I’ve had those times when I’ve actively mourned “celebrities”—artists, let’s call them because it isn’t the fame that made them important to me, and I think the “celebrity” label cheapens that importance.
But the experience I had five years ago at the end of this month was just a little different. Yes, I was mourning one of my favorite authors. But I also couldn’t shake the feeling that now I had to—was being called to—carry on her legacy.
And in at least one way—the forcing-other-people-to-listen-to-me-rave-about-her way—I’ve had help with that. During March 2012, a year after her death, her publishers held a blog tour/on-line celebration of the life and works of Diana Wynne Jones. So many bloggers wanted to participate that “#DWJMarch” managed to take over April and May as well. Each year since, Kristen M. at the book blog We Be Reading has continued to host #DWJMarch, and a smaller-but-dedicated group of fans continues to pitch in.
It’s a combination that makes a lot of sense. They’re both English fantasy writers who wrote books that not only skewered the conventions of fantasy, but also offered biting observations of any other topic (especially real life). They created characters both hilarious and heartbreaking. The Venn Diagram for Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones fans ought to be nearly a circle, but somehow she is less well-known in the mainstream. Continue reading Letting the Oddity Live On: A Salute to Diana Wynne Jones
Today I welcome guest actress Emilie Shimkus, who plays Wren on the fan-funded, fan-favorite show JourneyQuest, which is currently in its last day on Kickstarter! She lets us know why this show is important to the genre, and why it’s important that it succeed.
The JourneyQuest Season 3 Kickstarter ends TONIGHT, Friday 2/19 at 12am EST. If it doesn’t get its funding by the end of Friday, this wildly popular, nerd-friendly, fan-favorite show is over. As geek, a mom, and an actor in the show, let me propose why you should care.
I think we’ve all had it up to here with “strong” women characters. Yes, of course, we want a strong woman over a week and agentless one, but somewhere along the way, “strong” became the “nice” of character descriptors for women, the adjective that would make our 2nd grade teacher kneel down by our desk and say, “Okay, but what do you mean by ‘strong?’ Can you give me some examples? What are other good words?”
Strong seems like a good thing… but what does it mean? Whether it’s a badass, asskicking woman fighting injustices or maybe a weakened, but ultimately resilient woman who finds her strength in success/love/family/adventure… strong has just become a bizarrely conflicting synonym for “unmovable” or “good.” And frankly… neither is very interesting.
Personally, as an audience member, and as a mom looking for shows to share with my kids, I’d rather see a morally ambiguous character—someone who is still developing their moral compass, a character who is conflicted, struggling with issues and decisions. Someone with room to grow, or room to deteriorate.
And—as an actor—I would MUCH rather play a smart, engaged, funny, seeking, struggling character than one whose description begins and ends with, “she is beautiful and strong, late 20s-early 30s.” (YES, this is often all there is to go on, and you’re lucky if you get “strong.”)
And this is why JourneyQuest matters. This is why a nerdy, fantasy realm, comedic web-series produced in the Pacific Northwest and totally fan-funded by hordes of engaged, enthusiastic geeks matters.
There are several main women characters. That’s a big starting place. In seasons 1 and 2, writer and creator Matt Vancil wrote a script where nearly half the main characters are women, there are more about to be introduced in Season 3, and all of them have room to grow. And every one of them breaks the mold of damn near every script I’ve read in the last 7 years for the following reasons.
They are funny. The women are not relegated to being the subject of, or reactor to jokes about and by the men characters. They get their own zingers and pratfalls and running gags.
They have their own goals and agendas. And—like in real life—said agendas do not always jive with the other main characters’ actions and desires, creating some great conflict and tensions.
They get to make decisions, and they are not always good decisions. These women have their own secrets and motivations, which affect their reasoning and actions, for good, bad, and all shades of grey in between.
They are not all proven good. Good is a silly word, and boring, and needs a better example for your 2nd grade teacher. Some of these women are trying to help others, some are trying to help themselves. Even the normally apparent “villains” have sympathetic qualities and backstories revealed that makes you wonder, but doesn’t tell you what to think, not just yet. Most of them do not do as they are advised, and that spells trouble as often as courage and adventure.
And most importantly, the women characters are integral to the plot. You could not simply pull them out of the story and continue. Without these women and their story arcs, their jokes, their goals and decisions and fallout, their shifting markers of morality, the entire story would stop cold.
Have you started watching The Shannara Chronicles yet? If you haven’t, I think you should. The show is not at all what I was expecting (read: hoping for) but I’m finding myself enjoying it just as it is, despite considerable changes from the novel.
“Fury,” (actually labeled as episode 3 by MTV but don’t get me started) aired originally a few weeks back but is available for free streaming on mtv.com or you can buy it from Amazon. The last time I checked, the premiere is free but you have to pay to watch the subsequent episodes with Amazon.
This week I invited epic fantasy/grimdark author Jeff Salyards to GeekMom to tell us what made him geek out while he was writing his Bloodsounder’s Arc series. The third book of the series, Chains of the Heretic, is out today in e-book (it can be found in hardcover on 2/9/2016)!
I’ve been a knucklehead my whole life (or “assclown,” if I’m being less charitable to myself). I still have the occasional outburst or episode now and then, as anyone who knows me even remotely well will testify, but back in my teens and twenties, I did ridiculously dumb things on a routine basis. Sometimes hourly. Continue reading Shoebox Time Machine: Jeff Salyards Geeks Out About the Past
It is always a bittersweet time for me when I settle in to watch a television series or movie based on a beloved book or series of books. I had the same mix of excitement and dread when I watched the first season of Game of Thrones on HBO as I had earlier this week when I pulled up my DVR list, poured my glass of wine, and kicked up my tired feet to watch The Shannara Chronicles.
I may be underselling the apprehension side on this one. If you happened to be lucky enough to catch my geeky origin story post from November then you’ll know that this series, and the book they are clearly starting off with, Elfstones of Shannara, was my first ever fantasy novel when I was younger. I consider it the spark that lit my fantasy and science fiction passion. I’d been exposed before, of course, but this was that pivotal OMG moment where I knew this would be my calling for the rest of my life. If you were not lucky enough to catch my origin story I have you covered. You can review it here. Go on, I’ll wait here while you read it.
Know a teen aged 14-19 whose notebooks are overflowing with spaceships and lycanthropes? Who has NASA’s New Horizons mission bookmarked as a research guide for their next novel? Maybe they (and you) should check out the Alpha Workshop for Young Writers for a summer experience that is close to out of this world.
This week we welcome fantasy author Erin M. Evans as our guest to Geek Speaks…Fiction! She talks about about the role grandmothers play in fantasy, specifically in her own recent release, Ashes of the Tyrant, the fourth book in her Brimstone Angels saga set in the Forgotten Realms world.
I told my grandmother I was engaged the night after my husband proposed, and she gave me some advice that taught me a valuable lesson.
“Don’t ever get divorced,” my grandmother—who is herself divorced, I should mention–told me. “Trust me. No one respects you if you’re divorced.”
“…I think things are a bit different now,” I started.
“Still.” Then, “You can be a widow if you have to, Erin. Just don’t get divorced.”
I asked Mark why he decided to create a game. He was kind enough to tell me all about it. Please welcome him to GeekMom!
Hi, I’m Mark Lawrence, a late-starting novelist, long time research scientist, and father of four. My main occupation is actually looking after my youngest child who is 11. She’s very severely disabled and takes an enormous amount of looking after. My first book was Prince of Thorns, published in 2011.
Today we welcome young adult fantasy author Lila Bowen to GeekMom’s Geek Speaks…Fiction! You might know her as Delilah S. Dawson: writer, artist, horse-lover, and geek extraordinaire. Here she is, talking about her childhood obsession, and how it inspired her fiction!
Before geeking out was cool, I was geeking out about horses. I was that kid doodling unicorns on homework papers and crying over Artax as he sank into the Swamp of Sadness. I had an ongoing fantasy that on my birthday, I would wake up to find a horse tied to a tree in my backyard or stashed in my closet—which never happened. I collected My Little Ponies, Fashion Star Fillies, and Breyer horses. I was so horse-crazy that bullies called me Horse as an insult in my yearbook, the implication being that I was big and buck-toothed and dumb, at least according to the accompanying drawings.
And I was so obsessed that I took it as a compliment.
Real, live horses weren’t a regular part of my life. I lived in the suburbs with decidedly unhorsey parents, and I got to ride a pony at a parade once a year. Those were the best moments of my life… at least until I was twenty-three and bought my own horse. Now I’m 38, and I live in the mountains and go trail riding on my mare, Polly, once or twice a week, and I promise you that this is one dream come true that’s even more rewarding than starry-eyed little Horse imagined when she was little.
When folks read stories by James Walley, they mention things like “fun,” “crazy,” “hilarious,” and “insane.” They compare his writing style to Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. Is writing a novel like this all fun and games, though? Or does it involve the bleeding onto the page that Hemingway and others suggested? James Walley is our guest this week for Geek Speaks…Fiction!
I see a lot of things written about how tortuous it is, being an author. How you go through angst, pain, and coffee in equal measure, suffering for your art. Personally, I’m not a fan of angst or pain, and am trying to cut down on the black gold, so who says you can’t have a little fun with the worlds you are creating?
I’m not going to lie and paint a picture involving animated birds and beasts, who helpfully arrive in your house and write your chapters for you whilst you relax with a glass of wine. Sure, I am going to put that at the top of my Christmas list, but in truth, writing a novel involves a lot of hard work, dedication, and consideration. How could it not be? It’s a massive undertaking, requiring character depth, plot development, and that special, indescribable something that keeps the pages turning. Where it stops being a chore for me, is in the sheer possibility that this presents. Continue reading Escaping Into a Loop-the-Loop World of Fantasy
Today’s guest on Geek Speaks… Fiction is author Aliette de Bodard.
Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris, where she works as a System Engineer and herds a toddler nicknamed “Snakelet”. In her spare time, she writes speculative fiction: She has won two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award, and a British Science Fiction Association Award. Her novel The House of Shattered Wings is out from Roc/Gollancz this month.
Manga, anime, and my writing
My writerly influences tend to the eclectic: I have a tendency to read everything (including the back of the toothpaste package if I get bored), and my childhood was filled with a mix of books in all genres, bandes dessineés, movies—and manga, which I sneak-read because my parents weren’t overly keen on it (they’d caught a bit of the Ken the Survivor anime on TV and decided they didn’t want me exposed to that kind of graphical violence, so I couldn’t have any manga or watch any anime). Needless to say, I felt like trying both anyway!
