Women to Read: Where to Start: November 2017

Welcome to November’s Women to Read. I got a little enthusiastic this month, so I have five recommendations this time around. However, November is the perfect time to hunker down under a pile of blankets with a hot beverage and a good read, so here we go!

Bear and NightingaleMy recommended starting place for Katherine Arden‘s work happens to be her debut novel, The Bear and the Nightingale, which weaves together myth and history in medieval Rus’. Pyotr Vladimirovich’s wife Marina dies giving birth to their daughter Vasilisa. As Vasya grows, raised by Pyotr, the nurse Dunya, and her older brothers and sister, she proves to be a strange child. She runs wild, talks to household spirits no one else can see, shows an affinity for horses, and many believe she is a witch. Even so, her family and her nurse love her fiercely, and she loves them. As time passes as Vasya grows, Pytor reluctantly decides it’s time to take a new wife. Like Vasilisa, Anna sees spirits everywhere, however unlike Vasya, she believes they are demons and thus hates her new home, and comes to hate Vasya as well, believing her to be in league with the demons. It’s a familiar trope, the wicked stepmother, but in Arden’s hands, the story is so much more. The novel spans from Vasilisa’s birth until she is a young woman, her path continually crossing with the pre-Christian world of old gods and magic. The story is beautifully told, full of fragments of familiar fairy tales and legends told anew. The characters are fully drawn – from Vasya’s fierce love for her family and desire to be independent, to Anna’s faith-based torment and fearfulness – the core of who they are moves the plot and makes even the “villains” sympathetic. Against a backdrop of magic and the harshness of Rus’ in winter, Arden delivers a story that feels epic, providing real growth for each character. The relationships are where the novel shines the brightest, and the magic and fairy tale elements surround like a delicate setting holding a beautiful jewel. The Bear and the Nightingale is a gorgeous book,  a wonderful starting place for Arden’s work, and I look forward to the sequel, The Girl in the Tower, coming out at the end of the year.

Looming LowBetty Rocksteady is an author and an illustrator. My recommended starting place for her work is Dusk Urchin from the recently-released anthology Looming Low. Ashley is alone in her house when someone knocks at her door. She answers, despite her better instincts, and discovers her elderly neighbor, Mr. Peterson, accompanied by a child she’s never seen before. She assumes the child must be his granddaughter, but there’s something off about the whole situation. Her neighbor seems disoriented, and the girl is utterly silent. The neighbor asks for help. He claims the girl is his daughter, and at the same time he claims he doesn’t know her. He tells Ashley he killed the girl and buried her in his yard, yet she’s right there at his side. When she can’t get a straight answer, and doesn’t know how to help, Ashley guiltily sends her neighbor away. Then the silent girl shows up at Ashley’s door, calling her mommy.

Did she have a daughter? She must have a daughter. Her daughter was talking to her. Her daughter couldn’t be talking to her if she didn’t have a daughter. The knob of the closet was cold. She shouldn’t open it. She had to open it.

Rocksteady starts with a vague sense of unease and something wrong, and builds the tension to leave the reader with a sense of dread. There’s something truly terrifying about the idea of supernatural enemy that will not stop and cannot be reasoned with. There is no safe place, nowhere to hide; the little girl reaches Ashley even inside her own mind. The brevity of the story allows the reader to bring their own interpretation to the situation, delivering a perfect, bite-sized bit of horror that gets under your skin, making it an effective place to start with Rocksteady’s work.

Prey of the GodsNicky Drayden is a prolific short fiction author, but my recommending starting place is her debut novel, The Prey of Gods. The story is set in and around Port Elizabeth in the near(ish) future where animals such as rhinos and elephants are extinct, but genetically engineered replacement and hybrid creatures are common, and nearly everyone has a personal bot called an alphie. Through the alternating viewpoints of a teen named Muzikayise (aka Muzi), a councilman named Stoker, a pop singer named Riya Natrajan, a demi-goddess named Sydney, a young girl named Nomvula, and Clever 4.1, a bot in the process of gaining sentience, Drayden weaves a story about emergence, personal growth, and evolution. A designer drug is unleashed onto the market that not only causes hallucinations, but taps into the latent divinity of human beings. Meanwhile, Nomvula – a young girl whose mother was raped by a powerful demi-god – is accused by her mother of witchcraft when she befriends the demi-god and tries to learn about her own powers from him. As Nomvula tries to protect herself from the angry mob her mother calls down on her, she accidentally taps into her power and obliterates her village, drawing the attention of another powerful and ancient being. Sydney, a harpy-like creature, whisks Nomvula away, determined to use her for her own ends. Muzi is about to undergo the circumcision ritual that will make him a man. On the day of the ceremony, his best friend, Elkin introduces him to the new drug called godsend, which gives Muzi the power to control minds at the expense of reliving his targets’ worst memories. Councilman Stoker’s mother is determined to see him run for Premier, meanwhile Stoker’s heart is with his secret life as Felicity Lyons, a singer/dancer preparing to audition to be the opening act for superstar Riya Natrajan. The characters’ stories inevitably collide and intertwine as the world itself teeters on the cusp of change. Humans are experiencing emergent godhood, while bots are gaining sentience. The theme of evolution and growth plays out on a smaller scale as well, as Stoker becomes Felicity, Muzi and Nomvula struggle with their powers, and Riya tries become a kinder human being. Drayden offers up complicated characters, each on their own journey, with their own baggage and their own strengths. Prey of the Gods contains a wealth of complicated relationships – between Muzi and his grandfather, between Muzi and Elkin, between Nomvula and Sydney, and between humans and bots, to name a few. There’s plenty of action, and touches of humor as well. Drayden packs a lot into the novel, balancing it all perfectly, leaving no character’s growth or journey short-changed, while making the future setting feel real and fully lived in. It’s an excellent novel, and an excellent place to start with Drayden’s work.

Gilda StoriesJewelle Gomez is a writer and activist. My recommended starting place for her work is her Lambda Award-winning novel, The Gilda Stories. The novel returns to the roots of vampire fiction and one of the earliest works of vampire fiction, Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla, with a story focusing on women and women’s sexuality. At the same time, The Gilda Stories goes so much deeper, refuting Carmilla and even Dracula with its idea of female sexuality, and sexuality in general, as a dangerous thing. As a runaway slave in Louisiana in 1850, the Girl is rescued by a white woman named Gilda and her lover, a Lakota woman named Bird. They take her in and care for her, eventually revealing their true nature as vampires and bringing her into their family. Unlike the traditional idea of vampires as predatory monsters, Bird and Gilda teach the Girl their way of taking blood, which is built on love, and always giving something in return. They only consume what they need to survive and always leave something in return – fulfilling dreams, inspiration, a sense of well-being.

Some are said to live through the energy of fear. That is their sustenance more than sharing. The truth is we hunger for connection to life, but it needn’t be through horror or destruction. Those are just the easiest links to evoke. Once learned, this lesson mustn’t be forgotten. To ignore it, to wallow in death as the white man has done, can only bring bitterness.

Soon after welcoming her into their family, Gilda chooses to end her life, giving the Girl her name. Bird continues to care for the newly-named Gilda, teaching her multiple languages and how to survive. Eventually, Bird leaves Gilda, needing to reconnect with her roots and shed her bitterness over the first Gilda’s death. The story picks up again in Yerba Buena in 1890. Gilda is with Sorel, the man who welcomed the first Gilda into her new life as a vampire. Gilda learns from Sorel and his lover Anthony, but also befriends Eleanor another vampire created by Sorel. This is the first of many female friendships Gilda builds over the years, but it is tinged with lust, and ultimately violence. In Missouri in 1921, Gilda befriends Aurelia, a widow. Older and wiser now, Gilda helps Aurelia become her own person, gain confidence, and start school for the poor. In Boston in 1955, Gilda works as a beautician, and helps save a young woman named Toya from her abusive pimp. The novel continues through the year 2050. Gilds works in a theater. She is a romance novelist. She is on the run at a time when humanity is collapsing in on itself, resources are scarce, and vampires are hunted for the promise of eternal life. In each time period, while Gilda has a core family in Sorel, Anthony, and Bird, her life intersects with humans. Just as it is with the blood, there is give and take; she learns from them as they learn from her. Each relationship is different – Gilda relates to those around her as a friend, a sister, a mother, a lover. When she turns to violence, it is as a last resort. For the most part, Gilda’s relationship is about seeing those around her truly, and giving them what they most need to flourish. In the stories that make up Gilda’s life, we witness women making space for themselves and each other in a world dominated by men, black people making space for themselves in a world controlled by white people, and queer people, making space for themselves in a hetero-normative world. Gilda chooses and builds her family, and ultimately weaves that family together into a larger community, making the novel a stunning contrast to most vampire fiction which is often about loneliness, rivalry, violence, and suffering. It’s a beautiful novel, and a wonderful starting place for Gomez’s work.

