Archive for the ‘My Favorite Bit’ Category

My Favorite Bit: Michael Johnston talks about SOLERI

Favorite Bit iconMichael 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?

Soleri cover image


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.

My Favorite Bit: A.J. Hartley talks about FIREBRAND

Favorite Bit iconA.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?

Firebrand cover image


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.

Something big.

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.

No wonder Ang was terrified.


Read an excerpt

AJ Hartley’s Website

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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.

My Favorite Bit: J Tullos Hennig talks about SUMMERWODE

Favorite Bit iconJ Tullos Hennig is joining us today with her novel Summerwode. Here’s the publisher’s description:

The Summer King has come to the Wode…

Yet to which oath, head or heart, shall he hold?

Once known as the Templar assassin Guy de Gisbourne, dispossessed noble Gamelyn Boundys has come to Sherwood Forest with conflicted oaths. One is of duty: demanding he tame the forest’s druidic secrets and bring them back to his Templar Masters. The other oath is of heat and heart: given to the outlaw Robyn Hood, avatar of the Horned Lord, and the Maiden Marion, embodiment of the Lady Huntress. The three of them—Summerlord, Winter King, and Maiden of the Spring—are bound by yet another promise, that of fate: to wield the covenant of the Shire Wode and the power of the Ceugant, the magical trine of all worlds. In this last, also, is Gamelyn conflicted; spectres of sacrifice and death haunt him.

Uneasy oaths begin a collision course when not only Gamelyn, but Robyn and Marion are summoned to the siege of Nottingham by the Queen. Her promise is that Gamelyn will regain his noble family’s honour of Tickhill, and the outlaws of the Shire Wode will have a royal pardon.

But King Richard has returned to England, and the price of his mercy might well be more than any of them can afford…

What’s JTH’s favorite bit?

Summerwode cover image


The meeting of Robin Hood and Richard the Lionheart is the stuff of legend. It’s been told in ballads and books, portrayed in oils and watercolours, and played out in dim theatres—particularly on screen.

But with few exceptions (one being the excellent, atmospheric ITV series Robin of Sherwood), Richard is portrayed as the Illustrious Saviour King. He’s the one who returns from Crusade just in time to Right All Wrongs, vanquish the Evil Sheriff, and boot the arse of his sniveling younger brother Bad Prince John. He attends a ginormous kegger out in the forest with Robin Hood and the Merries, who’ve held the green bastions of Sherwood for her Rightful Lord. And he usually hands Marion over as a prize to the loyal outlaw leader.

Well, I’ve never been one to toe the party line.

But I do have to do Richard some justice. He was an efficient warrior with an undeniable magnetism. He must have loved his mother; the first thing he did upon ascending the throne was set her free from the prison where his father had kept her bunged up for years. Brought up a good son of Mother Church, mostly within the continental provinces of his Angevin family, he was well groomed in the predatory games and political marksmanship of medieval rule. Yet it’s likely his reign became a contribution to the already-downward Angevin slide. It’s also likely Richard had little use for the wet, green island where he was King, save as a war chest, or as Royal Forest to enclose and claim just in case he did decide to visit… a rarity.

It’s also pretty well accepted that he didn’t speak English.

Of course, few early medieval kings did.

But such contrary factoids writhe in a writer’s brain, burning. A King who doesn’t speak the language of his subjects. A Maiden who should be more than a mere prize. Even the inexplicable penchant for constructing a massive, impossible outlaw town in Sherwood Forest—one fit to support the aforementioned royal kegger—begged to be addressed.

So when I realised that “my” Robyn and the King were going to meet, I itched to dig in and transform that meeting from less of an exercise in implausibility to something more… well, genuine to my own sensibilities. And since the Books of the Wode were a subversive reimagining from the outset, (Robin, of course, long revered as the maestro of subversion), then why not twist this tail as well?

How can someone who truly believes they have chattel rights to everything—and granted by all-powerful god—be anything but a massively entitled piece of work? And if said person possesses remarkable charm and magnetism as well as that crown, then it just means they’ve an easier time convincing people of their puissance. Might makes right, all that.

And how can a Heathen peasant-turned-outlaw—one who’s garnered nothing but the whip and a burnt home as price for his existence, who has to watch as taxes and a literal king’s ransom not only beggar his land, but try to forbid him the forest he holds sacred—admire such a king? Robyn Hood is on a mission from his own god, by the by, and has no reason to trust Richard. He’s only  fierce loyalty to his sister Marion and his lover Gamelyn. The first has to convince him to try for a pardon, and the second has an inheritance at stake that could provide sanctuary even for those branded wolfsheads, sodomites, and pagans.

Richard isn’t evil, but he’s certainly no peach. So the reality in Summerwode has to reflect how an entitled monarch usually gets whatever he wants—and has the power to either raise it above itself or destroy it.

And he doesn’t speak English! Which made for some necessary translators, twisty conversations, and volatile confrontations between the King of England and the very north English, very arsy King of the Shire Wode:


“He has always preferred the campsite and his men about him to any court. No doubt you, master archer, can understand such things.” Mercadier’s Anglic faltered, trimmed heavily with the nasal hum of Frank talk, but he spoke it well enough. Though he did seem to have more problems understanding Robyn than Robyn did him, and was much less patient than was mannerly.

“Nowt better than a clear night and a fire with t’ Wode all ’round,” Robyn replied, soft.

Mercadier paused in his application of wood splits below the roasting meat and frowned, parsing the words slowly. Richard, lounging with powerful arms crossed, spoke a soft patter of Frank to his captain, chuckled as he answered, spoke again.

It was Mercadier’s, this time, to laugh. “He says his half-brother the Archbishop of York is correct. England’s northern shires do speak a language unintelligible to all but their own.”

Says one who waint arse himself to speak any Anglic tongue, Robyn thought but did not say. Instead he let his speech curl even more into those “northern shires.” “’M fair upskelled tha’s nobles loosed milord King wi’ nobbut ussen.”

Mercadier blinked. Frowned. Robyn hid a smirk beneath a scratch to his beard.

“Again?” Mercadier demanded—and well, but Robyn had to give him that much for tenacity. “Slow, si’l vous plaît.”

No sense of humor, these Franks.

I hope the results are compelling—and genuine.

Many thanks, Mary, for your generosity in sharing your blog space for this newest instalment in the Wode books. Cheers!


Amazon Author Page

JTH Website

Musings blog



The Wode Facebook Page

JTH’s Facebook Profile



J Tullos Hennig has always possessed inveterate fascination in the myths and histories of other worlds and times. Despite having maintained a few professions in this world—equestrian, dancer, teacher, artist—Jen has never successfully managed to not be a writer. Ever.

Her most recent work is a darkly magical historical fantasy series re-imagining the legends of Robin Hood, in which both pagan and queer viewpoints are given respectful & realistic voice.

My Favorite Bit: Rebecca Roland talks about SHATTERED FATES

Favorite Bit iconRebecca Roland is joining us today with her novel Shattered Fates. Here’s the publisher’s description:

The magic barrier protecting the Taakwa from their enemies, the Maddion, is gone. Malia, who led the Taakwa against the Maddion in the Dragon War, must convince the magical being, the changer, to repair the barrier before the Maddion invade to take revenge on her people and the winged Jeguduns who also call the valley home, even if it means reversing the healing the changer wrought for her.

Chanwa, the wife of the Maddion leader, uses the disorder created by the changer to lead a coup against her husband in a desperate attempt to ensure she and the other Maddion women are treated as equals. Her life, and the future of every Maddion woman, depends on her success.

Both women know the only way to succeed is to come together in an unlikely alliance.

What’s Rebecca’s favorite bit?

