Alice Gunther

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Two new fantasy series place women with magical powers in the world of gladiatorial combat.

In Kill the Queen, the first installment of Jennifer Estep’s Crown of Shards series, Lady Everleigh Safira Winter Blair—equipped with a “mouthful of fancy names” and a nose full of mundane magic—is 17th in line for the throne of Bellona, a kingdom that keeps its combat close and its courtly mannerisms closer. Orphaned by assassins at a young age, Evie has been playing the dull game of palace diplomacy for most of her life, careful to stay on the safe side of her cruel cousin Vasilia, a gifted magic user and the daughter of the queen. This condition of peace is doomed from the first sentence, and Evie quickly finds herself on the run after Vasilia massacres the rest of the royal court. Tracking down a former palace guard who now runs a gladiatorial troupe, the untrained Evie slips into the ranks of the professional fighters, hiding her royal identity while secretly carrying evidence of her cousin’s deed.

Although “Game of Thrones” comparisons are inevitable, and an emphasis on combat fashion assures that The Hunger Games references won’t be far behind (Evie, costumed as a black swan for a death match: “Midnight-black makeup ringed my eyes in thick, heavy circles before fanning out into thin, delicate streaks that resembled shard-like feathers”), several memorable sections seem more indebted to the humbler fantasies of Gail Carson Levine. The opening scene, in which palace cook Isobel instructs Evie in the finer points of pie-making, calls to mind Ella’s friendship with the kitchen fairy Mandy in Ella Enchanted. While the action moves as swiftly as Vasilia’s magical lightning, the story benefits from the author’s decision to endow Evie with a less pyrotechnic skill set: a supernatural sense of smell (initially useful in the kitchen, it proves nothing to sneeze at in a world where so many goblets are poisoned) and a kind of antimagic which serves to defuse opponents rather than overpower them. Introducing a world where magical capacity is inherent and warrior skill is learned, Kill the Queen is a shiny, rapid-fire read for those who like their revenge served in two sittings.

While Kill the Queen embraces the dazzle of the knife’s edge as it builds to a climactic clash, Grace Draven’s earthier Phoenix Unbound proves immune to gladiatorial glam and more susceptible to romance. This first book in Draven’s The Fallen Empire series introduces Gilene, who uses her fire magic to serve as her village’s sacrificial victim in the Kraelian Empire’s ritual burning. Her ability to survive the ordeal, year after year, saves her peers from death but fails to protect her from the painful side effects of her powers or from routine violence at the hands of the Empire’s enslaved gladiators.

When the sympathetic gladiator Azarion sees through the magical illusion that Gilene uses to pull the deception, he harnesses her power as a means of escape and afterward takes her to his clan, where “fire witches” are revered, to bolster his claim to leadership. Rather than romanticize the power struggle between captor and captive, the story strikes an immediate balance between its male and female leads by making them equal victims of the larger power that places them at odds.

In Draven’s setting—more ancient and bleak than that of Kill the Queen—magic is a comparative rarity, which necessitates a stronger reliance on tactile skills. Gilene’s ability to summon fire is treated as a literal craft, an “ebb and flow of magic” that she “spool[s] . . . out slowly.” Both books keep the action coming and promise more to follow, but while Kill the Queen finds its fulfillment in arming an unimposing protagonist for battle, Phoenix Unbound seeks the softer side of characters who have been fighting all their lives. Despite its shorter page count, Phoenix Unbound feels longer than Kill the Queen, but its gradual quality is by design, and students of the slow-burn romance will likely wish for still more time in its campfire glow.

Two new fantasy series place women with magical powers in the world of gladiatorial combat.

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Reinvention and apprehension abound in two surreal new short story collections.

In the introduction to her new collection A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, Kat Howard declares her ambition to “hang a skin of myth on the skeleton of the strange.” If you’re inclined to overlook this phrase as a bit of airy lyricism, don’t. The bone first pokes through the mythical skin in “Translatio Corporis,” in which a young girl’s slow physical decline gives life and dimension to a city of her own creation. By “The Speaking Bone,” a meditation on an imagined island manned by bone-divining oracles, the physical structure and its mythic overlay are indistinguishable. Like the protagonist of another strange short story, Ray Bradbury’s “Skeleton,” Howard is obsessed with the human frame and returns to it again and again.

