Emma Newman’s latest novel, Before Mars, is set in the same science fiction universe as two of her previously published books, Planetfall and Clarke Award finalist After Atlas. Despite being the third book in this setting, it does stand alone as a complete story, although I did find myself occasionally wondering if I might have felt more connected to it had I read the others first and been familiar with the major events that were referenced. After having finished it, I believe this lack of connection had more to do with the way it introduced some intriguing characterization and concepts but did not follow through with deeper exploration.
Before Mars begins with Anna, a geologist and artist whose billionaire boss sent her to paint unique landscapes of Mars, arriving on the planet after having spent six months alone traveling through space. During her long journey, the closest she came to human contact was being immersed in memories stored in her neural chip—which is rather risky since she’s been told she’s especially susceptible to immersion psychosis, a condition that makes it difficult to distinguish between past memories and present circumstances and can result in seeing things that are not truly there.
After Anna undergoes a successful medical evaluation and is shown to her room, she discovers a note warning her not to trust one of the other four residents of the Mars base. What she finds truly unnerving about this situation is that she knows she had to have written it herself since it’s on the same uncommon non-disposable paper she uses for her art, painted in her own style—but she cannot recall having created it.
This message is just the first in a series of strange occurrences that lead Anna to wonder if she can trust what she sees or if she could be experiencing the same dissonance with reality as her father—who traumatized her so deeply that she’s never been able to forgive him.
Before Mars is largely both a futuristic mystery and a character portrait, and both of these aspects are built upon suspense since the story of Anna’s past is gradually revealed. It starts with the big picture—such as her horror at the idea of becoming like her father—and fills in the details of her childhood and family, her relationship with her husband and daughter, her career as a geologist and hobby as an artist, and how she came to be on Mars. Despite being confident that I knew what had happened with the main mystery within the first couple of chapters, I was curious enough about the hows and whys of it and Anna’s history to keep reading.
One aspect of the novel that kept me turning the pages was the candidness of Anna’s first person viewpoint, particularly when it came to her struggles with motherhood—a role she never wanted in the first place—and postpartum depression. She carries a lot of guilt about not feeling like a good enough mother since she never felt that instant love that everyone always talks about being overwhelmed by the first time they see their child. Anna also never had a desire to make her daughter her whole world and left most of the childcare to her husband. Though there’s focus on her husband and their baby, Anna’s long felt she had to fake her way through life in order to pursue her career ambitions, pretending to be someone else and exhibiting the “normal” human emotions that others expect her to feel. Anna’s perspective is also open about the PTSD from her childhood experience and her dislike of therapy.
As much as I appreciated the honest look at Anna’s fears and some occasional poignant descriptions of her difficulties and art, her narrative didn’t entirely work for me mainly because it delved into her thoughts so thoroughly that not much room was left for subtlety. The majority of Anna’s characterization seems to follow the pattern of a flashback to her life on Earth coupled with a dump of all of her related thoughts, and though Anna’s viewpoint is not 100% reliable since she is capable of lying to herself or changing her mind later, it also often clearly spells out what we’re supposed to know about her. Anna doesn’t actually interact in real-time with those she has the closest relationships with since they’re all back on Earth, and though it fit thematically, I felt that showing all of these through her memories became stale after awhile—especially since it didn’t show her developing meaningful bonds on Mars or undergoing major character development herself. (That’s not to say that she didn’t develop any meaningful relationships on Mars but rather that the forging of such bonds was glossed over.)
As the type of reader who primarily enjoys reading about people over plot, the determining factors in whether or not a book works for me personally are usually characters and the exploration of society—and unfortunately, the latter also failed to keep me interested the further I got into the novel. Since the present timeline is set on an isolated base on Mars occupied by five people, the ways in which the world has changed for humanity as a whole are also glimpsed through flashbacks and infodumps. The main story is primarily focused on advanced technology that is rather standard in science fiction such as the AI that maintains operations on Mars, the printers that automatically create food and many other items, and the neural implants that are central to the story. Though I don’t mind inclusion of common elements, I do tend to prefer stories that examine ideas and societal effects. Before Mars does do this to an extent, but it seemed as though it just brought up typical issues such as security and privacy with increased digitization but only touched on them without going into depth.
That’s the crux of why I found Before Mars increasingly unsatisfying: it basically tried to stuff Anna’s life story plus the Martian mystery into about 340 pages. Though there are some interesting parts here, it’s constantly jumping around as it touches on many topics and themes, but in the end it seems to skim over many of them with a brief mention before racing toward the next thing. I found this frustrating because there were occasionally some beautifully written lines about art or science or humanity, but they were few and far between as it skipped from one scene to the next without breathing room—and I found these and Anna’s past far more compelling than the the Mars story, which seemed to bog down in the middle. It did pick up again toward the end, but at that point, I was still a little curious about the conclusion but mostly wanted to finish what I had started since it was a fairly short book.
If you’re a fan of futuristic mysteries looking for a diverting book, you may enjoy Before Mars more than I did. I have found that books in a similar vein don’t tend to work well for me even though they do for many others, and after reading samples from Planetfall and After Atlas, I concluded that this is probably a case of a well-loved series that is just not my cup of tea.
Today I’m delighted to welcome Karen Sandler to the blog! She’s the author of the Tankborn trilogy, a young adult science fiction series comprised of Tankborn, Awakening, and Rebellion. Tankborn, which I reviewed during Sci-Fi Month 2013, is a futuristic page-turner with some mystery/suspense and a little romance—and Karen Sandler is here today to share about the process of adapting screenplays based on this book and its sequels and the Recombined film project!
Movie to Books to Movie to TV
What starts as a movie script, morphs into a trilogy of books, segues briefly into a short story, rises again as a movie script, and aspires to be a TV series? The Tankborn Trilogy.
First came the movie script, Icer. I’ve been a science geek most of my life. I studied math, physics, and computer science in college and grew up reading and watching science fiction. During a UCLA Extension course on screenwriting I started my first feature length script, Icer, an SF story that revolved around genetic engineering.
