The Big Idea: Alan Smale

The Roman Empire in the New World? That’s the idea of Sidewise Award winner Alan Smale’s The Clash of Eagles trilogy, of which Eagle in Exile is the second book. But in imagining an alternate history, how does one give honor to actual history, and avoid the easy traps of historical fiction? Smale offers up his thoughts.

ALAN SMALE: 

I was still a recent import to the U.S. when the hoopla surrounding the Columbus quincentenary started up. My own one-man version of the British Invasion was going rather well at the time; what I’d originally thought would be an educational three-year stint in the New World was being overwritten by the strong urge to stick around. Nearly a quarter century later I’m still here, and I’m now an American myself.

From my outsider perspective it was gratifying to see how quickly the simplistic and myth-based story of Columbus I was used to got replaced with a more factual, thoughtful, and nuanced reconsideration of his voyages and impact. I was just beginning to get published as a writer of short fiction at the time, but even then ideas were swirling around my brain. Yet it took another decade and a half, much more writing experience, plus the unanticipated kick-start of reading Charles Mann’s 1491, for my conscious and unconscious minds to get their acts together.

In Clash of Eagles, the Roman Empire never fell. Now it’s the early thirteenth century and a legion under general Gaius Marcellinus is marching west from the Chesapeake Bay towards the great Mississippian city of Cahokia, a thriving community of some 20,000 people. (Cahokia really existed, of course. The Mississippians were mound-builders, and even today it’s fun to stand on top of what we now call Monks Mound, a giant earthwork 100 feet high and 1000 feet across at the base, look out over the surrounding more gently-mounded landscape, and imagine how glorious Cahokia must have been in its heyday…)

And that was the Big Idea behind Clash of Eagles: Ancient Rome invades North America when the Mississippian Culture is at its height. Subtext: Invoke a different European invasion of the North American continent, in a different way and at a different time but with fairly similar motives – plunder and personal glory – and explore what happens.

Hold up a mirror to the world we know. Attempt a new perspective on the culture clash between invaders who have “discovered” this great new world of Nova Hesperia, and the people who have been living there all along.

Of course, along the way desperate battles, pathos, and hardship ensue.

As the second volume, Eagle in Exile, begins, Gaius Marcellinus is living in a Cahokia that’s suffered considerable death and destruction due to its Mourning War with the Iroqua of the northeast. Marcellinus has done his level best to help his new Cahokian friends, with – let’s put it kindly – mixed results. And then there’s a coup. Marcellinus and a small band of his Cahokian friends are expelled from Cahokia and have to survive as stateless wanderers on the Mississippi. But, but: in the meantime, the Emperor of Rome has hardly forgotten about Nova Hesperia. More legions are coming, and Cahokia is not ready for them. Unless Marcellinus and his new friends can turn things around, they’re hosed. And there may be an enemy even greater than Imperial Rome on the Hesperian horizon.

This kind of story has antecedents. All stories do. The theme of the helpful and notionally more ‘advanced’ outsider entering and influencing a foreign culture has been explored from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Lest Darkness Fall to Dances with Wolves and Avatar. Which was kind of the point. I wanted to dig into a new version of the “discovery” of the North American continent. But I also wanted to turn the Avatar cliché on its ear, because I’ve never believed it. I’m generally unsatisfied with protagonists who adapt into new and radically different cultures with such speed and ease that they’re indiscriminately slaying members of their old culture by the end of the book (or movie). Perhaps there are exceptions, and even noble ones, but by and large honorable human beings just don’t behave that way.

Marcellinus is an honorable man. He’s hardly blind to Rome’s flaws, but he will live and die a Roman. He tries to convince himself — sometimes on tenuous grounds — that his actions are in Rome’s interests as well as Cahokia’s.

More crucially, Marcellinus has sworn an oath to never take up arms against Rome. This puts him in a bit of a bind. He is no longer a mere soldier. He has made new friends, new family, a new community and new allegiances, and he can hardly abandon Cahokia and the other North American peoples to their fate when his inside knowledge of Rome might be able to help them.

He can’t fight Rome, and yet he can’t not help Cahokia. Really, what’s a guy supposed to do?

So, the Big Idea of Eagle in Exile: wild adventure in an ancient North America, while in the process standing that comfy Dances with Wolves trope on its ear. With a secondary theme or minor or, hey, side order of: what does an honorable man do in an impossible situation?

With the easy answers ruled out, Marcellinus has to get creative. And after all, it’s not like everyone is just going to do what he says. Cahokia’s chiefs and elders have their own ideas, their own friends and enemies and concerns, and they don’t line up neatly with Marcellinus’s. Marcellinus is quite good at war, but he’ll have to develop a range of other skills to negotiate a treacherous landscape like this. He’ll have to learn fast, think on his feet, and try not to get killed or – given his less than stellar record so far – try not to get anyone else killed either.

I have to say, I’m glad my arrival in North America was calmer than Marcellinus’s. I might not have made it quite as far as I have.

—-

Eagle in Exile: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Susan Jane Bigelow

The real world can sometimes get you down. But if you’re a writer, at least, you can use that as an opportunity to imagine another world. At a low point, Susan Jane Bigelow did just that — and her novel Broken was the result. Here she is to tell you about it.

SUSAN JANE BIGELOW:

Hope is a fragile thing, especially when times are bad. It’s easy to get lost in cynicism, to dwell on the awfulness of people and governments and systems, and resign ourselves to whatever fate is in store for us. After all, if we don’t get our hopes up, they can’t be dashed… and sometimes, hope feels so far away that it’s hard even to imagine we could ever feel it again.

In 2004, after failing at my job as a high school teacher, getting a new job for a lot less money, and watching what felt like political disaster unfold when John Kerry lost to George W. Bush, I wrote a book about hope to make myself feel better.

That book, Broken, turned into a four-book series. And really, at its heart the Extrahuman Union series is about is trying to find that narrow thread of hope to carry us through the darkest times.

I suppose it is also about superheroes in space. That’s important too.

The world of this book is teetering on the brink of disaster. The grip of a fascist government is tightening around everyone, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. Earth and the dozens of colony worlds that make up the Confederation are falling into a long, long darkness.

Only Michael Forward can see a way through. Michael is just a kid, but he’s been saddled with extrahuman powers that let him see the possible futures of everyone he looks at. He knows how bad things are going to get, but he also knows that there’s a slender path through the darkness that leads to a better future for everyone. All he has to do is find it.

For that, though, he needs the help of Silverwyng, a former member of the Extrahuman Union who started living on the streets of 22nd Century New York after she lost the ability to fly, and who now goes by the name “Broken.” Broken has no hope. Everything she loved about her life is gone, and she is nothing but a mess of fury, despair, and cynicism when Michael finally tracks her down.

This is the story of how she helps Michael Forward and the orphan baby Ian, but it’s also the story of how Broken comes back to life. It’s the story of how she remembers who she was, and starts to have faith in herself and in the idea that she could have a future.

Broken is the first chapter of her story, to be continued in the forthcoming books Sky Ranger, The Spark, and Extrahumans.

And yes, I wrote it to make myself feel better about politics. But I also wrote it because one of my fundamental beliefs is that things can and will always get better, no matter how bad it seems now. Fate is cruel and life is hard, but faith in humanity and hope for the future are worth hanging on to.

This is not an easy thing to write. There’s a fine line to walk between hopelessness and corny, and it’s very tempting to swerve to one side or the other. The first draft of this book, which was written for NaNoWriMo 2004, was a lot darker than the final product. There was a lot more death and despair. You’re lucky I cut out the part where Broken eats a dead cat. You’re welcome.

As for why I chose to use super-powered people, well… they’re cool! But they’re also symbols of hope, in a way, especially some of the better ones. Implicit in a lot of superhero narrative is the idea that no matter how bad things may get, the day will always be saved.

I still believe that it will be. And I hope that Broken succeeds in conveying that!

—-

Broken: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Kobo

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The Big Idea: Sonia Orin Lyris

If you think about it, there are practical issues to seeing the future. This fact was not lost on Sonia Orin Lyris, and in today’s Big Idea, she delves into some of those issues and what they mean for the characters in her novel The Seer.

SONIA ORIN LYRIS:

In the opening scene of The Seer, I attempted to transcend one of my favorite cliches: in the darkest hours of the night, in a blustering storm, comes an urgent pounding on a weather-beaten door.

I wanted to start by addressing something that has been nagging at me for years: high fantasy’s tendency to not include women and babies and young children. Do we think them too fragile and vulnerable to be a part of the main action? Is that the problem?

Hmm, I thought. We’ll see about that.

Inside the shack is a mother, an infant child, and a young girl. The man at the door has wealth and power and weapons. He wants answers.

When I pick up a book, I want to travel somewhere. I want to sink into the author’s world and see through the eyes of the people who live there. As an author, it is my job to make that journey come alive. For myself and for my reader. So I make it as real as I can.

In our real world, women have sex, get pregnant, and have babies. Food must be procured. Diapers must be changed. When they choose, the powerful — unless restrained — take advantage of the weak.

Let’s go there, I thought.

I discovered that the young girl inside the shack, named Amarta, sees into the future. I looked around the wretched, poor hovel in which they lived, and I had all kinds of questions.

If she can see the future, why isn’t she rich? What does her family think of her? How does it feel to glimpse what will come?

Who is she?

I wrote The Seer to find out.

It was quickly clear to me that, given how useful a genuine seer would be to those in power, one of the major challenges Amarta would face would be pursuit and capture. I was intrigued by all the ways that might play out.

To make the story plausible, Amarta’s ability had to make sense in all the circumstances in which she found herself. Her ability would have to change as she changed, to mature as she did. Not only the content of what she was foreseeing, but how she understood herself in the context of her culture, family, and purpose.

So many questions arose for me. How does her foresight work? Does knowing the future change it? What can she do with this ability?

Can it be stopped?

Then I slammed into the hardest problem that a precognitive character brings to a story: if she can see into the future, what kind of story conflict is realistically possible? That is, why wouldn’t she simply foresee the problems and avoid them, like any sensible precognitive person?

That was when I started muttering, “What have I gotten myself into?”

There were more challenges yet. I came to realize I had stepped into a very large pile of metaphysics; if someone can see the future, this implies significant truths about the nature of reality, truths that ripple out across this created world. The genre doesn’t matter — I could be writing high fantasy or science fiction or mainstream — or poetry — and I would still have to make decisions about causality and determinism, and how information affects the physical. All those decisions expand out into the world, story, and characters.

And again, I found myself staring at the question: why didn’t she just see this coming?

The answer turned out to be both simpler and more complicated than I expected.

I have a passion for creating characters who are smart and insightful. Far smarter than me, if I can manage it, and more capable, too. This meant that any question I had about Amarta’s precognitive ability, someone else in the story would also be having. Similarly, any test or strategy I could devise to understand or track her, someone else would also be devising.

This, it turned out, was part of the answer; everyone concerned with Amarta was asking the same questions I was.

That was when it all started to come together for me, when I realized that the questions themselves were central to the story, and that the story would answer them in its own good time. As those around Amarta came to understand her better, they would react. They would have new questions. They would change. Nothing would be static.

And Amarta was not standing still either.

So, then: why couldn’t she simply avoid the problems that faced her?

Well, sometimes she could. Sometimes not.

She’s not a machine, you see; she has desires and passions, fears and dreams. How does a character with foresight, immersed in the consequences of what happens around her by virtue of her ability to foresee it, figure out what she wants in the first place?

