Cover Reveal: The Kissing Booth Girl

The most excellent Lethe Press unveiled the cover and table of contents for my upcoming collection earlier today. The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories contains fifteen stories (eleven reprints, and four brand spanking new). Follow the link to see the full ToC at Lethe Press’ site. The cover is stunningly gorgeous, and I could not be happier with the way it turned out. The artist is Reiko Murakami. Do yourself a favor and browse through her portfolio; her work is incredible. The collection should make its way into the world in October. In the meantime, here is the aforementioned cover. Isn’t it beautiful? I can’t wait to hold a copy in my hands!

The Kissing Booth Girl

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Summer Book Love 2016

Summer is upon us. With the exception of the occasional minor drop in temperature, the days are full of warm weather and sunshine, at least in these parts. Since it stays light so much longer, there are extra hours to sit outside and read. Whether you’re on a porch swing, sipping a cool drink while the bees bumble lazily by, or stretched out on a beach towel listening to the surf crash, summer is a glorious time to get lost in a book. Of course, to be fair, any season is a glorious time to get lost in a book. Anyway, regardless of season, here are a few recent books I’ve thoroughly enjoyed and perhaps you might enjoy them, too.

Kraken SeaSince 2004, E. Catherine Tobler has been spinning incredible tales of Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade. Now, with The Kraken Sea, published by Apex Books, readers can go back to the beginning and see where it all began. As an infant, Jackson was left in a daffodil box at the steps of an orphanage. As a young man, he boards a train, bound for Chicago and a new life, along with several other orphans. Jackson isn’t like the other children, however. There’s something inside him, something terrible and powerful and wonderful. He struggles to keep it hidden, but sometimes he can’t help himself. He unfolds, and scales and tentacles burst forth from human skin. As he struggles to control his nature, Jackson is thrust into his new life as an errand boy at Macquarie’s  working for Cressida, an imposing woman who runs a good portion of the town. There are shadows at Macquarie’s, things Jackson may or may not be meant to see, and questions he certainly shouldn’t ask. He’s mean to do his job, keep his head down, and stay out of the neighboring territory run by the Bell family. Of course, he does none of those things, particularly after he meets Mae, the youngest of the Bell children, a lion tamer in a burlesque show that is at once fantastic, terrifying, and brutal. Jackson finds himself drawn deeper into the intrigue between the rivals who run the city, and the darkness that runs under it. Like Jackson himself, there are things hidden beneath the city’s skin, waiting to burst free, and nothing is what it seems. The Kraken Sea is a gorgeous novel, alive with sensory detail, and imagery that will steal your breath away. There is darkness under every glittering surface, but a darkness that begs to be explored. While the Kraken Sea stands alone, it hints at a larger world, at Jackson’s future, and the many dimensions of his character and his story. It’s a novel about love and family, loss and pain, and finding a place in the world. And, of course, binding everything, Tobler offers up the first tantalizing glimpses of her circus, calling you to run away and partake of its wonders.

Spells of Blood and KinI first encountered Claire Humphrey’s Spells of Blood and Kin by hearing her read an excerpt at Readercon, and I was immediately hooked. Spells of Blood and Kin is a werewolf novel, except it isn’t at all, and it’s so much more. The word werewolf is never once mentioned, leaving room for everything else Humphrey weaves into the story. There’s Russian folklore, magic, and witches, but in its deepest heart of hearts, it’s a story about family – the one you find, the one you make, and the one you’re born into. As the story opens, Lissa is dealing with the sudden death of her grandmother. Lissa’s grandmother provided spells, cures, and healing for the local Russian community, and now Lissa must take on her role, while trying to maintain the semblance of a normal life and not let anyone know she’s a witch. This complicated by her stepsister, Julia, showing up out of the blue, determined to help Lissa because family – no matter how distant – needs to stick together. Even further complicating things, a man named Maksim comes to Lissa, claiming her grandmother knew him and owed him a debt. He says he is kin, but explains very little other than that he needs very powerful magic to control a dark and violent aspect of himself that her grandmother’s magic helped keep dormant. The their stories run in parallel  – Lissa working to find a magic strong enough to put the wolf in Maksim back to sleep, while Maksim works to track down, tame, and train Nick, a young man he bit and accidentally turned – and of course, they eventually collide. As the title implies, the themes of kinship and blood echo throughout the novel. In Maksim’s case, family is those with whom he shares the horror of an existence tied to violence and pain. Before accidentally turned Nick, he purposely turned Gus, a young woman who would have died without his his intervention. They are pack, a family, dealing with their violent nature by turning their brutality against each other, rather than hurting someone they could actually break. Rather than romanticizing the animal nature of the kin, in Maksim Humphrey gives us a character who is truly haunted by his past actions, physically pained by his drive to hurt others, and desperate to shed that part of himself. In fact, all the characters in Spells of Blood and Kin have aspects of themselves they would rather keep hidden, from what they see as necessity, but they must learn to trust each other – something which is not easy for any of them. Humphrey flips several tropes in her characterization, which is another of the novel’s strengths. Despite her role as a healer, Lissa is one of the most closed off characters. Instead of being nurturing and drawn to others, she does her best to isolate herself. Maksim, a former soldier and a boxer, wants nothing more than to shed the violence of his past, while Gus embraces the freedom that comes with being kin. She tempers it with alcohol and fighting, she knows her limits and how to exercise self-control, but she has no interest in denying or burying the animal part of her. Nick starts as seemingly harmless, a slacker, but once he’s bitten he embraces the wrong parts of being kin. He tries to control those around him using his new superior strength. His life before being bitten was stagnant; as change is forced upon him, and he uses that change to try to resist the larger forward progress of his life so he never has to grow up and start acting like a responsible adult. Overall, Spells of Blood and Kin is a fantastic novel. It’s also Humphrey’s debut, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Sword and StarSword and Star is the third and final book in Sunny Moraine’s Root Code trilogy. I’ve raved about the others – Line and Orbit, Fall and Rising, and the related-yet-stand-alone book, Labyrinthian – in various places before. Sword and Star is no exception. In addition to be a satisfying wrap-up to the series, the final book in the trilogy builds on the first two in a way that expands the universe in which they’re written. Everything feels bigger in Sword and Star – the stakes are higher, the world larger, and every decision carries more weight. Taken together, the three books can be compared to a single camera shot, continuously pulling back so more and more of the world fills the frame. Line and Orbit was a fairly personal story, focused primarily on Adam and Lochlan, their budding relationship, and the immediate danger to both their lives. Fall and Rising broadened the focus, showing the way Adam and Lochlan’s decisions in the first book impacted those around them, their friends and loved ones, as well as people they barely knew, but who they would come to call allies. Fall and Rising also deepened and matured Lochlan and Adam’s relationship, taking it from the heat of battle and passion to a more complicated and contemplative level as they learned to live with each other, and learned who each of them were alone and together, in battle and outside of it. Now, in Sword and Star, the camera is zoomed all the way out, showing the larger consequences of the actions begun in Line and Orbit as they ripple across the galaxy to touch alien planets, shake the foundation of the government back on earth, and threaten to tear the fleet apart. Lochlan and Adam’s relationship has expanded as well, encompassing the possibility of loss in a new way as they both change and grow, and deal with their own pain and challenges. The emphasis is less on the immediacy of sex and romance, and more on the consequences of love, how it makes people vulnerable and stronger all at the same time. This idea is echoed in multiple relationships across the novel – Kae and Leila, Rachel and Aarons, Kyle and Eva. Friendships are tested, limits are pushed, and worlds both personal and all-encompassing hang in the balance. As usual, it’s all wrapped in Moraine’s gorgeous prose, and while I’m sad to see this series ending, I can’t wait to see what they move onto next.