After I finished Icer, I wrote other scripts and the occasional novel. But screenwriting is a tough business, so I decided to focus just on novels, and I published my first book in 1998. I wrote mainly romance novels, ten of them for Harlequin. After 16 books, I hit the wall with romance and decided to switch to young adult.
But what to write? I still loved sci-fi. And I had this great sci-fi story in Icer. What if I adapted it as a book for teens? I jumped into the project feet first, moving the Earth-based story from Icer to the planet Loka and changing my main characters from adults to teens. The result was Tankborn, which became a launch book for Lee and Low’s brand new Tu Books imprint.
Over the ensuing years, I completed the trilogy: Tankborn, Awakening, and Rebellion. The three books didn’t follow the original movie script exactly. A feature script is usually only 100-120 pages and the trilogy ended up comprising more than 1100 pages. I had to expand far beyond the story of the script. But each of the books contains bits and pieces of Icer’s story. Step 1 was complete: movie script → book trilogy.
Then in September 2016, I had an opportunity to attend an event sponsored jointly by the Alliance of Women Directors and the Writers Guild of America. At the time, I had a number of polished feature scripts I wanted to pitch to the women directors I’d be meeting. Of course, one of those scripts was Icer.
With every intention of pitching Icer, I also brought along a copy of Tankborn. I had no feature film credits to my name, having only had a few short scripts produced. I thought showing the directors a published book might impress them.
It worked, although not necessarily the way I thought it would. Several of the directors I pitched were more interested in the three books of the Tankborn Trilogy than they were in Icer. They kept referring to the trilogy as “IP” (which I eventually figured out was “intellectual property”) and peppered me with questions about them. Three requested copies of the books.
One of those three was director Regina Ainsworth. She’d requested autographed physical copies (I’d sent the others ebooks), and a few months later she contacted me to let me know she wanted to chat with me about my work. We spoke in January 2017 by phone. Regina proposed a feature film (maybe a trilogy), but by then I’d had a real vision of the Tankborn Trilogy as a television series. I made my case, and Regina agreed.
So how was I going to adapt the big, complex plot of Tankborn to the visual medium of television? Especially when I admittedly have a love affair with internal dialogue and tight POV. Being in a character’s head, thinking their thoughts and seeing the world through their eyes, might work in a novel but it’s a non-starter for film or television. An actor has to be able to act out (make visual) everything a character does.
I could have cut all those internal dialogue/tight POV scenes. But sometimes there’s important information in the character’s head that the audience needs to know.
Having written both scripts and books, the challenge was an intriguing one. It was reminiscent of when I was a software engineer and had to modify and debug computer code. Maybe more like translating a program from one computer language to another.
To demonstrate how I translated some of the internal dialogue into a visual scene, I’m including a couple of examples from the novel & pilot below. But first, here’s a thumbnail sketch of Tankborn to give you some story context:
Genetically Engineered Non-humans (GENs) are created in a gen-tank, programmed with a particular ability or skill called a sket, and enslaved from birth. As part of GENs’ gestation in the tank, gene-splicers install circuitry in their bodies and brains. This includes an interface on their cheek that allows “trueborns” to upload or download new programming, or to erase GEN identities entirely during a reset.
On to the examples. Here’s some text from Page 1 of the first book, Tankborn.
An actor could show Kayla hunched on the river bank with a disagreeable look on her face showing that she’s unhappy to be there. I could have written some dialogue between Kayla and her nurture-brother Jal to reveal what Kayla’s plans had been for the day. But there was more subtext that needed to be included besides just Kayla’s grumpiness. I really needed to rethink this scene to make it work for a visual medium.
So I created a new scene that hadn’t been in the book. I placed Kayla and her nurture-mother, Tala, at a worship service. Kayla’s and Tala’s argument about why Kayla has to go to the river with Jal is woven in with the worship prayers.
This bit of dialogue serves three purposes. 1) Introduces the GEN faith which is based on servitude. 2) Sets up Kayla having to go to the river with Jal. 3) Teases Kayla’s “sket,” the special ability that the gene-splicers programmed into her while she was in the tank. Her sket will be revealed in the river scene.
In another new scene that follows the worship service, I include the subtext of Tala’s real reason for sending Kayla to the river to accompany Jal.
Once I finished the pilot and outlined the entire first season of the Tankborn series, I felt I was close to getting the pieces of a “series bible” together. Then Regina introduced a new wrinkle: we needed a short film, set in Tankborn’s world, to be part of our pitch. We needed a “visual” to sell our concept.
I proposed we base the short film on an “outtake” scene from Tankborn that didn’t make it into the final version of the book. Regina loved the idea, and I went to work on the script. While the pilot was 50 pages, the short film had to be only 5-7 pages. Writing short is tough, but after some back and forth, we locked down the script. We nailed down a title too: Recombined. Step 2 was complete: book trilogy (a fragment of it anyway) → movie script.
We’re now on to the next phase of our short film, crowdfunding. That’s where we’ve asked our friends, and friends of friends, and people who don’t even know us if they can pitch in a little bit to help us make Recombined. Click the picture below to check out our campaign.
Regina and I are very passionate about this project (as is Neobe Velis, our producer). We’re especially excited that Recombined will be a inclusive production, with a diverse cast and crew. With a particular commitment to gender parity in front of and behind the camera.
But we can’t get it done without help from others. And by “help,” I mean donations. If that’s something that inspires you, check out our campaign page. Any amount from $1 on up will be greatly appreciated. Even better, donations are tax deductible. And every one will help us complete Step 3: Movie script → TV series.
Want to share about the campaign on Facebook or Twitter? Also very much appreciated. Here’s a sample post:
And going back to the beginning of this blog post, you might remember I mentioned that Tankborn segued briefly into a short story. That story is “Sacrifice,” set in Tankborn’s world and featuring new characters. “Sacrifice” is for sale on Amazon, but if you donate any amount to the Recombined campaign from $1 on up, forward me the receipt and I will send you a free copy of “Sacrifice” as a thank you.
