Micah Dean Hicks is joining us today to talk about his novel Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Swine Hill was full of the dead. Their ghosts were thickest near the abandoned downtown, where so many of the town’s hopes had died generation by generation. They lingered in the places that mattered to them, and people avoided those streets, locked those doors, stopped going into those rooms . . . They could hurt you. Worse, they could change you.
Jane is haunted. Since she was a child, she has carried a ghost girl that feeds on the secrets and fears of everyone around her, whispering to Jane what they are thinking and feeling, even when she doesn’t want to know. Henry, Jane’s brother, is ridden by a genius ghost that forces him to build strange and dangerous machines. Their mother is possessed by a lonely spirit that burns anyone she touches. In Swine Hill, a place of defeat and depletion, there are more dead than living.
When new arrivals begin scoring precious jobs at the last factory in town, both the living and the dead are furious. This insult on the end of a long economic decline sparks a conflagration. Buffeted by rage on all sides, Jane must find a way to save her haunted family and escape the town before it kills them.
What’s Micah’s favorite bit?
MICAH DEAN HICKS
I love a story with a robot. And I’m not talking about slick, more-human-than-human androids with synthetic skin. Give me FLCL’s TV-headed robot doing dishes, hanging up laundry, and playing baseball. Give me The Iron Giant bending down to scoop up a boy in a rivet-studded hand the size of a car, or Will Robinson’s dangerous machine. Give me Goro Fujita’s box-shaped, down on its luck, guitar-playing robot singing in the rain, or even the fretful and mistreated droids of Star Wars.
These robots are conspicuously machines. They stick out in a crowd, hiding under cardboard boxes or umbrellas. They seem a little embarrassed to have ended up here. They’re doing their best.
I love this trope for its contradictions. The robot might look like it’s made of junk, but its clumsy body houses intelligence and vulnerability, a ghost in the machine. With arms that can rip through steel doors, the robot softly catches a ball. With an unyielding metal chest, the robot pulls someone into an embrace. Built for violence, it will inevitably sacrifice itself to defend those it loves.
In my novel, Henry builds a robot to help around the house, but the gnawing swarms of ghosts that fill the town play havoc with the machine, changing it in ways Henry never expected:
The robot dressed itself in his father’s old clothes—something Henry was certain he hadn’t programmed it to do. Its work boots and jeans were stiff with mud. Bright stars of rust and bleeding tracks of white battery corrosion dotted its limbs and chassis. It moved erratically, slamming down plates and dropping silverware, movements jerky from spirits that had taken up residence in its servomotors. His ghost had driven Henry to build it after his father left, when Henry worried that someone needed to take care of his mother.
Henry’s robot suffers, and as it suffers it becomes more human-like. It feels jealous, unappreciated, neglected. It falls in love and isn’t loved back. It experiences heartbreak. Begrudgingly, it defends Henry and his family when they need it most.
Robots in fiction are a great way to explore our own humanity. They ask us to wrestle with our responsibility for the things we have made and set loose on the world. They force us to consider what it means to have power and hold back, to care about someone we can’t fully know, to love another on their own terms.
MICAH DEAN HICKS is the author of the story collection Electricity and Other Dreams—a book of dark fairy tales and bizarre fables that won the 2012 New American Fiction Prize. He is also the winner of the 2014 Calvino Prize judged by Robert Coover, the 2016 Arts and Letters Prize judged by Kate Christensen, and the 2015 Wabash Prize judged by Kelly Link. His stories and essays have appeared in dozens of magazines ranging from The New York Times to Lightspeed to The Kenyon Review. Hicks teaches creative writing at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
Charlie N. Holmberg is joining us today to talk about her new book Smoke and Summons. Here’s the publisher’s description:
As a human vessel for an ancient spirit, Sandis lives no ordinary life. At the command of her master, she can be transformed against her will into his weapon—a raging monster summoned to do his bidding. Unlike other vessels, Sandis can host extremely powerful spirits, but hosting such creatures can be fatal. To stay alive, she must run. And in a city fueled by smoke and corruption, she finds a surprising ally.
A cunning thief for hire, Rone owns a rare device that grants him immortality for one minute every day—a unique advantage that will come in handy in Sandis’s fight for freedom. But Sandis’s master knows how powerful she is. He’s determined to get her back, and he has the manpower to find her, wherever she runs.
Now, to outwit her pursuers, Sandis must put all her trust in Rone and his immortal device. For her master has summoned more than mere men to hunt her down…
What’s Charlie’s favorite bit?
CHARLIE N. HOLMBERG
This is slightly tricky because my favorite bit is a major spoiler for the book as a whole, so for our purposes, we’re going with the runner up!
Smoke & Summons is a Frankenstein book, in that I harvested bits and pieces from other novels and ideas to put together its plot. I took the presence of a horse made of fire from an urban fantasy idea dredged in Greek mythology. I stole the abnormal characteristics of my demons from a novel I queried years ago that never got accepted. Half of my magic system, the hey-let’s-host-a-demon part, came from a story I was still brainstorming (which was inspired by Final Fantasy, let’s be honest), and the other half came from my folder of magic ideas: an immortality switch. After some operating, I came up with what I consider my best published work to date.
My favorite bit focuses on the first half of the magic system: the woman who is the host of an ethereal fire horse. Sandis Gwenwig was nabbed by slavers four years ago, branded with gold, and forced to serve as a vessel for one of the most morally dark people in the country. When she escapes, she makes three enemies. First, the man who wants her back. Second, the priests, who consider her a blasphemy. And third, the corrupt police force, also known as the “scarlets.” Since, you know, hosting demons is illegal.
Throughout the book, the scarlets have been a background threat, but in this scene they surge forward as a real one. After running for days with her companion, Rone, Sandis finally believes she has a moment of safety holed up in a nice hotel. But Rone is gone, and she runs into someone she—or, rather, her demon—badly hurt in the first chapter of the book. The cops are called, and Sandis is forcefully dragged from her saferoom into a prison wagon. All this time she’s been running away from monsters and those who control them, but it’s ordinary humans who finally capture her. And she’s without the man who’s been her shield since chapter five. No matter how many times she screams his name, he doesn’t come. (Kudos to my audiobook narrator, Lauren Ezzo, for making this sound especially desperate.)
Sandis is special. She knows that, and she knows her master knows that. That’s why she ran—she didn’t want to be next in his experiment to summon the Big Bad to the mortal plane. But only a day ago, she learned she’s really special, and that her connection to her demon is more powerful than she thought (and I won’t give details, because spoilers.)
I like writing scenes that are emotionally raw, and this was one of them. Sandis is in a cage she can’t break out of, riding toward a prison that will execute her immediately. She has no help, only herself . . . and her demon. Her newfound power might help her escape, but it also knocks her unconscious for six hours. She needs a quick getaway, and the swift waters of an upcoming canal could give her just that. But if she can’t stay awake, she’ll drown.
By the way, her brother died drowning in a canal. Just saying.
She’s damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t, but she hedges her bets, uses her power (which may result in the explosion of the prison wagon and everything around her), and falls into the canal. But she can’t stay awake. She’s unable to swim. She’s naked. And she’s alone.
And I’ll leave it there because, like my book, this article ends on a cliffhanger.
Born in Salt Lake City, Charlie N. Holmberg was raised a Trekkie alongside three sisters who also have boy names. She is a proud BYU alumna, plays the ukulele, owns too many pairs of glasses, and finally adopted a dog. Her fantasy Paper Magician Series, which includes The Paper Magician, The Glass Magician, and The Master Magician, has been optioned by the Walt Disney Company. Her stand-alone novel, Followed by Frost, was nominated for a 2016 RITA Award for Best Young Adult Romance. She currently lives with her family in Utah. Visit her at www.charlienholmberg.com.
David Niall Wilson is joining us today with his novel A Midnight Dreary. Here’s the publisher’s description:
A Midnight Dreary, the long-awaited fifth volume in The DeChance Chronicles, picks up outside Old Mill, NC, when Donovan, reminded that he has promised his lover, Amethyst, and Geoffrey Bullfinch of the O.C.L.T. a story, draws them back in time to a vision of the final chapter of the novel Nevermore, a Novel of Love, Loss & Edgar Allan Poe. At vision’s end, they realize that they have to act, to free Eleanor MacReady from the trap that holds her on the banks of Lake Drummond, in the Great Dismal Swamp, and to rescue a princess who has not known freedom in at least two centuries. The rescue that ensues crosses worlds and dimensions, wandering through Poe’s tales, the fables of the Brothers Grimm, and finally to a confrontation on a mountain in Germany. This novel draws upon characters and plots from many of the author’s novels, including his stories of Old Mill, NC, The O.C.L.T., Nevermore, and the vampire novel Darkness Falling.” It is rich with sorcery and adventure. Welcome to the world of Donovan DeChance.
What is David’s favorite bit?
DAVID NIALL WILSON
What I love the most about this novel is the character Edgar Allan Poe. Starting with the novel Nevermore – A Novel of Love, Loss & Edgar Allan Poe, he has been a recurring character in my fiction. My version of Poe wanders through mystical passageways in a place that Donovan DeChance, the protagonist of my series, calls the Labyrinth. Edgar sees this place as a long, gaslit hallway with heavy wooden doors that lead to different times, places, and dimensions. This place appears differently to all who can access it. When Edgar enters one of the doorways, what he encounters is a story that he must live through.
In each encounter, for good or ill, he meets his own doppelganger and interacts with a story that we are familiar with. In the novel A Midnight Dreary, there are stories within the story. Donovan reads the initial adventure that led to the story “The Masque of the Red Death,” and then, himself, walks into Poe’s “The System of Dr. Tar and Professor Fether,” where he and Edgar are both characters.
This novel gives me multiple opportunities to bond with Edgar Allan Poe on a creative level. The main plot involves saving his lost love, Lenore, from a magical trap, explains the odd circumstances surrounding his death, and adds details to two of his stories. This is fun, and makes me smile, but there is more.
