Wanted to let y'all know about my brand-spanking-new podcast, Cosmic Dragon. It's going to be all about debut SFF authors and their books. Subscribe in your favorite podcast app or check it out here:
I've never seen what Richard Writhen actually looks like, so it made sense that, while I was at the art museum the other day, a painting of a mustachioed man began speaking speaking to me and claiming to be Richard Writhen. Not one to pass an opportunity by, I asked him about his book, THE HISS OF THE BLADE.
SG - This is your third novella and the first in a series. What is it about novellas vs. novels that you like better?
RW - I have preferred the novella length for some time. I think that I first decided to adopt it for my series work after I finished reading both The Chronicles of Narnia and Prydain. I admire world-building so dense that you don't really need a thousand pages to present your narrative, and folks can read it in a shorter amount of time. Of course, a shorter book is also quicker to produce with less filler as well.
SG – Can you tell us what a reaver is and why someone would become such?
RW - Reaver is a word from the old English that refers to a "plundering forager." Back in the day in the dark ages or the time of the Vikings or whatever where there were merely villages and society had not progressed to the point that it has today, it was far more common for roving killers to come to your home, kill you and your family and take whatever of value you may have. One of my characters in the novella, Clyde Grundren, has tried to go straight in true Carlito's Way fashion but finds that his military background is incompatible with civilian life and this draws him back into a lifestyle that involves some degree of criminal activity.
SG - What's up with the serial killer?
RW - His motivations are not quite what you would expect at first; it all ties in to the religions and deities of the planet that the three novellas take place on, Cedron. There is a spiritual angle to it, almost like the movie The First Power.But of course, he has to be detained and managed first ... but he is quite overmanaged, to strange ends.
SG - And a sorcerer threatening the city?
RW - One of the magnates mentioned in the blurb, Kieth Fassvard eventually comes to be willing to do anything to win in a war of wills with his opponent, Tyrus Mahdren. Unfortunately, that includes the use of arcane magic that is thousands of years old and was technically unstable in the first place. He enlists a magic user from an unlikely source and begins to pressure him in every way possible to bail him out of a predicament.
SG - Favorite scene from the book?
RW - That would involve some serious spoilerifficness (?) but let's just say that the conflict hits a little bit too close to home for Kieth.
SG - Favorite SFF archetype?
RW - I love all witches, wizards and magic users. But rough barbarian types too. Because IRL, both physical and mental strength are useful. For every Gandalf there's a Logen Ninefingers ...
SG - Best writing advice you ever received?
RW - “I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide." - Harper Lee
From the cover:
Two petty mercenaries are falsely accused of switching sides in a feud between two rich and powerful magnates; an ex-miner on the run from a murder charge becomes a reaver and embroiled in a romance; an industrial lieutenant is recruited to help capture a serial killer and an entire city is in danger of being ensorcelled by an ancient monk.
It's alive! It's alive! And it wants to kick Nazi ass!
Edward M. Erdelac retired his mad scientist's lab coat for the evening recently, and discussed his book from Comet Press, MONSTRUMFUHRER, over a plate of schnitzel.
SG - There have been several mashups with Nazis and supernatural monsters, but your book is the first, that I know of, that brings Mary Shelly's creation into the picture. What inspired the idea?
EE - Actually the 2013 Dutch movie Frankenstein’s Army beat me to the punch, but I was literally closing in on the last chapters when it was released. It really took the wind out of my sails on writing the novel for a couple months till Lisa Morton over at the HWA advised me to continue with it. I’ve still never seen it.
The idea came to me way back in 2003 or so, brainstorming with a buddy of mine. It began life as a proposed graphic novel, and was completely written out in script form, but I couldn’t get an artist interested, so I decided to turn it into prose.
I think I had been reading about the Holocaust and Mengele’s experiments, and trying to piece together some kind of reason for these horrifically inhumane deeds, just to kind of quiet my own mind. Of course, in reality, they were simply the actions of a depraved, sadistic lunatic given unchecked, state-sanctioned authority over defenseless people.
SG - How much research did you have to do?
EE - A great deal of sobering stuff. Posner and Ware’s biography on Mengele, several first-hand accounts of the Holocaust. Lagnado and Dekel’s Children of The Flames, Dr. Nyiszli’s account….and of course a couple rereads of Shelly.
My dad’s an avid World War 2 buff, so that definitely helped. Lots of phone conversations and picking through his library.
SG - What can you tell us about Jotham and Eli?
EE - When the story picks up with them, they’ve already felt the terror of the Nazi pogroms. Their family’s been devastated. Their mother wasted away in the Krakow ghetto , and their father, though he’s managed to get himself and his sons out, has deposited them with a family friend and gone off in hopes of finding a means out of Europe for all of them. So they’re hiding out in the attic of a Polish bookstore, where they discover Captain Walton’s letters to his sister (which, in our reality, comprise the epistolary novel Frankenstein).
Jotham and Eli are identical twins, but quite different in temperament. Eli is a musician, Jotham a voracious reader and a polyglot. Eli is something of a dreamer, holding out hopes for his people and his family, whereas Jotham has let a certain pessimistic practicality settle into him. He’s a survivor without illusions.
SG - This isn't your first historical horror. What can we expect from you next?
EE - I’ve completed a wuxia fantasy weird western called The Chilibean Joss that I’m shopping around. I’ve also got a short Lovecraftian novel featuring a certain popular espionage character set in the 1960’s coming out from April Moon Books. It’ll be paired with something from William Meikle. Next year I’ll be reprinting my Lovecraftian weird western series Merkabah Rider with some new material. I also have a dark Arthurian fantasy novel, The Knight With Two Swords, due out this year from Ragnarok Books.
SG - Favorite scene from the book?
EE - Well the premise is Frankenstein’s original Creature coming down from the North Pole to stop Mengele from replicating the experiment. It’d be proverbially showing the gun in the first act and not firing it in the third if the Creature doesn’t actually ever face any of Mengele’s experiments, so I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying they clash, and it’s a pretty brutal superhuman confrontation I enjoyed writing. It’s kind of a moment of pulpy fresh air after the choking ash of Auschwitz – one of the only scenes to survive unchanged from the original graphic novel concept.
SG - Favorite horror archetype?
EE - I’m a big fan of the occult detective, as epitomized by Abraham Van Helsing. The fighting scholar type well-versed in obscure knowledge.
SG - Best writing advice you ever received?
EE - Joe Lansdale told me (and a table of other writers) that writing is a muscle which needs to be regularly exercised the same time every day, or else it atrophies. I commit to two hours a morning. I wish I could say I gave physical exercise the same attention.
MONSTRUMFUHRER is available now!
From The cover:
In 1936 Dr. Josef Mengele discovers Victor Frankenstein's lab journal in the attic of an Ingolstadt dormitory and is tasked by the Reich Institute with replicating his reanimation procedure.
While hiding in a bookstore in Warsaw, a pair of Jewish twin brothers, Jotham and Eli Podczaski, come across the letters of Captain Walton to his sister, detailing the ill-fated story of Frankenstein.
When Jotham and Eli are captured by the Gestapo and encounter Mengele in the gray confines of Auschwitz KZ, they alone recognize the origin of his bizarre, sadistic experiments. Jotham hatches a plan to escape the camp and travel north, to find the only being capable of stopping Mengele from providing the Third Reich with a new race of undying stormtroopers; the only being on earth who will believe them ... Frankenstein's original creature.
A murder is what you call a group of crows, and I'm guessing if they were ravens, you could call it an orc rave. No. I guess not. But it sounds cool. Scott Oden has been in the game for a while, and was gracious enough to answer a few questions about the new book coming out June 20th from Thomas Dunne, A GATHERING OF RAVENS.
SG - Grimnir is the main character in A GATHERING OF RAVENS. But is he a hero?
SO - Only by accident. But, he's not one-hundred percent villainous, either. Grimnir is the last of his kind; his people were known by many names, from Scandinavia to Ireland and even deep into the Continent, but to us he is an Orc. And he is the mold by which others were cast: savage, murderous, profane; a thief, if need be, and a liar, given over to irrational fits of rage. But, despite all this, even Grimnir has a redeeming quality: if, somehow, you can convince him to give his word then that oath to you is as good as if it were chiseled in stone. The whole story, in fact, exists because he swore an oath to avenge a fallen kinsman. And, no matter what, he will see that oath fulfilled.
SG - What themes did you want to play with in the book?
SO - The primary theme that runs through A Gathering of Ravens is the conflict between the Old Ways, represented by Grimnir's fervent paganism, and the New Ways, embodied in the rising power of Christianity. Grimnir's world, the shadow-world of myth and legend, is dying; the alfar and the dvergar -- elves and dwarves -- are slowly withdrawing from our world. Even the spirits of stock and stone, the landvaettir, are falling prey to the scouring influence of this new religion. It is a ragnarok, of sorts, with Grimnir's world passing away as our modern world is born from its ashes. He -- and we -- bear witness to this ending and rebirth.
Other themes include the binding power of oaths, and how unlikely friendships can spring even from confrontational adversity.
SG - This is your fourth novel and the second with Thomas Dunne. What can we expect from you in the future? More Grimnir?
SO - More Grimnir, more Greeks, and maybe a bit with some sentient mice.
On the immediate horizon is the follow up to A Gathering of Ravens, which I'm calling "Twilight of the Gods" -- Grimnir clashes with berserkers, a deathless shield-maiden, a dragon, and a teen-aged girl who does too good a job impersonating him. After that, I have a few ideas I'm kicking around: a third Grimnir novel, a couple of historicals, and something that looks suspiciously like Redwall as written by Robert E. Howard.
SG - What intrigues you about orcs?
SO - I wrote a whole blog post last year about this very thing, so if you'd be so kind as to allow me to paraphrase and plagiarize myself:
The Orc is a powerful symbol: the ur-Barbarian, the Other who lives and thrives on the edges of polite society. The Orc is cunning, savage, hard to kill. The Orc represents chaos and change; it threatens the status quo and offers nihilism, dystopia, and rapine as valid alternatives. To a writer, there is much to explore within the context of the Orc.
But, a core criticism of Orc-themed fiction almost since its inception is this: how are they different from Humans? What sets them apart? And if they’re close enough to Human for Human readers to understand and sympathize with, then why not just make them Human? Why must they be Orcs? The criticism has merit. In Tolkien, for example, the Uruk-hai of Minas Morgul and Cirith Ungol are uncomfortably close analogs to modern men – the type of profane and long-suffering machine-gun fodder JRRT encountered in the trenches during WWI. Contrast this to Mary Gentle’s Grunts, where Orcs are brutish and almost childlike, tusked and green-skinned barbarians with a gallows sense of humor. In Stan Nicholls’ Orcs trilogy, we return to a Tolkien-like sense of purity, with Orcs that are quarrelsome and violent, but functionally no different than their Human enemies. Opposite this portrayal would be Morgan Howell’s vision from the Queen of the Orcs trilogy, where they are Noble Savages patterned after the Iroquois of central New York. Though superficial elements such as appearance differ, every Orc who has thus appeared as a protagonist in fiction is imminently recognizable to readers – as a guttersnipe dough-boy, a slapstick barbarian, an idealized trope, or a CGI’d Human. Ultimately, the Orc is Us, though writ large and defined by either subtle characterization or a Pagliaccian sense of the absurd.
SG - Favorite SFF archetype?
SO - The Barbarian. The fell-handed loner from the fringes of society who lives by his wits, his sword, and his own code -- which is not, you might say, copacetic with the laws of the realm. Most of my characters have an element of this archetype. I blame a childhood spent reading the Conan tales by REH.
SG - Favorite scene from the book you can talk about?
SO - Oh, man . . . all of them? I seriously love this whole book. Though, if I must choose, the scene I'm most proud of as a writer comes at the bridge between parts one and two (the book is divided into parts named for the geographic region where they occur: Part or "Book" One is set in Denmark; Book Two is in Southern England, around the city of Bath; Books Three and Four are set in Ireland). Grimnir and his captive, Étaín, confront a trio of dwarf brothers and enter one of the hallowed shrines to Yggðrasil, the tree that connects the Nine Worlds of Norse myth. It's got tension, humor, some interesting imagery, and even twelve stanzas of Norse poetry. I look over it, now, and I'm like, "who wrote that?!"
SG - Best writing advice you ever received?
SO - Finish what you start. No matter if it sucks. No matter if you have no passion for it, or if your passion for it has waned with time. Finish it. This I got from Lawrence Block's excellent book on writing, Telling Lies For Fun and Profit. That, along with Steven Pressfield's The War of Art and Betsy Lerner's The Forest For The Trees, sits at my elbow as I write -- the only three writing books I allow on my desk.
A GATHERING OF RAVENS releases everywhere June 20th.
From the cover:
To the Danes, he is skraelingr; to the English, he is orcnéas; to the Irish, he is fomoraig. He is Corpse-maker and Life-quencher, the Bringer of Night, the Son of the Wolf and Brother of the Serpent. He is Grimnir, and he is the last of his kind―the last in a long line of monsters who have plagued humanity since the Elder Days.
Drawn from his lair by a thirst for vengeance against the Dane who slew his brother, Grimnir emerges into a world that’s changed. A new faith has arisen. The Old Ways are dying, and their followers retreating into the shadows; even still, Grimnir’s vengeance cannot be denied.
Taking a young Christian hostage to be his guide, Grimnir embarks on a journey that takes him from the hinterlands of Denmark, where the wisdom of the ancient dwarves has given way to madness, to the war-torn heart of southern England, where the spirits of the land make violence on one another. And thence to the green shores of Ireland and the Viking stronghold of Dubhlinn, where his enemy awaits.
But, unless Grimnir can set aside his hatreds, his dream of retribution will come to nothing. For Dubhlinn is set to be the site of a reckoning―the Old Ways versus the New―and Grimnir, the last of his kind left to plague mankind, must choose: stand with the Christian King of Ireland and see his vengeance done or stand against him and see it slip away?
Scott Oden's A Gathering of Ravens is an epic novel of vengeance, faith, and the power of myth.
I've known Peter for a while, but was surprised to see he'd sent a package wrapped in black paper. Inside was a foul-mouthed statue of a chained, burned little bastard who required blood to help me summon the rent money. After I phoned Peter to complain about the weird totem he'd sent, I managed to calm down enough to discuss his forthcoming book, and the third in the Burned Man series, DAMNATION, published by Angry Robot.
SG - DAMNATION is the third novel in the Burned Man series. Can we expect more?
PM - Oh yes, I very much hope so. Don Drake’s story is far from over – in fact it may only just be beginning!
SG - What prompted moving Drake from London to Glasgow?
