Part mystery, part slowly building romance, Sylvie Cathrall's lyrical fantasy, A Letter to the Luminous Deep, utilizes poignant details and quaint language to conjure an evocative underwater world.
Part mystery, part slowly building romance, Sylvie Cathrall's lyrical fantasy, A Letter to the Luminous Deep, utilizes poignant details and quaint language to conjure an evocative underwater world.
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Many early reviews have compared Alexis Henderson’s debut novel, The Year of the Witching, to other feminist dystopian novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale. And while Henderson’s fundamentalist world of Bethel does invite comparisons to the horrors of Gilead, a more apt parallel may be the 2015 horror film The Witch, in which a young Puritan girl discovers that the only avenue for self-determination in her deeply misogynist and joyless world may be to embrace all that is forbidden, sinful and powerful. We talked to Henderson about how her upbringing in one of America’s most haunted cities shaped her writing and how she crafted Immanuelle Moore’s journey to the dark heart of her society.

What drew you to SFF as an emerging writer? Did you always know that you wanted to write a fantasy novel?
I’ve always loved reading SFF. I think I’m naturally drawn to the way that speculative fiction allows me to escape the conventions of this world and enter another. So it was natural that when it came time to write stories of my own, I gravitated toward fantasy. In a way, I feel like it’s all I’ve ever known. And while I dabble in other genres, fantasy has always been, and likely always will be, a creative touchstone that I return to time and time again.

What has the process of releasing and promoting a book been like during the COVID-19 pandemic?
It’s been surreal, to say the least. I think it’s always awkward to promote yourself, but amid this pandemic, attempts at promotion feel a lot like shouting into the void, and I’m often worried that by asking people to pay attention to my book, I’m drawing their attention away from more important issues. That said, I think there’s something profound and humbling about debuting during such a historically significant time. I know, without a doubt, that I’ll never forget the months leading up to my debut. And I’m immensely grateful that the publication of my book has offered me some light in these increasingly difficult times.

“I was raised on a steady diet of ghost stories and Southern folktales . . .”

As a fellow Southerner, I got the feeling that this book was somehow decidedly Southern even if it wasn’t explicitly set in the South. How has growing up in (and then later settling in) the coastal South affected your writing?
I grew up in one of America’s most haunted cities, Savannah, Georgia. Because of that, I was raised on a steady diet of ghost stories and Southern folktales, and they definitely inspired some of the eerie, gothic themes that are so prevalent in The Year of the Witching. Southern cultural conventions were also a huge source of inspiration behind the book. In the South, religion is more present than it is in other regions. Here, churches serve as more than religious institutions. They are cornerstones of the community and are often integral in shaping the social (and even political) climate of the surrounding areas. I think that social piety directly inspired Bethel, the theocratic settlement where my story takes place.

The motif of dark, earthy blood, whether from the cutting knife or menstruation, feels like it’s everywhere in The Year of the Witching. In what ways do you see blood and magic bound in this world? And is this magic feminine?
I wanted to play with the idea that creation (and the power it affords) demands blood sacrifice. I think that menstruation is symbolic of this, but so are the animal sacrifices Bethelans make in order to win the favor and forgiveness of the Holy Father they worship. So while the magic isn’t inherently feminine, I think the blood sacrifices that are required to wield it can manifest in many different ways—whether that be menstruation, blood spilled on a battlefield or a sigil carved into flesh. In the end, every act of sacrifice can be distilled down to a simple truth: blood buys power.

The figure of Lilith might be familiar to folks who know witchcraft lore. But what about the other witches? Did those come solely from your imagination, or from similar witchy archetypes?
The other witches are inventions of my own twisted imagination. I think I was inspired by some of the conventions of the horror genre (specifically the subgenres of cosmic and body horror). But for the most part, Jael, Mercy and Delilah emerged from the recesses of my mind. I remember, in the early days of drafting The Year of the Witching, being visited by each of them in turn. It was almost as though I had to gain their trust through the writing of the story, and once I did they revealed themselves to me.

The contrast between the earthy, transgressive witchcraft and the strict puritanical society of Bethel that you paint is striking. Can you talk about what inspired the setting for The Year of the Witching?
I always knew that I wanted to write a story about witches and cults. The Year of the Witching, and the setting where the story takes place, was birthed from the marrying of the two. I think that both settings are emblematic of the toxic, binary social and religious structures that are responsible for so much of the dysfunction and darkness of Bethel and the Church that governs it. Ezra’s character represents a different kind of subversion of Bethel’s society than Immanuelle does.

Do you think that in Immanuelle’s absence, Ezra would have continued to rebel, or would he have simply fallen into his role as the next Prophet?
This is a great question and one that I’m still wrestling with. A part of me wants to say that, without Immanuelle’s influence, Ezra would have still found his way to the light. But I do wonder if, without Immanuelle’s prompting, Ezra would have simply followed in the steps of his forefathers. I often ask myself if Ezra’s choice to aid Immanuelle’s quest was a testament to his character or simply another way for him to rebel against the Church, and by extension his father the Prophet. I hope to unpack that question in future works, in the hopes that one day I’ll have a firm answer to it.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Year of the Witching.


The Year of the Witching deals not just with witchcraft but also questions of identity and how much the actions of one generation affect the lives of the next. What drew you to explore these themes?
I drew a lot of inspiration from my own life, and my natural fascination with transgenerational trauma and the way sins and vices can be passed down from one generation to the next. I wanted to know whether it was possible for a person to completely defy the circumstances of their birth and, in doing so, free themselves from the ghosts of the past.

Is there more to come from Immanuelle, Ezra and the rest of Bethel?
Yes! I’m writing the (yet untitled) sequel to The Year of the Witching right now!

 

Author photo by Marissa Siebert of Hazel Eyes Photography

We talked to Alexis Henderson about how her upbringing in one of America’s most haunted cities shaped her darkly beautiful debut fantasy, The Year of the Witching.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue was set to become the biggest book of Victoria “V. E.” Schwab’s career thus far. She’d spent 10 years imagining Addie, and finally sharing her story with the world would be cause for much celebration. An extensive tour was planned to help ease Schwab, the author of 17 fantasy novels, including the Shades of Magic trilogy and multiple YA and middle grade series, out of the fantasy pigeonhole and into the literary space.