In the last chapters of the book, we add Copper, a vampire, who is also a fan of Poe’s stories. He has them memorized, even some that Poe, who has not yet experienced or written all of them on his off-kilter timeline, is not familiar with. The back and forth between the two is one of my favorite parts of the book, and then, we have the ultimate Poe moment. The sorceress they are attempting to track down and trap, sets a trap herself. She creates a false world that appears, initially, to be another Poe story that he (and others) will walk into. She is arrogant, however, and does not understand the story well enough to create the experience fully. She also is unaware that he has already lived through the story in question (I won’t mention which, because I don’t want to provide spoilers). Poe figures it out before the trap can be sprung, and in the process, I am able to add another piece from his work into my personal universe. I have always felt a kinship with his prose, even the stories that are so over-written that they are hard to enjoy.
My version of Poe is likely a bit more interesting and adventuresome than the original. There are rumors that he wrote an early draft of “The Raven” at The Lake Drummond Hotel, which once stood on the banks of the Intracoastal waterway, directly on the border of Virginia and North Carolina. From that rumor, the novel Nevermore, A Novel of Love, Loss & Edgar Allan Poe was born (it was originally meant to be much shorter, and the prologue to A Midnight Dreary, before it took on a life of its own).
I am very glad that it did. There are plans in the works for another story with Edgar at its center, in which I fictionalize a meeting that actually happened between Poe and Charles Dickens, who owned a raven named Grip. History tells us that Grip died… In my version, I think he changes his name to Grimm and remains with Edgar. Time will tell…
David Niall Wilson has been writing professionally since the mid 1980s. He is a multiple winner of the Bram Stoker Award and has published more than forty book. He lives near the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina, with the love of his life, Patricia Lee Macomber (also an author), his daughter Katie (also an author) five cats, a chinchilla, a three-legged turtle, a canary and a very wise old Pekingese named Gizzy Momo.
David is the founder of Crossroad Press Publishing, with over 2500 eBooks, 650 audiobooks, and several hundred print editions spanning all genres. His most recent works include the novels Gideon’s Curse and Remember Bowling Green – The Adventures of Frederick Douglass, Time Traveler (written with Patricia). He is currently writing a fantasy novel titled Jurassic Ark and the first book of a series about teen heroes with unique abilities titled Hoods.
Django Wexler is joining us today to talk about his novel Ship of Smoke and Steel. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Ship of Smoke and Steel is the launch of Django Wexler’s cinematic, action-packed epic fantasy Wells of Sorcery trilogy.
In the lower wards of Kahnzoka, the great port city of the Blessed Empire, eighteen-year-old ward boss Isoka enforces the will of her criminal masters with the power of Melos, the Well of Combat. The money she collects goes to keep her little sister living in comfort, far from the bloody streets they grew up on.
When Isoka’s magic is discovered by the government, she’s arrested and brought to the Emperor’s spymaster, who sends her on an impossible mission: steal Soliton, a legendary ghost ship—a ship from which no one has ever returned. If she fails, her sister’s life is forfeit.
On board Soliton, nothing is as simple as it seems. Isoka tries to get close to the ship’s mysterious captain, but to do it she must become part of the brutal crew and join their endless battles against twisted creatures. She doesn’t expect to have to contend with feelings for a charismatic fighter who shares her combat magic, or for a fearless princess who wields an even darker power.
What’s Django’s favorite bit?
Choosing a favorite piece from a book always seems impossible, especially when I’m trying to avoid spoiling it for everybody. For Ship of Smoke and Steel, I want to talk about the magic system, the concerns which went into it and some of the odd little bits that I’m particularly happy with. We start the book with a list of the Wells of Sorcery, as follows:
The Nine Wells of Sorcery
Myrkai, the Well of Fire
Tartak, the Well of Force
Melos, the Well of Combat
Sahzim, the Well of Perception
Rhema, the Well of Speed
Xenos, the Well of Shadows
Ghul, the Well of Life, the Forbidden Well
Kindre, the Well of Mind
Eddica, the Well of Spirits, the Lost Well
Putting together the magic system of SSS was a slightly different task than my usual world-building, because I wasn’t starting from scratch; the core of the story and much of the world, though few of the characters, were salvaged from the remains of a defunct project. The concept of the Wells of Sorcery, metaphysical sources of all magical power, was one of main pieces I re-used, which means that the actual origin of it is lost to me, now. (I suspect Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen was an inspiration, though, with its fearsomely-named elemental warrens.)
At the same time, one of my core world-building principles is that the nature of the world needs to suit to nature of the story. SSS is a YA adventure story, which imposed some rules on how magic could work in this world — it can’t be the sort of magic you have to spend fifty years practicing to get any good at, because I wanted to have teenagers running around using it to fight monsters. Isoka, the main character, is a rare magical adept born into the lower classes; ability to access the Wells is partly hereditary, and largely confined to the “mage-blood” nobility. The combination of these two elements makes the magic of SSS more like the mutant superpowers of the X-Men, say, then carefully-acquired spells of the D&D mage.
That in turn has all kinds of interesting consequences for the social structure of the various societies in the world, since managing people with that kind of power isn’t easy. Isoka boards the ghost ship Soliton and meets others from all over the world, so I got to have great fun designing a wide range of societal adaptations to the way magic works. There are little asides in snippets of dialogue, some of which sadly had to get cut, that talk about the cultural differences — societies where mage-bloods rule, societies where they’re anathema, where they’re slaves, where they’re members of holy orders sworn to defend the throne, and so on. This is the kind of world-building I love, trying to imagine the consequences of some supernatural element in everyday life.
Some specifics of the Wells also bear mentioning as among my favorites. There are more of them than I really need for the story, which gives the system a pleasantly baroque feel and provides some interesting material for future books. We don’t find out much about Xenos, or Kindre, or Sahzim. Having those seeds there, without always precisely knowing what they’ll be good for, is another fun piece that only occasionally gets me into serious trouble.
Isoka’s well is Melos, combat, which lets her generate energy blades and impenetrable magical armor. From a metastory perspective, this has two important benefits:
1) It looks cool. Especially since they got Richard Anderson, maybe my favorite cover artist, to do the cover!
2) Isoka’s armor in particular helps make for a very fast-paced plot. Getting hit doesn’t injure her, usually, but the energy it uses builds up as heat under her skin, which means that getting really badly beaten will burn her and eventually kill her. This means that when she fights somebody, there’s still a real threat (at least if the person has their own Wells, or is a giant crab) but she doesn’t take the kind of damage that a “realistic” fight would inflict, stabs and cuts and broken limbs and so on. That helps keep things moving, without long hospital stays between battles!
But, you ask, what about magical healing? That’s another interesting part of the Wells: Ghul, the Well of Life. One of the major characters (spoilers, slightly) is a Ghul adept, and we learn fairly early on that Ghul practitioners are universally reviled. Their power can heal, but it can also harm, and in particularly gruesome ways — seeding a victim with fast-growing tumors, for example, or creating diseases custom-tailored to target specific groups. In the deep history of the SSS world, a city that prized Ghul mastery was destroyed by the hubris of its own adepts, some experiment gone wrong converting the entire island metropolis into an incomprehensible wasteland of riotous fungal growth and constant decay called the Vile Rot. The Rot plays a fairly minor role in the story, but it’s such a fun element of background — the trauma of it has worked into culture so deeply that characters say “rot” or “rotting” in place of words like “damned”. (Another piece from the old archive, incidentally, whose origins I have only the sketchiest idea of. I suspect Ian McDonald’s Evolution’s Shore played a role — I remember vividly reading it as a teen and being simultaneously fascinated and scared witless.)
Even with the best of intentions, Ghul can be dangerous. One attempt at healing gone wrong, for example, causes the intended recipient to rapidly bloat into a shifting, melting ball of flesh, screaming until they explode in a shower of gore. (Yes, it’s probably inspired by the movie you’re thinking of.) And that, obviously, is one of my favorite bits.
DJANGO WEXLER graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with degrees in creative writing and computer science, worked in artificial intelligence research and as a programmer/writer for Microsoft, and is now a full-time fantasy writer. Django is the author of The Shadow Campaigns, an epic fantasy series for adults, and The Forbidden Library, a classic fantasy series for middle-grade readers.
You can find him online at www.djangowexler.com and on Twitter as @DjangoWexler.
David Mack is joining us today to talk about his novel The Iron Codex. Here is the publisher’s description:
New York Times bestselling author David Mack’s Dark Arts series continues as the wizards of World War II become the sorcerers of the Cold War in this globe-spanning spy-thriller sequel to The Midnight Front.
1954: Cade Martin, hero of the Midnight Front during the war, has been going rogue without warning or explanation, and his mysterious absences are making his MI-6 handlers suspicious. In the United States, Briet Segfrunsdóttir serves as the master karcist of the Pentagon’s top-secret magickal warfare program. And in South America, Anja Kernova hunts fugitive Nazi sorcerers with the help of a powerful magickal tome known as the Iron Codex.
In an ever-more dangerous world, a chance encounter sparks an international race to find Anja and steal the Iron Codex. The Vatican, Russians, Jewish Kabbalists, and shadowy players working all angles covet the Codex for the power it promises whoever wields it.
As the dominos start to fall, and one betrayal follows another, Anja goes on the run, hunted by friend and foe alike. The showdown brings our heroes to Bikini Atoll in March 1954: the Castle Bravo nuclear test.
But unknown to all of them, a secret magick cabal schemes to turn America and its western allies toward fascism—even if it takes decades…
What’s David’s favorite bit?
In the Dark Arts series’ first book, The Midnight Front, sorceress Briet Segfrunsdóttir was one of the bad guys until she realized that her master Kein had gone insane. At that point she deserted him and fled with her faithful rat familiar, Trixim.
Briet was found after World War II by Operation: Paperclip, a CIA initiative that recruited ex-Nazi scientists (and, in my book, ex-Nazi mages) to work for the United States’ defense and space programs. Briet was placed in charge of the U.S. Occult Defense Program, a role that earned her the suspicion of the first book’s main character, Cade Martin.