If you can see the future, what choices are left to you?

If you can see the future, do you even want to see it?

In the end, I realized that the questions surrounding Amarta’s choices were universal questions: what do we want, and what are we willing to do to get it?

The answer also lay in an old adage: the map is not the territory. Regardless of what we understand, in our past, our present, or our future, we always understand through the lens of what we want, the way we see ourselves in our world, and the coalescing experiences of our lives. The best map in the world will not prevent us from getting lost, because it is, after all, only a map, and the territory is never its equal.

At one point in the book, someone asks Amarta this: “Are you ever surprised?”

“All the time,” she replies.

Yeah. Me, too.

—-

The SeerAmazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site and blog. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

 

The Big Idea: Lavie Tidhar

World Fantasy Award-winning author Lavie Tidar came up with a awful, terrible, no-good idea for a novel — and then wrote it anyway, resulting in A Man Lies Dreaming, which then went on to garner starred reviews in the trades, award nominations and wins, and the sort of glowing praise writers dream of. What’s this awful, terrible, no-good idea, and why did Tidhar decide to write it anyway? The answers await you below.

LAVIE TIDHAR:

The idea is simple: what if a disgraced Adolf Hitler was working as a lowly private eye in 1939’s London?

But I should backtrack.

Ideas are easy. Bad ideas are easier still. And as far as ideas go, this must be one of the worst. This was certainly the reaction of my agent, when I mentioned it to him – a slightly shocked expression followed by genuine laughter. That’s the thing I like about my agent – he gets it, even when it sounds (as my work often does to him) ridiculous.

“Write it!” he said. “No one will buy it, but you should write it!”

So let me backtrack a bit more. . .

Around 2011, I was living back in London. It was a cold winter. My novel Osama, which had been rejected by more publishers than I could count, was finally coming out from a small publisher in the UK. My Bookman Histories trilogy was finished and delivered, and I was out of contract, out of cash, and I didn’t have a coat. A lot of this, I suspect, would feed into the book later. . .

I was figuring out what to write next. At the time, I was trying to work on a difficult book which would eventually become The Violent Century. It was an act of faith, since no one was lining up to buy it, but it felt worthwhile, and so I struggled on. I don’t actually know why some books are so hard to write, while others feel natural, easy. But I remember the moment when A Man Lies Dreaming came. It was around one o’clock at night. I was reading one of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels. They’re excellent crime thrillers about a private detective in Nazi Germany, sometimes difficult to read but generally brilliant. In the novel (I forget which one), Kerr makes a throwaway mention to the idea that Adolf Hitler could have himself become a private eye. A light pinged in my head.

It was the very ridiculousness of the idea that I liked. It was the sort of idea that is so offensive, so tasteless, that I would be terribly offended if anyone ever did it…

Which is why it appealed to me, I think. I thought, if anyone might actually get away with something like this, it could be me. I don’t mean this in a hubristic sense. But the Holocaust features large in my life. My family died in Auschwitz. My mother was born in a refugee camp in Germany, after the war. If anyone could do this – and I didn’t know if I could! – then it just might be me.

I remember being very excited about it. Then I tried to forget all about it.

Of course I didn’t want to write it. It was a ridiculous idea, an unsellable idea, and moreover it would require me to walk down a pretty dark path to reach it. So I put it away.

I worked on The Violent Century. In the meantime, to my surprise, Osama had picked up a few award nominations. It ended up winning a World Fantasy Award a year later, just a week after I’d finally finished the manuscript of The Violent Century – which quickly sold to Hodder & Stoughton in the UK.

All of this was pretty unexpected.

I tried not to work on “the Hitler book”. Occasionally the subject would come up, and people would laugh, and shake their heads. I tried to work on the next novel, but nothing worked. Meanwhile, on the sly, I was acquiring books. Hitler’s childhood. Hitler and women. Mein Kampf (my God, is there a book more unreadable than Mein Kampf?). Then the manga version of Mein Kampf. . . Hitler became a constant presence – Hitler the abused child, Hitler the starving artist in Vienna, living in an attic with his friend Gustl, Hitler the young soldier suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. . . Hitler, in fact, before he became Hitler.

Hitler was not a monster. None of us are. He was a person who had become monstrous by his actions, and I felt it was imperative for me to understand Hitler, to get into his head.

Let me say this: it’s not a particularly pleasant way of spending a year of your life, living with Adolf Hitler.

I didn’t want to write the book, but nothing else was working, and Hitler was everywhere, staring at me from the shadows, a fedora over his head: a bitter, unknown, raging Hitler, a man who history had passed by, a loser now eking a meagre living on the mean streets of London.

So I gave in.

It was late one night. The entire first draft was written at night, between midnight and 3am, very quickly and intensely. I remember that night, sitting at the computer, itching to get rid of him. I thought, I’ll only write the first line. It’s been stuck in my head for a long time, so long that it’s become a mantra. It was a line in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, in fact, whose casual anti-Semitism had arrested me for years.

No one would have to know, I figured. I’d just write it and then… move on.

So I wrote: She had the face of an intelligent Jewess.

And I couldn’t stop.

It’s been bottled up for so long that it all came out. My hero, “Wolf”, sitting in his office above the Jew baker’s shop. Outside the prostitutes are gathering in Berwick Street. The night is full of eyes, watching. And a glamorous Jewish woman, Isabella Rubinstein, comes waltzing into Wolf’s office with the offer of a job, to find her missing sister…

I couldn’t stop. I’m not sure I spoke to anyone much during this time. Hitler’s picture stared at me from the desk. The story unfolded, a dark comedy, a detective noir novel, an alternate history… take your pick. And all this while, grounding this lurid tale of shund, or pulp, was its possible narrator – Shomer, a Jewish pulp writer trapped in Auschwitz, the dreaming man of the title – a man seeking an impossible escape.

A Man Lies Dreaming, it seems to me, is several things. It is an argument about escape, about the power or futility of fantasy. It’s an argument began in Osama, continued in The Violent Century, and concluded here. Is escape possible – for any of us?

It is also, I think, a dark comedy. Humour underlines the horror, and humour has been an important part of survival, even during the worst times of the Holocaust. I loved writing Wolf – his impotent rage, his increasing hysteria, his endless rants. There is nothing funnier, after all, than a Hitler without power. “Do you not know who I am?” Wolf rages, at some point – and of course, by then, no one does.

At the same time, A Man Lies Dreaming is grounded in the contemporary. It is written at a time when Europe’s anti-immigrant rhetoric terrifyingly echoes the 1930s. Wolf’s London does not welcome immigrants, and Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts are marching in the streets, chanting slogans that eerily echo today’s. . .

. . . in the event, I did manage to get A Man Lies Dreaming published. It wasn’t particularly easy, but my editor at Hodder was incredibly supportive, and the book came out in late 2014, was nominated for a British Fantasy Award, and won me my first literary fiction prize, the £5k Jerwood Fiction Uncovered. It’s just come out in Italy, where they seem to like it. . . and it’s out now in the US from Melville House. The bad joke that was “Hitler: P.I.” had turned into the book I am most proud of having written – even if it’s damaged me in the process.

—-

A Man Lies Dreaming: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s 

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The Big Idea: Adrian Selby

Writers write in the first person all the time, but what does it mean to do so when you’re trying to develop a world? It’s a question that mattered for Adrian Selby for his fantasy novel Snakewood. Today, he explains why.

ADRIAN SELBY:

“My name’s Gant and I’m sorry for my poor writing.”

So begins chapter one of my debut epic fantasy Snakewood.

As I planned out the book I fretted a great deal over how to immerse readers in the lands, cities and lives of the world of Sarun, in which the story is set. I recalled how vividly I daydreamed myself into Middle-earth as a teenager, following paths and roads hinted at in the texts but never walked. Tolkien’s were the first of many books I would admire over the years that followed for their ability to transport me utterly to an unfamiliar, magical place.

These are the books that made me miss my bus stop and left me dazed as I walked into the office, trying to tear my brain away from Thomas Cromwell’s poignant, tender caress of his daughter’s angel wings (Wolf Hall) or the faerie-soaked fields of Edgewood (Little, Big) and back to those essential first steps of a new day – kettle, teabags, email.

So when I started writing Snakewood, I thought, what do I need to do to deliver that level of immersion?

Of course, I needed to build a vivid world, and a magic system that integrated with that world, defined it and its many cultures. The wider reality of life being lived needed to crowd the edges of the story, but no further. I wanted also, like every writer, to make it so that the reader feels the scuff of boot, the scratch of stubble or the smell of a mortal wound.

The obvious answer to the latter was to go first person; put the reader behind the characters’ eyes, seeing what they see. There’s a marvelous directness to first person – a mainline into their feelings and thoughts – bringing the reader down from the sky of the omniscient narrator into the streets and fields.

But it was after reading James Joyce, Irvine Welsh, and especially Peter Carey’s True History Of The Kelly Gang that I realized the subliminal tension present in any first person narrative: the author is, necessarily, speaking for the character. It’s pure ventriloquism. No character’s internal monologue picks out the world and the speech of others so as to create just this story, using just these details, to engross, challenge and entertain. The authors I mentioned above, like so many others, have experimented with that act of ventriloquism – Joyce with stream of consciousness in Ulysses, Welsh with the strong, literal vernacular of Trainspotting. Carey played with the words and grammar so as to make it seem as though he wasn’t there at all, that this was Ned Kelly’s own hand. To wit:

“… a man might be a bank clerk or an overseer he might never have been lagged for nothing but still he knew in his heart what it were to be forced to wear the white hood in prison he knew what it were to be lashed for looking a warder in the eye and even a posh fellow like the Moth had breathed that air so the knowledge of unfairness were deep in his bone and marrow.”

More than ever before or since, I felt as though the author had disappeared. Ned Kelly was speaking, unable to express his feelings eloquently or write them down properly. The lack of eloquence was perfect, and at one point in the book, hugely moving. I loved it.

If Snakewood is a ‘found footage’ collection of narratives to be written ‘in their own words’, then Gant, as a poorly educated mercenary soldier, should struggle to express himself too. Gant’s narrative is central to the novel, for he is its emotional anchor, its principal ‘good guy’ and the great joy and challenge of writing it.

Every writer should be terrified of what they’re about to do when they start a book. I was terrified at the thought of writing a limited third person narrative with consistent, but not perfectly consistent, grammatical flaws on top of all the other things I needed to get right. It was the most challenging part of my attempt to disappear as an author; hoping that Gant, and the other narrators, would come through more purely. I wanted the characters of Snakewood to immerse you in their story and their world. Not mine.

—-

Snakewood: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Elizabeth Bonesteel

How is solving a crime like debugging a computer program? Elizabeth Bonesteel knows — and uses that knowledge for her novel, The Cold Between. Here she is now to tell you.

ELIZABETH BONESTEEL:

I worked as a software engineer for a long time. For the most part, it was great fun: I was being paid to solve puzzles. And although the more lucrative career paths involved software design and implementation, I always had the most affection for debugging. There is something about immersing yourself in reproducing a problem, walking through the code, frowning over it, coming at it from different angles until you have that ah-ha! moment of clarity. 90 percent of bug fixing is figuring out what the bug really is; at that point, the solution usually becomes obvious.