Last, but not least, my recommended starting point for the work of Jennifer R. Donohue is Aground, Upon the Sand, a flash piece that tells a story of loss, longing, and being a stranger in a new land. The unnamed protagonist is a selkie. Her skin is gone, and she doesn’t speak about why. She can’t go home, and only one sister comes to visit her on the beach, the one place in-between worlds where they can meet. Here, the protagonist shares things from her new life, soft boots that remind her of walking on water and pumpkin spice lattes. On the surface, it is a story about selkies, but it can just s easily be read as an allegory for the experience many immigrants have, finding themselves alone in a new culture, trying to adjust and make new friends while aching for home.

Candy corn, one of my favorite things, some sweetness in the salt of her life. A trio of leaves: red, orange, and yellow. My work apron, grease-smelling even after repeated washings. A calendar, because time is days and weeks and months here, not the change of the currents and the movement of the birds, the tidal instinct in our bellies that’s impossible to describe and unnecessary to understand.

Donohue  balances the selkie’s sadness and loss with a sense wonder, allowing her to take joy in small things like blue nail polish and shared music. It is a bittersweet story, full of gorgeous descriptions and poignant moments, making it an excellent starting place for Donohue’s work.

So there you have November’s reading recommendations. Stay cozy as the weather turns, and as always, I’d love to see your own recommendations for women to read in the comments!

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What Have You Done, What Have You Loved? 2017 Edition

The Nebula Awards have officially opened up to nominations from SFWA members, which means it’s time for me to start assembling my annual meta post of reviews, round-ups, recommendations, and eligibility lists. The basic idea is to help folks find things to read, and maybe even nominate for various awards, by collecting links wherein authors post their eligible work for the year, or readers assemble lists of their favorite reads of 2017. This year, I’m going to attempt to be a little more organized, and divide the post into three sections – review resources, eligibility, and favorites/year’s best. As always, I’d love to include your links, so please drop me a note in the comment, or email me at a.c.wise (at) hotmail.com to let me know what you’d like included in the post. I’ll be updating this post fairly often, so be sure to keep checking back for new links.

Review Resources

These are sites that post reviews throughout the year – short fiction, long fiction, media, fan works, and more. Browse around, and maybe you’ll discover something new to love. Not all works reviewed are necessarily published in 2017, so be sure to check before you nominate.

Bogi Reads the World – reviews of novels, short fiction, and poetry from Bogi Takács.
Earl Grey Editing Services – reviews of novels and novellas, along with essays and links posts.
In Short – occasional short fiction reviews from Natalie Luhrs.
It’s a Jumble – novel and short fiction reviews from Vanessa Fogg.
Forestofglory – ongoing short fiction reviews.
Lady Business – novel and short fiction reviews, fan work and media recommendations, and other sff-relevant essays.
Locus Online – reviews of novels, short fiction, movies, and other sff-relevant essays.
Monthly Short Fiction Round Up – monthly short fiction reviews and recommendations from Maria Haskins.
Nerds of a Feather – reviews of short and long fiction, games, movies, and other sff-relevant essays and discussions.
Quick Sip Reviews – short fiction reviews, posted almost daily from Charles Payseur.
SF Bluestocking – reviews of novels, novellas, media, and more.
SFF Reviews – short fiction reviews from various contributors.
SFRevu – novel and short fiction reviews.
Short Story Squee and Snark – a place for short story discussions by members of the SFF community.
Words for Thought – monthly short fiction reviews by me.

Eligibility Posts

These are posts where authors and editors round up the work they’ve published throughout the year and note its eligibility. (Authors, please, please do this. It’s extremely helpful to folks nominating, especially in determining which category certain works belong in, say, or whether an author is Campbell-eligible. It’s not pushy or bragging, it’s informative, and we loves it. Thank you!)

Haskins, Maria - listing award eligible short fiction.
Heartfield, Kate – listing award eligible short fiction and non-fiction.
Jessup, Paul – has one eligible short story this year, available in Interzone 272.
O’Brien, Brandon – listing award eligible poetry, fiction, noting Campbell eligibility, and recommending other work worth your time.
Tor.com’s Novels and Novellas, and Short Fiction

Recommendations, Favorites, and Best of the Year Posts

Lists and posts where writers, readers, and reviewers opine about their favorite works of 2017.

2017 Spec Fic by Black Authors – a round up of fiction by black authors, including novels, short fiction, magazines, and anthologies with links and recommendations.
Amazon’s Best SF and Fantasy of 2017
Barnes & Noble Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of 2017
Ditmar Eligibility List – a crowd-sourced list of works eligible for the 2018 Ditmar Awards.
Maria Haskin’s 2017 Suggested Reading List
Hugo Nominees 2018 Wikia – a crowd-sourced list of works eligible for the 2018 Hugo Awards, broken down by category.
Hugo Awards 2017-2018 – a crowd-sourced list of works eligible for the Hugo Awards, broken down by category, with links.
Kirkus Reviews Best SF/F of 2017
O Magazine Best Books of 2017
Publishers Weekly Best SF/Fantasy/Horror of 2017
Quick Sip Reviews Recommended Reading List 2017
SFWA Recommended Reading List
Tor.com Reviewer’s Choice Best Books of 2017
Waterstone’s Book of the Year 2017 Shortlist
Ziv W.’s Favorite Stories from F&FS 2017

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An Interview with the Sword and Sonnet Editors

Sword and SonnetToday, I’m delighted to welcome the editors of the upcoming anthology, Sword and Sonnet, currently running a Kickstarter that you can support right now! (And you really do want to, because it’s going to be amazing.)

Welcome! To start things off, could you please each briefly introduce yourself and talk a bit about your vision for Sword and Sonnet.

Rachael: I’m Rachael K. Jones, former editor of PodCastle, award-nominated author, professional Tyrannosaur, Nicolas Cage enthusiast, and secret android. (Wait, did I said that aloud?) When I think of an anthology of battle-poets, I think of all the ways people have used their words as weapons, in powerful and creative ways that have shaped the world. I’m thinking of the pioneers of hip hop. I’m thinking of Sappho writing in exile. I’m thinking of all the people in history whose pen was their sword, and especially people from marginalized genders whose work has been lost or forgotten. My hope is that our anthology can gather up a little bit of that spirit in one place, and have fun with it to boot.

Aidan: I’m Aidan Doyle, associate editor of PodCastle, short story writer, and frequent traveler. Like Rachael, I want to see stories of people using their words as weapons – fantastical sonnet-slinging spellbinders and brave bards.

Elise: I’m Elise Tobler and I am the senior editor at Shimmer Magazine, cupcake connoisseur, and trebuchet enthusiast. When Aidan proposed the anthology, I was pretty excited over what it could mean and humbled that he thought to invite me. Shimmer has published a few things that would fit my “vision,” but I hope all of our protagonists will be active, curious, and filled with a kind of poetry that overwhelms the reader when they reach the end of the story.

An anthology of battle poets, sonnet slingers, and Haiku-wielding heroines definitely sounds like a concept with a story behind it, possibly one involving shenanigans. How did the idea for this anthology come about?

Rachael: I blame Aidan. Picture me standing behind him jabbing both fingers at him. He instigated the shenanigans and press-ganged invited me along for the samurai-stuffed ride.

Aidan: I read Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book and fell in love with her writing. She was known for intimidating the men of Heian-era Japan with her knowledge of poetry. Fablecroft Publishing announced a call for stories for Cranky Ladies of History and I wrote a story featuring Shonagon using her knowledge of poetry to defeat demons. The story was rejected (a revised version later appeared in PodCastle) but SL Huang remarked that she would love to read a story about a badass battle poet and I had the idea for an anthology of battle poet stories. Elise and Rachael have a lot more editorial experience than I do and I was thrilled they wanted to be involved in the project.

Elise: I completely blame Aidan, too, but appreciate his invitation to play on this amazing battlefield.