In book two, The Iron Codex, set nearly a decade later in 1954, Cade and Briet are forced to work together to halt a global threat that fuses black magick and nuclear science. After a brutal ambush critically wounds Cade’s best friend Miles and kills Briet’s beloved familiar Trixim, Cade and the grieving Briet go on the run and take refuge together in a deserted barn:
Briet had spent their shared drive asleep. Cade had seen no point to waking her. Once they were sheltered inside the barn, he’d set himself to work. He had compelled Seir, his demon of burden, to move the anvil closer to the car. Then he’d employed the fires of Xaphan to imbue the hunk of iron with Infernal heat, enough to keep him and Briet warm for most of the day. The rest of his labors he had seen to himself: using scrap wood, stones, and packed dirt to patch gaps in the walls, and bundles of straw to fill as many holes in the roof as he could reach.
Now if only we had brought something decent to eat, he lamented.
He heard Briet stir inside the car. She sat up in the backseat, pushing aside the extra layer of his bomber jacket, which he had placed over her the night before. She blinked and looked around, bleary-eyed and drowsy. “Where are we?”
“Southeast Colorado,” Cade said. “Middle of fuckin’ nowhere.”
She turned frantically to and fro, searching the car. “Trixim—?”
“He’s out back,” Cade said, wreathing himself in a short-lived halo of breath.
Briet clambered out of the car and rushed to Cade’s side, incensed. “You buried him?”
“Of course not. It’s ten below zero and there’s three feet of snow on the ground.” He stood and walked around Briet to the open car door. He reached in and pulled out their coats. He handed Briet her trench coat, and then he shrugged into his bomber jacket.
“Come on,” he said.
He led her to the barn’s back door, which hung at an angle from its rusted but still working hinges. It scraped and squeaked as the pair walked outside, down a path that Cade had shoveled a few hours earlier, after the snowfall had petered out. At the end of the path, in a small circular clearing, stood a two-foot-tall funeral pyre of twigs, kindling, and straw. Atop it, swaddled in a piece of floral-print cloth topped with pink silk roses, was the body of Trixim.
Briet stepped past Cade and stood beside the tiny pyre. She pressed her gloved fingertips to her lips and spent a moment looking verklempt.
Feeling awkward about the silence between them, Cade said, “The wood was easy to find. Most of it was in the barn, so it’s dry. Should light pretty quick.” Sensing that Briet still wasn’t up to speaking, he continued, “I checked what was left of the farmhouse. Found part of a window curtain. Used that for the shroud. Got the fake roses from a linen closet.”
Briet palmed a tear from her cheek. “You did all this for a rat?”
“Figured you’d want to say good-bye.” He reached inside his jacket’s front right pocket, pulled out his Zippo, and handed it to her. “When you’re ready.”
She declined his offer with a wave of her hand. “Thanks. Don’t need it.”
She faced the pyre and snapped her fingers. Fire sprang into being from its center. In a matter of seconds the wood and Trixim were consumed in tall orange flames.
They stood and watched it burn. Then she regarded him with more vulnerability than he had seen in another person since the death of his master Adair. “Thank you,” she said.
“Seemed like the right thing to do.”
The fire crackled and launched sparks into the gray morning sky.
There are a lot of details about this scene that I love, from simple gestures of compassion, such as Briet awakening beneath Cade’s jacket as a blanket, to the accessories that he seeks out to preserve the dignity of her familiar, which was killed beside them in battle. Up until this moment, Cade had been coarse in his dealings with Briet, who he was unable to see as anything except an ex-Nazi. Now, alone with her in a moment of sorrow, he sees that she is more than the sum of her past evils. He sees that she is every bit as complex and contradictory a soul as he is, and that her pain is as real as his. This moment is the beginning of true rapprochement between wartime foes, the start of a new alliance that can lead to friendship.
And that, as it happens, is what The Iron Codex is all about: letting go of the past in order to embrace the future, and passing through sorrow in order to emerge stronger on the other side.
David Mack is the award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of three dozen novels of science fiction, fantasy, and adventure. His new novel The Iron Codex is available now from Tor Books. Mack’s writing credits span several media, including television (for episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), film, short fiction, and comic books. He resides in New York City.
Ed Crowell is joining us today to talk about his graphic novel The Jekyll Island Chronicles: A Devil’s Reach, written with Steve Nedvidek, illustrated by Moses Nester. Here’s the publisher’s description:
The thrills continue in this critically acclaimed diesel-punk graphic novel series set in a sci-fi version of the early 20th century!
At the beginning of the twentieth century, one sixth of the world’s wealth vacationed in and around the tiny Georgia island of Jekyll. Captains of industry like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Morgan, and Carnegie all called the Jekyll area home. Blending elements of historical fact, clockwork technology, and diesel-punk style, The Jekyll Island Chronicles span an age of furious mechanical advancement while exploring the span of man’s soul – whether good or evil.
In Book Two of this alt-history adventure, Peter, Helen, and the rest of Carnegie’s “Specials” would like nothing more than to return to normalcy along with the rest of the country–especially after defeating their enemies in Book One. But the anarchists have other plans. Luigi Galleani and the Zeno cabal reach out from Europe, across the Atlantic, to wreak havoc, divide the enemy, build an army, and capture plans for the world’s deadliest weapon. If they are to be stopped, the tiny group of heroes from Jekyll will need to find new resolve, new resources, and new allies–and do it all before Nikola Tesla’s most terrible creation is unleashed.
What’s Ed’s favorite bit?
A Devil’s Reach (Book Two in The Jekyll Island Chronicles) is loaded with memorable scenes. There are battles, spy vs. spy moments, historical oddities – as well a few Easter Eggs – but my favorite bit is a dream.
To be fair, I need to explain some of the events in the first book, A Machine Age War, for the dream to make any sense. In that first novel Helen Huxley is introduced with the understated explanation that she is a woman “…from Innsmouth who had an electrical mishap during the war.” (Easter Egg alert). It is soon evident her body can conduct and even create an electrical charge, and this is creating no end of difficulties for her.
Helen falls to the ministrations of Charles Steinmetz and Nikola Tesla who see nothing but potential. With high enthusiasm they set about experimenting and augmenting her unusual quality and turn the lady into a powerful weapon. They deal with any physical effects, but it’s not clear she’s fully comfortable with who and what she’s being asked to become.
Other episodes in the first book hint at the turmoil within Helen. She voices her concerns to President Wilson, but her reticence about her talents is swept aside in the rush to battle evil forces and save innocent lives. She plays a pivotal and destructive part in the grand climax of the book and seems to be at peace with what she has done and what she has become…
Which is why I love the dream sequence in the second book so much.
In the pages that let us share Helen’s nightmare we learn about her history, her thoughts, her guilt and confusion. Helen had been a young, newly-minted nurse during the war. She’d taken the Florence Nightingale pledge to “serve and devote myself to the welfare of those committed to my care.” She’d volunteered to head toward the front lines with a willingness to risk herself to help others.
Near the front she learned the hard lesson that war is not neatly contained, that it doesn’t show consideration for those wearing a cross instead of a helmet or carrying a bandage instead of a gun. She saw things that burned in her memory and she lived through a disaster that burned her body. Perhaps she could have lived with the physical trauma, but there was more to come.
Helen seemed to become a diminished version of who she had been, but she also became something different. She would have gladly accepted the scars if she could have continued to be a nurse but was forced to leave the profession lest she prove a danger to herself and others. She was still wrestling with the complexities and contradictions of that situation when recruited to serve again. Then, the very power that troubled her was amplified by people who were supposedly helping. She learns to use and direct her newfound “talent” but not to fully control it. In fact, while using it to save thousands of lives, she kills dozens of others – and in her own thinking causes the death of a friend.
The dream sequence captures all of that, using beautiful haunting artwork to its fullest, taking the reader into the troubled psyche of Helen Huxley and showing us the demons that tear at her soul. Her dreams are a torment of grey Gothic naves, fire and lighting, faceless enemies and victims, personal failures, ghosts and guilt.
No matter the face she shows to the world, her nightmares describe how shattered Helen Huxley is. She’s fractured into conflicting pieces and the dream is her subconscious trying to reconstruct her, trying to reconcile who she intended to be, who she wanted to be, with what she has done and what she has become. The original pieces are still there: the selfless nurse, the competent assistant, the caring faithful friend, but they now share space with a damaged and scarred victim: a warrior, a killer and a very dangerous weapon.
The scene shows in its powerful dramatic panels the depth of the conflict in this reluctant hero and leaves open the question of whether the pieces can ever form a mosaic worth keeping. It’s my favorite bit and Helen is my favorite character. Her friends need her, so I surely hope she can work it out.
Ed Crowell is a science fiction and mystery author, world traveler, corporate CEO and head of a charity, a cryptocurrency miner and white-water enthusiast. He holds degrees from Liberty and Georgia State and writes fiction and nonfiction almost constantly. He lives outside Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and several rescued cats. He can be found as part of the Lost Mountain Mechanicals at www.jekyllislandchronicles.com
Shaun Barger is joining us today to talk about his novel Mage Against the Machine. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Harry Potter meets The Terminator in this action-packed adventure about a young man who discovers that everything he believed about his world is a lie.
The year is 2120. The humans are dead. The mages have retreated from the world after a madman blew up civilization with weaponized magical technology. Safe within domes that protect them from the nuclear wasteland on the other side, the mages have spent the last century putting their lives back together.
Nikolai is obsessed with artifacts from twentieth-century human life: mage-crafted replica Chuck Taylors on his feet, Schwarzenegger posters on his walls, Beatlemania still alive and well in his head. But he’s also tasked with a higher calling—to maintain the Veils that protect mage-kind from the hazards of the wastes beyond. As a cadet in the Mage King’s army, Nik has finally found what he always wanted—a purpose. But when confronted by one of his former instructors gone rogue, Nik tumbles into a dark secret. The humans weren’t nuked into oblivion—they’re still alive. Not only that, outside the domes a war rages between the last enclaves of free humans and vast machine intelligences.