But sometimes that moment of clarity shows you far more than you wanted to see. Sometimes that moment of clarity makes you realize that the entire design is faulty, that the software is misrepresenting its data, lying to its users. What started out as a small, niggling bug becomes a massive rewrite. And it usually starts with breaking the news to someone above you who really doesn’t want to hear it.

Debugging is black-and-white. The solution may be convoluted and heuristic and gorgeously creative, but debugging is straightforward: Find out what is making the software do this bad thing it’s doing.

The real world, of course, is less easily unraveled.

Far in the future, humanity has reached out into the galaxy. Faster-than-light travel is ubiquitous, and terraformers allow otherwise desolate planets to be colonized. Central Corps, the military branch of the government unifying the colonies, spends more time with diplomacy and humanitarian efforts than armed conflict. We have survived our checkered history of violence, wandered into the stars, and arrived at a point where most of us live in peace.

And people are still murdered.

Commander Elena Shaw has seen death by starvation, death by accident, death in battle. But the murder of one of her crewmates — on one of the colonies they are pledged to protect — is a new one, and she doesn’t take it well. When it turns out the local police have arrested the man she was in bed with at the time of the murder, she takes it worse — and determines to fix the problem.

Elena is a mechanic. She’s a debugger by nature. She’s spent her entire adult life in the safe bubble of regimented Corps life, keeping starships running, fixing them when they break. When her crewmate is killed, she resorts to the problem-solving skills she has honed for years. She speaks to the police because she knows they are operating on invalid information. Her expectation is that once she corrects their inputs, they will release the wrong person and find the right one.

But people are not machines. Nor are political structures, as it happens, and that’s what throws her off. Providing her lover with an alibi should solve the problem, but the police don’t function the way she assumes they should. Her fix doesn’t work, because she’s misidentified the bug.

Back up, reassess the problem.

Only every time Elena reassesses the problem, she sees more cracks, more fissures, more false fronts and misrepresentations. And the smaller problem of who killed Danny becomes entangled with the unexplained destruction of a starship 25 years earlier — and possibly the threat of galactic war.

Elena is focused and determined, and entirely unable to admit the possibility that there might not be a solution after all. As everything she’s believed in falls apart around her, she clings ever more strongly to the hope that if she finds the truth, she’ll be able to put it all back the way it was.

The other possibility is more than she’s willing to face: that the life she knows and loves may be built on lies. People are not machines, and some things cannot ever be repaired. Sometimes the bug is fatal. And in her case, it’s not that the people above her don’t want to hear it — it’s that they might already know.

—-

The Cold Between: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: David Lubar

Fun fact: Back in the day, I edited a humor area for AOL, and one of my regular contributors was a fellow named David Lubar, who wrote reliably funny and interesting stuff (this is a more rare talent than you might expect). Here in the future, both David and I are authors, him primarily of middle grade and young adult books, the latest of which is Character, Driven. I’m delighted to have seen David do so well, and I know for a fact David’s proud of what he’s pulled off in this new book, which has managed starred reviews from Booklist and Publishers Weekly. Here he is to tell you what he’s done, and how.

DAVID LUBAR:

Character, Driven begins with a bang, a chase, a tumble down the stairs, and snapping bones. It then slams to a dead stop against the brick wall of narrative intrusion as our hero discusses the importance of grabbing the reader with a strong opening. That scene lay untouched on my hard drive for ages, along with scads of other sentences, paragraphs, passages, and chapters I’d written over the decades in an attempt to bolster the self deception that every writing day is a productive day, even if I spend fifty percent of it Googling myself.  I saved the scene with the filename Edgy, in a nod to the ubiquitous editorial call for “edgy YA novels.”

Several years ago, Susan Chang, my editor at Tor, came to my house to help me brainstorm my next novel. I shared a variety of my ideas with her, sticking with science fiction, fantasy, and horror, because that’s what Tor is most known for. Just as she was leaving, on a whim, I read the edgy sample to her.

“That’s your next novel,” Susan said.

I pointed out that it wasn’t speculative fiction. She pointed out that she didn’t care. I agreed to take a shot at it. When I sat down in earnest (a small town in Idaho, named after Hemingway) to turn that scene into a novel, I thought the big idea was to break the fourth wall. My main character, Cliff Sparks (wink, wink), frequently pauses the action to point out some aspect of the novel-writing process, such as the difficulty of describing himself without resorting to trite devices, or the art of seamlessly emerging from a flashback. He even talks about the problem of talking to the reader, and confesses that the novel will have to be plot driven because he isn’t charismatic enough to draw the reader along on personality alone.

That’s a tasty mouthful to pitch to the target audience: Hey, want to read a metafictional coming-of-age novel? And it’s an enthralling and joyful project for someone like me, who took an abundance of English classes while drifting through college, adored Borges, and wanted to be James Joyce, or Hunter S. Thompson. Metafiction, stream-of-consciousness, wordplay, and the like are wonderful tools. But a hammer isn’t a bird house. And a narrative conceit is not necessarily a big idea.

I didn’t even realize I’d crafted an authentic big idea until I noticed that nearly every early reader, blurber, and professional reviewer used the same unexpected words to describe Cliff’s voice. And they weren’t words I’d strived to evoke. I am, at heart, a goofball. My most popular books, the Weenies short story collections, feature anthropomorphic hot dogs on the cover.  I’m proud to claim the creation of the largest lit fart in contemporary literature. I started out my career writing magazine humor. I live for retweets. I want to make you laugh. I need to make you laugh. And Character, Driven will do that. But it does something more.

The big idea is not that Cliff speaks to you, but that Cliff, who desperately wants to lose his virginity and is socially ill equipped to make much progress in that direction, speaks in an honest voice, holding nothing back. That’s one of the unexpected words: honest. Another is authentic. For example, when Cliff learns that a classmate involved in a tragedy might have been pregnant, he reveals his chain of thought: If she was pregnant, that meant she had sex, which meant he might have been able to have sex with her, had he had the courage to press his case. He also admits feeling guilty that compassion took second place to hormones. He shares his most intimate thoughts about sex, suicide, friendship, and art, among other things.

Cliff’s story is not my story. That’s a very good thing, given what he goes through. But his thoughts are drawn, in part, from my own memories of those awkward high school years.  Most of us have dark thoughts, fleeting or frequent, that we’d never dare admit to even our closest friend or partner. Somehow, as I traveled with Cliff through his story, I forgot to switch on that filter.

Many of my other narrators have said what’s on their mind, of course.  Though, to overwork a metaphor, they’ve only stripped down to their underwear, while Cliff has removed not just clothing, but layers of flesh. I really can’t explain why this book took the turn it did. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I never told myself I was going to reveal the deepest thoughts and secret yearnings of Cliff Sparks. I just gave him some of my pain, my regrets, my sorrows, my disappointments, and my youthful misconceptions, tempered with the lens of time.  Fear not, I also gave him courage, strength, heart, a sense of humor, a love of books, a fondness for wordplay, a fierce loyalty to his friends, and the ability to triumph against brutal obstacles. Somehow, I think it all worked out. Honestly.

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Character, Driven: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Mark Tompkins

In The Last Days of Magic, author Mark Tompkins has a novel way of looking at the legends, myths and fairy tales many of us grew up with – a way that changes what they mean for the world into which he writes a few new tales of his own.

MARK TOMPKINS:

Legends, myths, faery tales, some so old their origins are impossible to discern, others date back just a few centuries. We have all heard and read our share. We have our favorites. But what if they were true? This is the big idea behind The Last Days of Magic – what if those mythic tales were true and coexisted with our accepted history, and the world of today?

It all began with a single irresistible character and her small legend, compact enough to fit in a frame affixed to the wall of an Irish castle. Actually, it was more tower than castle, one with a box out front and a sign that pleaded with me to drop a Euro into the slot before entering. That was the legend of Red Mary, a woman so strong that years later when I finally decided to start a novel, she banged on the inside of my skull and demanded to be a protagonist. OK, Mary, if you are coming out then the darker versions of your legend, the ones with witchcraft, are going to prevail. And I am going to have to create a magical world for you to romp through.

Here I have to acknowledge the author Hannah Tinti, who once told me her mantra: What is the weirdest thing that could happen next?  Before setting pen to paper, I twisted that into a mantra of my own: What if it was true?

All those old Irish tales of faeries, the Sidhe, what if they were true? The ancient stories depicted the faeries as tall, powerful, and dangerous, none of this Tinkerbell stuff. They could not procreate with humans if they were dragonfly-sized! What if St. Patrick actually enchanted a bell so that its ring was lethal? Researching legends in Ireland, I stood looking at that bell – fittingly labeled Clogh-na-fullah, Bell of the Blood – at his museum in Armagh and wondered what that implied about him, his followers, and the age in which they lived. There were also anecdotes linking the Sidhe to the offspring of randy angels who had snuck out of heaven to seduce daughters of Eve. If those were true, would Lilith, rumored to be Adam’s first wife, be involved?

Soon, rather than inventing a world, I found myself assembling one out of old stories. Like a giant jigsaw puzzle, I fit together the pieces, not only faded legends, biblical myths, and faery tales, but also those that I found in history books. As the puzzle came together, a new world was revealed, both magical and historical.

Then, like a somewhat demented deity going through the stages of creation, I started to populate this world with other magical elements from existing lore (I admit to a preference for the darker ones). Witches and their feats were drawn as much as possible from records of witch trials, after all in this world those were also true. Whenever a demon was called for, I plucked one out of the Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, my favorite thousand-page “nonfiction” reference. For magical books, the only option was to use “real” ones, like The Sworn Book of Honorius, later used by John Dee, magician to Queen Elizabeth I, and the Book of Raziel, used by the twelfth century Jewish mystics Chassidei Ashkenaz.

One of the great joys of this process was when unexpected links spontaneously manifested. For example, I was researching an Italian mercenary, only to discover he was an English lord using an assumed name. A little more digging revealed that his secret handler was reputed to be Geoffrey Chaucer. Which then tied in beautifully with the magic Chaucer included in his tales.

But a problem arose with my What if it was true? big idea – namely, how could I reconcile my newly assembled medieval magical world with recent history and the contemporary world in which we reside? That was not a question I could ignore. I had to add a second big idea: If it were true, what happened to it? The closer to modern time the story got, the harder that question became. Recent history felt all but frozen in place, there were just too many records. I tried attacking the problem from various angles until a well-documented modern conspiracy – one to suppress and modify historical documents – presented itself as a way for my story to flow seamlessly into the 21st century.

This was all fun, and I happily burned up months putting it together, but it was not a novel; it was a stage. An expansive stage upon which the primary characters – including Red Mary, renamed Aisling – could struggle, love, question, and try to find their way, some making it, some getting lost, and others dying in the effort. Having a well-built stage, with all its magic and pitfalls, made it possible for me to follow along behind the characters, recording their motivations, feelings, and actions without having to worry about the rules of their world. Ultimately, it was the chronicle of their lives that turned my big idea into a novel, The Last Days of Magic.

—-

The Last Days of Magic: Amazon|Barnes&Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|Audible

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The Big Idea: Ryk E. Spoor

Ryk E. Spoor has a lot to say today about his Balanced Sword Trilogy, of which Phoenix Ascendant, his new novel, is the final installment. I’m going to let him get right to it. Except to say, for those of you who want it, here’s Spoor’s summary of everything that’s gone on before. Got it? On we go!