Shattered Fates cover image


A large portion of Shattered Fates, the third and final novel in my Shards of History series, focuses on the Maddion, a patriarchal society introduced in the first novel. They are a bloodthirsty, dragon-riding society that constantly underestimates women, their enemies, and pretty much anyone who isn’t them. They are, in fact, a huge reason I continued writing this series. The first book was initially meant to stand alone, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters, in particular, the Maddion women. I imagined them living in the aftermath of war as their people continued to die from an illness introduced in the first book. I really wanted to know what they were up to. I really wanted to give them the chance to stand up for themselves and fight for a better life.

But how do you fight back when you don’t want to hurt those you’re fighting against? How do you get the attention of those you love, and who are supposed to love you? How do you fight when you have no weapons to speak of? The Maddion men favor their weapons and their dragons. To them, power is physical strength, might, and knowledge.

Around the time I was writing Shattered Fates, I read a book called Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War by Leymah Gbowee. In her story I saw the story of the Maddion women. Gbowee grew up during the Liberian civil war and was a victim of domestic abuse. She had no power to speak of and no weapons, and yet she brought together Christian and Muslim women to help bring a more peaceful existence to Liberia. They did it without raising so much as a finger, much less any sort of weapon. And in the coming together between Christian and Muslim women, I also saw how the divergent societies in my fictional world were coming together.

My favorite bit of Shattered Fates is the inevitable revolution led by the most vulnerable members of the population. And it serves as a much needed reminder (to me, at least) that often our brains are much more powerful and capable weapons than our fists when it comes to fighting for what is right.


Publisher’s Website



Barnes & Noble



Rebecca is the author of the Shards of History series, The Necromancer’s Inheritance series, and The King of Ash and Bones, and Other Stories. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Nature, Flash Fiction Online, Fantasy Scroll Magazine, New Myths, and Every Day Fiction, and she is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. You can find out more about her and her work at or follow her on Twitter at @rebecca_roland.

My Favorite Bit: Selena Chambers talks about CALLS FOR SUBMISSION

Favorite Bit iconSelena Chambers is joining us today with her collection of short stories Calls For Submission. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Selena Chambers’ debut collection guides readers out of space and time and through genre and mythos to explore the microcosmic horrors of identity, existence, and will in the face of the world’s adamant calls for submission. Victorian tourists take a virtual trip through their (and the Ottoman empire’s) ideal Orient; a teenage girl learns about independence and battle of the bands, all while caring for her mesmerized, dead mother; a failed Beat poet goes over the edge while exploring the long-abandoned Government Lethal Chambers. Visceral, evocative, and with a distinct style that is both vintage and fresh, Calls for Submission introduces a glowing, new writer of the weird and strange.

What’s Selena’s favorite bit?

Calls For Submission cover image


Calls for Submission is my debut collection from Pelekinesis. It features 15 of my very best short stories, including “The Neurastheniac,” which was nominated for a World Fantasy award last year. There’s Steampunk, Decopunk, Poepathy and Lovecraftiana, weird historical fiction, and straight up Gothic horrors with punk rock twists. Oh, and a lot of ladies.

The title summarizes the collection’s mission statement:  to examine the microcosmic horrors of identity, existence, and will in the face of the world’s adamant calls for submission. It’s also a double entendre as every story in this collection was written for specific editors. While it is easy to loose your mission in doing work for others, I actually found mine, and so this collection also demonstrates how I developed and subverted genre’s calls to submit.

Having said all that, my favorite bit has nothing to do with a story. It’s the dedication page:

“To the Babes: Kat, Lori, Michelle, and Maureen. You all inspired me to pick up the axe, and when that didn’t work out, the pen.”

Babes in Toyland is a punk rock band formed in the 1990s. They produced a total of five studio albums, To Mother, Spanking Machine, Fontanelle, Painkillers, and Nemesisters. They promoted other girls to pick up guitars and get behind the drums, and when girls like me grew up, they inspired other modes of expression, like horror stories.

I was around 12-years old when I first encountered them. I was browsing in the record store and Painkillers had just come out. The cassette caught my attention even though I had no idea what they sounded like. I knew Sonic Youth and Nirvana liked them, so they were probably cool. The endorsements weren’t what made me blow my allowance on the EP, though. It was the Cindy Sherman cover:  a propped baby doll posed in such a way that it appeared its head was that of a grotesque clown mask. Totally messed up!

Broken dolls would be a major aesthetic motif of the band. Front person Kat Bjelland even crafted an entire fashion around it. With blunt bangs barely held together with plastic toddler barrettes and vintage baby doll dresses, she sported a seminal look that would become known as Kinderwhore, and presented a demented domestic look that would be completely shattered when she took the stage with her Rickenbacker.

I was really interested in disassembled dolls back then, having mutilated a few of my own and displayed them in my room to my parents joy. It was an aesthetic pretty easy to indulge in as it was a popular motif among bands at that time. But none of them did it like this. This was about deconstructing womanhood. As I intuited this on a very basic level, my big philosophical question became: “What do you suppose this sounds like?”

Trying to describe what it was like hearing Babes in Toyland for the first time has me stumped. I’m past deadline now trying to get it right. But how do you describe an auditory tornado? Steam roller riffs, skull hammering beats, and the Banshee-Siren maelstrom of Kat Bjelland screaming, swearing, pleading and bleeding all over the studio? Distortion and discord parting and mingling with fragile melody and lyrics hardened by wit and irony to hide the vulnerable, gooey uncertainties in the middle? Ugh, doesn’t even come close, but it’ll have to do.

Everything—from the soft surrealist lyrics, to the single-worded album names to their dumpster baby doll imagery—both suggested and destroyed the notion of femaleness. It was this double-edged femininity I’d continue to be drawn too and utilize to express my own art. It was like all the anger, confusion, frustration, and ambivalence I felt had became justified because these women knew it too. Maybe others did—maybe this was actually pretty normal?

As a grew up, the influences became more implicit and subconscious.

At 24, when I decided I wanted to explore horror in my work, I was driven by a notion to explore fears of the feminine. The examples I had were Modernist and Surrealist influences, but I wanted my efforts to be more graphic, and so to help me work out my mission I secretly labeled my type of horror as Foxcore, after the term eventually applied to Babes, and other bands like L7 and Hole.

At 35, while arranging this collection, I found the same aesthetic motif that attracted me to the Babes—broken dolls, lost children, automata, and women who do it for themselves—were all present. An element further driven home by Joan Horne’s Shermanesque cover.

Without not only their music, but their aesthetic, I would have never been introduced to the possibilities of feminine fierceness, artistic fearlessness that have defined my own voice. For all of that, I am eternally grateful, and that is why my favorite bit of Calls for Submission is the dedication. It is a cue to where it all began. Thanks, again, Babes!


Author website


Calls for Submission is available from Pelekinesis


Barnes and Noble



Rising Shadow

Indigo (Canada)






24 Symbols


Selena Chambers’ fiction and non-fiction have been nominated for a Pushcart, Best of the Net, Hugo, and two World Fantasy awards. Writing as S. J. Chambers in 2011, she co-authored the critically-acclaimed and best-selling The Steampunk Bible with Jeff Vandermeer (Abrams Image), but has since eschewed the initials. Her debut fiction collection, Calls for Submission, is now available through Pelekinesis. You can find out more about her work and happenings at or on Twitter at @basbleuzombie.

My Favorite Bit: Alan Smale talks about EAGLE AND EMPIRE

Favorite Bit iconAlan Smale is joining us today with his novel Eagle and Empire. Here’s the publisher’s description:

The award-winning author of Clash of Eagles and Eagle in Exile concludes his masterly alternate-history saga of the Roman invasion of North America in this stunning novel.

Roman Praetor Gaius Marcellinus came to North America as a conqueror, but after meeting with defeat at the hands of the city-state of Cahokia, he has had to forge a new destiny in this strange land. In the decade since his arrival, he has managed to broker an unstable peace between the invading Romans and a loose affiliation of Native American tribes known as the League.

But invaders from the west will shatter that peace and plunge the continent into war: The Mongol Horde has arrived and they are taking no prisoners.