The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I discuss books I got over the last week–old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (usually unsolicited). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.
Since last month was Women in SF&F Month, it’s been awhile since one of these posts so there’s a lot of catching up to do! This post covers the last month instead of the last week with the books I’m most intrigued by featured with covers and descriptions, as usual—except for the books that I’m most excited about, which were already featured on my anticipated 2018 releases list (but if you are curious about which ones those are, they are at the end with a link to the full list!).
On to the latest ARCs and review copies, plus a couple of birthday books!
Song of Blood and Stone (Earthsinger Chronicles #1) by L. Penelope
L. Penelope’s debut novel, Song of Blood and Stone, won the Black Caucus of the American Library Association’s Self-Publishing EBook Award for Fiction in 2016. On May 1, this romantic fantasy novel became available in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook formats through St. Martin’s Press, who will also be publishing further installments in the Earthsinger Chronicles series.
A treacherous, thrilling, epic fantasy about an outcast drawn into a war between two powerful rulers.
Orphaned and alone, Jasminda lives in a land where cold whispers of invasion and war linger on the wind. Jasminda herself is an outcast in her homeland of Elsira, where her gift of Earthsong is feared. When ruthless soldiers seek refuge in her isolated cabin, they bring with them a captive–an injured spy who threatens to steal her heart.
Jack’s mission behind enemy lines to prove that the Mantle between Elsira and Lagamiri is about to fall nearly cost him his life, but he is saved by the healing Song of a mysterious young woman. Now he must do whatever it takes to save Elsira and it’s people from the True Father and he needs Jasminda’s Earthsong to do it. They escape their ruthless captors and together they embark on a perilous journey to save Elsira and to uncover the secrets of The Queen Who Sleeps.
Thrust into a hostile society, Jasminda and Jack must rely on one another even as secrets jeopardize their bond. As an ancient evil gains power, Jasminda races to unlock a mystery that promises salvation.
The fates of two nations hang in the balance as Jasminda and Jack must choose between love and duty to fulfill their destinies and end the war.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy meets the joy and glamour of Eurovision in bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente’s science fiction spectacle, where sentient races compete for glory in a galactic musical contest…and the stakes are as high as the fate of planet Earth.
A century ago, the Sentience Wars tore the galaxy apart and nearly ended the entire concept of intelligent space-faring life. In the aftermath, a curious tradition was invented—something to cheer up everyone who was left and bring the shattered worlds together in the spirit of peace, unity, and understanding.
Once every cycle, the great galactic civilizations gather for the Metagalactic Grand Prix—part gladiatorial contest, part beauty pageant, part concert extravaganza, and part continuation of the wars of the past. Species far and wide compete in feats of song, dance and/or whatever facsimile of these can be performed by various creatures who may or may not possess, in the traditional sense, feet, mouths, larynxes, or faces. And if a new species should wish to be counted among the high and the mighty, if a new planet has produced some savage group of animals, machines, or algae that claim to be, against all odds, sentient? Well, then they will have to compete. And if they fail? Sudden extermination for their entire species.
This year, though, humankind has discovered the enormous universe. And while they expected to discover a grand drama of diplomacy, gunships, wormholes, and stoic councils of aliens, they have instead found glitter, lipstick, and electric guitars. Mankind will not get to fight for its destiny—they must sing.
Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes have been chosen to represent their planet on the greatest stage in the galaxy. And the fate of Earth lies in their ability to rock.
In a city that runs on industrialized magic, a secret war will be fought to overwrite reality itself–the first in a dazzling new fantasy series from City of Stairs author Robert Jackson Bennett.
Sancia Grado is a thief, and a damn good one. And her latest target, a heavily guarded warehouse on Tevanne’s docks, is nothing her unique abilities can’t handle.
But unbeknownst to her, Sancia’s been sent to steal an artifact of unimaginable power, an object that could revolutionize the magical technology known as scriving. The Merchant Houses who control this magic–the art of using coded commands to imbue everyday objects with sentience–have already used it to transform Tevanne into a vast, remorseless capitalist machine. But if they can unlock the artifact’s secrets, they will rewrite the world itself to suit their aims.
Now someone in those Houses wants Sancia dead, and the artifact for themselves. And in the city of Tevanne, there’s nobody with the power to stop them.
To have a chance at surviving—and at stopping the deadly transformation that’s under way—Sancia will have to marshal unlikely allies, learn to harness the artifact’s power for herself, and undergo her own transformation, one that will turn her into something she could never have imagined.
In an exhilarating new series, New York Times bestselling author Rachel Caine rewrites history, creating a dangerous world where the Great Library of Alexandria has survived the test of time.…
Ruthless and supremely powerful, the Great Library is now a presence in every major city, governing the flow of knowledge to the masses. Alchemy allows the Library to deliver the content of the greatest works of history instantly—but the personal ownership of books is expressly forbidden.
Jess Brightwell believes in the value of the Library, but the majority of his knowledge comes from illegal books obtained by his family. Jess has been sent to be his family’s spy, but his loyalties are tested in the final months of his training to enter the Library’s service.
When his friend inadvertently commits heresy by creating a device that could change the world, Jess discovers that those who control the Great Library believe knowledge is more valuable than any human life—and soon both heretics and books will burn.…
Debutante by day. Murderess by night. Edinburgh’s only hope.
Edinburgh, 1844. Beautiful Aileana Kameron only looks the part of an aristocratic young lady. In fact, she’s spent the year since her mother died developing her ability to sense the presence of Sithichean, a faery race bent on slaughtering humans. She has a secret mission: to destroy the faery who murdered her mother. But when she learns she’s a Falconer, the last in a line of female warriors and the sole hope of preventing a powerful faery population from massacring all of humanity, her quest for revenge gets a whole lot more complicated. The first volume of a trilogy from an exciting new voice in young adult fantasy, this electrifying thriller blends romance and action with steampunk technology and Scottish lore in a deliciously addictive read.