But instead, COVID-19 happened. Our conversation takes place over Zoom in late July, while Schwab is still holed up in her parents’ home in France, her quarantine spot of five months. Schwab grew up in the States but now lives in Scotland. She arrived at her parents’ home the day before the French lockdown began with eight articles of clothing, figuring she’d be there a month to six weeks max. “I’m a 33-year-old who did not plan on spending all of 2020 living with my parents,” she says with a laugh.

“It’s about being willing to live through hard times because of the promise of good ones.”

Instead of an in-person book tour with all the trimmings, Schwab will spend the two weeks after Addie’s publication on a nocturnal schedule in Europe, doing virtual events for bookstores in the U.S. Fortunately, she has mostly made peace with her (and Addie’s) lot. “If I have to wait a couple of years to toast her with my publishing team, I think that I could take a lesson in patience from this character that I lived with for 10 years,” she says. And at 324 years young, Addie LaRue is nothing if not patient.

Addie’s story begins in early 18th-century France. About to be married off against her will, Addie prays in supplication to the gods, as her witchy neighbor Estele has taught her. But when Addie mistakenly summons a god of darkness, she makes a deal that will save her from marriage but whose contours take her many years to fully comprehend: Addie can live forever, but the catch is that she won’t be remembered by her friends, her family or anyone she encounters.

Addie spends the next 300 years learning to navigate—and indeed, enjoy—this strange reality. By the year 2014, she has hit her stride when she meets a boy named Henry who actually remembers her—and her world is turned upside down once again.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue.


To some extent, Schwab says it took a global pandemic to fully appreciate the themes of her own novel. She calls Addie “a very strange, hopeful book from an author who usually writes very dark, violent, almost anarchic stories.”

Living an author’s virtual life has had unexpected advantages. In June, Schwab appeared in conversation with one of her heroes, Neil Gaiman, for an audience of 7,000 on Crowdcast during Macmillan’s TorCon, and Gaiman ended up endorsing Addie. Virtual events also make it possible for her international fans to participate.

But virtual events can also be draining and disorienting. When touring IRL, Schwab likes to find a happy face in the audience and test out one-liners to see what gets a good reaction. “I have a personal relationship with my readers, and I miss seeing their faces,” she sighs.

I decide to play the part of an audience member and ask her a question that frequently comes up at book events: What is Addie LaRue’s origin story? “I was living in an ex-prison warden’s backyard in Liverpool,” Schwab begins. (Don’t all great stories start this way?) Without her own transportation, Schwab relied on her roommate to drop her off in various small towns, where she would spend hours exploring. One day, she visited a Lake District town with a “wild atmosphere” and timeless quality that left her pondering the pros and cons of immortality.

“I think immortality is such a gift,” she explains, “because I’m somebody for whom life is always moving too fast. I blink, and 10 years go by.” Addie says nearly the same thing as she stares down her impending marriage.

Invisible Life of Addie LaRueIn 2020, finding small reasons for hope and optimism when too many tedious days stretch ahead is a scenario that people around the world understand in an intimate way. Unlike Addie, we can’t fill our quarantine days with the endless pursuit of fine art or good food or high culture. But we do have stories.

“What I’m discovering through early readers,” Schwab says, “is that Addie’s is a philosophy that many people need to see right now. The book is about defiant joy, it’s about a stubborn hope, it’s about being willing to live through hard times because of the promise of good ones. I think there’s a huge current of loneliness and fear running through things right now. When I was in a really, really dark place in my life, the smallest things kept me going. I thought, I don’t ever want to miss a thunderstorm.” So she created a character who could find joy in small acts.

In the end, Schwab knows that she and Addie will have their moments in the sun, albeit on a timeline nobody can yet predict. “The themes of the book are about patience. I’m trying really hard not to mourn a version [of my book launch] that will never exist. Another beautiful thing about books is that they don’t have an expiration.”

 

Author photo by Jenna Maurice

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue was set to become the biggest book of Victoria “V. E.” Schwab’s career thus far. She’d spent 10 years imagining Addie, and finally sharing her story with the world would be cause for much celebration. An extensive tour was planned to help ease Schwab, the author of 17 fantasy novels, including the Shades of Magic trilogy and multiple YA and middle grade series, out of the fantasy pigeonhole and into the literary space. But instead, COVID-19 happened.
Interview by

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s latest idiosyncratic novel leaps easily from the micro to the macro, beginning with two cryptid-hunting friends and expanding to encompass an entire alternate history of the development of life itself. Through it all, Tchaikovsky’s irrepressible wit and effervescent intelligence serve as lifelines for the reader as The Doors of Eden take them on a truly unique and fantastical ride. We talked to Tchaikovsky about crafting his latest awe-inspiring trip through space and time.

You excel at creating a tone that bounces between humor and horror. How do you strike that balance as a writer?
That’s kind of you to say. I suspect the rather appalling truth is that while I’m aware of various things that horrify others, they don’t necessarily horrify me in the same way. The human-spider interactions in the middle of Children of Time, say, or certain adventurous scenes in its sequel, aren’t written as horror, because they’re written from the point of view of the thing that horrifies, rather than the beneficiaries of that emotion. That discontinuity also tends to produce the horror, and the incongruity of the horror makes the humor, and the humor makes the horror that much worse.

You dreamed up a menagerie of beasts both small and large for this book. Did you scrap any concepts for other life-forms from the great beyond? Care to share any?
There’s the whole of evolutionary creation to plunder. I’d have liked to do more with anomalocarids and other Cambrian explosion fauna, because a real seed for this book was Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life, which includes a detailed description of the mainstays of that fossil biota. And I leave large gaps—there’s about a hundred million years of dinosaurs I never touched, mostly because dinosaur speculative evolution is one of the more common areas of thought. And it might have been fun to depart further from current evolution—have some wild card rise to dominance in a later era, such as a tertiary invertebrate, or late birds or fish. Most vertebrates are teleost fish after all and there’s no reason why they couldn’t have a resurgence. However, having a narrative that follows each “new” group from when it made its grand mark in the fossil record is probably easier for the reader.