All the Birds in the Sky
All the Birds in the Skyby Charlie Jane Anders perfectly captures what it’s like to be an awkward kid precisely at the age when everyone is doing their best to fit in, be liked, and present some kind of face to the world that will allow them to be accepted. Patricia is a witch who discovered her power at a young age after rescuing a bird and hearing it talk. Laurence is a computer and science whiz who followed schematics he found online to build a two-second time machine. Both of these incidents early in their lives set them on paths that will having far-reaching consequences for their own futures, and the future of humanity as a whole. Patricia and Laurence are special, and that sets them apart, but as is often the case, their specialness sets them too far apart. Laurence’s parents want him to keep his head down, not rock the boat, and be normal. Patricia’s parents think she’s a little hooligan. None of the other kids at school like them, and by the time they reach middle school, this social ostricization throws them together and they become friends. Anders perfectly captures the cruelty of kids towards each other, and the vicious things they’ll do to those they perceive as weak in order to secure their own status in the pack. However it isn’t just kids who are cruel in Anders’ world; adults are willfully clueless, if not outright hostile at times, further isolating Patricia and Laurence. The story resists the usual chosen one narrative. While Patricia does get accepted into a magical school, the invitation only comes after weeks of being tormented on all sides, and by accepting the invitation, she essentially has to cut all ties with her family. For all this though, All the Birds in the Sky isn’t a bleak novel. The future is laced with hope to counterbalance the despair. After middle school, Laurence and Patricia find their way back into each others’ lives as adults. Patricia is struggling with her powers, constantly being told by the other witches around her to avoid Aggrandizing herself, overreaching her powers and causing something terrible to happen. Laurence is working for a billionaire, building secret super science projects and trying to access other dimensions. At the same time, he’s struggling to maintain a budding relationship with his new girlfriend who he’s terrified of losing. Anders repeatedly teases the possibility of several catastrophic outcomes from either Laurence or Patricia’s particular talents. There are world-changing events in the offing, apocalyptic even, but even as these events come to the fore, the story never loses sight of the characters. It’s the little moments of interaction, and the humor Anders laces throughout, that make the novel shine. Patricia and Laurence aren’t always kind to each other. Their relationship is complex, and it evolves over time, and it feels all the more real and human because of it. Anders manages to balance charm, quirkiness, and dark moments as deftly as she blends the magic and science within the book so none of it ever feels out of place. All the Birds in the Sky is a kind of tapestry, one woven from wool and silk, hemp and ribbon, artificial intelligence and spells, feathers and electrical wires. Taken separately, the elements seem like they’ll never form a picture, but when you step back, the result is glorious. It’s a fun book, but one full of genuine emotion as well. As with Humphrey, this is Anders’ debut novel, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

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An Interview with Claire Humphrey

Claire Humphrey was kind enough to drop by to talk about her debut novel, Spells of Blood and Kin, among other things. To get things started, I will stick with tradition and shamelessly steal her author bio by way of introduction…

Claire Humphrey’s short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Apex, Crossed Genres, Fantasy Magazine, and Podcastle. Her short story “Bleaker Collegiate Presents an All-Female Production of Waiting for Godot” appeared in the Lambda Award-nominated collection Beyond Binary, and her short story “The Witch of Tarup” was published in the critically acclaimed anthology Long Hidden. Spells of Blood and Kin is her first novel.

Spells of Blood and KinACW: Welcome! Congratulations on Spells of Blood and Kin. I adored this novel, and I feel pretty darn lucky to have gotten a sneak peek at it. For those who haven’t read it, could you give readers a hint of what’s in store for them?

CH: Thank you so much! Spells of Blood and Kin is what happened when I tried to write a light urban fantasy to distract myself during a tough time in my life. I failed at the distraction, and I failed even more at making it light. (I think I did okay with the urban fantasy part.)

Spells of Blood and Kin is about what families hand down through generations, both the good and the bad. One of the families is related by blood in the usual way. One of the families is related by blood in a supernatural way. Both families are kind of dysfunctional.

ACW: One of the things I found particularly brilliant about the novel is that it’s essentially a werewolf novel that never once uses the word werewolf. It also resists the tropes of moody/tortured/misunderstood-but-ultimately-awesome-person-turned-into-a-wolf and portrays a genuinely pained and terrible condition. Where did the roots of the story come from for you? Did you set out to write an ‘anti werewolf’ novel? If not, what inspired it?

CH: Actually when I first set out I wanted to write a fun paranormal romance. But that wasn’t in me. I initially imagined Nick as a charming lightweight who develops emotional depth through being turned into something new, and Lissa as a responsible girl who learns to let loose a little. And I was going to have them get together! But as I began writing, those tropes felt so false to me: not that others shouldn’t use them, but I couldn’t write them. I started to understand Nick as someone who takes his own power way too lightly, and hurts others as a result, and Lissa as someone weighed down by her duty, by a heritage that can’t easily be cast aside. And those are just the mostly-human.

I had been writing stories about Gus Hillyard–Maksim’s family member, for lack of a better word–for a while. None of those stories were fun. They were mostly about coping strategies, about surviving instead of thriving, about the high price we pay for being born and staying alive–and the price we exact on others. Gus and Maksim have learned that when they let themselves get close to anyone, they have the power to cause immense damage. They each deal with that power in different ways: Gus by becoming an alcoholic drifter, Maksim by walling up part of his nature with magic.

We all have that power in reality, of course. The bond of blood–literal or metaphoric–is what keeps us close even when we’re hurting, or being hurt, or both.

ACW: The novel also draws heavily on Russian fairy tales, mythology, and history. What kind of research did you do for Spells of Blood and Kin?

CH: I started with a pair of books my parents gave me so long ago that I feel like I’ve had them always. They’re reproductions of Russian folk tales from 1899 with gorgeous illustrations by Ivan Bilibin. One is about Vasilissa going into the forest to get magical fire from the witch Baba Yaga: this one’s described in my book. The other is about Vasilissa’s later life as a powerful witch turned into a frog by the sorcerer Koschei the Deathless; she convinces a prince to marry her and hunt down the sorcerer to break his spell. Both are full of rich images of skulls, animals, eggs, trickery and bargaining. Those stories formed the thematic heart of the book.

