The Big Idea: Vicki Pettersson

Vicki Pettersson is in the enviable position of having a successful urban fantasy series with her “Signs of the Zodiac” books, of which the latest, Cheat the Grave, is the fifth. But when any series goes out to the fifth book (or beyond), the question becomes: What now? What next? What’s new? Pettersson’s answer to this was to do the unexpected with her main character — a zag instead of the usual zig. And what does that zag entail? I’ll let Pettersson explain it to you.


The initial premise for my Signs of the Zodiac series was simple: take the superhero construct of good and evil and drop those dueling sides – represented by Light and Shadow – down in Las Vegas to watch them battle it out against the neon backdrop. Vegas is my hometown, so research is a cinch and the real world setting is just odd enough that readers often question the gray areas of what’s real and what’s not. (After all, what’s stranger, superheroes duking it out in Sin City or the fact that Wayne Newton is still headlining here?)

This lets me write a dark, gritty urban fantasy and still point out the best places to cop a $.99 breakfast. It’s like Fodor’s Guide to Supernatural Vegas – the perfect little getaway for a readership enduring a recession, craving escapism, and faced with all around, monumental world change.

And change is the Big Idea behind my fifth book, Cheat the Grave. In the real world, change blares into our lives via a headline: if it’s not a bailout, a bank fail, or an earthquake – it’s Greece. Or it visits our life in a phone call: if it’s not your mother, your kid, or your own bad decisions – it’s your good ones. Because every action, or inaction, ultimately finds a way to assert itself in your life.

Now if you’ve read any of my previous books, you’ll know this has never been a static series. (If you haven’t, then you missed the limited offer on my Vegas Roulette Predictor Ring. Sorry.) I push Joanna hard, and have admittedly, at times, treated her like a rat in a science lab. What happens if I push this button? What if I zap her here? You found your way out of that maze, girl? Then it was too easy. Here’s a tulpa blinding you with lightning bolts, flood waters rising at your feet, and a man with a rotted soul seeking to trap yours in his bewitched blade.


Normally when a character faces tough situations she just gets tougher. Yet Joanna started out pretty hard from word one. Any tougher and she’d start resembling a walking strip of beef jerky. So I took the opposite tack and made her more vulnerable instead. This doesn’t mean she cozied up on me. She’ll never be the type of character to hand over her recipe for pound cake or believe in magic sparkling unicorns.

But this softening has brought up new questions for both Joanna and me. Like, who are you when you’re separated from those people that have come to most define you? What happens when the things you’ve built up around you are pulled, have fallen, or drifted away? And what if life, very suddenly, can’t be confined to two distinct camps – good and evil, Light and Shadow, right and wrong – but instead allows in uncomfortably and previously unseen shades of gray?

In other words, change. Because what else can a book be about when a superhero has been stripped of her ubiquitous leather and weapons and masks, and indeed, her every available defense? Yes, I forced Joanna to give it all up, then I pushed her to keep going afterwards, and by God she did.

And because Joanna has changed irrevocably, I’m now scrambling to make sense of my next book. Mind, I don’t expect more recipes or any less bloodshed – as Cheat the Grave’s tag line says, old habits do die hard. But there’s grace, I think, in watching someone taking responsibility for their own part in a changing world, and peace can be found if they’re able to accept that world’s new shape. And if a superhero can’t manage it, I don’t know who can.


Cheat the Grave: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Follow Pettersson on Twitter. For a limited time the first book in the Signs of the Zodiac series, The Scent of Shadows, is available as a free electronic download. Read here for more information.

10 Comments on “The Big Idea: Vicki Pettersson”

  1. I really admire the guts it takes to “change” ones “hero” (and breadwinner) to a limit that she seems almost irrecognisable. Frankly to say I´m not that much into fantasy (unless you count Robert Asprin´s myth-sequel (and of course his Phule´s company is one of my all times favourites but sorry – SF), some early Conans from Lyon and of course Harry Potter – silent grin) but I will rethink this attitude after Mrs. Pettersons thoughts about her work. The part that touched me most, for I felt a deep truth in it was the below:

    “… In the real world, change blares into our lives via a headline: if it’s not a bailout, a bank fail, or an earthquake – it’s Greece. Or it visits our life in a phone call: if it’s not your mother, your kid, or your own bad decisions – it’s your good ones. Because every action, or inaction, ultimately finds a way to assert itself in your life. … ”

    and of course the shades of grey are the salt in the soup of life (for who would like to live on sweet, salty, bitter and sharp alone)

  2. So, which is worse:

    1) That I refuse, point-blank, under any circumstances, to purchase any book featuring a woman carrying a weapon and wearing a black midriff on the cover; or

    2) that that description covers what sometimes feels like 70% of what’s on the shelf right now at Barnes and Noble and Borders.

    So tired of “urban fantasy.”

  3. @MBL gotta agree with your two points. Still, it’s nice to see a series set in my abode. Strange as Vegas is, people tend to forget that real people live here (not that you find a lot of said folks in urban fantasy novels, of course).

  4. Pit, just to check your assumptions, she’s Ms. Pettersson, not Mrs. ;-)

    Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing Joanna discover a sparkly unicorn, because I’m quite certain that, Vicki, that you would not handle it in the manner of a My Little Pony.

    And, Coolstar, it is fun to have a series set here. What other town could you go grab a frozen yogurt and chat with a Ferengi on a cigarette break? (Well, not anymore, but I used to play poker with Elvis a lot.)

  5. Honestly, this series is weird. It’s not your typical ‘woman fights (and bangs) monsters’ type of urban fantasy, though. Trust me, I’ve read a brazillion of those. I picked up books 1 and 2 in an airport when I missed a flight. Book 1 was a little incoherent, mostly because the writing seemed a little rocky. Debut novel, maybe? I didn’t go farther than the second book because the writing didn’t improve noticeably.

    The premise is really neat, though. At its heart, I guess it’s a story about what makes you who you are. If it’s true that there’s straight up good and straight up evil, what happens when you’re half and half? Kind of reminds me of the way they tried to turn the Wraith human in SG:Atlantis. The turned Wraith looked human but their nature remained savage.

    Still, I read a great short story by this author awhile back that was set in this same universe. It made me decide to go back and read the rest of the series – which I promptly forgot. This is a good reminder.

    Also, regarding book covers? I’m so glad the Kindle just doesn’t do those. I get to judge by sample chapters, not a half-dressed little hookerpants on the front. I, too, am tired of that.

  6. That’s a pretty mean comment that you won’t buy the book based on the cover. Authors don’t have a choice in what their cover looks like.

    And so what if Urban Fantasy is hot right now? I would bet that more people read these days than ever before, thanks to the genres of paranormal and urban fantasy. Reading anything is better than reading nothing!

  7. Wow… Based on that interview, I’m even MORE excited to read this book!!! June 8 can’t come soon enough!! :-D

    Covers don’t really matter to me… but I do have to admit Nicole’s are very cool.

  8. I personally love this series!! Sure part of it is the booty kicking, super healing, weapon wielding superhero, but I think that the part of the story I like the best is the character’s self exploration. Her ability to adapt to even the most dire circumstances makes her great. I can’t wait to see what happens when the powers are stripped away and she still rises to the occasion. Keep up the zigs and zags Vicki they are very much appreciated!!! lkb

  9. It’s not that there is so much urban legend – there’s too may books glorifying vampires! Let’s face it, no one can duplicate Anne Rice’s books, althouh they keep trying. I suggest a different type of female hero – Harper Blaine in Kat Richardson’s series. (No, I’m not THAT Kat.) I do enjoy VP’s books however, along with J.R. Ward and Kim Harrison.

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