Jack Skillingstead is joining us today with his novel The Chaos Function. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Olivia Nikitas, a hardened journalist whose specialty is war zones, has been reporting from the front lines of the civil war in Aleppo, Syria. When Brian, an aid worker she reluctantly fell in love with, dies while following her into danger, she’ll do anything to bring him back. In a makeshift death chamber beneath an ancient, sacred site, a strange technology is revealed to Olivia: the power to remake the future by changing the past.
Following her heart and not her head, Olivia brings Brian back, accidentally shifting the world to the brink of nuclear and biological disaster. Now she must stay steps ahead of the guardians of this technology, who will kill her to reclaim it, in order to save not just herself and her love, but the whole world.
What’s Jack’s favorite bit?
I’m not a fan of intentional literary symbolism, but if I stumble over some juicy examples in my own work I might (or might not) play with them. Usually I don’t. These kinds of games are fun for writers, but readers tend to ignore them. That’s cool. Anything that distracts from Story counts as a misstep in the design. So, for me, the rules for symbols are that they should be unobtrusive and accidental. Once the accident happens, it’s okay to tweak it, if the desire moves you.
Save the cat.
Everybody’s heard of this, right? It’s a Hollywood thing. Your character is rough around the edges, so you show her being nice to an innocent creature in trouble. Voila! Your character has a soft heart, even if she keeps it hidden behind a granite exterior. My protagonist in The Chaos Function, war reporter Olivia Nikitas, saves a cat in the first scene. However, it’s not really a Hollywood style save-the-cat moment, because we’ve just been introduced to Olivia, and there’s nothing about her yet that needs softening or redeeming. Also, Olivia is only saving the cat because she is trying to save a little girl who has put herself in a dangerous position as a consequence of her efforts to save the cat. If anything, Olivia is cranky about the cat. I like the scene because it riffs on save-the-cat without really being save-the-cat.
Anyway, that’s Cat Number One.
Cat Number Two turns up at almost exactly the midway point of the novel. Actually it’s the same cat, only slipped into a dream of blood and chaos. In this novel, sometimes, dreams are more significant than simple mind movies. When I wrote this brief dream sequence, all I wanted to do was call back to a few images from earlier in the book and place those images in a different context. I didn’t give it a lot of extra thought. Intuitively it seemed right, so I went with it.
Cat Number Three makes her appearance at the very end of The Chaos Function. This time the little beastie is lounging on the back of a sofa in the window of a house in Jaipur. You could say the house represents Home with a capital H, which is what Olivia has spent much of her life both avoiding and longing for. I won’t tell you whether Olivia is actually in the scene—that would spoil the journey.
Cat Number One explores the wreckage of a world barely entering reconstruction after years of war. The same can be said of Olivia.
Cat Number Two slops around in a dream chamber of blood and chaos, which is what the world has become as a result of Olivia’s trying to restore the timeline she has unintentionally warped.
Cat Number Three, finally, appears when the world, to the extent that it can be, is restored.
I didn’t plan this sequence of feline appearances representing the state of Olivia’s interior world—at least, I didn’t plan them consciously. But in the rewrite I noticed them, and they delighted me. If you write enough fiction you develop an instinct for recognizing lucky coincidences. What you do with those coincidences is up to you.
By the way, why cats? I’ll tell you. There is a significant cat I haven’t yet mentioned: Schrodinger’s Cat. This is a novel of about the power to choose different superpositional end points. My theory is that the unconscious does a significant amount of writing. While I’ve spent weeks, months, or years thinking about and then typing a novel, I’ve also been feeding my unconscious collaborator, and it’s the collaborator who comes up with some of the best stuff. Images, character detail, it’s even pretty good at untying plot knots. And sometimes it gets cute and provides a few cats to act as narrative and thematic sign posts. So my Three Cats of the Apocalypse(s) are my favorite bit. Today, anyway.
Jack Skillingstead’s Harbinger was nominated for a Locus Award for best first novel. His second, Life on the Preservation, was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award. He has published more than forty short stories to critical acclaim and was short‑listed for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. His writing has been translated internationally. He lives in Seattle with his wife, writer Nancy Kress.
Michael R. Johnston is joining us today to talk about his novel The Widening Gyre. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Eight hundred years ago, the Zhen Empire discovered a broken human colony ship drifting in the fringes of their space. The Zhen gave the humans a place to live and folded them into their Empire as a client state. But it hasn’t been easy. Not all Zhen were eager to welcome another species into their Empire, and humans have faced persecution. For hundreds of years, human languages and history were outlawed subjects, as the Zhen tried to mold humans into their image. Earth and the cultures it nourished for millennia are forgotten, little more than legends.
One of the first humans to be allowed to serve in the Zhen military, Tajen Hunt became a war hero at the Battle of Elkari, the only human to be named an official Hero of the Empire. He was given command of a task force, and sent to do the Empire’s bidding in their war with the enigmatic Tabrans. But when he failed in a crucial mission, causing the deaths of millions of people, he resigned in disgrace and faded into life on the fringes as a lone independent pilot.
When Tajen discovers his brother, Daav, has been killed by agents of the Empire, he, his niece, and their newly-hired crew set out to finish his brother’s quest: to find Earth, the legendary homeworld of humanity. What they discover will shatter 800 years of peace in the Empire, and start a war that could be the end of the human race.
What’s Michael’s favorite bit?
MICHAEL R. JOHNSTON
Writing is hard. Some days, it’s only as bad as pulling twice your weight across the room. Other days, it’s like trying to juggle fifteen balls while singing Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria. But sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes the fates smile on you, the heavens open up, Calliope wipes her soothing hands across your brow, and the words flow like perfectly clear and cold water, and for a little while, you feel like this writing thing is easy.
When I was writing The Widening Gyre, one scene flowed that perfectly. It is, in the current draft, almost exactly as I wrote it the first time. One of my beta readers called the scene “beat perfect.” My editor had little to say about it beyond some of my weird writer tics that had to be squashed flat.
It’s a heist, and while it goes very quickly, that was intentional. I didn’t want to bog the characters down in a long subquest; I wanted them to get in, get screwed, find out they were screwed, and then calmly shoot their way out in style while cracking wise at each other and, for a brief moment, having fun.
The secret about Tajen and Liam is that they love their lives. They’d never admit it, but being deep in the shit, outgunned and outflanked, is when they feel most alive. When things go south, they’re in their element, a smoothly operating team of grade-A smartasses. Meeting each other has only made them embrace that part of themselves. So, when they get captured and subjected to their captor’s ranting, neither of them can take it entirely seriously, even though they’re well aware of the danger:
Liam glanced sidelong at me and sighed. “You know, I’d pay good money for you to shut him up.”
“Why me?” I asked. “You’re the infantryman. I’m just a pilot.” I shrugged. “You do it.”
“Excuse me,” Simms said. “I’m standing right here, asshole.”
“He is,” I said.
“True,” Liam said. “I can fix that, though.”
Simms pulled a blaster pistol from his jacket and shoved it into Liam’s face, the muzzle pressing into his cheek. “Do you want to know why you’re not dead yet?”
Liam tsked. “Because the safety’s on?” he asked.
The one complaint I got about this chapter from every reader was that a character introduced in the chapter is never seen again; she remains behind when the characters leave. So here’s a secret, something only my editor knows so far—Seeker will be back in book 2, and she’ll be far, far more important than you’d think. I’m not done with her yet. But in the meantime, Tajen and Liam will be snarking their way into and out of danger, one quip—and a well-aimed blaster—away from destruction all the way.
Michael R. Johnston is a high school English teacher and writer living in Sacramento, California with his wife, daughter, and more cats than strictly necessary. He is a member of the 2017 Viable Paradise class. The Widening Gyre is his debut novel.
Dan Stout is joining us today to talk about his novel Titanshade. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Carter’s a homicide cop in Titanshade, an oil boomtown where 8-tracks are state of the art, disco rules the radio, and all the best sorcerers wear designer labels. It’s also a metropolis teetering on the edge of disaster. As its oil reserves run dry, the city’s future hangs on a possible investment from the reclusive amphibians known as Squibs.
But now negotiations have been derailed by the horrific murder of a Squib diplomat. The pressure’s never been higher to make a quick arrest, even as Carter’s investigation leads him into conflict with the city’s elite. Undermined by corrupt coworkers and falsified evidence, and with a suspect list that includes power-hungry politicians, oil magnates, and mad scientists, Carter must find the killer before the investigation turns into a witch-hunt and those closest to him pay the ultimate price on the filthy streets of Titanshade.
What’s Dan’s favorite bit?
My debut novel TITANSHADE is a noir fantasy thriller set in an oil boomtown where magic is real, disco tops the charts, and good cops are hard to find. This combination of secondary-world fantasy with 1970s police procedural results in over 400 pages of fights, explosions, false accusations, and murders. It’s massively fun and massively over the top. But in all that chaos, my favorite bit is a single paragraph where one of the characters decides not to change the radio station.
This simple act occurs near the end of the book, and is the payoff of countless early arguments between a pair of detectives over what music gets played in their car. These conflicts may have been about a radio, but they’re also about two different people with two very different ways of viewing the world. As these partners ride into a life-or-death final showdown, seeing one defer to the other’s taste in music shows how close they’ve grown in a way that pages of exposition could never have captured.