The epic battle between humankind and their godlike rulers finally ignites in the masterful follow-up to Age of Myth and Age of Swords.
The alliance of humans and renegade Fhrey is fragile—and about to be tested as never before. Persephone keeps the human clans from turning on one another through her iron will and a compassionate heart. The arrogant Fhrey are barely held in check by their leader, Nyphron, who seeks to advance his own nefarious agenda through a loveless marriage that will result in the betrayal of the person Persephone loves most: Raithe, the God Killer.
As the Fhrey overlords marshal their army and sorcerers to crush the rebellion, old loyalties will be challenged while fresh conspiracies will threaten to undo all that Persephone has accomplished. In the darkest hour, when hope is all but lost, new heroes will rise . . . but at what terrible cost?
The Tethered Mage, Melissa Caruso’s Venetian-inspired fantasy debut novel, was one of my favorite books read during 2017. The worldbuilding is thoughtfully done, and it also features wonderful characters and relationships, mystery and political intrigue, and a little romantic development. It’s so compulsively readable that I ended up staying up until 2:00 one morning finishing it, and I could hardly wait to continue the story in The Defiant Heir—and now that I’ve also read the sequel, I can hardly wait for the third book in the Swords and Fire trilogy. The Defiant Heir has everything I loved about the first book and more, and it’s even better than The Tethered Mage!
Now that the situation in Ardence has been resolved, the threat of the Raverran Empire ordering Amalia to unleash Zaira’s power as her Falconer, and in turn ordering her Falcon to use her abilities to burn down the city, has ended. However, war with a neighboring country appears likely, and Zaira’s rare gift as a fire mage will be one of the Empire’s greatest assets if they are forced to fight the mighty Witch Lords of Vaskandar.
As the possibility of devastating conflict looms on the horizon, Falconers are being murdered and their Falcons are missing, presumed dead—and all signs point toward one of the seventeen Witch Lords of Vaskandar after one of her assassins attacks a Falcon during a dinner party.
With the fate of her country and its people at stake, Amalia decides that the potential benefits outweigh the risks when she has the chance to form an alliance with another Witch Lord, Kathe the Crow Lord, who may even be able to procure her entry to a gathering of Witch Lords so she can plead her case for peace. Yet the terms of such a partnership remain vague and everything is a game to Kathe—and Amalia’s increasingly uncertain just how dangerous playing Kathe’s games may be…
The Tethered Mage is an excellent debut novel that set a high bar for its followup, but The Defiant Heir takes the series to the next level in every way. While the first book introduced the Raverran Empire and its system for weaponizing mages—and also showed how this could not only work but even be a desirable way of life for many mage-marked given the alternatives—the next book expands the world beyond the borders of Amalia’s homeland, showing a land that’s ruled by mages. This and the focus on Amalia’s father’s side of the family leads to a deeper understanding of the world and its history, and there are also higher stakes deeply felt because of the amount of emotional investment in the characters and the bond between Amalia and Zaira. Plus there’s a lot that’s just plain fun given their camaraderie and amusing dialogue, the various quirks of the Witch Lords, and my favorite new addition of all: Kathe, whose very presence automatically makes everything far more interesting.
There’s a lot I want to gush about cover in this review, but first, I want to emphasize that one of its main strengths is the details: what may seem like little embellishments on their own add up to make a big difference. Though the bones of its main plot and subplots are pretty common in fantasy, it’s fresh and riveting because of touches like humorous conversations and observations, the various personalities, the workings of magic, and even unconventional fashions. There’s much that’s familiar in this novel, but Melissa Caruso made it stand apart not only through these touches but also through the addition of a couple of components that are not terribly common in the genre—and more importantly, by handling them with obvious consideration.
One of the ways she does this is by allowing the characters to be fairly free to be themselves due to gender equality. They may face issues due to class or possessing the mage mark like anyone else, but women (and men) are politicians, warriors, rulers, soldiers, assassins, and mages. When Amalia remembers her cousin being told she couldn’t pretend to be in a certain role because she was a princess, it had nothing to do with her being a girl and everything to do with her being royalty. Men and women alike fear Amalia’s mother, and men do not underestimate her or feel shame for fearing a woman. Zaira is outspoken and prickly, makes crude comments, and flirts with both men and women—and no one questions a woman behaving in such a manner. Marcello and Roland can be reflective and sensitive at times—and no one questions a man behaving in such a manner. There are various degrees of ruthless women and ruthless men, and there are various degrees of women and men who strive to be virtuous. Individuals have a range of personalities, and though they are of course shaped by their experiences, they are not at all boxed in by society’s gendered expectations and it’s incredibly refreshing.
Another somewhat uncommon aspect that I enjoyed is the exploration of systems of government that are not monarchies. The last book showed more of the workings of the Raverran Empire with its doge and Council of Nine (which includes Amalia’s mother and will eventually include Amalia as her heir), and this one is largely focused on Vaskandar. This country is headed by seventeen Witch Lords, each of whom has their own domain and life-based magic with an affinity for a specific plant or animal, such as bears, crows, foxes, laurels, eagles, or spiders, to name a few. These Witch Lords are not a unified group but individuals who follow the rule of the mage-marked and have the same methods for maintaining their power and ties to their land. They may forge alliances with each other, work against each other, or ignore what the others are doing, and they’re various degrees of vicious—though even the more vicious can be motivated by understandable human desires. (But not the Most Vicious. The Most Vicious of them all is just plain evil.)
Learning more about Vaskandar and the secrets of its Witch Lords’ unique power was one of the highlights of The Defiant Heir, and I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of Witch Lords after having only met one of their heirs, the unusually cruel Prince Ruven, in the previous novel. Some of them only briefly appear, but each of them seem like fascinating characters no matter how brief their appearance—and Kathe, the one who appears the most, is one of the major reasons this novel is so engaging. Kathe is a mystery. He’s definitely not fond of torture like Ruven and he certainly can be helpful, but the only straightforward statements he makes are that he has his own ends and can’t be trusted. Though he doesn’t seem like the type to outright lie, he does seem like he may be the type to omit key details, but he’s so charismatic that Amalia and I both couldn’t help but like him all while knowing he might betray Amalia at any time.
