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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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

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The Big Idea: Dobromir Harrison

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


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.


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!


“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?”




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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

The Big Idea: Charlie Jane Anders

How many times have you heard a new book, or movie or TV show, described as “X meets Y” where the two variables are something super-popular, jammed into one? As Charlie Jane Anders discovered in thinking about her new and already widely-lauded debut novel All the Birds in the Sky, there are limits to all that jamming, especially when you want to make your own mark.


Genre mashups are everywhere in pop culture these days. Star Wars is a samurai Western in space, with wizards. Adventure Time is a post-apocalyptic fairy tale. And superheroes, of course, are every genre ever, all smushed together.

But I’m here to tell you, as someone who often gets accused of writing genre mashups, that you should avoid them at all costs. Don’t take two genres and smush them together. Instead, it’s way better to take whatever you need from different genres, and create your own brand new story.

At least, that’s what I decided while writing All the Birds in the Sky, my new book about a witch named Patricia and a mad scientist named Laurence. At first, I was thinking of this book as very much a mashup: fantasy meets science fiction. But the deeper I got into the story and the characters, the less helpful it was to think of it in terms of genres.

Instead, I started thinking of it as a story about people from two different worlds, each of which I tried to make as real and grounded as I could.

I had already gotten a rep for smushing together different genres, before I finished All the Birds in the Sky. I wrote “As Good As New,” which was a post-apocalyptic story where a woman named Marisol finds a genie in a bottle. (Because of course a genie in a bottle would survive the apocalypse, and its hiding place would be reduced to rubble. It’s just logic, people.) And my story “Palm Strike’s Last Case” takes a dark, gritty urban superhero and sends him to another planet, where he deals with issues of food scarcity and sustainable farming.

So when I started to write a novel that had a fantasy hero and a science fiction hero, I got excited about including as many tropes from each of those two genres as I could think of. The witch can have runes, spellbooks, wands, dragons, elves, ancient curses, evil wizards, etc. The mad scientist gets aliens, robots, spaceships, rayguns, dinosaurs and so on.

But when you just smush a bunch of genre tropes together, you end up with something kind of spoofy. It starts to feel like you’re just making fun of the genres, instead of exploring what makes them powerful. And instead of bright vivid contrasts, you can easily end up with an indistinct mish-mosh. (Like, an elf is sort of an alien. A dragon is sort of a dinosaur. Unless you really work at developing the aspects that make them different.)

If you’re not careful, a genre mashup can very quickly become just kind of an exercise in meta, commenting on the genres instead of using them to their full potential. When you think of a mashup, what immediately comes to mind is the stereotypical Hollywood executive saying, “It’s Alien meets The Smurfs!” Or “It’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Terminator!”

But what’s really interesting about bringing together characters who belong in different worlds—or different types of stories—is the different ways that they look at life.

And with both my witch and my mad scientist, what turned out to be interesting is what they can’t do. Instead of getting lost in all of the cool stuff that could be on their horizons—the starships and spellbooks—the most powerful stories came from their limitations. What can Patricia, the witch, do that Laurence, the mad scientist, can’t? And vice versa? And what’s the thing that’s beyond both of their capabilities? The more I thought of these characters in terms of their limits, the deeper I could get into the emotional core of the story.

And that’s the biggest thing that took me away from thinking of All the Birds in the Sky as some kind of genre chimera. I needed to feel something, to connect to these two main characters and their struggles in my gut as well as my heart. The bells and whistles risked pulling me away from the characters, instead of helping me connect to them.

And in the end, having an emotional core didn’t just mean focusing in on my two main characters and their emotional reality. It also meant recognizing that no matter how many genres I was drawing on, I still had only one story, with one single axis, and everything needed to be part of that.

And once I recognized that, I could focus on what those different genre elements meant to me, and what they represented in my story. I peeled back all of the extra clutter, until I was left with the things that I absolutely needed to make the story work—and then I had to figure out what those elements needed, in terms of worldbuilding, to make them feel real. Like, Patricia, the witch, needed a magic school to go to, that couldn’t just be a Hogwarts clone, and a world of magicians that felt lived-in. Stuff like that.

Once I stripped away all the excess clutter that I had put in when I thought this was a “mashup,” there were big holes in my novel. And those holes turned out to be the places where I was shortchanging my main characters and not giving them enough room to breathe and develop their relationship. When I let go of the idea that this was a book about genres, I was able to start thinking of it more as a book about people.