As a writer, it can be tempting to confuse “upping the stakes” with making things flashy and explosive. Don’t get me wrong: I love a good explosion! But sometimes it’s small details and quiet moments that have the most power. In this case, a simple gesture provides closure to a long-running argument while also giving a glimpse of emotional vulnerability between two fairly hard-nosed characters. And that makes the danger they’re headed toward even more meaningful.
It was an extremely satisfying section to write and — I hope! — just as satisfying to read. If I did my job, the book is a series of ‘loops’ such as this, each of them opening and pulling in the reader before closing in a satisfying fashion.
Sometimes closing these loops involves big dramas, like explosive fight scenes, or explosive love scenes, or explosive… explosions.
But not all loops are best resolved with big set pieces. Some are quiet acts, almost tiny. Like letting the radio dial sit where it is, even if you hate the music.
If I did my job right, the climax at the end of TITANSHADE is the closing of many loops of different size and intensity, the prose version of the grand finale at a fireworks display. It’s a climatic round of violent beauty that leaves the reader stunned and satisfied, with an ache in their chest and a smile that won’t go away. But it all starts with a moment of calm, and a radio that isn’t touched.
And hey… if that doesn’t work, I can always add in another explosion.
Dan Stout lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he writes about fever dreams and half-glimpsed shapes in the shadows. His prize-winning fiction draws on travels throughout Europe, Asia, and the Pacific Rim as well as an employment history spanning everything from subpoena server to assistant well driller. Dan’s stories have appeared in publications such as The Saturday Evening Post, Nature, and Intergalactic Medicine Show.
Amber Royer is joining us today with her novel Pure Chocolate. Here is the publisher’s description:
In a galaxy where chocolate is literally addictive, one celebrity chef is fighting back, in the delicious sequel to Free Chocolate
To save everyone she loves, Bo Bonitez is touring Zant, home of the murderous, shark-toothed aliens who so recently tried to eat her. In the midst of her stint as Galactic paparazzi princess, she discovers that Earth has been exporting tainted chocolate to the galaxy, and getting aliens hooked on cocoa. Bo must choose whether to go public, or just smile for the cameras and make it home alive. She’s already struggling with her withdrawal from the Invincible Heart, and her love life has a life of its own, but when insidious mind worms intervene, things start to get complicated!
What’s Amber’s favorite bit?
Pure Chocolate is, in many ways, a telenovela laid out on the page. I write comedy, so I’m playing with the genre’s overdone tropes. You need someone who’s presumed dead but really isn’t? Check. You need an evil twin? Check . . . sort of. A character who doesn’t know her own true identity? An over the top conversation that gets taken entirely out of context? A tense courtroom drama? A touch and go operation? Check, check, check and check.
But at the same time, the Chocoverse is solidly space opera. Structurally and thematically, telenovelas are a whole different world, sometimes in ways that are going to surprise a reader of more traditional space opera. Bad guys don’t get destroyed. Mostly, they get redeemed. In fact, telenovela heroes sometimes look like space opera villains.
Many novelas run on two very specific character arcs. You have a strong heroine who is marked in some way – poverty, personal shame, disfigurement – and thus endures many trials, learns from them to turn that drawback into a strength and is then rewarded with both plot triumph and true love. And the hero is often a rich businessman, ruthless and cold, who learns from the heroine that people are more important than things and arcs hard to become worthy of her.
In the first book, I subverted that expectation. Brill’s character type in a novela usually provides contrast to the actual hero, and conflict as a romantic rival, before (sometimes) dying nobly so the happy couple can be together guilt free. Obviously, since Brill’s alive and well and standing with Bo on the cover of Book 2, we’re off script. Only . . . are we?
Look at Bo’s relationship to her home world, that out-of-balance Earth determined to hold onto an economic place in the galaxy no matter who gets hurt. Do you start to see a familiar character? This series is in first person because Bo’s the only one with enough unselfish love and inner strength to potentially change the heart of an entire planet. If she can only manage not to die in a very space-opera-ish way first. And if said planet isn’t destroyed by a Zantite invasion fleet. And if she can learn a number of specific lessons about the nature of love along the way.
One of my favorite bits in Pure Chocolate is near the beginning. Bo was taken off the beach as a prank on/dig at one of the other characters. Now, being confronted by the cops, she faces a dilemma: should she tell the truth, even though the context of the situation will be ignored? Or should she lie and show mercy? Keep in mind while reading it that the Zantites are giant, somewhat shark-like aliens.
I lean in towards Murry and ask, “What’s the penalty for kidnapping here?”
“If the victim was put in physical danger – as Tawny is insisting happened — it could be death. Or maybe just assignment to a warship.” Which is a life sentence. . .
I’ve said so much to Tawny about how horrible it is to lie. Pero, this time, if I tell the truth, my abductor might not leave this room. Who’d have to kill him? On the warship, that honor had gone to the highest-ranking officer. Dghax seems to be in charge here, so it’s probably him.
Dent Head swallows visibly and goes a bit greener. His hands ball into fists at his sides. And yet, he’s not trying to escape this. There’s a hint of hero to him after all.
Dghax holds out a voice recorder. “Did you see the face of or speak with your abductor?”
. . . He takes a step forward, about to confess. My heart lurches, as I picture his neck meeting Dghax’s teeth. I don’t want to see Dent Head die for one drunken mistake.
“No!” I say, mostly to him. Pero I smile at Dghax and repeat more calmly. “No y no. I remember being on the path, then I remember being in the tree.”
Amber Royer writes fun science fiction involving chocolate, aliens, lovesick AIs, time travel, VR, and more. She’s the author of the CHOCOVERSE comic space opera series (FREE CHOCOLATE available now, Book 2, PURE CHOCOLATE, coming March 5, 2019 from Angry Robot Books). She and her husband have also co-authored two cookbooks, one of which is all about chocolate). She teaches creative writing in North Texas for both UT Arlington Continuing Education and Writing Workshops Dallas. If you are very nice to her, she might make you cupcakes.
Dan Moren is joining us today to talk about his upcoming novel The Bayern Agenda. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Simon Kovalic, top intelligence operative for the Commonwealth of Independent Systems, is on the frontline of the burgeoning Cold War with the aggressive Illyrican Empire. He barely escapes his latest mission with a broken arm, and vital intel which points to the Empire cozying up to the Bayern Corporation: a planet-sized bank. There’s no time to waste, but with Kovalic out of action, his undercover team is handed over to his ex-wife, Lt Commander Natalie Taylor. When Kovalic’s boss is tipped off that the Imperium are ready and waiting, it’s up to the wounded spy to rescue his team and complete the mission before they’re all caught and executed.
What’s Dan’s favorite bit?
Ask any writer: beginnings and endings are easy. At the beginning of a story, everything’s fresh and new, brimming with potential and passion. Likewise, the end is often a roller coaster plunge as you tie together all the threads you’ve been laying for the story, wrapping it up in a hopefully satisfying conclusion.
Middles, though…middles are tough. That’s where the hard work happens, the careful intertwining of those threads you laid out in the beginning as they progress towards that inevitable end. (If you’ve ever watched The Great British Bake-Off and seen somebody mess up braiding a loaf of bread, you’ll appreciate the challenge of weaving all your plot points and character arcs into an attractive whole.)
So it’s as much a surprise to me as to anyone that my favorite bit of my latest novel, the sci-fi spy adventure The Bayern Agenda, is right smack in the middle of the book.
While on a mission on the planet Bayern, accidental Commonwealth agent Eli Brody has found himself roped into attending a black-tie soirée at the embassy of the Illyrican Empire, the Commonwealth’s rival superpower—and, as it happens, the very government that he himself deserted some six months prior.
My love for this whole sequence runs deep. Embassies are, of course, a staple of espionage stories, because they provide a space that is tantalizingly liminal in a number of ways. First, physically: you’re in the domain of the enemy, even though that domain is itself on foreign ground. Then, emotionally: this kind of professional environment requires a veneer of civility between rivals, of conflict blurred into fake camaraderie. Or is it real camaraderie? After all, the foot soldiers of a galactic conflict may have more in common with one another than with those calling the shots. Finally, politically. There’s a dichotomy of the overt and the covert at play here: an embassy is ostensibly all about diplomacy and good relations, even as hidden agendas lurk beneath. In short, it’s a setting ripe for subtext and tension.
Plus, of course, it’s dangerous.
Especially for Eli, a novice spy who’s been forced to learn the dos-and-don’ts of espionage in a hurry. Who can he trust? Is that pleasant civil servant he meets really all that he seems? What happens when the mission he’s been sent on takes a sudden and dire left turn? Throw in Eli’s fraught relationship with the Illyricans—who will not hesitate to arrest and perhaps even execute him if they discover who he really is—and it makes for (I hope) a tense scene that gets readers’ blood pumping.
As a writer, I have fond memories of putting this scene together, because I found myself rejoicing in the time-honored tradition of dunking your character deeper and deeper into hot water. Needless to say, Eli Brody’s situation gets only more dire as the lavish party progresses. Then, just when you think he’s in as deep as he can get, he makes a truly inspired—and truly ridiculous—choice: the kind of move that only an amateur spy would think is a good idea, since it leaves him with that hot water firmly over his head. And, as a bonus, it’s the kind of thing that makes even a reserved writer cackle in glee as everything clicks into place.
