Stephanie Cohen-Perez

The trope of a doe-eyed, innocent waif wandering a spectacular wonderland is well-worn by authors of classic fantasy and science fiction, but the magic that Silvia Moreno-Garcia weaves in her 1920s-set historical fantasy, Gods of Jade and Shadow, immerses the reader in a fairy tale like no other. The author of Signal to Noise and The Beautiful Ones is known for celebrating remarkable heroines of Mexican heritage, and her protagonist Casiopea Tun certainly does not disappoint.

Casiopea is a star-crossed Cenicienta who refuses to let fate, mysticism, prophecies and other such rubbish dictate her life. Scorned and neglected by her wealthy family because of her supposedly bastard heritage,  she opts for curiosity and wit over lashing out against her cantankerous grandfather, Cirilo Leyva, and dangerously spoiled cousin, Martín. When the imaginative Casiopea opens a mysterious locked chest in Cirilo’s bedroom à la Pandora, she unleashes the bones of one of the gods of the underworld: the stoic and dryly humorous Hun-Kamé, former (and self-titled “rightful”) Lord of Xibalba.

After learning that she is inextricably bound to Hun-Kamé until he is able to defeat his treacherous brother, Vucub-Kamé, and that she and Martín will play important roles in the battle for the crown, the simultaneously sheltered and exploited Casiopea embarks on a cross-country, darkly whimsical adventure to both restore Hun-Kamé to the throne and regain her independence. Casiopea is not a damsel in distress, but rather a young woman coming of age in a time where music, myth, art and exploration thrum colorfully around her, and her affinity for poetry and storytelling, gleaned from her deceased father, keeps her motivated and hopeful.

Casiopea explores what it means to live on the fringe—she is neither Tun nor Leyva, of Middleworld nor Xibalba, country girl nor flapper of Mexico City’s Jazz Age renaissance—while learning about love and loss, grief and greed, strength and perseverance. Unlike her namesake in Greek mythology, she is far from vain, possessing instead resourcefulness and a willingness to sacrifice for the well-being of others. Casiopea encounters demons, succubi, monsters and sorcerers along the way, from Tierra Blanca to the Black Road—settings that glimmer like the Mayan obsidian and jade that the gods are so fond of. The book also includes bleak but nonetheless vivid depictions of Xibalba itself, a nightmarish hellscape home to dangerous, but wondrous, beings.

Readers will be floored by Moreno-Garcia’s painstaking attention to detail. Her descriptions of the emotionally charged interactions between realistic human characters and otherworldly gods, witches and demonic forces are unforgettable, as are as the fairy-tale and folktale aspects of the plot. As Hun-Kamé and Casiopea grow closer, physically and psychologically, the two experience and share what it truly means to live—and die. When Casiopea enters her new life, she is assured that “’Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.”

The trope of a doe-eyed, innocent waif wandering a spectacular wonderland is well-worn by authors of classic fantasy and science fiction, but the magic that Silvia Moreno-Garcia weaves in Gods of Jade and Shadow immerses the reader in a fairy tale like no other.

C.A. Fletcher’s heart- and gut-wrenching tale of a post-apocalyptic world is a minimalistic take on dystopic science fiction, set in a lush, ruggedly overgrown landscape rather than an entirely barren wasteland devoid of hope or comfort. The humans (and their beloved dogs) who remain are willingly isolated and to a point, content to be unaware of what is going on in the modern world. But curious teenage Griz desires more than the complacent existence in the After—what is beyond Griz’s family’s island dwelling? What’s on the Mainland? And most mysteriously, what happened to all of the dogs from before the Gelding, in which human fertility ceased, and the subsequent “soft apocalypse”?

In A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, Fletcher shows readers that even the softest of apocalypses contain an immense and unforeseeable amount of heartache and loss. This is survivalist science fiction at its rawest, a reminder that when the world as humans know it crumbles, so do their way of life, their laws, their traditions and their priorities. When the mysterious and slightly off-putting stranger Brand arrives on Griz’s island in a boat with foreboding red sails, we feel as naïve, hopeful and dewy-eyed as the imaginative teen. Soon, Griz listens to Brand’s tales of distant lands, diverse peoples and the last few loyal canine heroes in existence. But like his aptly-named dog companion, the cunning Saga, Brand is soon revealed to be a weaver of tall tales and an ill-intentioned “trader” who brings cruelty and deceit from the Mainland into Griz’s home. When Brand drugs Griz’s family and commandeers their supplies, and even one of Griz’s beloved dogs, Jess, Griz has no choice but to follow him into uncharted waters and face whatever challenges may arise.

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World takes a memorable journey of loyalty and love and transforms it into an unraveling mystery of self-discovery and exploration. The threadbare but essential cast includes Griz, determined teen rescuer; Jip, faithful canine companion and brother to Jess; Griz’s well-intentioned but protective father, Abe; Griz’s mentally-absent Mum; and Brand, sly manipulator of words, emotions and entire lives. From the moment that Brand steals Griz’s resources, the safety of the family and Jess, Griz is thrust into the animalistic nature of post-apocalyptic humans and wild canine foes, and their cruelty as described by Fletcher resonates with some very important contemporary concerns. But never fear—Fletcher promises on the back jacket that no dogs will be harmed in the novel.

Fueled by a fierce loyalty to one’s pack and the newfound fire of vengeance, Griz and Jip embark on their rescue mission, trailing Brand through treacherous and eerie lands, experience a return to humanity at its most primitive, something that Griz once joked about (“going a’viking” for resources and scavenged materials). Along the way, they encounter friends and foes alike—the rigid and sailor-mouthed “John Dark,” a battle-weary French woman, a cult of Before traditionalists known as the Conservators (or “Cons”), the mysterious Freemen, and, inevitably, the scoundrel Brand. Like the family's canine friends, Griz must rely on the basest of animal instincts to decide who to trust and when to flee or fight back.

Young Griz is an endearing narrator, whose humanity transcends the gloom and doom of Fletcher’s world. Though Griz changes to reflect the evil, anger, destruction and deception in the world, he notices things that bring joy in their own dilapidated, creepy ways—ruins of museums, cozy abandoned homes, fossils of books and music—and his mature worldview, despite his age, is refreshing and reassuring. Griz’s intrinsic connection to and empathy toward Jess and Jip, especially the way they conversationally speak to the dogs and treat them like family, is particularly lovable. Griz must resist succumbing to his own revenge fantasy, and questions if the right species survived, or if the monsters of the apocalypse really are all extinct. Griz’s mission reminds us that life should be appreciated and treasured in the moment. This is the story of trust and loyalty within a family, and finding your own pack—even if they’re different from the pack you were born into.

C.A. Fletcher’s heart- and gut-wrenching tale of a post-apocalyptic world is a minimalistic take on dystopic science fiction, set in a lush, ruggedly overgrown landscape rather than an entirely barren wasteland devoid of hope or comfort. The humans (and their beloved dogs) who remain are willingly isolated and to a point, content to be unaware of what is going on in the modern world.

May McGoldrick (author duo and real-life couple Nikoo and Jim McGoldrick) gifts readers with a passionate, fast paced romance in Highland Crown, leaving satisfied but not fully sated readers ready for the next installment in the series.

History buffs will revel in the author’s expert geographical and historical knowledge, and romance fans will delight in the ever-present sexual and emotional tension between the protagonists. Doctor Isabella Drummond, née Murray, is a well-traveled, no-nonsense but kindhearted widow with unmatched medical prowess, her very existence an anomaly in both place and time. Beginning with the shipwreck of the novel’s namesake, the Highland Crown, upon the shores of Duff Head in the northeast Highlands, readers are immediately plunged into a fairy tale with a somewhat-familiar twist—in the vein of Hans Christian Andersen, there is indeed a human treasure from the wreck waiting to be saved on the beach—but the rescuer is none other than fierce Doctor Drummond herself, and her prize is a bedraggled, wounded seaman, Captain Cinead Mackintosh, who harbors a secretive past.