Outside the dome, unprepared and on the run, Nik finds Jem. Jem is a Runner for the Human Resistance. A ballerina-turned-soldier by the circumstances of war, Jem is more than just a human—her cybernetic enhancement mods make her faster, smarter, and are the only things that give her a fighting chance against the artificial beings bent on humanity’s eradication.
Now Nik faces an impossible decision: side with the mages and let humanity die out? Or stand with Jem and the humans—and risk endangering everything he knows and loves?
What’s Shaun’s favorite bit?
When I was a kid, there was a moment in the first Harry Potter book that made me hate wizards.
Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE the Potter series. Like most Millennials, they were a powerful formative influence on me, both as a person and a writer.
But the wizards themselves?
The moment I realized that wizards suck came during Harry’s first trip to Diagon Alley, in which Hagrid explains the totally shitty reason wizards hide their super cushy magical existence from the humans they refer to as muggles:
“But what does a Ministry of Magic do?”
“Well, their main job is to keep it from the Muggles that there’s still witches an’ wizards up an’ down the country.”
“Why? Blimey, Harry, everyone’d be wantin’ magic solutions to their problems. Nah, we’re best left alone.”
(Page 51, UK Hardcover edition of Sorcerer’s Stone)
I put the book down. Little pissed off self-righteous 9th grade Shaun Barger.
“Ohhhhh, I’m sorry wizards,” I said, angrily chomping on a candy cigarette. “Is the AIDS epidemic inconvenient for you?
“Oh, are the millions of people currently trapped in a thriving contemporary slave trade just TOO much of a hassle to deal with?
“Can’t do us a solid and cure cancer, huh?
“Can’t hook it up with the unlimited clean energy thing, huh? Not into the idea of totally awesome magic space travel to distant galaxies made possible by the combined efforts of the scientific and magical communities, huh? HUH?”
Fucking wizards, man.
In 2011, soon after I began living in Hollywood in a house with three friends and my sister, I remembered this moment, and found myself thinking about the long-term repercussions of magical isolationism.
That, and robots. Scary, evil, robots.
Swept up in the idea, I began writing the first version of what would eventually become MAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE.
Great title, right? My sister came up with it, at a party. She awoke from a fever dream and came out of her room to shout across a courtyard full of drunk people over very loud music, while wearing pajamas.
“Mage Against the Machine!”
I raised my hand to my ear. “WHAT?”
“MAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE!”
I looked at her. Nodded, solemn.
The characters of MAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE have all been touched by the residual trauma of the separation of their worlds. Theirs is the story of that separation coming to end, in the most catastrophic and spectacular ways.
The following passage is a look into the world of magic in MAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE — a memory of childhood from our well-meaning but total-fucking-mess of a hero, Nikolai Strauss.
I wrote this scene on my way back from a Christmas family vacation in Santa Fe. My
dad was driving, and it was dark out. We’d been listening to the audiobook of The Sorcerer’s Stone, read by Jim Dale. I was sitting in the back seat with my kid sibs, alternating between furiously typed bouts of writing, and video game breaks playing Undertale.
I really love this scene, and the story it tells about the relationship between these deeply flawed characters.
I hope you like it, too.
One day, when Nikolai was eight, he’d hidden himself in a stall of the boys’ bathroom at his school, praying that nobody could hear him as he struggled through snot and tears to calm himself.
His mother’s lesson that morning had been particularly brutal, and all day he’d been distracted from class, struggling to breathe through the tightness in his chest that threatened to overwhelm him until he’d been forced to excuse himself.
He hated it—wished his body would listen to the cold logic of his brain, could listen to his mother’s voice calmly explaining that there were terrible things beyond the Veil, and that if she didn’t make him strong, he and the people he loved—the people he needed to protect—would be hurt. Die, even.
But Nikolai didn’t love anyone. Not really. His parents, of course. But did that even count? And weren’t they supposed to protect him?
A tiny fist pounded against the stall, hard enough to make him jump.
“What?” he said, yanking open the door to curse the intruder. Angry words died on his lips as he froze, stunned. Standing before him was a girl with short, straw-colored hair sticking out in all directions and a smattering of freckles across an upturned nose.
Her lips were pursed in a tight little frown—her chin jutted out defiantly as if she’d eaten something sour and was furious at the injustice that had been committed against her palate.
“W—what are you doing?” he asked her, hurriedly trying to wipe away evidence of his tears with a sleeve. “This is the boys’ room.”
“I used to cry like that,” she said, with a sort of twangy Southern Veil accent he’d never heard before.
“I wasn’t crying!” Nikolai said unconvincingly. “Crying is for babies.”
And Nikolai was no baby. Not after a year of his mother’s lessons, which she’d begun in secret when he was seven.
The girl gave Nikolai a knowing look with eyes too old for her little face. “My daddy used to call me stupid. And ugly. And he hit me. Then his mom always healed me so no one would know and told me to shut up when I cried.”
“His mom . . . your grandmom?” Nikolai said with wonder. His mother always did the same, using her golden mediglove Focal to heal his wounds and bruises with little clouds of sparkling light. Hiding what she’d done.
The girl crinkled her nose. “I guess. I hate her.” Who was this strange, angry little girl? He didn’t have any friends—didn’t need any friends—but there weren’t that many magi in his school and he knew everyone.
“I’m Astor,” she said, as if reading his mind. “I moved here last week from Blue Ridge. You’re the only one in our class who hasn’t talked to me yet. You don’t talk to anyone. And today you looked so sad. So I followed you.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, feeling ashamed. “I’m Nikolai. And I’m not sad, I just—”
“You should tell on them.” Nikolai froze. “What?”
“I know you don’t want to tell, ’cause you love them. But they don’t love you. Not really. Or they’d be nice.”
“You’re wrong,” Nikolai said, and looked away, unable to meet her eyes.
“I told on my dad,” she said. “He used to only hit me, but one time he started hitting my sister and she’s practically a baby.”
She stuck her chin out again with that defiant intensity only exaggerated by her wild crown of hair. “So I started calling him stupid and ugly and told him that I hated him so he would hit me instead. Mommy was always too scared to stop him so I ran away before his mom could heal me. It took all day but I found a Watchman and showed him and asked him to protect my sister.”
She beamed, proud, but Nikolai could tell it was for show. At least a little bit.
“So they took him to jail and he can’t talk to us anymore. We left his mom’s farm and came here to stay with my cousin.”
“I’m . . . glad,” Nikolai finally said. But he knew that he could never tell on his mom. His mom was an Edge Guard married to a Watchman. Even if they could arrest her, none of the Watchmen
would be strong enough to fight her anyway. She stared at him for a bit, pinching her chin thoughtfully with her thumb and her index finger. Then she nodded, having come to some sort of decision. “We’re friends now,” she said. “Everyone is nice here but they don’t get it.”
And that was that. Nikolai had made his first friend, and Astor wasn’t going to take no for an answer. She never took no for an answer.
Astor was very close to her cousin, a loudmouth class clown named George Stokes. And the moment she told Stokes, very seriously, that Nikolai was her friend now and Stokes had to be friends with him too, he just shrugged, said okay, and started treating Nikolai as if they’d been best friends their whole lives. Even though really, they’d been in the same class for two years and had never actually spoken.
Having friends changed everything for Nikolai. Stokes was funny—he was always joking around and laughing but never said anything mean about anyone. And when they watched the old human movies Stokes’s dad got for them from the university and something sad happened, Stokes would always think of some- thing happy to say, or at least try to make the others laugh.
Nikolai wasn’t sure Stokes had ever been sad. Not really—not like he and Astor. Because whenever they seemed down he would always start cracking jokes or fart and blame it on Astor, which never failed to make them all laugh—but it was in this sort of panic, like being sad was some sort of sickness he didn’t understand but couldn’t stand to see his friends suffer.
Astor and her little sister lived with Stokes until Astor’s mom saved up enough money as a waitress to get their own little apartment. Her clothing was all secondhand—frayed and stained and almost always too big for her. She pretended not to care but sometimes he would catch Astor looking at herself in the mirror and Nik could tell that no matter what she said, and no matter what he told her, a part of her still believed what her dad had said. About her being stupid. And ugly.
For the first time in his life, Nikolai knew what happiness was. In ashes and moments, at least. And when Nikolai was with Astor, there was this weird feeling in his stomach—this kind of warmth that made him want to smile and run around.
One day, not long after he and Astor had truly become inseparable, Nikolai got into his very first fight.
Astor tripped and fell during a game of tag—totally ate it, face-first in a puddle. She sat up and started laughing—grinning at Nikolai with a mask of mud, pretending that she’d transformed into some sort of monster as she began chucking handfuls of muck at him.
But then another mage said something that made her stop smiling. Nikolai couldn’t even remember his name now, or what he said exactly—all he could remember was that the mage had been one of the rich kids, and how ugly he looked when he and his friends started laughing, how ugly they all were when they pushed up their noses and started making pig noises at her.
It wasn’t the first time they’d teased her, though she’d been too proud to tell Stokes or Nikolai. Teased her for her clothing. Teased her for her tangled hair, which was rarely brushed because her mom was too busy with two jobs and taking care of Astor’s little sister. Teased her for being poor.
Watching Astor retreat inside herself as they mocked her was the first time that Nikolai had experienced a very specific kind of anger. He broke one mage’s nose, gave the other a black eye, and pinned the ringleader to the ground, forcing him to eat mud while telling the boy that he’d kill him if he ever made fun of Astor like that again.
It was only then that the horrified headmaster finally pulled Nikolai away, who, even as the much larger mage carried him off, continued thrashing and screaming threats back at the weeping boys.
It was the second time Nikolai had ever seen his Watchman father lose his temper.
“You could have killed them!” his father rumbled—barely raising his voice, but still terribly intimidating as he towered over him. Nikolai stared sullenly up at his father, his briefly broken but now-healed hand wrapped in ice, his still-bloody lip trembling.
Calming himself, Nikolai’s father explained that there was almost no fight you can’t talk your way out of—no mage you can’t reason with. That fighting should always be a last resort. That the most heroic thing a mage could do was to use reason instead of violence. To use kindness and love instead of anger, instead of hate. That there was always a choice, difficult as it might seem.