All in all, it makes for the kind of high-stakes cocktail party that you won’t soon forget.
Dan Moren is the author of the sci-fi espionage thrillers The Bayern Agenda and The Caledonian Gambit. By day, he works as a freelance writer, hosts technology podcasts Clockwise and The Rebound, and talks pop culture on The Incomparable podcast network. By night, he fights crime while dressed as a bat. He could use some sleep.
Keith R.A. DeCandido is joining us today with his novel A Furnace Sealed. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Bram Gold is a Courser, a hunter-for-hire who deals with supernatural creatures, mystical happenings, and things that go booga-booga in the night. Under the supervision of the Wardein—his childhood friend Miriam Zerelli, who is in charge of all magical activity in the Bronx, New York—he’s who you hire if you need a crazed unicorn wrangled, some werewolves guarded while they gallivant around under the full moon, or an ill-advised attempt to bind a god stopped.
The Bronx is the home to several immortals, who are notoriously hard to kill—so it comes as rather a surprise when one of them turns up murdered, seemingly by a vampire. In addition, binding spells all across New York are either coming undone, failing to work, or are difficult to restore. As Bram investigates, more immortals turn up dead, and a strange woman keeps appearing long enough to give cryptic advice and then disappear. Soon, he uncovers a nasty sequence of events that could lead to the destruction of New York!
What’s Keith’s favorite bit?
KEITH R.A. DeCANDIDO
The trick with A Furnace Sealed, the first in The Adventures of Bram Gold, is that I don’t have a single favorite bit, but rather the whole notion of writing about my home town of New York City in general and my home borough of the Bronx in particular is one that appeals to me. I rarely pass up an opportunity to write a story set in the Big Apple, whether original or tie-in.
To be more specific, though, I love writing about the people here. The Bronx is one of the most fascinatingly diverse places you’ll find. In 2009 and 2010, I worked for the U.S. Census Bureau, and I got to see so many different places and things and people.
My favorite was going to a Buddhist monastery, located in an old two-story house on a side street near Kingsbridge Road. From the outside, it looked like just another house, but inside I was greeted by a wizened old monk and his acolyte. They gave me tea, and for half an hour, I felt like I’d been transported to a secluded region of Asia rather than the middle of the Bronx.
The team I supervised for the main Census operation included people who were from (or whose ancestry traced back to) western Africa, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Korea, Cambodia, Trinidad, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Poland, Russia, Italy, and Ireland.
It was a joy and a privilege to be exposed to so many different cultures and points of view. And when I sat down to write A Furnace Sealed, I tried very hard to reflect that. The people in this book include the Jewish main character (Bram Gold), his Italian-American best friend (Miriam Zerelli), and lots of people from a variety of ethnicities and skin tones, including a wizard named José Velez, a magic shop run by someone named Ahondjon, with his nephew Medawe, and several of Bram’s fellow Coursers: Bernabe Iturralde, Hugues Baptiste, Sal Antonelli, Dahlia Rhys-Markham, and more. The four werewolves living in the Bronx spend the other 27 days of the month as humans named Anna-Maria Weintraub, Katie Gonzalez, Tyrone Morris, and Mark McAvoy.
While there are some neighborhoods in New York that default toward a particular ethnicity, even those have plenty of other folks living there—I myself am an Italian living in a mostly Irish neighborhood that also has a hefty number of dark-skinned folk from Central America and India—and most neighborhoods aren’t nearly that segregated. You’ve got folks all living mushed together ’round these parts, and it’s glorious. (It also occasionally results in culinary weirdness, like a Japanese-Cuban restaurant that I have yet to have had the courage to try.)
Variety, so the cliché goes, is the spice of life, and I for one prefer my life to be spicy. I tried to reflect that aspect of my home borough in this novel that takes place there.
None of that is really a favorite bit, so I’m just gonna close with this little bit of dialogue from Medawe, who helps his uncle Ahondjon run a magic shop on Jerome Avenue, talking with someone on the phone:
“Nah, he ain’t here,” Medawe was saying. Unlike his uncle, he was born in the Bronx, so he didn’t have Ahondjon’s thick West African accent. “It’s Sunday, he’s in church.… Nah, I ain’t telling you what church.… What, you telling me you found Jesus now? Bullshit. Just gimme the message, I’ll let him know when he gets back.… I don’t know when, I ain’t found no Jesus, neither. ’Sides, you know how he likes talking to folks. Could be hours.… Yeah, well, fuck you too.”
Shaking his head, Medawe pressed the end button on the phone.
“Another satisfied customer?”
Medawe snorted. “Yeah, somethin’ like that. What’cha need, Gold?”
“I need to talk to Ahondjon. He really in church?”
“Hell, no. Only time his ass goes into a church is to deliver their holy water.”
I blinked. “Wait, churches buy holy water from him?”
Keith R.A. DeCandido has written a ridiculous amount of fiction, or an amount of ridiculous fiction depending on your POV, for 25 years. His bibliography includes a metric buttload of media tie-in fiction in 35 different licensed universes from Alien to Zorro, as well as original novels and short stories set in the fictional cities of Cliff’s End and Super City and the somewhat real cities of New York and Key West. Recent and upcoming work, besides A Furnace Sealed, includes the Alien novel Isolation (which is partly a novelization of the same-named videogame, partly Ripley family backstory), Mermaid Precinct (the fifth novel in his acclaimed fantasy/police procedure series), four Super City Cops novellas (about cops in a city filled with superheroes), a graphic novel adaptation of Gregory A. Wilson’s Icarus, and short stories in the anthologies Unearthed, Brave New Girls: Adventures of Gals & Gizmos, Mine!: A Celebration of Freedom and Liberty For All Benefitting Planned Parenthood, They Keep Killing Glenn, Thrilling Adventure Yarns, Joe Ledger: Unstoppable, Nights of the Living Dead, both volumes of Baker Street Irregulars, and Release the Virgins!
Howard Andrew Jones is joining us today to talk about his novel For the Killing of Kings. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Their peace was a fragile thing, but it had endured for seven years, mostly because the people of Darassus and the king of the Naor hordes believed his doom was foretold upon the edge of the great sword hung in the hall of champions. Unruly Naor clans might raid across the border, but the king himself would never lead his people to war so long as the blade remained in the hands of his enemies.
But when squire Elenai’s aging mentor uncovers evidence that the sword in their hall is a forgery she’s forced to flee Darassus for her life, her only ally the reckless, disillusioned Kyrkenall the archer. Framed for murder and treason, pursued by the greatest heroes of the realm, they race to recover the real sword, only to stumble into a conspiracy that leads all the way back to the Darassan queen and her secretive advisors. They must find a way to clear their names and set things right, all while dodging friends determined to kill them – and the Naor hordes, invading at last with a new and deadly weapon.
What’s Howard’s favorite bit?
HOWARD ANDREW JONES
I’m a sucker for stories about heroes. I don’t mean the flawless, square-jawed kind, but complex humans who face nightmarish challenges to aid their friends and defend the innocent. Men and women who act with honor, who strive to be worthy of those they lead, and who do the right thing even when no one’s looking.
Maybe that fascination stems from catching the 1970s Four Musketeers movie in the theatre when I was very young, and being captivated by the close-knit unit who risked their all for one another with wit and skill and a little luck. Certainly I loved the heroism and sacrifice in all those re-runs I watched of the original Star Trek, where if not for devotion to one another and their belief in the best in humanity, the crew wouldn’t have survived the mission.
I’ve certainly been inspired by the astonishing exploits of Medal of Honor recipients, who risked and often lost their lives in defense of their comrades and those under their protection. Sometimes those actions were so jaw dropping they defy belief, like Audie Murphy’s heroism, toned down in his biopic lest the audience deem it Hollywood nonsense.
Given all that, it’s probably no surprise that I wrote a story about members of an elite group of highly trained warriors. When the novel begins, all’s not right in the Altenerai corps, or in the realm they serve. For some, honor has become an inconvenience. Leaders have gained authority not through hard won wisdom and dedication to their people, but because of loyalty to self-serving causes. A few veterans and squires stumble into what looks like a simple deception, only to discover a secret that’s festered into a conspiracy that threatens not just them, but their entire nation.
When it comes to my favorite bit, I could have written about my love for these characters, many of whom have been kicking around in my head for a quarter century, or my love for The Chronicles of Amber, which was as big an influence upon this book as the aforementioned musketeers. But I’m probably most pleased with the ceremonies I drafted for the Altenerai, the most important of them being the oath sworn when their members reach the seventh and highest circle of their order and don the sapphire ring:
When comes my numbered day, I will meet it smiling. For I’ll have kept this oath.
I shall use my arms to shield the weak.
I shall use my lips to speak the truth, and my eyes to seek it.
I shall use my hand to mete justice to high and to low, and I shall weigh all things with heart and mind.
Where I walk the laws will follow, for I am the sword of my people and the shepherd of their lands.
When I fall, I will rise through my brothers and my sisters, for I am eternal.
These words are the foundation of everything the protagonists of For the Killing of Kings believe. I like to think if I’d found them as a younger man I’d have judged them worthy of consideration and that they might even have impacted the way I conducted myself.