It’s a fitting motif for a writer as preoccupied by the construction of myth as by its content. “When I wrote my versions of these stories,” Howard writes, “I wanted to . . . break them out of the frames they had been displayed in.” The opening story, “A Life in Fictions,” gives the reader a taste of her intention, depicting a woman whose reality is profoundly altered when she becomes a recurring protagonist in her boyfriend’s writings. The fascinating novella “Once, Future,” published here for the first time, sees an English project turn sinister when college students find themselves helplessly reenacting the fall of King Arthur. (Fans of the short form may wonder if the knowing “Professor Link” heading the experiment is really veteran slipstream writer Kelly Link.) And “Returned,” which is more contemporary thriller than ancient epic, throws a wrench into the Eurydice myth by asking whether our heroine really wanted to be resurrected.

Howard’s myths are independent sallies, some mutually exclusive, not all effective. Her evocation of Catholic imagery sometimes seems as surface-level as a Sacred Heart on the wall of a tattoo parlor. (It’s at its best in “The Calendar of Saints,” which explores doubt by alluding to real hagiography.) Further, her attempts to shatter the frame of myth fail to contend with the fact that such subversion is a common frame in itself. The last story, fittingly titled “Breaking the Frame,” self-consciously describes a gallery of feminist reinterpretation (think Beauty holding the head of the Beast) that would be at home in any college art building. But if Howard’s ringing challenges aren’t always surprising, her more wholehearted investigations may drag you in their wake. The most moving tale in the collection, “All of Our Past Places,” keeps its myth at the edges, using fantastic cartography to explore the history of a longstanding friendship.

If Cathedral speaks for the adolescent rebelling against the prescriptions of its elders, Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds is decidedly grown-up, its wildest surrealism rife with parental anxiety. (The fetching abstraction of its translated title doesn’t quite capture the violent punch of the Spanish Pájaros en la boca, “Birds in the mouth”—a fitting header for a story detailing a father’s struggle to accept a teenaged daughter’s bizarre appetite.) In “Preserves,” a young couple discovers an unusual way to put an unplanned pregnancy on hold. No harm is done to the child, but the success of their trick can’t deliver them from the reeking guilt they feel at having played it. “On the Steppe” hits the opposite end of the adult terror spectrum, dealing with the pain of infertility by taking baby fever to feral extremes. Between these points lie a breathtaking range of misgivings and inadequacies, from a lethal mistake comprehended a heartbeat too late in the nightmarish “Butterflies” to a child’s misunderstanding of a broken marriage in “Santa Claus Sleeps at Our House” to a haunting reverberation of the Pied Piper in “Underground.”

Readers may relate to the hearer of the latter tale, who, abandoned without an ending, squints at the landscape, “searching for some revelatory detail.” Schweblin doesn’t offer that easy solution, preferring to dispense discomfort. Her art lies in setting up a problem and letting the reader sit with it. “The Size of Things” gets to the bitter heart of onlooker helplessness, and the title story is a particular highlight, asking (but not quite settling) the question of how far parental love can go.

Reinvention and apprehension abound in two surreal new short story collections.

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“Let me tell you how they break you,” says Dietz, a young soldier with a number of regrets, describing the grim reality behind a dream of military glory. “From the minute you step off the transport at the training base . . . you aren’t doing anything right. You don’t walk right, look right, talk right . . . No one likes you, let alone loves you. In great shape? It’s not enough. Smart? That’s worse.” Within a week, the victim of this treatment is fundamentally changed: “You yearn to kill, because it’s the only thing that gets your DI to love you. When you withhold all praise, people will do anything to get it. They’ll eat each other, if they need to.” For you English majors out there, the thrum of Alfred, Lord Tennyson in the title of Kameron Hurley’s latest is as intentional as you’d expect, but you may be more immediately reminded of his embittered successors Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. The characters, no older than the youths of WWI’s trenches, have ample material for a lifetime of shellshock before they’re out of basic training. Within three chapters they’re bonding over a bout of deadly illness caused by the medical treatments that the battlefield of the future demands. “When you’re running, shitting and vomiting,” Dietz notes wryly, “it puts you in touch with the fact that you’re just a bag of guts.”