As I wrote, I had to dig into some practical, factual stuff too, of course. One of my favourites was a book called The Soviet-Afghan War, by the Russian General Staff, which contained intense detail of troop movements and composition, and analysis of engagements which the Russians felt they had lost. I ended up using almost nothing from this book but it was fascinating to read.

I’m a pantser generally when it comes to research: I’ll be halfway through a scene, trying to describe a vehicle or a house or a piece of clothing, and then I’ll realize I don’t know enough about it, and start Googling. I have a lot of books in my house, too, on topics like historical weaponry, homes and costumes, so I usually have something helpful I can consult.

ACW: Shifting gears a bit, there’s a question I like to ask my fellow Canadians. In your mind, are there particular tones, themes, or subjects that make a piece of literature quintessentially Canadian? If so, do you ever consciously draw on them in your own work, or deliberately avoid them?

CH: There’s a lot of Canadian fiction dealing with families and inheritance, with the idea of baggage carried across the ocean and bestowed on a new generation. A whole lot of us in this country came from somewhere else, or our parents did, and we didn’t always get to choose what we brought with us. This book takes that trope and makes it magical.

ACW: On a related note, since you live in the Toronto area and quite a few other excellent speculative fiction writers have settled there, is there anything about the neighborhood that makes it especially speculative in your mind? Having recently visited, I feel there are certain areas ripe for inclusion in SFF stories. Do you have any favorite spots that inspire your stories? If not, are there generally things about the city that inspire you – bookstores, parks, museums, restaurants, must-see places you’d recommend to first time visitors?

CH: I struggled with how to answer this question, because I don’t find Toronto magical at all. After some thought I realized that I don’t find any places magical. I’m not that writer. I actually want exactly the opposite from a place: I love places that have a strong and particular sense of themselves, an air and a look that can’t be found anywhere else. I lean on these places to ground my work. To me, stories with speculative elements need a strong counterbalance.

Toronto is an easy one for me because I’ve lived here for almost two decades, and even before that, I always yearned toward it. My Toronto is a gorgeously messy place: graffiti murals in the alleys off Queen West, fruit smashed on the streetcar tracks of Spadina. Every bar with a raunchy basement bathroom painted some garish colour. Kensington Market, Parkdale, Little Italy, Little Portugal, all thronged with people, usually celebrating something: religious parades, soccer wins, zombie walks, all-night art festivals. It’s a city that rewards you for just walking out the door and joining the rush.

ACW: In addition to your novel, you’re also the author of some stunningly brilliant short fiction. On a purely selfish note, might you ever set additional stories – or a longer work – in the world of ‘Your Figure Will Assume Beautiful Outlines’? (Because boxing and magic are an awesome combination as far as I’m concerned.) On a more general level, how does your process differ in writing short fiction versus a novel?

CH: Oh, thank you! The world of “Your Figure Will Assume Beautiful Outlines” is actually a world I built for my first novel… a novel that won’t see the light of day unless I am prepared to substantially rework it, as it’s more than a quarter of a million words long and still not nearly finished (!) Never say never, though, right? I love the world and I’m sure I will set more stories there, even if that novel stays in the trunk.

In general I guess I start novels with a character, while I start stories with a feeling. Stories are easier to feel your way through without much of a plan, and I do. I wrote the first draft of Spells of Blood and Kin without a formal plan, also, and was delighted to discover I’d given it an intricate structure anyway (kind of a repeating chiastic structure–although I’m not sure all of this survived through the multiple drafts). The next book I wrote turned out to naturally follow a three-act structure, without my conscious intervention. For the one I’m now working on, I actually made a three-act plan before I began writing, although I’ve departed from it a little as I go. It’s helping me write faster.

ACW: Now that Spells of Blood and Kin is out in the world, what’s next for you?

CH: The novel I’m currently working on in set in the same world, this time with Gus Hillyard as the protagonist–she’s my favourite character to write, and I’m loving spending time with her, although so far this book is pretty emotionally difficult.

I’ve also got some new stories in the pipeline–I haven’t been writing as much short fiction lately and it feels good to have some things lined up. The most recently published is a story called “Crew 255″ in Dominik Parisien’s Clockwork Canada anthology. The anthology consists of steampunk alternate histories of Canada, and my story is about Portuguese workers coming to rebuild downtown Toronto after an airship explosion.

ACW: Thanks for stopping by! Now that I know about your plans for the next novel, I’m very much looking forward to reading Gus’ story.

CH: Thanks so much for having me, and for the great questions!

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Unreliable Narrators and the Monstrous Feminine

American Horror StoryI just finished watching American Horror Story: Asylum. Yes, I am way behind and slow to catch up. However, in case there are others like me, consider yourself duly warned: Spoilers Abound.

Overall, I found Asylum somewhat uneven. However, the cast is consistently fantastic, the visuals are striking, and I enjoy the tropes they’re playing with, so I’ll keep coming back for more. One of the things that annoyed me about the first season of American Horror Story was that the last episode felt incredibly rushed. The pacing of the second season felt off as well, and the last episode in particular seemed to take a sharp left and introduce the possibility of an unreliable narrator rather suddenly. At first, this annoyed me, but the more I thought about it, the more the decision seemed like an interesting and valid one. Throughout the second series, we see several variations on the theme of identity, disguise, and which characters have the right to speak and be believed. Dr. Arden and Sister Jude have both reinvented themselves at Briarcliff to escape their past crimes. Later, Sister Jude has her identity taken away from her, along with her authority to speak and be believed. Dr. Thredson wears a mask to become Bloodyface, and vice versa; Bloodyface wears Dr. Thredson as a mask, one that gives him credibility and  access to his victims. A demon adopts Sister Mary Eunice’s body as an innocent disguise. A woman comes to Briarcliff claiming to be Anne Frank, and no one believes her. In face, almost every patient at Briarcliff has their sanity, reliability, and ability to tell truth from fantasy questioned.

So the groundwork for unreliability is there. Then, in the final episode, we see Lana Winters giving an interview where she looks back over her career as a journalist. Since her time at Briarcliff, she’s made a name for herself by unmasking corruption, and bringing down the mighty and powerful. During the interview, Lana admits to her own secret. Rather than dying at birth as she’d claimed for forty years, the child forced on her via rape, did indeed survive and she gave him up for adoption. This scene, as well as several leading up to it, begin to throw Lana’s reliability into question. She admits to bending the narrative to suit her needs and tell a better story. How many other details of her stay at Briarcliff, and her subsequent exposure of the abuse that went on there did she smooth over, change, or outright lie about to suit her needs?