“. . . to expand the mind with grand ideas is a great thing.”

The relationship between Lee and Mal anchors the book. What characters or people did you draw from, even informally, when shaping their relationship?
I think I drew a little from a lot of people to construct the pair of them. Mal is very much based on an old live-action role-playing friend of mine, plus a few other people. Overall, they are each about 50% made up and 50% stitched together from many, many friends and acquaintances.

Julian’s character shows the potential effects of understanding more than we ever wanted to. Do you think most of us are unready or unwilling to have our worldviews totally turned upside down?
I think most of us would be just as lost as poor Julian is, but you can never know until it should happen. A lot of portal-fantasy/science-fiction characters, having gone through the mirror, display a sang-froid about the whole business that I know I wouldn’t. I can certainly think of a few people of my acquaintance who I feel would be absolutely in their element if they woke up in another world.

A phrase that kept playing in my mind while reading was the phrase "a sense of wonder." Does that phrase ring true to you when thinking about this book?
Absolutely, yes. The whole book is kind of a background hymn to the wonders, not of any particular imaginary world, but the actual real world, past and present, which we so often take for granted. Life (back me up, Sir David Attenborough) is so varied and so intricate and so beautiful, and we waste a great deal of it. And beyond that, yes, I think a sense of wonder is an integral part of a certain kind of science fiction—to expand the mind with grand ideas is a great thing.

I found myself completely riveted by the interludes from the fictional book within this book, Other Edens. How did these fit into your plan for the story? Did you want to use such a structure from the beginning?
Honestly, I had to practice a great deal of discipline to bring them down to just what’s in the book! The interludes and their thought experiments are absolutely the inspiration for the book, without which it wouldn’t exist. And of course, many of them provide the useful background on what is going on, which would be cumbersome to try and insert in the actual text, but many others are just there for the hell of it, to show the myriad variety of the worlds I’m presenting.

In a lot of ways, The Doors of Eden challenges us to think about what we don't know or see in the world around us. What frontiers in science do you think hold the most promise for opening our eyes to something important that was there all along?
If we achieve anything like a real artificial intelligence (not just a complex algorithm that can learn how to fake being people) then that should show us a great deal about how we ourselves think, and might also find a lot of priceless but unintuitive solutions to other problems we have, in that way that computers sometimes can. Similarly, if the recent discoveries on Venus lead to the discovery of actual extraterrestrial life, that would teach us so much about the possibilities of evolution and biology in very non-Earthlike conditions (or in the buried oceans of Europa, say, or some other place within the solar system—or even an exoplanet, although that has its own raft of practical issues).


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Doors of Eden.


When you think back to writing this book, are there passages that you remember writing more vividly than others?
The museum sequence, frankly, was an absolute bear. I rewrote it several times over, and ended up breaking it up a lot between the characters to try and tame it. So, I remember that vividly enough, for all the wrong reasons. Beyond that, my chain of evolutionary logic that led to immortal giant trilobites is something I’m pretty damn proud of. . .

If you could dream up another Earth, a unique paradise just for you, what would it look like?
I wanted to make some cheap joke about having lots of legs and a warning that it contains spiders, but honestly I think what my perfect paradise would have would be variety—multiple viewpoints, multiple minds, complexity built of diversity. And not in danger of being extinguished by monstrous short-sighted greed, for preference.

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s latest idiosyncratic novel leaps easily from the micro to the macro, beginning with two cryptid-hunting friends and expanding to encompass an entire alternate history of the development of life itself. Through it all, Tchaikovsky’s irrepressible wit and effervescent intelligence serve as lifelines for the reader as The Doors of Eden take them on […]
Interview by

J.S. Barnes takes readers to fog-choked Victorian London in Dracula’s Child, which imagines what happened after the events of Bram Stoker’s iconic Dracula.

What inspired you to revisit Dracula?
I’ve always loved the book, ever since I first read it as a boy. I’ve enjoyed versions of the story in other mediums, of course, but it’s the book to which I’ve always been drawn back. It’s often struck me as odd, however, that Stoker never wrote a sequel, when it seems to me that there are clear seeds planted in plain sight for just such an undertaking. I reread the novel about five years ago, and the scope for continuation seemed to leap out at me. It was almost inevitable, then, that I should start my own homage to it, a real passion project.

Who is your favorite character in Stoker’s original novel?
Probably Renfield, the lunatic who acts as a weird kind of barometer for the Count. There was no way to bring him back for this sequel, however, given his fate in the original! Out of the characters whom I’ve had a chance to write myself, I’d have to go with Mina Harker. Unflappable and determined in Stoker’s account, she’s grown even tougher and more watchful in the years that have passed before we meet her again in Dracula’s Child.

If you were to pick another horror or fantasy classic to revisit, what would it be and why?
Wow, there are so many to choose from! I’m actually working on just such a project at the moment—a sequel to a seminal work of late 19th-century horror. More on this as soon as we can announce it! But I’d also love to revisit many others—Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger stories in particular!


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Dracula's Child.


Why do we continue to be fascinated with vampires?
Even as trendier monsters come and go, vampires keep on speaking to us. Both scary and sympathetic, they represent simultaneously what we dread and what we long for. They change according to the times in which they’re written—each generation’s version of the vampire myth is different—while also, at their core, staying the same.

When writing Dracula’s Child, did you aim to address any current-day issues? Or were you more focused on reviving Stoker’s original mood and setting?
The aim was very much to channel Stoker’s voice. That said, it’s impossible not to be influenced by the times in which you’re writing, so I’m sure that there are moments of applicability here to our own era. After all, so many of the concerns and dilemmas of Stoker’s time are still with us in some form or another.

J.S. Barnes takes readers to fog-choked Victorian London in Dracula’s Child, which imagines what happened after the events of Bram Stoker’s iconic Dracula. What inspired you to revisit Dracula? I’ve always loved the book, ever since I first read it as a boy. I’ve enjoyed versions of the story in other mediums, of course, but […]
Interview by

After winning near-universal acclaim for Uprooted and Spinning Silver, two romantic, fairy-tale inspired fantasies, Naomi Novik is turning to the dark side. Her Scholomance series, which begins with A Deadly Education, takes place in a supernatural death trap of a school and follows El, a young woman who seems destined to become an evil sorceress. But if you know Novik, you know it’s all going to be a lot more complicated than that.

