Rod Duncan is joining us with his novel The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man, the concluding chapter in the “Map of the Unknown Things” series. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Ladies and gentlemen, for the very final time, Elizabeth and Edwin Barnabus will perform the grand illusion of the Vanishing Man.
Elizabeth Barnabus is a mutineer and a murderer. So they say. The noose awaits in Liverpool as punishment for her crimes. But they’ll have to catch her first.
Disguised as a labourer, Elizabeth flees west across America, following a rumour of her long-lost family. Crossing the border into the wilds of the Oregon Territory, she discovers a mustering army, a king who believes he is destined to conquer the world, and a weapon so powerful that it could bring the age of reason crashing down.
In a land where politics and prophecy are one and the same, the fate of the Gas-Lit Empire may come to rest on the perfect execution of a conjuring trick…
What’s Rod’s favorite bit?
My favourite part of this book is, without question, a conjuring trick. My protagonist, Elizabeth Barnabus, learned how to perform The Vanishing Man when she was growing up in a travelling show run by her parents. Years have passed. But when she is reunited with a fellow performer from the show, she finds herself having to stage the trick one more time.
Much rests on the outcome. Persuade the right people that their magic is real and they’ll be able to shape the future of the world. Fail and they’ll be unmasked as mere conjurors. Death would follow.
I’ve had this trick in my mind for more than six years. You’ll find clues to it in The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter, which was the very first novel set in the Gas-Lit Empire. Not that I’d worked out the precise mechanism at that time. My notion was something like this: Note to self – devise a spectacular disappearing act as the grand finale at the end of the second trilogy.
Writing it, however, proved a challenge. A conjuring trick in a novel follows the same storytelling pattern as a heist. It works like this:
First, the significance of the trick or crime caper must be established. A heist cannot be merely for money. Nor can a conjuring trick be for entertainment alone. Something extra must be at stake.
Next, the near-impossibility of the task must be understood. But there will be an elegant, one-in-a-million chance of it being achieved.
All the people must be gathered, each with a unique part to play, dependent on their individual skills.
The details of the plan will then be laid out. There could be a dress-rehearsal. Perhaps a map or a model. However it’s done, we need to understand how things are supposed to happen.
There will be a ticking clock – our awareness that time is running out. The point of no return is approaching, when our thieves or conjurors will have separated and begun their allotted tasks.
That’s when something unforeseen will happen. The plan goes wrong. It always does. We expect it. Yet it must also be a surprise. Perhaps an enemy intervenes. Or a chance event will push the plan off course. It is a disaster.
This is when our protagonists must show their quality. They improvise. And through a coming together of things we knew about already but hadn’t considered relevant, they snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Or perhaps they fail and suffer the consequences.
In order to write a fictional heist or conjuring trick, it must be worked out backwards. Everything is so intricately connected that the writer needs to start by figuring out what happens at the end. Then, step by step, they reverse through the story until the starting point is revealed. Meticulous planning is needed to make it all seem unplanned. In that way, the writing itself becomes like a conjuring trick.
Watch carefully. Elizabeth walks the length of a banqueting table, kicking away plates and wine goblets as she goes, pistol in hand. Three hundred pairs of eyes are watching, from the king and the courtiers down to the kitchen boys.
ROD DUNCAN writes alternate history, fantasy and contemporary crime. His novels have been shortlisted for the Philip K Dick Award, the East Midlands Book Award and the John Creasey Dagger of the Crime Writers’ Association. A dyslexic with a background in scientific research, he now lectures in creative writing at DeMontfort University. Some might say that he is obsessed with boundary markers, naive 18th Century gravestones and forming friendships with crows. But he says he is interested in the way things change.
Parker Peevyhouse is joining us today to talk about her novel Strange Exit. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Seventeen-year-old Lake spends her days searching a strange, post-apocalyptic landscape for people who have forgotten one very important thing: this isn’t reality. Everyone she meets is a passenger aboard a ship that’s been orbiting Earth since a nuclear event. The simulation that was supposed to prepare them all for life after the apocalypse has trapped their minds in a shared virtual reality and their bodies in stasis chambers.
No one can get off the ship until all of the passengers are out of the sim, and no one can get out of the sim unless they believe it’s a simulation. It’s up to Lake to help them remember.
When Lake reveals the truth to a fellow passenger, seventeen-year-old Taren, he joins her mission to find everyone, persuade them that they’ve forgotten reality, and wake them up. But time’s running out before the simulation completely deconstructs, and soon Taren’s deciding who’s worth saving and who must be sacrificed for the greater good. Now, Lake has no choice but to pit herself against Taren in a race to find the secret heart of the sim, where something waits that will either save them or destroy them all.
What’s Parker’s favorite bit?
As the youngest of five, I can safely say that younger sisters are worth their weight in books. My original idea for my latest novel, Strange Exit, was that it would be set in a simulation and would follow a 17-year-old and her younger sister. Sometimes I envisioned the older sister, Lake, searching a broken sim for her sister. And sometimes I envisioned Lake searching with her sister, an indispensable partner who simultaneously annoys and encourages Lake. In the end, what most excited me about writing the story was that it could be about both: Lake could search the sim for Willow with the help of… Willow.
Strange Exit takes place decades after a nuclear apocalypse, when survivors live in a simulation meant to prepare them for life after nuclear winter—but they’ve forgotten that the sim isn’t reality. Lake is one of the few who realizes the truth, and she searches the sim for “sleepers” to wake with the help of a computer-generated version of her sister Willow.
Lake and Willow’s partnership was my favorite element of the book to write, because I got to draw from my own experience with the contentious, hilarious, helpful, and totally steadfast bond of an older and younger sister. A younger sister myself, I know what it’s like to chafe at not being taken seriously, to long to capture an older sister’s attention—and to settle for mutual exasperation. At one point in the story, Willow complains, “You think everything I do is annoying,” a grievance no doubt voiced by little sisters the world over. Lake replies, “Good thing I’d rather be annoyed by you than entertained by anyone else,” which is the kind of concession I imagine my older sisters giving me and meaning with all their hearts.
The person Lake most wants to rescue from the sim is, of course, the real Willow. But in moments when Lake succumbs to the dream-logic of the sim, she forgets that the computer-generated version of Willow isn’t her real sister. And in moments when Lake is most lucid, she remembers an even more painful truth: Willow never survived the nuclear apocalypse, and so Lake will never find her. One day, Lake hopes to rescue all the sleepers and get out of the malfunctioning sim before it swallows her along with them—but that day will also be the last Lake can spend with the “figment” of Willow, the only version of her sister left in the world. It’s this dilemma that most intrigues me about the story; it makes me wonder which I’d rather have—a simulated version of my sisters or no sisters at all.
One of my older sisters reads all of my stories before they ever get to publication (and many stories that will never see publication). I dedicated Strange Exit to her, not only because she’s a trusted reader but also because I figure I owe her for modeling the dynamic I tried to achieve in the book—that of an older sister letting a younger one tag along, not out of kindness, but because she might secretly enjoy the company. Or at the very least, because she’s desperate for someone to tell her a good story.
Niki Smith is joining us to talk about her graphic novel The Deep & Dark Blue. Here’s the publisher’s description:
The Witch Boy meets The Legend of Korra in this breathtaking, epic graphic novel.