All The Birds in the Sky: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Jake Kerr

Is being the chosen one all it’s cracked up to be? Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, and in this Big Idea for Tommy Black and the Coat of Invincibility, author Jake Kerr has choice thoughts on being “chosen” and the choices the chosen ones (and their authors) might have.


When you are writing a four book series, there is a lot of room to pursue ideas, both big and small, and in my Tommy Black series I’m taking full advantage of that. There are subtle things like all of the accurate historical elements I weave into the background, the fact that there is really no real bad guy in book one, and the morally complex role of magic. However, my biggest idea has to be that I’m doing my best to destroy the traditional “chosen one” coming-of-age genre trope. The consequences of that lead to a lot of interesting and fun things.

We’re all familiar with the chosen one—Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and a wide range of heroes going back to the roots of the genre—the young boy who is given a special power or responsibility, and it his his destiny to use it for good. At the beginning of Tommy Black and the Staff of Light, that’s exactly what happens—Tommy is given his grandfather’s magical staff, told that it is his family’s legacy and that he must somehow learn its power to follow in his famous grandfather’s footsteps.

In the process of going down that path, however, Tommy is confronted with several aspects of his legacy that he finds wrong and unacceptable. He decides to re-define it into him working against much of what his family had done in the past. He still has powerful magic, and he is still the chosen one. He has just decided to abandon the legacy part.

That’s all well and good and not entirely groundbreaking, but the events in book two, Tommy Black and the Coat of Invincibility, lead Tommy down a challenging new path—his power starts to become unstable with the unearthing of other magical artifacts and other “chosen ones” wielding them. The result is that his role as hero changes, as do the roles of his friends.

This was actually quite challenging to write. We want our heroes to be heroes, and when they are confronted with challenges, it is disappointing to have someone else save them. Creating a narrative where Tommy fails and yet isn’t a failure made me reconsider how I approach conflict within a novel. For example: Could I take away Tommy’s powers and still give him a chance to shine? How would I do that?

One strategy for dealing with that is to have another character that everyone is rooting for. Luckily for me, I have Naomi. She is Tommy Black’s best friend, and, like Hermione Granger, she is a hard-working and astonishingly skilled magician. Unlike Hermione, however, Naomi is all forward momentum, and as Tommy struggles with the unreliability of his powers, Naomi jumps in and saves the day on a number of occasions.

Cover artist M.S. Corley handled this dynamic perfectly. We have ominous Nazi magicians arrayed against Tommy and Naomi, but the one in front is Naomi. (Corley’s a master, by the way. I highly recommend you check out his work here.)

One of the recurring comments I’ve heard from young readers of Tommy Black and the Staff of Light has been, “I want to see more of Naomi” or “Please have Naomi do more with her magic.” It was as if there was this untapped desire by readers to give the sidekick or the young girl a turn in the spotlight. And that’s exactly what I’ve done.

In my case, it is by design, and Naomi is the perfect character to fill that role. She loves magic so much and works so hard at it that she trusts it implicitly. As a result, she barrels ahead with utter faith in her abilities, overwhelming warships at sea, German army units with guns and mortars, and an elite squad of Nazi magicians. Of course that confidence is also a flaw, and that’s part of the fun—watching how the changing power dynamic between Tommy and Naomi is grounded in a foundation of mutual support and friendship. They help each other with their weaknesses.

As the series progresses, that’s really the big idea I am excited about pursuing—Tommy the Chosen One struggling with the knowledge that his true path may be to go back to being the normal boy he was when he started, and the girl whose life he saved growing into the role she has built for herself: a young woman with great power taking over as the true savior of the world. In fact, the fourth book of the Tommy Black series won’t have his name on the cover. It will have Naomi’s.

By the way, “big idea” sounds kind of deep and philosophical. That’s not bad, of course, but don’t forget that this is a fantasy action/adventure series set during World War 2. I have Nazi magicians for goodness’ sake. I want the Tommy Black books to be just as fun as the Edgar Rice Burroughs and J. R. R. Tolkien books I read when I was twelve. If readers don’t walk away with a smile on their face, I’ve failed.

