Vicki Pettersson is in the enviable position of having a successful urban fantasy series with her “Signs of the Zodiac” books, of which the latest, Cheat the Grave, is the fifth. But when any series goes out to the fifth book (or beyond), the question becomes: What now? What next? What’s new? Pettersson’s answer to this was to do the unexpected with her main character — a zag instead of the usual zig. And what does that zag entail? I’ll let Pettersson explain it to you.
The initial premise for my Signs of the Zodiac series was simple: take the superhero construct of good and evil and drop those dueling sides – represented by Light and Shadow – down in Las Vegas to watch them battle it out against the neon backdrop. Vegas is my hometown, so research is a cinch and the real world setting is just odd enough that readers often question the gray areas of what’s real and what’s not. (After all, what’s stranger, superheroes duking it out in Sin City or the fact that Wayne Newton is still headlining here?)
This lets me write a dark, gritty urban fantasy and still point out the best places to cop a $.99 breakfast. It’s like Fodor’s Guide to Supernatural Vegas – the perfect little getaway for a readership enduring a recession, craving escapism, and faced with all around, monumental world change.
And change is the Big Idea behind my fifth book, Cheat the Grave. In the real world, change blares into our lives via a headline: if it’s not a bailout, a bank fail, or an earthquake – it’s Greece. Or it visits our life in a phone call: if it’s not your mother, your kid, or your own bad decisions – it’s your good ones. Because every action, or inaction, ultimately finds a way to assert itself in your life.
Now if you’ve read any of my previous books, you’ll know this has never been a static series. (If you haven’t, then you missed the limited offer on my Vegas Roulette Predictor Ring. Sorry.) I push Joanna hard, and have admittedly, at times, treated her like a rat in a science lab. What happens if I push this button? What if I zap her here? You found your way out of that maze, girl? Then it was too easy. Here’s a tulpa blinding you with lightning bolts, flood waters rising at your feet, and a man with a rotted soul seeking to trap yours in his bewitched blade.
Normally when a character faces tough situations she just gets tougher. Yet Joanna started out pretty hard from word one. Any tougher and she’d start resembling a walking strip of beef jerky. So I took the opposite tack and made her more vulnerable instead. This doesn’t mean she cozied up on me. She’ll never be the type of character to hand over her recipe for pound cake or believe in magic sparkling unicorns.
But this softening has brought up new questions for both Joanna and me. Like, who are you when you’re separated from those people that have come to most define you? What happens when the things you’ve built up around you are pulled, have fallen, or drifted away? And what if life, very suddenly, can’t be confined to two distinct camps – good and evil, Light and Shadow, right and wrong – but instead allows in uncomfortably and previously unseen shades of gray?
In other words, change. Because what else can a book be about when a superhero has been stripped of her ubiquitous leather and weapons and masks, and indeed, her every available defense? Yes, I forced Joanna to give it all up, then I pushed her to keep going afterwards, and by God she did.
And because Joanna has changed irrevocably, I’m now scrambling to make sense of my next book. Mind, I don’t expect more recipes or any less bloodshed – as Cheat the Grave’s tag line says, old habits do die hard. But there’s grace, I think, in watching someone taking responsibility for their own part in a changing world, and peace can be found if they’re able to accept that world’s new shape. And if a superhero can’t manage it, I don’t know who can.
Read an excerpt. Follow Pettersson on Twitter. For a limited time the first book in the Signs of the Zodiac series, The Scent of Shadows, is available as a free electronic download. Read here for more information.