After a terrible political coup usurps their noble house, Hawke and Grayson flee to stay alive and assume new identities, Hanna and Grayce. Desperation and chance lead them to the Communion of Blue, an order of magical women who spin the threads of reality to their will.
As the twins learn more about the Communion, and themselves, they begin to hatch a plan to avenge their family and retake their royal home. While Hawke wants to return to his old life, Grayce struggles to keep the threads of her new life from unraveling, and realizes she wants to stay in the one place that will allow her to finally live as a girl.
What’s Niki’s favorite bit?
I devoured stories that played with gender as a kid. Mulan, disguising herself as a male soldier to keep her father safe. Tamora Pierce’s Alanna, eager to serve as a knight, even if she had to take a new name to do it. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night— the trope goes back centuries, and I love it in all its forms. But what I never saw was the reverse: it was always a character yearning to live the life of a boy. The life of a girl was full of boring needlework: tedious and something to escape.
But what if it weren’t? What if “women’s work” wasn’t just something to dread? The more I researched, the more I wanted to write a system of magic with its roots deep in fiber and textile arts… so I did! The Deep & Dark Blue is about twins on the run, disguising themselves and joining a sisterhood of women who weave living bloodline tapestries, healers who use cat’s cradle to knit bone— all powered by a mysterious, deep blue dye. Grayce, a young trans girl who finds a family in this sisterhood, becomes a spinner, using a small, carved drop spindle to control the wind and manipulate the world around her.
Spindles have been around for thousands of years, back to Neolithic times. Small enough to fit into a pocket and simple enough for a child to use, spinning was ingrained in every part of life: it gave us thread, rope, and cloth, and it’s not at all surprising that the spindle found its way into religion and mythology around the world.
In ancient Greece, the three Fates, the Moirai, assigned destinies to every mortal at birth. One goddess spun the thread of life, the next measured its length, and the third severed it. In Norse mythology, you’ll find the same three goddesses, the Norns, spinning the threads of mortals’ lives at the base of Yggdrasil. I moved to Munich a few years ago and my favorite tourist spot is the incredibly gaudy and Baroque Asam Church— and there, again, I found the spindle and thread of life.
The conclusion of Plato’s Republic describes the orbit of the celestial bodies revolving around the Earth, a model of the workings of the then-known universe. At the heart: the “Spindle of Necessity.” Held by Ananke, the primordial deity, and spun by the three Fates: the cosmos exists on a spindle.
Spindles show up in folklore and fairytales everywhere. Disney tells us that Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger on a spinning wheel, but the tale is from an era before spinning wheels— her curse was the sharp point of a drop spindle. Witches may ride broomsticks nowadays, but in medieval Europe they rode distaffs: the wooden staffs that held their wool for spinning…
Working as a spinster meant a woman could support herself without needing to marry— a wild concept! And one not generally appreciated by the rest of the folks in town.
I wove that into The Deep & Dark Blue: a self-sufficient enclave of women, working a mysterious magic through fiber arts. A tight-knit sisterhood that a young girl yearns to be a part of, and when the chance comes, she seizes it.
Derek Künsken is joining us to talk about his novel The Quantum Garden. Here’s the publisher’s description:
THE ULTIMATE CHASE
Days ago, Belisarius pulled off the most audacious con job in history. He’s rich, he’s back with the love of his life, and he has the Time Gates, the most valuable things in existence. Nothing could spoil this…
…except the utter destruction of his people and their world. To save them, he has to make a new deal with the boss he just double-crossed, travel back in time and work his quantum magic once again.
If he can avoid detection, dodge paradox and stay ahead of the eerie, relentless Scarecrow, he might just get back to his own time alive.
What’s Derek’s favorite bit?
I’m a sense of wonder junkie. I think the universe is vast and marvelous and too strange to really comprehend. Its weirdness can only be appreciated, considered from all angles, turned over like a pebble in restless fingers.
So my stories gravitate to hard, icy worlds, tragically genetically-engineered people, the metallic clouds sailing through the upper atmospheres of brown dwarfs, and the interior of wormholes. My characters often have strange perceptions and see the world off-angle, living through a kind of insightful disorientation, sometimes with Québécois swearing.
I have all this in The Quantum Garden, my second novel, a kind of space opera Back to the Future story. But if we’re getting to brass tacks about my favourite bit, I have to pick the heart of the time travel story. Time travel stories do lots of exciting things, but in my favourite ones the dislocation in time is a lens magnifying who we are and where we come from.
Each of us at some point in life asks why we are the way we are, what influences added together to make us. Sometimes we ask those questions many times. I do. That kind of questioning is at the core of the novel for Ayen Iekanjika, whom we first met in The Quantum Magician. What separates her from me is that she’s obliged to go back in time, to the events around her birth, and those around the birth of her nation and its myths. She finds things very different from her present, in ways that she both anticipated and didn’t anticipate.
Time travel literature is the ultimate lens for looking into causality. It obliges us to think about what causes are and where our personal strengths and weaknesses come from. Occasionally and unnervingly, self-knowledge tells us that some very deep, important things are fragile, and have no causes at all.
The Quantum Garden was a deep dive into this for me. I only realized afterwards that the questions in the novel are obviously bothering me in some way, even if I don’t know where they came from. So, even though there are AIs and sub-zero alien plant intellects and weird physics and biology, my favourite bit is the deeply personal story I got to explore in Ayen’s past.
After leaving molecular biology, Derek worked with street kids in Central America before finding himself in the Canadian foreign service. He now writes science fiction in Gatineau, Québec. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. His first novel, The Quantum Magician, was nominated for the Locus, Aurora and Chinese Nebula awards, and has been published in English, Mandarin and Japanese, with French and Russian translations forthcoming. He also writes a fun girl-mercenary-jetpack-Flash-Gordon adventure comic called Briarworld at Webtoons.com.
Cynthia Hand is joining us today to talk about The How and the Why. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Today Melly had us writing letters to our babies. I can’t imagine you as an actual baby, let alone an eighteen-year-old person reading this letter. I’m not even eighteen yet, myself. -S
Cassandra McMurtrey has a family. One with a loving mother and a father too full of cheesy dad jokes for his own good. They’re the best parents a girl could ask for, and they’ve given Cass a life she wouldn’t trade for the world. She has everything she needs—except maybe the one thing she wants.
Like to know who she is. Where she came from. Questions that her adoptive parents, no matter how much they love her, can’t answer. Mysteries she feels she must solve.
Cass can’t stand the thought of hurting the family she has by searching for a woman she’s never met. But eighteen years ago, a teenage girl wrote Cass a series of letters. Letters that have been sealed up in the Idaho Bureau of Vital Records since the day she was born. Letters that might just hold the answers Cass has been searching for. Clues, waiting to be found.
What’s Cynthia’s favorite bit?
I was a theatre nerd in high school. Over the four years that I spent at Bonneville High School, (in Idaho Falls, Idaho) I acted in fifteen plays, and helped with dozens more. Theatre was my life. It was a way for me for explore who I wanted to be through playing other people. I was (and still am) an introvert, but being on the stage allowed me to come out of my shell. There was no better feeling for me than being up there under the lights.
I kept doing theatre in college, but once I graduated that part of my life abruptly ended. I poured all of my creative energy into writing. So at the point when I started working on The How & The Why, my eighth novel, I hadn’t been in a play for (gulp) almost twenty years.