Isabella is immediately captivated by the stranger’s looks, but once they spend more time together and bond over life-or-death incidents, she finds herself drawn by the siren call of his confidence, warm demeanor and loyalty to protect those he loves. But questions eat away at her mind. Why did he destroy the cargo of his own beloved ship as she sank? Can they truly trust his relatives, Searc Mackintosh and Laird Lachlan? Can she even trust Cinead himself?

As lovable supporting character Auld Jean repeatedly chants, “The sea is a harsh mistress… [she] takes and [she] provides.” As both British soldiers and Scottish rebels pursue her, for the crime of alleged treason she hasn’t committed and the information she has been exposed to, Isabella soon loses sight of those she loves, but gains the mysterious and handsome Captain Mackintosh and his earnest promise to lay down his life for her in reciprocation for saving him. Together they must face vengeful British soldiers, angry Highland villagers and suspicious clan members to protect Maisie and Morrigan, Isabella’s sister and stepdaughter. McGoldrick expertly weaves true-to-life historical elements with the contemporary desire for numerous twists and turns on every page of Highland Crown. And in a fun, metafictional twist, each chapter opens with lines from the writings of a fictionalized Sir Walter Scott, a posthumous but nonetheless important supporting character in the plot.

McGoldrick has bestowed upon readers a feel-good whirlwind romance between two intelligent, driven individuals that is less about the complications of a new relationship and more about celebrating a partnership. Highland Crown also explores themes of self-discovery and the quest for happiness, as its main couple works together to pursue what is right for their loved ones, their country and their relationship.

May McGoldrick (author duo and real-life couple Nikoo and Jim McGoldrick) gifts readers with a passionate, fast-paced romance in Highland Crown, leaving satisfied but not fully sated readers ready for the next installment in the series.

Alyssa Cole returns to the 19th century in An Unconditional Freedom, the third and final installment of her Loyal League series, which follows an unconventional interracial romance that blooms during the dangerous peak of the Civil War.

Wealthy and sheltered Cuban Janeta Sanchez is forever self-conscious about having grown up in a “grey” category of society. Quite literally neither black nor white, her mixed heritage is seen as beautifully and dangerously exotic to the white Americans around her. To her confusion, her Latinx heritage is simultaneously praised for the stereotypical ideas of its attractiveness and passion by men who would harm her and denounced by loved ones and family members as being an unlucky and shameful target for hateful people. It is only when Janeta is forced to join the Loyal League as a double agent to save her beloved Papi that she realizes she may have been misled about the righteousness of the Confederate cause all along and has possibly aided some very treacherous individuals through her decisions.

Soon Janeta finds herself in the fray alongside the educated, handsome Daniel Cumberland, a recently liberated man who, although born free, was kidnapped and forced into a brief period of slavery. This traumatic experience has resulted in tremendous levels of mistrust, prejudice and apathy. Haunted by a plethora of “what-ifs” about his childhood love, Loyal League agent Elle Burns, and the fact that Elle’s white husband helped him regain his freedom, Daniel is reluctant to share any sort of sentiment or affection with Janeta, but their physical magnetism and connection over being outcasts soon bonds them.

After being betrayed by her manipulative “lover” (and Confederate conspirator) Henry and having to constantly avoid the lecherous advances of both Yanqui and Rebel soldiers, the last thing on Janeta’s mind is pursuing a new romance. Similarly, Daniel’s emotional and psychological baggage, as well as his suspicions that Janeta is harboring an important secret, leaves him wary of the alluring new recruit he’s been assigned to mentor. But Janeta and Daniel find themselves gravitating toward each other, and soon their bond reveals itself to be more than just physical attraction. As the pair begin to work together to track down Jefferson Davis and put a stop to slavery across the South, Janeta must question who she is doing this for, calling into question her true identity and her ever-growing attraction to the gruff, intelligent and fiercely loyal Daniel. Similarly, Daniel must decide whether to open his heart to Janeta and risk rejection, or keep his walls up and risk betrayal as the war rages on around them.

An Unconditional Freedom seamlessly melds historical fiction with a titillating tale of espionage, all the while remaining true to the expectations of the setting and building strong, vivid characters that will have readers rooting for them after just a few chapters.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Alyssa Cole about An Unconditional Freedom.

Alyssa Cole returns to the 19th century in An Unconditional Freedom, the third and final installment of her Loyal League series, which follows an unconventional interracial romance that blooms during the dangerous peak of the Civil War.

Alyssa Cole’s acclaimed, groundbreaking Loyal League series is among the very best the romance genre has to offer. It’s only fitting that the final installment, An Unconditional Freedom, continues that literary excellence with a complicated, sweeping love story. Daniel Cumberland, a free black man who was kidnapped and enslaved, has haunted both of the series’ previous novels. After being liberated by his first love, Elle Burns, and her husband Malcolm, Daniel joins the Loyal League in search of revenge. Janeta Sanchez is forced to join the same group—but as a double agent. Her father has been imprisoned, and her Confederate lover pressures her to help the cause in order to save her family. When Janeta and Daniel are paired together for a dangerous mission, they must face down their respective secrets and trauma in order to have a chance at happiness with each other. We talked to Cole about the real-life figures that inspired both Janeta and Daniel, the psychological effects of slavery and what comes next.

Was there a real-life inspiration behind the character of Daniel Cumberland?
He was partially inspired by Solomon Northup, of Twelve Years a Slave fame, and the fact that the psychological effects of brutal enslavement are often overlooked or downplayed. Like, “And then they were free!” But what then?

When you first started writing, did you ever see yourself penning a novel set in this particular era?
Not at all, but when the idea for An Extraordinary Union came to me, I had to write it, even if it didn’t lead to anything!

What is your favorite genre to read? What drew you to write in the romance genre?
Romance of course, which is the best because it’s basically every kind of genre fiction but with a happy ending. Knowing that everything will work out in the end, and seeing how the author makes me think it won’t work in the end, is my favorite kind of reading experience. I also read comics/graphic novels, YA and a little of everything else.

Your prolific book list includes a range of geographic areas and times. What eras have you not yet covered in your novels that you would like to travel to through your fiction?
If you can think of an era, I have a story I want to set in it, lol. What I’ll have time to write is the main issue.

The juxtaposition of Janeta Sanchez and Daniel Cumberland goes beyond their differing attitudes and missions, but Janeta eventually realizes that in certain areas during this time, she is lumped into the same category as other people of color and inevitably endangered. In your research, what did you unearth about Latinx peoples who traveled to America at this time? Were any of their stories the inspiration for Janeta?
Janeta was very loosely inspired by Loreta Janeta Velaquez, a Cuban spy for the Confederacy—who was proud to support them. She was a very different person than my Janeta, who is biracial and was sheltered and cut off from her African heritage, and who eventually finds a cause she believes in—the Union. There were Cubans who fought for both sides during the war.

It’s clear that Daniel’s mental health has understandably deteriorated after being enslaved, and he has symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Janeta’s flashbacks and thoughts center around situations that border on assault and inappropriate conduct as well, and it’s a known fact that rape and violence were ever-present during this time. How important do you feel talking about mental health is for romance authors and authors in general, regardless of the time period they write in? The mental health of female characters, in particular?
I think it’s important, but not necessary in every book. I address mental health in some way in many of my books, but not every story has to touch on it. It depends on the characters and their situations, and what readers might need from that story.