As editors, I know it’s sometimes hard to pin down exactly what you’re looking for in a story, and sometimes the best stories are the ones you never knew you wanted to read until you’ve read them. That said, do you have any particular soft spots in fiction? Are there are any subjects, styles, themes, or anything else you’re hoping to see in the submission pile?

Rachael: I’m a complete sucker for stories with a strong sense of voice, and that will be doubly true in an anthology with a poetry motif. I want stories that make me care about the characters and take me into their lives. For a thematic anthology, we’ll also be looking for stories that harmonize and contrast nicely to one another. I am also always on the look out for stories by authors just entering the short fiction world. If you’re looking for your first publication, please submit! Speaking personally, I’m also secretly a huge Old English poetry nerd, and might actually die of joy if I ran across a feminist Beowulf riff somewhere in our submissions. Tyrannosaurs are optional, but always encouraged.

Aidan: I have a soft spot for dark humor and for intricate settings. Like most editors I want characters I care about and stories with a strong voice. I also have a weakness for bears.

Elise: I love to experiment. I love to jump off a cliff and dare the reader to follow. I hope we see some risk taking! I’ve always found poetry to be powerful. When I’m stuck in my own work, reading poetry can often get my brain back into gear and motion. I am hopeful we’ll see stories that show and explore that power. Poetry can so often be looked down on, but I think it’s just as vital to this world as fiction. Poetry can be quiet, but so can a punch to the gut.

Since you’re editing an anthology themed around fighting and poetry, I think it’s only fair to ask each of you to provide an inspiring battle cry in limerick form. Haikus are also acceptable. (Yes I’m aware this isn’t actually a question.)

Rachael:

There once was a lass in a bonnet

whose sword had strange writing upon it.

She translated the verse

into this lovely curse:

“Ye aught go to back Sword & Sonnet!”

Aidan:

There once was a poet whose love of words,

Transformed her sonnets into birds,

She fought her enemies with poems and puns,

They laid down their swords and guns,

And praised the power of her words.

Elise:

There once was a girl who did battle

With her sword, her book, and her…hey are those cattle?

She took to the sky

With a furious cry:

“Oh shit I’ve misplaced my saddle!”

Bravo! Now, if you yourself were going into battle, what would your weapon of choice be?

Rachael: The word Hospitality in sixteen languages, a dappled pink scarf, and my rebellious youth. I would ride behind my battle-poet army on a beat-boxing mastodon and pointedly refuse to smile when asked. It would be terrifying.

Aidan: A dancing Christopher Walken riding atop a giant sandworm.

Elise: The trebuchet, filled with a thousand thousand volumes of Good Poems for Hard Times, ed. Garrison Keillor.

I would follow all of you into battle without hesitation! Any closing thoughts you’d like to share about Sword and Sonnet, or other upcoming projects you’re working on you’d like people to know about?

Rachael: While many anthology Kickstarters offer story critiques as a backer reward, ours is offering a special round table-style crit from all three of us. This is a good opportunity to get a peek at the editorial process in a way you almost never get to see when you’re just starting out. We say all the time that editors aren’t a monolith, and different readers can have very different opinions on the same story, which means that often submitting your stories is really a game of finding your ideal reader. Otherwise there’s a tendency to thinking we need to flatten ourselves as writers to fit, to aim for a good generic blandness instead of embracing what makes our voices unique, powerful, and sometimes divisive. But the truth is that every battle poet causes conflict, right?

Aidan: We’d love the chance to see what stories writers can create about battle poets and hope that people are excited about the idea as much as we are.

Elise: I hope that we have the opportunity to bring you this anthology because the concept is truly unlike anything I’ve seen out there.

Thank you all for dropping by! I can’t wait for Sword and Sonnet to be out in the world!

Rachael: Thank you so much for having us!

Aidan: Thanks Alison!

Elise: Thanks for having us, Alison. I’m delighted you’re going to be part of this anthology!

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Non-Binary Authors to Read: Where to Start – Part 10

Welcome to another edition of Non-Binary Authors to Read, wherein I highlight non-binary authors and recommend a starting place for their work. If you’d like to catch up on the other entries in the series, you can find them here. For the purposes of this column, I use non-binary as a catch-all term to include authors identifying as genderqueer, agender, queer, neutrois, gender non-conforming, and other genders not aligned with the male/female binary. Now, on to the recommendations!

Fiyah Issue 3Danny Lore is a queer writer based in the Bronx. My recommended starting place for their work is appropriately enough their first professionally published story – The Last Exorcist from Fiyah Issue 3: Sundown Towns. As the editors write in their Letters from the Editors: “Sundown Towns were towns with curfews that applied to black people –essentially, black visitors had to exit the town before the sun set, or else they would face the wrath of the town’s white citizens. Authors were charged with submitting stories that discussed this painful history, but we also asked for stories that examined concepts of belonging, community, and of place.” Lore delivers a story that pushes the concept of sundown towns to the extreme, an extreme that sadly feels like it could logically grow out of the racism of our present day society. Naheem is an exorcist in a world where many white people have opted to offer themselves up as Residences for demons, voluntarily being possessed in exchange for protection and special privilege – i.e. things already granted to them in the real world by virtue of being white.  On a small scale, a white student feels slighted by what they perceive as a black student unfairly taking “their” place in college, and turns to demons for help. One a large scale, entire Helltowns are created where black people literally cannot go without the ground smoking under their feet and demons tearing them apart.

When Naheem gets worked up, he gestures emphatically, fingers twitching with every word. He tends toward lecturing, and his topic of choice is the accessibility of exorcism in a post-possession America. He is unimpressed by those who say the art is too complex, too archaic to pass on to the common man. On the contrary, he believes that becoming an exorcist is a task both necessary and easy, if we are to survive as a people.

The story is related through a reporter who begins by interviewing Naheem and ends up filming what turns out to be his last exorcism. The reporter is conflicted, having a white mother and a black father, never knowing which side the demons will see if they step into a Helltown. Lore gives a supernatural twist to the very real and ugly face of racism, scapegoating, fear of the “other”, and clueless privilege. At the same time, amidst the ugliness, it is a story about fighting back, about making the world better for others, and speaking out against oppression and power. It’s an excellent story, an excellent starting place, and I look forward to more of Lore’s work.

Shoreline of Infinity 9

Leigh Harlen is a writer of dark speculative fiction. My recommended starting place for their work is The Last Days of the Lotus Eaters in Shoreline of Infinity 9. Lita is the only one in her village who believes the world is changing. The stars are going out, trees are dying, and winters are lasting longer than they should. When she tries to warn people of this, no one believes her, not even her parents, except for one priest. He knows the truth, but believes it is better to keep the status quo, let people lead happy and ignorant lives. When Lita refuses to stay quiet, he poisons her, burying her alive in a ritual that feeds a dying tree whose blossoms bring forgetfulness, allowing people to be truly oblivious to the doom coming for them.
The earth and the creatures in it ate her flesh, but the tree kept her bones, its roots wrapped around and entwined every remaining bit of her.
While Lita’s body dies, her consciousness remains, forcing her to be the means that allows the other villagers – even her parents – to forget everything she tries to warn them about. In eating the lotus blossoms, the villagers’ memories transfer to Lita, so even in death she must bear the burden of knowledge alone. In time, however, another little girl comes along who refuses to accept common wisdom and sets out to force people to see the truth before it’s too late. With this story, Harlen offers an interesting twist on the trope of the buried child, the sacrifice that bears the sins of a people in order for everyone else to lead happy lives (e.g. Le Guin’s Omelas, or the story of Jesus Christ). Like Christ, the consumption of Lita’s transubstantiated flesh is literally the key to the rest of the village’s peace of mind. However, in this case, rather than salvation, the villagers only gain ignorance of their own destruction. Harlen weaves other elements into the sacrifice story, such as the idea of climate change denial, and the dismissal of women’s voices. It’s a wonderful story and an excellent starting place for Harlen’s work.