The How & The Why is primarily a story about adoption. Half of it is told from the point of view of a pregnant teenager writing letters to the unborn baby she intends to place for adoption. The other half of the story is told by Cass, the eighteen-year-old girl that adopted child grows up to become.
Cass is a senior at Bonneville High School, in Idaho Falls, Idaho. She’s also a theatre nerd.
Getting to write about the theatre again was definitely one of my favorite parts of working on this novel, and the best part was that Cass gets to try out for, rehearse, and perform one of my all-time favorite musicals: Into The Woods. There was a movie version a few years ago that was pretty good, but the play itself, live on the stage is absolutely magical.
I’ve always wanted to be in Into the Woods, but never got the chance back in the day. So, in a way, I got to live vicariously through Cass. I watched as many different versions of the musical as I could get my hands on: the movie version, the Broadway version (which is the best one, in my opinion—Bernadette Peters is the best!) and a half dozen student versions. I figured out what character Cass would be best cast as, along with her best friend, Nyla, and her new love interest, Bastian (who obviously had to play Prince Charming). I designed the set that Cass would perform on, and chose the costume she would wear. I thought about how she would feel, rehearsing song after tricky Sondheim song. I waited in the wings with her, while she was waiting to go on stage for her big solo.
And finally her “Moment In The Woods” arrived. Cass stood on the stage, under the lights, feeling the eyes of the audience, her heart pounding, her nerves zinging, and she sang.
And for just a fleeting moment, I got to go back and be up there with her.
Cynthia Hand is the New York Times bestselling author of several books for teens, including the UNEARTHLY trilogy, THE LAST TIME WE SAY GOODBYE, MY LADY JANE and MY PLAIN JANE (with fellow authors Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows), THE AFTERLIFE OF HOLLY CHASE, and the upcoming novels THE HOW & THE WHY (November 5, 2019) and MY CALAMITY JANE (June 2, 2020). Before turning to writing for young adults, she studied literary fiction and earned both an M.F.A. and a Ph.D. in fiction writing. She currently resides in Boise, Idaho, with a husband who’s addicted to buying typewriters, two kids, two cats, one crazy dog, and a mountain of books. Find her online at www.cynthiahandbooks.com
Andi C. Buchanan is joining us to talk about their novel From a Shadow Grave. Here’s the publisher’s description:
This is no ordinary ghost story
Wellington, 1931. Seventeen-year-old Phyllis Symons’ body is discovered in the Mt Victoria tunnel construction site.
Eighty years later, Aroha Brooke is determined to save her life.
Urban legend meets urban fantasy in this compelling alternate history by award-winning author Andi C. Buchanan.
What’s Andi’s favorite bit?
ANDI C. BUCHANAN
“In this story, you save yourself.”
This sentence begins the fourth and final part of From A Shadow Grave. It was the point at which my whole messy first draft came together, and is a sentence that for me still encapsulates not just the story I was trying to tell, but the person I wished I could bring back to life.
From A Shadow Grave is based on a true story: a murder that took place in my home city of Wellington. The murdered teenager, Phyllis Symons, the protagonist of the story, was buried – likely still alive at that stage – in a road tunnel construction site. To this day, almost ninety years later, motorists toot as they drive through the tunnel, and while some say it’s just because of the acoustics, plenty others will tell you it’s to ward off her ghost.
The fact people were trying to ward off a young woman who died in such tragic circumstances seemed so casually cruel. Not that they had malicious intent, of course (except possibly to the unfortunate pedestrians who share the tunnel) but it seemed to be such a sad way for someone to be remembered. I wanted to instead ask the question: what if things had been different? What if Phyllis Symons had been saved – or if she had saved herself? What were the lives she could have lived, the lives that were taken from her?
“In this story, you save yourself.”
It’s my favourite line of the book, but it’s also one I realised I had to handle with care. In opening up alternative futures I did not want to pass judgement or victim blame. To suggest that if only she had made different decisions, if only she had tried harder, things would have been different, is a long way from the message I wanted to send.
And yet the more I developed the character – a characterisation I have to add is a fictionalisation, and perhaps I have gleaned her personality accurately, perhaps not – I wanted to give her the opportunity to save herself. To rescue as well as be rescued.
I went back. I realised that giving her autonomy wasn’t about whether she survived this attack and why. It was about the whole life she had, the life she should have had, the myriad of relationships and decisions and choices and events in the decades she had ahead of her.
Phyllis Symons saving herself was not the story. It was just one possible start.
Andi C. Buchanan lives among streams and faultlines, just north of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. Winner of a 2019 Sir Julius Vogel Award in the Best Short Story category, their fiction has been published in Apex, Kaleidotrope, Glittership, and more. You can find Andi on Twitter @andicbuchanan or at www.andicbuchanan.org.
Wendy Nikel is joining us today to talk about the final novella in this series, The Causality Loop. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Dodge Greenley is tired of being the go-between for his time-traveling family. All he wants is for them all to be able to live together peacefully in one era—is that too much to ask? But after breaking all the Rules of time travel in a desperate attempt to retroactively free his parents from the threat of the secret organization his father worked for a hundred years earlier, Dodge makes a startling discovery. It turns out there’s someone else stalking his family up and down the timeline, and this time, the menace may be coming from within the Place in Time Travel Agency itself.
Enlisting the help of his 22nd century coworker, Dodge sets off to the year 1915 to rescue his sister from a threat that might have originated at any point in their past, present, or future, proving once again that the greatest threat to time travelers is other time travelers.
What’s Wendy’s favorite bit?
THE CAUSALITY LOOP is the fourth book in the Place in Time novella series, which wraps up the stories in the threepreviousbooks about a multi-generational family that gets tangled up with a travel agency specializing in trips through time. The protagonist, Dodge Greenley, was initially introduced as a young boy, and now, we get to see the man he becomes and how the events of THE CONTINUUM changed him, which was an exciting challenge.
But a lot has changed since the first book (which is bound to happen when you travel a hundred years into the future). For one thing, the employees that were at the Place in Time Travel Agency (PITTA) in THE CONTINUUM are long gone, and the office is now populated with completely new Jump Specialists, Retrievers, Researchers, Technicians, and a new boss. One of these new characters – a receptionist in her late twenties, named Nell – surprised me by becoming my favorite bit of this story.
Whereas our main character, Dodge, has grown up with time travel being a “normal” part of his family’s life and heritage, one reason Nell was so fun to write was because for her, it’s still a completely new experience. She’s worked for PITTA for longer than Dodge, but keeping track of the administrative side of a time travel agency is… well… not as exciting as you’d think. For years, she’s been hearing about other people’s adventures, scheduling their jumps, and watching amazing things happen all around her, without an opportunity to experience any of it for herself. But she’s smart and observant and isn’t afraid to say what she thinks – even when it gets her into sticky situations. So when Dodge approaches her to ask for her help with a task that he doesn’t want their boss to find out about, Nell knows just what to demand in return: her own chance to travel into the past.
She embarks on this adventure with great enthusiasm, her anachronistically dyed hair tucked hastily under her hat. But Nell lacks the training, the knowledge, or the caution that most of PITTA’s professional time travelers usually have, which makes her an interesting foil for Dodge and presents him with a unique outsider perspective as he attempts to untangle his family’s messed-up chronology. In return, he finds in her an unlikely ally and friend – something we all can appreciate, no matter the time or place.