As the Mongol cavalry advances across the Great Plains leaving destruction in its path, Marcellinus and his Cahokian friends must summon allies both great and small in preparation for a final showdown. Alliances will shift, foes will rise, and friends will fall as Alan Smale brings us ever closer to the dramatic final battle for the future of the North American continent.

What’s Alan’s favorite bit?

Eagle and Empire cover image


The Mongols are coming!

Yep, Book Three is where everything comes together; where all the wheels that have been set in motion throughout the Clash of Eagles series finally, um, smash into one another. It begins with the city of Cahokia and the forces of Rome in an uneasy alliance that’s constantly on the verge of collapsing into violence and – as must be obvious from the book blurb – powers its way forward to a climactic confrontation with the forces of Genghis Khan on the Great Plains, a terrain so similar to the steppes of Asia that the Mongols hold a significant advantage.

So there’s plenty of action in Eagle and Empire, but there’s also closure for a number of other story arcs that have absorbed me (and hopefully some of you) for many years. Because, while summaries of the books naturally focus on the battles and other large-scale action, I also really enjoy the many character interactions.

In addition to my battered hero, Gaius Marcellinus, we have Tahtay, once seriously wounded in battle, half Blackfoot, but now war chief of Cahokia. There’s Kimimela, Marcellinus’s adopted daughter and an increasingly competent pilot of the great Cahokian Hawk craft – effectively hang gliders made of sticks, skins, and sinew. There’s the precociously smart Enopay, who you can always rely on for a piercing opinion or a wisecrack. These characters we met as kids have now grown up into lives they could never have foreseen.

And then there’s Sintikala, chief of the Hawk Clan, whose face graces the cover of Eagle and Empire. (I am deliriously happy with this cover, by the way. Love what Del Rey have done with all my covers, but this one is exceptional.) And I’ve really enjoyed writing a number of the other characters: Taianita, once a captive in the hostile Mississippi city of Shappa Ta’atan and now struggling to make a future for herself as a warrior; Akecheta, the Cahokian centurion; the warriors Mahkah and Takoda; Hanska, veteran female warrior of Cahokia. The deceitful Pezi. Aelfric, the snarky Briton. The Emperor Hadrianus III and his generals Lucius Agrippa and Decinius Sabinus. I’m getting all nostalgic even typing the names. Each has some big moments in the third book.

And, in whatever space my characters really inhabit, I’d like to apologize to some of them for the things I put them through in Eagle and Empire.

There are scenes in Empire that I’d been looking forward to writing for years. Some are way too spoilery to use here. So for my Favorite Bit we’re coming back to Cahokia, that great Mississippian Culture city of 20,000 inhabitants and 120 platform, conical, and ridge mounds. Cahokia is deep in the heart of Nova Hesperia (located where St. Louis is now), and so central to the story that it’s practically a character in its own right.

In all the years Marcellinus had spent in Cahokia he had never been atop the Great Mound at night. He had stood there when the sun set, first when his life was in Great Sun Man’s hands and later when Tahtay had taken over as paramount chief, but he had always left before dusk was over and full night had descended.

And this night was especially dark. It was the new moon, and heavy cloud blanketed the city in humidity, shrouding the starlight. The cedar steps up the mound were mostly level and even, but Marcellinus had still managed to trip over his own feet several times on his way to the mound’s crest. Once there, he stopped and turned. Despite the heat, Cahokia was studded with cooking fires. Their smoke, along with the aroma of roasting meat and corn, reached Marcellinus even at this height. Within and between the houses, often appearing to float back and forth through the streets and across the plazas, were the faint glows of lanterns in the hands of Cahokians going about their duties before turning in for the night.

Marcellinus looked left. Far away to the east were the bluffs, but he could not see them in the haze. Closer was the steady glow of the foundry in the steelworks and a much fainter glimmer of lamplight from the Big Warm House. In the summer months they let the furnaces idle, but the older Cahokians still went to the baths to soak their aching limbs in the hot air and cool water and complain about their grandchildren.

To his right the fires and lamps of western Cahokia extended as far as the river in cheerful disarray, all but disappearing into the murk. But beyond them the fortress of Legio III Parthica shone bright, its walls and streets defined by rows of brilliant military lanterns. By comparison with the scattered flames of Cahokia the castra looked oddly square and sharp, almost sinister.

And behind Marcellinus stood the Longhouse of the Wings, long and dark.

Marcellinus is there to meet Sintikala, love of his life, but finds a despondent Tahtay there instead. With Rome so near, and so many divided allegiances, it’s the only place they can talk without the risk of being overheard:

“Even in the sweat lodge I cannot speak freely. Only here in the center of Cahokia, where we are the only men on a great and sacred mound inside a tall palisade, while Wahchintonka, Dustu, and a few other trusted men guard the gates below.”

It’s to be their last meeting before Marcellinus heads off to Yupkoyvi, in the desert southwest (the place we know today as Chaco Canyon, with its Great Houses of the Ancestral Puebloan culture). Marcellinus and Tahtay discuss the future: their strategies for dealing with the Emperor and his army and trying to avoid further bloodshed, and the steps that Tahtay will take with the Hesperian League of allied tribes in Marcellinus’s absence. They fumble their way through matters of fragile diplomacy and political intrigue, so alien to either of their personalities. And, finally, they talk of much more personal matters. The topics Marcellinus and Tahtay discuss by night on the Great Mound will ripple through to the very end of the book, and the friendship that is solidified here will be crucial to its resolution.

And that’s my third Favorite Bit, and a wrap for the Clash of Eagles series. Thanks again, Mary, for letting me talk about them all here!



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Alan Smale grew up in Yorkshire, England, and now lives in the Washington, D.C., area. By day he works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center as a professional astronomer, studying black holes, neutron stars, and other bizarre celestial objects. However, too many family vacations at Hadrian’s Wall in his formative years plus a couple of degrees from Oxford took their toll, steering his writing toward alternate, secret, and generally twisted history. He has sold numerous short stories to magazines including Asimov’s and Realms of Fantasy, and the novella version of Clash of Eagles won the 2010 Sidewise Award for Alternate History.

My Favorite Bit: Carrie Patel talks about THE SONG OF THE DEAD

Favorite Bit iconCarrie Patel is joining us today with her novel The Song of the Dead. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Finally, the lost histories of the Catastrophe will be revealed and with them the ultimate fate of the buried city of Recoletta in the dramatic conclusion to Carrie Patel’s trilogy.

With Ruthers dead and the Library Accord signed by Recoletta, its neighbours, and its farming communes, Inspector Malone and laundress Jane Lin are in limbo as the city leaders around them vie for power.

A desperate attempt to save Arnault from execution leads to Malone’s arrest and Jane’s escape. They must pursue each other across the sea to discover a civilization that has held together over the centuries. There they will finally learn the truths about the Catastrophe that drove their own civilization underground.

What’s Carrie’s favorite bit?

The Song of the Dead cover image


The Song of the Dead is the final book in the Recoletta trilogy, which follows the adventures of Inspector Liesl Malone and laundress Jane Lin as they navigate the political intrigues of rival underground city-states. Each book approaches their story in a slightly different way, and The Song of the Dead is primarily a journey novel about their escape from the city of Recoletta and their search for distant lands and difficult answers.

My favorite part of this book is the execution scene at the very beginning in which Malone is led to the gallows by the leaders of Recoletta.

Once upon a time, in an earlier draft, this scene appeared at the end of the first third. My critique partners were giving me feedback, and one of them remarked, “You know, this would make a great opening for a short story.” We all got to talking about what that would mean for the structure of the first third and how it might work, and I realized that was a completely feasible adjustment.

Not only was it feasible, it was better.

First, it’s one of the more urgent scenes in the early story. One of the two series protagonists is being marched to her death by representatives of the city she’s spent two books defending. The scene introduces stakes, tension, and questions right off the bat. How better to begin?