The Light Brigade has the kind of gimmick memorable enough to stick in the mind after a glance at the jacket flap—at war with a terrorist colony on Mars, Earth has solved the problem of interstellar travel by transforming its soldiers into light, enabling them to “drop” from Earth to a distant planet at light speed. It would be easy to hang an entire novel on the strength of this conceit, with its blazing metaphorical resonances (“Nobody ever thinks they chose the wrong side,” says Dietz, on whom these are not lost. “We all think we’re made of light.”) and its attendant drawbacks, which would do Cronenberg proud (the human components sometimes reconfigure in the wrong order, and a dropper who remains intact still runs the risk of materializing underground or inside a solid structure). Instead, Hurley uses it as the starting point for an old-fashioned tale of time displacement. It becomes quickly apparent that for Dietz, the “drops” are happening in the wrong order, shuffling the young recruit all over the longer timeline of the war from one drop to the next. As complicated as this device may seem, it works because it remains fully in service to a story about war and its human cost. Dietz’s disorientation (how much time has really passed?) feels as much a reaction to the routine horror of combat as the confusion of an accidental time-traveler. The wider cast, though intriguing and full of individual quirks, never come through for the reader in the way Dietz does, with good reason. The isolation inherent to living out events in the wrong sequence forcibly evokes the isolation of active duty.

While Hurley leaves several character elements to be unwound with the story—blink and you’ll miss the fleeting mention of the protagonist’s gender—there is nothing coy about The Light Brigade. At times, the author’s bloody-minded determination to deliver the message (itself a strength; you can hear the frustration of the veteran, or maybe of the teenager) risks turning the story into a lecture, most noticeably in a subplot composed of transcribed conversations with a prisoner of war who monologues like a Bond villain. At its best, however, Hurley’s verb-laden first-person is as immediate and inescapable as a resounding sock in the jaw. At nearly 400 pages, The Light Brigade nonetheless goes down quickly, which is just as well—the nonlinear plot will have you calculating when to fit the reread in.

“Let me tell you how they break you,” says Dietz, a young soldier with a number of regrets, describing the grim reality behind a dream of military glory. “From the minute you step off the transport at the training base . . . you aren’t doing anything right. You don’t walk right, look right, talk right . . . No one likes you, let alone loves you. In great shape? It’s not enough. Smart? That’s worse.”

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In the kingdom of Virtudom, one of many territories featured in Samantha Shannon’s new high fantasy novel The Priory of the Orange Tree, a monarchy is necessary to keep evil at bay. According to the local faith, Sabran the Ninth—the latest in a long line of queens descended from a heroic figure called “The Saint”—is by her mere existence preventing a being called the Nameless One from reemerging. Sabran’s status among her people is goddess-like, but it comes at a price. With the Nameless One’s followers prophesying his return, she cannot waste a moment in finding a husband to conceive an heir. Into the closed-off recesses of her court drifts Ead Duryan, an enigmatic figure with forbidden magic up her sleeves. Ead is no friend of Sabran, but she has taken it upon herself to protect the queen at all costs.

For enthusiasts of the high fantasy epic, The Priory of the Orange Tree is the real deal, a book large enough to draw its own gravity, with maps in the front and a glossary at the back. But it ultimately derives most of its heft from the crossed motivations of its range of characters, from Sabran’s old friend Loth, caught in a deadly quest of his own, to Tané, an ambitious and obsessive would-be dragon-rider from the Eastern end of the world, which revers the creatures that the West fears.

Shannon frequents well-loved fantasy concepts but rarely leaves a familiar trope untampered with. Her dragons, honed to the setting they inhabit, are so specific in their biological quirks that it’s hard not to feel that you could do further research into your favorite species if you could only find the right field guide. Her prose is self-assured and light on its feet, maintaining a tightrope height without sacrificing the tension of its narrative or descending into the overwrought; her dawn doesn’t break, but “crack[s] like a heron’s egg,” causing “pale light [to] prowl . . . into the room.” Lay this one in as a companion for a lazy summer break or a weekend spent snowed in.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Samantha Shannon about The Priory of the Orange Tree.

In the kingdom of Virtudom, one of many territories featured in Samantha Shannon’s new high fantasy novel The Priory of the Orange Tree, a monarchy is necessary to keep evil at bay.