With that in mind, here is an excerpt from chapter twelve, where we see the above big idea happening, while the scene itself is exciting and fun.

In the end, I want Tommy to be a hero that readers cheer and root for, but not because he was chosen or because he received some magical legacy. I want him to be a hero because he’s a good person. And I want Naomi to be cheered as a hero, too, because she works harder than everyone else, and it has made her truly amazing.


Tommy Black and the Staff of Light/Tommy Black and the Coat of Invincibility: Amazon |Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|Kobo|Google|Apple|

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s page. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

The Big Idea: Eric James Stone

Welcome to the first Big Idea of 2016! And while the title of Eric James Stone’s novel promises that it will be Unforgettable, Stone asks an opposing question: If you wanted to make a character who was destined to be forgotten, how would you do it, science fictionally speaking?


When I came up with the idea of a hero who couldn’t be remembered after he was gone, I needed an explanation for what caused that effect.

I’ve had several stories published in Analog Science Fiction & Fact, a market that offers mainly hard science fiction, so I can come up with scientifically rigorous explanations for various story elements. But Unforgettable was not intended to be hard science fiction — it was really more of a superhero novel, albeit with a rather weird superpower.

I toyed with a biological explanation involving pheromones, but eventually decided to use quantum physics.  I’ve always been fascinated by some of the weirder aspects of quantum mechanics, like superposition and wave function collapse. My wife is a high school physics teacher. Before we met for our first date, I told her she would recognize me because I would be wearing a tee-shirt with a physics joke on it. She said, “OK, but if it isn’t funny, I’m leaving.” The tee-shirt showed a wanted poster with a picture of a cat, and it read “Wanted: Dead & Alive — Schrödinger’s Cat.” (Fortunately, she found that funny enough that she didn’t leave.)

I figure most readers of this blog are familiar with the Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment (or are capable of looking it up on Wikipedia), so I won’t detail it here. Suffice to say that before the experimenter opens the box, the cat exists in a superposition of aliveness and deadness. After the experimenter opens the box, the probability wave function collapses, and the experimenter sees either a dead cat or a live (and probably very annoyed) cat.

However — and this is where we go beyond the original thought experiment — outside the lab is the experimenter’s colleague. From the colleague’s point of view, the cat’s aliveness is still in superposition, but the experimenter’s mind could also be said to exist in a superposition of two possibilities: having seen a dead cat and having seen a live cat.

All of that is still within the realm of current theoretical physics. But to provide a theoretical basis for my hero’s superpower, I needed to take it one step further. I wondered, what if there were some sort of glitch, and the wave function for the experimenter’s mind collapsed to the version where the cat is dead, while the wave function for the cat itself collapsed to the version where the cat is alive?

Nat Morgan, the hero of my novel Unforgettable, is the personification of such a glitch: he exists in a superposition of being there and not being there, and once he’s gone the wave functions of the minds of everyone he’s met always collapse to the version in which he wasn’t there.

Once I had my theoretical explanation in place, I proceeded to work out the implications of Nat’s superpower. Figuring out the rules for what happened when he interacted with people helped me to develop scenes that showcased the rules, so the reader would come to understand them.


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

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

The Big Idea: Erin M. Evans

The last Big Idea of the year! And a very interesting one too, as Erin M. Evans goes deep about what it takes to write in already-existing worlds, as she is doing with her novel Ashes of the Tyrant. Think it’s easy to write a tie-in novel? Think again.



“If I had your job,” a writer friend of mine once declared, “I would lose my fucking mind.”

I had just finished describing a city I’d be using in my next book, Djerad Thymar, a hollow pyramid taller than Khufu’s, big enough to house 30,000+ people, and the only city described for a race in Dungeons & Dragons called the dragonborn. Given a series of new constraints, I needed a way for it to have been built in less than eighty years by people who only just got access to magic.  “A wizard did it” wouldn’t fly. “They worked real hard” wouldn’t either.

To some people, like my friend, that’s an intrusion, an impediment to their storytelling. To me, it’s a challenge I can’t help but accept.

Working with setting details you wouldn’t have chosen on your own is inevitability of tie-in fiction. Depending on what kind of media you’re tying in to the difference can be slight or stark. Role-playing games involve a lot of storytelling, a lot of backstory, so there’s often a lot to work with or around—but there are also a lot of cooks in this kitchen and they don’t always agree. Sometimes you get details that are there for the “cool visual” they provide. Sometimes you get hit with things there for mechanical reasons foremost—elves see secret doors because…someone should see secret doors! Sometimes there’s a hole where you’d expect to have answers and sometimes there are six books of background where you’d expect wiggle room.