Howard Andrew Jones is the author of For the Killing of Kings, four Pathfinder novels, and a critically acclaimed Arabian Fantasy series. He’s the editor of the print magazine Tales From the Magician’s Skull and the Executive Editor at Perilous Worlds.
When not helping run his small family farm or spending time with his wife and children, he can be found hunched over his laptop or notebook, mumbling about flashing swords and doom-haunted towers. He’s worked variously as a TV cameraman, a book editor, a recycling consultant, and as a writing instructor at a mid-western college.
Alison Wilgus is joining us today with her graphic novel Chronin Volume 1: The Knife at Your Back. Here’s the publisher’s description:
2042, New York City: A day in the life of college student Mirai Yoshida means studying Japanese history, learning swordmanship, flirting with her TA, and preparing to travel to Japan in 1864. Everything changes once she goes back to the past. Mirai and her classmates are ambushed by rebel samurai. Her friends are killed, her time travel machine is lost, and Mirai ends up marooned. In order to survive, she disguises herself as a wandering samurai and is hired by Hatsu, a tea waitress, as bodyguard for her travels. Mirai has to find her way back to the future soon, or else she may be the first casualty on the bloody front lines of a conflict that is destined to shape a nation
What’s Alison’s favorite bit?
I love time travel stories with all my heart and I make no apologies. I was enthralled with the Back to the Future series as a child, and ever since I’ve been a ravenous consumer of time travel fiction and returned to it as a narrative device over and over again in my own stories. It was not a surprise to anyone who knows me that my first major work of solo fiction has a time machine at its heart.
There are many different kinds of time travel stories, featuring wild variations of mechanic and conceit. Plot-wise, Chronin is a “trapped in the past” type with academic interest as the “why,” which puts me squarely in the Connie Willis school. Regarding timeline logistics, I went with “parallel worlds” — one cannot travel into one’s own past directly, only to the past of a near-identical universe. And the tech? Absolutely shameless “don’t worry about it” handwaving.
As for why our main character, Mirai Yoshida, is personally hurling herself backward through time?
Because she’s a major in Time Travel Studies at a fictional Manhattan university.
As a high school student in Eastern Massachusetts, I was taken on a Physics field trip to visit the Alcator C-Mod tokamak fusion reactor at MIT. This was something like twenty years ago, but I have a vivid memory of walking into a cramped round room mostly occupied by the reactor itself. And I remember, in particular, how haphazard it felt — how it gave me the impression of being held together with chewing gum, duct tape, and hope.
About a decade later, when designing the “Time Machine Room” for Volume 1 of Chronin, I tried to capture that same feeling — of a machine built by grad students and maintained by TAs, of a technology in its early years at a well-funded research university. I wanted the time travel in Chronin to feel a little dangerous — right at the edge of what you’d allow a living person to use, but maybe only after they’d signed a thick stack of forms. We see Mirai laboring through her thorough study of history, see her shepherded by cautious professors and warned of the dangerous responsibilities which she and her classmates have been given. We are told through the mouths of that same faculty how she’s in rarefied company; that hers is the first undergraduate class that will be allowed to access this machine.
The thing is, all time travel stories are built on a foundation of bullshit — it’s inevitable, because unless you’re writing an extremely strict no-free-will-closed-loop kind of a tale, the logic of even the cleverest mechanism will fall apart under sufficient scrutiny. So all you can do is treat your time travel like a science fantasy magic system and attempt, as much as possible, to address the concerns of consistency and justify your basic premise.
When I tell people the plot of this book, I’m often asked why anyone in their right mind would give college students access to a time machine in the first place. And hey, fair question! I can’t speak for everyone, but I was personally an impulsive idiot when I was in my early twenties.
As I revised and rewrote and refined my manuscript over the years, the solution I honed in on was fairly straightforward: the Time Travel Studies program would be framed as highly selective and prestigious, and also very, very new. New enough to still be in those early years of high ignorance and low regulation, the kind of technological bleeding edge which gave us clothing dyed green with arsenic and radioactive patent medicine. The sparkling debut of an experimental department at an elite New York City university….right before it learns some hard lessons via the misfortunes of its students and staff.
If I’m honest, I have a hundred favorite bits of this story — that happens a lot in comics, as you’re chiseling away at them for years and years and have to trick yourself into sticking with it through single-minded over-investment. But way up there in the hierarchy was building a time travel school which felt believable enough for me to care about, but which would also plausibly have sent Mirai Yoshida — a student barely old enough to drink — backwards in time with a sword shoved in her belt.
AlisonWilgus is a Brooklyn-based bestselling writer, editor and cartoonist who’s been working in comics for over a decade. Most of her professional work has been writing for comics, including two works of graphic non-fiction with First Second Books about aviation history and human spaceflight. Her short prose fiction has been published by Interzone, Analog and Strange Horizons. Her latest work is Chronin, a science-fiction duology from Tor books and her solo graphic novel debut. In her spare time, she co-hosts a podcast about comics publishing called “Graphic Novel TK” with Gina Gagliano.
Micah Dean Hicks is joining us today to talk about his novel Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Swine Hill was full of the dead. Their ghosts were thickest near the abandoned downtown, where so many of the town’s hopes had died generation by generation. They lingered in the places that mattered to them, and people avoided those streets, locked those doors, stopped going into those rooms . . . They could hurt you. Worse, they could change you.
Jane is haunted. Since she was a child, she has carried a ghost girl that feeds on the secrets and fears of everyone around her, whispering to Jane what they are thinking and feeling, even when she doesn’t want to know. Henry, Jane’s brother, is ridden by a genius ghost that forces him to build strange and dangerous machines. Their mother is possessed by a lonely spirit that burns anyone she touches. In Swine Hill, a place of defeat and depletion, there are more dead than living.
When new arrivals begin scoring precious jobs at the last factory in town, both the living and the dead are furious. This insult on the end of a long economic decline sparks a conflagration. Buffeted by rage on all sides, Jane must find a way to save her haunted family and escape the town before it kills them.
What’s Micah’s favorite bit?
MICAH DEAN HICKS
I love a story with a robot. And I’m not talking about slick, more-human-than-human androids with synthetic skin. Give me FLCL’s TV-headed robot doing dishes, hanging up laundry, and playing baseball. Give me The Iron Giant bending down to scoop up a boy in a rivet-studded hand the size of a car, or Will Robinson’s dangerous machine. Give me Goro Fujita’s box-shaped, down on its luck, guitar-playing robot singing in the rain, or even the fretful and mistreated droids of Star Wars.
These robots are conspicuously machines. They stick out in a crowd, hiding under cardboard boxes or umbrellas. They seem a little embarrassed to have ended up here. They’re doing their best.
I love this trope for its contradictions. The robot might look like it’s made of junk, but its clumsy body houses intelligence and vulnerability, a ghost in the machine. With arms that can rip through steel doors, the robot softly catches a ball. With an unyielding metal chest, the robot pulls someone into an embrace. Built for violence, it will inevitably sacrifice itself to defend those it loves.
In my novel, Henry builds a robot to help around the house, but the gnawing swarms of ghosts that fill the town play havoc with the machine, changing it in ways Henry never expected:
The robot dressed itself in his father’s old clothes—something Henry was certain he hadn’t programmed it to do. Its work boots and jeans were stiff with mud. Bright stars of rust and bleeding tracks of white battery corrosion dotted its limbs and chassis. It moved erratically, slamming down plates and dropping silverware, movements jerky from spirits that had taken up residence in its servomotors. His ghost had driven Henry to build it after his father left, when Henry worried that someone needed to take care of his mother.
Henry’s robot suffers, and as it suffers it becomes more human-like. It feels jealous, unappreciated, neglected. It falls in love and isn’t loved back. It experiences heartbreak. Begrudgingly, it defends Henry and his family when they need it most.
Robots in fiction are a great way to explore our own humanity. They ask us to wrestle with our responsibility for the things we have made and set loose on the world. They force us to consider what it means to have power and hold back, to care about someone we can’t fully know, to love another on their own terms.
MICAH DEAN HICKS is the author of the story collection Electricity and Other Dreams—a book of dark fairy tales and bizarre fables that won the 2012 New American Fiction Prize. He is also the winner of the 2014 Calvino Prize judged by Robert Coover, the 2016 Arts and Letters Prize judged by Kate Christensen, and the 2015 Wabash Prize judged by Kelly Link. His stories and essays have appeared in dozens of magazines ranging from The New York Times to Lightspeed to The Kenyon Review. Hicks teaches creative writing at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
Charlie N. Holmberg is joining us today to talk about her new book Smoke and Summons. Here’s the publisher’s description:
As a human vessel for an ancient spirit, Sandis lives no ordinary life. At the command of her master, she can be transformed against her will into his weapon—a raging monster summoned to do his bidding. Unlike other vessels, Sandis can host extremely powerful spirits, but hosting such creatures can be fatal. To stay alive, she must run. And in a city fueled by smoke and corruption, she finds a surprising ally.
A cunning thief for hire, Rone owns a rare device that grants him immortality for one minute every day—a unique advantage that will come in handy in Sandis’s fight for freedom. But Sandis’s master knows how powerful she is. He’s determined to get her back, and he has the manpower to find her, wherever she runs.