RYK E. SPOOR:

With the publication of Phoenix Ascendant, final volume of The Balanced Sword trilogy, I finally finish telling a story I started working on a quarter of a century ago, and bring Kyri Vantage, Tobimar Silverun, and Poplock Duckweed to the end of the adventure that brought them together.

That adventure begins, really, with the realization (in Phoenix Rising) by Kyri that the Justiciars of Myrionar – holy warriors for a god – have become corrupt and have been directly responsible for the murder of her parents and her brother, and gods only know how many other things.

This raises a question that is not answered until the end of Phoenix Ascendant: how is it even possible for the sworn servants of a deity to act against that deity’s basic will and not lose their powers, not be revealed and cast out by the god? Zarathan, the world Kyri and her friends live in, is a world where the gods are active. They may be bound from directly, personally interfering currently, but that forbiddance does not in any way apply to their own churches, their own servitors. By everything that they know, a god whose servants started taking a wrong turn would first lose their powers, and – if they persisted– be banished from the religion entirely, if they were lucky. If they weren’t, the god might well literally smite them where they stood.

Yet the Justiciars have not; in fact, they seem to retain their powers, and Myrionar has been utterly silent on their betrayal. The issue of their powers is partially answered when the heroes discover that the Justiciars have a tremendously powerful patron who can, apparently, give them the ability to emulate a Justiciar’s powers, but the question of why the god has done nothing, said nothing, even while the god’s power has been being whittled away to almost nothing remains.

The answer is that not merely the matter of Myrionar, but the chaos into which the entirety of Zarathan is descending, is part of a set of plans by a master manipulator – dueling with other chessmasters of power and tactics for a prize that the heroes do not even grasp until the final confrontation, and if Myrionar were to act before, as Jack Sparrow would say, “the opportune moment”, they could lose EVERYTHING.

Now, readers are usually willing to tolerate a certain level of mystery and confusion, but for that to be worth it, at the end there has to be a moment of “oh, of course, that makes sense of all these things that happened before!”.  I, the author, can only successfully pull off the surprise reveal of the mastermind’s plans if that reveal stands supported by previous events, so that – even in the midst of the “oh my god” reaction, there’s also an element of familiarity, of the feeling that the reader COULD have figured it out if they had just put together all of these previous elements correctly.

This is the same challenge faced by many mystery writers – the ones who write mysteries where neither the reader nor the detective knows who the criminal is and the reader is actually supposed to end up almost, but not quite, figuring the answer out before the detective does.

The trick to making that work, however, is pretty challenging. You have to give the reader enough information so that if you laid that information out for them clearly and in the right order, they would – with a fair likelihood – come to the correct conclusion, or one close enough to the truth to be given credit. You have to “play fair”, especially with more modern audiences who don’t like the detective/characters to just suddenly pull new information out of thin air that makes the mystery clear when before it was obscure.

Yet, at the same time, you have to hide that information – you cannot allow the reader (or most readers, anyway) to be able to easily “connect the dots”, or you have suddenly lost a huge amount of the tension for the reader, the questions that they’re reading to answer. In a trilogy like The Balanced Sword, it’s also a matter of keeping sympathy and identification with the protagonists. If the answer seems blindingly obvious to the readers, they can often start losing sympathy with the protagonists if any significant time passes. “How STUPID can they be? I saw this coming TWENTY CHAPTERS AGO!”

So as a writer I somehow have to conceal the truth … while keeping it in front of the reader all along, until the moment when I suddenly, dramatically point it out, managing a simultaneous moment of surprise and affirmation. I like to call this a “sleight of mind”, where I’m not using physical movement, but manner of presentation, emphasis, and expectations to distract the reader while I run key elements past them, to sit innocuously until their relevance abruptly becomes clear.

Many mystery writers do this well. One of the classic examples is Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which she has the first-person viewpoint character be the murderer… and most readers never figure it out until Poirot reveals the truth. We literally watched through the murderer’s eyes and – by careful selection of exactly what we saw, and when scenes ended and began – Agatha Christie keeps us from recognizing that we have just been present at a murder.

An example of this not being done is the well-known “WHAM” moment in The Empire Strikes Back, where Darth Vader says “Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.”. Luke, of course, responds that he was told enough – that Vader killed his father – to which Vader replies, “No. I am your father.”

This is a terribly effective instant in cinema, but for me it always rang false, and after a bit I realized why – because, unlike my prior example, Lucas hadn’t played fair with me. There really were no hints to this sudden revelation; there was no evidence that it was true (other than the in-universe “search your feelings, you know it to be true” and implication that the Force was supporting this statement, it could’ve just been a total bulls**t ploy on the part of Vader), and in fact it’s known that Lucas only decided on this plot twist while he was working on Empire (meaning that even the odd phonic connection of “Vader” being similar to the German “Vater”, meaning Father, was a simple coincidence).

That always felt cheap to me. It’s easy to invent plot twists if you do it after the fact, and don’t go back to make the material support it. It’s lazy. (It also suddenly made the noble Obi-Wan Kenobi into a devious weasel). Once I started writing seriously, I was determined that no matter what ludicrous plot twists I was going to throw at my readers, those plot twists wouldn’t come out of nowhere; they would be moments not just of surprise, but of revelation, where the reader simultaneously says “What the heck???” and “Now I understand.”

This is what I hope I have accomplished in the final denouement of Phoenix Ascendant.

 

NOTE: the following sections will become increasingly spoilery for parts of the trilogy! If you don’t like spoilers, STOP NOW and (if you want to come back) go read the books first!

 

Both the question of why Myrionar could not speak or act against the false Justiciars, and the answer to that question, are bound up in a single statement which is repeated – in varying wording – several places in the trilogy, and best summed up as: “a god cannot act contrary to its nature.” I had to make sure that this fact was implied or, sometimes, outright stated multiple times… but do so in a way so that it was emphasized as a mystery, as a question, not as the answer, unless the “answer” was, itself, another false trail… because while that was indeed part of the answer, the real import of that fact was something very different, bearing on one of the other primary questions:

What does the true adversary of the trilogy want?

One of the common motivations of the Big Bad in epic fantasy is to conquer the world. When we first seem to discover the identity of the main adversary, the “patron” of the Justiciars, it appears that this is its goal. It is Viedraverion, first son of Kerlamion, King of All Hells, and Viedraverion is the mastermind behind Kerlamion, a classic “Man Behind the Man” scenario in which the monstrously powerful but rather straightforward Demon King would be the unwitting agent of his own son.

This isn’t the Big Bad’s true goal, however, and so in fairness I had to make this clear; in the scenes written from its point of view, the adversary reveals a rather disparaging attitude towards the entire concept of world conquest. Its actual objective is best hinted at, in fact, by commentary and thoughts relative to the other people it must interact with, and a careful reading shows that its greatest approval is reserved for someone who is not a demon at all, but a man: Master Wieran, the coldly fanatical alchemist-mage who is one of the primary antagonists in Phoenix in Shadow.

Yet it is also clear that all of this focuses on Kyri and Myrionar, when Myrionar is an extremely weak – dying, in fact – god and Kyri its only remaining true Justiciar. Master Wieran’s focus made sense; he was making use of the power of Terian, acknowledged by all to be one of the most powerful of all gods. If the true adversary’s goals were in any way like Wieran’s, how could they be served through a focus on such a weakened deity?

Again, here I had to scatter the clues to the answer in a way that did not draw attention to them, these clues being: 1) that Myrionar was considered a true ally of, and connected to, other much more powerful gods including Terian, Chromaias, and the Dragon Gods, among others, and 2) that Myrionar had sworn its oath to Kyri “on the very power of the gods”.

These clues are, of course, also clues to the solution of the problem, to the way in which Kyri and her friends can successfully oppose their enemy, and most importantly to how Kyri herself can confront something which has obviously worked to weaken and corrupt the entirety of her church to the point that only one temple, one set of priests, and one Justiciar remain.

The single largest clue to the entire plot, though, was shown early in Phoenix in Shadow, during the short discussion with the Wanderer, and encapsulated best in this simple exchange:

Kyri stared at him, anger, concern, and confusion making a nauseating mix in her gut. “What do you mean?” She made a leap of intuition. “A prophecy. You have a prophecy.”

For a moment, that smile returned, sharp and lopsided, too knowing yet edged with sadness. “Not… precisely. Though, perhaps, close enough for your purposes.”

That quote above shows one of the other problems of writing this kind of story. From my point of view, I’m practically screaming the answer to what’s going on. I had to hope that with it being in the middle of other discussion, and a full book and a half away from the real beginning of the finale, the reader wouldn’t really sit down and start picking away at that. Judging from the reactions, that hope was generally justified; I didn’t have any of my beta readers, or later readers, immediately write to me and tell me “Oh, I know what that means!”.

It’s hard for an author to know what’s too obvious – or too subtle – because we know way, way too much about what’s going on, and what seems to be a subtle clue to us may be utterly opaque to the reader. Alternatively, if we don’t realize what frame of mind the reader may be in at a given point, something we think was subtle turns out to be a dead giveaway surrounded by flashing lights. Trying to minimize either of these mistakes is one of the reasons writers have beta readers.

I should note that this “sleight of mind” approach is in no way limited to the major themes/plots/resolution of the trilogy. Two of my favorite examples within The Balanced Sword were in Phoenix in Shadow, specifically the way in which Kalshae was defeated, and shortly thereafter the defeat of Sanamaveridion. Both of these were set up early in the novel, by relatively offhanded events, and then built on with a few seemingly-unrelated facts to allow the resolution that we see. There are other such tricks in the final battle of Phoenix Ascendant.

It is often important for the readers to know something that the main characters don’t, of course, and at the end of Phoenix in Shadow the readers witness an event that shows that the Big Bad is not, in fact, Viedraverion at all, but something else using his face and identity, something that Miri calls “Lightslayer”. Miri’s memory of this encounter is erased, so the readers now have the tension of knowing that our heroes are wrong about their adversary’s identity, and wondering when – and how – they will have a chance to find out their mistake.

 

Really, REALLY Big Spoilers for the End of the Trilogy so if you have read the rest but don’t want to be spoiled on the end STOP!

 

That forgotten confrontation with Miri – along with a few other clues including visual description – can allow some readers to figure out just what the Big Bad is, especially if they happen to have read Paradigms Lost, my urban fantasy novel. The antagonist’s nature is referred to in all three novels, and his name mentioned early on in both Phoenix in Shadow and Phoenix Ascendant well before “the reveal” happens, but – as with the other such facts – buried amidst other information that, I hoped, would not make their presence obvious. In fact, the reveal is a two-stage one and the second and final stage happens when the antagonist speaks a line which – for those who understand what it implies – is possibly the most chilling in the entire trilogy:

“You know me? Oh, child, you have not yet asked my name.”

Of course, if most readers find that line (in context) has no impact, it means I failed on the setup – that the hints I gave were entirely missed, not merely obscured. I devoutly hope that isn’t the case, but – as I mentioned earlier – telling what’s obvious and what isn’t is one of the hardest parts of this job.

From the above, probably anyone who has read Paradigms Lost can already guess the true identity of the antagonist, even without reading any of the trilogy: the only villain that would fit the profile would be Virigar, the Werewolf King, the being whom all the other monsters in the book fear. In Phoenix Ascendant, we get to see what he’s like when he isn’t playing the game to fit the vastly lower-magic world that Jason Wood inhabits.