Amalia has changed a lot since the beginning of the previous book when she was more interested in books than politics (though she does still like books, of course!). After her recent success at the end of the first novel, she’s more actively stepping into her role as her mother’s heir and keenly experiencing the struggles that come with it: the weight of expectations, the knowledge that she can’t escape making choices that affect lives like her mother does, the difficulty of balancing loyalty to country with compassion, and the sorrow of choosing duty over love. Though there are certainly some heavier parts as Amalia faces some difficult decisions toward the end, there’s also a lot of light in the dialogue between characters and I was especially pleased to see how Amalia and Zaira’s friendship has progressed. Even if they have occasional misunderstandings or disagreements, they obviously trust each other more and their banter and teasing is delightful.
As much as I appreciate that Amalia is a scholarly heroine embracing a legacy based on intelligence and scheming, the biggest issue I had with The Defiant Heir is that I don’t believe Amalia measures up to the reputation she’s beginning to build as a savvy political player. I don’t want to sell her short because she is generally smart even if her inexperience shows at times (such as when verbally sparring with Kathe), and she does have some good ideas and advice. However, there are certainly times when she stumbles into the answer she needs instead of discovering it on her own or receives more credit for a result than she deserves.
That said, I absolutely LOVED The Defiant Heir. It’s extraordinarily fun with wonderful characters and intriguing mysteries that kept me eagerly anticipating what would happen next. While I sped through the first book in this series, I read this one more slowly, savoring every delicious conversation and speculating about where it may be heading—and I can hardly contain my excitement for the third installment in the Swords and Fire trilogy.
Also, thank you again to all of this month’s guests for your wonderful essays! To those who may be coming in at the end of this month’s series, you can find all of the Women in SF&F Month 2018 guest posts here, or you can find the ones that came before last week individually below:
Though the month of guest posts has ended, there is still time to add books to the list using the link above. It will remain open for at least another couple of weeks to allow those just finding out about it time to enter some books.
Today’s guest is RITA Award–winning writer Ann Aguirre! Her Sirantha Jax books, beginning with the romantic space opera Grimspace, are addictive reads that wonderfully balance plot and action with character development and relationships—and due to that combination, it was a series that made me realize that I could love science fiction every bit as much as fantasy! She’s also the author of many more books, including but not limited to the Corine Solomon series (urban fantasy), the Dred Chronicles (romantic science fiction set in the same world as Sirantha Jax), and the Razorland series (YA dystopia). Her two newest novels were both released during the previous couple of months: Honor Among Thieves, the first book in a new YA science fiction series co-written with Rachel Caine, and The Wolf Lord, the third book in the paranormal romance series Ars Numina.
I first sold to New York in 2007, over eleven years ago. That book was Grimspace, a story I wrote largely to please myself because it was hard for me to find the sort of science fiction that I wanted to read. I love space opera, but in the past, I found that movies and television delivered more of the stories I enjoyed. At the time, I was super excited to be published in science fiction and fantasy.
My first professional appearance was scheduled at a small con in Alabama. I was so excited for that, so fresh and full of hope. Let’s just say that my dreams were dashed quite spectacularly. I was sexually harassed by multiple colleagues and the men I encountered seemed to think I existed to serve them. To say that my work wasn’t taken seriously is an understatement. That was only reinforced when I made my first appearance at SDCC (San Diego Comic Con) six months later.
There, the moderator called me the ‘token female’, mispronounced my last name without checking with me first (she checked with the male author seated next to me), and the male panelists spoke over me, interrupted me at will, and gave me very little chance to speak. I remember quite clearly how humiliated I was, while also hoping that it wasn’t noticeable to the audience.
Dear Reader, it was very noticeable. Afterward, David Brin, who was in the audience, came up to me with a sympathetic look and he made a point of shaking my hand. He said, “Well, I was very interested in what you had to say.” With a pointed stress on the word “I.”
This was pretty crushing for me as a baby writer. It sucked to discover that my work didn’t carry the same weight as my peers. I struggled with it for quite a while, attended other cons and tried to figure out why I constantly felt like I didn’t fit. After a while, though, I started comparing notes with other writers, like Ilona Andrews. She’s had similar experiences at SFF cons and like me, she tried negotiating those waters politely at first.
With limited success. So I stepped away from SFF for quite a while. Now, I’m taking stock, figuring out what progress has been made in the last ten years. Is it better for women? Since I’m on the periphery these days, to me, it seems like it might be opening up a bit. I’m glad to see more women being nominated for important awards, but I think there’s probably more work to do yet. Not only for women but for non-binary writers as well. The fact is, it’s still easiest to gain recognition if you’re a white cis male SFF writer.
I asked a few of my colleagues for their thoughts, and Ilona Andrews writes, “What can we do better to even the scales in SFF? If you are a female and especially if you’re a WOC, grow some shark teeth. Stop demurring. Stop undercharging. Stop avoiding conflict. Stop taking less than a man for the same amount of work. Support other women. Call out haters when they sneer. That’s all I’ve got.”
I’m happy to report that there is light at the end of the tunnel, as reported by Piper J. Drake: “My experience in SFF has been overall positive even though the majority of my books are not SFF at this time. I started as an SFR / PNR and steampunk author. I still love SFF and UF and plan to write in those genres again eventually.” However, she offers a caveat: “But my experience has been limited and focused. I’ve been a guest host an @WritingExcuses podcast – which has a predominately Fantasy and Science Fiction audience. I’m staff/instructor on the Writing Excuses annual workshop and retreat.”
Which means that we need to keep pushing for those seats at the table. The community won’t change unless we agitate for it. I don’t have any easy answers, but I am glad to see some progress.
Ms. Drake also adds, “I’ve volunteered my time to the Nebula Conference programming committee. Both times I’ve attended the Nebula Conference, my experience has been mostly positive. I’ve been respected or at least never treated with disrespect. I’ve been genuinely welcomed by many.”