Below are my five influential manga/anime and how they impacted my writing and my most recent novel The House of Shattered Wings (out August 18th from Roc in the US, August 20th from Gollancz in the UK).
Black Jack (manga): It’s probably a good thing that my parents never actually opened the Black Jack mangas I was so fond of, since they might have had quite a few surprises about graphically explicit… Featuring the adventures of a blackmarket surgeon and his precocious adopted daughter, and hovering between body horror, black humour, and serious ethical dilemmas, this has had a lot of influence on me—notably teaching me a lot about creepiness and unease and how effective they are when deployed against the background of everyday life; and there’s plenty of dark and creepy in The House of Shattered Wings, from people drinking the blood of angels to shadows that slither just out of sight, just out of reach…
Sailor Moon (manga): Another manga I found when young—one of the few carried by my (small) local bookshop. I actually had a period of feeling ashamed about having read it because it felt so girly to me, but I came back to it years later, when Takeuchi Naoko released the new editions, and was genuinely surprised to still find it excellent. It’s about magical girls, reincarnation, and time travel, and I loved the mythic undertones to the whole saga (also, Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus are the best). It’s taught me quite a few things about merging science fiction and fantasy in my own fiction—The House of Shattered Wings mixes a post-apocalyptic setting (a devastated Paris with nuked monuments where people struggle to survive) with the presence of Fallen angels and magic, and I think the merge of genres makes it a much stronger one than the pure urban fantasy it started out as.
Cowboy Bebop (anime/movie): To the best of my recollection, I actually watched the movie of this first, and was so struck with the aesthetic that we decided to watch the rest of the series. And I wasn’t disappointed: I love the run-down atmosphere of the series, and most of all the soundtrack, which is unusual for an SF series but just brilliant. It made for great listening when I’m writing!
Revolutionary Girl Utena (manga/anime/movie): I watched this one on the recommendation of Yoon Ha Lee, and it blew my mind away. It’s a freaking effective deconstruction of tropes, rpm fairy tales to gender roles to power dynamics. And the ending still makes me weep every time I get to it. The quality isn’t great (lots of recycled animations for scenes); the plot meanders a bit and can get repetitive, and there are a few triggery bits, and yet… and yet for all its flaws it’s got a freshness and an energy that drags me along every single time. It’s an object lesson that a thing doesn’t have to be technically perfect to grab the imagination of the audience (though of course as a writer I still angst over reaching perfection every single time—guess I can’t help it!)
(And in case you’re wondering: Yes, I own the movie and the manga too )
Full Metal Alchemist (anime/manga/anime): It’s hard to encompass the impact Full Metal Alchemist had on my life. I watched the first anime, which I found a bit disappointing; checked out the manga and then the second anime—and now own all volumes of the manga (a pretty hefty space investment for my small house). It’s a meld of wonderful worldbuilding with an original magic system (alchemy and the principle of equivalence), a wonderful cast of memorable characters from naive Al to ambivalent Greed (and badass general Olivia Armstrong will always have a special place in my heart ), and an ending that delivers both on an epic scale and on a personal one (Ed’s final choice is inevitable but wonderfully done). I learnt a lot from it about entwining plot lines, and doing badass characters: My Fallen angels and my heads of magical factions in The House Of Shattered Wings owe more than a passing debt to Arakawa Hiromu.
And I was very struck with the redefinition of alchemy into a non-potion-based magical system, and re-used the word in my book as a homage to the series: In my world, alchemists are specialized in re-using the breath and body parts of Fallen angels to provide magical energy to practitioners so they can cast spells—so not FMA‘s alchemists, but definitely at the centre of things.
Those are my top five, but it was hard to limit myself to just these. (I wanted to mention Le Chevalier d’Eon, Ergo Proxy, Black Butler, Haibane Renmei, and so many others that I vividly remember!)
Please help us welcome fantasy author J. Kathleen Cheney to GeekMom! Ms. Cheney is the author of The Golden City series from Roc Books. The Shores of Spain, book 3 in the series, has just been released today.
The Real Steampunk
I’ve always thought that if I had a chance to do my life all over again, my new day job would be as a civil engineer. It would be right up my alley. I have a nerdy fascination with sewer systems, underground building design, highways, rooftop gardening, and distribution/transport systems.
So when I worked on the first of the Golden City novels (aptly titled The Golden City), I fell in love with these:
Those two beauties are the Titans in Matosinhos, Portugal.
For those people who live in areas with harbors, they might even recognize what they are. Essentially, they’re cranes that specialize in building breakwaters. A breakwater is an enclosed area around a harbor or river’s mouth that makes for calmer waters where a ship comes in to dock. What the Titans do is carry 10-ton blocks from a building yard out to the end of the breakwater (via its own railway) and set the block into the water. Once enough stone is there to support the crane, the railway is extended, and the Titan goes back to get another block.
(Titans, by the way, are a classification of crane. It’s not the name of this particular set of cranes. So there are far younger Titans all around the world, in many industrial and nautical settings.)
I’ve included this picture so that you can get a bit of perspective on how big they are. The little “house” that’s sitting atop the crane’s boom arm is actually the housing for the steam engine. Beneath that, inside the boom arm, is the ballast that balances the heavy weights (up to 50 tons) that the Titan is made to carry. It’s an amazing piece of technology, particularly when you realize that these two were made during the Victorian age.
You want steampunk? These babies are real steampunk!
In my first novel, I managed to squeeze these guys in. There’s a scene where my hero, Duilio, ducks behind one of that behemoth’s rail wheels for cover during a gunfight. If you look at the little tiny people standing around on the temporary tracks, that will give you an idea how tiny he must have felt hiding under the Titan’s bulk. It’s huge, and in his place, I would have been terrified.
Now, at a ripe old age of 132 years, the Titans have seen better days. As they’re not being used for loading, they generally sit idle on the breakwaters. However, one did have an accident in 1892—it was swept into the ocean during a storm. The city managed (after a few years) to haul the thing back out of the water and set it back on its railway tracks. In early 2012, one of the Titans dropped some metal (metal fatigue), causing a rupture in a gas line and an industrial fire. After that, the city decided that instead of demolishing them, they would refurbish the two Titans to stave off another accident. That fall, when I traveled to Matosinhos, one of the Titans was, indeed, missing, having been taken away for that promised work.
There are many people arguing for the Titans to be named International Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmarks. There are actually very few of these things left throughout the world. One that was built in 1907, in Clydebank, Scotland, was recently converted into a bungee jumping site. So I watch with fingers crossed and hope that they will last another 132 years, and that our descendants will look at them and marvel that we could have—with our limited technology—have managed to build such beauties.
J. Kathleen Cheney is a former teacher and has taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus, with a brief stint as a Gifted and Talented Specialist. Her short fiction has been published in Jim Baen’s Universe, Writers of the Future, and Fantasy Magazine, among others, and her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist. Her novel, The Golden City was a Finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards (Best First Novel). The sequel, The Seat of Magic, came out in 2014, and the final book in the series, The Shores of Spain, will come out July 2015.
“Journey to a distant land where bold adventurers wield magical blades against dark creatures from the shadowy depths. Thrill to the arcane power of enigmatic sorcerers as they master forbidden arts to strike down their diabolical enemies. Marvel at the courage of common folk who refuse to surrender to the tide of evil sweeping over the land. These, my friend, are the CHAMPIONS OF AETALTIS!” –Marc Tassin
I’ve been working on a really exciting project for the past couple months alongside the folks at Mechanical Muse and Aetaltis. Champions of Aetaltis is a heroic fantasy anthology that is set in author/game designer/creator Marc Tassin’s world of Aetaltis. It’s going to include stories by some of the top authors in fantasy today, and will develop the already wonderful world into something truly spectacular.
What is Aetaltis? Well, above all, it’s a fantasy world, much like people are used to seeing in Dungeons and Dragons, Forgotten Realms, and Pathfinder. What makes Aetaltis exciting is that it is a platform upon which many things can be built—games, stories, comics, art—and as we are learning, the possibilities are endless.
With the anthology, 20 popular authors, including Michael A. Stackpole, David Farland, Lucy A. Snyder, Larry Correia, David Gross, Elaine Cunningham, Ed Greenwood, Cat Rambo, and more, will be exploring the different aspects, areas, cultures, and legends of the world of Aetaltis and creating a rich story base concerning the people who live there. What excites me about this project is that it takes the tropes I grew up loving, and runs with them instead of fighting them or trying to reinvent them. Yet, the world still manages to be fresh and exciting. I asked Marc Tassin, the world’s creator, to explain this concept a little better than I can. So please, welcome Marc!
GeekMom Melanie: What makes Aetaltis different?
Marc Tassin: I’ve been asked this question a lot since I launched the Kickstarter, so I figured I’d better address it. So here we go…
Readers: What makes Aetaltis different from other classic fantasy settings?
Marc: It’s not! <Use your imagination to insert the screeching noise of the needle scraping across a record!>
Not the answer you were expecting? No problem. I’ll explain.
Anyone can break the rules, because breaking the rules is easy! Sure, it takes skill to break the rules in an artful way, but it’s not hard to smash the norms. You just go in and swap out a bunch of stuff and kick the rest over. Boom! You’re done!
But taking something beloved, embracing a long-held tradition, or working with ideas that are so deeply ingrained in our imagination that they’re the stuff “everybody knows”—taking those things and then doing something really wonderful and compelling with them? Now that is hard. In fact, it’s really hard.
That’s why Hollywood often avoids the hard thing. For example, trying to present Superman in his purest man-of-steel, heart-of-gold, “there’s always a better way,” boy scout in red underpants form without looking stupid is really, really hard. Do it wrong and it comes out really wrong since, like I said before, “everybody knows.” Hollywood can’t afford that risk. It’s way easier to skip all that and just change things up a bit. Doing it the other way is hard!
But… it’s not impossible.
Which brings us to Aetaltis. I decided that I wanted to embrace the traditions and tropes that we love about fantasy, and I took the hard road. After all, I love that stuff! I just wanted to see it done right! It’s like the artisan food movement. It’s not about avant garde departures from the norm—it’s about doing the classics exceptionally well.
So if I’ve done my job right—and if the reaction I’ve received from the authors and pre-readers is to be believed, I have—Aetaltis will give you even more of everything that made classic fantasy classic in a way that you’ll absolutely love. It will do it so artfully and respectfully that you’ll give it a place in your imagination, along with all the other wonderful worlds that it was borne from.
This is also why I turned to the authors I did. I’m not ignorant to the fact that having a New York Times bestseller on your project is a good thing (it is), but that isn’t why I asked the authors I asked. I asked them because they’re really good authors, and you need a really good author to achieve the goals I’ve set out to achieve. Like I said, doing this right is hard. Not just anyone can pull this off.