But important as the secret of the villain’s identity, and even his plan, is, the most difficult sleight of mind to pull off was the nature of the solution – of how and why Kyri, who in no way compares in power or resources with her opponent, could ultimately undo his plans and defeat him. And again, that answer comes back to the clues of the nature of the gods and their commitments, to the oath that Myrionar swore, and to the Wanderer’s implication of something that isn’t a prophecy… yet might as well be one.  Myrionar is weak, dying, and cannot in any way match her opponent; Kyri is mortal and even less capable of doing so; and those two facts are precisely the keys to the Big Bad’s plan. Yet, ultimately, they – and the villain’s own nature – are what turn the tables.

Depending on how carefully the prior parts of this essay were read, the reader may already have guessed that, somehow, time travel must be involved. The Wanderer doesn’t have a prophecy, he’s been told what will happen – by someone who has been there, to the future – and doesn’t dare tamper with what he knows is supposed to happen because all the current plans depend on those events.

Thus, also, Myrionar’s reluctance: Myrionar can’t change these events, no matter how much it might want to, because it knows the events happened, and the only way to spring the trap that Myrionar, Khoros, the Wanderer and even the other gods have set for the Big Bad is to let everything play out to a very particular point.  The Wanderer even emphasized this by describing how such things could go wrong even with the most well-meaning of actions. Ultimately, when Kyri suddenly realizes why Virigar’s own plan gives her the key to her own survival and victory, the reader should be only a half-second behind her revelation.

The existence of all these carefully-laid trails of clues and answers doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t leave any genuine mysteries. The final part of the confrontation between Virigar and Kyri certainly has an event that Virigar understands, but no one else (except, possibly, Khoros) does, showing that some things lie beyond the easy explanation of the gods and those who witness the events. The world of Zarathan is a very large one; I have been working on the world itself for nearly 40 years now. There are still mysteries, large and small, to be unraveled – what will Kyri and Tobimar and Poplock do now? Whence has Master Wieran fled? What, exactly, did the Five do that ultimately sent Kerlamion and the Black City back to the Hells? What did Kyri’s sister Urelle find in her adventures with the young Camp-Bel warrior, and did Aunt Victoria find her in time to help? What, ultimately, is Virigar’s fate?

One day I hope to answer all of those questions, and you can be sure that each of the books will contain more than a little sleight of mind, to keep the reader guessing and surprised – yet, at the same time, reassured by the truths revealed that even this fictional world makes sense to those within… and those without.

—-

Phoenix Ascendant: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer is one of the most prolific and celebrated modern authors of science fiction (with Hugo, Nebula and Campbell awards among others to his name), but recently Sawyer took some time between books. It was not time idly spent, as Sawyer relates in this Big Idea: It laid much of the groundwork for his newest novel, Quantum Night.

ROBERT J. SAWYER:

I wrote the first paragraph of Quantum Night on September 11, 2012—and the next day, my younger brother Alan got in touch to say he was dying of lung cancer.

I finished my work on the novel, returning the marked-up page proofs to the publisher, on November 30, 2015. My 90-year-old mother, then already in intensive care, died a week later.

There are three years between the beginning and end dates. With a two-decade track record of writing a book a year, that struck me (and my accountant!) as crazy. But my brother’s illness and death took a lot out of me, and for most of 2013, I wasn’t up for doing anything other than just reading.

And read I did, working slowly but surely toward the core idea for Quantum Night. I started with an absolutely riveting book called Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. Its author, Roy F. Baumeister, tries to make psychological and evolutionary sense of our basest instincts.

Next, I tackled Hitler’s Charisma: Leading Millions into the Abyss by Laurence Rees. With all due respect to the corollaries to Godwin’s law, it seemed to me that the Hitlerian template was horribly commonplace: a handful of psychopathic manipulators whipping up mindless followers.

And perhaps, it occurred to me, they were literally mindless: exemplars of the entities proposed in Australian philosopher David Chalmers’s thought experiment about beings externally indistinguishable from you or me but with no inner life, creatures he termed “philosopher’s zombies.”

I’ve long been familiar with the work of Oxford physicist Sir Roger Penrose and his collaborator Stuart Hameroff, which asserts that consciousness arises from electrons in quantum superposition in little doodads called tubulin dimers within neurons (see, for instance, Penrose’s classic Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness).

Mashing up my reading about the nature of evil with Penrose and Hameroff’s theory led me to the central conceit of my novel, namely that human consciousness comes in three successively more complex varieties, based on the number of electrons that are in quantum superposition in each tubulin dimer.

If one electron is in superposition, I say the person is a philosopher’s zombie—the lights are on, but nobody is home.

If two electrons are in superposition, there is indeed self-awareness and an inner life, but such individuals literally think only about themselves; they have no empathy and are therefore psychopaths (callous manipulators, although not necessarily violent).

And if three electrons are in superposition, then there is a reflection upon the inner life—not just consciousness but conscience.

My novel proposes that each cohort is half the size of the one before: the majority of humans are philosopher’s zombies; a large minority are psychopaths, and only a precious few are empathetic beings.

Of course, all my speculation is wrapped up in a very human story about a man who has transitioned through all three quantum states during a difficult life and is now trying to come to terms with the things he did while devoid of conscience.

While pulling all this together, I consulted with some of the world’s leading thinkers on the science of consciousness (including Hameroff and Chalmers), psychopathy (including Kevin Dutton, author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths), and quantum physics (including John Gribbin, the author of In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat). My hat is off to them, and all the others who helped me on this journey.

My late mother always said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Ultimately, despite its exploration of why evil exists, my novel does say something nice about the human condition; in the end, Quantum Night is an optimistic book. After all, it’s always darkest before the dawn.

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Quantum Night: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Jason LaPier

What’s the Big Idea for Jason LaPier and his novel Unclear Skies? It’s simple: Heroes! Who maybe aren’t so much heroes. At least, not at first.

JASON LaPIER:

In science fiction and fantasy, we often encounter a character who is somehow special, whether imbued with some extraordinary trait, endowed with a remarkable skill, or just plain abnormal. They may start off as a commoner, but over the course of the story their talents or gifts are unlocked. Sometimes they are portrayed as a “chosen one”, and sometimes they’re forced to become a leader by the nature of their advantages. While I love a lot of these stories, in my series “The Dome Trilogy”, I was looking for much less heroic heroes. I was looking to take an average person, an “everyman”, and drag them through the excursion of what is more or less a hero cycle without the advantages that a hero has.

While I absolutely appreciate speculative fiction with a message, I cannot deny that the entertainment value of SF/F largely lies in escapism. We read and watch to experience worlds, events, technologies, and people other than what we know in real life, other than what is possible in real life, to give ourselves a break from the day-to-day, and to allow us the fun of wallowing in full-blown imagination.

And yet, even if the fiction is an escape from real life, we find immersion so much easier if the characters are relatable in some way. In Young Adult fiction, the protagonist is often an odd kid, someone who feels like they don’t fit in, and then eventually discovers they have a special power or talent. Younger readers know what it’s like not to fit in, because every kid feels that way at some point; a search for identity is part of the process of growing up. And adult readers remember what that was like as well, which is why so many can enjoy YA as much as their own children do.

The challenge with making an adult character develop into a hero is that they’ve already grown past that age of discovery and identity establishment. Sure, one can always learn new skills, but it doesn’t feel the same as the bloom of a gift during puberty. It’s a lot more practice, with incremental improvements. It’s work. And yet, adults in the real world still go through identity crises just as much as teens. So when a story is able to take an adult who seems lost in their life and make them into a hero, even a Chosen One, it resonates.

Take Neo from the film, The Matrix, for example. At the start of the story, he is merely Thomas Anderson, a corporate programmer, a drone. Outside of the office he’s a loner, scouring the net for some hidden meaning to his life that he can feel but can’t put his finger on. When he’s rescued, he’s reborn. His whole world changes, and he has the power – and the calling – to save it. It’s a textbook hero’s journey.

Now let’s take a look at a classic anti-hero: Arthur Dent, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Arthur is also a directionless, middle-aged adult. His reality is suddenly expanded by a thousandfold when he discovers his friend is an alien and they escape Earth’s destruction by hitching a ride aboard a spaceship. But Arthur never unlocks special powers. He never saves anyone or anything. He bumbles through a series of adventures wearing a bathrobe (the only clothing he owns), somehow managing to stay alive. His most remarkable trait is his unremarkableness.

In “The Dome Trilogy”, I wanted a couple of characters in between. “Jax” Jackson lives most of his life in a sterilized exoplanetary colony. He’s a drone like everyone he knows, a detached, late-20s adult. He has the aptitude to be better than he is, but not the drive. Like Arthur Dent, Jax has his world turned upside-down by events that are far beyond his control, practically beyond his scope of reality. In the first book of the series, Unexpected Rain, an entire block of dome inhabitants suffocates while Jax is on duty as a life support operator – a mindless, push-button job – and he is charged with their murders.

From there, Jax has to awaken the intellect that had been shelved – not locked away, not latent, not even undiscovered, but simply abandoned due to apathy. He’s paired up with the one cop who believes he may be innocent, Officer Stanford Runstom. By contrast, Runstom is driven, both by personal ambition and a sense of justice. He’s a wannabe hero who has been held back by the system and his heritage.

In the newly released second novel of the trilogy, Unclear Skies, this trend continues for these two characters. Jax is still on the run, eking out a living by finding odd jobs on a remote independent moon. Here the things that he finds run-of-the-mill – what would be outdated technology back in the domes – is remarkable to a population that is behind the times. His mundane skills at troubleshooting are mythical in this environment, and in fact could be life-saving.

Meanwhile Stanford Runstom, the officer that dreamt of becoming a detective, is “promoted” to a public relations post. Somewhat condescendingly, his new department praises his simple honesty, hoping to impress clients with a straight-talker. And yet even while working for the marketing department, Runstom can’t help but fall back on his detective aspirations when trouble arises.

My hope is that between these two characters, there is something of non-sci-fi life that readers can relate to. I personally remember what it’s like to be lost in my 20s like Jax, feeling as though I should have discovered my purpose by then, but still just trudging through each day. And likewise, to discover a passion for something as Runstom has, to put everything into it, only to see it diverted time and time again. These are the trials of adult life in the 21st century, extrapolated into the 27th century, with some murder thrown in for thrills and interstellar travel thrown in for escapism value.

—-

Unclear Skies: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google Play|iTunes|Kobo

Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Dobromir Harrison

Vampires! Tokyo! Rachel! Dobromir Harrison! Not necessarily in that order!

DOBROMIR HARRISON:

I had just started writing my first draft of Rachel, but something bothered me:

I was writing a vampire book.

I mean, vampires are dead, right? Neil Gaiman said so, and he knows the publishing world a whole lot better than I do.

I was troubled but, when it came down to it, I had a story about a character I couldn’t stop thinking about.

For the most part, Rachel herself kept me going. She was so full of (un)life I had to keep writing just to see what new torments I could put her through.

But the story needed something else to make it leap off the page and feel real.

Rachel actually came into being in Thailand. I lived there for a while and just happened to drive past a karaoke bar called Sweet Vampires. The name made me laugh (it didn’t look in any way dark or gothic) and got me thinking about this woman who was a monster, and she lived in Thailand, a foreigner like myself, not quite fitting-in but not new to the place. What would she do there? How would she struggle to get by? Did she even speak the language? How would she avoid the sun? What dangers would she face? Who would she prey on?