The final scene of the final episode further throws Lana’s credibility into doubt. The final episode makes it clear that Lana is the overarching narrator for the season. Everything we’re told happened has been related to us through her point of view. In the final scene, we return to the 1960s, and Lana’s first encounter with Sister Jude at Briarcliff. During this conversation, Sister Jude predicts she will never see Lana again after denying her access to Briarcliff, and we see Lana walk out the door. With the possibility of Lana as an unreliable narrator established in the scenes prior to this one, the idea that everything that has been presented to us as truth all season long never happened at all.  Maybe Lana walked out the door that day and never returned to Briarcliff until after the government took over, and Sister Jude was long gone. During the final scene, Sister Jude also warns Lana about ambition, telling her that it will result in Lana ending up miserable and alone. If we take the scene where Lana is being interviewed as the only truth, however, we see quite the opposite. Her ambition has gained her everything she wanted in life. She’s a trusted journalist, author of multiple bestselling books, about to be honored by the Kennedy Center, in a loving and stable relationship, and living in a beautiful house that suggests she’s very financially well off indeed.

So, instead of a character whose backstory is torture and rape, motivated by said rape to find the strength to take on the world, we are opened up to the possibility of a character who is a liar and a monster doing whatever she has to in order to achieve her goal. This includes killing off anyone who could have disputed her story. Despite the stories of demon possession, alien abduction, and serial killers, it’s possible Lana is the only murderer in the story. We really only have her word to go on. It’s possible she was never incarcerated at Briarcliff, but she was a good enough journalist to figure out that the best way to break the story wide open was to paint herself as a sympathetic survivor and victim. She was also smart enough to know that the sensational story of a serial killer would gain her international notoriety and attention. Maybe Dr. Thredson really was Bloodyface, or maybe she killed him before anyone could figure it out either way. Maybe she eliminated Kit, Sister Jude, Dr. Arden, Sister Mary Eunice, and even the Monseigneur before they could dispute her story. Maybe she never had a baby at all. Maybe Lana was indeed playing a very long game. Maybe she tracked down an orphan with a criminal record, one with a history of mental instability and planted the idea that he was Bloodyface’s son in his mind to make her case that much stronger. Maybe there never was a Wendy. Maybe.

LanaIf these things are true, it makes Lana Winters a fascinating example of the Monstrous Feminine. Unlike Grendel’s Mother, or Mrs. Vorhees, she doesn’t kill to protect or avenge her child. She kills solely for her own gain and to further her career. And unlike so many Evil Queens, Wicked Stepmothers, and Lady Macbeth, she’s never punished for her ambition, either. She gets exactly what she wants in the end, and there’s no one left to challenge her. She’s already shown us her ability to be determined and unwavering. We don’t see any evidence she’s succumb to guilt further down the road. She set out a course for herself, followed it, and in the end, she reaped her reward. Now that the last threads are tied up, all she has to do is sit back and live happily ever after.

It’s also possible I’m reading too much into things. However, I prefer the version of Lana Winters who sets a goal for herself and stops at nothing to achieve it rather than one who perpetually suffers. Regardless, it’s interesting to think about. Now, judging by my current pace, I may have some thoughts about American Horror Story: Coven to share in a year or two…

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An Interview with Anna Kashina

AnnaAnna Kashina was kind enough to drop by my blog today to talk about her Majat Code series, among other things. The third novel in the series, The Assassin Queen, was just released by Angry Robot Books. To start things off, I will shamelessly steal from Anna’s author bio by way of introduction…

Anna Kashina was born in Russia and moved to the United States after receiving her PhD in biology. She has been writing for as long as she remembers herself, and completed her first novel (published in Russia) when she was in high school. Her fantasy and historical fiction appeared in original editions in Russia, Germany, Australia, and the US. She lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she combines her writing with a successful career in biomedical research.Anna is the 2015 Prism Award winner for “The Guild of Assassins”, which received the first prize in the fantasy category and the “Best of the Best” grand prize.

Welcome, and congratulations on the publication of the third book in your Majat Code series! For those who may be unfamiliar with the series, could you provide a taste of what the books are about? And for those who do know the series, without giving too much away, can you give us a hint of what’s in store in book three?

Hi, Alison, thank you so much for the chance to stop by! I love to talk about my series!
The Majat Code books are adventure fantasies with elements of romance. Each has a standalone story, but together they continue the same overarching plot that comes to a full – and hopefully satisfactory – conclusion in “Assassin Queen”. The books center around the Majat warriors, highly skilled mercenaries and assassins who hire out their services and follow a very strict code. Throughout the series, their resolve to follow the code is thoroughly tested as they face a powerful enemy plotting to overthrow the Majat and restore the notorious rule of the Old Empire.

In book 3 the conflict erupts in full and leads to the final showdown. There are also some subplots involving a royal family in a very fun desert kingdom. I hope that the fans of the series as well as the newbies will enjoy it!

After writing two previous books in the Majat series, along with a few shorter companion pieces, was there anything about the characters or the world that took you completely by surprise this time around?

Assassin QueenMy characters have been surprising me all through the series, to the point that I started thinking of them as real people. In book 3 I was especially fascinated by the way several of the characters, who tended to be somewhat immature before, took charge and accomplished seemingly impossible things, which resolved some of the standoffs and ultimately saved the day. Some scenes literally unraveled in front of my eyes. It was the strangest thing to see them do things I had no idea they were capable of. In “Assassin Queen”, more than any other of my books, I found myself just following their whims and letting them do what they want. I am very happy with the result.

The second book in the series, The Guild of Assassins, won the ‘Best of the Best’ 2015 Prism Award, which is given by the Fantasy, Futuristic, and Paranormal branch of the Romance Writers of America. Prior to receiving the award, did you consider yourself a romance writer? Did receiving the award change your approach to the third book in terms of romantic content?

Funny you asked. When I wrote “Blades of the Old Empire”, book 1 in the series, romance was very far from my mind. Yet, a few main characters are young and attractive, and I found them developing interests and relationships before I knew it. In fact, the only relationship that wasn’t quite working out was the one I planned from the start, so the characters really took control right there.

When the book came out, many readers and reviewers commented on how the story seemed so romance-heavy. So when I was working on the sequel, “The Guild of Assassins”, I decided to just let it go. I allowed the characters to follow their hearts, and what came out was, I believe, true romance by the conventions of the romance genre.

I was tremendously honored and thrilled to receive the award, for which I was nominated along with some authors I really admire. Among other things this award did teach me that romance is a genre I feel natural and comfortable exploring in my books. So, when I wrote “Assassin Queen” I allowed all the romantic elements to happen, without holding back. I would say it is less of a conventional romance than “The Guild of Assassins”, but it is still up there. I hope it will appeal to the readers of both fantasy and romance genres.

Shifting gears a bit, let’s talk about your first novel, which was published in Russia. You wrote it while you were in high school, which is quite amazing! How long was it before the novel was published? How do you feel about that novel now?