R.J. Edwards is a writer, librarian, and podcaster. My recommended starting place for their work is Riot Nrrd Comics, an online webcomic. While the comic is currently on hiatus, the good news is there are four years worth of comics currently available to catch up on. Riot Nrrd Comics is about all things geeky – comic books, video games, Star Wars, scientists, astronauts, and other delightfully nerdy stuff. But it’s also about being a marginalized nerd – being female, non-binary, black, fat, neurodivergent – basically being the type of person who doesn’t often get to see themself reflected in mainstream media. On the rare occasions when they do get to see themselves, those reflections are often problematic. For example, the first few comics call out Joss Whedon specifically for his depiction of “empowered women”. The comics tackle the questions of whether it’s still possible to love the things someone creates, while recognizing them as imperfect. Among the geekery, Riot Nrrd also touches on friendships, relationships, religion, work, stress, life, and every day problems and triumphs. Elements of it remind me of Chaos Life in its wide-ranging scope, touching on all aspects of life big and small, while reveling in nerdiness. At the heart of Riot Nrrd are characters who care about each other, who share geeky passions, and genuine friendship. It’s a lovely comic, and an excellent starting place for R.J. Edwards’ work.

That’s it for this installment of Non-Binary Authors to Read: Where to Start. As always, I’d love to see your recommendations in the comments, and I’ll be back with additional recommendations of my own soon. Happy reading!

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An Interview with Cassandra Khaw

Cassandra Khaw was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her new novella, A Song for Quiet. To get things started, I’ll make introductions by shamelessly stealing from Cassandra’s author bio…

Cassandra Khaw is a London-based writer with roots buried deep in Southeast Asia where there are sometimes more ghosts than people. Her work tends to revolve around intersectional cultures, mythological mash-ups, and bizarre urban architecture. When not embroiled in fiction, she writes about technology and video games for a variety of places including Eurogamer and Ars Technica UK.

Welcome, Cassandra, and congratulations on the publication of A Song for Quiet! As I understand it, this novella brings back John Persons, but is not a direct sequel to Hammers on Bone. Without giving too much away, can you give readers a taste of what to expect in A Song for Quiet?

A Song for QuietSouthern Gothic Lovecraftian with a heavy note of the blues.

Man, I wish I thought of that logline before this. Um. Anyway. A taste of what to expect? If you’re coming straight from the epilogue of Hammers on Bone, I’d say: expect the unexpected. In that A Song for Quiet is a drastically different book from its predecessor. Hammers on Bone laid on the neo-noir thick; it growled, it grumbled, and it smelled of neon-lit rain and cigarettes.

A Song for Quiet, on the other hand, is a hush. It’s a quiet book written to the meter of some old blues classics. It’s a book on grief, a book about helplessness, a book about finding hope in dark places. It isn’t a book about the people history remember, but a book about the heroes that time forgets. More than anything else, A Song for Quiet is a book of my grief and if you’ve wondered why it was like to hear someone’s heart breaking in half, this book’s for you.

I love the cover art for both of your Tor novellas. Did you have any input in the process, or did they come as a complete surprise?

They come as a complete surprise! Well. Sort of. Jeffrey Alan Love, who I’d just been a fanatical fan of, is basically the artist associated with the series. So long as Tor.com keeps publishing the Persons non Grata series, he’d be cover artist. (At least until whatever arrangement they’ve got going change. I don’t know how it works.) In that sense, the cover for A Song For Quiet wasn’t a surprise. I knew it’d be Jeffrey. I just didn’t know what would be going down.

That said, it’s Tor. I’d trust them with any of my covers any year. Like, wow.

Hammers on Bone and A Song for Quiet mash-up the genres of noir and Lovecraftian fiction. You’ve also drawn on Lovecraftian fiction in your short stories, specifically An Ocean of Eyes, which I loved. What appeals to you about playing in those worlds, or in the broader genre of dark fiction and horror generally? Is there an sense of subverting or reclaiming spaces and tropes that have historically been male-dominated, and in some cases outright misogynistic and racist?

I keep hearing this question and I keep revising my answers. There are layers to it. Like, to begin with, Lovecraft felt utterly impenetrable the first time I read his work as a teen. English’s my third language and the lexicon of words he used, the structure of his prose. It felt … inscrutable. Alien.

Of course, that meant I just wanted to beat my head against the challenge until it all made sense. So, that’s one reason for my fascination with Lovecraft. One of the other reasons, curiously, is a sense of empathy. More than anything else, Lovecraft felt absolutely terrified of everything. The world, the people who inhabited the world, the nature of his own skin, the flesh, the grim inevitability of the void. Every time I think about him, he always seems so scared. Not cowardly, per se. But just so very aware of how terrible the world is.

And I get that. I look up into the sky and there are days, especially now, when I see nothing but the hungry void. I read the news and it’s nothing but stories of powerful, inhuman creatures tearing apart the world. It scares me too.

But where Lovecraft was resigned to accepting his world of monsters, of seeing everything foreign as terrifying, I’m, like a lot of people who are messing around in the toolbox, not. I wouldn’t call myself optimistic, however.I think the world is a terrible place. But I think it is one that needs people reminding children that they can fight their monsters, that incremental improvements are worth fighting for, that the future’s worth a legacy of pain. That the moment that you give up, that’s the moment that the monsters win.

Every second before that, though? You’re still fighting to bring a light into the dark.
… I have no idea if that answered the question. I hope it did.

Now that you have a few novellas under your belt, do you have any interest in moving to novel length work? How does your writing process differ tackling longer versus shorter fiction?

Yes. I’d just submitted A Language of Doors, which is a sequel to my story in Shimmer, ‘In the Rustle of Pages.’ I think that’s my last novella for a good long while; my post-apocalyptic fairy tale mermaid novel is next. My writing process? It feels almost entirely the same, to be honest. I’m a pantser in the sense that outlines mostly just confuse me. My work tends towards being atmospheric because the process of writing them inevitably feels like a sustained delirium. I’m chasing snatches of dream towards its ending. With longer work, these waking nightmares just last longer.

With your non-fiction writing, do you ever get sent cool pieces of technology or get previews of video games to review? Does your non-fiction writing ever inform your fiction writing in any way, or do they live in two totally separate compartments of your brain?

I got a PS Vita as part of a job once. And I’ve been sent a Kindle Fire. I’ve lost track of the number of games I’ve received ahead of the release date. Won’t lie. It’s swell. My non-fiction brain has absolutely influenced my fiction writing and in the worst possible way! It took me almost a year to stop trying to abbreviate everything in a way that would be acceptable to my media training. (My fiction brain has done some beautiful things to my non-fiction brain, however My non-fiction now emerge as sumptuous, shameless things full of defiant word-beauty.)

Completely switching gears for a bit, one of my favorite questions to ask authors is about their non-writing related work. Authors are notorious for working strange jobs, for example J.D. Salinger’s stint as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the most unusual job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

I spent a week selling fish in a supermarket. It didn’t inspire any stories. But I was nineteen and my mother had gotten confused in regards to what an internship meant. We’d expected me to be plunked down in someone’s office, settled in behind a desk. Instead, I ended up spending a week in a supermarket, loudly encouraging housewives to check out our imported meats. My life’s been weird.

Now that A Song for Quiet is out in the world, what’s next for you?

I’m head down in my day job, which is the COOLEST DAMN THING BUT I CANNOT TELL ANYONE WHAT IT IS YET. AGH. And I’m pecking away at my mermaid novel because I promised my agent I would and it’s been forever.

Thanks for stopping by!

Thank you for having me!

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Women to Read: Where to Start: October 2017

Welcome to another Women to Read: Where to Start! Last month’s recommendations were all about ghosts and the undead. This month, the themes range far and wide, and the forms include a web comic, a short story, a novelette, and a novella. Taken all together, they represent the work of four fantastic women, and four excellent starting points for their work.

Shattered StarlightNicole Chartrand is a concept artist and comic creator, and she just so happens to live in my home town of Montreal. My recommended starting place for her work is Shattered Starlight an ongoing web comic about what happens when Magical Girls grow up.  For those unfamiliar with the Magical Girl trope, think Sailor Moon – a band of girls is given magical powers by a mystical force, usually associated with a trinket that unlocks their power and transforms them, allowing them to battle evil. Shattered Starlight is reminiscent of Hurricane Heels by Isabel Yap at times while being completely its own thing. Instead of an ongoing friendship with her team, Farah Shaughnessy aka Arcturus , Guardian of Heaven, former leader of the Star Guardians, is on her own. Her team mates are scattered, and as as the story opens, she’s being “reassigned” after using her powers to throw her boss through a wall because, in her words, he was being a sack of dicks. The Empress sends her to work at The Dead End Cafe, staffed by other former Magical Girls, in an effort to keep her out of trouble. However, trouble insists on finding her. Figures from Farah’s past begin to reappear, including a former teammate, and a former enemy, and the spell that’s supposed to keep innocent bystanders from remembering encounters with Magical Girls stops working, adding an unsuspecting human to the mix. The story is fun, without being cutesy. The world is edged in darkness. Farah’s handler is an alcoholic rabbit creature, and there are hints of tragedy in the Star Guardians’ past, causing their broken friendship. The art is striking, largely black and white with splashes of color, and it accurately capture the feeling of Montreal. I can’t wait to see where the story goes, and I look forward to seeing what else Nicole Chartrand does in the future.