Speaking of different types of trauma, Janeta often reflects on her difficult family life, and her taxing relationship with her loved ones. Do you think she ever reunites with her Papi? Or has she moved on, and become a Sanchez in her own right by pursuing her own goals?
I think she’d see her father at some point if she could; most people find it very hard to just cut off their parents. I do think she would be building her own family with Daniel and her fellow detectives though.

Janeta and Daniel’s bond with Moses is particularly endearing. Does he join their little family? What’s next for Janeta and Daniel?
Moses is eventually reunited with his parents, at the end of the war. ☺

What’s next for you and your writing? For this series?
I’m currently working on a fun sci-fi romance for Audible, a couple of secret projects, and then the Runaway Royals, a spin off of the Reluctant Royals series (contemporary romantic comedy). This is the end of the Loyal League series, for now at least!


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of An Unconditional Freedom.

We talked to Alyssa Cole about the real-life figures that inspired her latest historical romance couple, the psychological effects of slavery and what comes next.

The hype for Tamsyn Muir’s debut, Gideon the Ninth, started early. (Look at that cover. Enough said.) Now that Gideon has made her blood-spattered, metal as all hell debut, we talked to Muir about necromancy, the surprising influence of boarding school stories and what comes next.

Did any real-life muses who inspired the characters of Gideon Nav and Harrowhark Nonagesimus? Your characters are composed of such complex layers that I have to wonder if you encountered some real-life magical swordswomen in your travels.
God, I wish! No, Gideon and Harrow are not real people, except I guess in that every character an author writes is to some extent built from bits of people she’s met. I do think Gideon, more than Harrow, shares some rudimentary DNA with people I have known: my swords adviser for the book in particular, who I know thankfully finds that a compliment rather than anything else. They’re not even particularly me, although each of them shares a couple of my bad habits. Gideon’s love of dick jokes is, sorry to say, inherited from her creator, and Harrow has picked up one or two quirks that won’t really become apparent until book two.

“The problem with necromancy (I mean, there’s a lot of problems with necromancy, but).”

What is your favorite genre to read? What drew you to write a book that encompasses the genres of dark fantasy and space opera?
Early 20th-century girls’ boarding school stories. This isn’t a joke. When I am left entirely to my own devices, that is the genre I always find my way back to. There is a connection, in that my very earliest concepts for Gideon actually had it as much more of a classic school story, albeit a grim space school with bones and blood, and that’s what I’m acknowledging early on in the book when some of the characters are also expecting a classic school story and are disappointed not to get one. I do love both dark fantasy and space opera, but I didn’t start out by picking two genres and trying to splice them together. It was the story that gave me the genres, not the other way round. Gideon had to be dark fantasy because it needed to have both swords and necromancy, and it had to be space opera for plot reasons that I can’t really talk about yet.

This is your debut novel, and it’s bone-chillingly haunting, beautiful and funny at all the right moments. What places and times would you like to travel to through your fiction going forward?
Thank you so much! And, wow, that’s a big question. I’m more interested in places than times. I don’t have a particular urge to write a book set in a specific period of history, for example. Time is important to Gideon, but it’s not so much time when as time how long, if that makes any sense at all. On the other hand, there are a couple of places I very definitely want to visit. I’ve already written a short story set in my native New Zealand, “The Woman in the Hill,” which came out back in 2015, but I have nowhere near exhausted the possibilities of NZ as a setting and I’d love to return to it. And I also want to write something set in England, where I’ve lived for the last five years, because . . . well, there’s a very specific story I want to tell and I’ve come to the conclusion it can only be told in England. I hope that’s cryptic enough for you.

Let’s talk necromancy. What inspired your special brand of the craft present here, where humans are the puppet masters or colleagues of the undead?
The problem with necromancy (I mean, there are a lot of problems with necromancy, but) is that a lot of the time it doesn’t go any further than “raising the dead.” That’s not actually something my story needs to happen—in fact there is only one character in the whole book who can literally bring dead people back to life, and he doesn’t do it any more. Harrow’s specialty is skeleton-raising, but even she’s not raising the dead in a traditional sense—she’s building puppets or constructs that follow her orders and she’s just using bone to do it. Harrow’s skeletons are really more like robots she assembles on the spot out of human parts.

I knew from very early on that I wanted a really broad conception of necromancy, so my magic-using characters could do a whole lot of different things while still counting as necromancers. I guess I may have been partly inspired by Diablo II, where the Necromancer can do everything from flinging bones around to making some monsters hate other monsters. But again, it was a matter of thinking first “What do people in my story need to be able to do,” and then building a system that made all of those things possible within some kind of semi-coherent framework.

I also wanted to touch on the meticulous level of detail in your naming conventions of settings and people. Was this a deliberate move to incorporate numerology in addition to necromancy and the occult?
Here is a terrible confession: at one very early stage in writing the book, I hit on the idea that every character’s name should have the right number of syllables to match their House. This worked great for, like, the Fourth and Fifth Houses. It was just about manageable for the Second House. It was totally horrific for the Ninth House. And which House is the most important one in the book? Oh yeah, huh, the . . . Ninth House. An afternoon’s brainstorming of nine-syllable names, which ended up with me just trying to cram in extra syllables anywhere I could, made clear this was not going to work. Harrowhark Nonagesimus is still only eight syllables!!

The number-themed names were a way to keep my beloved gimmick, that you should be able to tell someone’s House just by looking at their name, while making my life slightly easier. Although, as it turned out, not that much easier, because I still ended up stuck for suitable words. I thought I couldn’t use “Sextus” because it had “Sex” in it, until a friend convinced me to just roll with that and turn it into a joke.

Your novel incorporates a romantic subplot as well as adventure and intrigue. When writing, did you craft the structure of your novel as a thriller, or did you always suspect that Gideon might find some romance along the way?
You know, I’m so glad you mentioned that, because while I would definitely not characterize Gideon the Ninth as a romance, its romantic elements are incredibly important to the whole thing. Gideon and Harrow’s romantic feelings for various people are crucial to the story, and have been ever since I thought it up. It wasn’t that I started writing a thriller and then thought “Hmm, actually, what if the main character had a crush . . .” The book is in a very real sense about who feels what about whom. It’s just hard for them to work out what those feelings are, because they keep having to fight duels and solve bone puzzles instead of actually talking about anything. Insert joke here about solving bone puzzles.

The contest for the Lyctorhood displays the greed for power at its worst. Did you see this as commentary on the state of the world today, or was there a more medieval inspiration for the setting and characters?
Wow, I hadn’t even thought of a medieval connection! I think that stories are good for showing humans at their best and at their worst, and there’s a pretty good argument that we’re at our very worst when power is involved. But I hope that no one in Gideon comes across as a straightforwardly evil person. Everyone who makes a bad decision during the book—and almost everyone makes at least one bad decision during the book—does so because they’re afraid, or proud, or paranoid, or desperate, or they feel they’ve been lied to or betrayed or somehow mistreated. Often when we want power what we actually want is safety. We want to feel we have control over our own lives and nothing can hurt us, and building a big castle to live in can seem like the best way to secure that.

Gideon’s not cut out to be a lone wolf; she needs to be part of something bigger than herself.

Gideon’s origin story brings to light the trauma of losing a family and orphanhood, as well as the joy of a found/chosen family. She’s a true survivor, but also craves the basic human needs of companionship and belonging. Concerning Gideon and Harrow’s temporary “family” of Lyctorhood-competitors, who was your favorite to write? Do you map out the characters’ traits and actions from the start, or do you see where the writing takes you and them?
One of Gideon’s problems, as you correctly point out, is that although she’s a survivor, she’s not a sole survivor. Gideon’s not cut out to be a lone wolf; she needs to be part of something bigger than herself, which is why the dream that’s kept her going all this time is being a hero in the Cohort rather than some kind of solitary swordmaster.