Well, the idea went on the backburner until I moved to Tokyo. That was where she found her true home, and I actually sat down and started writing her adventures.

On the surface, it was perfect! The world’s largest city, a wealth of history and culture spread out for her to feed from. Neon lights and skyscrapers over a maze of old ramen shops and those little places that sell personal seals for stamping documents. But something was still missing. Rachel had yet to find her place there.

Sometimes, a single image can inspire. I remember going for a walk one night, somewhere on the city outskirts, and seeing a factory with a single light on in one of the upstairs rooms. Tokyo is full of abandoned buildings, and it set my imagination ablaze. I thought of someone living in a place like that. Maybe some kind of monster, creeping among the empty, decrepit buildings on the edge of civilized society.

It was the hook I needed. I started to see the city through her eyes: a place that was, paradoxically, safe to live in, but with enough dark alleys and abandoned buildings where a monster could hide and… well, not thrive, but just about get by.

If vampires were dead, Tokyo certainly wasn’t. But how to sell it to an audience who probably hadn’t been there? I didn’t want it to be a cliché, all samurai swords and Blade Runner aesthetics. It was a city I loved, and I felt the story would benefit from taking place in somewhere lived-in and real.

So I set it in places I knew, where I’d lived. I moved a lot of the action to the suburbs, like Tokorozawa, about forty minutes out of Tokyo by train. Or the little neighborhood of Otsuka, with its small foreign population and love hotels. Or northwest of the city, into the grey expanse of Saitama, places where monsters may really hide – poorer, industrial suburbs that I hoped would be alien, yet accessible to readers. And where would a monster like Rachel spend her time? Someone damaged and violent like her? Lonely, homeless and restless.

Getting excited about the setting helped the story flow, so then I turned to Rachel’s life in Japan. Like myself, she was an outsider, someone to explain things to the reader, but she wasn’t clueless. Early drafts were distinguished by her misunderstanding things, and asking for words to be explained, until I realized she would probably speak Japanese perfectly well after living there for a hundred years. That changed a lot of what I wrote, and also led to one of my favorite parts, when a Japanese woman starts teaching her the language back in the Meiji Era.

I had the character and setting, and the story was starting to take shape, but I struggled with how to explain things to someone who wasn’t familiar with the language or culture. Some of it was straightforward, like changing “Heiwa Dori” to “Heiwa Street”, though I left the street name itself untranslated (“heiwa” means “peace”, so it’s literally “Peace Street”, also where I used to live!) I left words like “geta” (traditional wooden shoes) just as they are, as I felt they added flavor and the writing makes it clear they’re a type of footwear. And a “love hotel” is pretty self-explanatory, right?

One of the biggest issues came during editing, when I realized people wouldn’t necessarily know how to pronounce the name of Rachel’s girlfriend, Yoshie. Someone unfamiliar with Japanese syllables might say “Yo-shee”, whereas it’s actually “Yo-shee-ay” and “Yoshi” is a nickname she uses. Going back and forth between “Yoshie” and “Yoshi” just looked like I was making typos, so I just kept it as Yoshi for the most part, hoping no one would think of the little green dinosaur from Mario (not the best imagery for a gritty horror novel).

It was a delicate balancing-act, spicing the text with enough flavor, and writing from the perspective of someone experienced and slightly jaded with living in Japan, but also bringing readers in with the sights and sounds and smells of a different culture. In the end, I feel it worked well and made the perfect backdrop to a story of alienation and revenge. The city as “safe haven and prison”, as the talented Lillian Cohen-Moore wrote for the back cover copy.

—-

Rachel: Amazon|Barnes & Noble

Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Victor LaValle

There comes a day when writers discover that their idols can be… problematic. When that happens, is there a way back to understanding and appreciating them, without excusing or minimizing their problem? Victor LaValle has some thoughts on this topic, and how it relates to his novella The Ballad of Black Tom.

VICTOR LAVALLE:

I fell in love with H.P. Lovecraft when I was eleven years old. I remember the exact sentence that did it. It’s from the opening of a story called “The Strange High House in the Mist.”

“In the morning mist comes up from the sea by the cliffs beyond Kingsport. White and feathery it comes from the deep to its brothers the clouds, full of dreams of dank pastures and caves of leviathan. And later, in still summer rains on the steep roofs of poets, the clouds scatter bits of those dreams, that men shall not live without rumour of old, strange secrets, and wonders that planets tell planets alone in the night.”

Picture an eleven-year old bookish boy reading in the little apartment in Queens that he shares with his mother, grandmother, and baby sister. His mother is a black woman from Uganda and his father is a white man from Syracuse. His father doesn’t live with them anymore, he returned to upstate New York and stayed there. Their son found a Del Rey paperback copy of The Tomb and Other Tales by some dude name H. P. Lovecraft; he turned to a story called “The Strange High House in the Mist” and read that opening. It was the last thirteen words that caused a seismic rumble in his imagination. “…old strange secrets, and wonders that planets tell planets alone in the night.” That night the kid stared at the sky and tried to imagine what those secrets and wonders might be. He read more of Lovecraft’s stories seeking answers.

That’s how I got hooked. I liked Lovecraft’s monsters, but I loved the ideas even more, the scale of his imagination. Cosmic as fuck. I devoured the rest of his fiction and Lovecraft satisfied me for years. “Herbert West, Reanimator.” A glorious and gross zombie story! “The Rats in the Walls.” Underground cities and revelations of cannibalism! “The Horror at Red Hook.” It takes place in Brooklyn! I know that neighborhood! It was all good until I hit sixteen.

I don’t know what happened in that leap from eleven to fifteen. I lost youthful innocence, I guess. Or I began to see things I’d once missed. Or ignored. Things that should’ve been obvious, but hadn’t been. This could be the ways my mother and grandmother were full of shit. (So it seemed then.) Or that my school did little to foster independent thought. (This still seems true.) Or that my beloved Howard Phillips Lovecraft was one hell of a racist.

At sixteen the stories I’d once breezed through practically curb-stomped me with their prejudices. In “Herbert West, Reanimator” the titular character comes across the body of a dead boxer, a black man named Buck Robinson. (Even that name!) Here’s the description of the corpse: “He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon. The body must have looked even worse in life—but the world holds many ugly things.”

In “The Rats in the Walls” there’s this: “My eldest cat, ‘Nigger-Man’, was seven years old and had come with me from my home in Bolton, Massachusetts” Lovecraft goes on to mention the cat, by that name, eighteen more times in the story and the story isn’t very long.

Last was one of my favorite of his stories, “The Horror at Red Hook.” Not one of his best, but it special to me because it took place in my city, in its descriptions I found something as familiar as my neighborhood in Queens. But now I deflated as I read this description of Red Hook: “The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another, and fragments of Scandinavian and American belts lying not far distant. It is a babel of sound and filth…”

Here’s the funny thing though. When I think back on why these parts hurt me it wasn’t only the racism. (Don’t get me wrong, it was still partly the racism.) I was offended as a Black man. But I was also offended as a writer. This kind of stuff is bad writing, and not just because of the slurs. It’s bad writing because it shows poor thinking on Lovecraft’s part.

“The Horror at Red Hook” takes place in Brooklyn. The protagonist is an NYPD Detective named Thomas F. Malone. When the story opens Malone is on a long leave from his job because he’s suffered through a traumatic event in the hives of Red Hook. The rest of the narrative tells you what he survived. Malone stumbled onto a great and horrific conspiracy among the “hopeless tangle” of dusky ethnics, all led by a wealthy white man named Robert Suydam. By the end Malone encounter some otherworldly horror in the story’s confusing, hasty ending.

But here’s the problem, Lovecraft admits, right in the text, that he doesn’t understand the “Syrian, Spanish, Italian and negro elements” of Red Hook. He calls the population an “enigma.” Despite this Lovecraft ascribes them hideous motivations, all filtered through the perspective of Malone, an obvious Lovecraft surrogate. This turns into a bad feedback loop. Lovecraft doesn’t understand these people, but writes a character who investigates the very people the author admits he doesn’t understand. So who, or what, is Lovecraft really exploring here? Only his perceptions of that place and those people. Writing to corroborate what you already think is the essence of bad writing.

I’m not saying I understood all this, or could articulate it, when I read Lovecraft at sixteen or even as I continued to reread him into my twenties and thirties. My doubts and arguments grew over time. But they didn’t diminish my love for his ideas. They also didn’t minimize the pleasure of the plots.  But as an adult I wanted to find a way to write both a love letter and a critique of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction.

When I returned to “The Horror at Red Hook” last summer I could finally see a way into the piece, one that would let me have a conversation with Lovecraft, a way to express both my disappointment and admiration. I thought back to that eleven-year old living in a tenement in Queens. I thought of his mother and grandmother and baby sister. His friends from school, the old women who sat along the sidewalk in lawn chairs during the summer, the old men at McDonald’s nursing coffee and conversation. The working folks and the hustlers and the bums.

Where Lovecraft would’ve seen an enigma I could say these were people I knew. They were complicated by not mysterious. What if I reimagined Lovecraft’s old story from their point of view? What if I made one of them the engine of the tale? How much would change if the folks used to playing the background came center stage instead?

I sat at the computer and decided to find out.

—-

The Ballad of Black Tom: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Randy Henderson

Warning: Randy Henderson nameschecks a lot of questionable movies in this Big Idea for Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free. But it’s for a good reason! Honest!

RANDY HENDERSON:

“Hey, what’s the Big Idea?” Finn asked.  “Didn’t we do this for Finn Fancy Necromancy?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “But this is to talk about your adventures since then.”

“Adventures?  Ha!  Excitement?  Ha!  A character craves not these things — or at least this character doesn’t.  Yet some sadistic author apparently gets his thrills by making me run from danger to dating to deathiness.”

“Oh, come on,” I said.  “If I’d just let you retire to Character Heaven you would’ve totally missed me.”

“Right.  I so couldn’t live without you.”

“Actually, if you want to get technical –”

“You know what I meant!”  Finn snapped.

“You act like it’s all bad,” I said.  “But if I hadn’t written Bigfootloose, you wouldn’t have gotten to reconnect with your family.”

“Have you met my family?  No.  You just created them, you don’t have to actually deal with them.”

“Okay.  How about catching up on that twenty-five years of pop culture you missed while exiled in the Fey Other Realm?”

“You only caught me up to 1989 in this book.”

“And you’re welcome!  You got to see Star Trek IV, Robocop, Willow, Die Hard — a ton of great movies.”

“And had to listen to ‘Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car’!” Finn shouted.  “1988 was, like, the Bog of Eternal Stench of music!”

“How about you just Don’t Worry, Be Happy then?” I said.  “‘Cause I’m never gonna give you up.”

“You suck, Henderson.”

“Fine.  What about this: if I hadn’t written you another adventure, you wouldn’t have gotten sexy time with your girlfriend.”

“…”

“Uh huh,” I said.  “Thought so.”

“Whatever.  Aren’t you supposed to be talking about the Big Idea of Bigfootloose, not my sex life, oh master of my fate?”

“Right.  Well, in book one, the idea was just to have fun.  So I guess the Big Idea for this book was: how do I take a novel I wrote just to be fun, and really build the basis for a series?”

“You could have just suddenly made everyone aliens, like in Highlander 2.”

“Sure!” I said.  “Or I could have stabbed my eyes out with a plastic spoon and saved some time!”