C.S.E. Cooney is an author, poet, singer, performer, a member of the Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours, and a World Fantasy Award winner on top of all that. If you’ve ever seen her perform, you’ll understand when I say there’s a good chance she’s actually made of magic. If you haven’t seen her perform, you really owe it to yourself to find a way to do so. There are a good many starting places I could recommend for her work, but I’ve settled on The Big Bah-Ha, a novelette originally published by Drollerie Press, and recently reprinted by Apex Magazine. The Big Bah-Ha feels very much like a fairy tale, a story passed around playgrounds by children about the shape of their world, a legend in the process of being born. Beatrice wakes up dead, a victim of the Flabberghast. Only where she is now that she’s dead isn’t quite clear. She knows she’s left her gang behind – Tex, Diodiance, Granny Two-Shoes, and Sheepdog Sal –  after falling victim to the very creature she’d always warned them about.

And when they asked her why, she’d said, “Well, because he’s a Tall One. Because he appeared in the gravy yard with the other eight after the world ended. Because he’s here to eat the bones, and he’ll eat yours when you go.”

The end of the world is a hard place. The slaprash takes those over a certain age. Kids are left to fend for themselves against monsters, but they look out for each other, too. Even though Beatrice is dead, her gang is determined to parley with the Flabberghast to get her bones back, and perform a proper death rite. Cooney’s prose is lush and evocative, doing much of the worldbuilding just by setting the tone. The Big Bah-Ha simultaneously captures a sense of wonder, and a sense of darkness, underscoring childhood as the terrifying country it can be when everyone is bigger than you, and you don’t get to make the rules. It’s an excellent example of Cooney’s literary voice, and thus an excellent starting place for her work.

Future FireVanessa Fogg is a freelance medical and science writer, as well as being a fiction writer. My recommended starting place for her work is Taiya, published in Future Fire #42. Patrick and Karen have just moved to a foreign country. The country isn’t specified, but all that matters is it isn’t home, and there’s a ghost haunting their new residence. The taiya is a spirit that wails in their garden, whose name literally translates to ‘eaten’. There’s nothing that can be done to appease a taiya; the only thing to do is ignore it, and hope it eventually goes away.

Patrick turns off the water. It’s only then that they hear it: a thin cry at the edge of the world. They stand still, and it rises in pitch, comes close, and moves away—like a train whistle speeding away from them in the night, racing across empty fields. The sadness is nothing human. The sound dies, then rises once more, just once. This time it catches in something like a sob.

Patrick has a new job that keeps him busy and away from home. However, Karen’s former place of employment promised her contract work, but no jobs have come through yet, leaving her at loose ends. She tries to fill her days with language lessons, exploring the new city, meeting with other expats, anything to distract herself from the house and the ghost, but ignoring the taiya is harder than it seems. At its heart, Taiya is a story about loneliness, isolation, and depression. It’s a gut-punch, but one that’s beautifully told. Fogg neatly draws a parallel between a ghost no one can see, and a clinical condition many people misunderstand. The taiya cannot communicate its sadness, just as Karen can’t communicate what she’s going through, even to those closest to her. Depression here is literally an unspeakable disease; there is no way for those on the outside to know what it feels like to inside its grasp. It is not something one can simple ‘get over’, it is not a matter of being sad, or depressed with lower case ‘d’. Being clinically depressed requires medical treatment, and silence and ignoring it will not make it go away. Although Taiya is not a horror story in the traditional sense, there is horror here, and it comes from the way mental illness is too often viewed and treated in our society. Taiya is a powerful story, packs an emotional punch, and is a wonderful starting place for Vanessa Fogg’s work.

Water Into WineJoyce Chng is a prolific author and the co-editor of The Sea is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia. My recommended starting place for her work is her latest novella, Water Into Wine. The story begins with Xin inheriting a vineyard on the planet Tertullian VI from their grandfather. They are fresh off a divorce, with three children, and have never given a thought to viticulture before, but they pack up their family, including their mother, and make the move, determined to make the most of their grandfather’s gift and start a new life. They had been living as a man, the main source of tension with their ex-husband, but on Tertullian VI, Xin stops taking hormones. With this new phase in their life, they realize they are neither a man nor a woman, but simply themself. However, just as they begin to build a new life, learning about grapes, bottling and selling wine, and falling into a romance with a man named Galliano who helps tend the fields, war comes to their new planet.  Water Into Wine is a quiet story; the war is omnipresent, but largely happens off screen, with a few notable exceptions. Even so, it’s a driving force, shaping Xin’s family, and teaching them more about themself, their mother, their lover, and their children. There is a rhythm to the language throughout; spare, stripped back sentences contrast with and highlight moments of poetry where Xin describes the wine they are making, or their recurring dreams, born of the trauma of war. There is a satisfying arc for the characters, and by the end, Xin has undoubtedly grown, honed by their experiences into a truer version of themself: I give myself my own pronoun. I am qar. I am me. I am Ping Xin. At its heart, Water Into Wine is a lovely and contemplative story about family, building community, and learning to be yourself, which just happens to be set against a backdrop of war on an alien world. Overall, it’s a wonderful starting place for Joyce Chng’s work.

That does it for October’s Women to Read. I’ll be back in November with more suggestions. In the meantime, feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments!

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October Happenings

This weekend (October 6-8) I’ll be at Capclave in Gaithersburg, MD, which is a small, literary-focused convention. This year’s guests of honor are Neil Clarke and Ken Liu. It’s a relaxed, laidback, con, and every year I’ve attended it’s been a lot of fun – good friends, tasty food nearby, people saying smart things on panels, and of course, lots of books. In between my panels, I’ll be hanging out in the bar area, attending friends’ readings and panels, and browsing the dealer’s room. As to the rest of the time, here’s my official schedule for the weekend.

10am – Saturday – Rockville/Potomac – Doctor Who, End of an Era, Beginning of a New One.

Moffatt’s era ends and Chibnall’s era begins. What did we think of the Capaldi era and Clara and Bill as companions? What do we want from Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor? What are our hopes for Chibnall as showrunner? Moffatt era vs. Davies era?

Victoria Janssen, A.C. Wise, Hildy Silverman, Vanessa Phin (m)

11am – Saturday – Rockville/Potomac – Reimagining Fairy Tales

Who doesn’t love a fairy tale retelling? Part of the universal appeal of fairy tales is that they were never a static form, at least not as an oral tradition. Re-tellers have used these archetypes and modes to spin new variations ever since these stories first came to the page. Angela Carter once said that “Ours is a highly individualized culture, with a great faith in the work of art as a unique one-off…. But fairy tales are not like that, and nor are their makers.” We can find fresh insight into our own lives and connections through these age old tales. This panel will focus on a variety of approaches in reconstructing fairy tales with a modern bent, both in their favorite respins and in their own work.

Margaret Ronald, A.C. Wise (m), John Skovron, Michelle Sonnier, Marylin “Mattie” Brahen

6pm – Saturday – Frederick – Writing for Anthologies

Anthologies are an excellent opportunity for writers to get their work out to new readers. Where to look for submission opportunities, how to write to a theme, tips on catching the editor’s eye (in a good way), and a what-not-to-do list are some of the things to be addressed.

M’Shai Dash, Hildy Silverman, A.C. Wise, Alex Shvartsman, Larry Hodges (m)

Saturday – 10:30 pm – Rockville/Potomac – Superheroine to Wise Woman: Creating Powerful Female Characters

What goes into creating strong, compelling female characters in fantasy worlds? Speculative fiction authors discuss how to approach elements such as world-building, magic, special powers, and plot when crafting a multi-dimensional character, and how to avoid the pitfalls of the “Mary Sue.”