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“Just Another Day,” my favorite song from the Oingo Boingo album Dead Man’s Party, isn’t about death, but about the uncanny awareness of survival: “There’s life in the ground.” In his debut novel The Gutter Prayer, Irish game designer Gareth Hanrahan takes that sentiment to skin-crawling heights. The catacombs of his city of Guerdon contain two species of scavenger ready to fight over your corpse: the Ghouls (descended from cannibals, according to local mythology) and the Crawling Ones, sentient beings who are libraries unto themselves, each being formed from thousands of memory-preserving worms. Hanrahan claims to have written “more game books than he can readily recall,” and it’s hardly surprising: role players may find themselves desperate to know the stats for antagonists such as Ravellers—who convincingly ape humans by knitting themselves together from aspects of various victims—and Tallowmen, an alchemically-made police force who are half-human and half-melting candle wax. This won’t be a series for the weak of stomach, but Hanrahan’s writhing world manages the rare trick of being dismal without being dreary. It’s as lively and multifaceted as the maggot-infested underside of a dead raccoon.

If you’ve read your share of fantasy you already know the protagonist, a feisty urchin beset by powers she didn’t ask for and prophetic visions she can’t shake. More intriguing are her two companions, who each illustrate terminal illness: Spar, infected with a disease that is inexorably turning him to stone (the pricey medication he injects to keep it at bay can only forestall its progress), and Rat, a ravenous young ghoul (“young” being the operative word; mature ghouls are too far gone in their flesh-cravings to exhibit normal consciousness, lending a new urgency to the old fear of becoming like your parents). If these characters often seem like living inroads to the concepts they represent, the ideas are sufficiently rich to make a meal on their own, particularly given the surprising eloquence of their expression. A particular scene stopped me in my tracks by using a literary device to take Spar’s crisis from conjecture to direct experience on the part of the reader. I hope others will catch the same visceral chill I did. The old story of the untutored wunderkind coming into her own even gets some welcome heft through creative addition. To cut a complicated story short, the “gods” that selected her for their purposes are less abstract, and more oddly situated, than one might expect.

None of this mentions the story itself, which loosely involves the machinations of rival pantheons and more directly has to do with power struggles in Guerdon’s teeming underworld. At times this book can seem like a Crawling One, coming at you with more individual worms of information than you’ll know how to process. Yet its extreme extroversion of scope is tempered by an unusual introversion of style. The characters, and there are many, feel and experience the events around them far more often than they talk about them, and the erosive flow of Hanrahan’s prose is as lovingly crafted as his Lovecraftian setting. Spar’s futile medicine “digs away at the channels of his thought” like “pure rainwater washing away debris in a gutter,” and Rat’s heightened sense of smell shows us a world in which—from the saltwater tang that distinguishes sailors to the chemical smell of factory-soaked locals—“each person is shrouded in their past doings.” If the elaborate setup sometimes swallows up the storyline, it’s still an appropriate starting point for Hanrahan’s Black Iron Legacy series, and those in the market for a dense, disturbing and original entry in the crowded realm of high fantasy will have a hard time getting their minds out of The Gutter Prayer.

“Just Another Day,” my favorite song from the Oingo Boingo album Dead Man’s Party, isn’t about death, but about the uncanny sense of awareness: “There’s life in the ground.” In his debut novel The Gutter Prayer, Irish game designer Gareth Hanrahan takes that sentiment to skin-crawling heights.

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Early on in W. Michael Gear’s Abandoned, a newcomer to the planet Donovan marvels at the beauty of its alien forest: “He could have imagined nothing like it short of a VR holo fantasy come to life. The stuff of dreams and exotic special effects.” Unfortunately, Donovan—named for the first of many humans to die on its surface—bears less resemblance to James Cameron’s Pandora than to its mythological eponym, the holder of a box of unlimited horrors. Flesh-burrowing slugs, tentacled tree-dwelling “nightmares” and snakelike “sidewinders” are all constant threats to the lives of Donovan’s luckless colonizers.

This second installment of Gear’s Donovan series picks up where its predecessor Outpost left off, as Donovan’s settlers adjust to the presence of a group of stranded terrestrial officials who arrived to enforce order and found their means of return less reliable than expected. Talina Perez, the unofficial leader of the settlers, continues to grapple with the mental presence of “her quetzal,” a raptor-like creature whose psychic ghost has haunted her ever since she killed it. Kalico Aguila, the once-unflappable supervisor of the newcomers, longs for her former rank in the totalitarian Earth she left behind, even as she finds herself growing strangely comfortable in her new surroundings. Unbeknownst to either of them, Mark Talbot, a marine lost in Donovan’s lethal wilderness, finds a small community of Donovanians living far from the epicenter, who may have found a way to work with their deadly environment rather than against it.