Wendy Nikel is a speculative fiction author with a degree in elementary education, a fondness for road trips, and a terrible habit of forgetting where she’s left her cup of tea. Her short fiction has been published by Analog, Nature: Futures, Podcastle, and elsewhere. Her time travel novella series, beginning with The Continuum, is available from World Weaver Press. For more info, visit wendynikel.com
Dawn Vogel is joining us today to talk about The Boiling Sea, the final book in the Brass and Glass series. Here’s the publisher’s description:
In the turbulent skies of the Republic, it’s not always easy to outrace the storm …
With their destination determined, Captain Svetlana Tereshchenko and the crew of The Silent Monsoon are in pursuit of the Last Emperor’s Hoard and the fabled Gem of the Seas. Or they will be, once they rescue their pilot, make a deal with a notorious scoundrel, and outfit themselves for their plunge into the Boiling Sea. When they realize what the Gem of the Seas is capable of, they must struggle with their loyalties, morality, and unforeseen complications to choose the right path. With alliances tested and rivalries resurfacing, Svetlana must lead her crew and associates on their most dangerous mission yet!
What’s Dawn’s favorite bit?
When I wrote the short story that inspired the Brass and Glass series, I had no idea that I would someday be poking at old patent drawings and other sketches as I tried to figure out how to send my protagonists to the bottom of a superheated ocean in search of a lost treasure.
I’m a historian by training, so research is in my blood. I love getting to dig up obscure facts and weird occurrences and work those into my writing. When it comes to my steampunk stories, I often find myself checking to see if there’s something close to the technology I want that existed in the late nineteenth century. Even if I’m writing a piece that isn’t set on our Earth, I can still use realistic technologies with a slightly different flavor to suit my purposes.
My research started with diving bells, which could be used to explore the ocean, but only from within the confines of a tiny amount of space. Diving bells were in use by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so it absolutely made sense to have my characters have access to one of those. They had to rig up a system for air exchange, of course, so they could breathe inside the diving bell as they descended. I also needed to give them some way to communicate with their ship, which I accomplished with a bell and a length of string that ran through the tubing for the air.
However, I quickly realized that not only were my protagonists going to have to reach the bottom of the ocean, they were going to have to leave the diving bell. Diving suits, too, were in existence prior to the nineteenth century, so those were also viable for my story. This meant I got to dress two of my protagonists in horribly awkward and clumsy canvas suits with giant fish-bowl style helmets, and then throw all sorts of problems at them because of their suits, like a lack of weaponry that the stiff and oversized gloves could handle. Coupled with the fact that my main character, Captain Svetlana Tereshchenko, is blind in one eye, the diving suits provided a wealth of complications.
While there are certainly aspects of the science that I glossed over heavily in writing Brass and Glass 3: The Boiling Sea (like: how does a planet survive if the sea is literally boiling? And how deep are these oceans, exactly?), I loved getting to figure out the details of how characters with the equivalent of nineteenth century Earth technology could engage in deep sea diving and survive the experience. It scratched just the right amount of research itch for concluding my steampunk series.
Dawn Vogel’s academic background is in history, so it’s not surprising that much of her fiction is set in earlier times. By day, she edits reports for historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business, co-edits Mad Scientist Journal, and tries to find time for writing. Her steampunk adventure series, Brass and Glass, is available from DefCon One Publishing. She is a member of Broad Universe, SFWA, and Codex Writers. She lives in Seattle with her husband, author Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats. Visit her at http://historythatneverwas.com or find her on Twitter @historyneverwas.
Tim Pratt is joining us today to talk about his novel The Forbidden Stars, the conclusion of this Axiom trilogy. Here’s the publisher’s description:
The ancient alien gods are waking up, and there’s only one spaceship crew ready to stop them, in this dazzling space opera sequel to The Wrong Stars and The Dreaming Stars.
Aliens known as the Liars gave humanity access to the stars through twenty-nine wormholes. They didn’t mention that other aliens, the ancient, tyrannical – but thankfully sleeping – Axiom occupied all the other systems. When the twenty-ninth fell silent, humanity chalked it up to radical separatists and moved on. But now, on board the White Raven, Captain Callie and her crew of Axiom-hunters receive word that the twenty-ninth colony may have met a very different fate. With their bridge generator they skip past the wormhole, and discover another Axiom project, fully awake, and poised to pour through the wormhole gate into all the worlds of humanity…
What’s Tim’s favorite bit?
The Forbidden Stars is the third in my space opera Axiom trilogy about a crew of human, posthuman, and alien do-gooders trying to stop a species of ancient slumbering malevolent might-as-well-be-gods from waking up and murdering all other intelligent life in the galaxy.
But really, the series is about the characters. In the first book I focused on the love story between the captain of the White Raven, Callie Machedo, and biologist Elena Oh, awakened from centuries of cryo-sleep (timeslip romance! Sort of). Book two dug deeper into the character of the ship’s XO and doctor, Stephen Baros, and his membership in the Church of the Ecstatic Divine (devoted to community-building and experiencing the presence of god by taking really good psychedelic drugs).
For the third book, I wanted to highlight two characters who were more enigmatic in the first volumes: Drake and Janice, the pilot and navigator/comms specialist. Drake is easygoing and optimistic, while Janice is acerbic and believes in preparing for the worst, and while they provide a lot of enjoyable commentary, their histories were a bit mysterious. In earlier volumes I revealed that Drake and Janice were in a terrible shipwreck in an asteroid field years before the series began. They were horrifically injured, and would have certainly died in the bleakness of space… but they were discovered by a group of unknown aliens, who picked them up and put them back together again. In a way.
The aliens saved their lives… but Drake and Janice were so badly hurt there weren’t enough viable body parts left for one body, let alone two. As a result, Drake and Janice were combined into a single body, pieced together from bits of their former forms and augmented with technology far beyond anything humans understood. The result doesn’t look much like other humans do. The aliens, who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) communicate with Drake and Janice in any meaningful way, put them a ship and sent them on their way once the procedures were done.
Drake and Janice disagree about the intent of the aliens: Janice thinks they were mad scientists, sadistic butchers who decided to play with the nearly-dead humans they found like toys. Drake thinks they were benevolent healers, their good intentions hampered by the fact that they’d never seen a human before, and had no idea how to repair them properly — he thinks the aliens didn’t even realize Drake and Janice started out as two individuals.
Drake and Janice share a body, but maintain their own separate personalities and ability to communicate as individuals (they do experience a little bit of bleed-through in terms of emotional states, though). The trauma of their experience has, of course, changed them immensely.
In The Forbidden Stars, I decided to reveal how much it changed them. When my crew encounters the same aliens who rescued/tortured Drake and Janice, I took the opportunity to write an extended flashback that almost works as a self-contained story, revealing Drake and Janice as they once were. We get to see them bantering as friends, surveying an asteroid field, encountering tragedy, and even get to see their experiences (as garbled and fragmented as they were) on the alien ship. In so doing, I got to reveal some pretty cool things about their history and how their experiences transformed them, beside the obvious physical changes… and I answered the question once and for all about whether the aliens they encountered were sadists or saints. That section is my favorite part of the book — it’s story I waited three years to tell, and one I hope my readers will find moving and illuminating.