That novel, “In the Name of the Queen”, was historical fiction –again, with elements of romance – co-written with my grandfather. It features Queen Elizabeth of England, Sir Francis Drake, and has been inspired by our love for the novels by Rafael Sabatini and Sir Walter Scott. This book remains very special to me, because it holds the essence of my closeness to my grandfather and the memory of our good times together. It was also very rigorously researched, and the story is seamless. But, I was in 10th grade when we finished it, and I would have definitely written it differently today.

It got published about 6 years after we wrote it, I believe just because historical fiction about England is always popular in Russia. The print did sell out, and the publisher promptly spent the money and went out of business, as tended to be the trend in Russia in those times.

I sometimes think about translating this book into English, which would really mean rewriting it completely following the same story line. Some day, I might actually do it.

I think that sounds like a fantastic idea. I for one would love to read it! On a related note, I’m always fascinated by people who write in multiple languages. When did you first begin writing and seeking publication in English? With your English novels, do you ever find yourself coming up against concepts or phrases that would be better expressed in Russian and wishing you could switch over?

Around the time I moved to the US I wrote my first not co-authored novel that I considered publishable – “The Princess of Dhagabad”. It was in Russian, but I quickly realized that if I wanted to achieve something with it, it needed to be in English. So, I took a big dictionary and translated it, word by word. I was surprised to realize in the process that the two languages are completely different. Very often there is no direct translation for words or concepts. I write in English now, but for the more difficult concepts I still come up with a Russian word first, and often I cannot immediately find an appropriate English equivalent. In these cases I usually put the Russian words down, to return to later when I edit the draft. Very often it is hard to say it as well in English, and I have to get around it by rewriting the whole passage.

In general, I think Russian is better for descriptions, and English – for action and dialogue. So, a perfect book should really be written in both languages at the same time?

Your day job in biomedical research seems far removed from the secondary world fantasy you typically write. Have you ever written anything more on the science fiction side inspired by your work? Does your day job inform you writing in other ways, even when you’re not writing science fiction?

Somehow I enjoy keeping these two sides of my life separate. Every time I try writing science fiction, I tend to feel too constrained by everything I know. My imagination just does not fly the way it tends to do with fantasy. This sense of letting go of all boundaries and constraints of my everyday life has always been a big part of the appeal for me, both in writing and in reading.

At the same time, I do consider writing and science very synergistic. In both, it is essential to keep in mind both the big picture and the details. It is also essential to lay down every thought very clearly. When I write, I do better science, and vice versa. When I cannot find time to write fantasy I tend to feel miserable and less productive in my day job. And I do feel so blessed to be able to have two creative professions at the same time.

There are quite a few speculative fiction writers living in the Philadelphia area. Do you think there’s anything particularly speculative or fantastic about the city to draw such authors to the area? What are some of your favorite things about living in the Philadelphia area? Are there restaurants, attractions, or other places you’d recommend to someone visiting for the first time?

I actually believe Philadelphia is one of the best kept secrets in the US. It looks shabby on the outside – especially when driving from the airport–but once you are in the city, everything just magically changes. When I first moved here I was terrified, and it took all but five minutes to blend in and realize how good this place is. In some ways this change of perception felt like stepping through the looking glass into another world.

To me, there are many things about Philadelphia that factor into this attraction. It has rich and diverse history, and is very active and dynamic without being overwhelming. It is also ideal for living a quiet, comfortable life. I do enjoy the restaurants, and art galleries, and shows, and the fact that in the Center City you can just walk outside at midnight and feel very relaxed. I also appreciate the fact that I can shop for food in big supermarkets selling ethnic foods. And, I love living in the forest and working in the city, only 25 minutes away. In the end, I guess it comes down to having a lot of things just right to fit your lifestyle. I am not sure if our great writing community is the result of this, but this community by now is part of the attraction too. It does seem amazing how many wonderful speculative fiction authors live here and how open to interactions they are.

Now that the third book in the Majat series is out, what’s next for you? What else are you working on or do you have coming up that you want people to know about?

I am working on a new novel that will hopefully become a part of a brand new series. True to my current passion, it will have a multicultural setting, adventure, intrigue, fancy swordplay – and, of course, romance.

Thanks for stopping by!

Thanks so much for having me. These were great questions I really enjoyed!

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Spring Book Love 2016

Here we are. It’s already spring somehow, although the weather seems somewhat confused about just what that means at the moment. Can you blame it? Didn’t the year just start? Time is flying, and unlike last year, I haven’t been quite as good at keeping up with recent publications. However, I have managed to read a few things published in 2016 thus far. I really dug them, and I think you might too, so please allow me to gush about them in your general direction.

Honey MummyThe Honey Mummy by E. Catherine Tobler is either the third or the fourth book in the most excellent Folley & Mallory series, depending on how you’re counting. I want to say this is my favorite in the series thus far, but they’re all brilliant, and it doesn’t seem fair to play favorites. This book sees Eleanor Folley and Virgil Mallory return to Egypt, along with Cleo and Auberon, to unravel the mystery of a whole new set of rings. The story kicks off with a break in at Mistral, the secretive agency where Folley, Mallory, Cleo, and Auberon work. A fire in the archives at first appears to be cover for a theft, but Eleanor quickly discovers something has been left behind rather than taken. A ring, to be precise, left exactly where she will find it, made of strange material she can’t quite identify. It’s enough to intrigue her, as is an invitation to an auction taking place in Alexandria, Egypt. As with any proper adventure, things do not go as planned. The group from Mistral soon find themselves faced with a theatrical and slightly unhinged collector, a sarcophagus full of honey, a member of an elite ancient order sworn protector Egypt, and that’s just the beginning of their troubles. The discovery of the sarcophagus brings up a host of memories for Cleo, just as she was beginning to come to terms with the loss of her arms during an archaeological dig two years ago. The doctors believe that the only thing that saved her then was honey, mysteriously present in the collapsed tomb as it is in the sarcophagus here and now. As Cleo’s past and present collide, the psychological wounds of her trauma prove to be as raw as ever. The Honey Mummy is as much her story as Eleanor and Virgil’s. History is a major theme throughout the novel –  the ancient sort, the personal kind, and the intersection between the two. Tobler deftly weaves the story’s threads, the larger mysteries of the plot informing and strengthening the characters as individuals and as they relate to each other as the story unfolds. Time is cyclical here, echoing the first books in the series, and the physical circularity of the rings themselves. Past and present bleed into each other, and Tobler explores the consequences of that, along with the weight of power, and the potential horror true magic can hold. History and mythology flow into each other and, as always, the whole story is soaked in gorgeous sensory detail and haunting imagery. On top of all that, it’s a kissing book, and an adventure book; a book with dastardly villainy, and tender moments. It’s  a joy spending time with these characters and watching them grow, and I can’t wait for their next adventure!