Gear alternates between these and other threads with flipbook swiftness, successfully maintaining the atmosphere of casual horror that characterized Outpost. (The settlers’ vocabulary for the threats that surround them recalls the Southern U.S. with its slangy deadpan: “gotcha vines” are scarier than they sound.) At the same time, he introduces a new wrinkle to the situation by asking whether the creatures of Donovan are thinkers as well as devourers. Starved summer-action movie enthusiasts would do well to start at the beginning, but established fans of Outpost will find a satisfying expansion of Gear’s perilous universe.

Early on in W. Michael Gear’s Abandoned, a newcomer to the planet Donovan marvels at the beauty of its alien forest: “He could have imagined nothing like it short of a VR holo fantasy come to life. The stuff of dreams and exotic special effects.” Unfortunately, Donovan—named for the first of many humans to die on its surface—bears less resemblance to James Cameron’s Pandora than to its mythological eponym, the holder of a box of unlimited horrors.

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Best known for zombie-apocalypse thriller The Girl With All the Gifts, M.R. Carey explores a subtler infestation in Someone Like Me, juxtaposing two troubled women whose coping mechanisms have taken on lives of their own. When Liz Kendall is assaulted by her abusive ex-husband, her body retaliates violently without her input, her hand operating “like a glove on someone else’s hand.” “She hadn’t willed this; she had only watched it, her nervous system dragged along in the wake of decisions made (instantly, enthusiastically) elsewhere.” Liz’s therapist speculates that, finding her life in danger, she created an alter ego to handle a task too repellant for the conscious Liz to touch. But once evoked, this restless new iteration of Liz—who appears to have arrived with an agenda of her own—is not so easily dispelled.

Meanwhile, 16-year-old Fran Watts suffers from hallucinatory episodes in the wake of a childhood trauma and draws comfort from the protective presence of “Lady Jinx,” a sword-wielding cartoon character from her favorite TV show. (Fran is conscious of Jinx’s unreality but regards her as a “cherished symptom.” “Maybe you’re my symptom,” the vision counters airily.) Part of the fun of both storylines is the question of whether these psychological visitations represent a real supernatural manifestation, and Carey is careful not to tip either hand too early in the game. (In a Stephen King-esque touch, he also cannily inserts smaller, odder questions to maintain our investment: why, Fran wonders, does her imagined companion have a speech impediment that the televised Jinx does not?)

At its bloodiest and most baleful, Someone Like Me can’t quite work up the Gone Girl level of feminist shock it aims for—the bent of its storyline forces goodhearted single mother Liz to remain frustratingly disassociated from her vengeful double “Beth”—but its human-focused horror should be a draw for the “Stranger Things” crowd. The unfolding friendship between Liz’s teenaged son Zac and the outcast Fran invites a similar sympathy for the freaks and loners of the world, and it’s not hard to imagine the hag-ridden Liz played by Winona Ryder. Before you start casting the Netflix adaptation, however, appreciate the features baked into the literary format, such as the changing icons in the chapter headings that hint at whose perspective is coming next. Just as The Girl With All the Gifts reengineered the zombie pandemic, Someone Like Me plumbs familiar horror premises to find a few new ingredients for the old Hyde formula.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with M.R. Carey.

Best known for zombie-apocalypse thriller The Girl with All the Gifts, M.R. Carey explores a subtler infestation in Someone Like Me, juxtaposing two troubled women whose coping mechanisms have taken on lives of their own.

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M.R. Carey has left the zombie apocalypse world of his novel The Girl With All the Gifts in favor of modern-day Pittsburgh, where battered mother Liz Kendall may or may not be having a breakdown. Her latest encounter with her abusive ex-husband ends in shocking violence, enacted by her hands—but not by her mind. In the heat of the moment, another personality seems to take control of Liz’s body and physically repel her ex-husband. So far, so good. But this other self, whom Liz starts to call “Beth,” isn’t satisfied with just protecting Liz and her teenage son from harm. “Beth” likes hurting people, she likes intimidating them and she wants more. As Liz tries to figure out whether she’s experiencing a mental break or something paranormal is occurring, Carey explores mental illness, female rage and the mystery of the mind’s inner workings in Someone Like Me.