PM - Ah, now without spoiling the end of DOMINION for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, Don Drake really needed to get out of London for a while. He initially heads to Glasgow looking for Debbie, his long-suffering girlfriend from the first book, and he eventually ends up in Edinburgh. I especially like Edinburgh as a place and I’ve been there a number of times in person. As Don says in the first book, “It’s a spooky old city, is Edinburgh.”
SG - You put a lot of accurate occult info in your books. Do you have a history with the dark arts?
PM - I have a history of studying occultism, yes. Whether those arts are dark or not rather depends on a certain point of view, of course, and a lot of the magic in the books is wildly exaggerated for dramatic effect. All the same there are nuggets of truth in there as you say, for those who know where to look. I recently wrote a guest column on this very subject for another blog, in fact: https://ihate00critics.blogspot.co.uk/2017/02/guest-post-peter-mclean.html
SG - Can you tell us about your other books coming from Penguin?
PM - Of course! This new series is my first foray into secondary world, “swords and horses” grimdark fantasy, set in a quasi-Tudor society but with echoes of the end of the First World War. Think of it as “The Godfather with swords” and you won’t be far wrong. The series as a whole is tentatively called THE PIOUS MEN and the first book, PRIEST OF BONES, is due for release in October 2018 from the Ace Books imprint of Penguin Random House.
SG - Favorite SFF archetype?
PM - Wizards, hands down. I’m a sucker for wise, powerful old magicians, especially ones who turn out to be less “benign grandfather” and more “manipulative old bastard”. Bayaz from Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series is one of my all-time favourite characters. I’m also very fond of the “damaged old soldier” archetype, as you’ll see in PRIEST OF BONES.
SG - Favorite scene from the book you can talk about?
PM - My favourite scene from Damnation is the very end, but obviously I can’t talk about that. Menhit from DOMINION is back though, and she has a great scene where she gets to show Don some extremely “tough love” healing which was great fun to write.
SG - Best writing advice you ever received?
PM - "Do The Work". Seriously, reading about writing isn't writing. Talking about writing isn't writing. Writing is writing. Sit down and write.
DAMNATION releases May 2.
From the cover:
Shambolic demon-hunting hitman Don Drake is teetering on the edge of madness in this smart, witty urban fantasy novel.
Don Drake is living rough in a sink estate on the outskirts of Edinburgh, doing cheap spells for even cheaper customers while fending off the local lowlifes. Six months ago, Don fled from London to Glasgow to track down his old girlfriend Debbie the alchemist.
With the Burned Man gradually driving him mad, Don meets with an ancient and mysterious tramp-slash-magician, with disastrous consequences. Now his old accomplices must step into save Don from himself, before he damns himself for good this time.
If I've learned anything in my 30-something years on this planet, it's this: the gods mess everything up.
AMONG THE FALLEN is the second book in the Godserfs series from Angry Robot and author N.S. Dolkart, the first being SILENT HALL. This is epic fantasy at its most divine, and N.S. descended from a thunder cloud to speak to me about the new book.
SG - SILENT HALL was your debut novel. Had you written any before that?
NS - Before Silent Hall, I had written a more lighthearted fantasy heist called THE KINGMAKERS, though I'll want to change the title (among other things) if I ever do get it published. The Kingmakers was very fun -- there were assassins and thieves and a knight cursed with the inability to lie, and there was this wonderful land where things operated by fairytale rules instead of high fantasy ones and it screwed everything up. Highly recommended; would write again.
SG - Religion takes a big role in this epic fantasy. What ideas and themes were you hoping to tackle?
NS - There's a theme common to all mediterranean-area religions and to many others besides, which is that godly attention is not something you want. Gods are big and scary and unpredictable, and they can turn on you in the blink of an eye. This is true in ancient Egyptian mythology, it's true in Greek and Roman mythology, and it's true in the Bible too. There's a point in Exodus where God randomly decides to kill Moses without any explanation, and it's his wife who has to save Moses by subjecting their son to a sudden and bizarre circumcision ritual. There's a moment where God threatens to slaughter all the Israelites and make Moses the patriarch of a great nation, and Moses has to talk God down. So a big part of my worldbuilding is re-introducing readers to a world where none of the gods are predictably benevolent. Appeasing gods is a huge part of people's lives, and though it will inevitably become routine for some, behind all the ritual and routine is the primal fear of being punished, harshly, for reasons that nobody can quite be sure of.
Plus there's the issue of having your god potentially lose a battle against some other god, and then you're screwed.
So starting from that premise, there were a few theological questions to answer: if the gods are so powerful and at the same time so frequently in conflict with one another, how come they don't just go slaughtering their enemies' worshippers right and left? I answered that early on with what I called the Fingers in the Mesh analogy, but not every question is so easy to resolve. Take, for example, this age-old question: if gods can grant prophecies and make plans and schemes that go well into the future, how can there be room for human agency? That's not the kind of question you answer, that's the kind of question you explore. I do a lot of exploring.
SG - What can you tell us about the characters?
NS - They're all in some ways archetypal, but none of them stick to the script:
The classic fighter who trained all his life for war turns out to be too emotionally sensitive for that kind of brutality, and struggles to find something better to do with his life.
The guy who's most invested in being The Hero has a legacy of domestic violence to overcome, and that's an ongoing lifelong struggle, not something he can resolve through some big epiphany about how violence is bad. I believe in that kind of struggle. I think any time we try to fundamentally change ourselves, our success is bound to be qualified by little failures (and sometimes big ones) all along the way.
It's a similar story of exertion and failure with my cowardly backstabber -- he has to come to terms with who he is at the same time as he tries to improve himself.
The brainiac who wants to become a wizard has to decide how much she's willing to take advantage of her friends (and her enemies) in order to get what she wants. Her role model / mentor is a bit of a psychopath, so she knows that that rabbit hole goes down pretty freaking deep.
Maybe my favorite character is Bandu, a girl raised by wolves. Her conflicts with civilized society lead to some great moments, and she's my only main character who has complete confidence in both her abilities and her desires. That leads her to occasionally make some pretty poor life choices, but she also has the determination to make it work for herself.
SG - This is the second in the series. Can we expect another?
NS - Book three is set to come out next summer, assuming I write it on time!
SG - Favorite scene in the book you can talk about?
NS - Possibly the scene where one of the main characters thinks he's really excelling at intrigue (and at theology, since everything in this series comes back to theology), but then he's easily outwitted by an elderly woman. It's especially delicious because he's so damn proud of himself until the moment he realizes he's been outmaneuvered.
I think as an author it's so easy to fall into the trap of having your heroes and your villains be the only people with any real agency. So I take great satisfaction in having written side characters who can hold their own.
SG - Angry Robot has a consistent lineup of great titles. What else made you decide to publish with them?
NS - The nanobots they injected into my bloodstream made it very risky to deny their requests. There were some other factors too: 1) They function at a very high professional level, and punch well above their weight. 2) They have a very good reputation, and came highly recommended by my agent. 3) They offered me a 2-book contract with an option for more, and I was very excited to get to write a second book since I was so in love with the setting and characters from Silent Hall. It can be heartbreaking to have to give up on your plans for a sequel (as I had previously discovered), so it was awesome to know that I would be allowed -- nay, required! -- to write a Book Two. And now that option for more has been exercised, so I get to write Book Three!
SG - What's the best writing advice you ever received?
NS - Put more of your background and experience into your writing. I started out very insistent about just writing straight fantasy with no deeper message, and I was pretty good at it, but I've found much more success and satisfaction now that I've embraced the idea of writing fantasy that speaks to who I am. "Write what you know" is way too vague to be useful, but when my college professors said my fiction would be better if it drew more upon my heritage, they weren't wrong.
I'm not sure this is the best advice for all writers, mind you. But it was for me, and I'm glad I eventually got around to taking it!
AMONG THE FALLEN is available now!
A lot of people have been talking about moving to Canada for some reason, but I thought it would be a great idea to interview an author from the land of maple leaves and Jim Carrey. Nicholas Eames's debut novel, KINGS OF THE WYLD released this week from Orbit Books and he staggered in to answer my questions.
SG - Reading the book’s description and adoring that awesome cover, KINGS OF THE WYLD gives me a sense of The Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai among other gritty, old school adventure stories. What inspired the book?
NE - In a word, music. The original concept was a setting in which mercenary bands were afforded the celebrity status of rock stars, and everything sort of went from there. Also, 'Ready Player One' by Ernest Cline was what spurred me to write it. That book was so committed to being fun before anything else--it kept me smiling page after page, and I hope my book can do the same for someone else.
SG - This is your debut novel, how many had you written before?
NE - Just one loooong one, which, after several rejection letters told me that 270k words was too big, I pared into two separate novels. It wasn't a bad book, per say, but it suffered from pretty much every mistake a rookie writer can make. Regardless, I'm grateful for the lessons it taught me.
SG - What can you tell us about Clay Cooper?
NE - Clay Cooper is essentially two people. One is a monster, the product of an abusive father and a childhood poisoned by violence. The other is the man he wants to be, the one he feels is worthy of the woman he loves and the daughter their raising. The good half of Clay--the dominant half--is essentially the most noble, loyal, and selfless person imaginable. One reviewer recently compared him to Sam Gamgee, which was pretty much what I was going for.
SG - Some of the best stories involve old friends (and enemies) coming back together for one more gig, what was it about this type of plot that attracted you to it?
NE - Well, there's a great amount of fun to be found in referencing past exploits without going into detail, and something interesting (to me, anyway) about revealing a set of characters through the eyes of those around them. The bandmates in this book don't think much of themselves, but everyone they meet perceives them differently--either as old friends, bitter rivals, or heroes to be worshipped.
SG - Is KINGS OF THE WYLD a standalone novel or do you have a series in mind?
NE - Yes. And yes. There will be at least three books in THE BAND series, though each will feature a different band and be set in successive eras of my world's history. Each book will have a self-contained story, but there will be an arc of sorts running through them.
SG - Favorite scene from the book that you can tell us about?
NE – One of my favorite scenes is the beginning of Chapter Twenty-Five, which, according to the 'Soundtrack' section on my website, is paired with 'When the Levee Breaks' by Led Zeppelin. I had this song in mind long before I wrote that chapter, and tried to capture that scene in super-awesome movies like Armageddon where the cast walks side by side in slow motion. Now I don't usually like to toot my own horn, but I think I frigging nailed it.
SG - Best writing advice you ever received?
NE - Probably to take whatever you write first and put it in a drawer forever. Granted there are exceptions to this rule--people who write a masterpiece right out of the gate--but they are exceedingly rare. I thought I was one of them for a long time. I was dead certain of it. But it turns out I wasn't. Ultimately, only you can say when it's time to start fresh, but don't be afraid to try. At the very least it will make you a better writer, and if you're lucky...well, pretty soon you'll be doing interviews to promote your new book and wondering how in the hell this happened to you!
From the cover:
GLORY NEVER GETS OLD.
Clay Cooper and his band were once the best of the best, the most feared and renowned crew of mercenaries this side of the Heartwyld.
Their glory days long past, the mercs have grown apart and grown old, fat, drunk, or a combination of the three. Then an ex-bandmate turns up at Clay's door with a plea for help--the kind of mission that only the very brave or the very stupid would sign up for.
It's time to get the band back together.
Saddle up and ride into the sunset with the final book in the Children of the Drought series, DREAMS OF THE EATEN, from Solaris. Author Arianne "Tex" Thompson rolled in with the tumbleweeds to talk about her latest novel.
SG - You’ve called the books in this series “rural fantasy”. What’s the distinction from fantasy western if any?
TT - Well, I like to think of "rural fantasy" as an umbrella term with room to include the kind of frontier or country-set stories that don't necessarily feature cowboy hats and six-guns. Think about HBO's Carnivale, or a Wizard of Oz reimagining with flying monkeys and talking scarecrows spilling out over dustbowl Kansas. They're rural, but not necessarily Western - and there is so much potential there!
SG - Appaloosa Elim has been through a lot since he first appeared in ONE NIGHT IN SIXES. What can we expect in this final book?
TT - This is pretty much the end of the road we set out for him - for several of the characters, actually. The quest that was set at the end of One Night in Sixes - to take home the body of Dulei Marhuk and answer for his murder - will be completed. The question is what that will cost, and who will have to pay for it. The divine forces that were introduced or hinted at in Medicine for the Dead will also drive a wedge up through our mortal players, without any single person or entity controlling the board (or even being fully aware of all the other pieces on it). There is hope, and potential for resolution, but it won't come without significant sacrifice - even from those who consider themselves mere spectators.
SG - You have many different races in the series, from fishmen to the Eaten. And with Elim you have a man whose skin makes him look like a painted horse and is treated poorly because of it. Was this a topic you planned on exploring with the books or did it just happen organically?
TT - I'm so glad you asked! Speaking as a chronically conflict-averse card-carrying squishy white woman (CCACCSW, for short :) ), racial unrest was the last anthill I felt qualified to stick my nose into. But it became a moral mandate the moment I decided to write an epic fantasy series rooted in American history. Sure, there are plenty of monsters and mythological creatures in American folklore, and those are worth featuring - but the defining struggle of our nation is this ongoing 300-year quest to free our incredible promise from the incredible violence that it's been steeping in. We are the Rebel Alliance and the Empire. We are Narnia and we are Panem. And Elim's not a bad avatar to explore that with: for better or worse, we are all judged by an appearance beyond our control, and we are all stuck dealing with inherited messes not of our own making.
SG - DREAMS OF THE EATEN marks the end of the Children of the Drought trilogy. What are you working on now?
TT - I'm so glad you asked! I really like this Droughtworld sandbox, and I think it has potential to host many more stories. We'll let this set of characters rest for the time being, but I would love to follow in Terry Pratchett's footsteps, and explore other corners of the same world. More to come!
SG - I listened to one of your classes at DFWCon a few years ago. Do you still teach? And what do you still want to learn yourself?
TT - Honestly, teaching is the perfect complement to writing, for me. It's everything that writing isn't: social, performative, focused on others, and with a big dollop of instant gratification on top. I now teach for the Writers Path program at SMU in Dallas, and have a catalogue of classes/workshops that I take on the road with me. (Have Powerpoint, will travel!)
I tell you what, though: in my darkest, most selfish moments, I dream of running away to finish learning Spanish and get a degree in linguistics. I pine for it. I lust for it. That's a big reason so many of the characters in the Children of the Drought trilogy are multilingual, and consider it strange not to know a second language. I don't have a power-fantasy per se - but those books are my knowledge-fantasy writ large.
SG - Favorite scene from DREAMS OF THE EATEN you can talk about?