DatesDates! An Anthology of Queer Historical Fiction is just what it says on the label – a comics/graphic anthology of queer historical fiction. This is a project that first caught my eye on Kickstarter. The cover alone was enough to make me rush to back it, and the spirit in which the anthology was assembled only made it better. In their introduction to the anthology, editors Zora Gilbert and Cat Parra state their mission for the collection – to gather queer stories from across time and around the world, with one important rule: they couldn’t be queer tragedy. They had to show queer people living happy lives, having adventures, and being active players in their own stories. The pieces in the anthology more than deliver, though most of them fall more into the realm of vignette or slice of life than full story. Proving the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, the art speaks volumes and is worth the price of admission alone. There are a wide range of styles on offer here, from whimsical to art-deco and everything in-between. This type of project is important and worth supporting. We need more happy queer stories, and stories where queer folks are front and center, living their own lives rather than sidelined, killed off, or erased. As another bonus, according to their bios, most of the creators are young artists and writers at the beginning of their careers, which is another thing worth supporting and celebrating. Dates! is definitely an anthology worth getting your hands on.

Paper TigersPaper Tigers by Damien Angelica Walters is a novel about healing, about feeling broken, and what people will do to feel whole again. Years ago, Alison was caught in a terrible fire. Roughly half her body is covered in scars. She lost an eye, two fingers, and sees a physiotherapist regularly to manage her pain. She rarely goes out, and when she does, it’s at night, when no one else is around. She covers herself with a scarf and glasses, and hardly speaks to anyone except her doctors and her mother, and even then, they are the ones to initiate the conversation. However, on one of her nighttime walks, Alison happens on an antique shop that keeps hours as odd as hers, and is drawn in by a photo album in the window. She purchases the album and quickly discovers an entire world within its pages – a house she can literally visit, populated by ghosts who seem real. While she’s in the album, and for a brief time after she emerges, she’s whole. The healing doesn’t last, and her scars return, but Alison ventures into the album again and again, despite the feeling that something is terribly wrong. The album’s primary ghost, George, gives off an air of malevolence, and in the real world, she’s wasting away, neglecting to eat, and wanting nothing but to sleep. Paper Tigers could easily have been a straightforward story – hapless character finds a spooky item in a mysterious antique shop and bad things happen, but it’s so much more. The idea of a haunted photo album is a fascinating concept on its own, but on top of that, there are the hauntings within hauntings, in multiple senses of the word. The character of Alison takes the book beyond a straightforward ghost story. Her pain is real, the trauma she’s suffered coloring her entire life. Her desire to feel normal is palpable, and it makes her need for the world inside the album completely understandable. Walters doesn’t succumb to an easy, hand-waving solution where magic makes everything better. This isn’t a ‘cure narrative’, but it is one of acceptance as Alison moves toward an understanding that there are different ways to be whole. The ghosts are presented both as a genuine haunting, and a kind of addiction. Alison goes through withdrawal, she fights, she backslides. Nothing is easy or pat, and the book is stronger for it. There is some genuinely creepy imagery here, as is often found in Walters’ work, along with a thoughtful examination of pain, recovery, acceptance, and the stages of grief.

FurnaceFurnace is Livia Llewellyn’s second collection, and it is every bit as dark and weird as her first (Engines of Desire: Tales of Love & Other Horrors, which I also highly, highly recommend). A sense of cosmic horror underlies Llewellyn’s tales, even when they aren’t overtly Lovecraftian. They capture the spirit of the Weird in the classic sense, and update it, injecting overt sexuality and horror in new ways. For example, In the Court of King Cupressaceae, 1982, a story original to the collection, hearkens back Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows with the idea of nature as a malevolent force. Unlike Blackwood, however, Llewellyn’s vision of nature isn’t a passive, lurking horror, but an active one, one her characters can either choose to embrace (literally) or refuse. There is an erotic edge to many of the tales, and like her first collection, desire plays dangerously close to the edge of pain and terror, often slipping over that edge. Love and want are kinds of violence, after all, with the power to tear people inside out. There is a dream-like (nightmare-like) quality to many of the stories. Haunting imagery flows throughout the collection, carrying the reader along with its power, making them willing to accept things that would be irrational in the real world, but perfectly logical in the world of the tales. Women buzz like lawn mowers, and sisters swap body parts to merge into one terrible and beautiful creature. Massive spiders occupy the penthouse floors of an impossibly tall apartment building. The subway system is a living, wanting thing. Giants rise out of the ocean and birth horrors upon the world. Many of the stories in the collection were new to me, but even in those I had read before I found myself discovering new things – previously hiddden sharp angles ready to draw blood and strange mirrors displaying warped visions of the world. It’s an incredibly strong collection, and if you’re a fan of weird fiction, horror, erotica, or just damn good stories, it’s one you should definitely read.

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Goings On

There are various goings on happening, now or coming up soon, so instead of a really substantive post, I’m going to tell you about them.

On April 5th at The Brooklyn Commons, I’ll be taking part in the New York Review of Science Fiction Readings’ launch party for Clockwork Phoenix 5. Clockwork Phoenix is an excellent anthology series, and the fifth entry is no exception. It’s full of fantastic stories, some of which I’ve covered in my recent Women to Read posts at SF Signal, and my Non-Binary Authors to Read posts right here on this blog. You can find the posts in question here, here, and here. Clockwork Phoenix 5 is currently available for preorder, and will be officially available as of April 5th. Starting March 18th, you can also enter to win your very own copy at Goodreads. I highly recommend grabbing a copy any way you can.

01 Publishing is currently running a Kickstarter for Whispers from the Abyss 2. As you might guess from the title, this is an anthology of Lovecraftian fiction. It contains a story a story of mine set in the same universe as Venice Burning, where R’yleh has risen, time is broken, and humanity is essentially fucked to hell. It’s a love story, of course. As part of the Kickstarter campaign, you can claim a critique from me – up to 8000 words for either a story of a novel excerpt. There’s lots of other fantastic rewards on offer, too. Go check it out!

Speaking of Kickstarters, Apex is currently working toward their second Stretch Goal for their anthology Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling. The anthology is edited by Monica Valentinelli and Jaym Gates and packed full of fantastic authors such as Sunil Patel, Alyssa Wong, Haralambi Markov, Maurice Broaddus, Michael Underwood, and Nisi Shawl taking tropes and flipping them on their heads. Thanks to meeting the first Stretch Goal, I will be contributing an essay to the anthology all about the Heroine’s Journey and everyone’s favorite goblin sparkle fest, Labyrinth.

This March marks Lethe Press’ 15th Anniversary. To celebrate, they’re holding a massive ebook sale. Buy a minimum of three ebooks and get them for $1.50 each. For less than the price of a fancy cup of Starbucks coffee, you could get, oh, say The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again, along with two other fabulous titles. That includes excellent things such as Christopher Barzak’s Before and Afterlives, Richard Bowes’ Dust Devil on a Quiet Street, Where Thy Dark Eye Glances: Queering Edgar Allan Poe edited by Steve Berman, Heiresses of Russ: The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction edited by Jean Roberta and Steve Berman, or Livia Llewellyn’s Engines of Desire.
And that’s just the tip of the highly affordable iceberg. What are you waiting for? Head on over and buy up some ebooks!