Your best-known work might be your zombie novel The Girl With All the Gifts—in fact, your most recent book was its prequel The Boy on the Bridge, which you published last year. What keeps you coming back to the theme of mental takeover—in this case, by an alternate personality instead of a zombie parasite?
It’s a powerful source of existential horror for me. I’m a lot more afraid of loss of agency than I am of most physical threats—and since a lot of my work has horror elements, I find myself visiting those fears quite a lot when I’m thinking about possible stories.

Having said that, I think Someone Like Me is a long way, thematically, from The Girl With All the Gifts. In Girl, Melanie was threatened by a part of her own nature that she didn’t perfectly understand—and the whole thrust of the story was about her accepting what she is and coming to terms with it. Liz Kendall, in Someone Like Me, is in a very different situation and has a different journey to go on. The monster she’s facing is . . . well, it’s not a part of her in the same way that Melanie’s hunger is. It’s more like a dormant possibility, that suddenly becomes less dormant. You’re right, though, that the threat presents in a similar way in the two stories. I hadn’t realized I went to that well so often!

Mental illness, particularly as a response to trauma, plays an essential role in this story. How much research did you do on real-life conditions resembling those displayed by these characters, and did you learn anything surprising in the process?
Without getting into spoiler territory, some of the mental health issues were more relevant to the story’s resolution than others. I did a lot of reading, on both childhood psychosis and dissociative disorders. Less on post-traumatic stress, where I had some personal experience to draw on. I also used my own therapist as a resource. He worked in clinical psychiatry for almost a decade before he moved into behavioral therapy, and he turned out to be invaluable.

I was relieved but not surprised to discover that a diagnosis of a psychotic condition in a child is handled with extreme caution. To take the obvious point, it’s so much harder to draw a clear dividing line between healthy imaginative play and delusional symptoms. Adults draw the line for you, having learned to keep their imaginative lives mostly private. So the range of diagnoses that Fran receives in the novel, which Dr. Southern describes as like throwing darts at a textbook, would actually be an attempt to keep all clinical options open for as long as possible, rather than rushing to judgement and making her problems worse.

Where dissociative identity disorder is concerned, I was a little surprised to discover how much disagreement there still is about its origins and its status. But only a little. I suppose the idea of repressed memories, on which the diagnosis of DID often depends, has become something of a minefield in itself. And M. Night Shyamalan’s sensationalistic handling of the condition in Split probably did more harm than good in some ways. One alter having diabetes when the rest don’t? No. That’s not a mental illness, that’s a miracle.

I’m inclined to hold with the theory that sees all psychological traits as existing on a spectrum, so the dividing line between what we think of as normal and what we label as pathological isn’t actually a line at all, but a broad spectrum. We never see our own mental health issues, but we’re quick to work up taxonomies for everybody else’s. People are complicated. And fragile.

The fictional animated series “Knights of the Woodland Table,” from which Fran derives her imaginary friend Lady Jinx, sounds like something I would have loved to watch growing up. What inspired you to use a cartoon in this manner? Did you have any real-life animated influence in mind?
I was thinking of the Studio Ghibli movies, many of which feature magical transformations. When I imagine Jinx, she’s very much an anime fox, hyper-stylised but still very graceful and beautiful, like the animals and nature spirits in Princess Mononoke or Haku the dragon boy in Spirited Away.

It’s amazing how children incorporate their favourite stories into their own imaginative lives. My own kids played endless let’s-pretend games involving characters from many different media franchises, much as Molly does in the novel. Mash-up games. Children’s entire lives are a mash-up, until around the age of seven or eight. Fran’s appropriation of Lady Jinx is a more extreme example of the same thing—taking something that means a lot to you, an imaginative focus, and rebuilding it around your own needs.

The key players in The Girl with All the Gifts and Fellside are female, and Someone Like Me follows suit, splitting its narrative between a divorced mother of two and a 16-year-old girl. What moves you to focus on female characters? Have you ever dealt with criticism of your ability to channel this perspective (like Stephen King, who began Carrie in a fit of pique after his editor told him that he couldn’t write women)?
I don’t have a good answer to this question. I can talk about the how of it, but not the why.

Immediately before I wrote The Girl With All the Gifts, I collaborated on two novels with my wife, Linda, and our daughter Louise. They were a big departure for me. I’d co-written comic books, but not novels. A novel is a commitment on a different scale. It demands a lot of brainstorming, a lot of arguing things out and blocking things out and experimenting with style and voice. Anyway, I came out of that process in a different place, creatively. The Girl With All the Gifts was the first result, and I was very happy with it.