So that’s good news for me, Ilona Andrews, Rachel Caine, and Kate Elliott, who has seen more changes in the community than I could articulate. One thing’s certain, however. We need to build a community where everyone feels welcome, and I’m open to ideas on how to best achieve that.
Thanks for having me on the blog!
Ann Aguirre is a New York Times & USA Today bestselling author with a degree in English Literature; before she began writing full time, she was a clown, a clerk, a voice actress, and a savior of stray kittens, not necessarily in that order. She grew up in a yellow house across from a cornfield, but now she lives in sunny Mexico with her husband, children, and various pets. She likes books, emo music, and action movies. She writes all kinds of genre fiction for adults and teens.
Today I’m thrilled to welcome Mary Fan to the blog! She’s the author of the Jane Colt books, a completed space opera/cyberpunk trilogy, and Starswept, YA science fiction romance featuring a violist. In addition to writing novels, she also co-edits and has written stories for the Brave New Girls series, science fiction anthologies about girls in STEM, whose sales benefit the Society of Women Engineers scholarship fund. Her next novel, the young adult fantasy Flynn Nightsider and the Edge of Evil, will be released about three weeks from now—on May 15!
Not the Main Character, Not the Sidekick
Whenever there’s an ensemble cast in a sci-fi/fantasy, a familiar pattern emerges. The main character, the hero, is almost always a cis/straight/white guy. There’s a guy best friend who exists to prop up the hero—to do those little side-plot things and give funky quips now and then. There’s a guy mentor who doles out wisdom to help the hero with his quest. And then there’s The Girl. The Girl is often the most high-caliber of the bunch—smart and kickass and witty and better-at-everything-than-the-hero… and still a sidekick. Despite all her impressive traits, her story line is inextricably woven into the hero’s; she exists to advance his story. Take away the hero, and she disappears. Usually, she’s also the love interest.
One way to avoid depicting The Girl as merely a sidekick is to just write about female main characters. But what if you want to write about a male main character and a female not-main character? How do you keep her from falling into the trap of better-at-everything-but-still-the-sidekick?
I ran into this issue while I was writing my YA dark fantasy, FLYNN NIGHTSIDER AND THE EDGE OF EVIL (Crazy 8 Press, May 2018). Back then, I’d just finished writing a book with a female main character (ARTIFICIAL ABSOLUTES, Red Adept Publishing, 2013) and wanted to write a guy main character to switch it up (funnily enough, EDGE OF EVIL remains my only book with a male protagonist). I’m sure there were also some defaults going on in my mind; most fantasies I’d read up to that point had starred male heroes. When I set about brainstorming the book, I knew I wanted there to be a prominent female character as well. But she wouldn’t be a sidekick. Heck no. While she’d be secondary in terms of point-of-view chapters and the book’s main plotline, she’d be able to exist without the male protagonist.
The characters I wound up with were oppressed-schoolboy-turned-rebel Flynn, the main character, and monster-fighter-plus-freedom-fighter Aurelia. Flynn, by necessity, couldn’t know too much about what was going on in the world and the plot. He was the reader’s stand-in in terms of discovering all the twists and turns the story would offer, and so he got most of the POV chapters. Aurelia, meanwhile, had secrets to keep—from both Flynn and the reader. Yet just because the spotlight wasn’t on her didn’t mean she was just waiting in the wings to be called upon. While I was outlining the book’s plot, I took care to see that she had her own story line. And when I was finished, I wound up with a character who was basically the protagonist of a different book—one that intersected with the book I was writing, but could have been its own thing. In other words, I could just have easily written AURELIA SUN AND THE EDGE OF EVIL and had a fully developed story (though there wouldn’t have been as many mysteries). And if Flynn were to vanish from the book, she’d still have plenty to do.
Just because a character isn’t the focus of a book doesn’t mean they have to exist as a glorified support beam. A strong secondary cast is vital to any book; they make the world more interesting and expand the story. What makes them more than sidekicks is that they each have a story of their own to tell—a story that could exist with or without the chosen main character.
ABOUT FLYNN NIGHTSIDER AND THE EDGE OF EVIL:
Break the enchantments. Find the truth. Ignite the revolution.
A century ago, the Enchanters defeated the evil Lord of the Underworld, but not before he’d unleashed his monsters and ravaged the earth. The Enchanters built the Triumvirate out of what remained of the United States, demanding absolute obedience in exchange for protection from the lingering supernatural beasts.
Sixteen-year-old Flynn Nightsider, doomed to second-class life for being born without magic, knows the history as well as anyone. Fed up with the Triumvirate’s lies and secrecy, he longs for change. And when he stumbles across a clue that hints at something more – secrets in the dark, the undead, and buried histories – he takes matters into his own hands.
Before long, Flynn finds himself hunted not only by the government, but also by nightmarish monsters and a mysterious man with supernatural powers … all seeking him for reasons he cannot understand. Rescued by underground rebels, he’s soon swept up in their vision of a better world, guided by a girl as ferocious as the monsters she fights. But as the nation teeters on the brink of revolution, Flynn realizes three things.
The rebellion is not what it seems.
Flynn himself might be more than he seems.
And the fate of the world now rests in his hands.
Mary Fan is a sci-fi/fantasy author hailing from Jersey City. Her latest book, FLYNN NIGHTSIDER AND THE EDGE OF EVIL (Crazy 8 Press, May 2018), is a YA dark fantasy about a world overrun by monsters. She is also the author of STARSWEPT (Snowy Wings Publishing, 2017), a YA sci-fi romance, and the completed JANE COLT sci-fi trilogy from Red Adept Publishing.
In addition, she is the co-editor, along with fellow sci-fi author Paige Daniels, of the BRAVE NEW GIRLS anthologies, which feature stories about teen girls doing techy things in sci-fi worlds. Proceeds from the the anthology’s sales are donated to the Society of Women Engineers scholarship fund. The third volume, BRAVE NEW GIRLS: TALES OF HEROINES WHO HACK, will be released in July 2018.