Secondly, it does a better job of establishing the story than a purely chronological sequence would have. The early events of The Song of the Dead take place in Recoletta, and yet most of the story is about the wider world beyond the city. It’s about the intervention of forces larger than Jane or Malone imagined, and it’s about seeking answers to questions that have been raised from the first book—what catastrophe drove these cities underground? Did anything else survive?

What interrupts Malone’s hanging is the harbinger of a distant civilization, a man with many questions of his own. The journey they undertake together—each seeking answers as well as salvation for their own particular civilizations—is what the story is really about.

The beginning of the novel, on the other hand, shows how Malone’s careful plans for peace fall apart. It follows the series of conflicts and dilemmas that send her to the gallows, that exile Jane, and that trigger a transcontinental chase between the two women. These events are critical to the development of the story and the characters, but the execution scene presents a clearer image of where the rest of the novel is headed.

Of course, this restructuring created a quandary. How do you tell the story of the beginning when you’re opening with the middle?

In the end, resolving this led to what is, in my opinion, one of the greater strengths of this approach: the framing narrative.

Ultimately, The Song of the Dead is about the stories people tell one another and the way those stories take on a lives of their own. The first third of the novel unfolds in two parallel retellings, with Malone recounting the story of the events that led to her (aborted) execution to her mysterious rescuer and Jane explaining how she became a traitor and exile to someone else. There’s some careful calculation in what the two women choose to tell their interlocuters, and there’s some obvious miscalculation in what they’ve assumed about each other.

This sets them up for two parallel journeys and two searches for answers that call into question what they think they knew about themselves and their world.

Why save the best for last? Start with the good stuff.



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Carrie Patel is a novelist, game designer, and expatriate Texan. She is the author of the Recoletta trilogy, which includes the science fantasy murder mystery The Buried Life (2015), the political thriller Cities and Thrones (2015), and the upcoming The Song of the Dead (May 2017), published by Angry Robot. Her short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and PodCastle

As narrative designer and game writer, she works for Obsidian Entertainment, an award-winning development studio known for story-driven RPGs. She worked on Pillars of Eternity, which was nominated nominated by the Writers Guild of America for Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing, and its expansions, The White March Part I and II. She is currently writing for Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire.

My Favorite Bit: Robyn Bennis talks about THE GUNS ABOVE

Favorite Bit iconRobyn Bennis is joining us today with her novel The Guns Above. Here’s the publisher’s description:

In the tradition of Honor Harrington and the high-flying Temeraire series, Bennis’s THE GUNS ABOVE is an adventurous military fantasy debut about a nation’s first female airship captain.

They say it’s not the fall that kills you.

For Josette Dupre, the Corps’ first female airship captain, it might just be a bullet in the back.

On top of patrolling the front lines, she must also contend with a crew who doubts her expertise, a new airship that is an untested deathtrap, and the foppish aristocrat Lord Bernat, a gambler and shameless flirt with the military know-how of a thimble. Bernat’s own secret assignment is to catalog her every moment of weakness and indecision.

So when the enemy makes an unprecedented move that could turn the tide of the war, can Josette deal with Bernat, rally her crew, and survive long enough to prove herself?

What’s Robyn’s favorite bit?

The Guns Above cover image


I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to admit this, but my favorite bit of The Guns Above is the loveable sexist, Bernat. If you’re hearing an odd sort of whirring right now, that’s the sound of every previous reader of this article rolling their eyes so hard they’ve left a psychic imprint in the HTML. But perhaps we should first take a look at Bernat at his best:

She said in a quiet hiss, “I swear, if that isn’t a roll of coins in your trousers, I will throw you overboard and tell everyone it was a tragic accident.”

The object in his pants was, in fact, a roll of coins—part of his first week’s payment from Uncle Fieren. “My dear captain,” he said, loud enough for the entire work party to hear, “take it as a compliment.”

She tensed even more. “Are all aristocrats such uncouth animals?”

“If I have given any offence,” he said, “you need only call me out, and I will happily offer satisfaction.”

This elicited some snickers from the crew, which Dupre silenced with a glance. “I take that to mean a duel,” she said, “and I am sorely tempted by the thought.”

“Would you prefer pistols at dawn, or shall I visit you in the night with my longsword?”

Many of Bernat’s most sexist moments are based on experiences I’ve actually had, courtesy of people I now despise. Even so, he’s not only my favorite character, but my favorite achievement, because I succeeded in making him loveable in spite of his sexism (not to mention his many other flaws.) I stress the “in spite of,” as Bernat is not meant to be loveable because of his sexism, which is the direction the lovable sexist trope usually goes in.

The entire world of The Guns Above is filled with rampant sexism, which blunts the trope a bit, but what really sells it is that he pays for it in a way that isn’t just the punchline of a joke. He pays with the sort of emotional turmoil and self-doubt that accompanies personal growth. Bernat becomes a slightly better person, but it’s a painful journey. He doesn’t come to an epiphany, nor do the women in his life come to see his sexism as harmless—and they certainly don’t escape harm from it. To put it bluntly, Bernat’s playful sexism threatens to destroy careers and even lives, not unlike playful sexism in the real world.

Yet readers love him. It certainly helps that every major character in the book is some sort of monster or another, so Bernat doesn’t look quite as bad by comparison. Plus, he and Josette share a quick and biting wit. Their verbal sparring matches are delightful, if I do say so myself, and I’ve found that readers are willing to forgive almost anything in a character who can deliver a really killer burn.

“I do apologize for the intrusion, but I simply had to know what put you in such a state of dread at the thought of coming to Durum. Now I see that you were afraid I’d steal your dear mother away and take her home with me. Well, you may put your mind at ease, Captain. It’s such a lovely town, I think the two of us will live here.”

The captain rolled her eyes. “If it would get you off my goddamn ship, I would happily give you my mother, and throw a couple of aunts into the bargain.”

“Your generosity is admirable, Captain. But really, it’s not such a large house. One aunt will do, I think.”

She leaned toward the stairs and shouted up, “Mother! Does Aunt Yvette still live in town?”

Elise’s voice was strangely muffled when she called back, “Why do you want to know?”

The captain’s eyes shifted to Bernat, and back to the stairs. “Just wanted to catch up.”

When early readers expressed their undying love for Bernat, but still saw him as the colossal jerk he is, I breathed a big sigh of relief. I wasn’t sure I had the writing chops to pull that off, but I’d really done it. I’d done it for that small and friendly audience, anyway. We’ll have to see what happens when my little book goes out into the wider world.

Provisionally, however, Bernat is that rare, loveable sexist who doesn’t normalize loveable sexism, making him my favorite bit of The Guns Above.


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Robyn Bennis is an author and scientist living in Mountain View, California, where she consults in biotech but dreams of airships. Her apartment lies within blocks of Moffett Airfield’s historic Hanger One, which once sheltered America’s largest flying machines. The sight of it rising above its surroundings served as daily inspiration while she wrote her debut novel, The Guns Above.

My Favorite Bit: Marie Brennan talks about WITHIN THE SANCTUARY OF WINGS

Favorite Bit iconMarie Brennan is joining us today with her novel Within the Sanctuary of Wings. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Within the Sanctuary of Wings is the conclusion to Marie Brennan’s thrilling Lady Trent Memoirs

After nearly five decades (and, indeed, the same number of volumes), one might think they were well-acquainted with the Lady Isabella Trent–dragon naturalist, scandalous explorer, and perhaps as infamous for her company and feats of daring as she is famous for her discoveries and additions to the scientific field.

And yet–after her initial adventure in the mountains of Vystrana, and her exploits in the depths of war-torn Eriga, to the high seas aboard The Basilisk, and then to the inhospitable deserts of Akhia–the Lady Trent has captivated hearts along with fierce minds. This concluding volume will finally reveal the truths behind her most notorious adventure–scaling the tallest peak in the world, buried behind the territory of Scirland’s enemies–and what she discovered there, within the Sanctuary of Wings.

What’s Marie’s favorite bit?

Within the Sanctuary of Wings cover image


My favorite bit of Within the Sanctuary of Wings in specific, and the Memoirs of Lady Trent as a whole, is the ending.