His mother, on the other hand, showed him how to coat his knuckles with a layer of hardened air, so he wouldn’t break his fingers next time he had to throw a punch.
She always was the practical one.
Nikolai never forgot how Astor slipped her muddy little hand into his as they waited outside the headmaster’s office for their parents to come get them after the fight. Never forgot how his mother’s lessons finally began to make sense.
Shaun Barger is a Los Angeles-based novelist who detests cold weather, idiot plotting, and fascism. He splits his days between writing, resisting the siren’s call of Hollywood’s eternally mild summer climes, and appeasing a tyrannical three-pound Chihuahua with peanut butter and apple slices. Mage Against the Machine is his first novel. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @ShaunBarger.
Arwen Elys Dayton is joining us today to talk about her book Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful. Here’s the publisher’s description:
For fans of television shows Black Mirror and Westworld, this compelling, mind-bending novel is a twisted look into the future, exploring the lengths we’ll go to remake ourselves into the perfect human specimen and what it means to be human at all.
The future is curious.
Today our bodies define us. We color our hair; tattoo our skin; pierce our ears, brows, noses. We lift weights, run miles, break records. We are flesh and blood and bone.
Tomorrow has different rules. The future is no longer about who we are–it’s about who we want to be. If you can dream it, you can be it. Science will make us smarter, healthier, flawless in every way. Our future is boundless.
This is a story that begins tomorrow. It’s a story about us. It’s a story about who comes after us. And it’s a story about perfection. Because perfection has a way of getting ugly.
What’s Arwen’s favorite bit?
ARWEN ELYS DAYTON
The present day revolution in biotech and genetic engineering is fascinating without any fiction added in. There is CRISPR, promising the ability to edit human or other DNA as a word processor edits, well, this or any other book. There are life extension protocols being tested in actual people, there are pigs growing what will one day be human-compatible organs inside their bodies, there are scientists editing mosquitos so that they cannot carry the malaria parasite.
And yet the challenge was to know about all of these things and to let them fade into the background or even disappear in service of the human events that make up the six sections of this novel.
So my favorite bit is one of those simple, human moments, where there is only a hint of the biological warfare, so to speak, that is going on under the surface of Milla’s skin.
Sixteen-year-old Milla, who should have died in a serious car accident, has been rebuilt, and the real and “not so real” parts of her are now regulated by the meshline woven through her body. Unfortunately, not everyone believes that such drastic reconstruction and alteration of the human body is a good thing…or even an ethical option.
Here, Milla is in a car at a drive-in movie (they are back into vogue, in wild 3D) with a boy who has finally asked her out. But intimacy means touching, and touching leads to discovery…
“It’s just, in the accident,” I mumbled. “Some things had to be fixed.” This sounded weak, possibly because it was an absurd understatement.
“Lilly told us it was just your legs. You broke your legs.” The movie played out across his cheek as his shadowed eyes studied me.
“That was . . . mainly what happened,” I hedged. It was not right that anyone should pass judgment on me if I told the truth. And yet I did not, I did not, want to tell the truth.
“Is it your skin under there?” He sounded almost mesmerized. A lump of fear had formed just above my stomach. He reached for my shirt, but I held it down.
That was a lie. The artificial skin he’d felt, covering more than half my torso, was based on my skin, maybe you could say it was partly my skin, but it was combined with the mesh that made a bridge from the parts that were all me to the parts that weren’t me anymore. It felt like skin—until you touched my real skin right next to it, which was what had happened when his fingers traced the meshline across my right breast. Then the difference became glaring.
He was already pulling my shirt back up and I didn’t stop him this time; panic held me motionless. He would see, he would know! What should I have done? Slapped him? Escaped from the car and run from the drive-in?
The movie had gotten brighter and in its light, the variance in texture and color of my body was discernible. The meshline traveled up from beneath my bellybutton, curved across my stomach and then cut across my right breast. On one side of the mesh was me, real flesh, one hundred percent Milla. On the other side, things were harder to categorize.
“How far does it go?” he asked, looking at where the line disappeared beneath my waistband, down toward my “lady parts,” as my mother referred to them.
I was transfixed by . . . by his searching look, maybe? By the shock and concern in his face?
“You’re looking at most of it,” I whispered.
Another lie. Not visible from my current position was the line that ran from my right breast, across the ribs beneath my right arm and then traced a path down the right side of my back. Nor could he see how the damage extended inward to my heart and one of my lungs, to my other organs, and yes, to my lady parts too.
“Your heart?” he asked, as if I had spoken those thoughts aloud.
I could have said that I was burned and the fake skin was just to cover burns. Why did I owe him any explanations? But . . . the heart in my chest had saved my life. It deserved better than a shamefaced excuse.
“It’s like what you said for your grandmother,” I whispered. “It’s a real heart, mostly. From my own cells, but there are some other parts that make up for the parts they can’t grow yet. Tiny little robotic parts made out of squishy stuff. It’s a combination.”
He sat back, and I yanked my shirt down. A series of emotions marched across his features. Not all of them made sense.
“This is why you hate Reverend Tadd,” he said.
“Yes,” I agreed.
“Why haven’t you told anyone? Lilly told the whole school it was just your legs. It’s—it’s—”
“More than my legs,” I said. What was I seeing on his face? Fear?
“How much of you is real?” he asked. He was starting to sound agitated. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth, as if unconsciously scraping off the taint of my counterfeit lips.
ARWEN ELYS DAYTON is the best-selling author of the Egyptian sci-fi thriller Resurrection and the near-future Seeker Series, set in Scotland and Hong Kong.She spends months doing research for her stories. Her explorations have taken her around the world to places like the Great Pyramid at Giza, Hong Kong and its islands, the Baltic Sea. Arwen lives with her husband and their three children on West Coast of the United States. You can visit her and learn more about her books at arwendayton.com and follow @arwenelysdayton on Instagram and Facebook.
Jennifer Lee Rossman is joining us today with her novel Jack Jetstark’s Intergalatic Freakshow. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Jack Jetstark travels the universe to seek out the descendants of superpowered freaks created long ago by VesCorp scientists. The vibrations encoded in a particular song transform the members of Jack’s crew into a firebreather and an angel, a wildman and telepathic conjoined triplets, so they hide the truth of who they really are with the theatrics of a carnival.
The song plays every night through the receptor Jack carries with them, but when one night it has a different ending and their temporary powers become permanent, Jack believes the change is a signal from the woman who sent him on this quest in the first place. He and his freaks must navigate a universe at war to protect the love of his life.
But does the ruler of VesCorp really need protecting?
What’s Jennifer’s favorite bit?
JENNIFER LEE ROSSMAN
I almost didn’t write this book. I had an idea, a real neato one about a space carnival, but that wasn’t exactly a plot so much as it was a setting. I wrote a chapter, got mad at the fact that I had no clue what happened next, and gave up.
But the idea stuck in the back of my head, slowly amassing elements of worldbuilding. Maybe there was a freakshow at this carnival, and maybe the performers weren’t really freaks but only became freaks when a certain song played? Yeah, and then a girl joins the carnival and discovers their secret! And then… what?
And then I heard American Pie.
I’ve always loved the song, from the first time I heard it in a pizzeria in the mall when I was seven, and my favorite music is from that era, but this time… I don’t know. Everything just clicked, all the little pieces of plot swirling around in my head suddenly fell into place.
The freakshow song had to stop one day. There had to be an assasination of a king. An entire generation of freaks had to be lost in space.
American Pie became my novel’s theme song.
I named characters after its lyrics and the people referenced in them (Jack Jetstark is Jack Flash, and his last name is made up of the names of two James Dean characters). I invented characters just to fit the song (Lily is the angel born in hell). I.. did something really drastic that affected a lot of characters’ lives (but I’m not going to spoil it for you).
I started officially writing the first draft on December 1, 2015, and finished it in May of ’16. I heard American Pie at least once a month during that time, and always when I was feeling a little lost. Once I wrote “The End” on the first draft and started editing and submitting to agents, I didn’t hear it until February of 2017, despite listening to the same radio stations.
The day in February was two days after I submitted my novel to the publisher who ended up accepting it. The day I got my revise and resubmit (publishing talk for “if you change these few things, we’ll accept it”), I’d had the song stuck in my head all day. Two days after I finally got up the nerve to edit it, American Pie came on the radio.
The day after I got my final edits on the novel, my mom and I were in the car and I joked, “Well, you know what song is going to be on next.”
And it was.
I don’t necessarily believe there’s anything spooky going on here, but it’s a great story to tell when people ask about my inspiration!
Some of my references are pretty oblique — I doubt that anyone will get the meaning behind the name of my moon Vespi 3-14 (Vespi is derived from Amerigo Vespucchi, whom America was named for, and 3-14 is a reference to 3.1415… AKA “Pi”) — but the musicians referenced in American Pie have been a major part of my life, and I love that I’ve been able to weave them into the worldbuilding.
Jennifer Lee Rossman is an autistic and physically disabled sci-fi writer and editor. Her work has been featured in several anthologies, and she co-edited Love & Bubbles, a queer anthology of underwater romance. She is perhaps best described as “If Dr. Temperance Brennan from Bones was a Disney Princess.”
Martin Österdahl is joining us today with his novel Ask No Mercy. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Global intrigue, espionage, and mystery from a thrilling new international voice.
Max Anger is a man on the edge. The former fighter in an elite band of special-ops soldiers in Sweden, Anger is haunted by battle scars, a childhood spent in the Stockholm archipelago, and his own mysterious family past. Now behind a desk at Vektor, a think tank conducting research on Russia, he’s met his match—and fallen in love—with fierce fellow operative Pashie Kovalenko. Like all of Vektor, she’s set her sights on the tenuous future of her country.
When Pashie goes missing in Saint Petersburg, Anger rushes headlong into a volatile Russia, where a new president is about to be elected in the midst of a technological revolution. At the movement’s heart is a start-up Pashie had been investigating, one surrounded by rumors of organized crime and corruption. But the truth is more shocking than Anger could have ever expected.
