it’s a fraction as interesting to you as it has been for me!
Christopher Husberg grew up in Eagle River, Alaska. He now lives in Utah, and spends his time writing, reading, hiking, and playing video games, but mostly hanging out with his wife, Rachel, and daughter, Buffy. He received an MFA in creative writing from BYU, and an honorary PhD in Buffy the Vampire Slayer from himself. The first novel in the Chaos Queen Quintet, Duskfall, was published in 2016. The third installment, Blood Requiem, will be published by Titan Books in June 2018.
Jon Del Arroz is joining us today to talk about his novel For Steam and Country. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Her father’s been pronounced dead. Destructive earthquakes ravage the countryside. An invading army looms over the horizon. And Zaira’s day is just getting started…
Abandoned at an early age, Zaira von Monocle found life as the daughter of a great adventurer to be filled with hard work and difficulty. She quickly learned to rely on only herself. But when a messenger brought news that her father was dead and that she was the heir to his airship, her world turned upside down.
Zaira soon finds herself trapped in the midst of a war between her home country of Rislandia and the cruel Wyranth Empire, whose soldiers are acting peculiarly—almost inhuman. With the enemy army advancing, her newfound ship’s crew may be the only ones who can save the kingdom.
What’s Jon’s favorite bit?
JON DEL ARROZ
A whimpering squeak came from under the table. I rushed over, pushing aside fragments of plates, baskets, and the remains of a flower arrangement. “Oh, Toby!” I said, holding my breath in hopes he hadn’t been crushed.
My ferret poked his head up from under a fruit basket, staring at me like I was crazy. He held a half-eaten apple between his front paws, but lost his grip on it when he stumbled on the tile floor in excitement. His apple rolled toward my feet. Toby scampered and clawed up my pant leg, moving with fervor around my body. His paws tickled me with each step. When he reached my shoulder, he nudged me lovingly with his nose.
Jon’s Favorite Bit:
Authors love little furry critters. If you go to almost any author’s feed on social media, you’ll see it littered with puppies and kittens. Animals have inspired such great works in the field like The Cat Who Walked Through Walls by Robert Heinlein, or even the Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey – in which the dragons are used as an allegory for horses.
I created the character of Toby because I wanted Zaira to have a furry sidekick who both caused a little chaos and brought her comfort when the going got rough. Toby is a hyperactive little ferret who was given to Zaira as a present from her adventurer father, who was always gallivanting off in some foreign land. Toby serves as a reminder and a connection to her father, and also plays an important plot role later in the book.
We as humans have strange connections to animals, and can sometimes love them more than humans I chose a ferret because I wanted something different from most works, but still presenting a relationship with a domesticated animal. I racked my brain, trying to think of something that would be fun and memorable. I don’t recall how I came across the idea of a ferret, but when I did, I spent a good amount of time on youtube researching ferrets as pets. What I found was some of the most amusing material I’ve ever watched on the internet.
Ferrets are some of the cutest but also craziest animals out there. They’re typically a little smaller than cats, with a look almost like a strange rat. They’re curious animals that squirm and move around constantly, and often work themselves into a frenzy. Ferrets are playful. They jump around and in their playfulness can bite a lot harder than it looks like their little jaws should be able to do. They also are easily spooked, and will run and hide like a pet Chihuahua if they get too worked up.
I didn’t address a couple of points about keeping ferrets of pets in For Steam And Country. With such an action-driven plot, there was little time to explore the day to day life of Zaira with her pet Toby, but I had notes on the characteristics of ferrets all the same. Ferrets have a musky, gamey smell to them which can be very strong. Imported ferrets to the United States have some of their scent glands in their rear removed to mitigate this, but a creature in the wild in a fantasy steampunk era could stink, and would require frequent baths. Beyond that, they’re carnivores, and they have very specific diets that they have to adhere to, otherwise their digestive tract gets clogged and could kill the animal. They also have very limited eyesight, relying on their sense of smell. This final point I tried to elude to in situations with Toby sniffing around to find and discover things.