Now, to outwit her pursuers, Sandis must put all her trust in Rone and his immortal device. For her master has summoned more than mere men to hunt her down…
What’s Charlie’s favorite bit?
CHARLIE N. HOLMBERG
This is slightly tricky because my favorite bit is a major spoiler for the book as a whole, so for our purposes, we’re going with the runner up!
Smoke & Summons is a Frankenstein book, in that I harvested bits and pieces from other novels and ideas to put together its plot. I took the presence of a horse made of fire from an urban fantasy idea dredged in Greek mythology. I stole the abnormal characteristics of my demons from a novel I queried years ago that never got accepted. Half of my magic system, the hey-let’s-host-a-demon part, came from a story I was still brainstorming (which was inspired by Final Fantasy, let’s be honest), and the other half came from my folder of magic ideas: an immortality switch. After some operating, I came up with what I consider my best published work to date.
My favorite bit focuses on the first half of the magic system: the woman who is the host of an ethereal fire horse. Sandis Gwenwig was nabbed by slavers four years ago, branded with gold, and forced to serve as a vessel for one of the most morally dark people in the country. When she escapes, she makes three enemies. First, the man who wants her back. Second, the priests, who consider her a blasphemy. And third, the corrupt police force, also known as the “scarlets.” Since, you know, hosting demons is illegal.
Throughout the book, the scarlets have been a background threat, but in this scene they surge forward as a real one. After running for days with her companion, Rone, Sandis finally believes she has a moment of safety holed up in a nice hotel. But Rone is gone, and she runs into someone she—or, rather, her demon—badly hurt in the first chapter of the book. The cops are called, and Sandis is forcefully dragged from her saferoom into a prison wagon. All this time she’s been running away from monsters and those who control them, but it’s ordinary humans who finally capture her. And she’s without the man who’s been her shield since chapter five. No matter how many times she screams his name, he doesn’t come. (Kudos to my audiobook narrator, Lauren Ezzo, for making this sound especially desperate.)
Sandis is special. She knows that, and she knows her master knows that. That’s why she ran—she didn’t want to be next in his experiment to summon the Big Bad to the mortal plane. But only a day ago, she learned she’s really special, and that her connection to her demon is more powerful than she thought (and I won’t give details, because spoilers.)
I like writing scenes that are emotionally raw, and this was one of them. Sandis is in a cage she can’t break out of, riding toward a prison that will execute her immediately. She has no help, only herself . . . and her demon. Her newfound power might help her escape, but it also knocks her unconscious for six hours. She needs a quick getaway, and the swift waters of an upcoming canal could give her just that. But if she can’t stay awake, she’ll drown.
By the way, her brother died drowning in a canal. Just saying.
She’s damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t, but she hedges her bets, uses her power (which may result in the explosion of the prison wagon and everything around her), and falls into the canal. But she can’t stay awake. She’s unable to swim. She’s naked. And she’s alone.
And I’ll leave it there because, like my book, this article ends on a cliffhanger.
Born in Salt Lake City, Charlie N. Holmberg was raised a Trekkie alongside three sisters who also have boy names. She is a proud BYU alumna, plays the ukulele, owns too many pairs of glasses, and finally adopted a dog. Her fantasy Paper Magician Series, which includes The Paper Magician, The Glass Magician, and The Master Magician, has been optioned by the Walt Disney Company. Her stand-alone novel, Followed by Frost, was nominated for a 2016 RITA Award for Best Young Adult Romance. She currently lives with her family in Utah. Visit her at www.charlienholmberg.com.
David Niall Wilson is joining us today with his novel A Midnight Dreary. Here’s the publisher’s description:
A Midnight Dreary, the long-awaited fifth volume in The DeChance Chronicles, picks up outside Old Mill, NC, when Donovan, reminded that he has promised his lover, Amethyst, and Geoffrey Bullfinch of the O.C.L.T. a story, draws them back in time to a vision of the final chapter of the novel Nevermore, a Novel of Love, Loss & Edgar Allan Poe. At vision’s end, they realize that they have to act, to free Eleanor MacReady from the trap that holds her on the banks of Lake Drummond, in the Great Dismal Swamp, and to rescue a princess who has not known freedom in at least two centuries. The rescue that ensues crosses worlds and dimensions, wandering through Poe’s tales, the fables of the Brothers Grimm, and finally to a confrontation on a mountain in Germany. This novel draws upon characters and plots from many of the author’s novels, including his stories of Old Mill, NC, The O.C.L.T., Nevermore, and the vampire novel Darkness Falling.” It is rich with sorcery and adventure. Welcome to the world of Donovan DeChance.
What is David’s favorite bit?
DAVID NIALL WILSON
What I love the most about this novel is the character Edgar Allan Poe. Starting with the novel Nevermore – A Novel of Love, Loss & Edgar Allan Poe, he has been a recurring character in my fiction. My version of Poe wanders through mystical passageways in a place that Donovan DeChance, the protagonist of my series, calls the Labyrinth. Edgar sees this place as a long, gaslit hallway with heavy wooden doors that lead to different times, places, and dimensions. This place appears differently to all who can access it. When Edgar enters one of the doorways, what he encounters is a story that he must live through.
In each encounter, for good or ill, he meets his own doppelganger and interacts with a story that we are familiar with. In the novel A Midnight Dreary, there are stories within the story. Donovan reads the initial adventure that led to the story “The Masque of the Red Death,” and then, himself, walks into Poe’s “The System of Dr. Tar and Professor Fether,” where he and Edgar are both characters.
This novel gives me multiple opportunities to bond with Edgar Allan Poe on a creative level. The main plot involves saving his lost love, Lenore, from a magical trap, explains the odd circumstances surrounding his death, and adds details to two of his stories. This is fun, and makes me smile, but there is more.
In the last chapters of the book, we add Copper, a vampire, who is also a fan of Poe’s stories. He has them memorized, even some that Poe, who has not yet experienced or written all of them on his off-kilter timeline, is not familiar with. The back and forth between the two is one of my favorite parts of the book, and then, we have the ultimate Poe moment. The sorceress they are attempting to track down and trap, sets a trap herself. She creates a false world that appears, initially, to be another Poe story that he (and others) will walk into. She is arrogant, however, and does not understand the story well enough to create the experience fully. She also is unaware that he has already lived through the story in question (I won’t mention which, because I don’t want to provide spoilers). Poe figures it out before the trap can be sprung, and in the process, I am able to add another piece from his work into my personal universe. I have always felt a kinship with his prose, even the stories that are so over-written that they are hard to enjoy.
My version of Poe is likely a bit more interesting and adventuresome than the original. There are rumors that he wrote an early draft of “The Raven” at The Lake Drummond Hotel, which once stood on the banks of the Intracoastal waterway, directly on the border of Virginia and North Carolina. From that rumor, the novel Nevermore, A Novel of Love, Loss & Edgar Allan Poe was born (it was originally meant to be much shorter, and the prologue to A Midnight Dreary, before it took on a life of its own).
I am very glad that it did. There are plans in the works for another story with Edgar at its center, in which I fictionalize a meeting that actually happened between Poe and Charles Dickens, who owned a raven named Grip. History tells us that Grip died… In my version, I think he changes his name to Grimm and remains with Edgar. Time will tell…
David Niall Wilson has been writing professionally since the mid 1980s. He is a multiple winner of the Bram Stoker Award and has published more than forty book. He lives near the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina, with the love of his life, Patricia Lee Macomber (also an author), his daughter Katie (also an author) five cats, a chinchilla, a three-legged turtle, a canary and a very wise old Pekingese named Gizzy Momo.
David is the founder of Crossroad Press Publishing, with over 2500 eBooks, 650 audiobooks, and several hundred print editions spanning all genres. His most recent works include the novels Gideon’s Curse and Remember Bowling Green – The Adventures of Frederick Douglass, Time Traveler (written with Patricia). He is currently writing a fantasy novel titled Jurassic Ark and the first book of a series about teen heroes with unique abilities titled Hoods.
Django Wexler is joining us today to talk about his novel Ship of Smoke and Steel. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Ship of Smoke and Steel is the launch of Django Wexler’s cinematic, action-packed epic fantasy Wells of Sorcery trilogy.
In the lower wards of Kahnzoka, the great port city of the Blessed Empire, eighteen-year-old ward boss Isoka enforces the will of her criminal masters with the power of Melos, the Well of Combat. The money she collects goes to keep her little sister living in comfort, far from the bloody streets they grew up on.
When Isoka’s magic is discovered by the government, she’s arrested and brought to the Emperor’s spymaster, who sends her on an impossible mission: steal Soliton, a legendary ghost ship—a ship from which no one has ever returned. If she fails, her sister’s life is forfeit.
On board Soliton, nothing is as simple as it seems. Isoka tries to get close to the ship’s mysterious captain, but to do it she must become part of the brutal crew and join their endless battles against twisted creatures. She doesn’t expect to have to contend with feelings for a charismatic fighter who shares her combat magic, or for a fearless princess who wields an even darker power.
What’s Django’s favorite bit?