I’m so excited to get to talk to you about A Deadly Education! What can readers coming in fresh to your work as well as those who are longtime fans expect for the first installment of this new series?
I think that one consistent element is that my work is always in conversation. In this case, there’s an old folk legend of the Scholomance, a hidden school of dark magic where wizards spent years studying in the dark, without teachers, and when they left, the last graduate’s soul was taken in payment for their education. I read about this legend back when I was about 10 years old, and it’s stuck in my head ever since, and in this book I’ve worked it together with the magical boarding school trope that we all know and love from Harry Potter and A Wizard of Earthsea and the Worst Witch books and so many others.

Like Uprooted and Spinning Silver, there’s also a first-person female narrator. El, the main character of A Deadly Education, is very different from Agnieszka or Miryem; she comes into the story already knowing a lot about magic and the magical world. Also, she’s fundamentally a modern girl who has grown up in our recognizable world despite having magic herself, as opposed to being in a more historical era.

But like Agnieszka and Miryem, she’s also going through the coming-of-age process and grappling with her own power and working out who she is and who she wants to become. She’s also trying to find community and connection.

How does it feel to return to writing a series, rather than standalone fantasy?
I did my best not to return to writing a series! I wanted the story of the Scholomance to be in separate books, because the rhythm of the school year is important to the magic school story. I wanted the power of that rhythm in the narrative—punctuating the end of one year, crossing from one year to another. But I wrote most of the trilogy before I paused to get book one actually ready for publication.

"When you start from a place where your reader has expectations . . . what that gives you as a writer is a way to tap into your reader’s brain."

Your previous books are nestled into these wonderful subgenre niches—alternate history (with dragons!), romantic fantasy and now dark magical schools. Do you feel like you approached them all differently or are the bones of creation largely the same? What appeals to you about setting a story and writing in the dark academia world of the Scholomance?
When you start from a place where your reader has expectations, where your reader knows something—whether that’s because they’ve heard the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin, or they’ve read a biography of Napoleon, or seen a Harry Potter movie—what that gives you as a writer is a way to tap into your reader’s brain.

What you get from working with source material that’s already in your reader’s head is the combination of the pleasure of a new story, and the pleasure of recognition in a story they’ve seen before. “I know that trope! I’ve seen this before!” And you also get the pleasure of the unexpected. Letting your reader have expectations gives you a more interesting way to move around your reader and with them.

The truth is no story stands on its own. Some stories may be more self-conscious than others about letting you see where they’re coming from, but I'm not, because I’m not worried about it. If I didn’t have something new to say about magical schools, then I wouldn’t be interested enough to write it myself. So I’m not shy about using tropes or other stories as inspiration, or history or any other inspiration.

Your previous books—Uprooted and Spinning Silver—are a bit lighter and more hopeful in terms of magical systems, settings and tone. I had the opposite reaction when reading A Deadly Education. It’s so tense and mysterious! How did you feel about that shift? Is a story with much darker magic elements something you’ve always wanted to do? If so, is this how you always imagined writing it, or did you have a much different idea in mind at the start?
The legend of the Scholomance paints a truly horrible place. The idea that you would spend years locked up in the dark, with answers to your lessons appearing in letters of flame, with no teachers, no contact with the outside world. It’s a horrible idea! Who would do that? What would drive somebody to go into the Scholomance? That question was one part of the root of the idea.

The other part of it was taking the glaring flaws in school safety at Hogwarts a little too seriously. If you look at Hogwarts from the objective standpoint of a parent considering whether this institution is really a good place to send your young child—you might have some questions about the choices that the administration is making. Does the school really need to have a locked chamber with a basilisk in it? Do the staircases really need to fly around to different locations?

The Scholomance series is basically taking that a step further, and acknowledging, “Yes, this school of magic is absolutely horrible. The school is, in fact, deadly.” So you have this terrible school—What makes people go there? What makes them send their children there? How do they survive it? Who comes out of it, and how do they come out of it?

El is biracial—Indian and Welsh—and I’d love to know what sort of research or sensitivity reading you did while writing about her identity and lived experience.
My specific research for any novel is guided by the work itself as it goes. I don’t decide a character's backstory in my head and then dole it out; I find things out about my characters as I write them down. And when I do write a line where a character tells me and the reader something about herself, that's where my research begins, making sure that what I'm saying works and makes sense and is true.

But I don’t mean just fact-checking—it’s not the single line; you have to chase the single line you’ve written and follow where it leads you. Once I spent a week researching whether there were sidewalks in Edinburgh in 1806. It didn’t actually matter, I could have just tweaked the line and avoided the question far more easily, but in chasing that question I learned a lot of things that I didn’t know I needed to know. So I do that and I find and pack the information away in my head, and then it is there and ready to come out when it’s relevant.

For one example with A Deadly Education, early on I wrote a line where El was irritated about having been taught Marathi instead of the more practical Hindi. That’s the moment when I learned her dad was from India and specifically the Mumbai area. And it was clearly right when it came, because the Scholomance was taking shape in my mind by then as a British Empire construct, this sort of Titanic-scale industrial project, and therefore intuitively connected to the massive exploitation of India. At that point I needed to do a chunk of reading and research to understand what that line told me about him and about her.

And then in turn, one of the things I found while doing that research was a terrific online course by HarvardX about Hinduism Through Its Scriptures (I highly recommend, it’s free to audit), and what I learned there informed the backstory of the Golden Stone sutras later on in the book.

I did also ask my publishers to get me a sensitivity reader on this book as well, someone who wouldn't feel inhibited about giving honest feedback because they could stay anonymous and weren't working for me. I found the feedback they got for me really useful. I do think a good general rule for any author is that when you want honest feedback on a topic where people routinely react defensively, you have to go out of your way to make it really safe for someone to give you that feedback.

And you also just have to listen to the feedback that is out there in the world already. It’s there to be read and heard and taken in.