Joshua Palmatier, Michelle D. Sonnier, A.C. Wise

Noon – Sunday – Frederick

Reading – Beverly Haaf (12-12:30pm)

Reading – A.C. Wise (12:30-1pm)

2pm Sunday – Bethesda – Why Do We Like Being Scared?

Fear probably developed as a survival mechanism. We fear things that might hurt us. Yet many read horror, go to slasher films, ride roller coasters, and climb cliffs. Why? What does this say about us and our psyches?

Dina Leacock, Darrell Schweitzer, A.C. Wise, Hildy Silverman (m), Scott Roberts

October generally seems to be a good month for literary things, so later in the month, on October 18, I’ll be reading at Noir at the Bar in West Chester, PA. The event is being held at Timothy’s from 7-9pm. A group of us will be reading. If you’re in the area, come join us!

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An Interview with Sunny Moraine

A few years back, I interviewed Sunny Moraine about their novel Line and Orbit. Sunny was kind enough to come back today to talk about their new serial fiction podcast, Gone. If you dig Gone (and why wouldn’t you?), consider supporting Sunny on Patreon so they can continue creating it. Now, to get things started, I’ll make introductions by way of shamelessly stealing from Sunny’s author bio…

Sunny Moraine’s short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Nightmare, Lightspeed, and multiple Year’s Best anthologies, among other places. They are also responsible for the Root Code and Casting the Bones trilogies and their debut short fiction collection Singing With All My Skin and Bone is available from Undertow Publications. In addition to time spent authoring, Sunny is a doctoral candidate in sociology and a sometime college instructor. They unfortunately live just outside Washington, DC, in a creepy house with two cats and a very long-suffering husband.

GoneWelcome back! Gone just released its mid-season finale. Without giving too much away, can you give folks who may not be caught up yet a taste of what Gone is about? And for those who are in the know, any non-spoilery hints about what the future holds?

Gone starts with a relatively simple premise: you wake up one morning and everyone has vanished, leaving no trace or clue regarding what happened or where they went. My unnamed protagonist goes from there, initially trying to answer the most basic question of where everyone is, but things quickly get a lot weirder and far more troubling questions begin to assert themselves. Including the one I think most of us would be asking: “Is this even happening at all?”

Halfway through the season it’s turned into a story about mental illness and the terror of isolation and the fearful damage of deeply repressed anger. It’s also a twisted kind of love story (this is where I think the influence of Alice Isn’t Dead is most apparent) between two women, a romance which has been happy and healthy on the surface while resentment and lies seethe beneath. At heart it’s a story about things breaking down and falling apart: lives, relationships, one’s grip on reality and perhaps reality itself. It’s a very personal story and a lot of my own baggage is in it. Which is true of most of my work.

The future? I’m both excited by and nervous about the future. I can reveal that the second half of the season is going to be much darker – figuratively and literally – and some fairly awful things are going to happen, including one scene that I’m especially nervous about because of the subject matter, which hopefully I’ll pull off okay. I don’t think things are going to tie themselves up neatly in the end, but I almost never end stories that way anyway. Nevertheless, I’m aiming to make the ending a real conclusion that ideally at least somewhat satisfies. Although not all the questions will be answered, many will be.

I promise she won’t turn out to be in Purgatory. Or Heaven, or Hell, or any iteration of any afterlife. I won’t hurt anyone else the way Lost hurt me.

Something that I said in the intro to the midseason finale is that this is actually a much larger universe than it seems right now (about which I don’t know a huge amount and would like to find out). I’m not sure how much of that universe I’ll be able to explore in the next five or six (six maximum) episodes, but it is out there, and while I’m envisioning this season as a single self-contained narrative that can stand on its own, I’m also consciously developing it in a way that could be an establishing point for a second season. That’ll depend almost entirely on the reception the rest of the season gets; if the demand is there, I’ll try to make it happen. In any case, there’s the possibility.

You’re essentially a one-person production team, and you’ve written a bit about your process on your blog. One of the things that surprised me is how much room for improvisation you leave yourself. What is your actual, physical process like when you sit down to record? What do you have with you in terms of notes, cues to yourself, or points you know you need to hit in each episode? Have you ever gone back to re-record sections after something unexpected came up that pushed the plot in a different direction, or do you simply go forward from where the new twist in the story takes you?

Very little of what someone hears is directly scripted, yeah, although the Interludes are all written beforehand. For the main episodes I draw up an extremely rough sketch of an episode, with a few “talking points” for each scene, but otherwise I just sit down in front of my cheap little mic and improvise with one eye on my outline. I feel like it helps with the acting, and it makes it easier for me to get fluidly into this character’s head. I actually haven’t had to re-record much; I edit things, cut out longer pauses and lines that I don’t think work, but for the most part I get the lion’s share in a single take.

The overall plot for the rest of the season is fairly set, but I’ve left some flexibility for things to take the natural turns they want to (which is also how I write my other fiction). So for the most part, when something new pops up, I have room to let it run. I’ve also had to shift scenes around here and there in my outline when I realized they might have to happen sooner or later than I thought.

On a related note, what has been most surprising to you in terms of what you originally envisioned for the story, versus where it’s ended up so far? (If you can answer without giving too much away that is.)

The plot hasn’t really surprised me; it’s the details that have revealed themselves as I go. I had only a basic grasp of this character when I started recording the first episode; she’s taught me about herself as the story has unfolded. Though again, none of that has been exactly surprising, because the framework for her character was always there and I knew the outlines of who she was, but it’s been great to chip away at the marble and watch the details of the sculpture appear.

I think what’s been most surprising to me is actually just how well it’s held together so far. I’m obviously nervous about that suddenly not being the case, and it’s clearly not a perfect story because very few stories are, but in general, considering that I’ve never done this before (with the exception of my other podcast, Keep Singing, which is purely a fandom deal), the whole thing has been kind of a pleasant surprise.

In the same post where you discussed process, you talked a bit about drawing inspiration from classic audio dramas like The Shadow, as well as recent podcasts like Alice Isn’t Dead. One of the things that’s always fascinated me about the audio dramas is the foley work. How do you handle sound effects for Gone? Have you used any household items in unconventional ways to create the audio effects? Has any of your audio work caused undue alarm among neighbors, pets, or passersby those who may not be aware you’re recording an audio drama?

Oh, man. Yeah, it’s been an interesting experience, especially given that I have no budget or formal training in any of this, and my “recording studio” is a home office with tile floors and mostly bare walls. That obviously works okay for stuff that’s technically supposed to be recorded in someone’s echoey home office, and that’s one reason why I lean a lot on that setting, but for scenes set elsewhere, I have to get creative. So far the best solution I’ve come up with for that is recording with a literal quilt over my head and the mic to dampen the echo. I have to hold very still to minimize the rustling. It’s not perfect but I think it works better than I would have expected.

For sound effects, I make heavy use of a site called Freesound.org, which is an excellent archive of Creative Commons licensed sound effects. The quality is a somewhat mixed bag but so far I’ve found enough good stuff to do what I want to do. But using imported sound effects takes a fair amount of precise work – I often do a lot of editing and move smaller bits of them around – so I try to do in-“studio” foley when I can. When the protagonist is flipping through a book, I’m flipping through a book. When she runs into the hall, I’m running into the hall. I actually threw myself and a bunch of stuff on the floor for a scene in the second episode; the pain you hear there is real (I wanted it to be; I suffer for my art).

The most recent episode involved some screaming; I closed up the house, put the quilt over my head, and prayed no one would call the cops. It’s not the last time I’ll need to scream, either, so it could yet happen.

I have badly startled my cats on more than one occasion.

As mentioned, you’re a one-person production team. Do you think you might ever expand to include additional voices?

I’ve been thinking about that a good bit, especially as I look forward to the possibility of a second season. I’d like to, with another project if not with this one, but I think I would have to adjust my working style somewhat and write real lines, given how much of what I do is unscripted. That or find a truly gelling improv partner. I’m also not sure about how to handle the logistics of recording multiple voices, especially if I’m dealing with geographically distributed people, but hey, I could learn. I’ve taught myself how to do this much.

In addition to being a podcaster, you’re also a novelist, and a prolific author of short fiction. What else do you have coming up, or in progress that you’d like people to know about?

I have a story forthcoming in Uncanny Magazine – not sure exactly when – about two women who forge an intense and violent romantic relationship owing to their shared superpower: they can cause enormous destruction when they’re in pain. I’m very proud of it and very excited to share it with the world.