Choosing a favorite piece from a book always seems impossible, especially when I’m trying to avoid spoiling it for everybody. For Ship of Smoke and Steel, I want to talk about the magic system, the concerns which went into it and some of the odd little bits that I’m particularly happy with. We start the book with a list of the Wells of Sorcery, as follows:
The Nine Wells of Sorcery
Myrkai, the Well of Fire
Tartak, the Well of Force
Melos, the Well of Combat
Sahzim, the Well of Perception
Rhema, the Well of Speed
Xenos, the Well of Shadows
Ghul, the Well of Life, the Forbidden Well
Kindre, the Well of Mind
Eddica, the Well of Spirits, the Lost Well
Putting together the magic system of SSS was a slightly different task than my usual world-building, because I wasn’t starting from scratch; the core of the story and much of the world, though few of the characters, were salvaged from the remains of a defunct project. The concept of the Wells of Sorcery, metaphysical sources of all magical power, was one of main pieces I re-used, which means that the actual origin of it is lost to me, now. (I suspect Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen was an inspiration, though, with its fearsomely-named elemental warrens.)
At the same time, one of my core world-building principles is that the nature of the world needs to suit to nature of the story. SSS is a YA adventure story, which imposed some rules on how magic could work in this world — it can’t be the sort of magic you have to spend fifty years practicing to get any good at, because I wanted to have teenagers running around using it to fight monsters. Isoka, the main character, is a rare magical adept born into the lower classes; ability to access the Wells is partly hereditary, and largely confined to the “mage-blood” nobility. The combination of these two elements makes the magic of SSS more like the mutant superpowers of the X-Men, say, then carefully-acquired spells of the D&D mage.
That in turn has all kinds of interesting consequences for the social structure of the various societies in the world, since managing people with that kind of power isn’t easy. Isoka boards the ghost ship Soliton and meets others from all over the world, so I got to have great fun designing a wide range of societal adaptations to the way magic works. There are little asides in snippets of dialogue, some of which sadly had to get cut, that talk about the cultural differences — societies where mage-bloods rule, societies where they’re anathema, where they’re slaves, where they’re members of holy orders sworn to defend the throne, and so on. This is the kind of world-building I love, trying to imagine the consequences of some supernatural element in everyday life.
Some specifics of the Wells also bear mentioning as among my favorites. There are more of them than I really need for the story, which gives the system a pleasantly baroque feel and provides some interesting material for future books. We don’t find out much about Xenos, or Kindre, or Sahzim. Having those seeds there, without always precisely knowing what they’ll be good for, is another fun piece that only occasionally gets me into serious trouble.
Isoka’s well is Melos, combat, which lets her generate energy blades and impenetrable magical armor. From a metastory perspective, this has two important benefits:
1) It looks cool. Especially since they got Richard Anderson, maybe my favorite cover artist, to do the cover!
2) Isoka’s armor in particular helps make for a very fast-paced plot. Getting hit doesn’t injure her, usually, but the energy it uses builds up as heat under her skin, which means that getting really badly beaten will burn her and eventually kill her. This means that when she fights somebody, there’s still a real threat (at least if the person has their own Wells, or is a giant crab) but she doesn’t take the kind of damage that a “realistic” fight would inflict, stabs and cuts and broken limbs and so on. That helps keep things moving, without long hospital stays between battles!
But, you ask, what about magical healing? That’s another interesting part of the Wells: Ghul, the Well of Life. One of the major characters (spoilers, slightly) is a Ghul adept, and we learn fairly early on that Ghul practitioners are universally reviled. Their power can heal, but it can also harm, and in particularly gruesome ways — seeding a victim with fast-growing tumors, for example, or creating diseases custom-tailored to target specific groups. In the deep history of the SSS world, a city that prized Ghul mastery was destroyed by the hubris of its own adepts, some experiment gone wrong converting the entire island metropolis into an incomprehensible wasteland of riotous fungal growth and constant decay called the Vile Rot. The Rot plays a fairly minor role in the story, but it’s such a fun element of background — the trauma of it has worked into culture so deeply that characters say “rot” or “rotting” in place of words like “damned”. (Another piece from the old archive, incidentally, whose origins I have only the sketchiest idea of. I suspect Ian McDonald’s Evolution’s Shore played a role — I remember vividly reading it as a teen and being simultaneously fascinated and scared witless.)
Even with the best of intentions, Ghul can be dangerous. One attempt at healing gone wrong, for example, causes the intended recipient to rapidly bloat into a shifting, melting ball of flesh, screaming until they explode in a shower of gore. (Yes, it’s probably inspired by the movie you’re thinking of.) And that, obviously, is one of my favorite bits.
DJANGO WEXLER graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with degrees in creative writing and computer science, worked in artificial intelligence research and as a programmer/writer for Microsoft, and is now a full-time fantasy writer. Django is the author of The Shadow Campaigns, an epic fantasy series for adults, and The Forbidden Library, a classic fantasy series for middle-grade readers.
You can find him online at www.djangowexler.com and on Twitter as @DjangoWexler.
David Mack is joining us today to talk about his novel The Iron Codex. Here is the publisher’s description:
New York Times bestselling author David Mack’s Dark Arts series continues as the wizards of World War II become the sorcerers of the Cold War in this globe-spanning spy-thriller sequel to The Midnight Front.
1954: Cade Martin, hero of the Midnight Front during the war, has been going rogue without warning or explanation, and his mysterious absences are making his MI-6 handlers suspicious. In the United States, Briet Segfrunsdóttir serves as the master karcist of the Pentagon’s top-secret magickal warfare program. And in South America, Anja Kernova hunts fugitive Nazi sorcerers with the help of a powerful magickal tome known as the Iron Codex.
In an ever-more dangerous world, a chance encounter sparks an international race to find Anja and steal the Iron Codex. The Vatican, Russians, Jewish Kabbalists, and shadowy players working all angles covet the Codex for the power it promises whoever wields it.
As the dominos start to fall, and one betrayal follows another, Anja goes on the run, hunted by friend and foe alike. The showdown brings our heroes to Bikini Atoll in March 1954: the Castle Bravo nuclear test.
But unknown to all of them, a secret magick cabal schemes to turn America and its western allies toward fascism—even if it takes decades…
What’s David’s favorite bit?
In the Dark Arts series’ first book, The Midnight Front, sorceress Briet Segfrunsdóttir was one of the bad guys until she realized that her master Kein had gone insane. At that point she deserted him and fled with her faithful rat familiar, Trixim.
Briet was found after World War II by Operation: Paperclip, a CIA initiative that recruited ex-Nazi scientists (and, in my book, ex-Nazi mages) to work for the United States’ defense and space programs. Briet was placed in charge of the U.S. Occult Defense Program, a role that earned her the suspicion of the first book’s main character, Cade Martin.
In book two, The Iron Codex, set nearly a decade later in 1954, Cade and Briet are forced to work together to halt a global threat that fuses black magick and nuclear science. After a brutal ambush critically wounds Cade’s best friend Miles and kills Briet’s beloved familiar Trixim, Cade and the grieving Briet go on the run and take refuge together in a deserted barn:
Briet had spent their shared drive asleep. Cade had seen no point to waking her. Once they were sheltered inside the barn, he’d set himself to work. He had compelled Seir, his demon of burden, to move the anvil closer to the car. Then he’d employed the fires of Xaphan to imbue the hunk of iron with Infernal heat, enough to keep him and Briet warm for most of the day. The rest of his labors he had seen to himself: using scrap wood, stones, and packed dirt to patch gaps in the walls, and bundles of straw to fill as many holes in the roof as he could reach.
Now if only we had brought something decent to eat, he lamented.
He heard Briet stir inside the car. She sat up in the backseat, pushing aside the extra layer of his bomber jacket, which he had placed over her the night before. She blinked and looked around, bleary-eyed and drowsy. “Where are we?”
“Southeast Colorado,” Cade said. “Middle of fuckin’ nowhere.”
She turned frantically to and fro, searching the car. “Trixim—?”
“He’s out back,” Cade said, wreathing himself in a short-lived halo of breath.
Briet clambered out of the car and rushed to Cade’s side, incensed. “You buried him?”
“Of course not. It’s ten below zero and there’s three feet of snow on the ground.” He stood and walked around Briet to the open car door. He reached in and pulled out their coats. He handed Briet her trench coat, and then he shrugged into his bomber jacket.
“Come on,” he said.
He led her to the barn’s back door, which hung at an angle from its rusted but still working hinges. It scraped and squeaked as the pair walked outside, down a path that Cade had shoveled a few hours earlier, after the snowfall had petered out. At the end of the path, in a small circular clearing, stood a two-foot-tall funeral pyre of twigs, kindling, and straw. Atop it, swaddled in a piece of floral-print cloth topped with pink silk roses, was the body of Trixim.
Briet stepped past Cade and stood beside the tiny pyre. She pressed her gloved fingertips to her lips and spent a moment looking verklempt.
Feeling awkward about the silence between them, Cade said, “The wood was easy to find. Most of it was in the barn, so it’s dry. Should light pretty quick.” Sensing that Briet still wasn’t up to speaking, he continued, “I checked what was left of the farmhouse. Found part of a window curtain. Used that for the shroud. Got the fake roses from a linen closet.”
Briet palmed a tear from her cheek. “You did all this for a rat?”
“Figured you’d want to say good-bye.” He reached inside his jacket’s front right pocket, pulled out his Zippo, and handed it to her. “When you’re ready.”