TT - You know, there's a moment somewhere in the first few chapters of the book, when everything is balancing precariously on a knife's edge. The fishmen have been chemically hypnotized into a murderous rage, and are hell-bent on slaughtering the Dog Lady. The Dog Lady can communicate telepathically with those who know her, but has no human tongue to speak with. Shea knows the fishmen's language and the Dog Lady's mind, but is still too far away to be heard. Hakai knows that one of the fishmen is the group's translator and might be prevailed upon, but he's blind and has no idea which one it is. Which leaves just Dia, who only knows the amphibious words for "I love you", repeating it to each of them in turn, frantic to identify the translator and snap them out of their daze before the whole lot of them swarm and kill her - a delicate glass key trying a dozen rusted iron locks. It's not a long scene, but there's so much realness in it. Our national discourse is struggling with just this same issue: collectively, we have all the tools to solve the problem and understand each other - if we could only hear the right voice, saying the right thing, at the right time, to the right people. It is both the simplest and the most impossibly difficult task we have, and unbelievably frustrating to all of us.
SG - Best writing advice you ever received?
TT - My favorite question! And here it is, my favorite answer, for all the striving scriveners out there: "If you want to do something that hasn't been done before, include someone who hasn't been included before." Zombie apocalypse? Done to death. Unless your main character is a Type-1 diabetic. Figure out *their* quest for survival and you have something special. Just so, there are a million "Chosen One" medieval fantasy novels out there - but write one where the person who pulls the sword from the stone is a single mother of three, and I'm sold. There may be only handful of plots in the world, but there are a MILLION characters out there - and a million more readers who would love to see themselves and their experiences cast in the starring role.
From the Cover:
As the funeral cortege draws near, the crows begin to gather...
The stunning conclusion of this extraordinary trilogy.
After trials by fire and thirst, Appaloosa Elim's quest to bring home the body of the crow prince is finally nearing its end.
But the coffin is missing, the funeral party is hopelessly scattered, and the fishmen are hell-bent on revenge. Worse yet, the pilgrimage has disturbed an ancient power – and the earth is crumbling in its grip.
As the ground shakes and the crows gather, the final reckoning promises to unite the living and the dead in a battle for the land itself. One way or another, blood debts will come due, Elim will face his judgment, and the World That Is will be forever changed.
Arianne "Tex" Thompson is home-grown Texas success story. After earning a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in literature, she channeled her passion for exciting, innovative, and inclusive fiction into the Children of the Drought – an internationally-published epic fantasy Western series from Solaris. Now a professional speaker and creative writing instructor at SMU, Tex is blazing a trail through writers conferences, workshops, and fan conventions around the country – as an endlessly energetic, relentlessly enthusiastic one-woman stampede. Find her online at www.TheTexFiles.com
SG- What is the world of Everly like? How is it different from our own?
MB- Everly is a hidden magical world that you can only access through a portal in our world. There is no technology in Everly and it all feels very untouched. Everything has a sort of shimmer to it and Madison describes it as brighter and more vibrant than our world. The thing that really sets Everly apart from our world is the magical element. There are witches, mermaids and fairies and each group is very segregated from the others. The fae have their own government, the witches are run by a coven and the Strongbloods are ruled by a King. There is a struggle for power in the land because the King thinks that he rules them all but the magical groups refuse to acknowledge him. You will see that element of Everly play out over the course of the series.
SG- Who is Madison Rosewood?
MB- Madison Rosewood is an 18-year-old track star who despises running and her popularity. She really just wants to find her birth parents and to shed the nickname "Mad Dash" that she was given for her incredible speed. Madison is snarky, bold and a little too impulsive (and sometimes selfish) for her own good but she has a great heart. She has a tough time with anything emotional and leans on her best friend Jason whenever anything gets too touchy-feely. Another cool thing about her is that she is an amazing fighter. Her Aunt Ruth owns a gym and has been training Madison in various forms of combat her whole life.
SG- Madison is about to leave high school and, essentially, enter a completely different world. Then literally. Why did you decide to write a portal fantasy?
MB- Life after high school is a bit like diving through a portal into another world. So that parallel was something I wanted to work in but have it be quite literal. Everly's themes and basic plot points could have just as easily taken place in our world but it would have dulled the impact. Having it hidden away and only accessible through a portal made it much more fun because then I could strip out the modern aspects of our world and still tell the same story. In Everly, Madison wouldn't have the distractions that she may have in our world. No phones, no TV. Just her mission, her emotions and her drive.
SG- EVERLY is the first of the series. How many books do you have planned?
MB- Right now there are 3 books total planned but I may add a fourth as a prequel to the events in book one. There is a lot that happens before Madison sets foot in Everly and I would love to explore that further.
SG- What's your favorite scene from EVERLY?
MB- I have to go with the final confrontation scene at the end. I won't tell you who it's with but the entire sequence of events before and after that scene just make it a solid punch to the gut, emotionally. There are some pretty cool fights and face-offs too. It may not be the happiest ending, but you can really see the growth of Madison and her willingness to face some of her problems. There is also a giant step back in another one of her relationships that really leads into book two.
SG- Favorite SFF archetype?
MB- I would have to say the Heroic Trickster which is "a character who's just as happy pummeling villains with his wit as with his fists." That's 100% Madison. She is strong and a great fighter but she loves to use her intellect against her enemies too.
From the cover:
MADISON ROSEWOOD IS ABOUT TO GRADUATE AND HEAD OFF TOWARD A BIG, BRIGHT FUTURE THAT ANY KID WOULD KILL FOR: A FULL RIDE ON A TRACK SCHOLARSHIP, THE WORLD'S GREATEST BEST FRIEND, AND AN AUNT THAT HAS ALWAYS PROVIDED FOR HER. THE PROBLEM? MADISON JUST WANTS TO FIND HER BIRTH PARENTS, EVEN IF IT COSTS HER ALL OF THE ABOVE.
WHEN HER AUNT RUTH IS KIDNAPPED, ALL OF MADISON'S PLANS ARE PUT ON HOLD. GUIDED BY A MYSTERIOUS STRANGER, MADISON AND HER BEST FRIEND FOLLOW AUNT RUTH'S KIDNAPPERS THROUGH A PORTAL INTO A HIDDEN WORLD CALLED EVERLY. TRAVELING THROUGH FAIRY-LIT CAVERNS AND TOWERING OAK FORESTS, MADISON QUICKLY REALIZES THAT BEHIND EVERLY'S BEAUTY IS A WORLD FILLED WITH TREACHEROUS MAGIC, VIOLENT ENCOUNTERS, AND SHOCKING TRUTHS ABOUT HER FAMILY.
THERE, ARMED ONLY WITH AN ENCHANTED SWORD AND A SHARP TONGUE, SHE BATTLES HER WAY PAST DECEPTIVE WITCHES AND BOUNTY HUNTERS TO ATTEMPT A DANGEROUS RESCUE THAT CHANGES BOTH HER AND EVERLY'S FUTURE FOREVER.
If it be a piratical adventure on the high seas you're after then hoist the main sail and climb the shrouds. A book lay just off the port bow . . .cough . . . cough . . . okay, I can't keep up the pirate voice for too long.
But if you love seafaring adventure and portal fantasy, you'll want to check out A.M. Dellamonica's Stormwrack series. Tor is releasing the third book, THE NATURE OF A PIRATE, on December 6th and Alyx swung in with teeth clutching a cutlass to talk to me about the new book.
SG - THE NATURE OF A PIRATE is the third book in the Stormwrack series. I’d read that you initially wanted it to be a trilogy. Any plans for more books in the series?
AD - I will definitely do more storytelling on Stormwrack—I’d like to write a Bram trilogy!--but the very next thing I’d like to do on that world is wrap up the story arc for my series of novelettes about Gale Feliachild and Garland Parrish. One of those stories is newly out in Beneath Ceaseless Skies – it’s called “The Boy Who Would Not Be Enchanted,” and it contains a major piece of the backstory about Gale’s long-prophesied death and Garland’s role in her murder. (Story is at http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/stories/the-boy-who-would-not-be-enchanted/).
It was foretold at Gale’s birth that she would die at someone else’s hand, and everyone—including Gale herself—assumed that meant she would be murdered as a comparatively young woman. The fact that she’s still kicking around having adventures in her sixties is as much a surprise to her as anyone else. She never expected to live so long! She has always lived, in fact, as though she might be dead tomorrow. So I want to write a few more stories to round out that set, and continue her espionage career.
SG - The Stormwrack series is portal fantasy. Why did you decide to have Sophie Hansa be a character from our world?
AD - There’s a sense in which my first two books, Indigo Springs and Blue Magic, are also portal fantasy… they take place in our world, but characters from Oregon travel to and drain magic from a devastated wasteland that was, at one time, the realm of the fairies.
As this probably implies, they’re rather dark books.
When I set out to write the Hidden Sea Tales, I wanted less darkness and more fun, for myself as much as for my readers. So I started with a list of things I absolutely love. Portal fantasy was at the tip-top of that list!
It was awhile ago, and my recollection’s fuzzy, but I probably decided on a portal world before I had solidified either Sophie Hansa’s character or the basics of what Stormwrack was like. (As for Stormwrack itself, some of the other things on my love list were: biodiversity, tall ships, the history of fingerprinting, pirate fantasies… well, you get the idea.)
SG - How much pirate history inspired you or found its way into the world of Stormwrack?
AD - The history of marine piracy is too much romanticized: all that swashing of buckles is a popular narrative that’s offered to us without nuance. It’s like the homogenous paradigm of “The” Wild West, or stories where organized crime bosses are lovable galoots who only ever harm their competition, or stories where serial killers are somehow cool. A person can like those stories, but they shouldn’t necessarily assume there’s much reality baked into them.
With Stormwrack, I had a clean slate, and the nations of the Piracy reflect that disconnection from Earth history.
When this trilogy begins, the pirate nations have been largely stopped from raiding, but their leaders yearn for the good old days. They’ve glossed over the times when they preyed on weaker nations-- taking hard goods and prisoners for the slave market—and sell it to their kids as a period when they were cunning and brave in the exercise of a legitimate cultural practice.
I couldn’t entirely resist the aesthetic of Hollywood-style piracy entirely, though, so Convenor Brawn reappears in this book, complete with his glorious outfits, flowing hair, and magically-enhanced ornamental fingernails.
SG - What can you tell us about the fright?
AD - What can I tell you? More than you would probably ever want to know! I will say that the fright that appears in chapter one of The Nature of a Pirate is colloquially known as a wood fright… but there are a number of fright spells. (In the second book in the trilogy, you may remember, the sailing vessel Sawtooth was set upon by salt frights.)
Part of the book’s central mystery is that a treaty banning frightmaking had been enacted on Stormwrack decades earlier: the process was seen as so universally destructive that all the nations of the Fleet tried to stamp out the spells that create them. Sophie and the crew of Nightjar realize that there’s a rogue frightmaker on the loose, a spellscribe who resurrected the banned spells and who now specializes in such enchantments. They’re incredibly dangerous and cause a lot of damage.
SG - Favorite scene from THE NATURE OF A PIRATE?
AD - In the first book, Child of a Hidden Sea, Sophie’s full name name falls into the wild… which means that anyone in possession of it could potentially enchant her. In The Nature of a Pirate, she finally deals with a legal name change, Stormwrack style. It’s not quite what she’s expecting!
SG - Your wife, Kelly is an author herself. What’s it like being married to another writer?
AD - Kelly is a jaw-droppingly imaginative, thoroughly fantastic, rip-your-guts-out-and-make-you-like-it author! (If you haven’t read her work yet you’re in for a treat: check her page http://kellyrobson.com/stories/ for the full list).
The best part of our life at present is that we always have the option to take a step out of the real world, to insert ourselves into a waking state of shared dreaming. We take in facts and observations and experiences… bounce them back and forth and, in the process, transforming them into fiction. We talk about the stories we’re writing, or want to write, and the people we want to write about.
Kelly and I can be walking down the street, or in a museum, and we’ll be talking about… I don’t know, some abstract term we’ve picked up, like virtue signalling… and one of us will say “That might make a good story, if—“ Ten minutes after that “If,” we’ll both have a completely different idea of what kind of good story we might make out of the initial topic of conversation, and our backbrains will be churning the possibilities.
It’s a lot of fun in other words.
I started selling fiction back when the Internet was in its Model A stage—where you still had to start it with a crank and profanity. My first genre publications were in hard-to-get print magazines like Tomorrow SF and Crank! The online community of SF writers was coalescing around some very fractious unmoderated message boards, and everything real got done by snailmail. You might occasionally hear that someone read your story and liked it, especially if you went to conventions, but that was a rare experience indeed.
Having an opportunity to watch Kelly’s career unfold now, in the age of social media—in what almost seems like another world--has been wonderful and delightful, particularly since her work is so brilliant and has gotten such wide, sincere, and justified acclaim.
SG - Best book you’ve recently read?
AD - Lately I’ve been reading advance copies of books by authors I know, but if I rave about those it’d be so unfair—your readers won’t be able to get their hands on things like Lara Elena Donnelly’s excellent and heartbreaking Amberlough until February, for example! For something you can buy right now, let me say that horror readers should not miss the chilling Gemma Files novel Experimental Film, which just won the Shirley Jackson Award and the Sunburst Award.
SG - Best writing advice you ever received?
AD - When I was in my teens I encountered Heinlein’s rules of writing: you must write, you must finish what you write, you must put what you write on the market, etc. (Rob Sawyer has a good article about the rules, with some commentary, on his site. http://www.sfwriter.com/ow05.htm)
The Heinlein rules aren’t about craft, obviously, so much as they are about showing up, but as a young writer that may be what I needed most—a fundamental lesson about the all-important butt in chair factor. The idea of finishing, as opposed to endlessly toying with beginnings, was especially important. I love beginnings, but until I started writing complete drafts, I didn’t really understand how stories worked.
The other thing about butt-in-chair is it does take you a long way toward improving your craft, simply because practice truly is the key to getting better. I encountered other ideas on how to get better, both from face-to-face encounters with my heroes and via their written How-To advice, but none of their insights would have penetrated if I hadn’t first absorbed that initial set of concepts: Do it. Keep doing it. Send it to market and do it some more.
From the cover:
The Nature of a Pirate is the third book in acclaimed author, A.M. Dellmonica’s high seas, Stormwrack series. The Lambda Award nominated series begins with Child of a Hidden Sea.
Marine videographer and biologist Sophie Hansa has spent the past few months putting her knowledge of science to use on the strange world of Stormwrack, solving seemingly impossible cases where no solution had been found before.
When a series of ships within the Fleet of Nations, the main governing body that rules a loose alliance of island nation states, are sunk by magical sabotage, Sophie is called on to find out why. While surveying the damage of the most recent wreck, she discovers a strange-looking creature—a fright, a wooden oddity born from a banished spell—causing chaos within the ship. The question is who would put this creature aboard and why?