TimPratt is a Hugo Award-winning SF and fantasy author, and has been a finalist for World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Stoker, Mythopoeic, and Nebula Awards, among others. He is the author of over twenty novels, most The Forbidden Stars, and scores of short stories. His work has been reprinted in The Best American Short Stories, The Year’s Best Fantasy, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, and other nice places. Since 2001 he has worked for Locus, the magazine of the science fiction and fantasy field, where he currently serves as senior editor. He lives in Berkeley, CA with his wife and son.
Lisa Goldstein is joining us today to talk about her novel Ivory Apples. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Ivy and her sisters have a secret: their reclusive Great-Aunt is actually Adela Martin, inspired author of the fantasy classic, Ivory Apples. Generations of obsessive fans have searched for Adela, poring over her letters, sharing their theories online, and gathering at book conventions. It is just a matter of time before one fan gets too close.
So when the seemingly-perfect Kate Burden appears at the local park, Ivy knows that something isn’t right. Kate has charmed the entire family, but she is suspiciously curious about Ivory Apples. And Ivy must protect what she and her Great-Aunt share: magic that is real, untamable, and—despite anyone’s desire—always prefers choosing its own vessel.
What’s Lisa’s favorite bit?
A long time ago I wrote a story about a man whose mother died. Like a lot of people, my own mother had trouble with the difference between fiction and non-fiction, and she was worried that the story meant that I wanted her to die. I spent a lot of time trying to explain to her that of course that wasn’t true, that stories didn’t work that way. I told her that the man and his mother were made up, not based on anyone I knew. I told her that the point of the story — the point of every story — was to give the main character a problem to deal with, and that the man’s problem was so terrible because he had loved his mother very much. Even after all of that, though, she wasn’t convinced.
It was only years later that I realized I had never written about a problematic mother, and that part of the reason was that I worried about what she would think. (She read everything I wrote. Well, everything I showed her, anyway.) After she died, though, I started a novel about the worst mother figure you could imagine.
That sounds bad, doesn’t it? I didn’t run to the computer the day we buried her, really. I started the book several years later, and even then I didn’t completely understand why I felt free to write it.
It’s true that this person, Kate Burden, shared some characteristics with my mother, but she was far, far worse, something out of nightmare. She was based on other scary people in my life as well: an ex-boyfriend, a particularly bad baby-sitter, liars and hypocrites I’d known, people who enjoyed inflicting emotional pain. She was the product of something that had bothered me all my life, that if someone is charming and delightful, at least superficially, they can get away with a lot, especially if they prey on the marginalized, on people who aren’t as popular as they are. That even if you point out their lies — that they said one thing yesterday and the exact opposite today — most people will shrug and say that you must have misunderstood, or that it isn’t important anyway.
It turned out that I flat-out loved writing this character. I had a great time coming up with malicious things for her to do. A lot of people have pointed out that evil characters are more interesting than good ones, that, for example, Paradise Lost moves faster when Lucifer shows up, and slows down in the scenes with that boring God character. What I didn’t know was that they’re a lot of fun to write, too, maybe because your subconscious is let off the leash and can come out to play. When I described the book to a friend of mine he called the her “evil Mary Poppins,” which is a perfect description of what I wanted to do.
Another reason I liked writing this part is that I got to tell these shadowy figures from my past that I’d understood what they’d been up to. I’d lost track of most of them and there’s no chance they’ll ever hear of the book, let alone read it, but I still enjoyed getting it all down. That boyfriend I mentioned earlier, who had once said that he couldn’t see me because his grandfather was dying, and then a month later told me about the great day he’d had with his grandfather — did he really think he’d gotten away with it? It wasn’t the lie that offended me as much as the fact that he couldn’t even keep his story straight.
Ms. Burden seduces her way into a family and gains more and more control over the four children, especially the oldest, Ivy. To write this part I had to go back to the helplessness I felt at that age, the sense that the adults around you have outsized power, that you have to trust them because you have no choice. I thought about the things that would have angered or upset or embarrassed me, and I had Ms. Burden visit them on Ivy and her younger sisters. She buys Ivy new clothes, but they’re just slightly too small. She drops Ivy off at a dentist in a decaying, unfamiliar neighborhood, and then leaves her there with no way to get home, and only comes to pick her up after they close, after Ivy has almost given up hope.
Ms. Burden also uses magic to help her, but what she doesn’t know that Ivy has her own magic. And here, using fantasy, I got to take old childhood traumas and rewrite them. I didn’t make them “better” — Ivy still goes through horrors before the end — but I gave them the shape of a story. I made more sense of them, for myself and I hope for the reader. So it was — well, I wouldn’t say “fun,” but there was even something helpful about this part as well.
LisaGoldstein’s latest novel, Ivory Apples, has just come out from Tachyon Press. Her other novels include The Red Magician, which won the American Book Award for Best Paperback, and The Uncertain Places, which won the Mythopoeic Award. She has also won the Sidewise Award for her short story “Paradise Is a Walled Garden.” Her stories have appeared in Ms., Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and The Year’s Best Fantasy, among other places, and her novels and short stories have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards. She lives with her husband and their irrepressible Labrador retriever, Bonnie, in Oakland, California. Her web site is www.brazenhussies.net/Goldstein.
E. L. Chen is joining us today to talk about her novel Summerwood/Winterwood. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Pray you never find your Summerwood, Grandfather had said. I’d found something worse. I’d found his.
In Summerwood, twelve-year old Rosalind Hero Cheung can’t wait to spend the summer in Toronto with her teenaged sister Julie and their famous author grandfather. Years ago Walter Denison wrote a series of bestselling children’s novels about a magical land called the Summerwood. But to Hero’s dismay, Walter is cold toward his granddaughters and Julie derides Hero’s hope that the Summerwood is real.
Nevertheless, one day she and Julie stumble into the Summerwood. Ruled by the beautiful and enigmatic Lady of Summer, it is the idyllic fantasy land out of Walter’s books, complete with quaintly dressed talking animals. However, Hero discovers the Summerwood is far more sinister than Walter had ever let on. Julie is abducted and, to save her life, Hero must find the Summerwood’s sacred winter stag. Hero quickly learns that setting out on a fantasy quest is far more prosaic—and terrifying—than she’d ever imagined, and there is a steep and bloody price to pay for being the hero.
In Winterwood, three years have passed since Lindy Cheung went into the Summerwood and emerged changed and broken. Now she’s getting into trouble—starting fights, skipping school, dating unsuitable boys. After her mother grounds her—again—she runs off to Toronto to her sister, the only person who knows what really happened three years ago. But Juliet has moved on from the trauma, and Lindy finds herself back in the Summerwood, where an old enemy tells her: The stag must die again.
What’s E.L.’s favorite bit?
Anyone who knows me personally will be able to pick out my favorite bit from Summerwood/Winterwood right away: the rabbits. The first characters that Hero, the protagonist, meets when she stumbles into the magical Summerwood are a family of anthropomorphic rabbits, and Thaddeus Cottontail quickly becomes her best friend.
Some people are dog people, others are cat people. I’m a rabbit person. Do you remember that Twitter meme in which people listed everything they could talk about for 30 minutes without prep? I only had one thing on my list: rabbits.