She declined his offer with a wave of her hand. “Thanks. Don’t need it.”
She faced the pyre and snapped her fingers. Fire sprang into being from its center. In a matter of seconds the wood and Trixim were consumed in tall orange flames.
They stood and watched it burn. Then she regarded him with more vulnerability than he had seen in another person since the death of his master Adair. “Thank you,” she said.
“Seemed like the right thing to do.”
The fire crackled and launched sparks into the gray morning sky.
There are a lot of details about this scene that I love, from simple gestures of compassion, such as Briet awakening beneath Cade’s jacket as a blanket, to the accessories that he seeks out to preserve the dignity of her familiar, which was killed beside them in battle. Up until this moment, Cade had been coarse in his dealings with Briet, who he was unable to see as anything except an ex-Nazi. Now, alone with her in a moment of sorrow, he sees that she is more than the sum of her past evils. He sees that she is every bit as complex and contradictory a soul as he is, and that her pain is as real as his. This moment is the beginning of true rapprochement between wartime foes, the start of a new alliance that can lead to friendship.
And that, as it happens, is what The Iron Codex is all about: letting go of the past in order to embrace the future, and passing through sorrow in order to emerge stronger on the other side.
David Mack is the award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of three dozen novels of science fiction, fantasy, and adventure. His new novel The Iron Codex is available now from Tor Books. Mack’s writing credits span several media, including television (for episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), film, short fiction, and comic books. He resides in New York City.
Ed Crowell is joining us today to talk about his graphic novel The Jekyll Island Chronicles: A Devil’s Reach, written with Steve Nedvidek, illustrated by Moses Nester. Here’s the publisher’s description:
The thrills continue in this critically acclaimed diesel-punk graphic novel series set in a sci-fi version of the early 20th century!
At the beginning of the twentieth century, one sixth of the world’s wealth vacationed in and around the tiny Georgia island of Jekyll. Captains of industry like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Morgan, and Carnegie all called the Jekyll area home. Blending elements of historical fact, clockwork technology, and diesel-punk style, The Jekyll Island Chronicles span an age of furious mechanical advancement while exploring the span of man’s soul – whether good or evil.
In Book Two of this alt-history adventure, Peter, Helen, and the rest of Carnegie’s “Specials” would like nothing more than to return to normalcy along with the rest of the country–especially after defeating their enemies in Book One. But the anarchists have other plans. Luigi Galleani and the Zeno cabal reach out from Europe, across the Atlantic, to wreak havoc, divide the enemy, build an army, and capture plans for the world’s deadliest weapon. If they are to be stopped, the tiny group of heroes from Jekyll will need to find new resolve, new resources, and new allies–and do it all before Nikola Tesla’s most terrible creation is unleashed.
What’s Ed’s favorite bit?
A Devil’s Reach (Book Two in The Jekyll Island Chronicles) is loaded with memorable scenes. There are battles, spy vs. spy moments, historical oddities – as well a few Easter Eggs – but my favorite bit is a dream.
To be fair, I need to explain some of the events in the first book, A Machine Age War, for the dream to make any sense. In that first novel Helen Huxley is introduced with the understated explanation that she is a woman “…from Innsmouth who had an electrical mishap during the war.” (Easter Egg alert). It is soon evident her body can conduct and even create an electrical charge, and this is creating no end of difficulties for her.
Helen falls to the ministrations of Charles Steinmetz and Nikola Tesla who see nothing but potential. With high enthusiasm they set about experimenting and augmenting her unusual quality and turn the lady into a powerful weapon. They deal with any physical effects, but it’s not clear she’s fully comfortable with who and what she’s being asked to become.
Other episodes in the first book hint at the turmoil within Helen. She voices her concerns to President Wilson, but her reticence about her talents is swept aside in the rush to battle evil forces and save innocent lives. She plays a pivotal and destructive part in the grand climax of the book and seems to be at peace with what she has done and what she has become…
Which is why I love the dream sequence in the second book so much.
In the pages that let us share Helen’s nightmare we learn about her history, her thoughts, her guilt and confusion. Helen had been a young, newly-minted nurse during the war. She’d taken the Florence Nightingale pledge to “serve and devote myself to the welfare of those committed to my care.” She’d volunteered to head toward the front lines with a willingness to risk herself to help others.
Near the front she learned the hard lesson that war is not neatly contained, that it doesn’t show consideration for those wearing a cross instead of a helmet or carrying a bandage instead of a gun. She saw things that burned in her memory and she lived through a disaster that burned her body. Perhaps she could have lived with the physical trauma, but there was more to come.
Helen seemed to become a diminished version of who she had been, but she also became something different. She would have gladly accepted the scars if she could have continued to be a nurse but was forced to leave the profession lest she prove a danger to herself and others. She was still wrestling with the complexities and contradictions of that situation when recruited to serve again. Then, the very power that troubled her was amplified by people who were supposedly helping. She learns to use and direct her newfound “talent” but not to fully control it. In fact, while using it to save thousands of lives, she kills dozens of others – and in her own thinking causes the death of a friend.
The dream sequence captures all of that, using beautiful haunting artwork to its fullest, taking the reader into the troubled psyche of Helen Huxley and showing us the demons that tear at her soul. Her dreams are a torment of grey Gothic naves, fire and lighting, faceless enemies and victims, personal failures, ghosts and guilt.
No matter the face she shows to the world, her nightmares describe how shattered Helen Huxley is. She’s fractured into conflicting pieces and the dream is her subconscious trying to reconstruct her, trying to reconcile who she intended to be, who she wanted to be, with what she has done and what she has become. The original pieces are still there: the selfless nurse, the competent assistant, the caring faithful friend, but they now share space with a damaged and scarred victim: a warrior, a killer and a very dangerous weapon.
The scene shows in its powerful dramatic panels the depth of the conflict in this reluctant hero and leaves open the question of whether the pieces can ever form a mosaic worth keeping. It’s my favorite bit and Helen is my favorite character. Her friends need her, so I surely hope she can work it out.
Ed Crowell is a science fiction and mystery author, world traveler, corporate CEO and head of a charity, a cryptocurrency miner and white-water enthusiast. He holds degrees from Liberty and Georgia State and writes fiction and nonfiction almost constantly. He lives outside Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and several rescued cats. He can be found as part of the Lost Mountain Mechanicals at www.jekyllislandchronicles.com
Shaun Barger is joining us today to talk about his novel Mage Against the Machine. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Harry Potter meets The Terminator in this action-packed adventure about a young man who discovers that everything he believed about his world is a lie.
The year is 2120. The humans are dead. The mages have retreated from the world after a madman blew up civilization with weaponized magical technology. Safe within domes that protect them from the nuclear wasteland on the other side, the mages have spent the last century putting their lives back together.
Nikolai is obsessed with artifacts from twentieth-century human life: mage-crafted replica Chuck Taylors on his feet, Schwarzenegger posters on his walls, Beatlemania still alive and well in his head. But he’s also tasked with a higher calling—to maintain the Veils that protect mage-kind from the hazards of the wastes beyond. As a cadet in the Mage King’s army, Nik has finally found what he always wanted—a purpose. But when confronted by one of his former instructors gone rogue, Nik tumbles into a dark secret. The humans weren’t nuked into oblivion—they’re still alive. Not only that, outside the domes a war rages between the last enclaves of free humans and vast machine intelligences.
Outside the dome, unprepared and on the run, Nik finds Jem. Jem is a Runner for the Human Resistance. A ballerina-turned-soldier by the circumstances of war, Jem is more than just a human—her cybernetic enhancement mods make her faster, smarter, and are the only things that give her a fighting chance against the artificial beings bent on humanity’s eradication.
Now Nik faces an impossible decision: side with the mages and let humanity die out? Or stand with Jem and the humans—and risk endangering everything he knows and loves?
What’s Shaun’s favorite bit?
When I was a kid, there was a moment in the first Harry Potter book that made me hate wizards.
Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE the Potter series. Like most Millennials, they were a powerful formative influence on me, both as a person and a writer.
But the wizards themselves?
The moment I realized that wizards suck came during Harry’s first trip to Diagon Alley, in which Hagrid explains the totally shitty reason wizards hide their super cushy magical existence from the humans they refer to as muggles:
“But what does a Ministry of Magic do?”
“Well, their main job is to keep it from the Muggles that there’s still witches an’ wizards up an’ down the country.”
“Why? Blimey, Harry, everyone’d be wantin’ magic solutions to their problems. Nah, we’re best left alone.”
(Page 51, UK Hardcover edition of Sorcerer’s Stone)
I put the book down. Little pissed off self-righteous 9th grade Shaun Barger.
“Ohhhhh, I’m sorry wizards,” I said, angrily chomping on a candy cigarette. “Is the AIDS epidemic inconvenient for you?
“Oh, are the millions of people currently trapped in a thriving contemporary slave trade just TOO much of a hassle to deal with?
“Can’t do us a solid and cure cancer, huh?
“Can’t hook it up with the unlimited clean energy thing, huh? Not into the idea of totally awesome magic space travel to distant galaxies made possible by the combined efforts of the scientific and magical communities, huh? HUH?”
Fucking wizards, man.
In 2011, soon after I began living in Hollywood in a house with three friends and my sister, I remembered this moment, and found myself thinking about the long-term repercussions of magical isolationism.