The quest for answers finds Sophie magically bound to an abolitionist from Sylvanner, her father’s homeland. Now Sophie and the crew of the Nightjar must discover what makes this man so unique while outrunning magical assassins and villainous pirates, and stopping the people responsible for the attacks on the Fleet before they strike again.
We've all had that experience--you follow a complete stranger into another world, you fight against an oppressive, otherworldly government . . . no? Just me? Well, don't worry, I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Foz Meadows, who wrote just the sort of thing you need in your life. AN ACCIDENT OF STARS releases from Angry Robot on August 2nd in the U.S. and ebook, and August 4th in the U.K.
SG- Where did you come up with the title--AN ACCIDENT OF STARS?
FM - I wanted something that combined the macro and micro aspects of the story: the idea of a multiverse is something huge and wonderful, but stumbling into it by mistake is terrifyingly personal. And thus An Accident of Stars, which is deliberately evocative of an embarrassment of riches, juxtaposing (to use a horribly high school English word) an intimate emotion with a bigger, more beautiful concept.
SG- What can you tell us about those creatures on the cover?
FM - They’re called roa, and they’re friendly – there are still horses in Kena, but in the cities, roa are more common. They’re also something I originally dreamt up as a kid – I used to draw pictures of them, and when I was writing the book, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to include such an old creation in a new story: a sort of homage to my younger self.
SG- Portal fantasy has been around for a while, going back to Alice in Wonderland and The Chronicles of Narnia. Where do you see the status of the subgenre and can we expect more from you in that vein?
FM - I think that, for a long time, portal fantasy has been viewed as either naff or childish, due largely to the traditional safeties it extends to the protagonists. Alice in Wonderland, Narnia and The Wizard of Oz, to give the obvious examples, are all what we’d term middle-grade stories if they were written now, and while we quite rightly consider them classics, accessible to and intended for whoever wants to read them, that more youthful, protected aspect of their storytelling has nonetheless defined how we think of the subgenre as a whole.
The darker elements in portal fantasies have largely come from fairy tales – the idea of a world inverted or an era stolen, a child lost in the woods or a goblin bride snatched at market. With An Accident of Stars, I wanted to tell a different kind of portal story, one where the consequences of the protagonist’s absence from Earth are present in the narrative. As a kid, it always bugged me that characters like Alice and Dorothy and Susan could visit these other worlds and never really question wanting to come home again, or that home would still mean the same thing to them when they got there. It felt cheap, somehow, as though everything they learned and felt in the other world was somehow erased by leaving it, and I wanted to write a story where that didn’t happen.
SG- Who is Saffron Coulter and how does she end up in the world of Kena?
FM - Saffron is a teenage girl who’s struggling to make sense of the distress she feels at school; someone so hungry for meaning that she accidentally follows a stranger into another world. As a character, she began as a comic self-insert I wrote in my teens, a girl who was rescued from maths class to go on adventures, though back then, I wasn’t self-reflective or inventive enough to make her a discreet entity.
That being so, it was fun to develop her in ways that my younger self would never have considered. Like me, she’s bisexual, compartmentalised and fed up with high school, but otherwise, she’s a work of pure fiction. Though I will say that the harassing incident she experiences in class at the start of the first chapter is closely based on my own teenage experiences. I’d like to think that girls in high school now don’t have to put up with that sort of bullshit on a regular basis, but by all accounts, it’s something that hasn’t changed, and my hope is that readers will recognise that, and related to it.
SG- AN ACCIDENT OF STARS could be compared to the work of fellow Angry Robot author, Kameron Hurley, and a few others. Who do you consider to be your influences?
FM - As a kid, one of my favourite films was Return to Oz, which starts out with Dorothy Gale, returned to Kansas from her first trip to Oz, being institutionalised for talking about what happened to her there. It had a big impact on my concept of what portal fantasies could do, and for all its flaws, I owe a lot to it. In terms of worldbuilding, I think Kameron and I are writing in parallel to each other, having grown up being inspired by a similar pool of inventive, feminist authors – in my case, Kate Elliott, Robin Hobb, Katharine Kerr and Tamora Pierce.
SG- Favorite scene from AN ACCIDENT OF STARS?
FM - I certainly have one, but I can’t really talk about it here because Spoilers!
SG- Favorite SFF archetype?
FM - One that’s cleverly subverted.
From the cover:
Book I of the Manifold Worlds from Hugo-nominated author Foz Meadows.
When Saffron Coulter stumbles through a hole in reality, she finds herself trapped in Kena, a magical realm on the brink of civil war.
There, her fate becomes intertwined with that of three very different women: Zech, the fast-thinking acolyte of a cunning, powerful exile; Viya, the spoiled, runaway consort of the empire-building ruler, Vex Leoden; and Gwen, an Earth-born worldwalker whose greatest regret is putting Leoden on the throne. But Leoden has allies, too, chief among them the Vex'Mara Kadeja, a dangerous ex-priestess who shares his dreams of conquest.
Pursued by Leoden and aided by the Shavaktiin, a secretive order of storytellers and mystics, the rebels flee to Veksh, a neighboring matriarchy ruled by the fearsome Council of Queens. Saffron is out of her world and out of her depth, but the further she travels, the more she finds herself bound to her friends with ties of blood and magic.
Can one girl - an accidental worldwalker - really be the key to saving Kena? Or will she just die trying?
ARENA is the debut novel from Holly Jennings about a near future where video gamers are the new superstar athletes. ACE released the book today, and you can get it at Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and Google. Holly joined me recently, not only to make my Galaga score look minuscule, but also to talk about ARENA.
SG - You're a lifelong gamer. What inspired you to write ARENA?
HJ - The idea for ARENA came to me when I was watching a documentary about professional gamers and reading a book called Neuromancer. For anyone who doesn’t know, Neuromancer was one of the definitive books of science fiction and explored the idea of plugging your consciousness into a virtual matrix. Once I started thinking about competitive gaming in combination with fully-immersive virtual reality tech, I couldn't stop writing the book down.
SG - In the book, how does getting hurt or killed in-game affect players in real life?
HJ - Getting hurt or killed in-game has no effect physically on the player once they unplug from the game. However, it can alter their psychological perception of consequences. How can you accept real-world repercussions of your mistakes when, in the game, you can simply respawn?
SG - What can you tell us about Kali Ling?
HJ - She's something fierce. She's cocky, hotheaded, and deeply flawed, but also has a lot of passion. In ARENA, she's a female gamer competing in a brutal fighting game. She loves martial arts, video games, and most of all, coffee.
SG - When you think about it, 2054 isn't that far in the future. How has the world changed in ARENA?
HJ - In ARENA, the world isn't that different. It's much more tech-heavy. Virtual reality has revolutionized education, medical, and even sports. Thanks to the immense popularity of virtual gaming competitions, gamers have become celebrity athletes. They are the ones on the covers of tabloids and rolling up to the clubs in Maserati's (and yes, those still exist, too). This concept of gamers as being athletic and famous was something I really enjoyed writing about because of its play on current tropes.
SG - What advice would you have loved receiving as an aspiring author?
HJ - Write the book you want to write. Before ARENA, I was so concerned with what other people would think about my stories. What would my friends think of this? My family? The industry? Once I was able to let that go and just focus on the story I wanted to tell, my writing exploded. I wasn't afraid to go dark or color outside the lines. I really believe this is one of the biggest factors that led to publication. When agents and editors read the same concepts and stories all day, pushing the boundaries gets noticed.
SG - Favorite moment in ARENA?
HJ - Without giving away any spoilers, I especially like ending of ARENA. Kali's personality transforms quite a bit through the book, and this is where we see the culmination of that change.
SG - Favorite SFF trope?
HJ - Good question! Probably the lovable android and their quest for humanity, like Wall-E's search for love or Data's wish to become more human. I also enjoy when neo-noir is mixed in with science fiction or fantasy, like Blade Runner. That's definitely a close second favorite.
From the cover:
A fast-paced and gripping near-future science fiction debut about the gritty world of competitive gaming...
Every week, Kali Ling fights to the death on national TV.
She’s died hundreds of times. And it never gets easier...
The RAGE tournaments—the Virtual Gaming League’s elite competition where the best gamers in the world compete in a no-holds-barred fight to the digital death. Every bloody kill is broadcast to millions. Every player is a modern gladiator—leading a life of ultimate fame, responsible only for entertaining the masses.
And though their weapons and armor are digital, the pain is real.
Chosen to be the first female captain in RAGE tournament history, Kali Ling is at the top of the world—until one of her teammates overdoses. Now, she must confront the truth about the tournament. Because it is much more than a game—and even in the real world, not everything is as it seems.
The VGL hides dark secrets. And the only way to change the rules is to fight from the inside...
J.C. is my mentor, and I don't mean that in the "smoking a pipe and dolling out sage advice while you crawl through barbed wire and mud" kind of way--although that did happen--but J.C.has worked with me on brushing up a manuscript, and is always good for a hit of street knowledge. This up-and-coming author joined me for a few questions about the newest book.
SG - You've written 3 Grimm Agency novels and a novella. How is THE REBURIALISTS different from your previous series?
JC - The Grimm Agency series is both humorous AND dark at times, mainly because I couldn’t imagine fairy tale creatures adapting to the modern world, and the collision of the two almost always makes me laugh. In The Reburialists, however, I set out to write something different. My original goal was to tell this story with your typical alpha-hero. But the more I got into it, the more I wondered why someone would behave like that, and the exploration took the story to places I didn’t expect.
SG - What can you tell us about Brynner Carson?
JC - Playing off my previous answer, I wanted to look at why someone would leave behind their family, use sex as an escape mechanism, hold everyone at arms length—and believe they were meant to face unimaginable evils.
SG - Egyptian myth plays a big role in the plot. How much research did you do?
JC - Confession time: In the first draft, it was heavily influenced by Egyptian Mythology. But the more i got into the story, the more I understood it was more a look at how the world had been influenced by the co-orgs. For instance, Hieroglyphics (as Grace points out) are usually repetitive - symbolic, followed by spelling out the word is common. But the co-org version combines many different character sets and makes an advanced language capable of expressing ideas that aren’t necessarily easy.
So I did a great amount of research and then dropped most of it to focus on the story instead. :)
SG - Who would win in a fight between Marissa and Brynner?
JC - Marissa would hire Brynner to deal with problems, not fight him. Hand to hand? Brynner would win easily - a fight over before it begins. He’s a hulking brute of a man trained in hand to hand combat from the time he was eight. Marissa *loses* most fights she’s in, if we look at it objectively—but it’s driven her to utilize different strengths. Since Marissa is loathe to kill when given a choice, it’s unlikely she would gun him down.
SG - Can we expect more to come for Brynner and the BSI?
JC - That’s up to the readers who buy my books and Ace. I have the events of a second book jotted down in a two page document, but I wanted to make it so that if this is the only one, readers feel like there’s a rock solid sense of closure. So how do we get a second book? Well, while the ending of The Reburialists looks nice and solid, some major changes have been set in motion that aren’t immediately apparent.
SG - Favorite scene from THE REBURIALISTS you can share?
JC - The scene I still love to read is when Grace sits down to eat dinner with Brynner’s aunt and uncle that first night. It’s where we get to see she’s not some “bitter, angry atheist” — she’s a rational person who works through science to understand everything, while they are deeply religious, loving people who believe it’s their destiny to deal with the re-animus. The conflict there lets me show them as more than caricatures - the angry atheist, the foolish religious person.
SG - Favorite SFF archetype?
JC - I’m a huge fan of evil overlords and minions. Evil overlords because…lava lair, of course. Plus, they have armies willing to obey their every command, vicious pets willing to devour people, and they don’t have to deal with home-owners associations. Evil overlords rule.
From the cover:
Burying the dead is easy. Keeping them down is difficult.
At the Bureau of Special Investigations, agents encounter all sorts of paranormal evils. So for Agent Brynner Carson, driving a stake through a rampaging three-week-old corpse is par for the course. Except this cadaver is different. It’s talking—and it has a message about his father, Heinrich.
The reanimated stiff delivers an ultimatum written in bloody hieroglyphics, and BSI Senior Analyst Grace Roberts is called in to translate. It seems that Heinrich Carson stole the heart of Ra-Ame, the long-dead god of the Re-Animus. She wants it back. The only problem is Heinrich took the secret of its location to his grave.
With the arrival of Ra-Ame looming and her undead army wreaking havoc, Brynner and Grace must race to find the key to stopping her. It’s a race they can’t afford to lose, but then again, it’s just another day on the job . . .
If you're a fan of science fiction and fantasy and don't know who the Nielsen Haydens are, get on your game, people! Where the hell have you been? But as a crash course, Teresa is a consulting editor for Tor Books, where Patrick is Executive Editor. Click on the photo above to read their blog, Making Light. Patrick and Teresa were kind enough to take a break from being Guest Editors of Honor at MidSouthCon 34 to chat with me. I learned so much during this interview, and much had nothing to do with publishing.
*The following was transcribed from a recording and has been edited for brevity.
SG – So, I guess the first question is: What are some upcoming Tor books that you’re most excited about?
PNH – Usually the answer to that is whatever first novel is currently on my horizon. And right now, that’s a book that’s coming out in May. The author is a woman named Ada Palmer. It’s called TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING—it’s a Shakespeare quote. It’s the first book of a four-novel series called, TERRA IGNOTA, a science fiction set five hundred years in our future, and it’s pretty much unlike anything I’ve ever read in science fiction.
It uses a lot of the techniques of conventional SF, but it does other stuff, too. It’s a very interesting quasi-utopian future that, in some ways, is kind of designed to outrage our sensibilities.
TNH – This is how you can tell it’s another period, because there are things that outrage us. I think one of the problems with the original concept of the utopia is that you got the impression that it would be a single utopian state and that they’d be in it forever, this very static kind of conception.
PNH – Yeah, this is not a static world.
TNH – Of course it’s a much better world in a great many ways, but it is not static.
PNH – It’s fragile.
TNH – It’s fragile, and there’s strong sense of: how did we get here and where are things going?
PNH – And Ada is a professional historian. Currently she’s an assistant professor at the University of Chicago. Which is a great gig.
TNH – Renaissance History is kind of her stronghold. She’s also done things like the history of Atheism.
PNH – And Skepticism. Interesting person, interesting writer. And so I’m very high on this book.
SG – And it comes out May 10th. Where do you see Tor’s future?
TNH – Probably somewhere in midtown (laughs).
SG – Out of the Flatiron?
TNH – Well, we don’t know. But we’re going to keep making books. We love what we do. We’re good at what we do.