Now time is running out for Pashie. Racing through a storm of violence and deception, Anger gets ever closer to a sensational secret—and to the Russian madman with dreams of restoring one of the cruelest regimes in the history of the world.
What’s Martin’s favorite bit?
My favorite bit from Ask No Mercy is when Max arrives to the location where he believes his girlfriend Pashie is held captive. The wind is growing in strength, soon reaching gale force. The surging Baltic Sea, its waves breaking across the beach. A large industrial area, dimly lit by widely spaced streetlights. Silhouettes of roofs against a black sky. Brick chimneys leaning in various directions and from their mouths white smoke rises toward the sky. The place in known as Colony Field, a chameleon, dressed up as warehouses and hangars. Supposedly a former Soviet marine research center, rumored to contain very different and clandestine activities. The center itself is a beast that could die and live again depending on which way the wind blows.
A long Soviet style limousine drives into the compound. One of the limousine doors opens; a foot, a leg, and then a second leg emerges. A man straightens up his long body and stretches into his full height in the courtyard. The military leaders gathered in the courtyard greet him with great awe. Everything around the man seems to shrink, even the huge limousine. The man is wearing an elegant brown overcoat. He turns his head to both sides as though he is adjusting his neck. The long neck looks like it belongs to a bird, hidden by the collar of a turtleneck sweater. His head is disproportionally small compared to the rest of his body. He looks so old, like man from another time.
The old man, thought to be dead long ago, is nicknamed the Goose, and surrounded by legends. From the wars in Afghanistan, he is known as the “butcher of Nowzad”. Once a musical prodigy who mastered the Russian masterpieces so brilliantly he impressed the Soviet leaders. His long-fingered hands were put to control other instruments when he as a young man became Stalin’s favorite spy and was stationed in Stockholm, Sweden, at the end of the second world war.
Max waits to make his entry into the compound until the meeting of the black generals is over and the Goose is left alone. After fighting off two personal security guards he sees the now familiar silhouette of the Goose through a wall of glass. Behind the old man the walls are covered with maps of Scandinavia. The Russian spy notices Max’s presence and the two men move to opposite sides of the glass wall to face each other for the first time. Knowing that the glass is bullet-proof and that they are not able to harm or even touch each other, they just stand there, staring into each other’s eyes. And for each passing second Pashie is clinging to the last shreds of life in the ice-cold and bacteria infested water that the Goose has put her in.
The encounter has a mutual shocking revelation to both of them. They have met before, that ominous day in Max’s childhood when his father was found dead in a suspicious car accident in his home town in Sweden. Through a mobile phone the Goose speaks to Max from the other side of the glass, words that explains the mystery that has troubled him his whole existence, words that he never had wished to hear. The pieces of the puzzle fall into place, but the effect it has on Max was not what he had hoped for. Instead of a sense of relief of finally understanding who he truly is, he is filled with uncontrollable fury.
The scene sets off the climax and resolution of Ask No Mercy, where our hero Max has to reevaluate everything he knows about himself to save his girlfriend and his country.
Martin Österdahl has studied Russian, East European studies, and economics. He worked with TV productions for twenty years and was simultaneously the program director at Swedish Television. His interest in Russia and its culture arose in the early 1980s. After studying Russian at university and having had the opportunity to go behind the Iron Curtain more than once, he decided to relocate and finish his master’s thesis there.
The 1990s were a very exciting time in Russia, and 1996, with its presidential election, was a particularly crucial year. Seeing history in the making inspired Österdahl to write the first novel in the Max Anger series, Ask No Mercy. The series has been sold to more than ten territories and is soon to be a major TV series.
Leanna Renee Hieber is joining us today with her novel The Spectral City. Here’s the publisher’s description:
In turn-of-the century New York City, the police have an off-the-books spiritual go-to when it comes to solving puzzling corporeal crimes . . .
Her name is Eve Whitby, gifted medium and spearhead of The Ghost Precinct. When most women are traveling in a gilded society that promises only well-appointed marriage, the confident nineteen-year-old Eve navigates a social circle that carries a different kind of chill. Working with the diligent but skeptical Lieutenant Horowitz, as well as a group of fellow psychics and wayward ghosts, Eve holds her own against detractors and threats to solve New York’s most disturbing crimes as only a medium of her ability can.
But as accustomed as Eve is to ghastly crimes and all matters of the uncanny, even she is unsettled by her department’s latest mystery. Her ghostly conduits are starting to disappear one by one as though snatched away by some evil force determined to upset the balance between two realms, and most important—destroy the Ghost Precinct forever. Now Eve must brave the darkness to find the vanished souls. She has no choice. It’s her job to make sure no one is ever left for dead.
What’s Leanna’s favorite bit?
LEANNA RENEE HIEBER
Firstly, thanks to Mary Robinette for the generosity of this space and to this wonderful platform of authors sharing tidbits of their heart, and for you, dear reader, for your presences.
I’ve eleven Gaslamp Fantasy novels to my name and in each of them, I’m most driven by character relationships of all kinds and from all backgrounds. My very favorite relationship to explore is between dynamic mentors and promising mentees. In The Spectral City I feature a force of nature across several of my series, Evelyn Northe-Stewart; a matriarch now in her mid-sixties, a sensitive, psychic, medium, linguist, philanthropist and above all, an epic mentor. I wanted to explore the idea of a mentor serving additionally as a best friend. I did this with Evelyn’s nineteen-year-old granddaughter and namesake, Eve Whitby. “Gran” is the light of Eve’s life and when she goes missing, Eve turns to another of Gran’s powerful mentees to help find her. The memory that comes to Eve’s mind when prompted to think of her, so that Gran may be psychically found by these two talented mentees, is my favorite bit.
From The Spectral City:
“Where is Evelyn, what’s happened?” The sharp voice came from around the corner. Clara Templeton-Bishop strode forward in a light blue day dress, standing before a stained-glass angel, taking on its wings, her body surrounded in the golden light, a radiant aura. Clara would always strike a bit of awe and fear in Eve, and she gaped a moment at the fierce creature who was lit without and within before remembering her words.
“That’s what I’m here to find out. I . . . I’ve reached out,” Eve said, gesturing clumsily at her own head, “and I can’t find Gran. I’m . . . we’re tied, she and I . . .” Eve continued, tapping her forehead, blushing because she could hear how inelegant she sounded but bumbled on anyway, unable to hold back tears. “I feel nothing and the spirits say nothing and . . . Gran left her house this morning with a woman in mourning and she hasn’t been back. I don’t dare wait to see if it’s all a happy mistake. Not when I can’t feel her, that may sound mad—”
“Hardly. We are each deeply connected to this woman, more than a mother or mentor combined; she means more to us than we even dare acknowledge,” Clara replied and strode forward to stand a few feet from Eve. The woman’s dark blonde hair with greying shocks was swept mostly up, save for small wisps around her head that floated in an ethereal manner. Her eyes were green-gold and wide in the gaslight, luminous peridot piercing Eve to the core. “Her being so precious to us, so irreplaceable, and so much a part of us means we can find our North Star. Just you and me. Follow me into the Parlor.”
Clara gestured and darted, her movements like a bird, into the open parlor whose gauzy lace curtains were drawn shut though sunlight made everything glow. In the parlor, Clara sat in a tall wicker chair, spokes emanating from her back to continue a theme of sharp radiance. She gestured for Eve to sit on the low, velvet-covered stool before her. As she did, Clara gave her careful instructions and Eve followed them. “Close your eyes. Put your palms on your knees, facing up. Focus on Evelyn. Think of anything and everything that means her. Feel her touch, hear her voice, and hold on to your fondest reminiscence. Relive it.”
Tears poured immediately down Eve’s flushed cheeks as a memory grabbed her by the throat.
She was seven, lying in bed trying to sleep and the spirit world was swooping down around her like diving birds pecking at her skull, all of them desperate for attention and chattering away, Eve having no idea how to order her mind to keep them at arm’s length, the air before her a fog of ethereal light. Eve had tossed and turned, weeping, mumbling for them to leave her alone. This escalated until little Eve was screaming.
“Shut up, shut up, shut up!”
As if she had just appeared there, landed there as if dropped from the sky, Eve was scooped up into her namesake’s silk-covered arms as Gran bellowed a command. “Peace!” And the spirits dispersed at her demand.
Gran lay Eve back down on the bed, but Eve wouldn’t let go. So Evelyn bent over her. Eve remembered she was in a beautiful saffron dress, arching over her like a protective ceiling of satin, lace and lilac perfume. Gran stayed like that, her warrior protectorate in a fine ball gown, until Eve fell asleep.
Eve felt Gran, touched her, smelled her in this memory, and she wept now, just as she’d done as a child.
I hope you’ll enjoy The Spectral City and I hope you’ll tell a mentor or loved one of yours today how much they mean to you.
Leanna Renee Hieber is an actress, playwright and the author of eleven Gothic, Gaslamp Fantasy novels for adults and teens. Her Strangely Beautiful saga hit Barnes & Noble and Borders Bestseller lists and garnered numerous regional genre awards with revised editions available from Tor Books. She is a four-time Prism Award winner for excellence in cross-genre fantasy with romantic elements and Darker Still was a Daphne du Maurier finalist. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous notable anthologies and her books have been translated into many languages. A proud member of performer unions Actors Equity and SAG-AFTRA, she lives in New York City where she is a licensed ghost tour guide and has been featured in film and television on shows like Boardwalk Empire and Mysteries at the Museum. Her new one-woman show By the Light of Tiffany channels 19th century designer and visionary Clara Driscoll. She is represented by Paul Stevens of the Donald Maass agency.
James Alan Gardner is joining us today with his novel They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Award-winning author James Alan Gardner returns to the superheroic fantasy world of All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault with They Promised Me The Gun Wasn’t Loaded.
Only days have passed since a freak accident granted four college students superhuman powers. Now Jools and her friends (who haven’t even picked out a name for their superhero team yet) get caught up in the hunt for a Mad Genius’s misplaced super-weapon.