It all started when I volunteered at the Toronto Humane Society in my twenties. They didn’t need any more cat groomers, but would I like to start as a Bunny Cuddler? I said yes, and soon adopted two rabbits of my own. Lenny was a surly Dutch mix, and Otis was a beautiful fawn rex who was full of beans. Easy to litter-train, they had free rein of my apartment although Lenny’s distrust of hardwood floors kept him confined to a rug. They both lived over 10 years. I didn’t adopt any more after they passed away because I’d just had my son. (He was born in the Year of the Rabbit, so he’s my bunny now.)
Rabbits are not the docile children’s “starter pets” you see in pet shop cages beside the hamsters and gerbils. Those are often babies, and like us when they hit puberty they develop major attitude–or rabbitude, as we bunnyhuggers say. (Sadly a lot of pet bunnies are abandoned at this point.) They’re social creatures that observe hierarchies, like dogs, and if they think they’re the alpha rabbit they will boss you around, head-butting your shins for food and nose rubs.
If you’re lucky enough to be favored by one of these lordly lagomorphs, they’ll rub you with their chin, marking you as theirs with the scent gland beneath it. Piss them off and they’ll run away from you, flicking up a back foot. “It’s the pet that can give you the finger,” an ex-boyfriend once observed when he’d inexplicably offended Otis.
Friends think I love Easter because of all the bunny knickknacks that show up in stores. I don’t. Those rabbits are often wearing homespun outfits–like Thaddeus Cottontail in his overalls–and holding carrots. A rabbit would claw your eyes out before you could get a costume on it–as a prey animal, anything clinging to the body will slow it down–and contrary to popular belief, carrots are actually bad for rabbits.
I could go on and on.
So it was natural that in Summerwood/Winterwood I build in real domestic rabbit behavior into Thaddeus Cottontail and his family. Fellow bunnyhuggers will recognize the binkies, the angry ears, and yes, the eating of poop and the mounting. Behavior incongruous with a child’s fantasy of adorable animals that walk and talk and dress like people. To me, rabbits in clothes implies a terrible dystopia, not a twee pastoral paradise. The rabbits’ repressed natural behavior is the first clue that the Summerwood is not what it seems.
Of course this meant I got to invent some creative rabbit cursing too. “Cecals and celery!” is the most common expression the Cottontails use, cecals being the kind of poop they eat, and celery because it was the vegetable Otis would grudgingly accept if there wasn’t anything better available. And my favourite: “What in the name of Great-Aunt Clementine’s dewlap…?”
If you’d like to learn more about Summerwood/Winterwood, visit the ChiZine site. If you’d like to learn more about how awesome rabbits are, visit the House Rabbit Society website. Always adopt from a shelter, and in the name of Great-Aunt Clementine’s dewlap, please don’t give your young child a pet rabbit for Easter.
E. L. Chen’s short fiction has been published in anthologies such as The Dragon and the Stars and Tesseracts Fifteen, and in magazines such as Strange Horizons and On Spec. Her first novel, The Good Brother, was published by ChiZine in 2015 and her next, Summerwood/Winterwood, is out now. She lives in Toronto, Canada with her son.
Luanne G. Smith is joining us today with her novel The Vine Witch. Here’s the publisher’s description:
A young witch emerges from a curse to find her world upended in this gripping fantasy set in turn-of-the-century France.
For centuries, the vineyards at Château Renard have depended on the talent of their vine witches, whose spells help create the world-renowned wine of the Chanceaux Valley. Then the skill of divining harvests fell into ruin when sorcière Elena Boureanu was blindsided by a curse. Now, after breaking the spell that confined her to the shallows of a marshland and weakened her magic, Elena is struggling to return to her former life. And the vineyard she was destined to inherit is now in the possession of a handsome stranger.
Vigneron Jean-Paul Martel naively favors science over superstition, and he certainly doesn’t endorse the locals’ belief in witches. But Elena knows a hex when she sees one, and the vineyard is covered in them. To stay on and help the vines recover, she’ll have to hide her true identity, along with her plans for revenge against whoever stole seven winters of her life. And she won’t rest until she can defy the evil powers that are still a threat to herself, Jean-Paul, and the ancient vine-witch legacy in the rolling hills of the Chanceaux Valley.
What’s Luanne’s favorite bit?
LUANNE G. SMITH
Toad skins, a sprig of dried rosemary, a glass of full-bodied red wine—only in my witch’s world would these three things go together. Or perhaps, too, in the mind of a writer.
Unlike other stories I’ve written, The Vine Witch ended up being a repository for some favorite, quirky expertise I’ve been carrying around in my head for years. Toad skin isn’t something I’m particularly fond of on its own, but I do have an affinity for frogs and toads and reptiles in general. The interest comes from my time working as a naturalist at a state park in Colorado. The nature center where I worked kept a bull snake, painted turtle, and Woodhouse’s toad on display for educational purposes. Part of my job included feeding and cleaning up after the animals. You learn quickly (while controlling that gagging reflex) that toads do shed and eat their own skin on a regular basis. Why? No idea. Could be for the protein. Or a way to cover their tracks so a predator doesn’t hunt them down after sniffing their shed skin. But that little fact stayed with me for years. Same with the peculiar way they sink their eyes down into their head to put pressure on their gullet to swallow. They’re weird but fascinating creatures. So, when a witch story popped into my head two decades later, one involving a curse, I knew just what to do.
Another assignment I was given when I began working at the nature center was to organize color slides taken of all the plants and flowers in the park. Yes, slides. That’s how long ago that was. And while I inwardly groaned at having to shuffle a thousand slides on a light table for a week, organizing them by genus and species (Argemone albiflora, Linaria vulgaris, Melilotus officinalis!) until I was dreaming in Latin, in retrospect it spurred a life-long interest in plants and their properties. Like a lot of writers, I’m curious about everything. At times it feels like an affliction, but my antidote is to buy books on whatever subject I’m interested in. Which is why I still have a shelf full of field guides on weeds, flowers, trees, herbs, etc. More than once, I returned to those shelves while writing about my witch who practices nature-based magic.
My most recent interest is the wine. I’m not nearly as proficient in my merlots, cabernets, and pinot noirs as I am at identifying flora and fauna, but I find I enjoy collecting the specimens for study a great deal more. In a glass. With a soft cheese on the side. A good sommelier can sort out the individual aromas of a wine—florals, berries, a bit of tobacco, a hint of chocolate, cherry, or vanilla. I’m still (and probably always will be) at the, “Oh, that’s good. I’ll have more of that,” stage.
Writers are fortunate to have stories to deposit the results of a lifetime of curiosity in. For me, the writing process is a bit like spell casting over a cauldron, figuring out if I should use a drop of this information or a pinch of that odd fact to conjure a scene. In the end just toss it in the pot. You never know what the odd combination might result in.
Luanne G. Smith lives in Colorado at the base of the beautiful Rocky Mountains, where she enjoys hiking, gardening, and a glass of good wine at the end of the day. The Vine Witch is her debut novel. For more information, visit www.luannegsmith.com.
Ginn Hale is joining us today to talk about her novel Master of Restless Shadows. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Freshly graduated Master Physician Narsi Lif-Tahm has left his home in Anacleto and journeyed to the imposing royal capitol of Cieloalta intent upon keeping the youthful oath he made to a troubled writer. But in the decade since Narsi gave his pledge, Atreau Vediya, has grown from an anonymous delinquent to a man renowned for penning bawdy operas and engaging in scandalous affairs.