Sometimes there’s this giant pyramid a bunch of dragon-people built because why not?

This works in a RPG game. It leaves room for the DM to shape the story they need to tell, for the players to find a niche for their characters. Here are the bones of a world. Build something around them.

You can’t always get by with just bones in a novel. It might be easier to lean on those sourcebooks, to only talk to the readers who play the game, but it’s not very satisfying. There’s such a lot of good story to be found between those immovable sourcebook details, and such a lot of inspiration in the contradictions that might otherwise make you lose your fucking mind.

And when it came to dragonborn, the shape around the bones was too wonderful to ignore.


The first time I realized my degree was still good for something, I wrote a short treatise on orcish ritual scarification. I was editing a book for Wizards of the Coast called Sentinelspire by Mark Sehestedt. In it, Mark had created a tribe of orcs to live in the icy corner of the world he’d chosen, and given a half-orc character the ritual of cutting a mourning scar across his heart for his lost blood brother.

Except this is basically the Siberia of the world. Ritual scarification sends a message to the people we interact with: I have lost a comrade and a loved one.  Who’s he sending that message to if he’s bundled up against the cold all year long? (Mark moved the scar to his face and got a very poignant scene out of it).

Like most anthropology majors, I suspect, I thought for sure I was heading for academia. But an undiagnosed anxiety disorder pushed that dream out and out and out and by the time I had my brain back in relative order, I realized I didn’t want that life. But I still love it—and realizing all those books and studies and essays about ritual scarification and burial customs, proscriptions and purity and family structure, they’re all applicable to fantasy worlds. We’re social animals. We organize ourselves to perpetuate ourselves, and in those interactions lie so many of our truths and fears, our taboos and necessities, the pressures that quietly make each of us who we are.

Even if we’re elves. Or orcs. Or dragon-people.

Dragonborn are fairly new to the Forgotten Realms, mostly background players. So here was an excellent opportunity to flesh out those bones, which kicked the story into gear. For example, in the game, they were created by tyrannical dragons to be the perfect slaves, but they rose up and overthrew their far more powerful masters. Out of that, they were thrown into this new world by powerful magic and built a nation out of the rubble….and yet standard perception is they are friendly and curious and honor-bound to a fault.

Which makes sense, I figure, if non-dragonborn can’t read dragonborn facial expressions, if neither group understands the etiquette of the other, and if humans have no idea when a dragonborn is throwing shade, bless their hearts.


From these two angles came the big idea of Ashes of the Tyrant, the fifth book of the Brimstone Angels saga.  In it, Farideh, my tiefling warlock, travels back to Djerad Thymar, the birthplace of her adopted father, Clanless Mehen. Mehen was exiled in his youth for reasons he doesn’t talk about, but now his father’s dead, the new matriarch of his clan wants him back. Mehen wants to be left alone, but at the same time he misses what he lost. For his daughters, Djerad Thymar is a puzzle—the place where all their family customs come from, but where they, as non-dragonborn, don’t belong.

This is a story about the past, about the way we mythologize the past, and what we can do to keep that from stymieing our future. A story about the roles our culture creates for us and how they harm or help, how we reshape ourselves or reshape our roles.  It’s a story about family—what we’re born with and what we build ourselves—and how these things ripple out into our communities.

Also it’s about a demon running around murdering people.

(Come on: it’s still a D&D novel. You build around the bones, after all.)


So how did the dragonborn build Djerad Thymar? Unfortunately, the answer spawned a major story point, so you’ll have to read Ashes of the Tyrant to find out.


Ashes of the Tyrant: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.


The Big Idea: Lawrence M. Schoen

Here in the last week of December 2015 books are still coming out, and here’s a very interesting one indeed: Barsk, by Lawrence M. Schoen. For the Big Idea behind it, Schoen looks at memory, and what it has to do with you, me, and sentient elephant-like creatures on another planet.