This being a fantasy world, I did include a mild telepathic bond between Zaira and her pet. Toby could sense when trouble was around, or feel his way through a situation later in the book in order to help bring Zaira her comforts and needs. It’s more of something that’s implied in the book, but in the real world, people and their pets do often form bonds that seem to border on the supernatural. This is part of the charm of having an animal sidekick, making for a compelling addition to a story that adds to Zaira as a character as much as it presents fun for a reader.
Jon Del Arroz began his writing career in high school, providing book reviews and the occasional article for a local news magazine. From there, he went on to write the weekly web comic, Flying Sparks, which has been hailed by Comic Book Resources as “the kind of stuff that made me fall in love with early Marvel comics.” He has several published short stories, and has worked in gaming providing fiction for AEG’s weird est card game, Doomtown Reloaded, and settings for various RPGs. His debut novel, Star Realms: rescue Run went on to become a top-10 bestselling Amazon space opera. For Steam And Country marks his first foray into fantasy.
Michael Johnston is joining us today with his novel Soleri. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Michael Johnston brings you the first in a new epic fantasy series inspired by ancient Egyptian history and King Lear.
The ruling family of the Soleri Empire has been in power longer than even the calendars that stretch back 2,826 years. Those records tell a history of conquest and domination by a people descended from gods, older than anything in the known world. No living person has seen them for centuries, yet their grip on their four subjugate kingdoms remains tighter than ever.
On the day of the annual eclipse, the Harkan king, Arko-Hark Wadi, sets off on a hunt and shirks his duty rather than bow to the emperor. Ren, his son and heir, is a prisoner in the capital, while his daughters struggle against their own chains. Merit, the eldest, has found a way to stand against imperial law and marry the man she desires, but needs her sister’s help, and Kepi has her own ideas.
Meanwhile, Sarra Amunet, Mother Priestess of the sun god’s cult, holds the keys to the end of an empire and a past betrayal that could shatter her family.
Detailed and historical, vast in scope and intricate in conception, Soleri bristles with primal magic and unexpected violence. It is a world of ancient and elaborate rites, of unseen power and kingdoms ravaged by war, where victory comes with a price, and every truth conceals a deeper secret.
What’s Michael’s favorite bit?
Sometimes the best way to invent a world is to start with the one you already know. When I got my big idea for my first novel, SOLERI, I found it in ancient Egypt. See, the Egyptians were the first to create a three hundred and sixty-five-day calendar. It was a big deal back then and the first of its kind. Now, I don’t want to lose you here. Yes, calendars aren’t usually the inspiration for an epic fantasy novel. They aren’t usually the inspiration for anything. But this one is different. It’s fascinating—I promise.
The story goes something like this: Each year, just prior to the annual flooding of the Nile river in Egypt, the star, Sirius, appears on the horizon before sunrise (the so-called heliacal rising of Sirius). Over time the Egyptian farmers took note of star’s rising. And eventually they started using it to predict the annual flood. Now, the flood was important to the Egyptians; the water enriched the desert soil, making the land suitable for farming. Without the flood, Egypt would starve, so they kept careful track of the star’s movement. They noted that Sirius rose, just prior to sunrise, every three hundred and sixty five days, which became the basis for their calendar and ours too. But here’s the interesting part: The calendar didn’t work out perfectly. The Egyptians created a calendar with twelve months of thirty days each. (They also had only three weeks in each month, and the weeks had ten days in each of them. Imagine working a ten-day week!) So twelve months with thirty days in each month gave the Egyptians three hundred and sixty days total. Are you following the math? They were five days short.
This is the really interesting part.
They didn’t tag on an extra day here and there to make the calendar work. We do that and it’s just confusing. They stayed with their twelve perfect months and took the extra five days and made them a special time, a holy time.