When she’s not writing, Mary enjoys singing, skiing, and traveling the world. Find her online at www.MaryFan.com.
Claire North (84K, The Sudden Appearance of Hope) shared some thoughts on Strong Women: including that we need them more than ever but also that there need to be new conversations about the meaning of “strong women,” as it often seems to limit female characters to simply being strong in certain ways without also allowing them to be vulnerable or complex.
Today, I’m thrilled to welcome Claire North! Claire North is a pseudonym for Catherine Webb, who has written several young adult speculative fiction novels including two Carnegie Medal finalists, Timekeepers and The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle. She is also Kate Griffin, who authored the Matthew Swift and Magicals Anonymous books—two related urban fantasy series set in the same version of London. As Claire North, she’s published the Arthur C. Clarke Award finalist The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Touch, the World Fantasy Award–winning novel The Sudden Appearance of Hope, and The End of the Day. Her next novel, 84K, will be released on May 22!
I went to see a man about writing for theatre. “I’m a novelist,” I explained, “But I’m really interested in learning about playwriting.”
He talked for forty five minutes without pause, at the end of which he congratulated me on my clear yet silent intelligence, and invited me to go away and write “five strong women”.
My heart sunk. Dear god spare me, I thought, but spare me from another goddamn strong woman.
Oh don’t get me wrong—more than ever we need empowering symbols of kick-ass awesome ladies. We are in a world which still teaches girls not to fight, run or argue. Our global leaders are especially charming on how important it is to possess women by their sexual organs. But the power of stories is that they make you believe—not just know, but believe—that you can be awesome. That you can change the world. And in this sense the Strong Female Character is a blessing, an uplifting gift to future generations, and should be celebrated, amen.
However. The tools we use to progress will after a while, hopefully, change the world enough that new tools are needed too, and I wonder if we aren’t coming up on that time. After all, the Strong Yet Kind Beneath Their Traumas Male Character isn’t an idea we have ever felt the need to celebrate. Men just are strong. They just are confident, outgoing, assertive, brave—and if they’re not that is itself a source of great literary exploration and angst which I would argue is as oppressive to men as anything currently propagated against women.
The wholeness of male characters doesn’t need to be stated, they simply are; unless you genuinely believe that without a male Doctor Who, boys are going to grow up stunted because of the lack of any other male role models. Because, wow, doesn’t Rey emasculate Star Wars by… you know… that way she sorta exists, the shadow of her boobies making it basically impossible to perceive the existence of Poe, Finn, Luke or Han? Whatever next? A Captain Marvel movie, taking it to 1 out of 18 MCU films starring women? Goodread’s “best of science fiction list” containing fewer than 88% men, and more than three of the women being Ursula Le Guin—and more than three of her (awesome) books on that list not having male protagonists? IT’S A CRAZY WORLD WE LIVE IN.
And here’s the nub of it. A complexity is permitted to our Strong Men that is frequently denied to our Strong Women, because the female “strong” is itself often a trap that denies a place for true human depth. Strength is not tenderness; compassion; kindness—all words that are associated with “feminine”, another concept that needs a serious bit of contemplation. Instead we celebrate “strength” in an era where women still feel that they need to be extraordinary to compete with a male perfectly average. Novels by female authors are reviewed less, rewarded less; and that’s just the book industry. In our fiction and our lives, we fight for recognition, and become “ice queens” and “ball-breakers” and clichés of “strength” that simultaneously deny our complexity, imprison us in these labels. Remember when Wonder Woman was released, and critics declared she was diminished by being beautiful, and sexy? How did we get to this place, where to be a Strong Woman is also to be not sexual or vulnerable? How did this idea which should have set us free, tie us up in so many knots?
What do you think of when you think of Strong Woman in SF/Fantasy? A great many male writers have sat down with the excellent and awesome intention of putting in more Strong Women, and the result is often… well… clad in leather with a sword. Or a big gun. Frequently monosyllabic. Brisk bordering on arctic. Words unnecessary. Cutting. Strong.
It’s not just male writers—women are also sucked into this with great ease, and I’m happy to hold my hands up and say I have definitely dabbled in these Strong Women tropes. In the best situations, these ladies are kick-ass awesome, professionals who know what they want and how they’re going to get it. In the worst, our literary women are secretly deeply motherly and caring beneath their steely exteriors and will at the end of the story find fulfilment by casting off their guns and ambitions and having a baby, because hurrah, fulfilment. Motherly motherly fulfilment. In the absolute, absolute worst case, the Strong Female Character is a victim of violent sexual abuse, which made them Hard Yet Pained, and which hugely traumatic experience is used to justify why they’re so Tough, rather than being Sensitive and Tender, as though sexual violence can just be thrown in as a bit of background colour. Sometimes they’re strong for a few pages, the kindly yet brave heart of the story, until they’re brutally killed on page 7, thus provoking the man to learn by their awesome example. Their awesome… dead… example.
So sure, there’s still a need for our Strong Female Character, because there’s still a huge battle to be fought for the hearts of tomorrow; but also a need to new conversations about what this means. Happily, I’d argue that a great deal of the recent successful fiction both by and about women—such as N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, Naomi Alderman’s The Power, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series, Becky Chambers’ Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Francis Hardinge’s The Lie Tree—are doing this awesomely. Their characters are Strong in the male sense—in that they are permitted agency, choice, faced with challenges that they then must confront. They grow, they learn, they make mistakes, they fall, they suffer, they pick themselves back up. They defy labels. They defy being pigeonholed into the box of “strong but won’t have sex unless tamed” or “strong and scarred by experience” or “strong and lonely” or… whichever box it is that permits no personality beyond the label. They are people, whole and true. And surely that is where the dream is going, and has always been going, and it is our duty as lovers of stories—and women too—to remember this.
Today I am delighted to welcome Jeannette Ng! Under the Pendulum Sun, her debut novel, is gothic fantasy in which Victorian missionaries journey to Arcadia with plans to convert the fae to their religion. It was just released in October 2017—and, as was announced just a couple of weeks ago, Jeannette Ng is one of this year’s finalists for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer!