“Fine then.  So would you say Bigfootloose is more like Conan the Destroyer, or Beastmaster 2?”

“Very funny.  Actually, I was trying more for Empire Strikes Back.”

“A bit ambitious for you, don’t you think?” Finn asked.

“Wow.  Thanks.”

“I just meant this isn’t exactly an epic for the ages you’re writing here.  But it is good to dream.  I guess I should just be happy you didn’t say Wrath of Khan.  Not that anyone would mess with that.”

“Ummm …”

“What?  No!  Please tell me nobody dared mess with Khan.  Might as well mess with The Hobbit, or Clash of the Titans.  I mean, once it’s done right –”

I cleared my throat.  “SO, as I was saying, in Bigfootloose I wanted to take the world hinted at in Finn Fancy Necromancy and really dig into it, to expand on the cultures and rules of human magic users and feybloods creatures in our world, and the Fey in the Other Realm, and explore the relationships and tensions between the three groups.  And I wanted to dig a little deeper into the characters, and their relationships.”

“Oh, is THAT what you were doing?” Finn said.  “Because to me, you know, it felt like you were throwing me into the middle of a feyblood rebellion and expecting me to not only save the world but somehow find a date for that sasquatch, Sal, all while trying to figure out my own life.  Silly me for completely stressing out!

“I’m sorry, but people want the adventure, and drama, and sexy time.  Not that you’ve had much of the last bit.”

“Wow.  Just tell the whole world, why don’t you?”

“Finn, you do realize that your life is literally an open book?”

“Okay, that is totally non-non-non-non-heinous.  Just tell me you don’t plan to cut off my hand or freeze me in carbonite or anything crazy, at least.”

“Oh, look,” I said.  “We’ve come to the end of our broadcast day.”

“Dude!  Seriously?  Come on.  I’m, like, your brain baby.  You wouldn’t hurt your brain baby would you?”

“…”

“Whatever.”

—-

Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Lindsay Smith

The folks at Serial Box have been mashing up genres and serializing the results, and thus we have The Witch Who Came In From the Cold: Cold War meets Urban Fantasy. Here’s series co-author Lindsay Smith to catch you up on what’s going down.

LINDSAY SMITH:

The Witch Who Came In From the Cold is a study in duality. Most spy novels are—a delicate game of cat-and-mouse, a waltz between equals, a low moment in which patriot wonders whether they’re fighting for the right side. But with ColdWitch, as we’re calling it, we wanted to go even further.

A political cold war wasn’t enough. We had to go and add magic, too.

Prague is an ancient city with plenty of mystical, magical legends swirling in its foggy streets. In 1970, it’s the iron edge of the curtain, newly absorbed into the Soviet Union but just European enough to safely host Western intelligence services, too. We have plenty of USSR-US conflict simmering over in 1970, from the tail-end of the space race to the delicate maneuvering of arms, technology, and knowledge. Our two leading CIA officers, Gabriel Pritchard and Joshua Toms, are eager to recruit new sources in the soviet Czech government and exfiltrate a Soviet scientist to America for debriefing.

But Gabe has other problems. He picked up a little something in Cairo, something strange and elemental and seemingly bent on making his life miserable. He longs to stay grounded in his mundane world of political chess and slow, steady spycraft, but if he wants to keep his edge, he must confront this magical side of the world, and the more he learns, the more the magic gets its hooks in him.

Problem is, there isn’t just one magical organization in the world. There’s two. And any witch—Russian or American, British or Czech, or more besides—could be aligned with either one.

The Consortium of Ice is a longstanding organization of right-thinking witches, staid and growing more entrenched by the year. They seek to regulate magic for the greater good. A precautionary measure. Keep things nice and organized so the rest of the world doesn’t uncover the magic latent in everything.

The Acolytes of Flame, on the other hand, want to watch the world burn. A good, cleansing fire is just the thing the world needs for their order of powerful witches to ascend.

Tatiana Morozova comes from a long line of Ice witches, and a slightly shorter but no less powerful line of Soviet apparatchiks. When your ritual magic requires witches to work in tandem at all kinds of geographical locales, it helps to be able to move freely, and the KGB lets her do just that. Now she’s got this American, this outsider to the magical world, meddling in her business, attracting attention from the Ice and Flame both. It’s tough enough coordinating with other Ice witches, some of them Westerners, without tipping off the chief of the KGB rezidentura. Now she has to manage this bumbling CIA operative, who assumes she’s just trying to pitch him to spy for the KGB.

Which, in fairness, she might.

The idea of these shifting loyalties, these intersecting and diverging causes really fueled our writing process for Cold Witch. What if the MI6 officer helping you defeat the Russkies is an Acolyte of Flame, waiting for his chance to burn your hard work to the ground? How can you trust your American counterpart in the Ice when he’d do anything to embarrass your government? And is there anyone in this snowy, elementally-charged city who isn’t a witch, a spy, or some combination therein?

And we’ve only cracked the surface of Cold Witch’s potential in Season One. Now that we’ve lined our players up on their chess board, it’s time for the spy games and rituals to really begin.

—-

The Witch Who Came In From the Cold: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google Play|iTunes|Kobo|Serial Box

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Tanita S. Davis

Sometimes people are uprooted and put in new circumstances. How do we adjust, and can we put down new roots that work well enough for us? In her Big Idea, Tanita S. Davis considers this question and how it relates to her YA novel, Peas and Carrots.

TANITA S. DAVIS:

There is no super power greater than knowing how to gather friendly, open, likeminded people around us, to use our intention to make our own safe place in the world. But when our relatives are rotten, and intentional choosing isn’t a skill available to us, what do we do then? Eventually, we stop thinking in terms of family, and seek other bonds.

My first teaching job out of college was working one-on-one with students housed courtesy of the State. They were a mixed lot: entitled incorrigibles who had smarted off to a truancy officer one time too many; runaways from intolerable home lives who’d ended up in the sex trade as a means of survival; gang-affiliated kids who looked like hard-faced adults, serving time for being accessories to grand theft and drive-by shootings. They all shared the simple human desire to belong somewhere – for their families to take them back, for the tight group they’d left behind to arrive one day and rescue them from my classroom… Every day that I worked with them, I watched their counselors and therapists and parole officers try to impress upon them the importance of making new connections, of finding different stomping grounds and other things to hold dear.

It was not a message which found a receptive audience. Almost every one of my students had some piece of the past they held onto against all comers, some piece of the world which represented to them all that they’d lost, and all that they would need to make the world right again. And, for almost all of those students, that thing was a representation of family. A location which they defended with fierce neighborhood pride. A faded Polaroid taped to the headboard at every new placement. A ratty old cardigan or piece of baby blanket held onto since childhood.  A tattoo, stick pin applied with charcoal and baby oil; the name of a best-beloved boldly claiming the tender skin of a wrist or forearm. A piece of a past, real or imagined, and long vanished.

Could they realistically be asked to let go of that? Obviously, no. And yet, how could they move into the future if they weren’t willing to let the past go?

What I saw work, during my brief years with these kids, was encouraging them to change perspective. Maybe they couldn’t have the crew they used to run with, but they could find literal running mates elsewhere. Some left the group home and get involved with long-distance running, basketball, tournament teams traveling and learning the feel of that inclusivity in teams. One girl embraced her love of arguing and took a semester to first observe, then begin to participate in her new high school’s debate team. We didn’t always get to see the next chapter in the lives of those with whom we worked, but sometimes we’d get a card or a call, or a social worker would bring back word. The kids who survived the destruction of their networks and didn’t return to the scene of the disaster were those who found and formed new connections, and new ways into what they ultimately wanted the most.

The world can be puzzled by these deliberate connections, these bonds we seek to supplement biology. Your new home may not be where any of you live, and your new family may be made up of what other people would consider strangers on the internet. I remember wheeling my through a crowded Costco shopping center when my sister was less than a year old, and encountering the crooned, “Oh, she’s precious! She looks just like you two!” It was, in this case, both ludicrous and …ludicrously wrong, as my youngest sister is an American of Cambodian ancestry, I’m an American of African ancestry, and my husband’s ancestral leanings are English, Scottish, and Irish. Sooo…maybe not just like us? But, I’m pretty sure that between her eye rolls – she’s nineteen now – and her general mien of disaffected snarkiness, there’s at least a family resemblance.

Peas and Carrots is a book marketed to middle grade/young adult readers and explores intentionally choosing people to love, and accepting each other in spite of our differences. At the end of the day, peas and carrots don’t go together because they grow together –  legumes and umbeliers are vastly different plant families – nor do they look alike or taste alike… They go together because we put them together. And so can we put together a family, too. Maybe blood shapes our earliest parts, but the choices of who we invite into our circles define us further down the road. It’s an absolutely huge idea that we can have some power over our own happiness in finding good, true, family-tested-friends. Love – and family, however we assemble it –  can be a lot simpler than we make it.

—-

Peas and Carrots: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Marshall Ryan Maresca

Super heroes are a trope, and fantasy novels are a trope too. So what happens when these tropes collide? Ask Marshall Ryan Maresca — he knows, and The Alchemy of Chaos is the latest installment of just such a mashup.

MARSHALL RYAN MARESCA:

I’m a total super-hero junkie. I have a steamer trunk in my garage filled with the comics of my teenage years. My favorite shows on television right now are Flash and Arrow. Superheroes are in my blood. That my first novel took the shape of a superhero origin story shouldn’t have been a surprise to me.

But when I first started The Thorn of Dentonhill, I wasn’t planning on writing a superhero book. I was writing a fantasy novel about a magic-student who had a secret life tied to the city’s street gangs and drug trade, fighting his own private war against a drug lord.  It took a while before it was clear to me exactly what The Thorn of Dentonhill was. Boiled down to the High Concept Elevator Pitch: Veranix Calbert is a magic student by day, street vigilante by night. Harry Potter as Spider-man.

The Thorn of Dentonhill was the origin story. Veranix started out harassing a drug lord– Fenmere– for entirely personal reasons.  Trying to disrupt a drug shipment, he ends up stealing two magic items. He decides to use in his fight and becomes “The Thorn”– folk hero for the neighborhood, a symbol to everyone who wants to stand up to Fenmere. He gets Great Power.

When I sat down to write The Alchemy of Chaos, I had fully embraced the kind of story I was telling. It’s a pulpy, action-packed fantasy novel, but it is still a superhero story. More importantly, it’s a superhero sequel.  The Alchemy of Chaos is about what it now means for him to be The Thorn. What he needs to do, what he wants to do, and what doing that could cost him. He deals with the Great Responsibility part of the equation.

So I threw everything I had at him.

Veranix is already overburdened from the start. He’s got several exams, as well as assisting on a special project that he is supposed to be devoting all his free time to. He shouldn’t even be going out as The Thorn, but the drug trade is creeping into the neighborhood he swore to protect.

Then come the pranks. Disturbing magical pranks that start as obnoxious and escalate to dangerous. The first prank affects hits Vernix’s dorm, so he’s immediately engaged. But given everything he already has on his plate, he has to ask himself: Is this his problem? Should it be his problem? Shouldn’t he just trust that someone else, someone official, will take care of it?

Of course he’s not going to trust that. No one puts on a cape (or in this case, a magical cloak) because they think that someone else ought to take care of the problem. They do it because they think they have to, that they’re the only one that can.

So Veranix is juggling as much as he possibly can: exams, special project, stop the drug trade from crossing over and figure out who this prankster is and stop them before the tricks turn deadly— and the small matter of the assassins that Fenmere hired.