I enjoyed writing every single one of her temporary allies, because generally I can’t write a character unless I find a way of enjoying them. Isaac and Jeannemary, the Fourth House teens, were a lot of fun, and I’m extremely grateful to my editor Carl Engle-Laird for letting me keep their trick of talking in a very small font, which I was worried wouldn’t survive into the book. I also have a soft spot for poor, grizzled, long-suffering Colum Asht, a man who has been dealt a terrible hand and plays it grimly. But I think my favorite non-Ninth character to write has to be Camilla Hect. Camilla is not an expressive or an exuberant character, and operating within her incredibly limited range (watching impassively; stabbing people; rolling her eyes heavenward behind her necromancer) was always a source of deep joy to me. Oh, and also Teacher, who is literally my favorite character in the book.

The work of actually mapping out each character was made easier by the fact that in this book each character does emblematically represent some core aspect of their House: the Second House pair are basically as Second House as it is possible to be, and so on. No one is a bizarre outlier, except maybe Gideon. So having designed the Houses, it was really just a matter of thinking “what ways might people brought up in this House be likely to turn out?” For example, the Third House loves money, parties and being popular, which can produce a charismatic babe with great hair (Corona) OR a sneaky, double-dealing power-broker (Ianthe).

Gideon’s phoenix-like rise from the ashes was one of my favorite aspects of this book. Did you always intend to write Gideon as an outcast? Or was there a point in your process where she was in better circumstances starting out?
Gideon has always been on the bottom of the heap. Her childhood was just complete shit—you find out a bit more about it from another angle in book two and it’s if anything even shittier. She had a Bad Time. To be fair, no one in the Ninth House had a good childhood, but I needed to make very clear from the start that Drearburh is not a place Gideon associates with rosy memories and happy songs. If it had been, a lot of the choices she has to make later in the book would have become much easier.

Do you anticipate any House characters making an appearance for Halloween? Who would you dress up as if given the opportunity? What House would you see yourself in?
To my completely horrified delight, more than one person has already donned Ninth House robes and paint. At WorldCon in Dublin I got a very excited text from a friend during the evening disco, saying “There’s a Gideon in the middle of the dance floor!!” and there’s been a couple of incredible cosplays on Twitter.

I’m not sure any of the other Houses would work quite as well as Halloween costumes, although I confess I would love to see someone rock the Second House white-and-red.

I personally think I’m not allowed to be in any of the Houses because they are all cool and I am lame, but I’d probably end up in the Ninth myself, alas. You’d find me haplessly tripping over the skeletons, or hiding in a crypt niche eating Toffee Pops I procured on the black market somehow.

“Gideon spends about as much time thinking about being gay as she does thinking about being ginger.”

Gideon’s sexual identity is introduced to readers early on and is displayed positively throughout the narrative. What do you hope readers will discover about the world or themselves after reading your book?
I’ve already got a very funny mixture of reactions to Gideon’s sexuality in early impressions of the book. Some of my readers are unhappy that I don’t make a bigger deal of it—they want Gideon’s lesbianism to be a big thing, a topic that gets discussed and that Gideon herself spends a lot of time thinking about or emphasizing. And then other people have specifically reached out to tell me how much they liked her sexuality not being a big thing; Gideon spends about as much time thinking about being gay as she does thinking about being ginger.

I’ve had the luxury of being able to write a world with no homophobia, a world where no one’s going to call Gideon names or tell her there’s something wrong with her because she likes girls, and so it’s just not something she ever needs to think about. If I’d given her lots of internal monologues about her own gayness, it would have been presupposing a level of resistance to that idea that doesn’t exist in the book.

What I really wanted was to write a wlw book where its lesbian credentials were not based on a lot of the stuff I had to read as a kid, i.e. lesbianism characterized as suffering or one single couple shacking up and nobody else is queer. I genuinely think there is nothing wrong with writing wlw suffering (it exists; we all have to exorcise those ghosts) but I wanted to write queerness more how it was with me and my community when I was in my early twenties (to be honest, the gay credentials in my book lie in there being two enmeshed girls who aren’t hooking up but have such an entangled relationship that you wish they would and stop ruining each other’s relationships, and girls obsessed with older girls in an unrequited love affair, and girls obsessed with older girls in a possibly actually requited love affair, etc., etc., everyone goes home to watch “The L Word”).

Obviously, Gideon would be triumphantly smug if reading about her incredible biceps helped anyone discover that they, too, were gay, so if you read my book and realize you’re gay please don’t tell Gideon, she will be insufferable. Having another baby butch in the book admire her guns was bad enough.

What’s next for you and your writing? The book ends on a devastating cliffhanger (I won’t spoil anything here!), and I’m sure readers would love to know what’s in the pipeline for you, Gideon and Harrow.
Well, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that what’s next for Harrow is book two, since it’s called Harrow the Ninth. It’s already written and in production—I got some first page layouts to look at just the other day— and scheduled for a Summer 2020 release, as far as I know. Book three, on the other hand, I haven’t even started writing yet. I have a novella I’m writing for Subterranean Press at the moment, about a princess and a tower, and then my calendar for October says in big block letters “START BOOK 3.” So that should keep me occupied into 2020, I think.

After that there’s a lot of stuff in the pipeline, but I don’t want to spill any beans just yet. I’m writing a narrative game project for Fogbank Entertainment, which is giving me a crash course in a completely different way of approaching the business of telling a story, and I have plans for at least two more novels that have nothing to do with the Nine Houses. Much fewer bones in these, I promise. I’m pretty confident I’ve already hit Peak Bone.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Gideon the Ninth.

Author photo by Vicki Bailey of VHBPhotography.

The hype for Tamsyn Muir’s debut, Gideon the Ninth, started early. (Look at that cover. Enough said.) Now that Gideon has made her blood-spattered, metal as all hell debut, we talked to Muir about necromancy, the surprising influence of boarding school stories and what comes next.

Kacen Callender’s unforgettable new fantasy Queen of the Conquered explores thorny questions of race, privilege and power in a lushly detailed Caribbean-inspired setting. Sigourney Rose, the only leader descended from indigenous islanders in the colony of Hans Lollik, tells herself that her ruthless mission to become the ruler of all the islands will enable her to free the enslaved, but her own personal vendettas and quest for power complicate her every move. We talked to Callender about the intersections between discrimination and privilege, the history that inspired Queen of the Conquered and more.

Was there a real-life inspiration behind the character of Sigourney Rose? Readers will really be torn between rooting for her and being afraid of her, but there’s no doubt she’s a unique protagonist on multiple levels.
Yes, I was inspired to write Sigourney Rose’s character in part from history and in part by my own experiences as someone who is oppressed but also has privilege. When I was in high school, I first learned that Black people had also once owned slaves, and that fact stuck with me throughout the years as I wondered what sort of person would degrade their own people for the sake of power.

This was a horrifying quality of Sigourney’s since she does own slaves who’re also islanders, and as the main protagonist, I knew that she had to be sympathetic at least on some level for readers to care enough to continue reading about her journey. Her family’s massacre at the hands of the colonizers was a part of this. I also wanted to explore what I think is a relatable conflict of being oppressed and knowing discrimination, but also having privilege, and in some ways contributing to systematic oppression simply by existing in a society that feeds on others.

“When I was in high school, I first learned that Black people had also once owned slaves, and that fact stuck with me.”

How did growing up in the U.S. Virgin Islands influence the setting of Queen of the Conquered? When you started writing, did you ever see yourself penning a novel set in a world inspired by your particular experience?
The U.S. Virgin Islands, which were once part of the Danish West Indies, were the inspiration for the fantasy world. The royal island of Queen of the Conquered is called Hans Lollik, for example, which is an island in the USVI. The language in Sigourney’s world also borrows from Danish. The magical ability in the book is called “kraft,” which means “power” in Danish—power as an ability, but also power as in privilege.