I like to think there are lots of cool ideas in Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, from using prophecy to travel in time, to showcasing anguish via a character who cannot feel pain. It’s like I was saving up ideas to put them all in this book. But the biggest idea, the one that filters through all the others, is memory as a physical thing distinct from our bodies and yet bound by the laws of physics (even if I had to invent some of those laws myself).

I’ve been a cognitive psychologist for thirty years, complete with the terminal degree, a collection of peer-reviewed journal articles, and a towering stack of teaching evaluations to prove it. So bear with me a moment as I give you some background on a topic that fascinates me: memory.

Memory is more than just the place we put the stuff we later choose to call to mind. In part, because that stuff is actually a myriad kinds of things, that apparently get stored in different ways. Memory for faces is one type, and very different from memory for names. Ditto for the memory of how to do a thing (like riding a bicycle) and knowing what a thing is (ooh, look, that thing with handlebars and wheels, it’s a bicycle!). Memory for words obeys different rules than memory for sounds that are not words. I could go on and on like this for hours, but this isn’t my classroom and I don’t think John will let me give you all a test, so let’s move on.

My point is, psychologists have been carving up the memory pie since the late 19th century when Hermman Ebbinghaus kicked up a fuss looking at what affected his efforts to memorize nonsense syllables. For purposes of my Big Idea (and Barsk) though, I want to focus on two slices of that pie: what are typically called semantic memory and episodic memory.

Semantic memory is the stuff you know. It’s names and dates and facts that you can look up in an encyclopedia or google on your smartphone. It’s objective data. Whereas episodic memory is subjective; it’s your personal experience of something and includes not just the what of memory but also the who and the where and the how did you feel at the time. Knowing who John Scalzi is is semantic memory. Remembering the first time I met him at a Worldcon is episodic. The former type of memory is colorless, the latter is potentially filtered through all sorts of emotional and intellectual states-of-being present at the time the information was encoded, and prone to modification and embellishment each time it’s recalled. And because episodic memory is subjective, even if you were there, in the room at the same time, your memory of the event will be different from mine because we’re different people.

Consider for a moment that this kind of personal memory defines who we are as individuals; each of us is a unique organization of information, collections of experiences, that owe nothing to the basic physicality of our bodies or our longevity. To run with this idea, I only had to fudge a little bit and invent a new subatomic particle, which I named the nefshon, a “particle of personality.”

Imagine that every instant of your life you’re producing nefshons, representing every experience you have. Each particle is a cluster of information that tells your unique story at that moment in time. The people you shared that experience with also produced their own nefshons of the event. Now here’s the fun part: your memory of those people is made possible by sharing nefshons. You received some of theirs, and likewise parted with some of your own. Seen in this light, your identity is made up not just of your experiences but also contains pieces of everyone you’ve ever met.

That’s fine, but so what? Thanks for asking.

If who we are, if the essential thing that is you, is an elaborate and totally unique organization of information encoded on those subatomic particles — unreliant on your meat body —you transcend death. Breathing your last breath and joining the choir invisible does not mean the information that defined you is gone. Your nefshons don’t care about rigor mortis. At most, your being alive held them together in a common cluster, and your death just means they’ll disperse, much like other particles would. A handy analogy for this is starlight. The information contained in each of those points of lights has traveled vast spans of time and distance to reach you and be seen, even if the star they came from is long gone. Like those particles of light, each nefshon still possesses the information it did from its origin, unaffected by time or distance of the wetware from which it sprang.

In Barsk there is a drug that grants its users — let’s call them Speakers — the ability to perceive and manipulate nefshons, to reach out into the ether and summon the bits of information from a specific person. If a Speaker draws enough of your nefshons together, they combine to produce a simulacrum of the original you, one that has your knowledge and personality and in all respects is you, except for the minor fact that it lacks a physical body. My protagonist, Jorl, is one such individual, a historian who can actually conjure up figures out of history and speak to them, or more simply converse with his best friend whom he believes killed himself but won’t say why, and lo, we’re off and running with a major plot thread for the novel.

The Big Idea here is that we aren’t defined by our bodies but rather by our experiences, that each of us is a unique organization of information that transcends mere physicality. Considered in this way, death is not the end of us because it doesn’t unmake that organization. Moreover, like light from a distant star, the information of who we are still exists, just waiting for someone with the means of perceiving us as we spread out through the universe, each of us immortal, waiting to tell our story.