What Narsi―and most of the larger world―cannot know is the secret role Atreau plays as spymaster for the Duke of Rauma.
After the Cadeleonian royal bishop launches an unprovoked attack against the witches in neighboring Labara, Atreau will require every resource he can lay his hands upon to avert a war. A physician is exactly what he needs. But with a relentless assassin hunting the city and ancient magic waking, Atreau fears that his actions could cost more than his own honor. The price of peace could be his friends’ lives
What’s Ginn’s favorite bit?
Like most authors and readers I’m exceedingly fond of books. For me, there’s just something magical about the experience of encountering strings of words and having them come to life in my mind as images, sounds, sensations and new ideas. It’s not hard to understand why there are so many stories that revolve around people literally entering the worlds of books, from Michael Ende’s The Never Ending Story to Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair. The love of escaping into a story seems nearly universal.
So when it came to writing my own Cadeleonians fantasy series (Lord of the White Hell, Champion of the Scarlet Wolf and Master of Restless Shadows) it seemed natural and fun to invent various publications within the world. Of course some of the books also served as little pieces of exposition. In Champion of the Scarlet Wolf when the swordsman, Elezar flees to the northlands of Labara he takes a history book with him, which informs him—and by extension readers— about the wilds and witches that he’ll encounter. But most other books appear for less functional reasons.
For example, in Lord of the White Hell the bookshelf belonging to youthful engineering prodigy Kiram reveals his private, romanticized longing for adventure and travel. But there’s also a joke hidden in the titles. Among the Untamed Men of Mirogoth, foreshadows the fact that Kiram will eventually spend five years in those wilds, battling to survive arctic storms and mordwolves.
(Poor Kiram, he probably would have been better served by reading Elezar’s dry history tome but if he had he might just have stayed home instead of going out into the world, destroying a curse, finding love and inventing a steam engine.)
But with the final installment, Master of Restless Shadows, I had the opportunity to do something entirely new.
Much of the story is told from the point of view of author and spymaster Atreau. As a side character in the Lord of the White Hell and Champion of the Scarlet Wolf we’ve seen him writing plays and poems and publishing scandalous memoirs. So in effect he’s created alternate, in-world versions of the previous books in my fantasy series.
This means that other characters in the world—the physician Narsi, in particular— can have read versions of the previous books in a series that they are now becoming part of. Just like a reader of the series, Narsi can pull out his weathered volume of a previous book and look up some detail which makes for a rather different take on the ‘story within a story’ trope.
Though obviously Atreau—or perhaps his publishers—have chosen slightly different titles than I did. His books are called In the Company of the Lord of the White Hell and Five Hundred Nights in the Court of the Scarlet Wolf. And, being Atreau, he’s included much more sex and existential poetry in his versions. Though he’s glossed over any mention of how poorly a diet of cabbage stew sat with him at boarding school as it would hardly be in keeping with his image as a charming rogue. He’d be mortified if he knew how much my books reveal about him. Not least because I’ve blown his cover by depicting him as the spymaster that he is, showing him recruiting agents and taking on assassins instead of spending all day lounging around drunk and naked—as he always portrays himself.
Privately envisioning Atreau’s disapproval of my versions of his books never fails to crack me up. It’s got to be my personal favorite part of Master of Restless Shadows. Never mind all the plots for control of the nation, magic and assassins—it’s Atreau taking offense at how I’ve written it all down that’s my favorite bit.
Ginn Hale lives with her lovely wife in the Pacific Northwest. She spends the many cloudy days observing plants and fungi. She whiles away the rainy evenings writing fantasy and science-fiction featuring LGBTQ+ protagonists. Her first novel, Wicked Gentlemen, won the Spectrum Award for best novel. She is also a Lambda Literary Award finalist and Rainbow Award winner.
Her most recent publications include the Lord of the White Hell, Champion of the Scarlet Wolf and The Rifter Trilogy: The Shattered Gates, The Holy Road, His Sacred Bones.
She can be reached through her website: www.ginnhale.com as well as on Facebook and Twitter. Her Instagram account, however, is largely a collection of botanical photos…so, be warned.
R J Theodore is joining us today with her novel Salvage, sequel to Flotsam. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Peridot is headed for its second cataclysm. War has broken ancient alliances, sealed borders, and locked down the skies. The Five, Peridot’s alchemist gods, have seen one of their number die and another fall in their efforts to protect their world from invaders beyond the stars. Defeated and diminished, they have ceased to answer the prayers of their people and have left the rapidly unraveling world to fend for itself.
Talis and the orphaned crew of the lost airship Wind Sabre have a plan to set things to rights, but they’re stranded on a rock far from the heart of the conflict. When an old enemy comes and offers them a ship and a path forward, it comes with strings that will pull them further from the home they are so desperate to save.
Can Talis and her crew chart a course through hostile skies, shifting allegiances, and subverted governments before the true enemies of Peridot claim a power that can destroy the world once and for all?
What’s R J’s favorite bit?
R J THEODORE
Chanteys are ubiquitous to tall ships and sailing. For SALVAGE, the second novel in my Peridot Shift series, I wanted a chantey to provide rhythm for my airship crews and a dose of social commentary. Easy! Fun! I could add this in and move on, right?
But my self-assigned challenge became a grand obstacle. Dear reader, I began to overthink it.
I analyzed Earth chantey themes from top to bottom, hoping to translate them into Peridotian versions that would be both familiar and unique. But the idioms of Earth and language of maritime lyrics I thought would inform my work… simply didn’t apply.
And soon we’ll see old Holyhead
No more salt beef, no more salt bread
I catch my Jinny and off to bed
Jinny get your ring-tail warm1
I knew the song I wanted came from my Cutter culture, in which a ship feel more like home than land. Songs about eagerly returning to shore didn’t ring true. Likewise, outbound songs about the ocean and water didn’t suit my aeronautical industries.
You’ve got your advance, and to sea you’ll go
Go down, ye blood red roses, Go down.
To chase them whales through the frost and snow.
Go down, ye blood red roses, Go down.2
We’re far enough removed from their origins that chanteys often seem like fun maritime nonsense, but chanteys communicate an astounding amount of information about class, race, economy, and mental health. For example, one of the most famous chanteys is “Blow the Man Down.” It’s such fun to sing that they picked up the tune for the Spongebob Squarepants theme, but the song itself speaks of abuses sailors were subjected to on the Black Ball line, a particularly capitalist endeavor.
It’s starboard and larboard on deck you will sprawl
Way, aye, blow the man down
For Kicking Jack Williams commands the Black Ball.
Give me some time to blow the man down!3
A startling number of oceanic chanteys were written about specific people and were not shy about saying so. This was universal and could work on my novels’ airships, but my song would be used in the middle of a Hudson Hawk-esque heist. Tossing in the name of some hitherto unknown Cutter Imperial captain might distract the reader even if the concept fit. The same goes for locations. There were a few choice ports whose names would be familiar to the reader, but referencing places already introduced might shrink the world rather than expand it (akin to seeing Jack Sparrow receive his captaincy, signature pistol, hat, AND scarf in a single origin story moment).
Also, and here’s the kicker, I dislike lyrics in written works. I enjoy screen adaptations where an in-world song is performed (as in Lord of the Rings or The Hunger Games), but on the page, I skim inset stanzas for details I might need and move on without lingering in the lyricism.