Besides that, I’m in the final stages of editing a novel called LINEAGE which will be released hopefully sometime in the first part of next year from Riptide Publishing. It’s a work of science fantasy set in the same universe as the ROOT CODE books, about a trans man who (along with the girl on whom he has a tremendous and tremendously awkward crush) crashlands on a strange planet and must try to survive caught between an isolated band of survivors and their nemesis, who is a gigantic sentient plant-mass.

Finally, I’m in the early development stages of another podcast with my sister, Emma Phipps. The working title is “Drinks and Thinks”, and the premise is that we drink a different specific brand of liquor per episode while we ramble on some topic of mutual interest. I have no idea how well this would/will work but it seems like it might be fun.

That all sounds amazing and I can’t wait to read and listen! Thank you so much for stopping by!

Thank you so much for having me!

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An Interview with Kat Howard

Kat Howard was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her new novel, An Unkindness of Magicians, among other things. To get started, I’ll make introductions by way of shamelessly stealing from Kat’s author bio…

Kat Howard is a writer of fantasy, science fiction, and horror who lives and writes in New Hampshire. Her short fiction has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, performed on NPR, and anthologized in year’s best and best of volumes. In the past, she’s been a competitive fencer and a college professor. Her debut novel, Roses and Rot was released from Saga Press in May of 2016, and will be followed by An Unkindness of Magicians in September 2017, and a short fiction collection, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, in 2018, both also from Saga. You can find her on twitter, and on tumblr.

An Unkindness of MagiciansWelcome and congratulations on the publication of An Unkindness of Magicians! Without giving too much away, care to give readers a taste of what it’s about?

Thanks so much! To continue the trend of shameless stealing, here’s the back cover copy:

There is a dark secret that is hiding at the heart of New York City, diminishing the city’s magicians’ power…

In New York City, magic controls everything, but the power of magic is fading. No one knows what is happening, except for Sydney—a new, rare magician with incredible power that has been unmatched in decades, and she may be the only person who is able to stop the darkness that is weakening the magic. But Sydney doesn’t want to help the system, she wants to destroy it.

This is a book about sacrifice and family and making yourself who you want to be. Oh, and there are magical duels.

I have admit that sometimes I’m shallow, and I do judge books by their cover, by which I mean impulse buying things that are pretty. This cover is a particularly striking one – did you have any input on the artistic process?

I had absolutely nothing to do with the artistic process, so I feel perfectly comfortable in saying that I love how gorgeous this cover is. The cover design is by Lizzy Bromley, and the illustration done by Vault 49, and I’m so grateful for their genius. It’s based on what is one of my favorite scenes in the book, where a piece of magic goes very, very wrong.

I also wanted to ask about your first novel, Roses and Rot, which I adored. I love the themes of family, fairy tales, and artistic inspiration woven throughout. Speaking of artistic inspiration, what sparked this story for you?

Thank you! Roses and Rot is a very loose retelling of Tam Lin (Child Ballad 39A). So in a way it was sparked back when I read Pamela Dean’s gorgeous novel, Tam Lin, and first learned about the story. The question that eventually became the book for me was, “What would you be willing to give up?”

The artist’s colony of Melete that you describe in the novel sounds amazing. If you were invited, would you go, even knowing what lies behind the colony? If you were offered the deal that the most promising Melete residents are offered, would you accept that invitation?

I’d go, and I’d make the bargain. I’m not sure I’m exactly comfortable with that piece of self-knowledge, but there you go.

In addition to your two novels, you’ve also written quite a bit of short fiction. Were there any challenges in transitioning between the two lengths? Do you have different processes for writing short versus long fiction?

The biggest challenge for me was to let the novel open up and breathe. My short fiction tends to be very focused (or at least it feels that way in my head when I’m writing it), and so allowing myself to open up to the possibilities that something novel-length offered as a bit of a transition.

Switching gears completely, I have to ask about your competitive fencing. How did you get into competitive fencing, and do you still fence for fun? Are you an extra harsh critic of works (movies, books, etc.) featuring swordplay? Are there any works out there that really get it right? On the other side of things, is there a particular thing that people who don’t do their research get wrong about swords that causes you to shout at a book/movie in frustration?

I’ve been obsessed with fencing since I first saw a Zorro cartoon and went around drawing Z’s everywhere. Seeing Star Wars and lightsabers only increased this obsession. My parents found me lessons, and I started training seriously in college. Injury meant that I stopped competing, but I’m moving in a few months, and one of the first things I did was look up fencing clubs, so I hope to get back into it. I love the sport.

And because I love the sport, while I do wince at certain depictions, I’m also generally glad to see fencing in movies and books. Anything that gets people to love it! Ellen Kushner writes great fencing, and Molly Tanzer has a forthcoming book, Creatures of Will and Temper, that I love, and also has terrific fencing in.

Oh, and there may be a fencing scene in An Unkindness of Magicians, too.
(NB: I wrote an article about fencing for Lightspeed a few years ago, if you want more info)

Now that An Unkindness of Magicians is out in the world, what’s next for you? Any projects you’re working on you want folks to know about?

I have a short fiction collection, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, that will be out next fall from Saga. There will be reprints, but also some new pieces, including a new novella, “Once, Future.” That’s an Arthurian riff that I’m extremely excited for people to read. And I am working on some other things that I hope to be able to say more about soon!

All of that sounds wonderful, and I can’t wait to read it! Thanks for stopping by!

Thanks so much for having me.

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An Interview with the Editors of Augur Magazine

Augur MagazineToday, I’m very pleased to welcome the editors of Augur Magazine, a new publication of intersectional Canadian speculative fiction. They’re currently running a Kickstarter to fund their first two years of publication. For a taste of the types of things they intend to publish, check out their Preview Issue, which is available for free.

Welcome! To start things off, could you please each briefly introduce yourself and talk a bit about your vision for Augur Magazine?

Kerrie: Hello! Thanks so much for having us. I’m (obviously) Kerrie, cat lover extraordinaire and the Editor in Chief of Augur.

When it comes to Augurian vision, I think we’ve all always wanted to create space for the kinds of stories we wanted to read. For me, it was a matter of time and place. Augur is all about creating space for stories that don’t always have the room to be told—whether intersectional storytelling (something we gravitate towards naturally as a fairly intersectional editorial staff) or stories that fit between genres.

We’ve talked a lot about our goals and wants for intersectionality over the last month on our kickstarter campaign, so i’m going to focus for a second on the second point. We’re really looking for stories that feel like they don’t belong, or that might not fit a single or defined genre. It’s one of the reasons we aren’t limiting ourselves to speculative or realist work—we take both, because we think that they aren’t as different from one another as they’re often treated. That said, we do lean pretty heavily on the speculative fiction side of things. There’s just so much room there to explore the kinds of topics we love.

Alex: We’re thrilled to be here! I’m Alex, the Managing Editor of Augur and a JD Candidate at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law.

Mado: Great to be here! I’m Mado: Senior Editor for Augur and classical pianist who moonlights as a writer (or is it the other way around?)

How did you all meet, and how did the idea to launch Augur come about?

K: A half decade or so ago, I launched a speculative fiction magazine at the University of Toronto called The Spectatorial. This was, in part, a response to something so many spec fic readers are familiar with—how little speculative fiction is in the English Literature curriculum, despite the fact that it’s such a rich literary landscape. The mag quickly became one of the biggest pubs on campus. And, to my surprise and delight, it also became a blissfully queer and intersectional space.

It was easy to make The Spectatorial that kind of space. It happened naturally. We want to bring that sense of ease with us to Augur—we want to be coincidentally intersectional, that kind of space that creates a gravitational force. It will take work on our part. Natural doesn’t mean easy for us. But I remember the joy in the faces of the students who were a part of The Spec—here was a speculative fiction environment that supported them! My hope is that Augur will generate that same kind of joy on a larger scale than a university campus. The Spectatorial was always what I considered a training ground for the magazine-that-would-become-Augur, but it was definitely a force in making us realize how much need remains for spaces that explicitly look to welcome intersectionality. None of those students should have been that happy that they finally felt like they belonged—they should have had that experience much sooner.

As for how we met, we’re mainly school chums. Alex was an editor of The Spectatorial after I was, and Mado and I met online many, many moons ago—but officially met in person in a writing group I ran at the University of Toronto. I’m very lucky to have them on the team.