So there you go! How is Aetaltis different? In the ways that count, it isn’t—and that’s a good thing.
Thanks for reading! I hope I helped to shed some light on my goals with this ambitious project.
Thanks so much for joining us, Marc, and for explaining why Aetaltis brings the best of the old and the new together into one world. The Kickstarter campaign for Champions of Aetaltis will end on June 23, so if this sounds like something you would enjoy, I encourage you to head over and back it!
I was first introduced to the world of English Magic, as it pertains to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, back in 2007.
The book, penned in 2004 by Susanna Clarke, sat on my shelf for three years, and when I finally opened its pages, I couldn’t put it down. A few years later, my husband took to the audio book with equal attention. Ever since then, we have both waited patiently for someone, the right someone, to convert it to the big or little screen. Finally, this weekend was the debut of the miniseries in the UK, to be followed shortly on BBC America.
I can only say, it was worth the wait.
The first episode, “The Friends of English Magic,” sets the scene in location, history, and character for the series that is to follow. If you have not read the books before, there is only really one thing I would have you know before diving into the series: the story is set in an alternative reality, with an alternative history.
Much of the history is parallel with reality, but a great deal is not. There is just enough reality to make you feel as though this could have really happened, not so much as to feel like fantasy proper. As such, Magic is a real part of English history, though it has long ceased to be of a practical variety. The premise of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell rests on the re-appearance of magic in polite society, and what happens when you start to meddle in things not entirely understood.
I don’t wish to give spoilers of any magnitude. Suffice it to say that the two titular characters are like night and day. One a magician whose practical application comes through years of study, perseverance, and a great presence of mind; the other a magician whose magic simply drips off his fingertips, a natural affinity with no previous understanding.
The series begins remarkably well, though a tad confusing to begin with if you have not read the book. Just bear in mind the alternate reality and you should be fine. The actors portraying Strange and Norrell are perfectly suited, but the scene-stealer of the episode, and one has to presume the series, is “The Gentleman.”
Look closely, you may recognize the face of the man with the Thistle Down Hair, as he is referred to in the book. Showing the high caliber of his craft, Marc Warren gives a stunning performance as our first introduction to an alternate reality within this alternate reality.
You may be forgiven for not connecting him to his role as Albert Blithe in Band of Brothers or as Elton Pope in Doctor Who. Indeed his features are barely recognizable as the character actor I have come to know. But his performance as The Gentleman—oh this performance. I would wager that the series will be worth it for this character alone, and given the showing of the first episode, he will not be standing alone.
The scene is set perfectly, the cinematography exemplary, the casting to a tee.
After the first 60 minutes, I am exceedingly grateful that they decided to pursue a miniseries and not a stand-alone. Even more so, knowing that they extended a six-episode run to seven, so as not to compromise the integrity of the script. The only thing missing is that you can’t really include all the historical footnotes, which were employed in the book for depth, in a television show.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell will be on BBC America at 10:00 p.m. on June 13.
You can catch the trailer here, but I do not believe the trailer does the show justice. The first episode far exceeded my expectations. In the words of Vinculus, ‘Two magicians shall appear in England; the name of one shall be fearfulness, the name of the other, arrogance…”
Make sure they appear on your television screen on June 13.
Dark epic fantasy author and fellow geek Jeff Salyards was kind enough to share this post with me when I asked him what it was like taking his little girls to a Renaissance Faire (and, of course, a bit about his writing life). Jeff is the author of the Bloodsounder’s Arc series from Night Shade Books, including Scourge of the Betrayer, Veil of the Deserters, and next year’s Chains of the Heretic. Welcome Jeff!
In the last year I’ve done several guest blog posts about violence and grief, lots of interviews fielding questions about grimness and depravity and pain. About as uplifting as blunt trauma or seasonal affect disorder. I realize I have no one to blame for this but myself—Scourge of the Betrayer is hardly sun showers and rainbows. But today, I’m going to cover some different territory. Something more whimsical and pure, something alluring and childlike, ground that is, dare I say, a wee bit enchanted.
We’ve been taking the kids to the Bristol Renaissance Faire for a few years now. They are six, four, and two, so the perfect ages to appreciate the troubadours, pirates, knights, jugglers, acrobats, gypsies, sirens, lords and ladies, and the odd vampire, zombie, Shrek, and of course the wildly misunderstood patrons who finally have an opportunity to let their bizarre banners blaze in the sun.
Having spent most of my formative years tromping through the woods in silly costumes pretending to be a hero or a goblin (or sometimes a goblin hero), playing D&D, reading far too much science fiction and fantasy for my own good, and generally imagining myself into so many other worlds and realms I routinely fell up stairs or walked into walls or had to have the question repeated two or three times, I am all too familiar with geeky and nerdy impulses and behavior. And a place like the Ren Faire is a perfect venue for likeminded people who dig that sort of thing to congregate for a lovely (or sweltering, or storming—it is the Midwest, after all) summer day. While all the folks who work and perform at Bristol are done to the nines as expected, gaudy and wonderful in velvets and wools, brocades and beadwork, scarves and corsets and leather, plenty of patrons show up in marvelous, elaborate, and in some cases ridonkulous costumes as well. (I’ve already had to have the chainmail bikini conversation with my daughters). The place does attract a unique crowd.
But there are countless Fairgoers who might never have rolled a twenty-sider in their lives, who haven’t dressed up as someone else since Halloween as a grade-schooler, but still flock there to hoist giant turkey legs and take in all the sights and sounds. They could have gone to Gurnee Mills just down the road, or Great America a little further, or a billion places in Chicago or Milwaukee—but they choose to spend the day watching mud men and listening to drum circles, oohing at stilt walkers and cheering on belly dancers and singers. Regardless of who they are or where they come from, whether they LARP or play CRPGS or have no idea what those acronyms mean and couldn’t care less, everyone who walks through the front gate of the Faire comes for the unusual, some as a break from their every day lives, some as a continuation of it. But they come for the wonder and laughter and the opportunity to hear pipers and watch glassblowers and see some falconry and live some fantasy.
Nothing captures this so well as my first time taking my two-year old daughter there (then an only child). She was wide-eyed and mystified as she looked around, amazed by the sensory overload of the place. Ribbons and tassels and sashes and eye patches, big snorting stallions and tight-fitting corsets, woad face paint and thigh high leather boots, puppets and big beards, limericks and madrigal chorus, whips cracking and the crash of lance on shield, charred meat and the wafting smells of sweat and dung and spilled beer heavy in the air. She did a hundred things for the first time that day—rode a pony, picked up a violin, had her face painted.
But the most remarkable thing, the thing I will always remember for the rest of my days, was watching her walk through “The Enchanted Forest.” It’s an area set aside for wonderful actors who are primarily dressed up as fairies—water, woodland, air, fire, spider, etc.—to play with and entertain kids. Their costumes are crazy-involved and still elemental and simple, with perfectly applied makeup and body paint, leaves and twigs and bells and baubles and all kinds of artistic, gorgeous flourishes. They are fantastic in every sense of the world.
And the shtick they all stick to is they interact with the kids who visit the area, but not with words. The fairies smile and pull faces, trade pine cones for grass clippings, pat heads, and beckon, but they don’t speak to the children, even when spoken to.
I was worried Gabrielle might be a little freaked out, and we’d have to usher her away to another pony ride or something, but she loved it. Which was great. But it ended up being so much more than that. While other kids, most of them older, came for a bit and then moved on, Gabi was totally absorbed, hunkered down next to the fairies, watching every gesture and expression, as locked in as I’d ever seen her with anything. This went way beyond focused. She seemingly understood the rules of engagement immediately and honored them completely, too—this girl, who loved words and couldn’t wait to learn and try out a new one, suddenly sat in total silence and rapture with the fairies the entire time they were together.
I stood to the side and watched as she gravitated to one fairy in particular. The fairy handed Gabi a small stone; Gabi turned it over in her hand, held it up to the sun to inspect it, and then handed the fairy a torn leaf or piece of string. The fairy traced the edge of her finger across Gabi’s cheek; Gabi reached up, and gently traced a finger across the fairy’s leafy wing. This went on for ages. They shared smiles and secret little exchanges. And I was nearly as mesmerized watching her as she was interacting with this strange new creature.
And then, sometimes a little slow on the uptake and still new to the whole parenting thing, it hit me. Gabrielle didn’t see a gifted actress in front of her, or make up or props, or any artifice at all. This girl, this creature, WAS a fairy to Gabrielle, just as if she’d stepped out of a storybook. She was a special being from a special place, and somehow Gabi intuited that the spell would last only as long as she maintained the silence. And watching them interact like that was almost like seeing a portal open myself. It really was magical and beautiful, and I realized that this moment would never come again, not exactly like this.
There were other things we wanted to see and do, but my wife and I didn’t want to be the ones to break the spell. We let Gabi stay in the glade as long as she wanted. Which was a very long time. Like, nearly forever. But it was fantastic, every minute of it. Some parents of older kids who weren’t nearly as enchanted noticed Gabi and the fairy and commented on it. One dad said, “Been coming here a long time with the family. Never seen anything like that. That’s something real special, right there.”
He wasn’t wrong.
When Gabi finally had her fill, stood up, and walked over to us, finally remembering that she had parents and a life outside the Enchanted Forest, my wife asked her if she had a good time. Gabi nodded, still seemingly under the spell.
I asked her what she was doing with the fairies.
Gabi looked over at the fairy and then replied, “We were talking things.”
And it gave me goosebumps. And I don’t get those. Don’t even like them. But there was something about the whole thing that was so sublime and surreal, so wonderful, I’m sure I’m failing to do it justice. But it was awesome.
Now, what does this have to do with fiction, especially sword and sorcery/heroic fantasy? Well, maybe nothing, maybe everything. OK, most likely several notches closer to nothing. But hear me out.
It goes without saying, really, but fantasy is fueled by imagination, whether white-hot or fey and frosty. I mean, sure, all fiction is, and some would argue all non-fiction, too. But fantasy, regardless of the subgenre, requires a more potent injection of the wild, the bizarre, the horrific, the wondrous. The fantastic. Or else it would be crime drama or a cozy mystery or some other thing (see, I told you it was self-evident).
Even in fantasy that frequently gets categorized as dark and gritty, or low-magic, full of grime and shady characters, dark dealings and double-crosses, betrayal and revenge, filled with misogyny and hate crimes and torture and every other awful thing we see in our own real world, at the end of the day it has fantastic elements, at least on the edges, or infused in there somewhere. It’s fantasy, after all. See obvious point above.