And I mean the very ending. Not the climax of the story, but literally the last 120 words of the book.

Which surprises me, because man, those last few sentences? They’re usually one of the hardest parts for me. It’s tough to end a short story, tougher to end a novel, and a whole series? Yeeks. The weight there is enormous. Five books about Lady Trent, taking her from childhood to her status as one of the most famous and respected people in the world — how do you end that? What knot do you use to tie off the ends when the pattern is done?

I expected it to be incredibly hard. I made my way through the Afterword, handling the usual tasks of denouement, and all the while a little voice in the back of my head was asking, what note are we going end on? What flavor do I want to leave in the reader’s mind when they close the book?

And then it came to me. The instant I thought of it, I knew it was right, and those last 120 words flowed out of me like . . . well, like a couple of tears might have done, had I not sniffled them back.

I could quote the passage to you right now, because it isn’t a spoiler. It’s the inevitable consequence of what the story has been about this entire time — the energy at its heart. But I don’t think it will have quite the same impact when taken out of context, so instead I’ll tell you that Lady Trent’s final words to her readers are about science and the ever-changing face of what we know about the world around us. Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” There are no dragons in our world, and so no one can quite stand on Lady Trent’s metaphorical shoulders; but nonetheless it’s an invitation to do exactly that, to carry forward the work of discovery for generations to come.

Damn it. Now I’m sniffling again.

I hope that when you get there, you do, too.




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Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. She is currently misapplying her professors’ hard work to the Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent; the first book of that series, A Natural History of Dragons, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award. Cold-Forged Flame, the first novella in the Varekai series, came out in September 2016. She is also the author of the Doppelganger duology of Warrior and Witch, the urban fantasies Lies and Prophecy and Chains and Memory, the Onyx Court historical fantasy series, and more than forty short stories. For more information, visit

My Favorite Bit: Dan Koboldt talks about THE ISLAND DECEPTION

Favorite Bit iconDan Koboldt is joining us today with his novel The Island Deception. Here’s the publisher’s description:

What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas. But what happens after you step through a portal to another world, well…

For stage magician Quinn Bradley, he thought his time in Alissia was over. He’d done his job for the mysterious company CASE Global Enterprises, and now his name is finally on the marquee of one of the biggest Vegas casinos. And yet, for all the accolades, he definitely feels something is missing. He can create the most amazing illusions on Earth, but he’s also tasted true power. Real magic.

He misses it.

Luckily–or not–CASE Global is not done with him, and they want him to go back. The first time, he was tasked with finding a missing researcher. Now, though, he has another task: Help take Richard Holt down.

It’s impossible to be in Vegas and not be a gambler. And while Quinn might not like his odds–a wyvern nearly ate him the last time he was in Alissia–if he plays his cards right, he might be able to aid his friends.

He also might learn how to use real magic himself.

Continuing the exciting adventures from The Rogue Retrieval, The Island Deception blends fun and mystery into a brilliant new fantasy from Dan Koboldt.

What’s Dan’ favorite bit?

The Island Deception cover image


Quinn Bradley, the protagonist of my series, is a stage magician from Las Vegas who’s hired to infiltrate a secret medieval world. He has access to holograms, electronics, and other modern technologies that the other world hasn’t seen before. Even so, my favorite bit in THE ISLAND DECEPTION is Quinn’s ability to use simple sleight of hand.

In the real world, our world, stage magic is among the oldest performing arts on record. One of the earliest books on the subject, Gantziony’s Natural and Unnatural Magic, was published in 1489. Stage magicians were a common form of public entertainment before the 18th century. Quick-fingered deception, in other words, is hardly a novel concept.

My protagonist just happens to be really good at it.

Is there any natural ability involved? Probably. The inherently dextrous tend to be drawn to performance magic, just as the inherently clumsy tend to avoid glassblowing. Yet what sets Quinn apart — what sets most successful illusionists apart — is a willingness to put in the work. He masters tricks with cards, coins, ropes, and other everyday objects. He practices every trick for countless hours, until he can execute it perfectly every time. Even better, he’s already gone through the training montage when the story starts.

A medieval world offers many opportunities to use such skills. Quinn is not the kind of person to pass them up, either. Sometimes he uses illusions to get out of a jam, or to obtain something the mission requires. Other times, he does it simply because he can. Here’s an example from The Island Deception:

The pocket on his jacket yawned open to reveal one of the fat Alissian gold coins the lab had minted for this mission.
Quinn plucked it out between two fingers, light-touch, and palmed it. “Can’t you help me out? I’ll make it worth your while.” He grinned and held up the coin.
Mendez frowned. “Where’d you get that? I just had one of those.”
“I know.” Quinn flipped it to him so that it spun in the air with that high-pitched metallic ring. I never get tired of that sound.
Mendez caught it one-handed. But when he opened his hand, it was a crude penny. “Hey!”
Quinn still had the gold coin, and now he danced it across all ten fingers. “I can do this all day.”

Sharp wits and quick fingers are certainly advantageous when posing as a magician in a medieval world. But they also have the tendency to get Quinn into trouble, because he just can’t help himself. In the first book, his inclination to show off came with a price: the world has real magicians of its own, and the penalty for impersonating one is death.

Then again, the existence of true magic is what motivates Quinn to return to Alissia in The Island Deception. He’s tasted real magic, and now he misses it. More than that, he can’t help but wonder if it would be possible to bring some of that power back into our world. Real magic would certainly put him “one ahead” (as magicians say), and that’s exactly where Quinn Bradley wants to be.


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Dan Koboldt is a genetics researcher and fantasy/science fiction author. He has co-authored more than 70 publications in Nature, Science, The New England Journal of Medicine, and other scientific journals. Dan is also an avid deer hunter and outdoorsman. He lives with his wife and children in Ohio, where the deer take their revenge by eating the flowers in his backyard.

My Favorite Bit: Renee Patrick talks about DANGEROUS TO KNOW

Favorite Bit iconRenee Patrick is joining us today with their novel Dangerous to Know. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Los Angeles, 1938. Former aspiring actress Lillian Frost is adjusting to a new life of boldfaced names as social secretary to a movie-mad millionaire. Costume designer Edith Head is running Paramount Pictures’ wardrobe department, but only until a suitable replacement comes along. The two friends again become partners thanks to an international scandal, a real-life incident in which the war clouds gathering over Europe cast a shadow on Hollywood.

Lillian attended the Manhattan dinner party at which well-heeled guests insulted Adolf Hitler within earshot of a maid with Nazi sympathies. Now, secrets the maid vengefully spilled have all New York society running for cover – and two Paramount stars, Jack Benny and George Burns, facing smuggling charges.

Edith also seeks Lillian’s help on a related matter. The émigré pianist in Marlene Dietrich’s budding nightclub act has vanished. Lillian reluctantly agrees to look for him. When Lillian finds him dead, Dietrich blames agents of the Reich. As Lillian and Edith unravel intrigue extending from Paramount’s Bronson Gate to FDR’s Oval Office, only one thing is certain: they’ll do it in style.

Renee Patrick’s Dangerous to Know beguilingly blends forgotten fact and fanciful fiction, while keeping Hollywood glamour front and center

What’s Renee’s favorite bit?

Dangerous to Know cover image


It’s probably poor form to say our favorite bit is the one that fell into our laps. But that’s where we have to start.

When you write historical mysteries, you’re always researching. Poring over vintage magazines and newspapers, soaking up period atmosphere. (We went so far as to purchase copies of the 1937 Los Angeles telephone directories—Yellow and White Pages—and lost hours paging through them. Once upon a time, the highest compliment you could pay an actor was to say, “I’d listen to her/him read the phone book.” We staged such performances for one another. There were no curtain calls.) You remain eternally on the hunt for that useful forgotten nugget from yesteryear.

And then, on occasion, you strike the motherlode.