Growing up in the U.S. Virgin Islands did also influence the story as someone who was a local but attended a private school where for a few years I was the only Black, local student in the class. I faced horrific bullying and ostracization almost every day of my life by white students, but it was privilege that let me attend a private school. Throughout my life I’ve found myself in similar situations where privilege got me a place or position, but I’d be the only Black person in the room facing discrimination, which inspired Sigourney’s character. I love my home, and I’ve always wanted to write novels set in and based on the U.S. Virgin Islands, so hopefully there are many more to come.

What is your favorite genre to read? What drew you to write in the SFF genre?
I honestly don’t have a favorite genre to read. I love it all—it just depends on whatever mood I’m in. I do love speculative, though, because SFF is a metaphor for the real world and lets us take a look at our world from a different lens, which can sometimes offer even more clarity than if we had written about our world in a contemporary setting. Writing a contemporary about the intersection of privilege and discrimination might not have made the same points about power and systematic oppression in the way that I was able to in Queen of the Conquered.

"Writing a contemporary about the intersection of privilege and discrimination might not have made the same points about power and systematic oppression."

What settings have you not yet covered in your novels that you would like to escape/travel to through your fiction? What’s your favorite geographical location to write in?
Because I write contemporary, magical realism and speculative for both children and adults, I spend a lot of time thinking about real settings for the contemporary books and the pieces that could be taken from those places to create fantasy spaces. But I also like to look for the magic in the real world. I’ll walk around St. Thomas or my new neighborhood in West Philadelphia, and I’ll look up and see an alley or a field that feels out of place and stories begin to spark. There was once a park I’d walked through in New York City where suddenly the trees were almost too big and too green, butterflies started to rise from the grass with every step, and when I looked around there were no other people in sight. I began to think I’d walked into a completely different world. I turned a corner and got to the street where the city reappeared. When it was time to go home, I tried to find that section of the park again, but it’d completely disappeared and was replaced by swing sets and people walking their dogs. It’s possible I just made a wrong turn and/or that I have an overactive imagination, but it’s pieces of magic like this that I like to collect to create worlds.

“I . . . like to look for the magic in the real world.”

Sigourney eventually realizes that in certain lands, she is lumped into the same category as other people of color and inevitably endangered. All the while, the islanders of Hans Lollik fear and despise her for her psychic and political power. In your research and personal experience growing up in the islands, what did you unearth about the peoples who were colonized by others at this time? Were any of their stories the inspiration for Sigourney’s family?
There weren’t any specific stories that inspired Sigourney’s family besides what I’d learned in high school about Black people who did own slaves. Any research was focused on slavery in the Caribbean and what our ancestors had to endure to survive. There’s another key piece about slavery in the Caribbean that I did a bit of research for, but don’t want to discuss it here because it would risk spoiling the ending of the book.

This book introduces the concept of kraft, a unique reference to psychic power that is passed down through the family. Sigourney’s kraft allows her to manipulate but also experience others’ emotions, whereas others hold the power to commune with the dead, extract the truth, etc. What inspired this particular system of magic?
Kraft is specifically a mental ability, and just like in the real world, mental ability and talent is evenly distributed among all of us. However, the Fjern—the oppressors of Hans Lollik—declare that only they are allowed to have kraft by the divine right of their gods, and any islander found with kraft is executed. This is a metaphor for our world, because we also don’t allow everyone with ability the opportunity to use their talent to further themselves in the way that the Fjern do in Queen of the Conquered. People of color face mass incarceration and execution and racism and systematic oppression, taking away so many of our chances to use our talents and abilities as well.

It’s clear that Sigourney’s mental health has understandably deteriorated after the murder of her family and her continued participation in the kongeligs’ cruelty towards, genocide of and enslavement of the islanders. How important do you feel talking about mental health is for fantasy authors and authors in general, regardless of the genre they write in?
This is a close subject to me because of my own struggles with mental health, and I do often find myself writing about mental health at least in some aspect in most of my books. I don’t think that it should be a requirement for anyone to speak or write about mental health because this is something that can be triggering, and not everyone is in a place where they can speak or write openly about mental health. But, if authors are able to and feel inclined to do so, then it’s an important topic and the act of doing so could be potentially life-saving.

“We tell ourselves that we would’ve been better than our ancestors.”

Sigourney’s self-hatred and fear are palpable. How did you feel writing a protagonist who isn’t 100 percent admirable?
I wanted to write a protagonist that was morally gray because it feels more realistic and honest and vulnerable to me to write a character who struggles with many qualities that I do also. I face discrimination as a Black, queer and trans person, but I also have privileges that give me a comfortable home, food and water and education and the laptop that lets me write these books. There are people who would be able to do the same if they’d been given the same privileges as me. I think of how, in our society, so many of us like to consider ourselves the heroes of our own stories. We tell ourselves that we would’ve been better than our ancestors: We would’ve fought slavery, fought internment and concentration camps, stopped genocide. Yet these are all things that are happening in the world right now, and I feel a helplessness and hopelessness that Sigourney also struggled with. I think it’s important to wash away the ego and come to terms with the fact that we’re all morally gray people like Sigourney, who also aren’t 100 percent admirable, because then we’ll be able to begin to create real change.

Sigourney experiences a web of feelings, both physical and emotional, towards others, but she’s more focused on her own situation and end goals. What was your aim in writing a book about coming-of-age and aspiring towards ones’ goals, no matter what they might be?
Sigourney’s goals are technically admirable and understandable: She tells herself that she wants to take power back from the Fjern who have colonized her islands, enslaved her people and massacred her family for revenge. But what interests me most about any character’s goals are the complexities. Sigourney tells herself that she wants to take power back from the Fjern for the sake of her people, but she has to grapple with the idea that her desire for power might actually be for herself and her selfish greed. She tells herself that she acts for revenge, but she treats her people the same way that the Fjern do, and is no better than the other kongelig, or nobles, of the royal island. Though it seems that Sigourney always aspired to her goals no matter what, her path is filled with self-hatred and doubt, and this is coupled with the mystery of the murders of the kongelig, Sigourney often questions herself. My aim was to complicate Sigourney’s path realistically.

You’ve also worked as an editor, acquiring inclusive fiction and bringing a diverse array of voices to bookshelves. What do you hope readers will discover about the world or themselves after reading the books you’ve edited and acquired as a publishing professional?
I was an editor for children’s books, so for young readers, I always hope that they’ll come away from the books I edited with validation and self-love. I wanted marginalized voices to feel seen and heard since there’s so little representation for us.

Speaking of diversity in publishing and SFF, how do you think your books help add to this movement towards multicultural/LGBTQ+ fiction and representation of all sorts of character identities?
I think that my books specifically add to the movement of Black identities. I don’t want to write for people of color of cultures and identities other than my own because I don’t know their experiences and I don’t want to take space when I know there are others who’re trying to write their own stories and their own books. I hope that adding my voice to the mix as a Black, queer and trans person from the Caribbean allows others who share any piece of my identities to feel seen, especially as I keep writing and keep getting more stories with different mixtures of my identities into the world. I hope that people from other cultures and communities can read my books and see characters and cultures they might not see often enough, enriching their own worlds also.

What’s next for you and your writing? Will there be a continuation of Sigourney’s story, or the story of the people of Hans Lollik?
Yes, there’s a sequel titled King of the Rising, which will be from Løren’s perspective following the events of Queen of the Conquered.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Queen of the Conquered

Author photo by Ashlee Cain.

Kacen Callender’s unforgettable new fantasy Queen of the Conquered explores thorny questions of race, privilege and power in a lushly detailed Caribbean-inspired setting.