And that day at the Faire, seeing my daughter tap into that creative place, so effortlessly, so fully, it amazed me, and made me a little jealous, really. Sometimes, all the gears get gunked up with other stuff (bills or flooded basements, characters that won’t cooperate or narratives that are all knotted up, or a thousand other things that seem to conspire to constipate the imagination, to poison the well). Some days, writing a fantasy story feels like the least natural thing in the world.
But it’s still in there, that same fascination, that same ability to explore, and willingness to allow transportation to another realm to happen. Sure, it might come easier to a little person who hasn’t overcomplicated things, or subjugated them, or become burdened by responsibilities and problems and information. Suspending disbelief is simple at that age, because believing is first and second nature, and the wee ones haven’t mastered cynicism.
But even to us old(er) folks, sometimes stymied and saddened, it’s never lost entirely. Buried, sure, maybe even broken a little. But it can be fixed, found, rekindled. It’s what draws droves to the Ren Faire every weekend in the summer, or makes millions buy Martin or Hobb or Abercrombie or Le Guin. The desire to discover the fantastic, in any one of its myriad guises.
Every writer has a different process, but for me, waiting for the muse, for inspiration to swoop in, for a spontaneous (or even summoned) lighting strike to kick things off, is a doomed proposition. Basically setting myself up for failure or a total lack of production. This last year, working on Veil of the Deserters, no longer in a vacuum or writing solely for myself, I’ve had to write whether I felt like it or not. When the writing is halting or painful, and I’m paralyzed by fear or anxiety, and the heavy uncertainty of it all, and I’m tempted to run off and do a thousand other less masochistic things, I just have to give myself permission to suck and keep on keeping on so I can at least get something on the page to work with.
It’s no great epiphany or guiding star or chakra-resetting mindbend or anything. But it does help (me anyway). I have no hair to pull out, but when I’m struggling with my fiction so much I want to punch a wall, either unable to find inspiration or completely dissatisfied with what I’m creating, and especially if I feel like I don’t have it in me to find my way, I try to remember that summer afternoon at the Faire. And how cool it was to witness unfettered imagination at play. Watching my daughter play with a real live fairy.
And then I smile. And unclench. And take a few deep breaths. And maybe drink another beer. And try again. Try harder. Write through the lapse or lull, just write, knowing that sooner or later, the bullshit will fade and the writer’s block will crumble and it will all work out, so long as I keep punching those keys. I know the wellspring is down there—I just have to keep digging.
I’ve seen firsthand the power of the imagination. And it is greater than any distraction or issue or setback or panic. You might have to encourage it more as an adult, fight harder to make it happen, look harder to rediscover it, dig deeper, but the imagination that allows you to believe in magic and the fantastic is still there.
And it trumps everything.
Jeff Salyards grew up in a small town north of Chicago. While it wasn’t Mayberry, it was quiet and sleepy, so he got started early imagining his way into other worlds that were loud, chaotic, and full of irrepressible characters. While he ultimately moved away, he never lost his fascination for the fantastic. Though his tastes have grown a bit darker and more mature over the years.
Jeff lives near Chicago with his wife and three daughters. By day, he is a book editor for the American Bar Association; by night, he will continue to crank out novels as long as there are readers willing to read them.
“Aargh!” I yelled.
My son poked his head out of his room, “You finished the second book, right?”
“It’s so good, right?”
“And now we have to wait for the third book!”
This is about The Whisper, the second book in the The Riverman trilogy by Aaron Starmer. My teen son was in-between books, saw The Riverman on our shelf, devoured it, read The Whisper, and asked, “Where’s the third one?” I let him know it wasn’t out yet. That’s when he let out his own sigh of frustration, and then told me to read the books so at least we could discuss them.
These books are ones you will want to talk about.
Now before I get into the ever-moving plot, the complex characters, the imaginative worlds-within-worlds, I want to talk about Starmer’s writing. There are plenty of modern YA authors who are good storytellers, but not so many are good writers. Aaron Starmer is an intelligent writer that paints pictures with his words.
“Cars moved slowly, as if they weren’t really going anywhere. They were nothing but steel wolves, out roaming.”
“The spot where her nose had been broken all those years ago—that knobby bit of cartilage right below her eyes—made me imagine that a tiny asteroid had crashed into her face and had determined the orbit of her life. She probably hated that asteroid, but to me it was essential.”
“Your mind is constantly wishing, even if you don’t realize it.”
In the first book of the series, the main character, twelve-year-old Alistair Cleary, wonders what is real or not; what’s the story behind the story? The reader is waiting along with him. Fiona Loomis, his neighbor, has decided he should write her biography. She tells him about traveling to a magical world where imagination rules, where storytellers can see creations come to life around them, where children are gods. It is called Aquavania.
“In Aquavania you can create anything your mind can think up. You’d be surprised what your mind can’t create. It’s often the things you really need.”
Fiona describes the worlds she creates: creatures, landscapes, impossible things. Then she tells of other children imagining their own ridiculous, outlandish, weird creations. But the story Fiona tells Alistair has a dark edge, and she truly believes children are in danger, including herself. He decides that either Fiona is crazy, or hiding a terrible truth behind the fantasy. Can Alistair keep a secret? Should he? Does he truly understand what is going on? You will be guessing alongside him until the end. The next book ends with another twist to this tale. It’s a great ride.
“Well,” Charlie replied, setting down the controller, “the most powerful monsters are the ones that don’t even seem like monsters. They’re the little things, the soft things that sneak in and haunt you.”
“Ghosts?” Alistair asked. “That might be a good title.”
Charlie shook his head. “Whispers.”
Alistair is one of the most real and likable characters I’ve met in a long time. Too often, writers are unable to create young characters that are both heroic and true to their age. Alistair cares about people, he has a strong sense of right and wrong, and his need to help is genuine. But how to show he cares, seeing the gray areas in choices, and figuring what is the best way to help, are a struggle that is depicted honestly through this young man’s actions, words, and thoughts. His weaknesses frustrate him, but he doesn’t know how to change fast enough to keep up with the problems and events happening all around him. That’s relatable to all ages. Besides Alistair, the novel is full of characters that are conflicted, flawed, changing, and all too recognizable.
“He’s not a bad guy, deep down,” I said.
My dad slipped the key into the door. “Deep down, no one is. But you make choices.”
I recommend this for twelve and up. Kids younger than that can enjoy the story, but much is implied, things get dark, and the headier stuff will be appreciated more by an older reader. I can’t say much about the plot of The Riverman or The Whisper without giving everything away, which makes it hard to review, so you’ll have to trust me (and my son) on this: It’s very, very good.
As the Discovery Channel’s Big Giant Swords heads into its season finale, GeekMom asked Amelia Smith, whose husband, blacksmith “Irish” Mike, is the show’s star, 10 questions about herself, and about Big Giant Swords.
Discovery Channel has given us an exclusive clip of the finale—so stay tuned at the end. And if you have your own questions for Amelia, let us know in the comments.
GeekMom: You met Irish Mike at a con? Which one?
Amelia: We met at Boskone in 2007, at the back of the filksinging audience. We were both a little skeptical of filking, which neither of us had seen before.
GM: When did you realize your life was going to be so very metal?
Amelia: Soon after I met Mike it became clear that our relationship was moving into semi-permanent status. I went to visit him in Ireland and his bedroom was full of swords. It’s been an ongoing adventure.
GM: What’s it like raising a family around a giant swords workshop?
Amelia: Oh, fine. Kids will find dangerous things everywhere, and the workshop is a hundred yards or so away from the house. Things do drift in, but the kids get into the knife drawer or climb up the refrigerator far more often than they get into Mike’s work stuff.
GM: Mike’s a fantastic dad and you’re an amazing mom (I know because I’ve seen you guys in action). What do you hope your kids will be fanatic about when they get older?
Amelia: Aw, thanks. I don’t know what they will like. So far, Nova is taking after Mike in her tastes for bland food and comic books, while Christopher is more of an explorer of physical space and might yet become a bit of a foodie. I don’t have any set ideas about what they’ll be most interested in, but I’m hoping it will be something I haven’t even heard of yet!
GM: You’re a writer as well. Is it tough finding time to create?
Amelia: Finding time is only part of the challenge. Energy and mental focus are also in short supply as I try to keep track of who’s where and what everyone needs to be doing, plus the groceries, bill-paying, etc. When the kids were younger, they napped for a couple of hours in the early afternoon and that was usually my best writing time. I found that if I tried to get up more than an hour early, I just got too tired to think. Sleep is essential.
Nowadays, I try to get in my big blocks of writing time when they’re at school. I try to do the cleaning and grocery shopping when they’re around, both because I can and because I don’t think those things should happen off-screen. I mean, the dinner doesn’t magically cook itself, right? They should know that.
GM: Do you favor fantasy or science fiction? Why or why not?
Amelia: I read mostly fantasy and historical fiction, but I read occasional science fiction, too. The preference probably has a lot to do with aesthetics (liking tapestries and castles more than sleek metal and plastic spaceships), but it’s probably also about the ideas. I’m very interested in religions, which seem to be more often explored in fantasy.
GM: What can you tell us about what it’s like to be on a Discovery Channel show?
Amelia: It’s been an interesting experience. The filming was hectic and I found not knowing the schedules very stressful, but I don’t mind being on camera. Now that the show is on the air, I often have people come up to me when I’m out doing errands and say how much they like the show, which is actually kind of nice.
I feel a bit of distance from it, too, because although I’m involved, it’s not my project, it’s Mike’s project and I’m just helping out a bit. In my head, my career is my writing, even if it’s not profitable at the moment!
GM: What’s your favorite episode of Big Giant Swords?
Amelia: I still haven’t seen the season finale, but so far I have two vying for the top spot. For the first episode, I had no idea what to expect, what the production company had done in editing. I was pleasantly surprised by the results.
Since then, I like the episode with Sarah Robles best, although I don’t enjoy being the nagging practical person all the time.
GM: Geek or Nerd?
Amelia: I still don’t understand this question. I’m old, and when I was in high school yes, nerds played D&D and read speculative fiction, but mostly nerds were not-jocks, not-popular, not-stoners, got good grades and/or cared about their classes. I’m not up to speed on TV and movie trivia, which cuts me out of a lot of token nerd/geekiness. I say a bit of one, a bit of the other, maybe a little more towards geekery. I’m also neither an introvert nor an extrovert, I come out right on the line.
GM: What would your kids say is the best piece of advice you’ve given them? What would they say for Mike?
Amelia: They are still pretty young for appreciating advice. I’ve been working on getting Christopher to take deep breaths when he’s upset or frustrated, and I think that’s been useful to him. Nova is quite independent and social and doesn’t need much advice, though I do boss her around plenty. So far she has not taken my advice to clean her room more regularly.