In SOLERI, as in ancient Egypt, the five days exist outside of time. The days aren’t even part of the calendar. No one can work, or perform any type of labor. Nothing of importance transpires. How could it? There was no date. Imagine having five days that existed without time. No name for the day. Nothing to fill in the “date received” column in apple mail (sorry, I don’t use outlook). That’s interesting. In fact, there’s something really magical about this idea.
In SOLERI, the five days are a high holiday, a feast. They don’t accompany the rising of a star, but they do precede an annual eclipse. Each year, the sky turns black as the moon eclipses the sun. This was their heliacal rising, their sign that a new year had started. Now, in our world, eclipses don’t happen on a yearly schedule. Our orbit is imperfect. But if the earth had a perfectly spherical orbit and the moon did as well and both shared the same plane, the moon would eclipse the sun at regular intervals. Imagine that! If you lived in antiquity and the sky blackened at regular intervals it would most likely have a profound effect on your culture. It does in SOLERI.
The whole empire revolves around the high holiday and it has for three thousand years, all the way up to the start of my novel. In SOLERI we find out what happens when that cycle breaks. In Soleri, I explore that moment when everything changes and that order that has existed for three thousand years falls apart.
Michael Johnston was born in 1973 in Cleveland, Ohio. As a child and a teen he was an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy. He studied architecture and ancient history at Lehigh University and during a lecture on the history of ancient Egypt, the seed of an idea was born. He earned a master’s degree in architecture from Columbia University, graduating at the top of his class. Michael worked as an architect in New York City before moving to Los Angeles. Sparked by the change of locale, a visit to the desert, and his growing dissatisfaction with the architectural industry, he sought a way to merge his interests in architecture and history with his love of fantasy. By day he worked as an architect, but by night he wrote and researched an epic fantasy novel inspired by the history of ancient Egypt and the tragic story of King Lear. After working this way for several years, he shut down his successful architecture practice and resolved to write full time. He now lives and writes in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter.
A.J. Hartley is joining us today with his novel Firebrand. Here’s the publisher’s description:
New York Times bestselling author A. J. Hartley returns to his intriguing, 19th-century South African-inspired fantasy world in Firebrand, another adrenaline-pounding adventure.
Once a steeplejack, Anglet Sutonga is used to scaling the heights of Bar-Selehm. Nowadays she assists politician Josiah Willinghouse behind the scenes of Parliament. The latest threat to the city-state: Government plans for a secret weapon are stolen and feared to be sold to the rival nation of Grappoli. The investigation leads right to the doorsteps of Elitus, one of the most exclusive social clubs in the city. In order to catch the thief, Ang must pretend to be a foreign princess and infiltrate Elitus. But Ang is far from royal material, so Willinghouse enlists help from the exacting Madam Nahreem.
Yet Ang has other things on her mind. Refugees are trickling into the city, fleeing Grappoli-fueled conflicts in the north. A demagogue in Parliament is proposing extreme measures to get rid of them, and she soon discovers that one theft could spark a conflagration of conspiracy that threatens the most vulnerable of Bar-Selehm. Unless she can stop it.
What’s A.J.’s favorite bit?
In Firebrand, the second book of my vaguely African, steampunky Steeplejack series, the heroine, Anglet Sutonga, goes to visit her employer’s country estate. Ang is a city girl, and she has a dread of wild animals, having grown up with all the myths and horror stories of what lurks outside the city walls. She’s a bit freaked out by the fancy house in all its Victorian formality, and—left alone to wait for her employer in an elegant withdrawing room—she starts getting antsy.
Time passes: ten minutes, twenty.
It’s odd. She goes out into the hallway and calls for him, but there’s no answer. She starts exploring the extensive ground floor of the great house, but it is silent and deserted: no staff, no servants, no sign of her boss or his family. It’s late, and, torn between irritation and anxiety, she finds her way to the kitchens where a courtyard door has apparently been left unlatched. It’s open, flapping in the night breeze but, as she goes to close it, she realizes that something is out there in the dark.