This would be a terrible time for someone to figure out his secret identity, wouldn’t it? Especially the strident science student who is at the top of Veranix’s list of suspects.

Fortunately, Veranix does not have to face it alone. Harry has Ron and Hermione, Barry has Caitlin and Cisco, and Veranix has Kaiana and Delmin. They’re the ones who keep his head on straight, distract people so he can slip away, patch him up when he gets beat up, and remind him what he’s supposed to be doing. Of course, Kaiana and Delmin have a very different idea what Veranix is supposed to be doing. Veranix’s real problem is that they’re both right. He’s got to deal with all of it: magic, science, action, exams, assassins, street gangs, and fancy dinners. He’s got to take all that havoc and try to craft it into something that will not only keep him alive, but still in school.

That’s the Alchemy of Chaos.

—-

The Alchemy of Chaos: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

 

The Big Idea: J. Kathleen Cheney

And now, from J. Kathleen Cheney, a very touching Big Idea about her new novel, Dreaming Death. As you read the Big Idea, you’ll realize I’ve just made a horrible pun. And I’m sorry. I’m a terrible person. But you should read the piece anyway, because it’s super interesting.

J. KATHLEEN CHENEY:

What happens when someone becomes overly sensitized to touch? That’s what my main character in Dreaming Death endures.

My original idea for this came from a late 1980s Glamour magazine that had a snippet in it about a scientific study that linked pale eyes and shyness. What the study actually claimed was that there was a correlation between pale eyes and ease of over-stimulation. And that got me thinking about my characters’ senses, and what it was like to sense too much.

We frequently see expanded senses in superhero stories: Superman and his x-ray vision, Wolverine and his excellent sense of smell, or Daredevil’s hearing. But we don’t often explore the superhero with an overdeveloped sense of touch.

The sense of touch is a curious thing. The skin is essentially one organ, but not every part of it senses at the same level. Science classes sometimes conduct an experiment where students measure skin’s responsiveness (usually by sticking each other with pins) to create a sensory homunculus. If you look this up online, you’ll see an unappetizing series of drawings and models that show distorted figures with huge hands and lips and tongues, because those are the areas of the skin that are most sensitive to touch.

So when I thought about my character, Shironne, I tried to apply what I knew about the sense of touch and extrapolate what it might be like to endure extreme sensitivity every day.

She feels every speck of dirt she touches, especially with her hands and feet. Her lips and tongue are more sensitive areas, so she’s aware of every impurity in her water and her food. Her face is sensitive, so a dirty breeze smacks her with smoke and fine dust and mist and spit from the man who’s walking past and talking. When her clothes are washed, particles of…well, everything…transfer from one part of her clothing to all the others via the water. Horse manure that got on her hem the day before spreads to her tunic sleeves, and she knows exactly what’s touching her skin. All day long.

(For those of you who are now cringing under your desks and rubbing yourself down with Clorox wipes, I apologize. A lot of people prefer not to think about this kind of thing.)

I can only imagine that an overdeveloped sense of touch would be awful. So until my heroine learned to ignore some stimuli in favor of others, her life would be a horrible and confusing cacophony of signals, some too terrible to contemplate. It’s certainly not a superpower I would want for myself.

I did my best to be aware of it in every scene. This is a curse Shironne has to live with for the rest of her life. She’ll eventually become acclimatized to some stimuli, and learn to set that input aside, like those of us who sleep through our alarm clocks. But I have to admit, I also fudged from time to time, just to keep readers from applying the Clorox wipes to the page.

Hopefully, I struck an acceptable balance.

—-

Dreaming Death: Amazon ǀ Barnes and Noble ǀ IndieBound ǀ Powells

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Faith Hunter

For today’s Big Idea, and for her book Blood in Her Veins, author Faith Hunter gets under the skin of her main character, and reveals why that character is often of two mind about many things.

FAITH HUNTER:

Big Ideas are exciting and scary and sometimes dangerous. So, of course, I dare, perhaps far too often, in life and in writing. In life, it’s whitewater kayaking. In writing, I dared to create a series about a character who has two souls and two distinct voices.

Mind you, to me, voice is one of the most important things in writing. Together, authorial voice and character voice create and support so many of the other elements of writing—from tone, to atmosphere, to point of view, and even to character development. Two different voices meant two different … everything. Two different character arcs, two different reactions to conflict, two different thought processes, two different worldviews and two points of view. My two voices weren’t even the same species—the character I envisioned was a human with a mountain lion soul intertwined with hers.

My human character is Jane Yellowrock. She’s a Cherokee skinwalker (the version from the oldest pre-European, Eastern Cherokee, storylines). My fictional take on the old tales made her a being able to assume the shape and form of any animal for which she has sufficient genetic material, always keeping in mind the law of conservation of mass/matter and the peculiarities of genetics. This means that Jane’s magic is best suited to creatures of her own size/mass and gender. I like the physics and the genetics of my magic systems to feel internally consistent.

An orphan, raised in a Christian children’s home, with all the guilt, remorse, sexual hang-ups, and self-reproach that come with that, Jane starts out as a hunter of insane vampires—vamps who attack and kill humans. The series opens with her taking a job for the Master of the City of New Orleans, an apex predator blood-sucker with no hang-ups at all.

My mountain lion character is Beast, a contrary, opinionated cat (also an apex predator, like Jane’s new boss), who has very specific likes and dislikes. She loves hunting and a fresh kill, tolerates thawed steak—raw—and hates cooked meat. She loves lying on a rock in the sun, wants to hunt alligator the moment Jane and she arrive in Louisiana, finds vampires enticing, and likes nothing better than for Jane to go on long rides on her Harley, Bitsa, so she can take in the smells and claim territory, even if just temporarily. She also has strong feelings about Jane’s love life and what kind of person Jane should choose as mate. Beast is feisty, determined, and a killer, without the conscience, contrition, or self-reproach of her human-ish host. Even when she’s in human form, Jane can feel/hear Beast’s opinions, and she both battles and embraces them.

The way these two characters came together is revealed over the course of the series, beginning with a mountain lion attack in 1839. Jane was five years old at the time, but in that fight for her life, she accidentally worked black magic. She stole both the body and soul of the puma who attacked her, and inhabited the big-cat body for two hundred years, her magic keeping them alive far longer than the usual life-span of a Puma concolor. When Jane finally became human again, Beast was trapped within her. And those two diverse voices are what, I think, has given the Jane Yellowrock series an original tone and an audience that is still growing.

One of the ways I dealt with the two character voices in the first book, SKINWALKER, was to mention Beast—but not let her speak, as a separate character, until page twenty-six. Even then, Beast was permitted only one word. Hungry. And that, only moments before Jane shifted into her Beast form for the first time on the page.

When I write in Beast’s voice, she’s an animal who perceives the world the way a young cat might. Sounds are more penetrating, scents are heightened and powerful, colors and the intensity of light are totally different. Beast can’t see the color red. Jane can’t see in the dark as well as her Beast. Jane would describe a vampire as too pale, too demanding, too dangerous to the public, and a pain in the butt. Beast would describe the same vamp as tasty, a good choice as mate, and a good hunter of prey. Jane would say that blood is red. Beast would say that blood smells good-to-eat.

But I can never forget that they’re in the same body, experiencing the same things, no matter who is at the forefront of their consciousness, and whether they are in human or cat form. Over the series there has been an organic evolution where Jane becomes more like a mountain lion and Beast becomes more like a human. They’ve been broken and shattered in the same way and have drawn strength from each other. And in those moments where they come together and depend on each other, the two distinct voices I have worked to create swap DNA and become the same voice or a hybrid voice. I must admit, that was something I did not expect!

In the course of the now New York Times bestselling series (the tenth book, Shadow Rites, will be published in April), there’s been an emergence of different camps of my readers. Yes, Beast has her own fans, which pleases her enormously. She also has her own point-of-view stories in my nineteen story collection, Blood in Her Veins, on sale today.

I’ve been writing for many years, under various names, and Jane/Beast is the character, bar none, who challenges the writer in me most. Jane / Beast are unpredictable, demanding, playful, and hunters of prey, each in their way and own voices. They are, for me, the Big Idea.

—-

Blood in Her Veins: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the series page. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Jennifer Brozek

A question that authors often ask themselves: Who am I writing this book for? For Never Let Me, a compilation volume of novels by Jennifer Brozek, the author discovered who she was writing her series for — which included, among others, a very specific set of people.

JENNIFER BROZEK:

My Big Idea hid from me until I finished writing the last book of the Melissa Allen series. The compilation, Never Let Me, encompasses Never Let Me Sleep, Never Let Me Leave, and Never Let Me Die. It also includes the new short story, “Never Let Me Feel.”

There were two motivating factors behind me writing the young adult novels starring Melissa Allen. The first was: Write what you want to read. In my not-so-humble mind, I liken Never Let Me to “What if Stephen King specifically wrote for teenagers back in the day?” I read a lot of King’s work growing up and loved it. Part of me always wondered what if he had written a story specifically for me as a teen? I pondered what I thought that would look like. Then I wrote it because that’s what I wanted to read.

The second factor was the need to write a flawed, mentally ill character whose mental illness didn’t make them a superhero or a villain. It just was. The illness was one more invisible, personal thing to deal with—like migraines or gastric reflux. Too many times, mentally ill characters are taken to unrealistic extremes—savant, dangerously wicked, innocent to the point of child-like—when, in reality, they are just normal people trying to get through the day. They are medicated, dealing with side effects, and know that even when the chemical cocktail is working today, it might not work tomorrow.

In specific, I watched daughter of one of my friends—her name is Cait—grow up fighting with her illness, dealing with the side effects, and sighing over the issues with her psychiatrist. I helped her as much as I could. I never thought it was enough, but I didn’t know what else I could do.

Cait stuck with me all these years, even after I moved away from her. I knew that she never had a mentally ill protagonist in any young adult book she’d read that she could look up to. I wanted to write this series for her, and for the other teens like her who struggle with mental illness on a daily basis. I wanted her to see the heroine in herself.

I never thought of myself as a heroine. Growing up, I had a lisp and a stutter. I went to three years of speech therapy to bring my speech into something much more acceptable. I’m dyslexic. Also, I am high-functioning autistic. I never saw a protagonist like me in any of the stories I read. For a long time, it didn’t occur to me that someone like me (or Cait) could be a hero. People like us weren’t heroes.

I wanted to change that. At first, it was just for Cait. She was the one I’d written the novels for. She was my ideal reader. Then, as I expanded the stories and the protagonists, I added a character for my mom. This character has a congenital defect in her hand like my mom. My mom didn’t have a hero like her to read about growing up. I thought she deserved one, too. In the end, when I sat back and looked at what I’d written, I realized my Big Idea.

I was the one I had written these novels for… because they were about people like me and about the everyday people around me. I wanted to see fictional heroes that mirrored the real life heroes I looked up to every single day of my life. Including the person I looked at in the mirror. She may have a stutter when she gets excited. She may rock when she’s tired. She may not always understand the expressions she sees on people’s faces. She may have bouts of anxiety… but she is still a hero.

Sometimes, we write the heroes we need to see in ourselves.

Never Let Me: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s|IndieBound  

Read excerpts from Never Let Me Sleep, Never Let Me Leave, or Never Let Me Die. Visit the author’s page or blog. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.