Mike is good at play and has been very encouraging to the kids in their art projects. He told Nova, “You can do art any time,” which I hope will stick with her.
Many thanks to Amelia for sharing her time with GeekMom. And thanks to Discovery Channel for providing the *exclusive clip*, below, for Big Giant Swords.
Big Giant Swords season finale airs Tuesday night, February 17th at 10pm ET/PT on Discovery Channel.
‘Tis the season for looking at what books will be published in the coming year! I’ve seen many such lists on the web in the last couple of weeks, but most of them don’t capture what I consider to be the glorious diversity of perspectives that the current science fiction and fantasy scene has to offer. Since everyone gets to make a list if they want to, here’s mine! I hope you’ll find plenty here to fill your bookshelves and eReaders for the next several months.
The Galaxy Game, Karen Lord (Jo Fletcher, January) Karen Lord wowed the community with her award-winning fantasy debut, Redemption in Indigo, then followed it up with a much-discussed science fiction novel, The Best of All Possible Worlds. The Galaxy Game follows on directly from Best, and Lord recommends that you read Best first to understand Game better.
Karen Memory, Elizabeth Bear (Tor, February). Bear writes in just about every sub-genre of sf and fantasy that exists. This book kicks off a fast-paced steampunk trilogy, set in the 19th century American west.
Get in Trouble, Kelly Link (Random House). Kelly Link is one of the best short story writers working in any genre today. A new volume from her is always worth picking up. If I’m not mistaken, this is her first collection in three years.
Something Coming Through, Paul McAuley (Gollancz, February). McAuley is one of the UK’s finest sf writers, and in this book he looks at what happens when aliens come bringing gifts of technology and new worlds.
Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology, Ann & Jeff VanderMeer (PM Press, February). The VanderMeers have proved themselves to be eminent anthologists through many projects, including significant volumes on Steampunk and the New Weird. This reprint anthology covers more than 40 years of feminist speculative fiction, and will make the case for its importance and excellence.
Harrison Squared, Daryl Gregory (Tor, March). Gregory’s first foray into the YA genre, after a string of truly excellent sf novels aimed at adults, most recently with 2014’s Afterparty. From the taste of the world offered by Gregory’s stand-along novella We Are All Completely Fine, I expect Harrison Squared to be packed full of weirdness and triumph to satisfy many different audiences.
The Glorious Angels, Justina Robson (Gollancz, March). Robson has written hard sf, and also sf that crosses over to fantasy, with elves and all. A new release from her is always cause for anticipation.
Persona, Genevieve Valentine (Saga, March). One of my favorite new writers, Valentine (who is also now writing the Catwoman comic books) plays on the weird edges of sf and fantasy. This one is described as a near-future political thriller, and I can’t wait to see what she does with it.
The Rebirths of Tao, Wesley Chu (Angry Robot, April). The first two books of this sf thriller series (The Lives of Tao and The Deaths of Tao) have been fun guilty pleasures. In this volume we’ll find out how things wind up for the alien Tao and his host, former geek-schlub Roen.
The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi (Orbit, May). After his remarkable debut, the adult sf post-ecological collapse novel The Windup Girl, Bacigalupi turned to YA with books like Ship Breaker and Zombie Baseball Beatdown. In Water Knife he returns to writing for adults, this time focusing on the environmental challenges facing the American Southwest.
The Book of Phoenix, Nnedi Okorafor (DAW, May). A prequel to her amazing science fiction novel Who Fears Death, Book of Phoenix promises to bring us more of the world and characters of her unique future vision, ranging from the North America to Africa and back.
Cold Iron, Stina Leicht (Saga, June). The author of a fascinating fantasy series set in Northern Ireland (the first of which was Of Blood and Honey), with Cold Iron Leicht kicks off a epic fantasy series that might be categorized as military fantasy–a sub-genre that I’ve been finding particularly interesting of late.
Company Town, Madeleine Ashby (Tor, Summer). Ashby made a splash with her debut duology consisting of vN and iD. I’m looking forward to what comes next.
The Dark Forest, Liu Cixin (Tor, July). The second volume in a trilogy being translated from Chinese. The first volume, Three Body Problem, is an excellent read for any hard science fiction fan.
The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit, August). Although so far best known as a fantasy author, in this volume, Jemisin kicks off a post-apocalyptic sf series focusing on a mother seeking to save her daughter.
Falling in Love with Hominids, Nalo Hopkinson (Tachyon, August). An amazing writer with Caribbean roots, Hopkinson’s novels have entranced audiences for years. This book collects her short fiction, which can be just as sharp and moving as her longer work. I especially love the fact that she touches on topics that are often absent from genre-fiction, such as post-menopausal women, miscarriages, etc.
Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho (Tor UK, Autumn). Cho’s debut short fiction collection, Spirits Abroad, was one of the highlights of 2014, focusing on fantasy rooted in Malaysian folklore. It will be interesting to see what this fantasy novel has to offer.
Updraft, Fran Wilde (Tor, September). From our own GeekMom Fran, a high-flying fantasy tale of towers of living bone and dark secrets, loaded with engineering, mystery, and monsters. Science-backed fantasy, fast-paced adventure, a multi-generational cast, and a deeply layered world.
Disclaimer: The only book of these that I’ve seen so far is Galaxy Game, for which I was a beta-reader. I know a number of authors on this list personally. All of the release dates come from Amazon and are subject to change.
Halloween is in two days, and winter is right around the corner. This is my favorite time of year to read thrillers and spooky books. There is something about the chill that seems to arrive with Halloween that makes me want to curl up under blankets and read something unnerving—or, as is more often the case in this busy day and age, crank up the heat in the car and listen to the audiobook version.
Here are some books that I have really enjoyed. Some are set against wintry backdrops, which always adds to the mood. Some are just creepy or evoke the cold. Some are middle grade, some YA, and some are adult. All were great fun to read.
Breadcrumbsby Anne Ursu. This is a middle-grade retelling of “The Snow Queen,” and it is unsettling in a perfect middle-grade way. Minnesota fifth grader Hazel is struggling with her parents’ divorce and with her own identity as someone adopted from another country. Jack and Hazel are inseparable best friends, until Jack gets a sliver of a dark magic mirror in his eye. Overnight, he abandons Hazel and disappears entirely with an evil woman on a white sleigh. Only Hazel sees them go, and no one in her town seems to notice or care. She cannot bear to lose him, too, so she sets off into the woods herself to rescue him. Fabulous, moody, and everything a winter book should be.
The Coldest Girl in Coldtownby Holly Black. Coldtown is the walled city where captured vampires are quarantined to protect the rest of the population. It’s also where anyone bitten should report to wait out an infection. If you can last long enough without biting someone, then you’ll recover from the infection; if not, you’ll be a vampire, too. But everyone knows that once you’re in Coldtown, you never leave. Tana wakes up from a wild party with her high school classmates to find everyone else dead except her newly infected ex-boyfriend (who is tied to a bed) and a mysterious boy who turns out to be a vampire—but not the one who killed all of her friends. Those vampires are still in the house trying to finish the job. Tana decides to rescue her ex and the innocent vampire and maybe, possibly gets bitten in the process. She can’t be sure, so she decides to take everyone straight to Coldtown. She can only hope she doesn’t become Cold, too. A great YA creeper by one of my favorite dark YA writers.
The Strain Trilogyby Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. I read The Strain one October and then waited anxiously for the next two installments the following fall and the fall after that. Del Toro’s gift for creepy films translates to novels, too. This is the creepiest vampire series I have ever read. It’s creepier than any vampire movie I’ve ever seen. I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the TV show yet, because I’m not sure the books can be topped. Now I kind of want to reread them. A plane lands at JFK, shuttles down the runway, and then just…stops. The lights go out, communication goes silent, and the dead plane sits there until the CDC is called in to investigate. Dr. Eph Goodweather witnesses the beginning of a vampire plague that takes over New York, and we follow him as he tries to protect his family and find a team to help him fight it. So. Much. Win.
Smilla’s Sense of Snowby Peter Hoeg. If you’ve seen the 1990s Julia Ormond movie, you know where this book is going. I’ve never been happy with Hoeg’s answer to the whodunit in his book, but I enjoyed so many other things about this Danish import. Smilla is half-Danish and half-Greenlander, and she is aloof, harsh, and happier studying the snow than interacting with people. I like when protagonists are tough to like, especially a woman. Her gift is what she can read from the snow, learned as a child in Greenland. The only person close to her is her six-year-old neighbor in Copenhagen, a Greenlander boy who sort of adopts her. When he falls to his death from the roof of their building, only Smilla can read the snow and see that it wasn’t an accident. So she starts her own investigation into what happens. The ending is preposterous, but Smilla’s narration, her feelings for the boy, the tragic history of her family and that of other Greenlanders still make it a great mystery. Who did it is less important than the story along the way.
The Name of the Starby Maureen Johnson. When Rory, a Louisiana teenager with an eccentric Southern family, starts boarding school in London, she is worried about making friends, fitting in, and handling crushes on classmates. But it turns out her school is smack in the heart of Jack the Ripper territory and not long after she arrives, someone starts copycatting the Ripper murders. Rory talks to a strange man outside her dorm and when another body is found, she becomes a witness in the investigation. London is a character here, which is what helps make this so great when the temperature drops. Plus, Jack the Ripper. A great teen read that’s hilarious (all of Johnson’s books are just laugh-till-it-hurts good) and super, super creepy.
Snow Angelsby James Thompson. During the annual two weeks of solid darkness in Lapland (right around Christmas), a Somali actress is murdered and left mangled in the snow on a reindeer farm. Inspector Vaara takes the case. He lives and works in his hometown, which is also home to a huge upscale winter resort run by his pregnant American wife. She hasn’t been in Finland long and is totally unnerved by the constant dark. The creepiness of the murder mystery is wonderfully offset by the additional creepiness of the weather, which affects the detective and his foreign wife. Also, when I think of Lapland and reindeer right before Christmas, I can only think of Santa. This book is so not about Santa.