 

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An Interview with Mike Allen

Mike Allen was kind enough to drop by my blog today to talk about his latest collection, The Spider Tapestries, among other things. The Spider Tapestries is out on March 1, but there’s a Goodreads giveaway going on right now, so after you’re done reading Mike’s interview, head on over and enter for your chance to win. Now, to get things started, as I frequently do, I will shameless steal Mike’s author bio by way of introduction…

Spider TapestriesMike Allen edits the critically-acclaimed anthology series Clockwork Phoenix and the long-running magazine Mythic Delirium. His books include post-apocalyptic dark fantasy novel The Black Fire Concerto and career-spanning poetry collection Hungry Constellations. Mike’s stories have popped up in places like Weird Tales, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the anthologies Cthulhu’s Reign, Solaris Rising 2 and Tomorrow’s Cthulhu. His poetry has won the Rhysling Award three times, and his fiction has been nominated for the Nebula Award and the Shirley Jackson Award. By day he works as the arts and culture columnist for the daily newspaper in Roanoke, Va., where he lives with his wife Anita, a goofy dog, and two cats with varying degrees of psychosis. You can follow Mike’s exploits as a writer at descentintolight.com, as an editor at mythicdelirium.com, and all at once on Twitter at @mythicdelirium.

First of all, welcome and congratulations on the publication of your latest collection! I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek at The Spider Tapestries, but for those who haven’t, would you care to provide a taste of what’s in store?

Thanks, Alison! The Spider Tapestries samples my writing at its absolute weirdest. It’s funny for me to say that, because just about all of my published stories were born in Bizarreland. But these seven stories (and I always wanted it to be seven, I think because of the rhythm of “Seven Strange Stories” as a subtitle) represent the tales where I pushed hardest against the boundaries of what a story can hold –and in some instances, how a story can be told.

My first collection, Unseaming, had some wacky story structure and surreal plot developments, but I think all the tales in that book can be unambiguously classified as “horror.” While the stories in Spider Tapestries run amok through genre conventions. I tend to describe the book as “half as long as Unseaming and ten times weirder.”

You blend a lot of styles in The Spider Tapestries. One style I was particularly intrigued by was the weird-noir of Twa Sisters and Still Life With Skull. Could you talk about where that voice and world came from? Are there other stories set in this universe? Perhaps a whole story cycle, or even a novel?

“Twa Sisters” was the first, and it came about as a kind of kooky convergence. On the one hand, my buddy Patty Templeton introduced me to the art of Alessandro Bavari, whose astonishing photo-manipulations contain a whole cosmos of post-human decadence. One the other hand, my great friend Nicole Kornher-Stace dared me to write a story the way I write a poem. She was thinking in terms of my use of language, but that’s not the only tool I use in poetry. I’ve written a lot of ekphrastic poetry, and I’ve written concrete poems that arrange words in shapes on the page to convey sci-fi concepts, in deliberate tribute to works by Alfred Bester and Harlan Ellison.

So I decided to write an ekphrastic story based on Bavari’s imagery, and added concrete poetry techniques to convey how the two entities that live inside my first person narrator’s brain have independent points of view. I challenged myself to just make up the story as I went rather than work from an outline, which for some reason led to that mock-noir tone. That established the atmosphere for all that follows. I began “Still Life With Skull” as a lark and finished it for Ian Whates’s Solaris Rising 2 anthology, drawing more inspiration from Bavari’s work. It was a fun exercise: I assumed those surreal images were photographs of real events, and then tried to deduce the who and the why.

I have actually drafted a third story in the sequence, called “The Three-fold Feather,” that will probably end up as a novelette once it’s all spit-polished. I can’t fathom where I’m going to sell that story, but that’s a problem for another day.

In addition to your short fiction, you’re also an award-winning poet, a novelist, and a newspaper columnist. Do you have separate compartments in your brain for each type of writing, or do they all flow into one another? When you need a break from writing all together, are there other creative (or non-creative) outlets you turn to in order to recharge your batteries?

The different types of writing do require some compartmentalization, but not as much as you might think. Stringing together the paragraphs of a news story and stanzas of a poem can be remarkably similar, for example. Often, both are non-linear in structure, and I’m writing them with a mind toward juxtaposing elements so they convey maximum information and impact. When I’m writing a story, I don’t concentrate near as much on cadence and quirky word choice as I do with a poem, and yet, if I had a dime for every response to my work that included some variant on “You can tell the dude’s a poet” … I’d have a nice pile of dimes, heh.

I’ve quite deliberately maneuvered things so that darn near everything I do in my life connects to writing in some way. I love hiking and I’m something of a movie snob, and that might well be about the sum of what there is to know regarding how I spend my time…

On a somewhat related note, you also edit Mythic Delirium, which in its current iteration is a magazine of prose and poetry, and the Clockwork Phoenix anthology series. Do you ever sleep? Or, to put it in a slightly more seriously, how do you balance all your projects? Does your editorial work influence your writing, or vice versa?

I didn’t graduate college with any ambitions to become an editor. In 1995 an acquaintance asked me to edit an anthology, claiming he would provide the funding. This turned out to be a lie, but I had already acquired all the stories and poems before I figured this out! I finished the project on my own dollar, and on the scale of what could be expected from a self-published, Kinko’s-copied, saddle-stapled book in that era, it was a success that actually opened some doors for me. That book , New Dominions, is long forgotten, but it showed me that I could pull off that kind of project. So I kept pursuing them.

How do I balance them? Quite poorly! I do sleep occasionally though.

My writing and editing do cross-pollinate, but it’s difficult to explain exactly how. As an editor, I get introduced to writers who are working well outside the mainstream (some of them I catch while they’re still on their way toward re-defining the mainstream). That’s great for me, in terms of discovering creative regions to explore that are new to me. As a writer myself, I know what my hopes are in terms of how an editor will treat my work, and so I use those as guidelines for how I approach editing. I think my tastes as an editor are significantly different from my tastes as a writer, though: more breadth of subject matter, more light to balance the darkness, fewer monsters and corpses.

At conventions, you have been known to roam the halls wearing a truly fabulous hat. It looks like the kind of hat with a story behind it. Is there a story, or is it the sort of thing where if you told me, you’d have to kill me?

Alas, the hat you reference has vanished into the aether! A natural outcome, I suppose, for a gift from a Goblin Queen (i.e. Amal El-Mohtar, co-editor of Goblin Fruit). My wife, Anita, must be given due credit for having added more and more decorations to that hat until it achieved extreme fabulousity — everything on it referenced something I had written. A replacement may be in the works.

I have no doubt that the new hat will be every bit as fabulous as its predecessor! Anyway, now that your second collection is out in the world, what are you working on next?