Alina Boyden’s gorgeous, transportive debut novel, Stealing Thunder, synthesizes Mughal Indian history and her own anthropological work with the transgender communities of South Asia to create a richly detailed fantasy world. Here, Boyden shares how she developed the fabulous clothing of Daryastani society, why she developed an “anti-dragon” and more.

This is your debut novel, and it’s haunting, gorgeous and amusing at all the right moments. What places and times would you like to travel to in your fiction going forward?
First of all, thank you so much for that lovely compliment. I am definitely continuing the story of Razia and Arjun with a sequel. I’ve written that one, and it broadens the horizons of the world of Stealing Thunder quite considerably. I’m also working on some non-Razia related projects. Currently that is taking me to the south of France and to Spain in the 13th century, though it won’t be a historical fiction piece, so that’s just the inspiration. It brings me back to my undergraduate years as a medieval studies major. But there are so many other places in the world and so many other cultures that I find deeply inspiring that I think if I’m lucky enough to have the sales figures to keep my career going, I will have no shortage of places and times to visit.

“. . . to see communities of (largely) transgender women, which have existed for thousands of years, was awe-inspiring to me.” 

Readers may not know that the hijras in Stealing Thunder are inspired by the real-life communities of the same name in Pakistan, which you’ve studied during your work as a cultural anthropologist. When did you first learn about these communities, and why do they fascinate and inspire you?
Well, for starters, the communities in Pakistan are properly referred to as “khwaja sira” communities. In Pakistan, “hijra” is often considered to be a slur. In India, “hijra” has greater currency as an autonym and is not nearly so often considered to be negative in its connotation. I chose to use “hijra” as a term because it has so much wider currency in American discourse than “khwaja sira” does, and because the word “transgender” in English is such a recent innovation that I felt it might distract readers from the fantasy world I had created.

I first learned about hijras when I was 12 or 13; I suppose I was, like a lot of trans women, searching the world to see if there are others out there like her. You see, when I was growing up, I was taught that being transgender was a modern phenomenon, that trans people didn’t exist in other countries, that we were a particular pathology rooted in the modern West. So to see communities of (largely) transgender women that have existed for thousands of years was awe-inspiring to me. Most trans women I know in America grew up believing they were alone. Each of us had to learn for herself what being transgender even was, because there was so little cultural understanding of transness as a phenomenon.

So to see a culture where not only is transness broadly known and acknowledged, but these trans women live together in their own communities—that was really shocking to me the first time I came across it. It made me realize that things didn’t have to be the way that they were for me growing up in America. There are many other ways that transness can operate in the world, and one of them is this radically visible and community-oriented form that we see in the hijra and khwaja sira communities of South Asia.

Your description of Razia and her hijra sisters’ transitions is eloquent and beautiful, normalizing the process to readers even when the other members of Daryastani society may not feel the same way. As a trans rights activist, was this a stance that you knew you wanted in the book from the beginning, rather than the oft popularized stories of only hardship and pain?
Absolutely. If there is one pernicious myth that needs to be addressed in our own society, it is the idea that transition-related treatments are as painful or more painful than gender dysphoria, or that they are imperfect facsimiles of cis experiences. Those ideas permeated my own upbringing and my own early understanding of transition, and they are myths that I only banished within myself somewhat recently, because they are so virulent.

I’m not really sure why cis people are so taken with the idea that transition-related procedures are painful or damaging or imperfect. Maybe it’s because cis people don’t have gender dysphoria, by definition, and therefore they imagine what it would be like to undergo those procedures themselves and come away horrified. Maybe it’s something else. I don’t know what being cis is like. But for trans people, it’s actually the reverse. The procedures are not horrific, damaging things; they are profoundly mundane medical interventions which result in bodies that largely feel normal—often for the first time in our lives.

Now that’s not to say that every trans person needs or wants the same (or any) medical interventions in their lives. However, for those trans people who do medically transition as a result of the dysphoria they experience, the decision to begin transition or to have surgical intervention can be fraught with fear and doubt because of the salacious misinformation that they have been exposed to. The truth (as I have experienced it as one trans woman) is that the medical interventions in my life were not only greatly beneficial in terms of my mental well-being but also have given me a far greater sense of normalcy than I ever expected they would.

I wanted to include that sense of normalcy in Stealing Thunder. I wanted to normalize the physical experience of being transgender without centering the narrative around medical interventions or physical changes. I did this quite consciously, because cis people seem to focus far more on our hormones and our surgeries than we do in our daily lives. Yes, for many of us, those interventions are a part of our lived experiences. Yes, I do wake up every morning and take estrogen, and take it again before going to bed, and have since I was 18 years old. But I don’t really spend a lot of time dwelling on it. I don’t view it as particularly central to my daily lived experience, and it’s certainly not something that, if I were writing the novel of my life, I would spend a whole lot of time on. So, when writing the novel of Razia’s life, I didn’t spend a lot of time on it either.

When did you first become fascinated with the Mughal Empire, and why do you think that era of history is so resonant for you?
I’ve been fascinated by the so-called “Gunpowder Empires” of the 16th and 17th centuries for as long as I can remember. This was a period when the military dominance of European powers was something still on the horizon. It was a time when Ottoman armies besieged Vienna, and when India was the wealthiest country in the world. These empires represented a substantial fraction of the world’s population, a substantial fraction of the world’s GDP and produced some of the finest art and architecture ever to be found anywhere on the planet. If I had not experienced the incredibly Eurocentric public history education that we have in the United States firsthand, I would be genuinely baffled as to why anyone looking at the 16th and 17th centuries would be so focused on the activities of a tiny, dreary island in the North Atlantic when they could focus on the Red Fort of Agra instead.

Were there any real-life muses who inspired the individual characters of Razia Khan and Prince Arjun?
Razia’s namesake is obviously Razia Sultana, the only female ruler of the Delhi Sultanate. I visited her tomb in Delhi, which was an amazing experience, as it’s quite hard to find and very poorly marked, having no major structures associated with it. However, aside from the name, which I really liked, there isn’t a great deal of similarity between Razia the sultana and Razia the character.

Arjun is kind of a sly reference to the character of Arjun(a) the Archer, from the Mahabharata. In the story, Arjuna spends a year cursed to live as a hijra, so I threw in a slight reference to that in Stealing Thunder as well, though I don’t know if anybody noticed. I thought it was kind of fun to have the male lead be named for a well-known character who spent a year living as a trans woman himself. I don’t know if that necessarily explains why Arjun is such an empathetic character when it comes to Razia, but maybe that informed my thinking a little bit.

Your characters are resplendently dressed and described, to the point where the reader can truly visualize Razia, her comrades and her foes. What was your favorite part of crafting the garb for this book?
The garb was so hard! Fashion changes so much over time, and to make a decision about what people are wearing when you have to consider changes over time and region, and then also practicality, took a ton of work. But I think my favorite part was just looking at all the gorgeous examples that exist both from South Asia in the past and South Asia today. It was an awesome excuse to watch some really fun Bollywood movies, to delve into 16th and 17th century miniature paintings and to go sari shopping with friends. Honestly, research is probably my favorite part about writing, and I love historical costume research, so as tough as it was to feel like I’d done it justice, the whole thing was just a joy.

“I actually have to confess that I’ve always hated dragons in fantasy . . .”

Every time one of the zahhaks stole a scene, I became more curious about your inspiration for these glorious creatures. What’s their backstory? And is their name an intentional homage to the villainous Zahhak of Persian mythology?
Yes, zahhaks, what’s going on with that? Well, honestly it comes down to the fact that there really is no one good translation of the concept of dragon into South Asian culture—or at least, I couldn’t find one that satisfied me. Obviously, dragon could be translated into Urdu as “azhdaha” (which is a Persian loanword). And Zahhak is a villainous character of Persian mythology whose name is sometimes translated as “dragon.” So when I was trying to find a good word to get across the concept of dragon, I really was torn between those two words, and I settled on zahhak as being easier for non-Persian and non-Urdu speakers to read without being distracted by questions of pronunciation.