PNH – If you’re asking if there’ll be a Tor Books in twenty-five years, I’m pretty sure there will be. We’re a part of Macmillan, which is the smallest of the Big Five.
TNH – And they seem to genuinely prize Tor for what Tor is good at. It’s like they recognize that we are a name in science fiction and fantasy, and have a sense that we know what we’re doing.
SG – In thinking of what happened at Angry Robot and the changing of the guard, Lee Harris left and you acquired him.
PNH – Well, he left because we stole him (laughs). We were looking for an editor for the Tor.com novella line. We initially wanted someone who could work in New York, but Lee Harris made such an impressive pitch, and he was obviously quite well-connected to the kind of hot, young, smart, scrappy, up-and-coming writers who are still writing short fiction.
SG – The Alexander Hamiltons of the publishing world.
PNH – (laughs) Yeah, there you go. At Tor right now, you cannot get too far away from quoting Hamilton.
TNH – If you ask what’s the hottest thing in science fiction right now—
PNH – Hamilton. Yeah, absolutely.
SG – A personal question: How did you two meet?
PNH – In an APA.
SG – APA?
PNH – Amateur Press Association.
TNH – Before the Internet.
PNH – This is back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Fandom in the 1970s.
TNH – This week we will celebrate our 37th anniversary.
SG – Congratulations!
PNH – So, in the pre-Internet world there was science fiction fandom going back to like 1929. And a lot of it took place in fanzines. There weren’t that many conventions. So one of the mutant forms of all this, starting in the late 30s and really taking off in the 60s, was Amateur Press Associations, or APAs. A small group of people ranging from twenty to seventy, that’s the high end, but typically about thirty-five people. And they would all publish a small fanzine addressed entirely to the other people in the group. And the central mailer would send them out to all the other members. So this was like a very slow Internet, but it was incredibly fast-seeming at the time. And you’d write something, type it on stencils, send it out, and get answers and arguments and comments in like three or four weeks. Oh my God! From dozens of people!
TNH – All of the characteristic fan-ish inventions or, at least, technologies that they picked up and ran with are all pre-Internet.
PNH – Yeah, talking about the language, common Internet abbreviations like “LOL” came from APAs.
TNH – We took to the Internet like nobody’s business. But Patrick and I met each other in, what, AZAPA?
PNH – AZAPA, yeah.
TNH – He did the best colophons (laughs).
PNH – It was people in Arizona SF fandom or people who were their friends. And I started in the latter category because I grew up there, but my family moved to Toronto when I was seventeen, eighteen years old. But when we first became aware of each other’s existence, she was twenty, I was maybe seventeen.
TNH – He was still shorter than I was.
SG – (laughs)
PNH – But we didn’t actually get involved for another year and a half.
TNH – I had a terrible crush on Patrick for like two years before I got up the courage to say anything about him. One of the first things I noticed about Patrick was he did such great prose. He did naturally justified colophons.
PNH – Colophon, in the context of a fanzine, think “Masthead”.
TNH – So, when the web came along, you started seeing these astonished news stories about some couple that met online and actually wound up getting married, and Patrick and I are sitting back and laughing.
SG – What qualities in a manuscript spur you to acquire it?
PNH – I’m looking for the thing that I had no idea I was looking for, but you did it so refreshingly, so originally, so amazingly that I’m just blown away. Like, right now it seems extremely unlikely that I’m interested in a western. But if something like True Grit showed up in my inbox, something as unconventional, and genre-breaking and neat, I would totally buy that.
TNH – If we’re hanging out in the kitchen, fixing dinner, it’s the impulse to say, “Let me tell you about what’s happening in this story now. I know I told you three previous iterations, but oh my God, this is what’s happening now.
PNH – Let’s go to the opposite end of all that. I hate trend-spotting in general, because book publishing is just too slow for that to be effective. By the time you notice there’s a trend toward Yugoslavian vampire stories…you know, it takes a year to write a Yugoslavian vampire novel, another two years to sell, and another year or two to publish it. By that time, they’re way the hell back in the rearview mirror. It’s pointless. You may as well just write good stuff.
But, that said, there’s never enough sciencey science fiction. There’s always too much fantasy. And the reason is—
TNH – Sciencey science fiction is hard to write.
PNH – Well, that’s part of it. But another reason—this has to do with the psychology of aspiring writers, who want to break in, and might write one and might write the other—everybody knows, more or less, that fantasy outsells science fiction by about two to one. What this means is that nine out of ten aspiring writers are trying to write fantasy. If you are remotely numerate, you can see immediately that this leads to a serious shortage of science fiction. And that’s always the case. We never have enough really sciencey science fiction, as opposed to alternate history, or Steampunk, or whatever. And I don’t mean necessarily just super, Greg Benford, hard science fiction with rivets. But you know, just sciencey stuff. Like, I mean, Old Man’s War, which is not all that sciencey, but is still recognizably “science” science fiction. Of course, there are never enough books like Old Man’s War.
Bram Stoker nominee and all-around good guy, John Hornor Jacobs is the textbook definition of a prolific writer. His seventh book, FOREIGN DEVILS, is the sequel to 2014’s THE INCORRUPTIBLES, both from Gollancz. While the sequel's eBook is available now, physical copies are only available in the UK until the US release on May 3, 2016. John shares my same area code, but he insisted on answering my questions via midnight séance.
SG - When we last saw Fisk and Shoe, they’d gotten out of a few scrapes only to land in the middle of impending war. What can we expect for our two heroes?
JHJ - Foreign Devils finds Fisk and Shoe on the hunt for Beleth under the orders of the Emperor Tamberlaine and his governor, Cornelius. Beleth has other ideas and some new allegiances, though his first allegiance is, as always, solely to himself. In addition to narration, Shoestring becomes more of the focus of Foreign Devils, and we learn more about the dvergar and their unrest at the Ruman occupation of what they feel is their land. Also, we learn more about the vaettir, and how they’re not all as the people of the Hardscrabble think them to be.
SG - THE INCORRUPTIBLES was strictly from Shoestring’s point of view, but in FOREIGN DEVILS, we also follow Livia Cornelius via epistolary chapters. What inspired you to use this story-telling technique?
JHJ - I wrote The Incorruptibles and Foreign Devils concurrently while I was writing the last two books in my young adult series - The Shibboleth and The Conformity. All of these books are in first person, past and present tense. When you’re writing a teen, or a rough-and-tumble western character, you have to live in their head, find their voice, and over the course of several books, that can sometimes be tiring. Also, neither of those characters are well educated, though they both have panache with language, so writing from the point of view of a highly-educated noblewoman offered new challenges and pleasures.
Another more important reason is that the story took me in different directions, revealing more of this world I’d spent so much time crafting. I was somewhat locked into a first-person narration and didn’t feel that I could have Shoe tell Livia’s story convincingly. I had played with that some in The Incorruptibles, but it ended up being a lot of supposition on Shoe’s part, revealing more about him than it did about, in this case, Livia and Fisk. Epistolary letters to her husband made sense, though it offered some difficulties. Epistolary narration is a conceit, sometimes a good one, sometimes not so good. I think I pulled it off fairly well, but as a writer you’re never content with your work.
SG - The Ruman Empire in this series, of course, can be compared to Rome, the Hardscrabble Territories like the American West. Kithai, featured in FOREIGN DEVILS resembles a Chinese city. What modern setting did you use as an example to follow?
JHJ - Rume, while obviously derived from Rome, takes culture from its namesake but it’s really more like colonial England, on whose empire the sun never set. I did base Kithai on China, the China of the 19th century. The city of Jiang was very loosely based on Shanghai, though not in organization or geography. It was a stylized interpretation of that culture and I tried to remain respectful of the roots of its creation, and the people that culture came from, while not being slavish to facts. One of the things I love about writing fantasy is I can take inspiration from anywhere, but I can bend and change things to suit my story because fantasy is wondrously mutable while real world history is not. Still, readers can find fault, and racism, anywhere, even if you’re writing about a culture or race that has never existed. So, we respect our inspirations, we respect our craft, we respect readers sensibilities and triggers, and we try to respect ourselves, if that makes any sense.
SG - Can we expect more from Livia, Shoestring, and the rest?
JHJ - Yes! Livia and Shoe and Fisk, and Carnelia – especially Carnelia, who is, by far, my favorite character I’ve ever written. There are special things in store for Carnelia. The whole gang is back, doing stuff, saying things, shooting guns, chasing people, getting chased. People die, people live. There are new creatures, new histories. New devils.
SG - Like many professional writers, you work a day job and raise a family. How do you balance it all?
JHJ - Well, I haven’t been doing a very good job of balancing day work and writing. Recently – oh, about a year and a half ago - I became a partner at an advertising agency and that has monopolized all my time. We landed some big clients, the most notable being Twitter, and I’ve been working sixty to seventy hours a week for months on end. Consequently, I’m very behind on the last book in The Incorruptibles series. But things have slowed down some and we’ve brought in folks to help me – I’m the senior art director and I have to do a lot of animation, which I love but it’s time consuming – so my workload has decreased some. I feel lucky that both in my day job and this literary vocation, I get paid to be creative, which is all I really ever wanted since I was a kid.
I wrote around ten thousand words last weekend, five thousand on the novel this week, and vomited up a thirty-five hundred word short-story. The words had been building up.
However, I drop it all to spend time with my kids. They’re both in their teens now and they need my attention and whatever guidance I can give them or they will accept. I think a lot of parenting is just being aware and present and not checked out, like my parents were. They were focused on their lives and we knew, my sister and I, that we were not the center of their world. I became a miscreant latch-key kid, smoking and drinking and terrorizing the neighborhood and I’m not about to let my kids go the way I did. And that means I have to be present for them, every day. That’s what I focus on, that’s what’s important. I’ll have world, enough, and time to write in five years when they’re both off to college.
SG - Favorite moment in FOREIGN DEVILS you can talk about?
JHJ - I had a great time exploring the “technology” of Hellfire, especially in regards to transportation. I found I really enjoyed creating ships and trains and naming them and figuring out the daemons they carried within them to turn the screws or drive the wheels. The Valdrossos, The Malphas, The Gemina – I don’t know, they just made me happy. As far as favorite moments in Foreign Devils? It would either be the widespread and titanic destruction I wreak as author (and that’s all I’ll say about that) or when we finally meet the Autumn Lords of Kithai. The Autumn Lords were a lot of fun to write.
But, as I said before, any time I spend with Carnelia, seeing what she’ll do or say, is time well spent.
SG - Favorite Fantasy or Horror archetype?
JHJ - I love possession stories, and tales of devilish things. Save one, all my books have dealt with the loss of identity at a spiritual or etheric possession, either by the infernal, or the telepathic. I don’t know why that fascinates me so much – probably the echoes of seeing The Exorcist at an age far too young to see it.
I also seem to fixate upon mangled or severed hands. All of my books have them. I don’t know why, except maybe because I got in a bar-fight back in the nineties and busted my hand. Maybe.
From the cover:
The world is on the brink of war.
Fisk and Shoe - mercenaries, very much not wanting to get caught in the middle of a political whirlwind - must deliver a very important message, and find a very dangerous man. They have caught the eye of the powerful men of the world, and now the stakes are higher than they like.
And the Emperor has decreed that Livia Cornelius, pregnant with Fisk's child, must travel to the far lands of the Autumn Lords on a diplomatic mission. It will mean crossing half the world, and facing new dangers. And in the end, she will uncover the shocking truth at the heart of the Autumn Lords' Empire.
A truth which will make the petty politics of war and peace unimportant, and will change the world.
When Tor.com announced their trek into publishing novellas, I was intrigued. When I saw that Victor LaValle’s THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM would be releasing February 16th, I fisted some cash, ready to slam it on the counter in exchange for some horror fun. Victor took a break from playing chess with Cthulhu to answer a few questions.
SG - THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM takes place in the Lovecraftian Universe, and Ole’ H.P. is certainly a controversial figure. What inspired this story, and what new angle did you want to take with the mythos?
VL - I grew up on Lovecraft, he's one of my Big Four from early childhood reading. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Shirley Jackson. But while I loved Lovecraft he was also a crazy racist. I mean even for his time the guy was on a fringe. More importantly, it showed up in some of his work and the work suffered for it. I wanted to take one of the stories that was ruined by his prejudice and see if I could write a counter-version that was just as good a story, but told from a new perspective. It was like doing a Lovecraft Remix. I had a great time with it.
SG - How does music play into this story?
VL - Tommy Tester (who eventually becomes known as Black Tom) is a bad musician. I mean a terrible singer and guitar player, but he makes a living by basically pretending to be a good musician. He dresses the part and he's got the confidence so some people actually get fooled into thinking he's good. Since he plays the blues, mostly, this was a chance to throw in a few songs by one of my all time favorite blues musicians, Son House.
SG - It’s safe to say you’re a New Yorker through and through. What does Victor LaValle’s NYC look like?
VL - The best thing about my New York is that it's always changing. You can't ever get used to what it looks like, what it sounds and smells like. There's always some new group of people--some new immigrants--entering a neighborhood and bringing along all their good and bad. It can be kind of dizzying, people and places are always in flux. That makes some folks uncomfortable. Lovecraft famously hated the wild immigrant mixes of Brooklyn. But if you have the right temperament it's downright glorious. And it's never dull.
SG - Tor.com has gotten into the novella game, and THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM is one of their first acquirements. How different is novella writing, from novels and even short stories, and what made BLACK TOM the right fit for this re-surging art form?
VL - I love the novella because it's exactly the right form for a long night spent tearing through a tale. A short story might not let you settle in for a long enough and a novel, especially a big one, may take days to get through. But sometimes you just want to bundle up in bed, or on the couch, and go on a journey that will be over by the time you're ready to sleep. That's what novellas do so well. A few hours of reading then straight to bed where the whole story may invade your dreams. Who could ask for more?
SG - Favorite part of the novella you can talk about?
VL - Easy, I loved writing about the time period. I did a fair amount of research about New York City in 1924, and about Harlem in particular. Most of it never made it onto the page, but the stuff that was there really popped for me. The kinds of patrol cars the NYPD had back then, the types of lamps used on sidewalks, the secret social clubs of Harlem, that stuff was so much fun to use. And then, of course, there was all the killing. I liked that, too.
SG - What future projects can you tease us with?
VL - The Ballad of Black Tom comes out February 2016 and I'll have a full length novel out in the spring of 2017. The simplest tease I can give for that book is this: posting pictures of your children on Facebook is going to get them kidnapped. But by whom? Or what?
SG - Favorite Horror archetype?
VL - I love, love, love the old person who explains the evil history of a monster or an evil place. Think of Donald Pleasance in the Halloween movies. When it's done right I could read, or watch, that character going on for fifty pages or fifty minutes.