As editors, I know it’s sometimes hard to pin down exactly what you’re looking for in a story, and sometimes the best stories are the ones you never knew you wanted to read until you’ve read them. That said, do you have any particular soft spots in fiction? Are there are any subjects or styles or types of voices you’re hoping to see in the submission pile, or things that you don’t see enough of in other publications that you’re hoping Augur can highlight?

K: I’m a big sucker for pieces that are only-kind-of-speculative and/or that play with your idea of what a story is meant to do. I like being left with questions and uncertainty when I read, but especially when those questions and that uncertainty is joined with a sense of fulfillment. When you get something from a story, but it takes you some time to realize what you’ve gotten—maybe you never get more than a feeling. This is especially true when the voice and writing are crystal clear—I want to be challenged when I read, but I don’t necessarily like being challenged to read it in the first place. That’s also, of course, highly dependant on each individual piece. Sometimes the dense, difficult-to-read pieces are my favourite. But the above is the easiest way to get on my Yes list.

A: I love stories that have lush settings—I’m always drawn into stories that have a strong atmosphere and some well-placed details about their environment. I have a huge soft spot for urban fantasy. Seeing cities turned magical, dystopic, futuristic, or otherwise speculative enthrals me every time. There isn’t a lot of urban fantasy set in Canada, so I think I would really latch onto stories like that.

I find that lately there’s been a resurgence of stories written from the second-person perspective, and I’d definitely like to see more of these stories coming to Augur. There’s something about the directness and intimacy of this approach that I think can have really fascinating effects on storytelling and on how we experience narratives.

M: The pieces that stood to me the most in our submissions were the ones that were completely unapologetic in their tone. The ones that dropped me in an entirely unfamiliar setting and didn’t spoon-feed me information until I felt comfortable, but instead made me do some of the work of puzzling out where I was and what was happening. (Of course this can only be effective if the writing is excellent!) More generally speaking, I’m always drawn in by stories in a folkloric style, with echoes of oral tradition.

Shifting gears a bit, you’re based in Toronto, which seems to be home to a good number of speculative fiction writers. Do you think there’s anything particularly speculative or science fictional about Toronto? What are your favorite spots in the city, or places you’d recommend to first time visitors?

K: Oh, definitely. But then again, I was the kind of kid that went chasing after rabbits or into forests, convinced magic was just a turn away—I think most of our environments are brimming with the speculative, the what-ifs. It’s one of the reasons we worked with one of our artists, Ann Sheng, to do up a speculative landscape series—a fairytale creature in the rollings hills of Alberta, a dragon in the mountains of the Yukon, and an apocalypse in Quebec City. One of our goals is to make sure we’re recognizing the magic that’s all over our environments and acknowledging all kinds of spaces. And, of course, as we do this it’s essential that we carve out room for Indigenous/Aboriginal creators to engage this conversation, and so we plan on including Indigenous/Aboriginal voices as often as we can.

But yes. I’ve segued. For your actual question. Toronto, specifically…I’d say climbing the hill to St. Clair and looking out over the city is pretty wonderful. You really get a sense of scope, being so high that you can see the lake. Otherwise it’s easy to feel lost. There’s also tons of alleyways behind houses that are covered in street art and have this gorgeous city beauty to them, and it’s easy to imagine slipping between houses and disappearing into another world. It’s also very easy to imagine being spirited away in the city’s ravine—a long, winding stretch of nature and greenery that’s carved throughout Toronto. That’s my stress place, and it has a wonderful calmness to it.

A: I think there’s a diversity of worlds that make up Toronto—it’s a collection of different neighbourhoods, of course, but it’s also an amalgamation of different cities. I’ve lived my whole life in Scarborough, which was originally a separate city but became an administrative district and borough of Toronto. Toronto is utterly sprawling, and many places are difficult to get to even with public transit. I feel like every week I discover an entirely new neighbourhood or area, and this limitlessness has always felt magical.

One of my favourite places in the city is actually the University of Toronto’s downtown campus. It’s a beautiful campus, and lots of sleek, newly designed buildings sit beside castle-like structures that are nearly two hundred years old. This will be a very controversial statement for every University of Toronto student, but I actually love Robarts Library, the largest individual library at the university. Robarts is reviled for being a particularly imposing and unattractive example of brutalist architecture, but it’s also designed in the shape of a peacock! I’m in love with how one of the most ominous, ugly buildings in the city is actually a giant concrete peacock filled with academic books. To me, that’s absolutely wonderful.

But I think the most speculative elements of Toronto are quietly nestled into the background. Kerrie talked about the beautiful street art in the alleys, and I’d like to mention the “Outside the Box” program, where local artists paint works of art on traffic signal boxes throughout the city. I think one of the most speculative things about Toronto is that it’s always trying to transform and represent itself through art.

Some places that I would recommend are the Scarborough Bluffs, Rouge Park, and the beaches. There are countless parks, woodlands, ravines, and trails hidden throughout Toronto, especially in the suburbs, and I think exploring them is a lot of fun.

M: I grew up in a residential area of downtown Toronto, and I’ve always thought there was a kind of fungal quality to the city: the creeping spread of its outskirts, the connective root system of the PATH. There’s an awesome tension between the straight-laced, gridded areas of the city, and the weirdnesses that permeate it, such as the ROM’s crystal growth, the life-sized sculpture of a white elephant in my neighbourhood, and whatever the heck is going on at OCAD. The place is full of great little glitches in what is supposed to be a very orderly, chitinous code. Plus there’s Dundas Street, which makes me very uncomfortable. It’s everywhere you look. You can’t get away from it. It knows all.

For first-timers I recommend Kensington Market and Ward’s Island for great walkarounds.

On a related note, I like to ask my fellow Canadians about the idea of “Canadian Literature”. Do you think there’s a particular theme, tone, or some common unifying thread that makes a piece of writing particularly Canadian and sets it apart from other fiction?

K: I think that there’s a tone we’ve learned to expect when it comes to thinking about what Canlit “is”. There’s a good number of tropey themes—cottages, nature, feeling sad or morose in the city, etc., etc.. When Augur talks about Canlit, that’s not necessarily what we’re looking for. Recently, there have been a number of excellent pieces circulating that interrogate what “Canlit” is and how it needs to be rebuilt in order for it to function as a responsible, representative space. I especially recommend these pieces by Chelene Knight, Alicia Elliot, and Gwen Benaway.

I’m less concerned with what Canlit has been and more concerned with what we can make it.

A: If you ever take a course on Canadian literature at a university, there will always be a student there who summarizes Canlit as being “about nature”, or about the tension between rural and urban life. The prof will then spend the rest of course trying to show how there is so much more beyond that, haha.

Nature is of course a major element of CanLit, but I think that a more important thread of themes in contemporary Canadian Literature is the struggle between the old and the new. There’s a very palpable and vivid tension between the historic, nostalgic, and somewhat inaccurate sense of what Canadian literature was—stories about small towns and the encroaching wilderness—and emerging Canadian literature, which explores immigration, cultural diversity, poverty, and the continued destruction of Indigenous/Aboriginal communities. Matched with these I think is the struggle to reconcile ideals and actuality. What excites me the most is that there’s a flux of exciting emerging writers expanding the conversation of what Canlit is and could be, and I think Canlit is going to open up to whole new worlds in the near future.

M: Three words come to mind: anxious, jealous, and funny. At least that’s for the CanLit I’ve read, which for a long time was dictated by Giller frenzy and Book City tables. I’m really excited to see where CanLit is going, and from what I’ve read more recently, I’m hopeful that it’s going towards a space with fewer guardians and more chaos.

Any closing thoughts you’d like to share about Augur, the world in general, or other personal projects you’re working on you’d like people to know about?

K: I’d love to mention the Augur Magazine Preview Issue! Our inaugural pre-issue (a collection of reprints) was published at the end of August, on the same day that we launched our kickstarter, and is free to read on our website. It’s a collection of reprints, spanning fiction, poetry, and comics, and features both established and emerging creators. We had an amazing time working with our contributors, and we really can’t express enough how happy we are to have been able to produce this first collection. It’s a good starting point to see what we’re going to be looking for in the future (and, if we fund we’ll open to original submissions October 1!), and I think I speak for all of us when I say that we felt very lucky as we hemmed it together. We can’t wait to produce more like it.

Thank you all for dropping by! I can’t wait to see what the future of Augur has in store!

K: Thanks so much for having us!

A: Thank you so much!

M: Thank you!

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