A shadow moves. Then another. Whatever it is, there are several of them.
Then they start that mad, distinctive chuckling, and she realizes;
She turns to flee into the house but finds there are more already inside, skulking behind the kitchen cabinets…
I’ll say no more about what happens next, but I hope you can see just a little of why I love this bit. Partly it’s because I put Ang in a situation where her usual skills (her climbing ability) will not help her, forcing her to be smart and resourceful in other ways. And partly the moment plays on some of her darkest fears about the nature of the country around her. Hyenas are scary animals. Big, rogue males have been known to attack people by themselves. A pack can bring down anything that walks the bush…
But there’s more to it than that. Because while hyenas are potentially terrifying by themselves they are even more terrifying indoors. I know that sounds crazy, but think about it. Some of the added dread comes from being up close to the creatures in a confined space, but some of it is also the sheer visceral wrongness of wild things inside a nice, safe, homey space. Think of how unnerving it is to have a bird fly into your living room, say or—in story terms—think of the wolf inside Granny’s cottage in Little Red Riding Hood. To take a more recent example, remember the velociraptors in the kitchen scene in the original Jurassic Park.
What makes these animals so frightening is their juxtaposition with the tame and ordinary spaces where we live: the wild inside the domestic. So the hyenas become more scary because they are surrounded by things which are familiar and ordinary, the trappings of everyday life like tables and chairs and ornaments and paintings positioned next to slavering, hunting beasts. It’s not just that the animals are frightening; their being indoors violates our sense of our human sophistication.
And I didn’t just make it up. I’ve never been in a confined space with a hyena (thank God—though there are accounts of hyenas going into houses and attacking people) but I did have a thoroughly unnerving experience while traveling in South Africa. I left the door of my little cottage unlocked for a minute and a watchful baboon—not as scary as a hyena for sure, but a sizeable monkey with claws and sharp teeth—got into my kitchen. Baboons are clever, unafraid or humans and potentially quite dangerous. I tried to shoo it out, but it got up on the counter–-which put it’s eyes level with mine—and stared me down. I got it out eventually (after it had rifled through my cabinets for sugar packets) but I don’t mind saying that the whole experience was deeply unsettling!
I’ve always loved animals and been absolutely fascinated by them. But some beasts belong outdoors. When they get inside it’s like gravity has been switched off. The world stops behaving the way it’s supposed to and all those protective comforts which tell us that we’re not animals fall away and we’re left with our primal and most basic instincts.
A.J. Hartley was born and raised in northwest England, but left the UK after his undergraduate degree to work in Japan. Three years later he went to graduate school at Boston University, completing an MA and Ph.D. in English. After a decade working in Georgia, he became the Robinson Professor of Shakespeare Studies at UNC Charlotte, where he teaches and publishes on performance history, theory and criticism. He is also an Honorary Fellow at the University of Central Lancashire (UK).
He is the New York Times bestselling author of 15 novels in multiple genres for adults and younger readers, some of which have been translated into 28 languages. His recent work includes Steeplejack, a fantasy adventure about a girl who works in the high places of a city world resembling Victorian South Africa; Cathedrals of Glass, a YA scifi thriller about a group of teens who crash-land on a supposedly deserted planet, and Sekret Machines, a multi media project about unexplained aerial phenomena co-authored with Blink 182/Angels and Airwaves founder, Tom DeLonge. He has also written the Darwen Arkwright series for kids, the Will Hawthorne books (Act of Will etc.), award winning adaptations of Macbeth and Hamlet, and several archaeological mysteries.
Ginger Stuyvesant, an American heiress living in London during World War I, is engaged to Captain Benjamin Harford, an intelligence officer. Ginger is a medium for the Spirit Corps, a special Spiritualist force. Each soldier heading for the front is conditioned to report to the mediums of the Spirit Corps when they die so the Corps […]