From the cover:
People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn't there.
Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father's head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping.
A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?
Order THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM from Amazon, Google, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble.
New York Times Bestselling Author, Lisa Shearin has been dishing out novels since her first, MAGIC LOST, TROUBLE FOUND, in 2007. Three years ago, she introduced us to a new series, THE SPI FILES, and the third book, THE BRIMSTONE DECEPTION releases January 26th from Ace. Lisa was kind enough to appear as a pillar of fire to discuss the book. True, email works just as well, but is not nearly as cool.
SG - The SPI series has been called Men in Black with supernaturals instead of aliens. What else makes this series different?
LS - I’ve always loved the idea of mages, magic, and fantastical creatures existing alongside the world we know and live in. There’s just so much potential for fun and adventure-filled stories. I love movies like Men in Black, Big Trouble in Little China, and Ghostbusters. Nothing’s more fun to me than watching or reading about the chaos—and comedy—that ensues when people are faced with the reality that the creatures and things they didn’t believe existed are all too real. They’re sitting next to you on the subway, they’re driving the cab you just got into, and you found out this morning that your boss really is a troll. The story possibilities are endless—and so much fun.
SG - What inspired you to write the SPI Files?
LS - I mainly read paranormal thrillers or thrillers with an unknown element that could be supernatural. I absolutely adore James Rollins, David Golemon, Greig Beck, and Jeremy Robinson. And I’m a huge fan of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Agent Pendergast series. And I love the idea of a secret organization that knows that supernatural beings exist, and their job is to protect us from them—and them from us.
SG - How has Makenna evolved over the series?
LS - Aside from the ability to see through the spells, wards, or veils that supernatural creatures use to blend in with human society, Mac is a normal person. Other SPI agents come from military, espionage, or law enforcement backgrounds, Mac’s degree is in journalism. She came to New York to run with the big dogs at the New York Times or get a job with a web news site like the Huffington Post. But all she could get was a reporter job with a tabloid that ran headlines like “Donald Trump is a werewolf love child.” I wanted to make sure that she didn’t come across as the stereotypical “kick-ass heroine.” I think it makes her more relatable that she has to struggle on the job to learn the things that her fellow agents can do in their sleep and take for granted.
SG - This third book deals with a hellishly addictive drug, Brimstone. What research did you do in exploring controlled substances, cartels, dealers, and users?
LS - Actually, I didn’t have to do any research at all. When reading for fun, I gravitate toward police procedurals, and mysteries and thrillers involving some branch of law enforcement. All of that reading has soaked in over the years, and what I needed for The Brimstone Deception was already in my head for the harvesting.
SG - Favorite type of supernatural?
LS – The goblins in my SPI Files series and my Raine Benares series. Most people think of goblins as short, gnarled, with a bad case of post-nasal drip. My goblins are tall, sleek, and sexy. Their hair is dark and often worn long, their skin is pale gray with a silvery sheen, and their human-sized ears are pointed at the top. But their most distinguishing physical characteristic is a pair of fangs that aren’t for decorative use only. Goblin politics is a full-contact and often fatal sport chock-full of seduction, deception, and betrayal. Their motives are next to impossible to figure out, and whether engaged in politics, business, or interpersonal relations, goblins make Machiavelli look like an intrigue dilettante.
SG – David Bowie would be proud.
From the cover –
It’s called Brimstone. And after the first few hits, you’ll see every supernatural beast sharing the sidewalk, train, or office with you. After that, you’ll start seeing the really scary stuff.
I’m Makenna Fraser, seer for the SPI. And the collateral damage caused by Brimstone is something I’d like to unsee: dead drug dealers missing their hearts—and souls. Because your local pusher doesn’t stand a chance against the new cartel muscling its way into New York. And since the drug can only be produced with magic and molten brimstone fresh from Hell, that means a rift to the underworld is open somewhere in the city.
And when—not if—the cartel loses control of it, well...
It’s going to be Hell on earth.
Religion has been the source of conflict throughout history, in both fiction and the real world. Son of a theologian and purveyor of Fantasy, Tim Akers takes this subject into a brand new trilogy from Titan Books. THE PAGAN NIGHT releases January 19th, and Tim stepped into the confessional to pour out his soul…er…in regards to his book.
SG: THE PAGAN NIGHT deals with inquisitor priests, the dissolvement of paganism, and knights pledged to kill, all set against an Epic Fantasy backdrop. How much does your book parallel our own world’s history?
TA: The two largest influences from our own world are two historical events. The first was the slow cultural integration of the Angles and the Saxons following the Conquest, a period of history that served as the seedbed for a lot of our mythology and culture. The nobility was quickly Saxon, either by force or wise capitulation, and I imagine the tension that existed between the common folk, lesser nobility and their servants was pretty complicated. How quickly do grudges die?
The second influence was a similar integration of paganism into early Christianity. Especially in Ireland, it became common practice to rebrand the local deities as saints, absorb whatever practices were extant into the church calendar, and tell everyone they were now Christians. In at least one case, St Brigid, the priests weren't able to get the locals to stop referring to their saint by her original pagan name, so they just canonized the goddess. Brigid was a river spirit whose icon happened to be a cross made of hay, so the integration was fairly simple.
SG: There are many contrasting elements in THE PAGAN NIGHT: The Celestial Church vs. the pagans, Malcolm Blakley vs. his son, Ian. What is their relationship like, and how does it play out in the story?
TA: Malcolm is the hero of the last war, a fight that united the two nations of the island of Tenumbra, Tener in the north and Suhdra in the south, against viking-like Reavers who were invading. Because of his role in that war, Malcolm is beloved in the north and one of the few Tenerrans the south will trust. As tensions between north and south rise, the church looks to him to calm things down. Malcolm will do anything to preserve the peace, having seen the horrors it can bring. His son, however, is impatient to gather glory. Ian is also tired of the constant mistrust of the north that both the church and the south express. While Malcolm will put up with the inquisition in their oppressive rule in the name of peace, Ian (and much of the north) is sick of it. The collapse of their relationship is a microcosm of the conflict that is tearing the island apart.
SG: Gwendolyn Adair is another main character, who is charged with the position of huntress for her family. What does a huntress do and how badass is Gwendolyn?
TA: She's tremendously badass. Each house of the north has a hunter or huntress. This person is charged with culling the feral gods of the old religion from the forests, leading war parties into the primeval forests to track and kill mad, rampaging gheists before they can do any harm. Gwen does this in conjunction with the inquisition, acting as a buffer between the church and the north, only calling in the priests and vow knights (an order of priestly warriors sworn to the goddess of summer, given magical power to slay gods and demons alike) in dire need.
Gwen does all this with heresy in her heart. Her family, house Adair, has secretly kept the pagan faith for generations. They are hiding a sacred grove from the church. The dual nature of her responsibilities, killing pagan gods while still worshipping secretly in the hallowed forests of her ancestral lands, will provide the spark that leads the land to war.
SG: You’re a big gamer. What’s the closest RPG to THE PAGAN NIGHT?
TA: Any game you play with me as the DM. ;-) Seriously though, the world of The Pagan Night shares bits of Call of Cthulhu set against the kind of epic fantasy setting of D&D or Pathfinder. There's some of the old World of Darkness in there, too, with a secret world overlaid the mundane. Most of the world is very low magic, but in the areas where magic manifests it's very high. The vow knights and inquisitors are epic warriors, but their powers are turned entirely against the gheists, so they can still be threatened by mundane blades. The gheists are massive monsters, only manageable because they function according to the rules of the old religion, bound to sacred places or days.
SG: THE PAGAN NIGHT is your fourth published novel and the first in a new trilogy. What was your path to publishing like?
TA: In some ways it was rocky, in others it was incredibly lucky. I went the traditional route of writing short stories and selling those, and then building that into a novelist's career. That was kind of silly, because they're completely different skill sets. I'm really not a very good short story writer. The main feedback I got on my stories was that it felt like I was trying to shove a novel-sized idea into five thousand words. I started going to conventions to network, and met my agent at a party during World Fantasy Convention in Madison. After a few minutes of talking he asked me to send him a manuscript. I was writing a YA fantasy, and it turned out to be good enough to at least keep him talking to me. But in the six months between submitting the manuscript and hearing back from him, I had sold a bunch of short stories in the world of Veridon, and had started the novel that would become my first novel, Heart of Veridon.
That novel went to Solaris, right before Solaris started to fall apart. They were a division of Black Library, and BL decided to sell the imprint and focus on their core GW business. Understandable, but it screwed up my debut something awful, and the next two books kind of limped along in the wreckage of that. It's been five years since the third book came out, which was an intentional gap. The Pagan Night is something of reboot of my career. That gap also gave me the time to write the best book that I could. I'm very happy with the result.
SG: Favorite moment in THE PAGAN NIGHT you can talk about?
TA: The first time you see a gheist fully manifest in battle. It's already killed a knight when Ian Blakley, seeking glory, leads a group of footmen into the fight. They think they've defeated it, and then things take a turn for the worse.
“Well, someone should get back to the camp. Let them know what we’ve done. Send someone out to gather Sir Grandieu and…” His voice trailed off. He looked over to the dead knight. A tangle of blackness was gathering against the man’s shattered chest. As Ian watched, the pale white of Grandieu’s ribs was eclipsed. With a sound like grinding marbles, Grandieu knit himself back together and rose again, knight and horse bound together with bands of night and heresy.
“Oh, seriously, what the hells?” Ian said. Exhaustion beat against his chest. He unfolded slowly, struggling to his feet. Doone and the survivors closed around him.
The body of the knight and the corpse of the horse wove together into a grotesque hybrid of armor and flesh. The broken length of the knight’s spear wrapped tight with the gheist’s strange ribbons, shattered and broke again, given life by the fallen god to become a prehensile limb, tipped with scything jaws of splintered wood.
The gheist turned toward Ian, snapping those narrow jaws together. It sounded like swords clashing.
“Well. We made a hell of a try,” Ian said.
SG: Favorite fantasy archetype?
TA: The madness that lurks in the night. Things that are ancient and sacred and utterly unknowable to mortal minds. And the kind of bright blades and equally mad heroes that are needed to stand against that sort of darkness.
From the cover:
The Celestial Church has all but eliminated the old pagan ways, ruling the people with an iron hand. Demonic gheists terrorize the land, hunted by the warriors of the Inquisition, yet it’s the battling factions within the Church and age-old hatreds between north and south that tear the land apart.
Malcolm Blakley, hero of the Reaver War, seeks to end the conflict between men, yet it will fall to his son, Ian, and the huntress Gwen Adair to stop the killing before it tears the land apart. The Pagan Night is an epic of mad gods, inquisitor priests, holy knights bound to hunt and kill, and noble houses fighting battles of politics, prejudice, and power.
In the modern era of publishing, where most writers spread their talented tentacles through the more marketable medium of novels, Eric James Stone took the path of the old Speculative Fiction masters. After countless (okay, about 51) published short stories, a Hugo nomination, and a Nebula win, Eric’s first novel released January 5 from Baen Books, and looks to be something hard to forget.
Eric, unlike me, can totally pull off the beard look, and was kind enough to talk with me about UNFORGETTABLE.
SG: Quantum mechanics and espionage play a large role in UNFORGETTABLE. How much research went into writing this novel?
EJS: Most of the research on quantum mechanics was just having read various articles in magazines and online over the years. I did look things up on Wikipedia for specific concepts, like the details of Schrodinger's original thought experiment about the cat. As for espionage, I must confess my research was watching the TV show ALIAS, along with watching various spy movies and reading spy novels.
SG: Who is Nat Morgan, and what makes him unforgettable for readers?
EJS: Nat is the protagonist of UNFORGETTABLE. Due to a fluke of quantum mechanics (detailed in the novel) he's a CIA agent who can't be remembered for more than a minute by anyone he meets. I hope that readers will remember him as someone who took that challenging situation and tried to make the best of it, combining resourcefulness with good humor.
SG: UNFORGETTABLE started as something you serialized for your blog readers. What did you learn from that experience, and can we look forward to any more stories this way?
EJS: I actually didn't intend to serialize it when I started writing. But the original version of the novel was far too short for agents and publishers. So after I gathered a bunch of rejections I decided to serialize it on my blog, while also releasing the full novel in self-published form so that anyone who was intrigued enough by the serialized parts wouldn't have to wait to finish the novel. However, before I had finished serializing the novel, I got an offer of representation from my agent, so I stopped the serialization and took down the self-published version of the book. After some extensive revisions, I had a new version that was not only better, but also long enough that publishers were willing to look at it.
As of right now, I have no plans to serialize future novels on my blog. But you never know.
SG: UNFORGETTABLE is your first published novel. How many had you written before?
EJS: I had written one novel before UNFORGETTABLE, an epic fantasy. I looked at the prologue recently and felt embarrassed at how cliched it was. So it's unlikely to see the light of day anytime soon. Maybe after I'm dead, my family will sell the novel in order to capitalize on my fame. ;-)
SG: You made your name from short stories. How do you approach novels differently from your shorter work, and how does the writing experience differ?
EJS: I have found that I can successfully write a short story without an outline, but I need an outline for a novel. I have several novels I've begun without outlines, and they've all fizzled out after only a few chapters at most. I think the main difference in the writing experience itself is that with a short story, I try to be as direct as possible, while with a novel I feel at liberty to go off on tangents for a while.
SG: Favorite moment from UNFORGETTABLE you can talk about?
EJS: My favorite passage is the first scene I wrote. It was originally the first chapter of the novel, but in the process of revising, I added a new beginning. The scene involves Nat trying to demonstrate his talent to a CIA recruiter.
SG: Favorite SFF archetype?
EJS: I was going to say "The good guys win against overwhelming odds," but that archetype isn't found only in science fiction and fantasy. So I guess I'll go with The Chosen One, because my favorite TV show is BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.
From the cover:
Out of sight, out of mind.
In the near future, a fluke of quantum mechanics renders Nat Morgan utterly forgettable. No one can remember he exists for more than a minute after he's gone. It's a useful ability for his career as a CIA agent, even if he has to keep reminding his boss that he exists.
Nat's attempt to steal a quantum chip prototype is thwarted when a former FSB agent, Yelena Semyonova, attempts to steal the same technology for the Russian mob.
Along with a brilliant Iranian physicist who wants to defect, Nat and Yelena must work together to stop a ruthless billionaire from finishing a quantum supercomputer that will literally control the fate of the world.
The Crow Wrangler
By Sean Grigsby
Here they were, red eyes staring from the woods. Pepito couldn’t believe they were there at first. They’d come with no sound, no warning. They’d faded into view just as slowly as the sun was burrowing into the dark belly of the trees beyond. The crows bobbed along, unalarmed in the patch of sand between the porch and the woods.