El’s also a bit prickly, which I personally loved. Were there any moments in writing her that surprised you, where a scene took a completely different turn than what you had planned simply by way of staying true to her personality?
El didn’t surprise me quite so much because I felt very clearly from the beginning that she wasn’t being completely honest with herself—that mentally she was working really hard to survive the experience and as part of that to convince herself that it was both survivable and worth surviving.

The prickliness, the dark humor, the sarcasm—that’s how El is surviving, and also how the reader survives, because I don’t actually want to give the reader the direct visceral experience of being in the Scholomance. The Scholomance is not a nice place! But I do want to pull back the curtain every so often; those scenes are the true moments. When those scenes happen, that’s what’s real. They tell you something true about the place and about El.

The side characters surprised me more often, because going in, I didn’t know who all of them were and which ones would be important. Several of them became important over the course of the book. Yi Liu in particular was an interesting surprise for me but I don’t want to spoil why.

I always let the characters lead me. So I don’t have a preconceived plan for any scene. I start to be able to see what’s going to happen a certain distance ahead, but that’s only because I know that’s where the characters are going.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of A Deadly Education.


There’s a hefty cliffhanger at the end of A Deadly Education and I certainly don’t want to give anything away. But when can we expect to pick back up in the Scholomance and do you have an expected number of books in the series? I’m already clamoring for the next one!
It’s a trilogy. It was supposed to be a duology, and then the first book ended where it ended—unexpectedly—and I realized I had to write three books instead of two. Book three is already under way; book two is basically done.

I feel I should share, in the interest of giving fair disclosure: When I sent book two (The Last Graduate) to my editor, she replied with a subject line of all AAAAAAAAAs that was longer than the width of my (very) large screen. And that’s generally been the reaction of most readers at the end of book two. I’m sorry! I don’t actually mean to torture people!

But that’s where the books needed to end. As a writer, sometimes you write a scene, and there’s the end. It’s done! When that happens, you have to accept it. You can’t fight an ending. When your brain gives you an ending, you have to nurture it and pet it. Like a small, fluffy mouse.

If you weren’t writing fantasy, which other genres would you like to try? Something similar or completely new?
Fiction is a subset of fantasy, as opposed to the other way around. Fantasy is fiction where, as the author, you use your power over the stage your characters are on, the stakes of their situation. I would never give that power up just to be able to say I wasn’t writing fantasy.

I know people think fantasy means there’s got to be elves, magic, dragons, wizards, something, but those are just fantasy genre tropes that people recognize and so when you use them, it gives you those expectations to play with. I do love all those tropes, and I use them freely, but to me the real value of fantasy is that my world and my characters grow together.

I will always try new things, though. A Deadly Education is very different from Uprooted and Spinning Silver, which are in turn quite different from Temeraire. My short stories have been wildly all over the map, and I’ve written hundreds of fan fiction stories that are as well.

My mantra is just that I write what I can write, when I can write it.

Lastly, I always like to ask authors what they’re reading and loving now. What books have really captured your attention lately or are books you're looking forward to?
Lately I can read three pages at a time before I get interrupted, and then another six pages two days later before I get interrupted again. But I am currently reading Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi and really enjoying it even though I’m crawling through it like a small snail. It’s very good and every time I come back it’s still in my head despite the interruptions, so I continue to crawl.

I also recently had the opportunity to read The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab in advance, and it’s really lovely! Faustian bargain stories are often bleak, ticking time bombs of impending doom; without giving away too much, she’s turned it into something very charming, and I think readers will be quite surprised.

 

Author photo © Beth Gwinn.

After winning near-universal acclaim for Uprooted and Spinning Silver, two romantic, fairy-tale inspired fantasies, Naomi Novik is turning to the dark side. Her Scholomance series, which begins with A Deadly Education, takes place in a supernatural death trap of a school and follows El, a young woman who seems destined to become an evil sorceress. […]
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Fantasy author Stina Leicht makes her science fiction debut with the rollicking Persephone Station, which follows a crime lord with a heart of gold and a mercenary who team up to protect a pacificist alien species from a ruthless corporation. We talked to Leicht about making the shift between genres, how she devised the unique characters that populate her world and more.

Persephone Station is your first science fiction novel. What inspired you to switch from writing fantasy and what did you enjoy about sci-fi? Was there anything from fantasy that you missed?
My editor asked me if I had any ideas for a science fiction novel. No, really. That’s the whole story. I’ve been into SF since I discovered Star Trek at age 4. Now, ask me why I didn’t start with science fiction.

The Boys Club.

After decades of hearing that women can’t write science fiction and all the snide comments about “hard” versus “soft” SF . . . *eyeroll* well . . . the prospect was unappealing. I might even use the word intimidating. So, I wrote fantasy first. Of course, when I think back on it now, I don’t know why I thought SF would be more terrifying than writing about the troubles in Northern Ireland. Fear doesn’t have to make sense, I guess.

What I enjoy most about SF is the optimism—the thought that humanity will still be kicking in 300 years or whatever. I love thinking that we’ll come up with some way to stop killing the planet and, thus, ourselves. I want to believe that we’ll solve hunger and the problem of unequal opportunity and provide education for everyone. If everyone gets a shot at living up to their potential, we all benefit. And I guess you know why Star Trek is my favorite. Mind you, I enjoy the action/thriller stuff too. Clearly.

"I didn’t want the aliens to be perfect victims—no one is a perfect anything."

Anyway, writing SF versus writing fantasy isn’t that different. Technically, they both fall under surrealism. You have to focus on getting different details right, of course. For that reason, there’s nothing to miss. It’s not like I can’t go back to writing fantasy. I even indulge in horror sometimes. Having range as a writer is a good thing.

Do you plan to write a sequel, or more science fiction in general?
In my experience, sequels depend upon the publisher and how many copies are sold. I’d love to write more novels and stories set in this world, but I have to wait and see how Persephone Station does. Mind you, I’m already working on a new science fiction novel. I think I’ll be hanging out in this end of the genre pool for a while.

How did you come up with the idea of the Emissaries?
When I sat down to write Persephone Station, I wanted to write something feminist. The setting, the characters, the aliens—I wanted them all to mean something. I like building layers into stories. I’m a rereader, and it’s fun to find something new in a story that I like. That’s why I prefer to craft the surface parts (action, characters, dialogue) that make the story fun and, then provide the more cerebral bits that a reader can get into. But you don’t have to pay attention to the thinky parts to enjoy the story.