Reading a December 1938 newspaper, we happened on a reference to a budding scandal. Jack Benny and George Burns, comic titans of radio and motion pictures, were brought up on federal charges as smugglers. The details were extraordinary, involving a vengeful maid with Nazi sympathies, a bogus diplomat, and trunks full of haute couture gowns.

Understand this: Jack Benny and George Burns were enormous stars at the time, so much so that when we tried to think of comparable contemporary performers for this post we came up empty. The concentrated nature of entertainment in the 1930s gave both men such outsized presences that their indiscretion nudged Germany’s aggression below the fold of the nation’s front pages for a while.

Understand also this: we both grew up obsessed with show business, and had never heard tell of this contretemps before. How, we wondered, was that possible?

Finally, understand this: both men were stars at Paramount Pictures, the studio where Edith Head, the legendary costume designer who is one-half of our sleuthing duo, worked her magic. The universe had just handed us a gift.

The Benny/Burns imbroglio gave us the seed for what would become Dangerous to Know, the second of our mysteries set during the Golden Age of Hollywood pairing Edith with her partner in crime-solving, former aspiring actress Lillian Frost. It was the ideal jumping off point, if not the engine driving the plot.

Building that engine would prove easier thanks to all that research we’d been doing. We’d become familiar with what was happening in Los Angeles and the wider world in the waning days of 1938. Sometimes it was broad cultural issues, like the influx of emigres and refugees from Europe into Southern California, a mass migration that would transform the City of Angels into a world capital of modern music and give rise to film noir. Sometimes it was specific to the region, such as David O. Selznick’s decision to stage the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind despite the fact that he had yet to cast his Scarlett O’Hara, or a screening of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia in one of L.A.’s fanciest clubs with Fraulein Director herself in attendance. And sometimes it was a fascinating story still being excavated by historians decades later, like the secret plan of studio moguls to combat the Nazi presence in Hollywood in the years before World War II.

Real life consistently outstrips the imagination. It does now. It did then. So basically our favorite bit is collecting all of those other bits and weaving them together, combining fact with fiction in the hope of coming up with something that feels true.



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Renee Patrick is the pseudonym of married authors Rosemarie and Vince Keenan. Rosemarie is a research administrator and a poet. Vince is a screenwriter and a journalist. Both native New Yorkers, they currently live in Seattle, Washington.

My Favorite Bit: Ruthanna Emrys talks about WINTER TIDE

Favorite Bit iconRuthanna Emrys is joining us today with her novel Winter Tide. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Winter Tide is a weird, lyrical mystery — truly strange and compellingly grim. It’s an innovative gem that turns Lovecraft on his head with cleverness and heart” —Cherie Priest

After attacking Devil’s Reef in 1928, the U.S. government rounded up the people of Innsmouth and took them to the desert, far from their ocean, their Deep One ancestors, and their sleeping god Cthulhu. Only Aphra and Caleb Marsh survived the camps, and they emerged without a past or a future.

The government that stole Aphra’s life now needs her help. FBI agent Ron Spector believes that Communist spies have stolen dangerous magical secrets from Miskatonic University, secrets that could turn the Cold War hot in an instant, and hasten the end of the human race.

Aphra must return to the ruins of her home, gather scraps of her stolen history, and assemble a new family to face the darkness of human nature.

Winter Tide is the debut novel from Ruthanna Emrys.

What’s Ruthanna’s favorite bit?

Winter Tide cover image


Ron Spector is among the core supporting characters in Winter Tide. One of the few FBI agents to specialize in matters eldritch, he kicks off the plot by asking Aphra to help him out with an investigation… that just happens to coincide with her own desire to retrieve her family’s stolen books from Miskatonic University… that just happens to coincide with his own desire to prove Aphra’s worth to his bosses. I never intended to base him on my great-uncle.

Ron is a gay Jewish man, working for the US government in a time when closets are mandatory and unthinking antisemitism rampant. This all seemed perfectly organic to a book about the intersection of real and fantasaic oppression. My Cthulhu-worshipping Deep Ones were never intended to stand in for any real-world race or religion, but to hold up a funhouse mirror to real-world prejudices. In a world (ours) where any minority will be treated ill and subject to assumptions, what’s universal? How will a bunch of long-lived aquatic humanoids be treated just like Jews or African Americans or Nikkei or QUILTBAG folk, and how will their experiences be unique? And what happens when they start interacting with those other groups and comparing notes?

Spector, who willingly serves a state in which he’s only marginally accepted, felt like a natural foil to Aphra, who reviles that same state for destroying her family. I didn’t notice from what corner of my subconscious he’d arisen until I was trying to figure out hats. The late 40s fall on the boundary of modern propriety, you see, one aspect of which is that some men still wore hats everywhere, and others had set that bit of fashion aside. Hats are great, offering all sorts of little character moments. You can doff your fedora to show respect, or leave it on inside when distracted. But would Spector wear one? Well, says my wife, why don’t you look at pictures of your Great Uncle Monroe?

Right. My great-uncle, a New York Jew of about Spector’s vintage, who spent time as a diplomatic aide. The one who traveled the world with his “business partner” years after their retirement, lived with him his whole adult life, and left him all his worldly possessions. “But we don’t know that he was gay by modern standards,” my mother said, in her letter accompanying the packet of photos, along with the revelation that Great-Uncle’s hubby was responsible for my family’s obsession with fondue. Uh-huh. It’s true; according to the tenets of cosmic horror, nothing about this world is truly knowable.

So Spector wasn’t based directly on Monroe, but he gained an extra dimension from his real-world equivalent. And that became important as I got further into the book, and saw more ways that he could be a foil for Aphra. One of the things I had fun with, while I wrote, was how all the characters are experiencing their own book—all slightly different genres. Aphra’s book is the one in the blurb, a historical fantasy about building community and trying to put off human extinction for a century or two. Her foster sister Neko is having a bildungsroman about growing into your freedom and figuring out what you really want.

And Ron Spector? He’s stuck in a Lovecraftian cosmic horror story. He’s learning that the universe is larger and stranger and more dangerous than he thought, and trying to come to terms with forces so large and inhuman that merely brushing against them risks life and sanity. But he isn’t Lovecraft’s standard narrator, and that changes his story. He’s strange enough himself that he willingly acknowledges the humanity of anyone he can talk to, and is willing to push that boundary outward even when it’s a struggle. At the same time, the awe-inspiring, brain-breaking scope of a Mythosian universe is a direct challenge to his mostly-assimilated, semi-secular Judaism. He’s fine with the idea that his own religious canons are really just stories written by people, meant as allegorical guidance. He’s less fine when Aeonist texts turn out to be pretty accurate descriptions of what’s out there…

The best cosmic horror is psychological study, a close-up look at what happens when someone’s worldview is turned completely upside down. Winter Tide is about how many ways there are to up-end a worldview. For some people, that upheaval takes horror from beyond the stars. For others, all it requires is a closer look at humanity itself. The whole cast of Winter Tide, whatever kind of book they think they’re in, are right in the thick of both.


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Ruthanna Emrys lives in a mysterious manor house on the outskirts of Washington, DC with her wife and their large, strange family. She makes home-made vanilla, obsesses about game design, gives unsolicited advice, and occasionally attempts to save the world. Her stories have appeared in a number of venues, including Strange HorizonsAnalog, and Winter Tide is her first novel.

My Favorite Bit: K. Bird Lincoln talks about DREAM EATER

Favorite Bit iconK. Bird Lincoln is joining us today with her novel Dream Eater. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Koi Pierce dreams other peoples’ dreams.

Her whole life she’s avoided other people. Any skin-to-skin contact—a hug from her sister, the hand of a barista at Stumptown coffee—transfers flashes of that person’s most intense dreams. It’s enough to make anyone a hermit.

But Koi’s getting her act together. No matter what, this time she’s going to finish her degree at Portland Community College and get a real life. Of course it’s not going to be that easy. Her father, increasingly disturbed from Alzheimer’s disease, a dream fragment of a dead girl from the casual brush of a creepy PCC professor’s hand, and a mysterious stranger who speaks the same rare Northern Japanese dialect as Koi’s father will force Koi to learn to trust in the help of others, as well as face the truth about herself.