So, in addition to creating cultural weight and situational parallels to my story, I challenged myself to write lyrics even I would read. That meant conveying the tune through the repetition of syllables and solid meter, even on the first read-through.
This little plot detail, meant to flesh out my world, was growing into a senior thesis project. The easiest thing would have been to drop it and finish my book, but now I was sold on the concept and determined to rise to the challenge.
Mind you, I didn’t just need one song. There are catalogs of songs sung by tall ship crews during their work and after. I wanted this song to feel like one of many. In my narrative, I’d already named a few tunes as characters hum or sing and now my brain was so steeped in thinking about chanteys that I realized I needed at least two full songs.
Really, three would be better.
Yet I still hadn’t written one that I liked. I had expansive notes, a Spotify playlist, bookmarks of lyric archives, and links to historical recordings on YouTube.
I banged my head against this challenge before I finally came to a realization: the songs I was trying to pay homage to were complex in their steeped culture, but not so much the lyrics. Yes, they felt complex to me because I recognized the significance of the terms and the meaning, and that took work.
But these were composed by sailors, with simple rhythms to pass the time and coordinate crews’ work. The word choice at the time would have been invented in a moment of inspiration and, over more, easy to memorize. Not a historical study, they were crafted from the vernacular with just a touch of cheek. And maybe make a joke or two at their employers’ or officers’ expense.
In fact, that latter was the purpose one song I wanted. In my third book, I knew a crew would change the lyrics to mock a certain character. How would the reader know the lyrics had been changed and not written on the spot about that person? If I used the same chantey, with its ‘original’ lyrics, in SALVAGE!
With that realization, my brain gained some traction on the concept.
The song came together as a call-and-response format, starting with a caller’s single voice, and a response from the rest of the team consisting of one or two variations on a single phrase. It forced me to keep it simple and, in that simplicity, all the subtext I wanted appeared without me overloading the text.
Once I got the first one down, it was as if a stopper had been pulled. The second sky chantey came to me in the shower (I still really need to get one of those waterproof notepads), and a third was birthed somewhere between the computer and the coffee pot.
The daunting task that kept me up at night, haunted by the tunes of reference material that would not get out of my head, suddenly became my favorite bit of the novel.
My earliest attempts read exactly like the very struggle to repurpose existing songs that they were. The final songs that made it into the novels are birthed from the Cutter traditions of Peridot and natural to the cultures from which they would have come.
And on top of that, if you get a group of people together, the songs are one hundred percent sing-able without much help. That alone would be worth all the effort!
Shiny Bright Captain
(from SALVAGE by R J Theodore)
Well our captain is a high-born type;
Proper man, captain! Shiny bright captain!
You should see his palecoat catch the light;
Proper man, captain! Shiny bright captain!
He’ll polish his buttons straight through the night.
Toast to our captain! Proper man, captain!
The captain ain’t a bastard like you an’ me;
Proper man, captain! Shiny bright captain!
No, the Captain’s got a pretty little ancestry;
Proper man, captain! Shiny bright captain!
You could fall to your death from his fam’ly tree.
R J Theodore lives in New England with her family, where she enjoys reading, design, illustration, video games (she will take you down in Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo), napping with her cats, and cooking. She is passionate about art and coffee.
Theodore made her publishing debut in 2018 with her self-published novella THE BANTAM and her novel FLOTSAM, Book One of the Peridot Shift series.
Read about her writing process, find her on social media, and subscribe to her newsletter at rjtheodore.com.
Rebecca Schaeffer is joining us today to talk about her novel Only Ashes Remain. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Dexter meets Victoria Schwab in this dark and compelling fantasy about a girl who seeks revenge on the boy who betrayed her, a sequel to the critically-acclaimed Not Even Bones.
After escaping her kidnappers and destroying the black market where she was held captive, all Nita wants is to find a way to live her life without looking over her shoulder. But with a video of her ability to self-heal all over the dark web, Nita knows she’s still a prime target on the black market. There’s only one way to keep herself safe. Nita must make herself so feared that no one would ever dare come after her again. And the best way to start building her reputation? Take her revenge on Fabricio, the boy who sold Nita to her kidnappers. But killing Fabricio is harder than Nita thought it would be, even with Kovit by her side. Now caught in a game of kill or be killed, Nita will do whatever it takes to win.
What’s Rebecca’s favorite bit?
Body parts are a staple of fantasy novels, so much so that most of us don’t even question it anymore. Witches use eye of newt and unicorn horn in their potions, while bottles of dragon scales and pixie dust clutter their shelves.
But where did all those body parts come from? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never gone into a Wal-Mart and found newt eyeballs in the kitchen aisle. And if I did, I’d have to wonder why PETA and Greenpeace weren’t all over Wal-Mart for mass newt eye theft. Where are the eyeless newt bodies littering the dirt and who are the people that spend their days popping those eyes out and putting them in a jar?
When I created the Market of Monsters series, I wanted to show that other side, explore the world of magical creature body part trafficking, and all the various ugly pieces of it. It’s been my favorite part of the series, because it’s something that I do on both a small scale, weaving tiny details into the fabric of the world, as well as addressing it on a broad scale thematic level, asking questions about humanity and monstrousness and what that even means when you’re murdering ‘monsters’ to sell for parts.
The world of Not Even Bones and Only Ashes Remain is our world, but populated by unnaturals. Some look human, some don’t. Some are dangerous, some aren’t. Many are based on various mythological creatures, like Unicorns, Kappa, Kelpies, Vampires, and Krasue.
The one thing that all these species have in common is that there is a thriving black market for their body parts.
The main character, Nita, and her mother hunt down unnaturals and sell pieces of them on the internet. They grind up unicorn bones into powder so that drug addicts can buy it and snort it to get high. They drain vampire blood and sell it as an anti-aging cream. Sometimes they pass off human body parts as monster ones, and lie about what they can do.
When Nita ends up on the other side of the black market, as a product rather than a seller, we get to experience the story from a different angle. She’s been merchant and merchandise, abuser and victim, monster and human, allowing the book to explore all those complicated angles of unnatural body parts trafficking.
And they are complicated—this world is a funhouse mirror of out own, and just like our own, black markets exist and will continue to, because people profit. Not just the sellers of unnatural body parts, but the politicians and police who are bribed to turn away. And of course, the day-to-day ‘normal’ consumers of these products, the arthritic elderly who want to use zannie blood as a painkiller, the women who rub vampire blood infused anti-aging cream on their faces.
From corporations claiming chinchillas are unnaturals so they can skirt animal cruelty laws, to a unicorn bone drug epidemic in middle America, there’s so many interesting ways to explore the ugly side of the magical body parts business. I think it’s the details that truly bring a world like this to life, the nitty gritty pieces that make the black market body parts industry feel all the more real.
Not all unnaturals are monsters. Not all monsters are unnatural – humans can be just as terrible. Exploring the ugly side of a world where magical body parts are a big industry, picking apart the questions of where they come from, how these industries are maintained – and who profits from them – is one of my favorite parts of this series.
RebeccaSchaeffer was born and raised in the Canadian prairies. Her itchy feet took her far from home. You can find her sitting in a cafe on the other side of the world, writing about villains, antiheroes, and morally ambiguous characters. She is the author of Not Even Bones, the first in a dark YA fantasy trilogy.
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