Peepsby Scott Westerfeld. This is one of the first books from the awesome YA author of the Leviathan series, and it is spooky and hilarious. It’s another vampire tale and while it may be for teens, it is definitely not Twilight. That is the highest YA vampire novel compliment I can give. In Westerfeld’s world, vampirism is an STD. Some are carriers, who unwittingly pass the disease onto others who become bloodthirsty monsters called Peeps. That’s what happens to our hero Cal, who was a normal college kid until he became a carrier and then infected his next three girlfriends. Now Cal is a vampire hunter in New York City who has to find and stop his ex-girlfriends before they make more vampires. If you’re going to write about vampires, you might as well also make it an allegory for safe teen sex. New York is a great vampire backdrop (just look at The Strain), but Westerfeld makes his teen vampire novel absolutely hilarious and gross in a kind of perfect New York way. I read this book when I was in grad school and living in Hoboken. It stuck with me because one of the first scenes has Cal doing some vampire hunting in the old Hoboken train station. I passed that train station every day, along with several other New York sites thrown in the story. It’s kind of a delicious book.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattooby Stieg Larsson. This one is an obvious addition with its Swedish setting. The whole trilogy is creepy and great, but the first one is a standout winter read. Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist is offered a chance to rebuild his reputation and finances by spending a year on a private island owned by an eccentric Swedish billionaire. His job is to comb the grounds and all of the family records to solve the disappearance and murder of the billionaire’s beloved niece. Blomkvist enlists hacker Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo, to help him find the truth, and the truth is just awful. It’s a great start to a trilogy that embraces Sweden’s good side (an endless chapter in the second book describes Salander’s IKEA purchases in excruciatingly awesome detail) and its bad (a terrible track record when it comes to crime against women).
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobeby C.S. Lewis. This children’s novel isn’t usually thought of in the chilling category, especially after the lush Disney adaptations of the books. But a magic wardrobe that leads to a not-quite-right winter landscape run with an iron fist by a white witch? And the whole good versus evil sibling dynamic of the Pevensies? It’s an elementary school spook fest.
Daughter of Smoke & Boneby Laini Taylor. Karou is a 17-year-old who lives in Prague, goes to art school, and has bright blue hair that grows that way. She speaks otherworldly languages and runs errands for a strange shopkeeper who looks after her and collects teeth. Teeth. She doesn’t remember a life before this one until she meets a real, live angel and is thrown into a supernatural war. This is such a gorgeous, strange, gothic YA novel; the first in a series. Prague is a perfectly romantic and sinister setting, and the world Taylor has created is so realized and so incredible.
What are your favorite cold weather bone chillers?
I’ve been reading fantasy novels since I was a kid. Most of them had a new take on a similar world based on European folk tales, a la Tolkien. I have no problem with it and still enjoy reading stories like that. But when someone writes a fantasy novel in a new setting, with practically nothing I find familiar, I’m fascinated. That’s what happened when I read Drift.
Drift, a new Tu Books YA novel by M.K. Hutchins, has some references to ancient cultures the world over, specifically the Maya, but those are only inspiration. It’s a unique world that you have to paint in your mind, instead of just filling in new characters on old fantasy landscapes.
The main character, Tenjat, lives on an island on the back of a giant turtle that swims the oceans of Hell, while it feeds, keeping the soil good for farming, and a giant tree alive. But nagas (nasty mer-creatures) gnaw at the roots of the tree below water and want to kill the people on the island. The Handlers and Tenders are the high-ranking groups that defend the tree and turtle. The farmers and artisans are low-ranking, with those who have many children being the despicable members of society.
But that’s just what you learn in the beginning. It’s more than that (but I won’t spoil it for you). And the true story is not the world, but the young people we follow: Determined Tenjat, wise Eflet, fierce Avi, mischievous Daef, and more.
Tenjat and his sister Eflet are trying to live independently on this turtle island. They fled their own turtle when a family secret put them all in danger. Their father and younger brother were left behind; their mother sacrificed herself on the way. They lied to be taken in by this new community, and are struggling. Tenjat believes the only way to help himself and his sister survive is to become a Handler, but that requires a test. This test is shrouded in secrecy, but those that fail come back with scars, both physical and emotional. Eflet, who knows more than anyone should, tries to convince Tenjat there is another way, but Tenjat can’t see beyond what he has been taught of what life is about…yet.
This is a story of breaking out of the set ways of a culture, of (literally) realizing your world is upside down. But it’s also a story of the importance of family and friendships. There are battles, magic, and love. I recommend Drift for ages 12 and up.
GeekMom recently asked Sheila questions about growing up in science fiction and fantasy, the ins and outs of the editorial process, and the amazing Dell Magazine Award. Sheila’s daughters joined in, too, contributing their own perspectives and favorite reads. Check it out:
Geek Mom:You came on staff at Asimov’s in the 1980s, and became editor of Asimov’s in 2004. What shifts have been particularly apparent in science fiction over the past three decades?
Sheila Williams: I had the good fortune to work with Shawna McCarthy and Gardner Dozois—two editors who published groundbreaking fiction. They looked for quality writing along with thoughtful extrapolation. The stories I get have continued this tradition. The backgrounds of some of the writers are more diverse now, though, so I am seeing material that explores the future from refreshingly varied perspectives.
GM:Would you talk a bit about your editorial approach to Asimov’s Magazine?
SW: I read for enjoyment. I buy stories that I like to read. Sometimes a story works for me immediately. More often, I have to put it on the back burner for a while. Days later, if I’m still thinking about a story, still amused, haunted, or moved in other ways, I’m probably going to take it. There are my line edits, of course, but some stories need to be revised by the author. Some tales are perfect the first time around. Writers are almost always extremely easy to work with. I can’t promise to buy the revised story, but I usually do, because I only ask for revisions when I’m very serious about a story.
Every issue has to strike a balance. I try not to have more than one time travel or alternate history story in an issue. Try to go easy on parallel universes (though authors are overly fond of this theme). Most stories will qualify as some sort of science fiction, but I might put one fantasy and/or one hard to quantify tale in each issue. Many stories will be serious, but I always shoot for some levity somewhere. Not all stories can be far future, or about teenagers, or Mars, or whatever. Also, there has to be a mix of story lengths.
GM: What challenges and opportunities do you see for women interested in writing for and editing anthologies and magazines with a science fiction focus?
SW: From the editing side, it was never easy for anyone to break into publishing, but it’s certainly gotten harder to find a full-time salaried position with benefits. On the other hand, with Webzines and Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sources, there are a lot more opportunities to engage in the field as a serious sideline editing ones own magazine or anthology. As for writing, I don’t think it’s any more challenging for women to break into SF magazines than it is for men. Breaking in is hard in general. There are a lot more people writing SF then there are story slots, but if the story is good, editors will jump on it. Keep in mind that less than 30 percent of story submissions to Asimov’s are by women. The gender breakdown among the published stories in the magazine is usually about 30 to 33 percent, so women are definitely holding their own. Still, as I say elsewhere, I’d love to see more women reading, writing, and submitting SF.
GM: Tell us about the Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing.
SW: Rick Wilber and I founded the award in 1993. The award is co-sponsored by the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts and Dell Magazines. The winner gets an expense paid trip to Florida for the award ceremony at the Conference on the Fantastic. They also get to read their story, usually with two established authors. The winner receives $500 and the story is featured on Asimov’s website. Every finalist gets a private consultation with me. The authors go out of their way to spend time talking with the students and the students usually become fast friends. They form writers groups and generally support each other. We see this as a way of encouraging young writers. Many published authors have been award winners or finalists. I love spending my time with these young writers. They are all smart and interesting. Their interests and career trajectories are wide ranging.
It’s great to have this chance to meet and encourage young authors. During our consultation, I ask a lot of personal questions because I need information for my award presentation (an edited version of which will also become a magazine editorial). This has given me a chance to develop a rapport with dozens of aspiring authors. It’s been highly rewarding work.
GM: Your two daughters are both big readers. What kinds of stories do you wish for them in the future?
SW: When I was in sixth grade, my school reader was crammed full of short stories. All but one story featured a young male protagonist. Although she was a gifted pianist, the plot of the one story with a female protagonist was about how she pined with unrequited love for a boy. I was frustrated and asked my parents to find me books about girls who did things and solved their own problems. On a trip to Bermuda, my parents found a British anthology called Adventure Stories for Girls. I must have read that anthology a dozen times. Like most younger readers, my girls have no problem finding lots of terrific fantasy novels. They both love Gail Carson Levine, Diana Wynne Jones (they chose our dog’s name, “Waif,” from one of her books), J.K. Rowling, and many others. My older daughter is 20 and she’s also discovered some SF writers—Connie Willis, Paolo Bacigalupi, Scott Westerfeld, to name a few—but it was harder to find good modern SF for the YA crowd when she was a preteen. I was delighted to see how much Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series took off. I like to see my girls reading stories about strong young women who can handle adversity, opt for challenging careers that include the sciences and high tech options, have adventures, and draw on their inner reserves to resolve issues. Other types of stories are fine, too. Life is not all happy endings and a way out doesn’t always exist, but I want them to have the sense that all avenues are open. I’m frustrated by the gender imbalance among science fiction readers.
Girls need to know from an early age that science and technology are cool. Much of our future will be shaped by advances in both, and they should be encouraged to be fifty percent of these industries. Good science fiction with strong and exciting female protagonists can give teens a framework for their dreams and aspirations.
GM: Question for either Juliet or Irene [Sheila’s daughters], or both: What are your favorite books and authors right now?
J: Tuesdays in the Castle and Wednesdays in the Tower by Jessica Day George, the Gregor series by Susan Collins, the Harry Potter books by JK Rowling, and Fairy Lies and Fairy Wings by E.D. Baker.
I: My favorite books are Howl’s Moving Castle, Pump Six, On the Road, Sorcery and Cecilia, and Fire and Hemlock. Diana Wynne Jones is probably my favorite author but I also love Margo Lanagan, Kij Johnson, and Megan Arkenberg.
GM:Question for all three of you: What is it like going to conventions together now that Juliet is old enough to attend panels? I know she sat on a panel at the Austin Worldcon, ‘Should the next Doctor Who be a woman?’ What are your favorite conventions?
I’ve always taken my kids with me when I go to Worldcon, but since I’m working, they usually spent most of their time being tourists with their dad. As they’ve gotten older and developed their own interests in science fiction and fantasy, I’ve been able to incorporate them into my schedule at conventions. Irene is old enough to take in the convention on her own, and Juliet is on the brink. Last year, Irene and a friend attended ICFA with me because of their interest in Neil Gaiman. Juliet delighted in everything Doctor Who at the 2013 World Con. I’m going to bring her with me to Luna Con in March, without her father as back up. I’m curious to see how this works out but not too worried. I brought Irene to a Philcon when she was only a couple of years older than her sister is now. At Philcon, Irene had no problem making friends and doing crafts, etc. I’m pretty sure Juliet will have a similar experience.
I: My favorite convention is Worldcon because there are so many different things to see and people to meet. The one in Glasgow was really cool.