So I gave the aliens stereotypically feminine qualities. Their purpose for existing is to serve as mediators and peacemakers. They’re strongly discouraged from aggression. (If you don’t think these are feminine qualities, I invite you to observe a women’s martial arts class. Instructors often struggle to get the average woman comfortable with hitting another person.) A majority of women’s labor is unseen, unappreciated and unpaid, including house cleaning, care work, cooking, laundry and so on. Historically, men have taken credit for women’s creations, too. Finally, as a teen girl, I felt all this pressure to transform myself into whatever it was the male in my life desired. Boyfriend is into country music? Listen to country music. Boyfriend is into tabletop games? Be into tabletop games. I didn’t give much thought to what I wanted for the longest time. The young men I was with weren’t interested in what I wanted either.

I didn’t want the aliens to be perfect victims—no one is a perfect anything. So I made the Emissaries powerfully passive-aggressive. Because I live in the South and passive-aggressive is peak femme.

Your characters have such a jovial sense of fellowship to them, and the pacing of the story feels like a tabletop roleplaying game like Dungeons and Dragons. Was this intentional? Do you play tabletop roleplaying games?
Ha! I learned from the Sir Terry Pratchett school of character and dialog. So I didn’t have RPGs in mind at all. I do play and have for decades, but the pacing should be standard action/adventure pacing because that’s what the plot is based on. But that’s just me.

Kennedy was one of my favorite characters. What did you like most about writing her?
It’s interesting to me how much computer terminology and metaphor are used to describe human brain functions. However, structurally and functionally, they’re not even remotely close. For that reason, Kennedy is one of my favorites, too. She’s basically my Tin Man/Data character—so sincere. She’s all heart and extremely intelligent. As an electronic being with programmed empathy, she needed to live in the emotional equivalent of an uncanny valley. (Just not so much as to make her unlikeable.) She’s a newborn in a way. Physical experience is wondrous to her. Still not sure I carried that off, but that was the idea.

 

What do you do to find inspiration? Do any of your characters have a fun story behind their inception?
I’m a big fan of observing and experiencing life. Long walks with my husband are great—he’s extremely funny. Travel is inspiring too. Listening to ordinary people chat with one another. That kind of thing. I love wandering through junk shops and thinking about what the people who owned the things there were like. I also study how other writers write characters. I like people. I suspect you have to if you’re going to write about people. Sometimes I borrow qualities from people I know—no character is 100% anyone I know in real life. That wouldn’t be right. And I only use names and qualities from people I like. I don’t believe it’s ethical to put anyone you dislike into a story. It feels creepy, you know? Comedy is another influence. My favorite films contain snappy dialogue. Have you seen The Thin Man? Good stuff.

The way my imagination works is I start with a person and then I follow them around in my mind. It’s the same thing as daydreaming. Usually, they’re happy to tell me all about themselves. That’s great until you end up with a tight-lipped character or a character that behaves a certain way and refuses to explain why. For example, when I wrote Of Blood and Honey, Mary Kate kept apologizing about the baby. It made no sense. None of what happened was her fault, but she wouldn’t stop apologizing. So I paused the scene in my mind and asked. And that was when I found out that she’d been pregnant before. That was amazing.

Do you typically write in long, protracted sessions or in quick bursts? Or another way altogether?
Each story or novel is a bit different. I’ve written shorter works all in one go. Last Drink Bird Head was like that. Usually it happens in chunks. Five hundred words here. Two thousand words there. Writing requires persistence.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Persephone Station.


How have you been holding up in the pandemic? Has it affected your writing process?
Like everyone, it’s affected how much bandwidth I have for creativity. In spite of the mythology around the creative arts—people who are in insecure situations with tons of drama do not do their best work. Creativity requires safety and security. It has to be OK to make mistakes. If you’re worried about whether or not you’re going to eat or be homeless, you’re not going to be very creative because you’ll be under too much pressure. (And that’s why turning a hobby into a profession can sometimes kill your love of it.) I’m super lucky. I’ve a stable home life. My husband rocks. We’ve been married for 19 years and we get along great. That said, anxiety takes up a lot of headspace, and I’m an Olympic-class worrier, but you have to push on.

What are you looking forward to in 2021?
Honestly? The vaccine. I can’t wait until everyone gets the vaccine. Being able to write in a coffee shop again would be amazing. I miss bookstores and movie theaters more than just about anything. Traveling would be lovely too. But above all else—I’m looking forward to there not being hundreds of thousands of deaths in the news. I want everyone to be safe, healthy and happy.

Fantasy author Stina Leicht makes her science fiction debut with the rollicking Persephone Station.

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Genevieve Gornichec’s debut novel, The Witch’s Heart, was one month in the writing but 10 years in the making.

In the fall of 2011, she needed to write a term paper for a college class on Norse mythology. Her professor said the paper could be about anything . . . except Loki. Luckily, the professor had said something else that drew Gornichec’s attention, about the relationship between female figures in Norse mythology and the concept of fate and death. The comment led her to Loki’s mate, Angrboda, a witch-mother with the gift of prophecy.

Gornichec ended up writing a paper that connected Angrboda to other female figures in the mythology—eventually. “Before that,” the author says from her home in Ohio, “I wrote The Witch’s Heart in three weeks for NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month] in the wee hours of the morning while I should have been working on that paper.”

“In many ways, Loki is the least interesting person in the novel.”

In The Witch’s Heart, Angrboda is trying to build a new identity for herself at the edge of existence after being thrice burned for refusing to give Odin the secrets of the future he desires. But then Loki comes along. Despite her initial mistrust of the trickster god, Angrboda falls in love. The witch raises their three improbable children—the goddess Hel, the Midgard Serpent Jörmungandr and the wolf Fenrir—in her cave in the forest. At first she is safely hidden from Odin and the burden of knowing what fate has in store for her children, but her sheltered life won’t last. She of all people knows that she can’t hide forever. Ragnarök (the apocalyptic end of the world in Norse mythology) is coming, and everyone must play their part.