But their backstory is entirely my own invention. I actually have to confess that I’ve always hated dragons in fantasy, because they’re not aerodynamic, and they don’t behave in ways that make sense in terms of how they’re used militarily in fantasy books. I’ve studied military aviation my whole life, and I love birds—I used to train birds of prey for a living, and I’m familiar with ancient treatises on falconry, including ones from South Asia. So I have long had this knowledge about falconry and this obsession with flight, and I fly airplanes too, so I brought those things together to create a kind of dragon-like creature, but one governed by the actual laws of aerodynamics as much as possible. I researched extinct giant birds and pterosaurs, and I mixed them together with living birds of prey and with my way-too-vast knowledge of military aviation, and I essentially created these biological fighter planes which look like resplendent peacocks. I was so sure that nobody else would like them, but people have really responded positively to them, even though they’re my anti-dragon in a way.

What do you hope readers will discover about the world or themselves after reading your book?
Well, I don’t know that I have enough faith in my own writing to believe that people will discover something life-altering about themselves from reading one of my books. My hope is a bit simpler than that. I just want trans women, especially young trans girls, to read this book and feel seen and represented. I want them to realize that they can be anybody they want to, that they can dream as big as anyone else, that the world is as much their oyster as anyone else’s.

And I realize my readership is largely not going to be trans women, young or old. That’s just a demographic reality. So for the bulk of my readers, especially for my cis readers, I just hope that they come away from this book having our existences demystified a little bit. I think the truth of being a trans girl is profoundly boring and normal. I think if I’ve properly explained what it’s like to be trans to a cis reader, their response is probably going to be something along the lines of, “Oh, is that all there is to it?” And that’s fine with me. Because I think that sense of normalcy, that sense of “Oh you’re just like me,” that’s where acceptance begins.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Stealing Thunder.

What’s next for you and your writing? I’m sure readers would love to know what’s in the pipeline for you, Razia and her chosen family and friends (and zahhaks!).
Well, the sequel draft is done and sitting with my editor right now, who is working on it through this pandemic we’re currently dealing with. I think it’s a really exciting book. It’s got tons more action, tons more drama, and you get to learn about a totally new species of zahhak, as well as to see the ice zahhaks from Stealing Thunder “on camera” for the first time. So that’s going to be super cool, I hope. And, of course, I’m plugging away on another project I can’t really talk about yet, but I can’t wait to share that one with the world too. Other than that, I’m surviving this social isolation as best I can, and I hope everyone reading this are healthy and as happy as can be expected given the circumstances.


Author photo by Spencer Micka.

Alina Boyden shares how she created an “anti-dragon” and how her fascination with the Mughal Empire inspired her dazzling fantasy debut.

Kate Elliott begins an epic new science fiction series with Unconquerable Sun, a complex and addicting tale of political intrigue that takes inspiration from ancient history—specifically, Alexander the Great. We talked to Elliott about drawing from the distant past to create a tale set in the far future, which of the book’s perspectives was the hardest to crack and why “queen” is a gender-neutral term in this fictional universe.

You’re the author of more than 10 science fiction series and numerous stories. After traveling to so many places and times in your writing, what excited you about Chaonia?
At the beginning of my career I wrote seven science fiction novels, so I might even say I started as an SF writer. Since then I’ve written 17 fantasy novels. This new book represents a return to my science fiction origins, which is quite exciting to me. I love writing fantasy with its magical worlds. And while I consider science fiction and fantasy to rest comfortably together under the umbrella of speculative fiction or the spacious tent that encompasses the literature of the fantastic, I can’t deny that it is relaxing and fun to return to writing space opera as a change of pace. Space opera can offer strong ties to the modern world, which can be evoked on the page. Its operatic sense of bombast, bold colors and vivid settings allow it to create a big, theater-filling spectacle. Sometimes theater-filling spectacle is exactly what I want to write, and to read.

“Sometimes theater-filling spectacle is exactly what I want to write, and to read.”

This book has been characterized as a gender-swapped retelling of the life of Alexander the Great. What led you to pull from the stories of mighty empires and conquerors, and was Alexander indeed your primary inspiration?
Yes, this is in fact exactly what it says on the label: a gender-swapped version of the life of Alexander the Great, set in space in the far, far future.

As a fantasy writer, I’ve long been interested in what empire is and how it functions; I’m not sure why but maybe because I grew up in an empire (the USA), so it would be natural for me to analyze and think about empire through the stories I tell.

Why Alexander? I don’t know. I’ve just always been fascinated by his story.

“I would call it a society where gender is a secondary consideration.”

The hierarchical structure here is reminiscent of ancient times, with its royals, Companions and cee-cees (Companions companions). What was your favorite part of crafting the relationships, alliances and tension between the different classes and peoples in Unconquerable Sun?
While the story is set in a far, far future tenuously tied to Earth, I used real history as the basic template. Part of my work was deciding which aspects of the history of Alexander the Great I would create analogs for, and what things I would make up specifically for this story. That means some of the tensions and alliances were built into the history. For example, I knew from the beginning that the Phene Empire was the enemy of the Republic of Chaonia, and that both empire and republic had a contentious history with the Yele League. In historical terms that translates roughly to the Persian (Achaemenid) Empire, the Kingdom of Macedon and the Greek city-states under the general leadership of Athens.

To make a space opera work, however, I did not want to simply turn every part of the story into a direct analog. The actual history and those governments and nations wouldn’t work “as is” in a space setting, for one thing. Also, half the fun of writing a space opera adaptation is to bend history and events and characters to make something new from it.

As for all the different classes and peoples, my foundational assumption is that people living on far distant worlds would not share exactly the same cultural landscape. Creating unique-to-their-place cultural landscapes is one of the things I most enjoy about writing science fiction and fantasy, and this project has been no different.

Chaonia is a gender-equal society, as well as a society that embraces same-sex unions. Did you base aspects of Chaonia on any real civilizations?
I would call it a society where gender is a secondary consideration. In Chaonia the term “queen” is gender neutral, like the word marshal. The leader of the republic is the highest ranking marshal (a military designation). In Chaonia, that highest rank is called “queen”—thus the ruler is the queen-marshal of the republic. The ruler doesn’t have to be a woman. For example, the current queen-marshal, Eirene, was preceded as ruler by her older brothers, who died in battle before she came to the throne.

In that same way, Chaonian marriage is about political alliances, bloodlines and business relationships, as marriage has usually been in the past and as it certainly was in the time of Alexander and his father Philip. I also made the presumption that reproductive technology will have advanced enough that any two individuals, regardless of gender, can have a child together who shares their genetic material.  

I should note here that I didn’t sit down and say to myself, “I’m going to write a queer space opera.” The history is already queer. King Philip was what we would today call bisexual. So was Alexander. To be sure, sexuality wasn’t seen in the same way then. The terms homosexual and heterosexual were only coined in the mid 19th-century, and they don’t represent a universal understanding of gender across time or in other cultures. But the point stands. History is already queer.

“The real world I am living in always creeps into my writing.”

What was the origin of the insanely fun and often witty chapter titles such as “Introducing the Wily Persephone and the Loyal Solomon with the Predictable Result of Their Foray into Battle”? Did they come to you while drafting, or do you wait until the book is closer to be finished to come up with them?
I love chapter titles. You can do so much with them. They can give a signal to the reader. They can tell a little story in themselves. They can hint at things to come. And so on.