J: It was fun when I got to answer questions and be the center of attention. And being able to bring up points like Kim and Ron from Kim Possible [being] a lot like Amy and Rory from Dr. Who. My favorite convention was the convention in Montréal.
GW: For all of you – Geek or Nerd?
SW: To paraphrase the bard, my interests are vast. I can contain both.
GM: A question for Irene and Juliet: Your mom is amazing. Her editing advice has improved so many stories. What’s the best piece of advice she’s given you? What’s the best piece of advice you’ve given her?
J: Don’t follow strangers in to a car if they offer you candy. Stop talking!
I: Oh that’s hard. I think the best piece of advice she ever gave me was not to date two guys at the same time. She also tells me to not overthink things, which can be very useful. I don’t know if I’ve ever given her good advice.
GM: If you could ask your mom one question about her work, what would it be?
I: Why do you love your job so much?
SW: I’ve loved science fiction and science fiction short stories all my life. When I was a teenager, I dreamed of someday working on a science fiction magazine. At that time I imagined myself filing and running errands. It never occurred to my 14-year-old self that I could actually be the editor. To say that my job is a dream come true is to make an understatement. I love reading the stories, working with authors, and doing the physical work of pulling each issue together.
Do I really want to be a large, bearded Scottish warrior with a quirk called, “Piss and Vinegar”? At the moment, that’s my role-playingcharacter in a GURPS game. His name is Guy McNorm and his only goal is to live quietly as a blacksmith in a small town. Unfortunately, he’s a Weirdness Magnet, so that’s not possible. Which is why he’s really grumpy all the time. Yet when the crazy starts to happen, he’s the first one in the mess of things swingin’ his blacksmith hammer. Fun character to play. Totally unlike me…well…huh, come to think of it:
I fantasize about having quiet days, but they rarely happen. Honestly, when I have too many days in a row without kid interruptions or mad dashing around, I’m itchin’ for something. And when chaos strikes in my family or friends, I’m right in there.
Darn. Going into this post, I was going to say how I was the opposite of my character, how our fantasy life is a way to escape. And that’s true too.
I’m not physically strong—Guy is. I’m the least intimidating person I know in real life—Guy is a six foot four, large man with long white hair and a kilt; he has lots of points in “Intimidation.” So, perhaps there is some fantasy happening. Unlike in my real life, Guy punches people in the face when they annoy him. He doesn’t care if you’re crying or hurt; he’ll just tell you to keep moving. He doesn’t cuddle. He’s not romantic. Guy eats whatever he wants, whenever he wants. And very unlike me, Guy curses a lot.
However, Guy also writes bad limericks. We share that in common.
There is a survey that can tell you what you would be if you were a Dungeons and Dragons character. But that’s “what kind of dream will I have according to who I am?”, instead of “what do my dreams say about me?” If you are interested in taking it, or seeing results of over a thousand other people taking it, go here.
Each game system is different in character creation, whether it’s online or tabletop. GURPS has a wide range for types of characters, which makes it very revealing about what you choose. Some people take on similar guises from game to game, while others (like me) never have the same type twice. My theory is that my character creation is less about overall personality, and more about what’s happening in current situation.
What about your characters? Do you agree?
Let’s look at my characters over the years and what was going on at the time:
Kira: A beautiful, red-haired female mage, very nice and shy. I didn’t create this character. She was an NPC I took over as my first introduction into RPG gaming with friends in college. That sums up my life at the time since I didn’t feel much control of any part of it either. Yet I managed to be happy with what I had anyway.
Essie: A small, quiet female exotic dancer, deadly with knives, with a horrific past that gave her a death wish, and wore only black. This was my first original creation. My life at the time was homeschooling two small children in a parenting world where everyone was ten years older than me, while going back to college with students ten years younger. I didn’t fit in anywhere and was kinda angsty about it. That’s reflected in my character. Not sure about the exotic dancer part…
Lindor: A pre-gendered teen with awesome magical powers, dewy-eyed and ready to explore the world. I had graduated college and was amazed at how much time I suddenly had. I was also teaching music to a great group of kids. So, I guess my character reflects my happiness? The pre-gendered thing was an odd, but interesting concept I made up with dangerous herbs Lindor’s people took to delay any knowledge of gender until firmly established as an adult. Maybe having two kids on the verge of puberty made me realize how much our culture pounds in gender-specific stuff?
Percy: A squeamish male vampire dandy who had sex with pretty much anything that moved. This is less about my life at the time, and more about acting as one of the callous jerks I have met too often in reality. He is probably one of my favorite characters ever, and you can read more about him here: How To Get Laid in Every RPG Session.
Takamina: Tak! Tak! She’s a pyromaniac! A short, young woman with two long braids, who made exploding potions that she wore in a bandolier. She was cute and dangerous. In the midst of playing this character there was a lot of stress financially and career-wise with my husband, and then my social network collapsed. Or exploded. Exploded is probably a better word since I felt like my life was daily picking up pieces.
Guy McNorm: See description from beginning.
So what’s next for me? In two years I will have both kids away from home, and I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up. I’m curious how that will manifest in a fantasy world. Maybe someone with wings…
Last summer, I took my daughter and her friend to a college information fair. Afterwards, we sat at a coffee shop and perused the catalogs. One college in Vermont stood out for its “green” way of life on campus. We started making up things about the college that weren’t in the catalog, giggling about how they didn’t have freshman dorms, no way, they must have yurts.
This college went in my daughter’s “keep” pile because we are quite the granola-crunchy family. Poking fun at it is really poking fun at ourselves. But the yurt thing. That was funny. I started getting more ideas for an imaginary college that was extremely environmentalist, ridiculously spiritual, and with a touch of fantasy.
I decided to call it EverGreenSpirit College. It naturally formed the acronym EGS, which became the mascot and motto: A college to develop, grow, and hatch into the beatific being that you are! I opened a twitter account for it, posting as an employee sending out campus-wide messages like:
“New course! The Zen of Boxes 346. Prerequisites: Zen of Longhorn Beetles and Zen of Ben (or equivalent.)”
“As per student request all vending machines have been replaced with mini-greenhouse Foraging Nooks.”
“Attention Off-campus students: The Hover Bus is changing its schedule (again.) Also, the massage therapist on board is weekdays only.”
Why put effort into something that, I’ll admit, only a handful of my friends ever read? I needed something easy, positive, and distracting.
I was diagnosed with Lyme disease in September after over a year of random symptoms taking over my life. This fall was especially challenging physically, and I stopped doing many creative things, including writing or performing live music.
EverGreenSpirit College was the first thing I did on the computer every morning. It was fast, silly, and had no plot or plan, just world building. It kept my creative energy churning without any expectations or exhaustion. Twitter was perfect to keep me succinct. The campus came to life, yurt by bio-dome, each day.
This is not the first time I’ve used imaginary worlds to keep me going. Sometimes it’s fandom that keeps me happy. But I’ve created my own universe before. Many years ago, I was homeschooling two young children, teaching, finishing my college degree, and feeling lots of stress. In response, I created an alternate surrealist college called Freaky University, and kept a livejournal series called Journal Of An FU Freshman. It was really, really weird. But composing those entries took my mind on a vacation and made me giggle. I eventually gathered it into a little book, giving it to some friends and family for Christmas one year.
EverGreenSpirit may have run its course. All setting and no plot can only go so far. That’s ok. It served its purpose: every day it jump-started my imagination. Plus, I always amused my kids over breakfast:
ME: So, Maxine the Shepherdess is telling people to get off the EGS main quad so her sheep can graze today.
KIDS: (amused expressions)
Everyone deals with stress differently.
Do you escape into movies? Books? Or worlds of your own making?
If you live in the United States or Canada, you could win one of five copies of the YA fantasy Dark Talisman by Steven M. Booth.
Published by Azimuth Books, Dark Talisman tells the story of the strong and determined Dark Elf, Altira. She is fierce. She is not always likable, which adds to her depth of character. She is feisty.
Dark Talisman is a very good introduction to fantasy for the younger reader. It isn’t weighed down with some of the qualities that can turn people off from what is described as “epic fantasy,” yet it contains all of the fantastical creatures and elements that draw people to this genre.
The official synopsis reads:
Meet the Dark Elf, Altira. She set out to rob a sultan, and ended up stealing the deadliest gem in the world. This mistake could cost Altira her life or save her race, and possibly the world as she knows it. As Altira struggles to triumph over the vast forces arrayed against her, she acquires (mostly against her will) a rich cast of unexpected allies perceptive dwarves, giant Phoenix birds with mysterious powers, and ephemeral creatures made from nothing but air. Together they must find a way to defeat the army of assassins set against her, overcome the wrath of three nations, and forge allegiances with despised enemies, to reveal the truth to a people kept in darkness for millennia.
When Dark Talisman was first published, it was only available in hardcover format. Now, Steven M. Booth is excited to announce that you can purchase Dark Talisman in eBook format from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
If you live in Canada or the United States, to enter our giveaway just login to the Rafflecopter widget below with your Facebook account or email address (use a valid email so we can let you know if you win).
You can then like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for up to two entries! If you already like/follow us it will still enter you in the giveaway. A winner will be chosen at random at the end of the contest and their name will be posted right in the Rafflecopter widget so you can check back to see who won.
The giveaway ends on January 2, 2014 at 23:59 EST.
I fondly remember being with my nephew, sitting around a campfire under the stars on a Russian plain with colorful people singing songs, sipping dark tea…
…in our imaginations, of course. We were actually sitting in a comfortable booth at a local tea shop inhaling the deep intoxication of Russian Caravan tea.
My nephew is an adult, and one of my favorite people to hang out with. We both find it all too easy to let reality become a backdrop to more exciting pursuits that exist in our minds. Together, we can get carried away. One day, the smell of smokey tea took us to another dimension.
It all started innocently enough: my kids had an event far from home, and I decided I would hang out in the little town of Ballston Spa while waiting. I asked my nephew if he was free to keep me company for the afternoon. He was, we dropped the kids off, and parked the car near a little stream.
There was a splash and we jumped. Something swam in the water, but we couldn’t make it out.
We yelled and ran away into the parking lot of an old, crumbling, brick factory. Exploring the outside with rusted doors, strange windows, and odd metal lying about made my nephew think of post-apocalyptic video games. The more he described what could be lurking, the more jittery we became. A siren wailed and we freaked and bolting across the street into a small bowling alley.
Unfortunately, he said there is always a bowling alley in zombie games. We didn’t last long with suspicious looks from the locals. Back on the sidewalk, my nephew and I continued our search for a safe haven from impending doom, and found The Whistling Kettle. Cute, warm shops apparently don’t fit into shooting games, so our imaginations took a pleasant turn into the world of tea.