Like John Gardner’s Grendel or Madeline Miller’s Circe, The Witch’s Heart shifts the focus of a well-known myth to a secondary character with stunning and heartbreaking results. The novel actually started as a “love letter, to Loki, really,” but by the end, Gornichec realized that she’d “really made him suck” and that the story was more of a love letter to “Angrboda . . . and all the other characters.” In many ways, Loki is the least interesting person in the novel. He’s certainly far less interesting than Angrboda, the woman who can see Ragnarök coming but knows she can do nothing to stop it.

After graduating from Ohio State University, Gornichec became involved in Viking Age Living History, a community that re-creates the customs, fighting styles and arts and crafts of Viking life. Her experience with the group helped to root her book in historical reality. Originally, she described Angrboda as wearing heavy, ornate brooches and beads, inspired by the jewelry that archaeologists have found at Viking burial sites. But after struggling to do daily chores around camp in similar clothes, Gornichec knew she needed to simplify the witch’s clothing. Away went the brooches and beads, replaced by a more sensible ensemble.

Gornichec’s command of detail in The Witch’s Heart is immense, pulling readers in and making them examine not just Angrboda’s deepest, most unsettling worries but also the tiniest, most mundane moments of her life. Indeed, some of the most beautiful scenes in the book are the smallest—Loki snoring in bed or Angrboda’s efforts to make her cave more suitable for habitation with help from her huntress friend, Skadi. The grand background of foundational epics such as “Beowulf” is still there, but Gornichec grounds the story in its practicalities.

Because the Norse pantheon can only end with Ragnarök, Gornichec always assumed that she knew exactly how The Witch’s Heart would end. Her editor, Jessica Wade, didn’t quite agree. “She said, ‘I know what you’re trying to do here, and I think that you could craft an ending that’s more satisfying to your readers . . . without compromising the source material.’ ” Gornichec says that her editor’s intervention “single-­handedly saved everyone” from the original ending by encouraging her to build something that is instead more “bittersweet” and “satisfying.”


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE:
Read our starred review of 
The Witch's Heart. And if you love audiobooks, check out our review of the audiobook, read by Jayne Entwistle.


Gornichec hopes that readers will walk away from her book wanting to know more, ready to ask and find answers to questions about the more mysterious figures of Norse mythology. “A couple people have asked me if I’m ever going to do a Sigyn companion novel of some sort or if I’m ever going to write her side of the story,” she says, referring to Loki’s Asgardian wife. “And my answer to that is no.” She encourages fans to write that story themselves, to “explore on their own and find their own conclusions.” Because, as she notes, what is The Witch’s Heart but “an alternate universe mythology fan fiction, really?”

 

Author photo by Daina Faulhaber

Genevieve Gornichec’s debut novel, The Witch’s Heart, was one month in the writing but 10 years in the making.

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.

Interview by

In a genre filled with sprawling sagas, Sarah Beth Durst has been delighting readers with meticulously crafted, breathtakingly creative standalone fantasies. Her previous novel, Race the Sands, took place in a world where the wicked were reincarnated into terrifying beasts who competed in dangerous races. In The Bone Maker, Durst furthers her fascination with the porous boundary between life and death by creating a world marked by resurrection, the ghosts of the past and a magic system that allows people to see the future, give life to constructs and create talismans through bones.

The magic system you use here is so simple and elegant. What sorts of choices did you make when coming up with the rules of how bone magic works? How did the idea first come to you?
I had this image in my head of a silver-haired woman in a faded blue leather coat. She reaches into her pocket and . . . "What?" I asked myself. "What's in her pocket?" And my brain immediately answered, "Bones."

Not sure what this says about my brain, but that's the moment The Bone Maker was born.

I love to create magic systems with specific, clear rules. Everything that happens—and everything about the society, the history and the culture of the world—spills out as a consequence of those rules. To be clear, you don't necessarily have to have a fully defined magic system in a fantasy world, but I think that the world feels more real if the magic functions logically and consistently.

For my bone magic, I decided there were three different kinds of bone workers: bone makers, who use bones to animate inanimate objects; bone wizards, who imbue bones with specific powers such as strength or stealth; and bone readers, who use bones to tell the future.

"Even in the darkest times, people find a way—they need to find a way—to laugh."

All stories rely on a character's past to inform and shape the present of the book, and that feels particularly true here. Was it easier or more challenging to write these characters' stories after you formulated such rich backstories?
In order for me to write any character, they need to feel real to me. And real means having a backstory. We all have backstories. You, me, Darth Vader, everyone. So I believe it's not that it's easier or harder to write a character with a rich backstory; it's necessary.

It was especially essential with The Bone Maker, because this is a book about what happens after. It's set 25 years after the Heroes of Vos defeated a corrupt magician and his inhuman army made of animated bones. The heroes think their story is over. But it's emphatically not.

On a slightly related sidenote . . . I've always secretly wished it were socially acceptable to walk up to a stranger and say, "Tell me your story. How did you get to be who you are?" I love people's backstories!

This book frequently bounces between humor and solemnity. How did you control and balance the tone as you went back and forth?
I am deeply suspicious of any story that doesn't have humor. It's such a basic human coping mechanism. Even in the darkest times, people find a way—they need to find a way—to laugh.

All the humor in my epic fantasies arises from the characters. I control the tone by trying to be as true to the character as possible. If I think a character's most honest reaction to a particular situation would be to scream, then they scream. If I think they'd cope with snark, then snark it is! I think it was Ursula K. Le Guin who said that fantasy isn't real, but it's true. The more true you are to your characters, the more real your story will feel.

A lot has been said about how history repeats itself and we're doomed to relive our mistakes over and over. Does that idea ring true for you when you think about Kreya and the gang?
I . . . don't think so, actually. If it's only those who cannot remember the past who are doomed to repeat it, then Kreya and her team can't suffer that fate. None of them can forget the past. Especially Kreya. Her husband died years ago, and she's willing to cross any number of lines to bring him back.