An Incomplete Taxonomy of Fairies, with examples
Mystical, mysterious and magnificent, everyone thinks they know fairies.
The word itself conjures up vivid images and subtle variations in spelling can mean a world of difference. And so just as many (but not all) readers felt that there was something fundamentally un-vampire about sparkling in sunlight, any new incarnation of fairies needs one foot in the old.
Much of the reinvention of fairies is rooted in a need to explain their actions. Their fundamental Otherness and frequent actions as enablers of simple plots with superficially flimsy explanation result in a need to create a framework for that to make sense. After all, why is a sleeping curse on the child an appropriate retaliation for being snubbed to party? These new reasons often play on old themes, justifying their idiosyncratic actions of the fairies. Some are quite playful, such as J M Barrie explaining in Peter Pan that fairies are unable to feel more than one emotion at any time due to their diminutive size.
Fairies as Other
But any taxonomy of fairies must begin with their Otherness, held in contrast to the human and the normal. As the concept of the anchoring norm of society and story shifts, so do the fae with it. Many folkloric traditions, such as the Italian, have only female fairies. The chivalric romances of the middle ages are replete with fairy queens and fairy brides, each more powerful and beautiful than the last. Other stories have fairyland be a place of strange and opposite logic, existing beyond the boundaries of civilisation, beyond walls, behind mirrors and under the ground. Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin features fairies that are incomprehensibly alien, likened to the indecipherable Linear A.
George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has fae-like beings who are literally named The Others. Malevolent and mysterious, they exist beyond the Wall and at first are said to be nothing more than fairy tales to scare children.
Otherness does not always necessitate horror as Robert Weinberg’s A Modern Magician features a changeling who is compelled to annoy all those around him with constant eating and assorted other behavioral quirks.
Fairies as People
Yet in stark contrast to the very alien fairies, sometimes they are just people. Despite their strange (or not) appearances, they behave with human logic. The fairies of Mercedes Lackey’s SERRAted Edge series may still fear iron and are incapable of creativity, but they are still very human in their behaviors and emotions. Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted has fairies with frivolous and sensible dispositions but both are relatably normal, with some even living as people.
Fairies as Predators and Parasites
Reports on real changelings are likely rooted in the people’s misunderstanding of neurodevelopmental disorders, paired with the belief that the real “healthy” child has been stolen away. This scrap of folklore has persisted from WB Yeats’ “The Stolen Child” to the 1986 film Labyrinth. Abduction or seduction away to fairyland has become a cornerstone to its idea.
Catherynne M. Valente’s beautiful Fairyland series opens with a Green Wind inviting September, a twelve year old girl, on a journey to the great sea that borders Fairyland. More sinister abductions are often paired with the theme of the fairy realm as predatory or parasitic. Fairies can feed off the passions of people and seek to induce them for their own satisfaction, such as in Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely series. Emma Newman’s Split Worlds novels have deeply unpleasant fairies that fit this mould, unable to leave their own realm and seeking entertainment from mortal playthings.
The Middle English Sir Orfeo stands at an intriguing intersection as it is a reworking of the Orpheus and Eurydice story from classical myth, but that Eurydice is not dead, but abducted to a fairyland inhabited by those thought to be dead but are not. It presents a fascinating early example of a hellish fairyland, strikingly raw in its imagery of men and women suspended in their moment of death, headless and limbless, drowning and burning.
Fairies as Abstract Concepts
The seasons or the elements are often woven in to explain the very fabric of these otherworldly beings. They are beholden to these large semi-abstract concepts, either acting in accordance with them or simply advancing the concept itself upon the mortal realm. Julie Kagawa’s The Iron Fey series features Winter and Summer Courts.
Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies puts another twist on the fairies as they are from a parasitic alternate dimension and cleave not to elemental concepts but ancient stories and tropes. The Fair Folk of White Wolf’s Exalted table top RPG are all about comporting themselves to what is narratively appropriate, manipulating others by magic or guile to fulfil the correct story role.
Fairies as Mirrors
The fairy court as a mirror to the mortal one has probably Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream to thank for popularising its trope, with many productions doublecasting Oberon and Titania with their earthly counterparts, Theseus and Hippolyta.
Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell uses this mirroring as scathing social critique. Lady Poole is bartered away by men into the fairy world of endless dancing and forced frivolity. Stephen Black finds himself the reluctant accomplice and servant to a fairy king. Their otherworldly bondage clearly parallels their earthly oppression.
Fairies can also be a bright, resplendent mirror as Edmund Spenser’s infamously long epic poem The Faeirie Queen was written to flatter Queen Elizabeth I. Swaddled in layers of cloudy allegory, Gloriana rules as benevolent monarch over a court of virtuous knights.
 I hazard to say that the rule of thumb is that the more e’s you have the more malevolent they are. So a “fairy” is a sparkly pixie of childhood whimsy and the more faux archaic spelling of “faerie” and “fey” are the dark adult creatures. But there are many exceptions to this rule. Jim C. Hine’s engaging Princess series come to mind.
 Linear A being one of the yet undeciphered writing systems of the ancient world.
 And arguably criticise. It also has the dubious honour of being among the ten most boring classics that Jasper Fforde’s heroine is condemned to read.
About Under the Pendulum Sun
Catherine Helstone’s brother, Laon, has disappeared in Arcadia, legendary land of the magical fae. Desperate for news of him, she makes the perilous journey, but once there, she finds herself alone and isolated in the sinister house of Gethsemane. At last there comes news: her beloved brother is riding to be reunited with her soon – but the Queen of the Fae and her insane court are hard on his heels.
Jeannette Ng is originally from Hong Kong but now lives in Durham, UK. Her MA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies fed into an interest in medieval and missionary theology, which in turn spawned her love for writing gothic fantasy with a theological twist. She runs live roleplay games and is active within the costuming community, running a popular blog.
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