Since then, as you say, I’ve mostly written stories with female protagonists—although the novel that follows Someone Like Me has a male narrator. It’s mostly not a conscious decision, or at least it’s not a decision that arrives in a way that’s separable from the story idea. I come up with a premise, and the premise quickly knits itself together into a sense of the story. The characters come into focus bit by bit as I noodle with the idea. Just lately, when I can see them clearly they mostly turn out to be women—whereas back when I was writing Lucifer and Castor they were more often men.

Nobody’s told me yet that I can’t or shouldn’t do this. In fact, some reviewers of The Girl With All the Gifts assumed that M.R. Carey was a woman rather than a man. I was very proud of that.

Someone Like Me is so casually American in its atmosphere and tone that the reader could be forgiven for forgetting that you are a British author. What made you decide to set a novel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and were there any challenges involved in conveying the setting accurately?
We have very good friends in Pittsburgh, and we’ve visited them there on numerous occasions, so I had a reasonable level of background knowledge of the city and the area.

But “Why America?” is the question that comes first. The answer is that it felt to me like a story that made more sense in America. Some of Liz’s predicament arises from the fact that she has lousy health insurance, which isn’t a thing in Britain—or at least not in the same way. And dissociative identity disorder, similarly, is in some respects an American artefact. Or at least it’s perceived as one. I’m aware that this is contested, but a large percentage both of the diagnoses and of the literature on the condition come from the USA. So locating Liz in America seemed appropriate and useful to the story. It seemed like a fitting place for it to play out.

And then once I’d made that decision, all sorts of serendipitous things dropped into my lap. Things relating to the history and geography of the city, I mean. Researching the settings was really enjoyable and exciting.

Anger—particularly women’s anger—is a very hot topic at the moment, and in many ways Someone Like Me is an exploration of the pros and cons of rage. Whereas Liz’s passivity puts her life at risk, Beth’s unrestrained fury is a blunt-force weapon that endangers her and her loved ones as often as it protects them. What role do you think anger plays in the life of a healthy person?
I think it’s both useful and dangerous. There are times when anger is the only sane response to a situation, but even then it’s very much a question of what you do with it and how you channel it. It’s volatile and dangerous stuff, as we’re seeing in political and cultural forums at the moment. I used to fly off the handle really easily when I was younger, but I always felt terrible afterwards. I suffered from a kind of emotional hangover of shame and self-disgust. These days I lock myself down more tightly, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I know the conventional wisdom is that you shouldn’t repress emotion, but you have to be aware that when you let it out, there are going to be consequences.

Right now I look around me and anger is pretty much all I see. Most of it is inexplicable to me. People seem to be experiencing emotional earthquakes about very trivial things. We now know that some of these earthquakes are deliberately stoked by Russian bots and hackers, but still. What are you doing with your life if developments in a movie cycle or TV series reduce you to incoherent rage? If anger and the expression of anger become the cornerstone of your social identity?

Yeah, the more I think about it, the more I’m in favour of bottling it up.

You were a comic book writer long before you became a novelist, and you wrote the screenplay for The Girl with All the Gifts while you were writing the book. Do you see Someone Like Me having a life in another medium?
It’s funny you should ask! The rights have already been optioned, by Hillbilly Films, and I’m in the process of adapting the novel into a TV miniseries. It’s been a really exhilarating process so far, and we all seem to be on the same page as to how the story should be structured. Inevitably the TV version would be different from the book, but the changes we’re making feel organic and positive. It’s enormously exciting to discuss how Lady Jinx would be rendered in a live action drama, and how we might go about dramatizing Liz’s interactions with Beth during the various stages of their relationship. That’s always part of the challenge, of course—pinpointing the things that have to change, in crossing to another medium, and finding ways to preserve the things that are essential. As far as that goes, working in comics has honed my instincts for visual storytelling in some really useful ways.

You work with a number of perspectives in this book. Which was your favorite to write?
Probably Fran’s. It’s strange how it came to be her story at least as much as it was Liz’s. She wasn’t even in the original pitch. She came along afterwards, when I was thinking about how Liz’s crisis would spill out to affect the people around her. I thought how good it would be, potentially, to repeat some of the same ideas in a different key. And there, very suddenly, was Fran. And Fran brought Jinx with her, and that was that.