Pepito willed his hand to grab for Mister Segundo’s blunderbuss. It was leaned against the table to his right where a cup of horchata had grown neglected and warm. Slowly, Pepito rested the weapon against his lap.
The red eyes blinked. It was only once, but it was slow enough that Pepito had time to conjure the hope he’d only imagined them. But no. They appeared again, and that just made it all the more real.
He had the sudden feeling he was at the opposite end of a game board. His objective, of course, was to stop whatever it was in the woods from making off with one of the crows. It was something he’d prepared for all summer, but now that it had come…. His finger twitched near the trigger.
Two months before he’d been walking home along the Polvo road when he came upon a crow. Its feathers were clean, shiny black in the sun. The bird cocked its head and seemed to wink at him.
Pepito smiled. “Hello, grandpa.” He wasn’t sure why he’d called the bird that.
The crow must have taken offense. It flew off at shoulder height down a path through the baking grass. Pepito followed. He laughed the only way a boy in the summer can, running through unknown terrain and letting the air embrace him as the sun poked its glory through thick branches.
Pepito had begun to tire by the time the crow led him to the square patch of sand in the middle of the grass. It beat its wings and landed among its brothers and sisters who were pecking at the grains beneath their feet, every so often finding something worth eating.
“Hello, friend!” An old man in a large and weathered hat waved to him from the covered porch of a small house to match the man’s simple and well-worn attire.
“Hello,” Pepito said. He was unsure if he was trespassing. The man’s welcoming smile under dusty moustaches and that the man’s gun was against a post and not aimed at Pepito’s chest said that he hadn’t gone where he wasn’t wanted. But still, Pepito felt he was in a place he didn’t belong.
“Come, come. I have horchata to share.” The old man waved again. He turned and dragged another chair from inside the house.
Pepito took a step then stopped. “I’ve never had it before.”
The man raised his eyebrows. “No? It’s very good! Especially in the heat of the day. Please, please. It’s very nice to see you.” He waved again for Pepito to join him on the porch.
Pepito decided he liked the man, strange as he was. The crows paid the boy no mind as he walked to the porch where the old man directed him to a chair and filled two cups with creamy liquid.
“Tell me how you like it,” the man said, nodding to the cup closest to Pepito.
It was wonderful, cold. The horchata was sweet and nutty and the best thing that had ever passed Pepito’s lips. Not much to say since an occasional drink of milk was the only change from the well water his father made him fetch every other morning.
“I’d say it was good,” Pepito said, “but I don’t think that’s enough. I love it!”
The old man laughed, pleased to please. “Tell me, what brings you out to my little paradise today?”
“I followed the crow.” Pepito pointed to the one who’d shown him the way, surprised he could pick it out again among all the rest.
“Ah,” the man said. “He just got here. Like you.”
Pepito looked over the porch rail to the large square between the house and the start of deep woods. It could have been a garden if it hadn’t been covered with sand, and all those big, black birds.
“My name is Mister Segundo.” He held out a hand across the table.
Pepito took it. It was the first time in his life he’d shaken anyone’s hand. He liked it. It made him feel like he’d grown up in the two seconds it took to make Mister Segundo’s acquaintance. He gave his name.
“It’s wonderful to know you,” Mister Segundo said. “What do you think of my home?
Pepito looked through the front door and then at the old wood that made up the porch. He couldn’t find anything worth noting. So he said, “I like your crows. How do you keep them from flying away?”
Pepito nodded, and for a few minutes without the man saying anything, Pepito searched his mind for something else to say, but then Mister Segundo said, “They come when it’s their time and they leave when it’s their time. I just spread seed in the sand for them and make sure they’re safe until they go.”
“Safe from what?” Pepito asked.
Mister Segundo shrugged. “I hope never to find out. Never seen anything in all the years I started this work. I just keep my eyes on those woods there for anything strange.” He tapped his fingers on the gun leaning against the porch. “I always keep it loaded.”
“You make money doing this?” Pepito never knew there could ever be such easy work. His father had always pointed a dirt-covered finger at him after a long day in the fields and told him how it was a man’s duty to work hard for his family. This crow business was a much better idea.
“I make enough to live,” Mister Segundo said. “No more.”
Pepito gulped the rest of his horchata and smiled. “This seems like the best job in the world.”
“And why is that, my friend? Because you think it’s easy?”
“Well, isn’t it?” Pepito looked around him, searching for any soiled tools or any other evidence that there may have been more to the job than Mister Segundo had let on. But he didn’t see anything besides the comfort of the porch and the happy hopping of the crows. “You sit here and drink horchata, watching the crows peck at the sand.”
Mister Segundo smiled and rubbed his chin. “Do you think you could do it?”
Pepito nodded furiously. Seeing that he’d grown up after climbing onto the porch, it was about time he began his career in crow watching.
“All right, then.” Mister Segundo stood.
“Where are you going?” Pepito asked, guarding his empty cup.
“We,” Mister Segundo said, “are going to talk to your parents.”
Night was falling by the time they came to Pepito’s home. He grew more worried about what his father would say. Mister Segundo’s lengthy legs kept him at a pace Pepito couldn’t keep up with, and so there was no conversation between them to put Pepito at ease.
Mister Segundo went straight away to Pepito’s door without thinking to ask if it was the right house. The tall man rapped against the door and turned back to Pepito with a smile that showed a tooth missing.
The door flew open and Pepito’s father stood on the other side. He took in the full height of Mister Segundo and then saw Pepito. “Where on earth have you been? Your mother was about to throw herself into the fire for grief!”
“Hello, my friend,” Mister Segundo said, sticking his hand out and seeming to ignore Father’s inhospitality.
“Thank you for finding him,” Father said with no enthusiasm. He forced himself to shake hands.
“In fact, Pepito found me. May I come in?”
Father looked back into the house and grumbled in his throat. “Yes, yes. If you like.”
Father wagged his head for Pepito to come inside and the boy hurried to do what he was told. Mister Segundo removed his hat as he bent down to enter. His hair was scraggly and white, just as clean as it could be. The hat must have protected his hair from the dust.
Mother ran to Pepito, crying. She wrapped her arms around him and wailed into his ears, kissed him and got his cheeks wet. Then, she slapped his arm and proceeded with a more heated line of questioning that resembled his father’s.
“Hello, dear lady,” Mister Segundo said. Although he was already bowing to prevent hitting his head against the ceiling, he bowed lower still to pay her respect.
“Did you find my Pepito?” his mother asked, wiping her cheeks. “Thank you so much. Please eat with us. We have very little in the way of taste but there’s plenty of it.”
Mister Segundo grinned, “I have to get back to my flock, but thank you. I was hoping to ask you and your husband something.”
“What?” Father asked.
“The food is the most we have.” Mother put her hands on Pepito’s shoulders.
“I’m not looking for payment in bringing Pepito home. I had a hand in keeping him out later than he should have, and he’s a very talkative young man. I am here to ask your permission.”
“For what?” Father had his arms crossed and he leaned against the wall.
“Yes,” Mister Segundo said, smiling, “I was getting to that.” He turned back to Pepito’s mother. “I was hoping Pepito could come and work for me. Just for the summer. I would provide him with a bed and food, of course. And he would learn a valuable trade in the process.”
“What sort of trade?” Father asked.
Mister Segundo still addressed Mother. “I aim for him to apprentice as a crow wrangler.”
Father barked laughter and Mother wrinkled her face. Pepito couldn’t help smile. A job and a fantastic title.
“He’s crazy,” Father said. “Please leave, you old fool. Pepito has work to do in the morning.”
Mister Segundo spun and tossed something into the air from his pocket. It sang like a horseshoe as it twirled, small and glinting firelight. Father caught it and held it in front of his face to get a good look. Gold. A single coin, but more than Pepito’s family would make in a year.
“When does he start?” Mother asked.
They hurried through the night to Mister Segundo’s house. The man was determined to return as quickly as possible. This time, Pepito kept pace. He’d found an abundance of energy and could have run on, leaving Mister Segundo behind.
“I’d save that energy for the morning if I were you,” Mister Segundo said, chuckling.
Ha! Yes, more energy to sit back and drink sweet nectar under the shade. Pepito was looking forward to a very enjoyable summer.
“This is where you’ll sleep,” Mister Segundo told him when they’d finished counting the crows.
It was a small cot against a wall inside the little house with a tiny gray blanket thrown over. It was no king’s bed, but considering how well the rest of his time would be spent, he had no problem with it. It would be just like his bed back home.
“We will eat after I wake you,” Mister Segundo said. “And then we will get to work.”
Work, yes. Pepito couldn’t wait. “Where are you going?” Pepito asked after Mister Segundo darkened the house and stalked to the front door.
“I have to watch the crows,” he said.
With that, he closed the door behind him and Pepito fought for sleep. It was hard, seeing how excited he was. Probably the hardest thing he’d have to do all summer.
Water hit his face and soaked every part of the blanket covering him.
“Time to start!”
He didn’t know when he’d finally fallen asleep, but this wasn’t Mister Segundo’s house. This was not where he’d become a crow wrangler. He must have wandered off into some bizarre torturer’s garden.
But there was Mister Segundo above him, smiling. He held an empty, dripping pail in one hand.
“Here!” Mister Segundo shoved a tortilla at him. “Eat this quickly and meet me on the porch.”
Pepito chewed the flavorless thing out of habit. His mind was racing with confusion and picking over the short list of events that had brought him here. Had he said or done something to make Mister Segundo angry? Maybe it was some joke the old man was playing or perhaps Pepito had a particularly large bee land on his face while he was asleep and Mister Segundo was only being helpful in removing the insect with a full pail of lukewarm water.
The sun had only begun to crest over the woods when Pepito walked out onto the porch. Mister Segundo was sipping horchata and still holding the pail and the pail was still dripping from the lip.
Mister Segundo shoved the pail at Pepito. “Go around back and fill this from the well.”
Pepito started to ask what all this was about, but had fetched enough water for his father to know it was best to just do as he was asked. He stomped through the tall grass surrounding the outer edges of Mister Segundo’s home, wincing at a few stickers that managed to snag him along the way.
The well was small, almost undiscoverable among the weeds. One of the large stones from the top had fallen long before Pepito had come. He finished the job and brought the filled pail back to Mister Segundo on the porch.
“Now,” Mister Segundo said, bringing a chair over, “step onto this chair while holding the pail. Do it fifty times and we can move on to your next task.”
Pepito looked down at the water still sloshing and kissing the edges of the pail. “What does this have to do with watching crows?”
“Then you can do it a hundred times.”
Pepito dropped his jaw.
“You agreed to become my apprentice. You will not argue or question how I go about instructing you. Understood?”
Pepito nodded. He considered running back to his parents and leaving the crazy old man to his birds and horchata. But he knew Father would chide him for walking out on an agreement and, more so, giving up the gold coin for not wanting to fetch a bit of well water. He would have been doing the same thing at home anyway. No, he would stay, if only to spite Mister Segundo and his father. Some exercise wouldn’t hurt him.
“And don’t spill one drop of that water,” Mister Segundo said. “If you do, you’re going to have to fill the pail back to the brim and finish out your hundred chair steps.”
The man was insane.
But Pepito took as deep a breath as he could find and began the useless task he’d been given. First one leg, then the other. Pepito held the pail by its thin handle with both hands. It was much too heavy to only use one. Mister Segundo sat, sipping horchata, watching him. Pepito was about to complete his thirty-third step, legs burning and chest heaving breath, when he was careless with his footing and slipped from the chair.
The gush of water was at first refreshing when it ran down his shoulders and chest. But soon, the realization he was on his backside and would have to make his already-exhausted legs take him back to the well to refill the pail, came down like a landslide.
“Back to the well with you,” Mister Segundo said.
Pepito spilled the pail three more times before he made it to a hundred. By then it was time for lunch and Mister Segundo came out to where Pepito sat on the floor of the porch, praying his legs would stop burning. The old man handed him another tortilla.
“I’m thirsty,” Pepito croaked.
“Does a dog have to ask to drink when there’s water near him?”
Pepito looked around for a cup but only saw the pail and the water he’d managed not to spill. Mister Segundo wrinkled his brow expectantly.
“I would love some horchata,” Pepito said.
“I’m sure you would,” Mister Segundo said, “but it will do nothing for your shriveling body. You need water.” He nodded toward the pail.
“You’ve given me horchata before.”
“Ah, when you were a guest. Now you’re my apprentice. Well, drink! You say you’re thirsty. Stick your head in if your arms are failing you.”
Pepito swallowed and found there to be nothing in his mouth but a dry and sticky film. He lifted the pail to his lips and drank.
“After you finish your tortilla, meet me by the trees over there.” Mister Segundo grabbed his long gun and marched down the steps. “And don’t walk through the crows’ sand. Go around.”
Pepito took as long as he thought he could in eating the tortilla. After a while, though, hunger took over and the thin morsel was gone. Mister Segundo was waiting for Pepito with his back to the house. The old man was staring out into the trees, either listening for something or he had very well fallen asleep, standing up with his gun laid across his shoulder.
Pepito’s legs wobbled and sang harsh songs of agony when he began to pull himself up. He had to limp, and slowly, to get around the crows and come to where Mister Segundo was very much awake.
“What do you think might be in those woods,” Mister Segundo asked.
“I have no idea,” Pepito said.
“Exactly. We have to assume any kind of evil, terrible thing may be lurking just the other side of those cedars.”
Pepito looked into the dark of the woods, unable to see much past the first few trees.
“There may be something watching us right now, just as we’re looking at the trees.”
In a blur, Mister Segundo raised the weapon and fired into the woods, the blast sending Pepito a foot into the air despite his fatigue. Mister Segundo cackled and slapped Pepito on the back. Normally, Pepito would have grinned along, to be polite. This was not one of those times.
“I’m going to show you how to load, aim, and fire this blunderbuss.”
“I’ve never held a rifle.”
“Neither have I,” Mister Segundo said. “This is a blunderbuss. Not as accurate maybe, but much more devastating than your common rifle. Here.”
Mister Segundo tossed the blunderbuss to him as if it were paper. Pepito caught it with both arms and nearly dropped to his knees. The treacherous trips back and forth from the well, the chair steps, had whittled him down to nothing. But he fought to hold onto the weapon and straightened his legs.
“Well, maybe today we’ll just show you how to load it, huh?” Mister Segundo retrieved the blunderbuss, much to Pepito’s relief. “First, you cock the hammer halfway and prime the pan here.” Pepito hadn’t seen where Mister Segundo had brought out the bag of powder, but here it was. He poured it into the barrel. “Then you put your powder in, followed by your shot.” He plopped a handful of metal balls into the same hole.