What’s K. Bird’s favorite bit?

Dream Eater cover image


When Joseph Campbell Isn’t Enough: Or why I hunger for Baku

There’s this memory I have of being in my elementary school library during lunch hour, running my fingers over the spines of books in the 398.2 area of nonfiction (folktales and myths) and being thrilled with the cornucopia of Red Riding Hood tales, Changelings, Greek Heroes, Baba Yaga, and Babe the Blue Ox.

Through them I discovered a hunger for the stories we tell ourselves as a people.

In high school I discovered Joseph Campbell and delved into those tales. Stories which evoked the psychic unity of mankind as manifested in the Hero’s Journey or Creation Myths.

For a while, that satisfied my hunger.

But I was hungry again by college—just when I had to choose a language to study to meet graduation requirements—and met a boy. A very, very cute boy who was also a Japanese Studies major. So I started to study Japanese language, history, and psychology. It began to dawn on me that Joseph Campbell, while certainly including myths from Asian countries in his writing, was as bound by the same white, Euro-centric cultural upbringing in the interpretation and focus on myths as I was.

And I realized that my hunger for making sense of the stories meant I had to not only unify and categorize, but also delve into the weird, obscure (this was before Neil Gaiman’s American Gods or the TV show Grimm) and not-oft-mentioned stories.

If you’re a manga or anime fan, you probably know about Kitsune. Kij Johnson’s The Fox Woman, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: The Dream Hunters, MTV’s Teen Wolf, Pokemon, Disney’s Robin Hood—the trickster fox is one of those easy-to-plug-into Euro-centric culture myths. What really fed my hunger to find meaning in a true diversity of human experience and thought, were the other kinds of myths: the dream-eating baku, the turtle-esque kappa with their polite fanaticism, bowls of water embedded in their heads, and propensity for rape or murder, and the avian-demon tengu that evolved from fierce and violent protectors of the forest to amiable bumpkins easily duped by humans.

Reading tales of the kappa and the tengu challenged me to wrap my mind around the interaction and seeding of religion and culture that occurred from India to China through Korean and into Japan. They forced me to realize a broader view of what civilization was (476-800 BCE was by no means “dark ages” for India, China, and Japan) and understand my own cultural viewpoint was quite narrow. Kappa and Tengu were exotic, they tickled my fancy for far-off flavors and stories of people I could easily label “other”, “different”, “strange”.

But then I married a Tokyo boy and had daughters—and all of a sudden I became hungry again to seek that which unifies rather than that which makes of us “the other.” (Because my daughters’ future psychotherapy bills depended upon it.) How could these freaky tales, these monsters, from the very primitive depths/hindbrains of such different cultural minds be incorporated into a psychically whole being?

Baku are ungainly. Awkward chimaeras of tiger and elephant, possibly inspired by sightings of ancient tapir.

baku image 1 baku image 2

Commonly known from 18th and 19th century Japanese netsuke (a miniature sculpture originally developed as a closure for small sacks used as pockets in yukata and kimono ) carvings like these.

netsuke image 1 netsuke image 2

Baku eat bad dreams. Although, if they are called upon too often and remain hungry after digging into a nightmare, they may stay to eat your hopes, aspirations, and ambitions as well. A chancy helper. But it was to baku I was drawn. Baku are just strange enough to have no real parallel in European culture that I could easily identify, yet they tap into a universal human vulnerability—our psyche as we sleep, the most primitive and meaningful images of our dreaming, and the ways our brains organize and incorporate information.

What would it mean to have one foot in the waking and one foot in the dream world? What does it mean to come from two very distinct cultures like Japan and America? Baku appeal to me because of their very disjointedness, the chimerical nature that attempts to incorporate disparate pieces into a whole. (Here’s where my daughters would roll their teenage eyes and tell me they are not chimaeras but people, and stop drawing parallels between bicultural identity and myths).

But it’s too late. My hunger for the obscure tales, coupled with my desire to find unity in diversity, have already lead to making Koi, my Dream Eater protagonist, both half-baku and half-Japanese. I can’t promise Koi discovers any Joseph Campbell- style universal truths in her journey, but she does get to wrestle with trickster kitsune, Armenian dragons, and Pacific Northwest ice hags and trickster bluejays.


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K. Bird Lincoln is an ESL professional and writer living on the windswept Minnesota Prairie with family and a huge addiction to frou-frou coffee. Also dark chocolate– without which, the world is a howling void. Originally from Cleveland, she has spent more years living on the edges of the Pacific Ocean than in the Midwest. Her speculative short stories are published in various online & paper publications such as Strange Horizons. Her medieval Japanese fantasy series, Tiger Lily, is available from Amazon. She also writes tasty speculative and YA fiction reviews under the name K. Bird at Sign up for her sporadic newsletter, The Mossy Glen from her facebook page and get access to free goodies– both readable and edible.

My Favorite Bit: Aliette de Bodard talks about THE HOUSE OF BINDING THORNS

Favorite Bit iconAliette de Bodard is joining us today with her novel The House of Binding Thorns. Here’s the publisher’s description:

The multi-award-winning author of The House of Shattered Wings continues her Dominion of the Fallen saga as Paris endures the aftermath of a devastating arcane war….

As the city rebuilds from the onslaught of sorcery that nearly destroyed it, the great Houses of Paris, ruled by Fallen angels, still contest one another for control over the capital.

House Silverspires was once the most powerful, but just as it sought to rise again, an ancient evil brought it low. Phillippe, an immortal who escaped the carnage, has a singular goal—to resurrect someone he lost. But the cost of such magic might be more than he can bear.

In House Hawthorn, Madeleine the alchemist has had her addiction to angel essence savagely broken. Struggling to live on, she is forced on a perilous diplomatic mission to the underwater dragon kingdom—and finds herself in the midst of intrigues that have already caused one previous emissary to mysteriously disappear….

As the Houses seek a peace more devastating than war, those caught between new fears and old hatreds must find strength—or fall prey to a magic that seeks to bind all to its will.

What’s Aliette’s favorite bit?

House of Binding Thorns cover image


My favourite bit of writing The House of Binding Thorns was re-imagining the geography of my alternate Paris.

The Dominion of the Fallen series, which comprises The House of Shattered Wings and The House of Binding Thorns, is set in an alternate 20th Century where a huge magical war between factions devastated Paris and much of Europe–and where the survivors are still fighting a Cold War of attrition in the ruins, with political intrigue and covert use of magic.

I wanted to take familiar tourist (or local) sights and give them an eerie twist. The dome of the great department store Les Galeries Lafayette is now broken, and gang-members scavenge in the ruined counters; the Seine is black with magical pollution and pulls people from bridges and quays; the grand mansions of the powerful, the hôtels particuliers, have floral wallpaper flecked with mould and gravel flecked with dirt in their gardens, …

I based the geography of my post-magical-war Paris in the turn-of-the-century Parisian one: a very important (but excessively geeky one) was whether I took into account Baron Haussman’s extensive modifications to the geography of the city: I decided to do so, partly because this would result in a map that wasn’t too unfamiliar to the reader (and I was already juggling a lot of unfamiliarity!).

It’s pretty easy today to find amazingly detailed maps of Paris from this time period (I used this one ).

I’ve lived in Paris for decades, so it was a bit of a weird experience imagining what a magical war would have done to the streets. I would walk in front of a particularly distinctive building, and think, “Ah-ha, I could use this, how would it have changed?”. This occurred a lot when writing The House of Binding Thorns: the titular House, Hawthorn, had a decayed hôtel particulier vibe, and as it happened I would run a lot of errands in the vicinity of these.