It was a busy place and we wouldn’t be seated for a bit. They had a sniffing bar with dozens of little jars to smell their vast selection. We opened them, inhaled, had strong opinions, comparing and exclaiming over the variety. And then I found Russian Caravan. It hit my nose like a movie trailer, encompassing my attention.
“Peter, check this one out…it’s…it’s like a…”
“Whoa. I’m suddenly around a campfire!”
We grinned and couldn’t stop taking strong whiffs, happy drug addicts. Finally seated, we ordered a pot of the stuff. Strong! Smokey! In the words of my dad, “It’ll put hair on your chest!” Every sip added to our excitement and the shop faded into a Russian night sky, campfire smoke around us and our fellow travelers.
When was the last time you spent time changing the real world into something from your imagination? Were you six? I highly recommend you try it again. It’s better than a book, movie, or video game, especially when shared with someone equally willing to go along for the ride.
Grab a friend, spouse, kids, and take a whiff of something new, floating into your own collective fantasy escape.
In September 2013, author and podcaster Mur Lafferty was named the John W. Campbell Best New Writer at the Hugo Awards (the science fiction and fantasy community’s version of the Oscars). The Campbell Award for Best New Writer is given annually to one author who has published his or her first professional work within the past two years. The Campbell comes with its own tiara and a list of previous winners that reads like a who’s who of modern science fiction, including C.J. Cherryh, Ted Chiang, Nalo Hopkinson, Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi, and Elizabeth Bear.
Mur Lafferty has been a presence in the geek community for so long, I can’t imagine it without her. So when she and her daughter (AKA Princess Scientist) agreed to talk to me for GeekMom, I was thrilled. I spoke with them about her new novel, The Shambling Guide to New York City(Orbit 2013), the award, advice she shares with Princess Scientist, and whether she’s pro faster-than-light (FTL) or not.
GeekMom: Congratulations on winning the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer of 2012 at this year’s Worldcon! Aside from getting (accidentally) smacked in the face by John Scalzi just after the event, how has your life changed?
Mur: Thanks! Little has changed. I’ve done a few interviews and was on our local NPR show this week, which is exciting. I have, as Mary Robinette Kowal says, a “new first name” and a tiara that so far I’ve only worn while writing by myself. Although I do want to vacuum with it on. Just because. The deep scar from Scalzi hitting me in the face with his Hugo is slowly fading, but the bitter memory remains.
GeekMom: You’ve created an amazing podcast called “I Should Be Writing.” What was the goal behind the project?
Mur: I felt that even though I was nowhere near a pro writer, as I hadn’t even sold anything, I did understand various things in writing, such as how rejections don’t mean you’re hopeless, and how you have to work to get better. I knew a lot of beginning writers who seemed to feel so alone when they felt lost and adrift and have the illusion that everyone’s career was moving faster and along a greased road made of gold and happiness. So I started it to let people know that they’re not alone, that these feelings are normal, that rejection is normal, and writing bad stories, also normal.
GeekMom: Geek or Nerd?
GeekMom: FTL yes/no?
Mur: Totally FTL. I just don’t understand people who get mad about this. Without FTL, our space SF is limited to either generation starships or journeys within our solar system. Those stories are great, don’t get me wrong, but they’re not all that you should be able to experience. If you want to call me heretic and say FTL stories are fantasy, not SF, then I’ll say cool, they’re fantasy, now shut up and let me write my fantasy FTL story.
Mur: Interesting question. I had to think of an easy way to get a light tight building in the city, and a condemned theater seemed the best way. From there I had to populate it, and I didn’t want too many zombies and vampires, so I started reading folklore and mythology and figuring out what other monsters I could put in there. So we have a death goddess/psychopomp, a water sprite, zombies, vampires, and a succubus and an incubus.
GeekMom: A question for Princess Scientist (Mur’s daughter): A bunch of us think your mom is darn cool. What’s the best piece of advice she’s given you? What’s the best piece of advice you’ve given her?
Princess Scientist: Best advice she’s given me: How to gently tell a boy that I don’t like him. (That’s LIKE like.)
Best advice I’ve given her: [When Mom gets jealous of another writer] You should be happy for him/her because think of how bad you’d feel if someone came up, pissed off that you’re doing well. You’re probably going to get up there [succeed] anyway.
GeekMom: Another question for Princess Scientist: If you could ask your mom one question about her work, what would it be?
Princess Scientist: How do you get ideas?
Mur: I get ideas all the time, the problem is trying to decide which ones are worth going after and which ones are not worth my time. The more you create, the more ideas you get.
GeekMom: Which authors have influenced you the most?
Mur: Growing up: Robin McKinley, Anne McCaffrey, and Ursula K. LeGuin. Now, Neil Gaiman, China Mieville, and Connie Willis. And of course Dougas Adams, taken far too young, is an inspiration.
GeekMom: What’s on your To Be Read shelf?
My TBR list is a source of great anxiety for me, especially as I know more authors whose books I haven’t read yet, but they’re there. Books I’m not ashamed to mention: I’m currently in the middle of the Kitty series by Carrie Vaughn, and I’m reading Railsea by China Mieville to my daughter. I am looking forward to Dr. Sleep by Stephen King, and I just got Elizabeth Bear’s new book, Book of Iron.
John W. Campbell Award Winner Mur Lafferty is an author and podcaster from Durham, NC. Her next book, Ghost Train to New Orleans, comes out March 4, 2014.
They can be recommended for every geek girl (and boys, and grown-ups, since I’m a grown-up, now that I think about it) for at least six reasons:
They’re good fantasy stories, if not exceptionally original. These are mostly coming of age stories, but they include swordplay, magic, nomadic tribes, fabled artifacts, wolves, evil wizards, wars, dragons and other supernatural creatures (with an interesting take on griffins), gods, political intrigues, and all the traditional ingredients of the genre.
The main characters of the four series are all very different from each other. Even if Protector of the Small may seem a similar concept to Song of a Lioness (a young girl wants to train for knighthood), Kel is not Alanna at all. The other series have a mage and a spy for heroines.
The main characters aren’t the sole strong female characters in the books. That’s a very important point. Too often is the heroine an exception among a world of stupid, giggly girls. That’s not the case with Tamora Pierce’s books. The four heroines are surrounded by a cast including other strong, interesting women, who are not necessarily (and actually very rarely) their antagonists.
Male characters are interesting and important, too. That’s not original, for sure, but deserves to be said.
Another very important element: The books offer a very sane take on romance and sexuality, in that the heroine doesn’t have to pick her “one and true love” as a teen and marry him (even when it’s a handsome prince). Because, you know what, mostly we don’t. People change a lot between the teen years and adulthood, so it’s okay that their love interests change, too. Some of the heroines have sex before marriage and that’s not an issue. Tamora Pierce even imagined a magical birth control with anti-pregnancy charms, that’s affordable, too. And one of the heroines doesn’t even end the series involved in a relationship at all. Romance is part of the books, as it is a part of life, but not the main issue. How refreshing!
I’ve mentioned gender issues, but the books also deal with other educational ethical matters. The Protector of the Small quartet, as its title suggests, gives priority to the traditional but often overlooked role of knights. What is it to protect the small, the humble, the powerless? Is it really important for most knights, when it doesn’t bring glory and often costs a lot? Killing is present, of course, since the setting is a medieval one and some of the main characters are warriors (or spies, who also have to kill, sometimes in an even nastier fashion) but Tamora Pierce doesn’t deal lightly with it. Killing isn’t easy, isn’t pleasant, and often has a cost for the killer.
I hope I’ve convinced you. I enjoyed the books a lot as recreational summer reading, but I’m sure teens and pre-teens will find a lot more in them. Things they need, things we all need, to be reasserted again and again, especially about what it is to come of age as a girl. A geek girl.
Japanese steampunk. Yeah, I said Japanese steampunk. Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff is a dystopian feudal Japan setting with Iron Samurai wielding chainsaw katanas. Chainsaw katanas.
The world of Shima was once bound with nature and the spirits, but the destructive spiral of industrialization , war and corruption, has polluted the land to the brink of unsustainable collapse. The Lotus Guild, the ruthless clockwork makers, are in a tense tug of power with the sadistic Shogun.
After the first couple of chapters I had to share how cool the setting was with my fourteen year old son. His eyes grew wide at the seamless blending of traditional Japan with gears and piston engines.
“Was Japan like that at all?” He asked. And then I launched into how Japan was forced into the industrial world via Commodore Perry. This led to me waxing poetically about the movie The Last Samurai, going on and on until we talked about what it would be like if aliens invaded and we had to adapt to such foreign technology, etc, etc. Until I realized my son was using this conversation as an excuse to stop doing his homework. Back to work! And I got back to my book…
Stormdancer is like a great kung-fu movie, where violence really can solve most of your problems. The heroine Yukiko is compassionate: she saves puppies and gives her last coins to a beggar woman. But Yukiko is also brave and will never stop fighting; even as she slips into unconsciousness, she is groping for her knife. Yukiko can slice your up, and if she somehow can’t, then her freakin’ THUNDER TIGER will!
That’s the best part of this book, the growing relationship between Buruu, a mythological thunder tiger, and Yukiko. It is done at a beautiful pace. The stormdancer fight scene (not going to explain that further so as not to ruin it for you) is the highlight of the book. I actually put the book down to imagine it again in slow motion. So cool.
The plot is revenge on the small scale, and complete governmental destruction on the larger plan of the series. The body count is incredibly high in this book, and so many characters die, I was getting concerned of who would be around for the rest of the series. The bad guys are really, really evil. They are so evil that you know there is only one option: cold, very bloody, horrible death.
This is not a book about nuance. Like I said, it is a well-done kung-fu movie, but with a female heroine, and a detailed new fantasy setting. That said, there is one side character that seemed less legendary, more real: Kin. He is a guildsman, one of the makers of the industry, but he is struggling to break free of his metal skin. Will he be able to? Not sure, but I’m curious about his journey.
This book is upper YA for violence. My son wanted me to just tell him the basic story instead of reading the bloody details himself. I picked up the book at my local book store because I completely judge a book by its cover and the artwork is truly cool. Exciting read!
She’s got a new book out, a collection of short stories called At the Mouth of the River of Bees, and I’d recommend you go buy it even if she weren’t a friend of mine. But since is a friend, I recommend you go buy two copies. Just a note of caution. This is fiction intended for adults. There’s adult language and adult situations. Three words: alien tentacle sex. You read that right. And it’s a story you’ll want to read, or as she put it, “Want is such a subjective term — and by want you mean find yourself unable not to.” She’s not wrong there. Continue reading Making the Unreal Real: An Interview With Kij Johnson