So, forget about aliens learning about us because they’ve watched our television transmissions; if they’ve worked out the technology they’re going to pass on reruns of Gilligan’s Island and zoom in on the highlights of your life. Whether it’s the awe and transformation of holding your child for the first time, or the warm memory of the day your grandfather came to visit and bought you that ice cream cone, or that night in the backseat of the limo after the junior prom when your world changed forever. All your memories will still be out there, long after you’re not.


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

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The Big Idea: Carol Berg

How do you know you are you? And if you don’t know, are you really you at all? Carol Berg ponders those questions in her novel Ash and Silver, and in today’s Big Idea.


There are many literary tropes that I love, especially those that characterize fantasy fiction. Mistaken identity, the innocent who discovers great power, the rogue who finds purpose, sentient dragons, magic as rare, the guide/advisor, shapeshifting, magical portals, the fae, the trickster, gods/saints/angels that are discovered to be real, even the occasional quest with a jewel at the end.

The word trope has a bad reputation, having taken on the burden of cliché, stereotype, and dry imitation. I’ve certainly thrown aside many a book because of yet another elf-dwarf-human road trip or another angst-ridden vampire or one more ever-snarky female cowboy/tank driver/longshorewoman who is really a pixie/ghoul/pond sprite with tattoos and a hunky male guardian angel.

But motifs, characters, plots, and metaphors evolve into tropes because we humans find them innately fascinating and deeply satisfying. What is more delicious for the kid in all of us than Platform 9 ¾ – a portal to a world of magic and adventure? What makes our heart ache like the visit to elfland and the irrevocable choice to stay – abandoning our human loves and homely pleasures – or to go home, relinquishing for all time the exquisite passions of magical life? See Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer for a brilliant example.

In my own writing, I consciously embrace certain tropes, but then do my best to embed them in layered worlds and complex characters, twisting them into something that will draw the reader onto unexpected paths into a deeper story. It’s part of my particular pleasure in writing fantasy.

Ash and Silver is told by a man who can’t remember his own name or anything of his own personal past. Yep, hero’s amnesia, one of my favorite tropes. (Remember that splendid case of amnesia that opens Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber?)

But don’t throw the book across the room yet, because Greenshank’s memory loss was not caused by a blow to the head or a car accident or mafia-delivered drugs, but was magically induced when he chose to accept sanctuary in a strict, secretive military order. Mind-altering magic doesn’t work in this world without the consent of the subject. But, of course, my hero can’t remember what circumstances would induce him, a mature man quite obviously untrained in military skills, to seek sanctuary in such a place or submit to such breakage. This question – along with the why – is the igniter for his story.

Magic that can remove, preserve, and restore memory provides wonderful grist for a fantasy writer’s mill. Simply obliterating all knowledge leaves us a character too ignorant to be interesting. Greenshank is well educated, and I need him to have access to his wide knowledge of the world, history, society, customs, his kingdom’s current war of succession and strange skewing of the seasons. But he can have no recollection of tutors, family, friends, lovers, preferences, biases, or the reasons behind the particular academic disciplines he finds most comfortable.

As hints of his past begin pummeling our hero, demanding his attention like hailstones out of the fog, (you knew that would happen) I had to tread carefully, scouring what I wrote for evidence that he knew more than he should, or felt, suspected, or deduced more than he should. Every scene presented choices. Should he feel sorrow at mentions of the family he can’t remember or only loss? When he meets a person from his past, is there any hint of recognition?  Do I want there to be?

Greenshank does know he is a sorcerer, and over two years has become a far more skilled one, because the Order of the Equites Cineré, Knights of the Ashes, fights with magic as well as sword, spear, and fist. But he has no idea of his own particular magical talent – his bent – or how he studied or practiced that talent in the twenty-something years he has forgotten. This implies a precise, almost surgical, excision of memory.

Herein lies the Big Idea or perhaps the Big Question. What part of us remains when our personal past is gone?

Do our experiences shape us as human beings? Undoubtedly. But if we yield the memory of them, do we somehow become someone different? Are we left adrift without the guidance of our growing? Do we lose the emotions connected with lost faces, forgotten relationships, and missing life, or do those somehow linger in our bones? Are our choices based solely on reason and our reactions on solid evidence, or are there resonances of old biases and yearnings still lurking inside?