One problem I hadn’t anticipated was making sure I was not committing huge anachronisms: because I know Paris very well, I would write a bridge or a street and not always check that they did exist back then. The most embarrassing mistake I made was having two characters cross the Bir-Hakeim Bridge, in the south west of Paris: I was very slow to realise it had been named for a famous WWII battle that hadn’t happened in my alternate chronology!

I also had a lot of fun with the different magical factions: all the Houses have names that are pertinent to their location. House Astragale is in the suburb of Saint-Ouen, which once was the headquarters for the military order of the Star: I picked “astragale” because it was close to “astral” but is actually the name of a bone (it *is* creepy Paris, after all!). House Silverspires is on Ile de la Cité, which had the most churches in Paris in the mid-19th Century and would therefore have looked like a sea of white spires from afar.

Lest this make me look very serious, I’ll also admit to terrible bilingual word play: House Hawthorn, the aforementioned decadent hotel particulier, is a fast-and-loose transcription of “Auteuil”, the wealthy southwestern suburb of Paris where it’s based. It’s also a tree with beautiful flowers, prickly thorns and a very invasive tendency, which happens to describe the House to a tee!

I’ll leave you with a passage that describes the inside of House Hawthorn:

The House was silent: it was still dark and freezing cold outside, with another hour or so to go to dawn, when the kitchen and laundry rooms would come alive, and the drudges would take their mops and brooms into the corridors, and light, one by one, the big chandeliers with candles on poles, to signal the beginning of the day.

Thuan had wandered it, at night, when only the bakers in the kitchens were up, kneading dough for the massive stone ovens: the main, cavernous edifice; the small, winding streets spreading out from beyond the gardens, their buildings cracked limestone confections with rusted wrought-iron balconies, and dependents in embroidered dresses and top hats leaning, languidly, against the pillars of blackened porches and patios. The broken ruins in the corners of the gardens: the abandoned buildings, with the trails of water running down glass panes like tears; the melted, pitted limestone overgrown with ivy and other creepers; the black debris mixed in with the gravel; and the broken-off hands on the statues in the fountains. All the traces of the war, in a House that hadn’t been spared by it.


He wandered corridor after corridor, losing himself in the labyrinth of the West Wing, running a hand on the wainscot of cracked wooden panels, his fingers brushing the engraved figures of game animals and trees. There was something addictive, alluring about standing outside the bedrooms of the House’s elite, the leaders of each court, and their being none the wiser as to the danger he represented.

He stopped at a crossroads between two corridors, to look at a striking piece, a stag whose antlers blurred and merged into the thorns of a tree. Dogs were harrying it, yet the beast held itself tall and proud, as if it didn’t even deign to notice them. The detail had chipped away, and there was dust around the design, a thickening layer like a gray outline.

On the right, the corridor curved sharply, flaring into something very much like an antechamber, at the end of which was a huge set of wooden doors. They were strangely plain: painted with a scattering of faded silver stars against a dark gray background. Two of those stars were falling from the firmament; their silver tinged with the scarlet of blood, a shade that never quite seemed to hold as the viewer moved.

It smelled, faintly, of bergamot and citrus, and Thuan had no business being there.


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Aliette de Bodard writes speculative fiction: her short stories have garnered her two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award and two British Science Fiction Association Awards. She is the author of The House of Shattered Wings, a novel set in a turn-of-the-century Paris devastated by a magical war, which won the 2015 British Science Fiction Association Award, and its standalone sequel The House of Binding Thorns (Ace/Gollancz). She lives in Paris.

My Favorite Bit: Rosalyn Eves talks about BLOOD ROSE REBELLION

Favorite Bit iconRosalyn Eves is joining us today to talk about her novel Blood Rose Rebellion. Here’s the publisher’s description:

The thrilling first book in a YA fantasy trilogy for fans of Red Queen. In a world where social prestige derives from a trifecta of blood, money, and magic, one girl has the ability to break the spell that holds the social order in place.

Sixteen-year-old Anna Arden is barred from society by a defect of blood. Though her family is part of the Luminate, powerful users of magic, she is Barren, unable to perform the simplest spells. Anna would do anything to belong. But her fate takes another course when, after inadvertently breaking her sister’s debutante spell—an important chance for a highborn young woman to show her prowess with magic—Anna finds herself exiled to her family’s once powerful but now crumbling native Hungary.

Her life might well be over.

In Hungary, Anna discovers that nothing is quite as it seems. Not the people around her, from her aloof cousin Noémi to the fierce and handsome Romani Gábor. Not the society she’s known all her life, for discontent with the Luminate is sweeping the land. And not her lack of magic. Isolated from the only world she cares about, Anna still can’t seem to stop herself from breaking spells.

As rebellion spreads across the region, Anna’s unique ability becomes the catalyst everyone is seeking. In the company of nobles, revolutionaries, and Romani, Anna must choose: deny her unique power and cling to the life she’s always wanted, or embrace her ability and change that world forever.

What’s Rosalyn’s favorite bit?

Blood Rose Rebellion cover image


As a debut novelist, being asked to choose my favorite part of the story is a bit like being asked to choose my favorite child (the correct answer, for those interested, is that it depends on the day).

But one of the things I loved about writing Blood Rose Rebellion was the research—specifically, finding little details that made the setting come alive. The novel is set primarily in an alternate nineteenth-century Hungary that closely resembles our world, with the addition of magic.

When our intrepid heroine, Anna, first arrives in Hungary—having been sent from Britain in disgrace—she’s not disposed to like it. She’s been forced to give up a familiar world for one she only knows through her grandmother’s stories. Instead of the glamour of the London season, she finds herself at Eszterháza, a run-down estate surrounded by farms and fields and miles from any kind of society.

When I first started researching Hungarian noble estates, I picked Eszterháza because it belonged to a preeminent 19th century Hungarian noble family, and the location was good for the story I wanted to tell. But as I dove into the research, I was thrilled by the ways the estate mirrored some of the themes and even the tonal quality I wanted in the book.

In the mid 18th-century, an Esterhazy prince decided to expand the existing hunting lodge into an estate to rival Versailles—and poured an insane amount of money into what was essentially swamp land to do so. Joseph Haydn lived at the estate for months, composing music: his baryton trios, multiple operas, and Opus 33, among others. Empress Maria Theresa visited the palace with the entire Viennese court.

But seventy-five years later, this estate had been virtually abandoned. A 19th century British visitor reported that bats were lodging in the magnificent opera house; a guidebook to the estate claims that sheep were kept in the ornate Sala Terrena.

I loved both details—the crumbling aristocratic estate made a perfect visual metaphor for the diseased society Anna comes to resist. But my very favorite detail was this:

Two separate travel narratives reported the existence of a fey child in the swamps near Eszterháza in the 18th century. The boy was perhaps ten, with webbed feet and long, dagger-like nails, living off fish and frogs. Some kind-hearted individual living on the estate tried to rescue the child by bringing him into the palace, but he escaped weeks later and eventually disappeared.

I wondered about this child, how he came to be in the swamp, how his existence persisted in urban legends surrounding a baroque estate. Somehow, the presence of the uncanny in combination with an otherwise mundane (if expensive) palace made both seem more otherworldly. In my story, the child exists only as a statue in the hallways, but the existence of that other-world only a breath away from a manufactured reality manifests in various ways throughout the book—though you’ll have to read the book to find out how.

In many ways, this book is my love letter to Hungary—and I hope that details like these help readers fall in love with Hungary too.








Rosalyn Eves grew up in the Rocky Mountains, dividing her time between reading books and bossing her siblings into performing her dramatic scripts. As an adult, the telling and reading of stories is still one of her favorite things to do. When she’s not reading or writing, she enjoys spending time with her chemistry professor husband and three children, watching British period pieces, or hiking through the splendid landscape of southern Utah, where she lives. She dislikes housework on principle.

She has a PhD in English from Penn State, which means she also endeavors to inspire college students with a love for the English language. Sometimes it even works.

Her first novel, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, first in a YA historical fantasy trilogy, debuts March 28, 2017 from Knopf/Random House.