I am revising a novel, Trail of Shadows, that’s an expansion of one of my stories from Unseaming, “The Hiker’s Tale.” I’m also busy promoting my newest anthology, Clockwork Phoenix 5, which you know as you contributed an awesome story to its pages (he said with a grin).

Aww, shucks! You’re too kind. Thank you for stopping by!

Thanks for letting me do so!

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A Glitter Bomb for Your Ears

Glitter SquadronHas this ever happened to you? You find yourself sitting around the house, or at the office, or stuck in traffic, and you think to yourself, how can I get more glitter in my life? Wonder no more, my friend! The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again is now available as an audio book! The stories and the cocktail recipes between them are wonderfully narrated by Renata Friedman, and you can grab your very own copy at Audible or through Amazon. Now you can take glitter with you wherever you go! Planning a road trip? Let the Glitter Squadron ride shotgun! Headed to the gym? Let the Glitter Squadron make your workout fabulous! Writing an angry letter to the editor about how there are too many birds in your neighborhood? The Glitter Squadron will help soothe your rage-filled soul!

Still not convinced? Check out what these fine reviewers have to say about the collection…

Ana Grilo of The Book Smugglers gave the collection an 8/10 in her review at Kirkus, and called it “whimsical” and “delightful”.

Mieneke van der Salm aka A Fantastical Librarian called the collection “fun to read” “but also surprisingly touching and serious” in her review.

Derek Newman-Stille of Speculating Canada calls it “as beautifully, sparklingly camp as the title suggests” in his review.

Alyx Dellamonica compares the stories to “gems strung together in a necklace” in her review at Tor.com, and she named it among her favorite books of 2015.

Now you can get all that fabulous glittery goodness in audio form. As an extra bonus, listening to the book will leave your hands conveniently free for mixing up one of those aforementioned cocktail recipes so you can sip along with the gang as they save the world. If you’ve ever wanted fill your ears with glitter, there’s finally have a medically safe way to do so. Happy listening!

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Non-Binary Authors to Read: Where to Start – Part 5

It’s been a while, but it’s time for another edition of Non-Binary Authors to Read. If you’re new to this series, here’s where you can find part 1, 2, 3, and 4. Now that you’re all caught up, let’s get this part 5 party started!

Penny Stirling is an agender author from Western Australia. My recommended starting place for ous work is Kin, Painted from the Summer 2015 issue of Lackington’s Magazine. The language in this story is flat-out gorgeous. It concerns a family of artists, each with their skin painted or adorned in a way that both makes them a living work of art, and expresses something about their personality. The protagonist’s father is decorated with game boards for chess and backgammon worked into his skin, their mother is a dancer coated in glass and reflective paint, one of their sisters is a royal guard painted in camouflage, and one of their brothers, the lover of the Duchess’ son, is tattooed with roses from the Duchess’ garden. So it goes for every member of the family, except the protagonist who still struggles with how best to define themselves. Over the course of the story, they try on a myriad of different art forms – watercolor, ink, mosaic, chalk. Each attempt is lovingly described, as are the characters. Stirling gives readers a world of gender fluidity, of family, and of finding oneself. Each character feels fully realized, with their own arcs to follow in the tale. The result is a portrait (if you’ll excuse the pun) that feels epic, yet on an intimate scale. Taken all together, it’s a very worthy starting place for Stirling’s work.

Laurie Penny is an author, journalist, feminist, and activist. My recommended starting place for her work is How to Be a Genderqueer Feminist published at Buzzfeed. While Buzzfeed is better known for clickbait articles in the vein of 21 things you can list that will make people follow this link, Penny’s essay is heartfelt, honest, and speaks to a larger truth. In it, Penny discusses her own gender identity, and growing up feeling like she never fit in with either binary of girls or boys. Similar to David J. Schwartz essay about the restrictive nature of masculinity, which I discussed in an earlier installment of this series, Penny talks about how her early understanding of feminism was damaging to her. The restrictive category of female can be as problematic as the restrictive category of male. Penny’s journey took her through an eating disorder, suicidal ideation, questioning of her sexuality and gender identity, and eventually emerging on the other side to find a supportive community that helped her understand her identity. How to Be a Genderqueer Feminist is an important essay furthering the discussion around the spectrum of gender, pushing for less limited definitions, and showing there is room for a wide range of expressions of self. Hopefully it is the kind of piece that will help others struggling with their notions of who they are, and either way, it is a wonderful starting place for Penny’s work.

Sarah Benwell is a YA author, and my recommended starting place is the essay Knights, Defenders and Double-Edged Swords at Gay YA. The essay is brief, but important. It is a call to action, a call for representation of genderfluid characters in YA literature. It is the kind of thing, if acted upon might help youth going through the same journey Laurie Penny describes in her essay feel less alone. As most people are painfully aware, young adulthood is a formative time, and can be a confusing one. People try on identities and figure out who and how they want to be in the world. Many of us turn to literature for role models, and as Benwell points out a lack of genderfluid and non-binary characters can be actively damaging. To quote directly: How can anyone feel good, normal, okay, wanted, valued, if they cannot find themselves? With no role models to look up to, and no language to explain themselves? No stories. When society either confronts them or denies that they exist (and sometimes does both in one breath)? You can’t. We need representation. Erasure of marginalized groups is too common in literature overall, but in YA it’s especially impactful. Benwell’s essay draws attention to the importance of representation, and pushes for more of it across the field, making it an excellent starting place.

Alex Dally MacFarlane is an author, editor and historian. My recommended starting point for their work is Two Bright Venuses from Clockwork Phoenix 5. The story takes its inspiration from a real 17th century BCE astronomical record, which describes the rising of a superior and inferior Venus. The story posits two Venuses as fact. Because of their twin nature, exploration of them is only possible through a unique form of synchronicity – astronauts made to be exact mirrors of each other in every way, acting in complete unison. This is the kind of story that slips between the cracks of genre, straddling and blurring the line between science fiction and weird fiction. It is both a tale of space exploration, and a tale of ghosts, as the planet Venus reaches out to overwrite the astronauts trying to understand it. There are shades of Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X trilogy here, as MacFarlane presents the reader with an unknowable Venus, a wild place that is ancient and changes those who try to explore it. The story also explores elements of identity as the astronauts, Inferior Irunn and Superior Irunn, are linked to both each other and the planet. Which feelings are truly their own, which are external to them? Where do the boundaries lie, and in the end, does it matter? What is self in the face of something so vast? There are hints of mythology at play, and while the story doesn’t necessarily give readers an easy path by explaining itself upfront, it is well worth it. The story is richer for making readers pay close attention and work to understand the shape the of the world. Haunted and haunting, it is an excellent starting place for MacFarlane’s work.

Four more authors, four more excellent works to read. As always, I invite you to leave your own suggestions for work by non-binary authors in the comments.

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