What I relished more than anything in writing her was allowing her amazing strength and courage to be revealed slowly. When we first meet her, she’s folded herself into this very small space just to survive—and then when she needs to she unfolds and stands up tall, and you realise how much more there is to her. That’s the effect I was aiming for, anyway.

Incidentally, this was another big change that came in around about the same time that I started to focus on female protagonists. I made the shift from single point of view to multiple, and I’ve never looked back. I love the freedom and flexibility you get from being able to light up your story from any angle you want.

And yet, now I think of it—the next novel, the one that has the male narrator, also goes back to a single point of view. The story tells you how it wants to be told, in some ways. If you’re lucky.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Someone Like Me.

Author photo © Charlie Hopkinson.

M.R. Carey has left the zombie apocalypse world of his novel The Girl With All the Gifts in favor of modern-day Pittsburgh, where battered mother Liz Kendall may or may not be having a breakdown.

Interview by

An 848-page fantasy novel is a daunting task for any writer. But an 848-page standalone novel, completed in the middle of another bestselling series? Preposterous. Which simply makes Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree even more astonishing. Written in between installments of her extremely popular Bone Season novels, Priory is a wonderfully complex, female-driven fantasy novel with dragons, ancient evils and just the right amount of political intrigue. We talked to Shannon about reimagining mythical creatures, which of her fictional worlds she’d like to live in and what prompted her shift into high fantasy.

Your latest book has the kind of heft and scope that seems to demand a secluded week or two from the reader, but that’s nothing compared to the undertaking of writing. How many years did The Priory of the Orange Tree take to complete?
Over three years—April 2015 to June 2018.

What inspired you to take on high fantasy? Who are some of your creative influences in the genre?
I wanted to write a book that explored some of the history of our world—particularly the 16th and 17th centuries—but also to incorporate myth and legend, and to have the freedom to create my own countries and events. Epic fantasy was the best genre for that. Most of my influences for this book were historical (e.g. The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, various versions of Saint George and the Dragon, the Nihongi and the Kojiki), but some of the authors I admire within speculative fiction are N.K. Jemisin, Zen Cho, George R.R. Martin, J.R.R. Tolkien and Laini Taylor.

You give a great deal of care and attention, not only to the characters, but to the creatures they encounter, embellishing common fantasy animals with your own zoological quirks. Which was your favorite to reimagine?
The ichneumon! They’re mentioned in literature of old—sometimes under the name echinemon—as the enemy of the dragon or serpent. In Priory, they’re huge, loyal, mongoose-like animals that have teamed up with human mages to fight wyrms. They have powerful jaws with teeth that can pierce scale, and their bones can be used to fashion weapons.

You’ve been hard at work on The Bone Season and its sequels for years. What made you take a detour from that series to create an entirely new world?
I started The Priory of the Orange Tree during an interlude in the Bone Season series, where my editor had the manuscript of The Song Rising for quite a while and I was unable to start work on the next installment. Since I’m a full-time author and needed to occupy myself while I waited for notes, I decided it would be the perfect time to start writing a re-imagining of the legend of Saint George and the Dragon.

You veer between a number of characters in this story. Which of the voices or perspectives came to you most naturally? Which was the most rewarding to work with?
Tané was the first of the four perspective characters to step into my head. Out of all of them, she’s most like me—an anxious workaholic with imposter syndrome. Ead and Niclays came next, and finally, Loth. I loved taking each of them through their arcs and unpicking their various backstories, but Ead was the most rewarding to write overall. She’s shrewd, brave and certain of her beliefs, with a bit of a dry sense of humour, and her story is bursting with court intrigue and ancient secrets. Ead is also the character whose story is most connected to the title.

If you could live in one of the civilizations you invented for this book, which one would it be?
Tough one, but probably Seiiki. It’s a beautiful country—a mountainous island of deep forests and black sands, surrounded by the limpid green-blue waters of the Sundance Sea, where glowing dragons roam the skies and swim beneath the waves. It’s also home to the calendar trees, which bear different coloured flowers every season.

Do you plan to write any more books or stories set in this universe?
I would love to, yes. The world of Priory has more tales to tell . . .

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Priory of the Orange Tree.

Author photo credit Louise Haywood-Schiefer.

An 848-page fantasy novel is a daunting task for any writer. But an 848-page standalone novel, completed in the middle of another bestselling series? Preposterous. Which simply makes Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree even more astonishing.

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