Mister Segundo showed him the wad to put in next and the rod to push it all down. After pushing the hammer further back, the blunderbuss was ready to kill.
“Do you think you’ll remember that?” Mister Segundo asked.
“I think so.”
“You’ll have plenty of practice with it in the days to come. So, we’ve come to your day’s final task.”
Pepito sighed. There was to be more?
“Don’t look so glum,” said Mister Segundo. “I did say final.” He returned his blunderbuss to lean on his shoulder and turned to the patch of sand. “Catch a crow.”
“Pardon?” The blast of the blunderbuss must have damaged Pepito’s ears. Surely Mister Segundo didn’t expect him, with weakened legs and barely enough food in him, to catch a crow.
“Go over there to where those big, black, winged things are hopping around and seize one with your hands.”
Pepito attempted to convince himself it couldn’t be that difficult. After all, the crows hadn’t left the sand all day and were much fuller than he was on the food Mister Segundo had spread out for them. It could have been argued that the odds were even.
A quick rub to each leg and Pepito sauntered to the sand. None of the crows bothered to even give him a glance.
All right, you snobby, flying rats.
He picked one of the fatter ones to aim for and ran toward it with outstretched arms. The crow fluttered out of his way and went back to its monotonous pecking. Pepito rethought his strategy and shuffled along outside the sand square until he was behind his selected prey. None of the other birds gave warning or even acted as if they knew he was there.
Pepito pounced, aiming his chest for the crow’s head, ready to swipe it up in his arms. But again, the bird flew and Pepito found his mouth full of sand and the bitter taste of something he wasn’t familiar with. And then the birds descended.
“You fool!” Mister Segundo shouted.
The black of feathers and beaks swarmed him. Pepito covered his face as the crows pecked at every inch of his body. It was like being stabbed with a thousand tiny forks. He was too frightened to swat at the attacking birds, too afraid it would leave his eyes vulnerable to their sharp mouths.
A hand grabbed his arm at his bent elbow and pulled him through the sand. Pepito felt his feet trail through the rough grains and as soon as they touched grass he was let go.
“Tell me,” it was Mister Segundo’s voice, Pepito still covered his face, “when did you decide to become the hunted instead of the hunter?”
Pepito sat up and searched around him for any crow sneaking up for another round of pecking. But all of them were still in the sand, back to searching for food.
“I missed,” Pepito said.
“You don’t say.”
“I didn’t think they would hurt me. They don’t even care that I nearly died!”
“Any creature will defend itself and its own when attacked,” Mister Segundo said. “The threat was removed and now they’re back to what matters.”
“Hopping through sand and filling their bellies?”
“They can leave whenever they want. What could a bunch of scraggly birds be waiting for that’s so important?”
“Their turn,” Mister Segundo said. “In time you’ll learn how important it is. How significant all of this is.” He stretched out his lanky arms and turned to address his homestead.
“Now,” Mister Segundo said.
Pepito sighed and it came out like the beginning of a weep. More terrible work was coming his way.
Mister Segundo chuckled and leaned against his blunderbuss. “I think you’ve earned some proper supper. Don’t you think?”
Pepito widened his eyes and stared up to the tall, old man. The sun was at Mister Segundo’s back and put his form in shadow, a character from stories his mother told him before sleep.
“And maybe some horchata?”
Pain and weakness aside, Pepito scrambled to his legs and followed Mister Segundo back to the house.
After a meal of cheese, the most delicious warm bread, fruits, and vegetables, Pepito sat with Mister Segundo on the porch and sipped at a well-earned cup of horchata. It was strange. It all put him into such a place of comfort and pride. His throbbing legs and tight muscles were complimented by a full belly and sweet drink. He’d earned it.
As the sun began to set, two of the crows suddenly took flight and flew over the tops of the trees. The remaining birds were as apathetic as ever.
“Good bye, my friends,” Mister Segundo said.
“I guess they were done waiting.”
“Yes. But there’s always more.”
Not a few minutes later, two more crows flew in from the road Pepito had followed the day before. They were new crows, not the same ones who’d just flown away. He wasn’t sure how he knew this, but he just…did. Each of the crows could be distinguished as if they were distinct members of his own squawking, feathered family.
“Where do they come from?” Pepito asked.
“All places. Where they go is the real question. I hope to find out someday.”
It grew darker then. The woods became a blanket of black. If it weren’t for the sand, Pepito wouldn’t have been able to see the crows dance.
“Now,” Mister Segundo stood. “I think it’s time for you to get to bed.”
When the man said it, Pepito closed his eyes briefly and felt the sting of sleep there. The cot sounded as good as a soft cloud.
“Tomorrow we’ll do it all again.”
And they did. Each day was the same besides Mister Segundo showing Pepito in greater detail how to operate the blunderbuss. After a few weeks, Pepito began to shoot it himself. Mister Segundo said that he needn’t worry too much about his aim as long as it was straight.
“Just make sure there are no crows between you and whatever you’re aiming at,” he’d say.
The chair steps became easier, even though Mister Segundo kept the number at a hundred.
“No sense in going backwards,” he said.
It got to where Pepito could do them in one set without dropping a bit of water. The crow catching was a different story.
“I just don’t understand the point of catching them if they’re just going to fly off at sunset,” he complained one afternoon after failing for the thousandth time.
“If you truly think it’s about the act of catching the crow, you haven’t learned a damned thing,” Mister Segundo said.
After that, Pepito made it his goal for the summer to catch one of the fidgety flock. After all, if he couldn’t catch one of them, could he truly call himself a crow wrangler?
One morning Pepito woke before Mister Segundo could do it for him. He rose and grabbed a tortilla from the cupboard. The house was empty and Pepito guessed that Mister Segundo had once again fallen asleep on the porch as he guarded the crows. Pepito stepped onto the porch and found it empty besides the blunderbuss waiting beside the door and a newly arrived crow perched on the railing with an envelope in its beak.
“Hello, friend,” Pepito said, because he knew it’s what Mister Segundo would have done. “Have you seen the old man?”
The crow dropped the envelope and cawed. Pepito didn’t look to the floor where the envelope had dropped, not at first. He was too interested in the crow. None of them had ever left the sand unless they were leaving for good over the trees. Even when they arrived, they went straight for the tan square.
And none of them ever brought mail.
The bird spread its wings and turned, gliding to the sand in the time it took Pepito to exhale. Pepito looked down to the envelope on the porch. Its sealed side was up. On the other side was a note that read, “Don’t open until tomorrow.”
Was this some kind of test? Mister Segundo must have been watching from the woods, seeing how he would do on his own. Well, Pepito would show the old man that he could wrangle crows better than anyone else.
But he also thought he deserved a day without the annoyance of his regular schedule. For a time he sat on the porch, drinking horchata and cleaning the blunderbuss, watching the crows as vigilantly as he could. He stared at the envelope for several hours, wondering what could be in the mystery letter. He finally had to take it inside and put it on his cot to avoid the temptation to break the seal before its time.
After his lunch tortilla, he grew bored and found himself headed to the well, pail in hand, as he’d been doing every day for the last few weeks.
His chair steps done, Pepito practiced loading the blunderbuss like Mister Segundo had shown him, away from the crows. He became quicker and quicker with every load.
The day was fading by that time and Pepito decided not to try his hand at crow catching. The one that had just arrived was bigger than the rest and would surely have no problem flying off with Pepito in its talons. Unlike the other crows, Pepito thought he saw it more than once lift its head from pecking and watch him perform his chores.
Mister Segundo had shown him how to make supper and Pepito thought it would be rude not to go inside and make enough for two should Mister Segundo come back then from whatever place he’d gone. But Mister Segundo didn’t return and there was a good amount of food left over after Pepito had taken his fill.
Pepito took his usual spot in a chair on the porch, horchata neglected beside him. He tried to focus on watching the crows but couldn’t stop himself from looking over to Mister Segundo’s empty chair and thinking for the briefest moment, every time, that the old man would be there.
And that’s when he saw the red eyes.
He stayed his hand and took his finger away from the trigger. Don’t put the crows between you and what you’re aiming at. Another thought occurred to him. It was Mister Segundo out there, maybe with some special candles he could make to look like a beast was stalking him. This was a test. Mister Segundo was trying to see what Pepito would do under pressure.
This notion was crushed when the thing rushed from the trees.
It was big and steady in its stride, its black fur sleek under the small amount of moonlight. The body was like a wolf, snout and long tail, but two curled horns protruded from its head, like a ram’s. And Pepito had never heard of a wolf with such terrible eyes and such large, slobbery dagger teeth.
The urge to shoot came again. No! Not with the crows. The beast had stopped after escaping the cover of the woods and kept its glowing gaze on the offerings hopping across the sand.
Every muscle held Pepito in place. He knew he had to go to the crows, to scare off this intruding monster, but he trembled and tears stung at the corners of his eyes. It wasn’t just that he was afraid, but that he was utterly disappointed in himself for not being brave when it counted.
You didn’t grow up when you first stepped onto this porch. You were only fooling yourself.
It was then Pepito saw he’d gotten up from the chair and was now standing at the edge of the porch, blunderbuss in a firing position in his arms.
The beast darted for the crows.
It was easy to run after Pepito was already standing. His legs moved more swiftly than he knew they could, the muscles had been primed for it. But it wasn’t fast enough.
The wolf-thing leapt into the crowd of crows, scattering sand and snarling as it found an unlucky bird to bite. The new arrival, the big one. The rest of the crows assaulted the beast as it whipped its head to and fro with its kill between its teeth. It wasn’t until Pepito had reached the sand and swung the blunderbuss at the beast’s head that it let go of the crow and scampered off the square. With a snarl that made its eyes flare up bright red, fresh blood on its jaws, the wolf-thing disappeared into the woods.
The crows didn’t attack Pepito. They hopped away from him and their unfortunate brother. The big crow that had brought him the secret envelope lay in a tussled heap, its dark fluids seeping into the sand.
Pepito took the bird in his hands and cradled it.
A flash. For an instant, so fast he could barely comprehend, Pepito saw the ghostly form of Mister Segundo rise from the dead crow and vanish into the night like the last puff of a blown out candle.
But he knew if he stayed there crying in the sand, the thing that had killed Mister Segundo’s spirit would get farther and farther away and he wasn’t going to let that happen. He leapt to his feet and entered the woods.
A hill greeted him a few yards in. The beast stood at the top and turned in surprise when it heard Pepito snapping twigs under foot. Pepito readied his weapon but the animal scampered over the other side.
The hill was steep, so much you could have slid back to the bottom if you didn’t keep your feet moving. But Pepito kept pumping up the hill. His legs didn’t tire. His feet plowed into the mound and thrust him forward, up. Easy since doing all those chair steps.
Yes! That was it exactly. He’d been conditioned for something just like this. But how did the old man know?
Pepito reached the top of the rise in only a few strides and spotted the beast zipping through the maze of tree trunks.
I’m right behind you, you terrible thing.
He ran, dodging trees and fallen branches. The beast was always just ahead of him, although Pepito’s legs kept him close behind enough to catch a glimpse of the creature’s tail. It wasn’t just his conditioning that kept Pepito moving. He had an urge inside him he’d never felt before. I need for vengeance. I desire to kill.
The beast climbed another hill and when Pepito was halfway up he heard a thick, wet plop and the yelping of a dog. After he reached the top he saw it. The wolf-thing had fallen into a deep pool of mud, the sucking kind that would grab anything and pull it under.
Pepito raised the blunderbuss and aimed at the struggling animal. It whined and thrashed uselessly, only getting itself covered more in mud and deeper into the pit. The beast’s red eyes burned with the unyielding wish to survive as its whine cut through the dark of the woods. But no one was coming to save it. Not like Pepito had tried to save the crow, Mister Segundo’s soul.
The trigger was at his finger. He breathed in. Out. This thing would pay for what it had done. There had to be restitution. He’d blow the animal away and—
What was he doing?
The thing looked at him with pleading in its red eyes. Please, it looked to say. Help me!
This wasn’t a monster. It was just some animal come along and saw a chance to eat and live, if only another day. Monsters didn’t sink into mud pits. And even if they did, Pepito wouldn’t feel this unbearable sinking in his gut and the desire to save the ugly thing. This wasn’t right. He couldn’t do it. Wouldn’t.
Shoot. Don’t shoot. Minds could always be changed. He knew it. And he also knew Mister Segundo would have approved. Pepito squatted and grasped the slope with his fingers, steadying himself so he wouldn’t fall into the mud.
“Come on,” he said, stretching the stock of the blunderbuss to the beast. “Take it.”
The animal yipped louder and tossed with what little mobility it had left. The movement put its head under the mud.
“No!” Pepito slid further down. It couldn’t end like this. He’d get the beast’s head out and then the thing would bite the stock and he would pull it out, letting it run off to lick away the mud. As he scooted closer, Pepito’s foot dipped into the pit. It was stuck.
He pulled and pulled, keeping his eyes on what remained of the wolf-thing’s body that squirmed every other second until it was finally still. Pepito stabbed the blunderbuss into the dirt above him and used it to pry himself free. It was only when he’d clawed back to the top of the pit that he turned back and stared at the mud below.
The wolf-thing was gone, the mud undisturbed and blank as canvas. Pepito buried his face into his palms and again, he cried.
The sun was rising by the time Pepito stumbled back to the house. The crows were at their daily errand and there was no sign of the Segundo crow. Pepito would have wept, but there was no more in him.
He strained up the steps to the porch and set the blunderbuss beside the table where he grabbed the unused cup of horchata. It was another day. The house put back in order, Pepito chewed on a tortilla and stared at the envelope on his cot. “Don’t open until tomorrow.” And tomorrow had become today.
The envelope opened with little effort. Inside was a small piece of paper adorned with the scribble of a man who had little experience in writing, but the strokes were sincere. It was from Mister Segundo.
Do not be troubled, my friend. Go into my room. There you will find a small but comfortable bed and a chest below. Every Sunday morning in this chest you’ll find a single gold coin. From where this money comes, the man who came before me never said. Use this money to buy food to keep you and the crows strong, and shot to arm you. I will not be coming back. Know that I am proud of you and think you are a better crow wrangler than I ever was. I’m sorry if the training was hard, but you may discover some day that it has prepared you. Continue to practice like you’ve done with me. You’ll find your parents accepting of your new life and they can visit any time they wish. I’m off to see where the crows go when they leave our patch of sand. I will miss you dearly, my boy, but know that I am happy.
As Pepito grabbed a pail and headed for the well, he knew it was true. When he returned to the porch, a new crow flew in and landed upon the sand. The summer was near an end, and he still had one more thing to do for Mister Segundo. But there were plenty of crows he could catch.