That, and robots. Scary, evil, robots.
Swept up in the idea, I began writing the first version of what would eventually become MAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE.
Great title, right? My sister came up with it, at a party. She awoke from a fever dream and came out of her room to shout across a courtyard full of drunk people over very loud music, while wearing pajamas.
“Mage Against the Machine!”
I raised my hand to my ear. “WHAT?”
“MAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE!”
I looked at her. Nodded, solemn.
The characters of MAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE have all been touched by the residual trauma of the separation of their worlds. Theirs is the story of that separation coming to end, in the most catastrophic and spectacular ways.
The following passage is a look into the world of magic in MAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE — a memory of childhood from our well-meaning but total-fucking-mess of a hero, Nikolai Strauss.
I wrote this scene on my way back from a Christmas family vacation in Santa Fe. My
dad was driving, and it was dark out. We’d been listening to the audiobook of The Sorcerer’s Stone, read by Jim Dale. I was sitting in the back seat with my kid sibs, alternating between furiously typed bouts of writing, and video game breaks playing Undertale.
I really love this scene, and the story it tells about the relationship between these deeply flawed characters.
I hope you like it, too.
One day, when Nikolai was eight, he’d hidden himself in a stall of the boys’ bathroom at his school, praying that nobody could hear him as he struggled through snot and tears to calm himself.
His mother’s lesson that morning had been particularly brutal, and all day he’d been distracted from class, struggling to breathe through the tightness in his chest that threatened to overwhelm him until he’d been forced to excuse himself.
He hated it—wished his body would listen to the cold logic of his brain, could listen to his mother’s voice calmly explaining that there were terrible things beyond the Veil, and that if she didn’t make him strong, he and the people he loved—the people he needed to protect—would be hurt. Die, even.
But Nikolai didn’t love anyone. Not really. His parents, of course. But did that even count? And weren’t they supposed to protect him?
A tiny fist pounded against the stall, hard enough to make him jump.
“What?” he said, yanking open the door to curse the intruder. Angry words died on his lips as he froze, stunned. Standing before him was a girl with short, straw-colored hair sticking out in all directions and a smattering of freckles across an upturned nose.
Her lips were pursed in a tight little frown—her chin jutted out defiantly as if she’d eaten something sour and was furious at the injustice that had been committed against her palate.
“W—what are you doing?” he asked her, hurriedly trying to wipe away evidence of his tears with a sleeve. “This is the boys’ room.”
“I used to cry like that,” she said, with a sort of twangy Southern Veil accent he’d never heard before.
“I wasn’t crying!” Nikolai said unconvincingly. “Crying is for babies.”
And Nikolai was no baby. Not after a year of his mother’s lessons, which she’d begun in secret when he was seven.
The girl gave Nikolai a knowing look with eyes too old for her little face. “My daddy used to call me stupid. And ugly. And he hit me. Then his mom always healed me so no one would know and told me to shut up when I cried.”
“His mom . . . your grandmom?” Nikolai said with wonder. His mother always did the same, using her golden mediglove Focal to heal his wounds and bruises with little clouds of sparkling light. Hiding what she’d done.
The girl crinkled her nose. “I guess. I hate her.” Who was this strange, angry little girl? He didn’t have any friends—didn’t need any friends—but there weren’t that many magi in his school and he knew everyone.
“I’m Astor,” she said, as if reading his mind. “I moved here last week from Blue Ridge. You’re the only one in our class who hasn’t talked to me yet. You don’t talk to anyone. And today you looked so sad. So I followed you.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, feeling ashamed. “I’m Nikolai. And I’m not sad, I just—”
“You should tell on them.” Nikolai froze. “What?”
“I know you don’t want to tell, ’cause you love them. But they don’t love you. Not really. Or they’d be nice.”
“You’re wrong,” Nikolai said, and looked away, unable to meet her eyes.
“I told on my dad,” she said. “He used to only hit me, but one time he started hitting my sister and she’s practically a baby.”
She stuck her chin out again with that defiant intensity only exaggerated by her wild crown of hair. “So I started calling him stupid and ugly and told him that I hated him so he would hit me instead. Mommy was always too scared to stop him so I ran away before his mom could heal me. It took all day but I found a Watchman and showed him and asked him to protect my sister.”
She beamed, proud, but Nikolai could tell it was for show. At least a little bit.
“So they took him to jail and he can’t talk to us anymore. We left his mom’s farm and came here to stay with my cousin.”
“I’m . . . glad,” Nikolai finally said. But he knew that he could never tell on his mom. His mom was an Edge Guard married to a Watchman. Even if they could arrest her, none of the Watchmen
would be strong enough to fight her anyway. She stared at him for a bit, pinching her chin thoughtfully with her thumb and her index finger. Then she nodded, having come to some sort of decision. “We’re friends now,” she said. “Everyone is nice here but they don’t get it.”
And that was that. Nikolai had made his first friend, and Astor wasn’t going to take no for an answer. She never took no for an answer.
Astor was very close to her cousin, a loudmouth class clown named George Stokes. And the moment she told Stokes, very seriously, that Nikolai was her friend now and Stokes had to be friends with him too, he just shrugged, said okay, and started treating Nikolai as if they’d been best friends their whole lives. Even though really, they’d been in the same class for two years and had never actually spoken.
Having friends changed everything for Nikolai. Stokes was funny—he was always joking around and laughing but never said anything mean about anyone. And when they watched the old human movies Stokes’s dad got for them from the university and something sad happened, Stokes would always think of some- thing happy to say, or at least try to make the others laugh.
Nikolai wasn’t sure Stokes had ever been sad. Not really—not like he and Astor. Because whenever they seemed down he would always start cracking jokes or fart and blame it on Astor, which never failed to make them all laugh—but it was in this sort of panic, like being sad was some sort of sickness he didn’t understand but couldn’t stand to see his friends suffer.
Astor and her little sister lived with Stokes until Astor’s mom saved up enough money as a waitress to get their own little apartment. Her clothing was all secondhand—frayed and stained and almost always too big for her. She pretended not to care but sometimes he would catch Astor looking at herself in the mirror and Nik could tell that no matter what she said, and no matter what he told her, a part of her still believed what her dad had said. About her being stupid. And ugly.
For the first time in his life, Nikolai knew what happiness was. In ashes and moments, at least. And when Nikolai was with Astor, there was this weird feeling in his stomach—this kind of warmth that made him want to smile and run around.
One day, not long after he and Astor had truly become inseparable, Nikolai got into his very first fight.
Astor tripped and fell during a game of tag—totally ate it, face-first in a puddle. She sat up and started laughing—grinning at Nikolai with a mask of mud, pretending that she’d transformed into some sort of monster as she began chucking handfuls of muck at him.
But then another mage said something that made her stop smiling. Nikolai couldn’t even remember his name now, or what he said exactly—all he could remember was that the mage had been one of the rich kids, and how ugly he looked when he and his friends started laughing, how ugly they all were when they pushed up their noses and started making pig noises at her.
It wasn’t the first time they’d teased her, though she’d been too proud to tell Stokes or Nikolai. Teased her for her clothing. Teased her for her tangled hair, which was rarely brushed because her mom was too busy with two jobs and taking care of Astor’s little sister. Teased her for being poor.
Watching Astor retreat inside herself as they mocked her was the first time that Nikolai had experienced a very specific kind of anger. He broke one mage’s nose, gave the other a black eye, and pinned the ringleader to the ground, forcing him to eat mud while telling the boy that he’d kill him if he ever made fun of Astor like that again.
It was only then that the horrified headmaster finally pulled Nikolai away, who, even as the much larger mage carried him off, continued thrashing and screaming threats back at the weeping boys.
It was the second time Nikolai had ever seen his Watchman father lose his temper.
“You could have killed them!” his father rumbled—barely raising his voice, but still terribly intimidating as he towered over him. Nikolai stared sullenly up at his father, his briefly broken but now-healed hand wrapped in ice, his still-bloody lip trembling.
Calming himself, Nikolai’s father explained that there was almost no fight you can’t talk your way out of—no mage you can’t reason with. That fighting should always be a last resort. That the most heroic thing a mage could do was to use reason instead of violence. To use kindness and love instead of anger, instead of hate. That there was always a choice, difficult as it might seem.
His mother, on the other hand, showed him how to coat his knuckles with a layer of hardened air, so he wouldn’t break his fingers next time he had to throw a punch.
She always was the practical one.
Nikolai never forgot how Astor slipped her muddy little hand into his as they waited outside the headmaster’s office for their parents to come get them after the fight. Never forgot how his mother’s lessons finally began to make sense.
Shaun Barger is a Los Angeles-based novelist who detests cold weather, idiot plotting, and fascism. He splits his days between writing, resisting the siren’s call of Hollywood’s eternally mild summer climes, and appeasing a tyrannical three-pound Chihuahua with peanut butter and apple slices. Mage Against the Machine is his first novel. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @ShaunBarger.
(Tor Books — August 21, 2018) Continuing the grand sweep of alternate history laid out in The Calculating Stars, The Fated Sky looks forward to 1961, when mankind is well-established on the moon and looking forward to its next step: journeying to, and eventually colonizing, Mars. Of course, the noted Lady Astronaut Elma York would like to go, […]