But when Jools falls in with a modern-day Robin Hood and his band of super-powered Merry Men, she finds it hard to sort out the Good Guys from the Bad Guys—and to figure out which side she truly belongs on.
Especially since nobody knows exactly what the Gun does . . . .
What’s James’ favorite bit?
JAMES ALAN GARDNER
On the spectrum that runs from Making everything up as you go along to Planning every detail before you start writing, I’m somewhere in the middle. My advance plan consists of a loose list of “set-pieces”. Each entry in the list gives a setting and the most important things the characters will do there. However, I leave a lot of wiggle-room; I know that as I write I’ll improvise a lot, so I don’t nail things down too tightly. Half the fun of writing comes from surprising myself with unplanned material. The other half comes from finding ways to make the surprises fit in with the planned story line, so that readers can’t tell what was and wasn’t built into the book from the beginning.
Because I write this way, my favorite bits are always things that pop up out of the blue: unexpected gifts that arise by serendipity. Stuff that arises organically often blossoms in interesting ways.
In They Promised Me The Gun Wasn’t Loaded, my favorite bit occurs early on. But first, some background. The book takes place in a world like our own, except that most rich and powerful people are Darklings—vampires, were-beasts, or demons. The power of the Darklings is counterbalanced by the presence of superheroes: normal people who happened to touch a glowing meteorite or get bitten by a radioactive spider. So basically, the affluent 1% are monsters, and the 99% are protected by a diverse set of random super-folk.
The protagonist of They Promised Me is Jools, a university student who gained superpowers in a laboratory accident. In the book’s first chapter, she enters a Darkling hangout…and that’s where my favorite bit happens.
Jools is brought to this fancy lounge in order to meet a particular Darkling. However, I didn’t want the place to be empty except for the one guy Jools has to meet. I wanted it occupied by other Darklings, and I wanted to show a wide variety of them. Readers need to understand that Darklings are a diverse lot, representing folklore monsters from around the globe.
So I went to my reference books and eventually found Calon Arang, an evil witch-demon from the island of Bali. As is often the case with female “monsters”, some folklorists think Calon was based on a real woman: a popular leader who challenged the powers-that-be. Eventually, they assassinated her, then made up stories to demonize her—saying she ate babies, poisoned crops, spread disease, and all the usual smears to justify why they were right to kill her.
So, an ancient Indonesian witch who’s been unjustly slandered for centuries and is likely pissed off about it: I could work with that. Calon was a potentially complex character who’d be far more engaging than some clichéd Western menace. I could even use her as a “noble” Darkling, since I didn’t want to portray all Darklings as unambiguous villains. It’s more interesting if the Dark can be good as well as bad, and you never know which way they’ll go.
So Calon Arang became the first person Jools set eyes on when she walked into the Darkling lounge. At first, Calon ignored Jools entirely—Jools wasn’t in her superhero costume, so she looked like an unremarkable nobody. But Jools is always brash, and was unintimidated by her posh surroundings. She stood out; she took no crap from various Darklings, even the Dark usually scare the heck out of normal mortals.
In other words, Jools was Calon’s kind of person: a bold young woman who didn’t suck up to powerful people.
Eventually, Jools and Calon started talking. By then, I’d decided that Calon could be useful as a contact Jools could call on when she needed information about Darkling activities. But then, in the course of improvising this conversation, I wrote Calon asking Jools, “What are you doing tomorrow night?”
My list of set-pieces included a big Darkling shindig the next night. I had planned for Jools to attend, but until Calon asked her question, I thought Jools would just crash the party. Superheroes always barge into places they aren’t invited. I had no plan for Jools to go to the party as Calon’s “date”.
And yet here we were.
After that, I had to figure out why Calon asked—it certainly wasn’t sexual. Coming up with a sensible reason led to major plot developments I had never envisioned. If you read the book (as I hope you will), you may be astonished that all the ensuing plot consequences weren’t planned from the beginning.
But they weren’t. They arose because I was improvising a conversation between my heroine and someone I thought of as a minor background character. Then the conversation went somewhere that completely surprised me and rearranged the rest of the novel.
That’s why it’s my favorite bit. I love it when my plans fall apart.
James Alan Gardner is the author of ten novels and numerous short stories. His latest is They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded, sequel to All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault (both from Tor). He has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, the Asimov’s Readers’ Choice Award (twice), and been a finalist for both the Nebula and Hugo. In his spare time, he teaches Kung Fu to six-year-olds. Pronouns: he/him; Twitter: @jamesagard
Cesar Torres is joining us today to talk about his novel 9 Lords of Night. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Manhattan is about to be slammed by a Nor’easter in October, and just as the snow begins to fall, a killer begins his hunt. He writes symbols on his victims and removes their hearts. He quickly earns a nickname: The Night Drinker. Nestor Buñuel is the best NYPD detective to investigate the case, which will be his last before retirement. But this is unlike any case he has worked before. Buñuel becomes a pawn in the hands of this ritualistic killer, who is driven to evil by a long-lost movie called 9 Lords of Night, a powerful film rumored to be the work of both a genius and madman. This new thriller from the mind of author Cesar Torres is a descent into a surreal nightmare, in which detective Buñuel moves toward a destiny that he can’t escape.
9 Lords of Night is the exciting sequel to 13 Secret Cities, and the second volume in Cesar Torres’ Coil Series, in which powerful beings from another dimension begin to enter our reality.
What’s Cesar’s favorite bit?
My favorite bit of 9 Lords of Night is the aviary scene:
The sculpture repeated the word “nocturnal” once, twice, and then over and over, elongating Nestor’s sampled voice like taffy, until it became a series of pleasant notes. The sculpture dropped these notes into the rhythm of the sounds around her, and suddenly the melody generated by the room became a deeper, more complex composition. Her body emitted music, as if every part of her skin were a high-end sampler, synthesizer and stereo speaker.
“Do you have a name?” Nestor said.
“My name is Atl, which translates roughly to water. I am named after a symbolic representation of Xiuhtehcutli, the god of fire. Nice to meet you.”
“Nestor. My name is Nestor.”
Atl emitted a series of musical clicks and chirps. Her skin faded from neon green to dark brown, and then she fell silent. Nestor was still holding in his breath; this machine was sublime, like a sunset.
In my novel, Nestor Buñuel, a weathered trans police detective and Felix Calvo, a queer academic, have joined forces to help investigate the serial murder of a woman of color, but their collaboration has none of the glamour we may expect from a typical thriller. Nestor does not get along very well with Felix, and though they have a lot of their own queerness and Hispanic heritage in common, they each feel distant and isolated from each other. And yet, both men are part of a murder investigation that gets weirder and darker with each new twist. Nestor and Felix are almost trapped in this destiny, in the way that characters from ancient Greek plays and myths were forever bound to a particular outcome.
I have so much love for my two main characters Felix and Nestor, no matter how their anxieties, phobias and flaws bubble to the surface. It’s thanks to them that the novel can take the reader on a journey that defies expectations. We think we will be reading a classic police procedural in the first third of the book, but soon, we discover that 9 Lords of Night is meant to go into deeper places of the heart, where our notions about gender, race, police surveillance and even AI converge.
The aviary scene is my favorite bit, because it stands out in contrast against the scenes of police work, forensics and criminal investigation. I love the gritty stuff, but I also love scenes of strangeness and beauty. By this point in the novel, the darkness and brutality of the murders in this book are weighing on the reader, but the scene inside the Aviary points to a new place where the novel will go: It’s a place where imagination can galvanize the detective story together with historical data, cinema and science fiction. It’s an alchemical moment.
Cesar Torres is a novelist, filmmaker and fashion designer. In 2014, his novel 13 Secret Cities put him on the map as a genre-defying fantasist. He is also the author of the How to Kill a Superhero book series, a saga comprised of four novels that has become a cult sensation among queer and gay men. He writes that series under the pen name Pablo Greene, who is known for his queer superhero cosplays. Cesar directed Beyond Built, a documentary about the world-famous bodybuilding gym Quads. He is currently writing the third book in his Coil series, and launching a new fall line for his brand of fitness wear LED Queens. For more info visit cesartorres.me.
Nancy Kress is joining us today with her novel Terran Tomorrow. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Nancy Kress returns with Terran Tomorrow, the final book in the thrilling hard science fiction trilogy based on the Nebula Award–winning novella Yesterday’s Kin.
The diplomatic mission from Earth to World ended in disaster, as the Earth scientists discovered that the Worlders were not the scientifically advanced culture they believed. Though they brought a limited quantity of the vaccine against the deadly spore cloud, there was no way to make enough to vaccinate more than a few dozen. The Earth scientists, and surviving diplomats, fled back to Earth.
But once home, after the twenty-eight-year gap caused by the space ship transit, they find an Earth changed almost beyond recognition. In the aftermath of the spore cloud plague, the human race has been reduced to only a few million isolated survivors. The knowledge brought back by Marianne Jenner and her staff may not be enough to turn the tide of ongoing biological warfare.
What’s Nancy’s favorite bit?
My favorite bit in Terran Tomorrow is something that doesn’t even appear in the novel: zebras. In this future, post-apocalyptic California, there are no zebras. Actually, there never were zebras in California. Paradoxically, that’s what lets me have so much fun playing with the idea of zebras. I love me a useful metaphor.
In the late 1940’s, Dr. Theodore Woodward, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, instructed his interns diagnosing patients to consider common diseases before exotic ones: “When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras.” But science fiction writers don’t diagnose patients; they create startling futures (if they’re not startling in some way, nobody reads the book.)
Science fiction is always about zebras.
The first time they turn up in Terran Tomorrow, Dr. Zack McKay is sparring with his colleague, Toni Steffens. Both are geneticists trying, without much success, to find a way to counteract a bird-born, weaponized virus that, along with the rest of a deadly war, has reduced Earth’s population to a fraction. The survivors are still at war, both with the microbe-contaminated environment and with a strong terrorist group called New America. Much of the book takes place in a shielded military base in California. Seven hundred diverse people live under capable commanders who are doing their best to both preserve life and to aid the scientists who are its only hope. Zack has zebras on his mind:
As Zack finally reached Decon in Lab Dome, Toni Steffens’s voice sounded in his earplant. “Did you succeed?”