In the first few drafts mostly I wanted to identify literal phrases from the chapter text that I thought would work well to highlight in the chapter titles. Then when the reader reaches that phrase in the chapter, it hits them harder because they’ve seen it before. They’re primed for it. That’s my theory, anyway.

Later, in the final revision, I made the decision to include the words “the Wily Persephone” in all the chapter titles that are from Perse’s point of view. Given her narrative voice and who she is, it made sense to me to have those chapter titles to be more pointed and even poke fun at her because it’s the kind of thing she would do when speaking of herself. The rest, as they say, is history.

What is your favorite genre outside of SFF to read?
History. I go through phases where I struggle to read fiction, but I can always read history. I’m just so fascinated by windows into the past.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Unconquerable Sun.

When writing what is, in many ways, a political thriller in space, do you try to address or find yourself referencing current political events? Or do any parallels only become apparent to you once the book is closer to completion?
The real world I am living in always creeps into my writing. The influence might be overt, a connection I intended to make, or it might be hidden in layers of the story without me realizing it. But after I finish a book I always see one or more elements that feel drawn from current events, even if I didn’t consciously intend them.

Unconquerable Sun mainly toggles through the points-of-view of three very different characters: Sun, Perse and Apama. Did you always know that you wanted to tell this story from all three perspectives, and did any one of them come easier to you? 
Persephone was the first point of view in the story. It started with her. Zizou came next, although he remains a minor point of view in the novel.

Eventually, I realized I had to include Sun’s point of view because this is her history, after all. She is by far the most difficult character to write. Her intensity and focus can feel hard to capture. Because she is who she is—unapologetically ambitious and capable—she does not display many of the usual character traits that we think of as making women “sympathetic.” That was also a challenge for me as a writer, one I knew I had to tackle because one of my goals with the story has been to write depictions of women leaders in societies where no one ever questions their right (as women) to lead.

I added Apama last, partly because I needed a point of view from within the Phene Empire and also because I needed Apama’s point of view specifically once I realized the larger outlines of the story I am telling.

Perse, Apama and Zizou were all fairly easy to write because they aren’t Sun. I “get” them.

What’s next for you and your writing? I’m sure readers would love to know what’s in the pipeline for you, Sun, Perse and Apama.
I’m currently writing book two, Furious Heaven. Saying more than that would be a spoiler.

Kate Elliott begins an epic new science fiction series with Unconquerable Sun, a complex and addicting tale of political intrigue that takes inspiration from ancient history—specifically, Alexander the Great. We talked to Elliott about drawing from the distant past to create a tale set in the far future, which of the book’s perspectives was the [...]

Everina Maxwell’s debut novel, Winter’s Orbit, takes the marriage of convenience trope and flings it into an intergalactic web of intrigue. Hedonistic Prince Kiem of the Iskan Empire and his new husband Jainan, the devoted ruler of one of the empire’s vassal planets, forge a tentative partnership while investigating the somewhat mysterious death of Jainan’s first husband. We talked to Maxwell about how the forbidding and wintry environment of the planet Iskat functioned as a symbol and the freedom of a "queernorm" speculative world.

Do you prefer one genre (romance or science fiction) over the other, as a reader or writer? If you had to name your fusion of romance and science fiction, what would you call it?
The genres of my heart are sci-fi and fantasy; they were what I read growing up and what I borrowed piles of from the library. But I also read fanfiction, which prizes character and relationships above all else. Published romance was a later—delightful!—discovery that hit many of the same beats, and I loved its commitment to happy endings. I call Winter’s Orbit a “queer romantic space opera,” but in fact it’s just the type of book I wanted to read: an imaginary second world, with that sense of wonder and discovering new things, but a story centered on two characters overcoming their past and finding happiness.

The birds of Iskat are mysterious—and frightening—omens that complement the planet’s frigid and frozen exterior. What inspired you to add this element?
Part of it is character-based: Iskat is strange and hostile because Jainan, a foreign diplomat, has always found it that way. But it’s also beautiful, and to Prince Kiem, this landscape is his home. A minor arc of the story shows Jainan’s feelings about the landscape and wildlife gradually changing. Also, to be honest, I found the marital argument over “what is a bear” funny, and I firmly believe SF is improved by adding jokes wherever possible.

"[M]y goal was to write the joy in healing, even when it’s been so hard, and even when there’s so far to go."

Kiem and Jainan’s experiences with the Iskat government, the media and more allow you to explore corruption and greed, from blackmailing reporters to the suppression of the vassal planets. Did you see this as commentary on the state of the world today, or was there a more fantastical inspiration for the setting and characters?
This is a tricky question to answer. Winter’s Orbit isn’t about a specific political event, and I wouldn’t class it actively as commentary. But of course speculative fiction is directly influenced by the real world, and any attempt to write galactic politics is necessarily drawn from, or in conversation with, the recent history of our own planet. After all, it’s the only model we have for systems affecting billions of people with access to technology. I tried to keep this in mind while writing.

Relationships in Winter’s Orbit range from monogamous to polyamorous, and the choosing of certain tokens in Iskat culture represent binary or non-binary gender expression. And obviously, same-sex marriage and love is displayed positively throughout the narrative. What do you hope readers will discover about the world or themselves after reading your book?
The planet of Iskat is a “queernorm” world, which just means it’s a world where the acceptance of queer identities is background radiation, not a plot point, and no more remarkable than the existence of buildings or drinking water. As a queer person myself this was just a pure joy to write. Many people, both queer and straight, have family or friend groups where they already experience this, so all this book says is, what if that was everywhere in the future? What if you never needed to worry about defending who you are? What if you could use that brain space for something else?

Winter’s Orbit doesn’t stand alone here. You can find queernorm worlds in a growing body of recent(ish) SFF. It’s thanks to the people who came before us that we’re in this place: Queer authors wrote coming-out stories and academic essays and polemics for decades so we could be here, claiming a space where queer identities can just exist. And although at the moment we have to imagine that space, imagining it gets us one step closer to realizing it.

Jainan’s journey to becoming an open, communicative partner while also dealing with grief was a wonderful, healing element of this book. How did that aspect of the book evolve for you while writing?
Jainan’s arc is very much at the core of the story. He’s had some difficult experiences in his past which now lead him to second-guess both other people’s actions and his own worth as a person. My aim with his arc was to show the slow, bumpy healing process, while avoiding “magical” transformations where everything is suddenly okay because he’s fallen in love. Jainan still has a lot to work through by the end of the book, but my goal was to write the joy in healing, even when it’s been so hard, and even when there’s so far to go.

Were there any real-life muses who served as inspiration for Kiem and Jainan? How about the delightfully no-nonsense character of Kiem’s secretary, Bel?
Kiem and Jainan feel like they just turned up in my brain one day, but in fact, like the other characters, they’re almost certainly snippets of various real people and literary influences. A large part of Bel is defined by how she does her job, since we mainly see her at work—I’ve done Bel’s job myself, so she’s fairly close to my heart!

What other intergalactic places and times—or types of planets—would you like to travel to in your fiction going forward?
I’m fascinated by far-future science fiction where it’s not totally clear how humanity spread across the stars from Earth. It provides an infinite sandbox and an almost fantasy-like air of discovery: One book deals with a solar system over here, and the next deals with a planet on the other side of the galaxy. Space is infinite! I love that.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Winter's Orbit.

What’s next for you and your writing?
I’m working on a sort-of-sequel-but-not-really, which is set outside the Iskat Empire but in the same universe. It stars two queer characters who are even bigger disasters than Kiem and Jainan and includes more about the Remnants, the quasi-magical alien artifacts that briefly turned up in Winter’s Orbit. I’m very excited for this one.


Author photo © Richard Wilson Photography.

We talked to Winter’s Orbit author Everina Maxwell about the freedom of a "queernorm" speculative world.

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