Greenshank’s commanders at Fortress Evanide say they remove all personal memory so that their trainees can learn without boundaries or preconceptions.  So they can maintain the singular focus on the present that is necessary to survive, because the Order’s training is rigorous and mortally dangerous. Those who survive their years of training can choose to have their past restored and leave with honor (but no memory of the Order itself.)  But those who stay, those who choose to be invested as Knights of the Ashes, must relinquish their past lives forever. Going forward in service to the Order, each must continually forego all personal memory of the great deeds he does, as well. Thus, no glory. No accumulation of power or spoils of war. The new knight commits to a simple life of comradeship, skill, and just purpose. (Whatever could go wrong with that?)

As the writer, I had to shape answers to all these questions in the context of my story, creating a logical, consistent structure. Those answers led me in directions I never imagined. What began as a favorite trope, ripe for renewal, became the struggle at the very heart of Ash and Silver. In a single, chaotic conjunction of murder, politics, enchantment, history, love, family, grief, anger, and corruption, Greenshank discovers that the fate of the world depends on his identity – his ultimate decision about who he actually is and who he yearns to be.


Ash and Silver: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Joseph Wallace

You might think of the end of the world as the end of it all… but as Joseph Wallace explains in this Big Idea for his novel Slavemakers, every end is also a beginning.


Like a million other kids—probably a million other kids in Brooklyn alone—I always felt like I’d been born in the wrong era.

Sometimes, instead of being stuck in my never-changing neighborhood with its two-story homes and postage-stamp yards, I’d dream of being born a century or two in the future, giving me the chance to explore distant, uncharted worlds. (If P.S. 193 had offered a class whose final required surviving on a dangerous wilderness planet, like the school in Robert Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky did, I would have been the first to sign up.)

More often, though, I didn’t yearn to travel forward but backward through time. I desperately wanted to be living a hundred years earlier, or two hundred, during the great Age of Sail. Back when world maps were filled with blank spaces and countries with long-forgotten names and blurry borders. Back when the huge empty oceans bore the legend “Here Be Monsters.”

It wasn’t that I wanted to discover a new territory, plant a flag, found a civilization. The opposite: I was desperate to escape my city home, with its squirrels and pigeons, so I could truly understand what it was like to be just one species among countless others, instead of always the arrogant alpha.

But I was too late. By the time I got to do the traveling I’d always dreamed of, the world was still beautiful…but far from limitless. The empty spaces had almost all been filled in. Even while wandering among the great herds of East Africa or in the Amazon rainforest, I always knew I wasn’t truly alone. I understood that the wilderness still existed only because my species hadn’t yet chosen to destroy and occupy it.

I’ve been a writer almost since I can remember. But it wasn’t until just a year or two ago that I realized I could visit the world I’d dreamed of, if not in real life, then at least in my writing. That’s how Slavemakers was born.

In my previous novel, Invasive Species, I created a scientifically plausible way to bring modern human society to an end. While most of the book takes place in a fictional present, Invasive Species’ epilogue leaps forward to twenty years after the apocalypse. A group of survivors is about to embark on the first great exploration of what they call the Next World…aboard a sailing ship modeled on those that plied the oceans during the Age of Sail.

To explore a world once again filled with empty places. Here Be Monsters.

When I finished writing that epilogue, I thought I was done. I had no intention of creating a follow-up novel. But then the thought started nagging at me: Why did my characters get to embark on an expedition to an unknown world, but I didn’t?

And, on that thought, the plot of Slavemakers presented itself to me. (All at once, whole, as I was in a car heading back from a visit to Cape Cod.) It’s science fiction, it’s a thriller, but at its heart it’s also something else: A book about learning to adapt to, and survive on, a planet we no longer dominate.

What would it feel like to watch nature reclaim what we’ve long considered “ours”? To witness evolution rush in to fill the gaps left behind by our near disappearance, just as it did after the extinction of the dinosaurs? And, most of all, to be born onto that planet, into the Next World, and to start afresh, without the prejudices and preconceptions that led to the apocalypse?

I don’t live in Brooklyn anymore, and by now I understand the world I live in is the one I’m stuck with. But I don’t think it’s always going to be this way—our species is not going to come anywhere near the dinosaurs’ 165-million-year reign—and in Slavemakers I got to imagine what might happen next.


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

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