“No. Didn’t try.”
“Then you owe me another five dollars. Why didn’t you try? It’s a serious bet.”
“Zebras,” Zack said. Let that shut her up for a while.
Zack and his colleague had a long-standing bet: Who could get one of Colonel Jenner’s elite squad of soldiers, whom Toni referred to as the Praetorian Guard, to say something, anything, as they escorted scientists to and from Lab Dome. So far, Zack owed Toni $345, which was a problem in an “economy” that didn’t use money. Toni was good at getting the soldiers to break silence, usually by provoking them to outrage. Zack did not do outrage, but he enjoyed hers. Usually.
She appeared in the doorway of the esuit room just beyond Decon, a plain woman in her forties, dressed in ancient jeans grown a little tight and a top of flexible brown plastic fabric, the only cloth that the the 3-D printer, running out of polymers, was still able to produce. “Zebras?”
“Caitlin was drawing them at breakfast.”
“And how does a four-year-old even know about ungulates not found within a thousand miles of what used to be California?”
“From a picture book on her tablet. Toni, what was that Latin you quoted yesterday for Occam’s razor?”
“’Numquam ponenda est pluritas sine necessitate. Frusta fit per plura, quod potest fieri per pauciora.’ It means—”
“I know what it means. The simplest explanation that fits the facts is usually correct.”
“Not exactly. A literal translation—”
“Ill-educated barbarian. So you think we’re looking for a zebra when the hoof beats we’re hearing are from a simple horse?”
“No. I think we’re looking at horses when we might need a zebra.”
One of the pleasures of introducing a metaphor is that you can play with it throughout the novel. Terran Tomorrow is the third book in the Yesterday’s Kin trilogy, which began with aliens who arrive on Earth to warn us about a spore cloud drifting through space toward Earth. The first shock is that these are not aliens at all, but rather humans taken from Earth 140,000 years ago. Since then, their and our evolutionary paths have diverged slightly (140,000 years is not long enough for much diversion). The two cultural paths, however, shaped by environment and genes, have been radically different. In the second book, If Tomorrow Comes, a small group of humans travel to the alien planet, World. In Terran Tomorrow, a group of Terrans and Worlders return to Earth. Nobody is expecting them; they have been gone for twenty-eight years and have long been presumed lost. But here they are, to disbelief and consternation: “Well,” Toni says, “a zebra after all.”
More zebras, unexpected and game-changing events, turn up in the microbial world. Perhaps they aren’t unexpected for microbes, which promiscuously exchange genes, adapt constantly to new environments, and can produce a new and often mutated generations every twenty minutes. But these particular mutations and adaptations are unexpected to the geneticists at Monterey Dome. The first one stuns Zack: “Hoofbeats drummed across his brain. Zebra.” The second one even more so:
There. She had named it, the elephant in the room. Humanity bifurcating. If the changes in neural structure or efficiency were permanent and also inheritable, the human race was on its way to becoming two species.
Not an elephant in the room. A swamp’s worth of dinosaurs. Or—
An entire herd of zebras.
Elephants, dinosaurs, zebras—a bit zoo-ey, but perhaps appropriate for a book that concerns saving the environment and the mammalian life dependent on it. Characters in Terran Tomorrow have decidedly different ideas about how to do this. Colin Jenner, green farmer, wants sustainable ecology, no matter the price. Colonel Jason Jenner, commander of Monterey Base, sees mostly military solutions. The genetic researchers, Marianne Jenner and Zack McKay and Toni Steffens, put their desperate hope in science.
But only an extreme solution will work, a desperate gamble that can change the entire situation. In his non-fiction bestseller, statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb evoked a different animal to embody the idea of an improbable event that upends all theories and changes the entire game: The Black Swan.
Nancy Kress is the author of thirty-four books, including twenty-six novels, four collections of short stories, and three books on writing. Her work has won six Nebulas, two Hugos, a Sturgeon, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Her most recent work is TERRAN TOMORROW (Tor), the final book in her YESTERDAY’S KIN trilogy. Kress’s fiction has been translated into Swedish, Danish, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Polish, Croatian, Chinese, Lithuanian, Romanian, Japanese, Korean, Hebrew, Russian, and Klingon, none of which she can read. In addition to writing, Kress often teaches at various venues around the country and abroad, including a visiting lectureship at the University of Leipzig, a 2017 writing class in Beijing, and the annual intensive workshop TaosToolbox. Kress lives in Seattle with her husband, writer Jack Skillingstead, and Cosette, the world’s most spoiled toy poodle.
Alexandra Rowland is joining us today with her debut novel A Conspiracy of Truths. Here’s the publisher’s description:
A wrongfully imprisoned storyteller spins stories from his jail cell that just might have the power to save him—and take down his jailers too.
Arrested on accusations of witchcraft and treason, Chant finds himself trapped in a cold, filthy jail cell in a foreign land. With only his advocate, the unhelpful and uninterested Consanza, he quickly finds himself cast as a bargaining chip in a brewing battle between the five rulers of this small, backwards, and petty nation.
Or, at least, that’s how he would tell the story.
In truth, Chant has little idea of what is happening outside the walls of his cell, but he must quickly start to unravel the puzzle of his imprisonment before they execute him for his alleged crimes. But Chant is no witch—he is a member of a rare and obscure order of wandering storytellers. With no country to call his home, and no people to claim as his own, all Chant has is his wits and his apprentice, a lad more interested in wooing handsome shepherds than learning the ways of the world.
And yet, he has one great power: his stories in the ears of the rulers determined to prosecute him for betraying a nation he knows next to nothing about. The tales he tells will topple the Queens of Nuryevet and just maybe, save his life.
What is Alexandra’s favorite bit?
“I didn’t miss him, mind you. Not at all. I was just rather pleased to know he wasn’t dead[. . .] My heart was behaving rather oddly—felt all light, like a soap bubble. Not because I was happy to see Ylfing. I was probably having a heart attack at that moment, that’s all.”
The narrator of A CONSPIRACY OF TRUTHS is a crotchety, opinionated old man called Chant, a wandering mendicant storyteller who has been arrested on charges of witchcraft and, in the first scene, accidentally indicts himself as a potential spy. For the first one hundred and thirty-three pages of the book, he is locked in a cold, isolated jail cell awaiting the results of that trial with nothing to do but complain and no visitors except his lawyer, and during this time he regularly assures the reader that:
1) his apprentice, Ylfing, is an idiot, and
2) he doesn’t miss him at all. Really. Really he doesn’t. Not even a little bit. In fact, Chant hardly even thinks about him, and he certainly doesn’t worry about him. (Unfortunately, being a debut author means your publisher just can’t splurge on book-printing technology like “ten-foot-tall letters of fire that spring from the page to spell out L I A R.” Such a shame, because this would have been a good place for it.)
All first-person narrators should be considered, to some degree, unreliable because all people are unreliable. None of us gives a perfectly objective report of the events that happen to us—and Chant definitely doesn’t. Sometimes he lies on purpose; sometimes he lies accidentally, simply because he hasn’t interrogated his own biases and preconceived notions. This (paired with the vibrancy of his opinions and the staunchness of his intent to inflict them on the world around him) is one of several reasons he was so much giddy fun to write, and this scene in particular, where he’s reunited with the apprentice he tooooooootally isn’t even a little bit fond of, who isn’t at all like a much-beloved nephew or grandson, is the first moment we truly and clearly see how much Chant might be misrepresenting himself and his feelings.
Ylfing as a character is something of a foil to Chant—where Chant is grouchy and sharp-tongued and prickly, Ylfing is a cinnamon roll of a human: soft and sweet and warm, effortlessly kind and good (and smart, and insightful, and well-suited to the profession to which he’s apprenticed). For all his gruff bluster, Chant values that softness—he sees worth in the way Ylfing runs at the world with his arms outstretched and the doors of his heart flung wide open. That’s part of the profession, after all: opening yourself up to embrace the whole world. Ylfing is better at it than Chant is.
The scene of their reunion is a moment where Chant, a master storyteller, tells a story that fails. He tries to dissemble about the depth of his affection, and… can’t quite bring himself to be convincing about it.
We learn who we are by the way we respond to the people around us, as if each person holds up a mirror to reflect a small piece of ourselves, and we assemble our self-image from the patchwork of those reflections. The long-awaited arrival of Ylfing (one of the last characters to join the cast) influences how we think of Chant more than any other person in the book – for the first time, we see Chant interacting with someone who knows him, who loves him, and that gives us a wildly different perspective than we have gotten before in the book. Chant says, a little later on: “For all my apprentice is a genuine idiot, I’ll allow he can spot a soft heart from a mile off. Or perhaps it’s just that hearts soften after he spots them.” Chant’s, at least, certainly does, and that says as much (or more) about him as it does about Ylfing.
So that’s my favorite bit: The introduction of Ylfing! He’s a candle that illuminates some of Chant’s much deeper complexities, he introduces a paradigm shift in how the reader perceives Chant’s representation of himself, and… Well, to be honest, he’s my favorite child. I mean look at him– he’s a golden retriever puppy. He’s a cinnamon roll. He’s kind and genuine and adorable, and hearts soften after he spots them — five bucks says yours will too.
Alexandra Rowland is a fantasy author, game monitor at an escape room company, and occasional bespoke seamstress under the stern supervision of her feline quality control manager. She holds a degree in world literature, mythology, and folklore from Truman State University, and she is a host of the literary podcast, Be the Serpent. Find her at www.alexandrarowland.net or on Twitter as @_alexrowland.
(Tor Books — August 21, 2018) Continuing the grand sweep of alternate history laid out in The Calculating Stars, The Fated Sky looks forward to 1961, when mankind is well-established on the moon and looking forward to its next step: journeying to, and eventually colonizing, Mars. Of course, the noted Lady Astronaut Elma York would like to go, […]