I found myself thinking about regret while reading this book. These people have lost a lot over the course of their lives and in some cases, it heavily impacted who they are. Was that a planned decision or a happy accident? Which character's arc came together most easily?
It was a planned decision. I knew from the start that I wanted to write a book about second chances, and I sculpted the characters to be people in need of a second chance in one way or another. I wanted them to be bearing the wounds and scars of what came before and to explore how that would impact their ability to cope with an epic adventure.

As Zera says, "You know, the last time we saved the world, you people didn't have so many issues." I think Zera's arc was the one that came together the most easily. At the start of the novel, she's chosen a shallow life. By the end . . . I don't want to give any spoilers, so I'll just say I really, really loved writing her!

All fantasy worlds are filled with magical beasts and strange contraptions. Care to share any of your favorite creations that fill Vos?
I love creating creatures! I knew from the start that I wanted a slew of deadly creatures in the valley between the mountains—the people of Vos live in cities built high on the sides of the mountains because the mist-shrouded valley is deadly. Loved creating my crocoraptors and the venomous stone fish.

If I had to choose, though, I think my favorite creations in The Bone Maker are Kreya's rag dolls. She animates them with bones so that they can assist her in her tower. They're thoroughly creepy. So fun to write.

When you think back to writing this book, are there passages that you remember writing more vividly than others?
Loved writing every interaction between Kreya and Zera. They mock each other quite a bit and also truly care about each other—they're best friends who haven't seen each other in 25 years, didn't part on good terms and need to find their way back into each other's lives.

I also loved writing every scene where a character demonstrates strength—I adore writing about characters who have to rise to meet a near-impossible challenge. I believe that fantasy is a literature of empowerment. Nearly all my books are, on some level, about characters who must discover or rediscover their own power. And in this case, a lot of bone magic.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Bone Maker.


Is the ability to resurrect someone who is dead a question of morality? If you could do what Kreya did after reading Elkor's forbidden journals, would you?
In The Bone Maker, there's a cost to bringing someone back from the dead: one day of your life for every day they live. The kicker is that you don't know how many days you have left to spare. Only the magic knows.

I think the would-you-should-you depends on who died, how, when and what their wishes were. It's certainly not a power to be used lightly, and I don't think there's any easy or right answer.

Would you rather be a bone reader, a bone wizard or a bone maker?
I've spent way more time thinking about this than I probably should have! I don't think I'd like to be a bone reader—the power to predict the future is, frankly, too much responsibility. It shattered Marso. Bone maker is tempting. I love Kreya's contraptions: the bird skeleton, the ragdolls, the crawler. (A reader called my book "bonepunk," and I adore that term.) But I think I'd choose bone wizard. Make the right talisman, and incredible powers can be yours!

Very curious to hear what other people would choose . . .

In a genre filled with sprawling sagas, Sarah Beth Durst has been delighting readers with meticulously crafted, breathtakingly creative standalone fantasies.

Interview by

At the beginning of Zen Cho’s Black Water Sister, Jess Teoh moves back to Malaysia with her parents. The recent Harvard grad is struggling with typical post-college angst and also trying to figure out how to come out to her family (or if she should come out at all). But then the ghost of her grandmother, Ah Ma, starts talking to her, revealing that Ah Ma was a spirit medium devoted to a god called the Black Water Sister, and that she and the god intend to use Jess’ body to get revenge on a local businessman from beyond the grave.

You’re perhaps best known for your historical fantasies. What drew you to Black Water Sister’s contemporary setting?
I love historical settings, but I've also always wanted to write a novel about Malaysia, where I grew up, and the people I grew up among. Black Water Sister's protagonist, Jess, isn't me—her family and problems are different from mine—but in creating them, I drew a lot on my own life. And even though it's set in the 21st century, it's still in many ways a novel about history and how it shapes our present.

Jess is an unwilling heroine and, in some ways, an underpowered one. The feeling that she’s trapped in her fate with the god only grows as the book goes on. The idea of the reluctant hero is such an interesting one that’s been done in so many different ways. Do you have any favorites from literature?
I've been rereading J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, which is an old favorite and a formative influence, and of course Frodo Baggins is a classic example of the underpowered hero who has a quest forced upon him. I think that's a big part of the lasting power of that book, this idea of small hands moving the wheels of the world. The journey from being or feeling powerless to finding your power has an immediate relatability that makes it a very compelling narrative for a storyteller to draw on.

“I'm much more interested in what is than what should be."

How do you think Jess’ life might have been different if Ah Ma hadn’t spoken to her?
The book starts with Ah Ma saying to Jess, "Does your mother know you're a pengkid?"—pengkid being a Malay slang term for tomboy or lesbian. Jess' journey brings her to the point where she can give the answer that she needs to give. If Ah Ma had never spoken to her, I like to think that Jess would someday find the courage within herself to give that answer, but it might have taken a much longer time.

This book features gods both major and minor, real and created. What drew you to writing about a “small” god (one of your own creation) instead of one of the “big” gods?
What interests me about histories and stories and places is often the specific, the local—the small, if you like. What isn’t generalizable to other places and peoples. For example, probably my favorite Malaysian gods are the Datuk Kong, local guardian spirits who are primarily worshipped by the Chinese community but who themselves may be Malay-Muslim, Orang Asal (Indigenous) or from some other ethnic background or faith tradition. If you pray to a Datuk Kong at a specific shrine, you won't necessarily find that Datuk Kong anywhere else. A helpful Datuk Kong features in the book.

I wanted the Black Water Sister to be a god that was similar in scale, a god who is very much of her time and place. I was also conscious that in writing about spirit mediumship and the Taoist pantheon, I was writing about a living faith tradition. By making up a god, I was trying to put a respectful distance between the story I invented and the actual religious practices that inspired it.

Both the god and Ah Ma are incredibly strong and often terrifying, but they’re also surprisingly weak if you know how to push them. What fascinated you about supernatural forces that are simultaneously so powerful and so weak?
The three main women in Black Water Sister—the god, Ah Ma and Jess—function as images of one another. So in the same way that Jess is weak but has strengths that neither she nor the god and Ah Ma initially suspect, the god and Ah Ma are strong but also weak in ways that Jess and the reader discover over the course of the book. Part of the reason why it's important for the god and Ah Ma to have weaknesses is that, even though they're Jess' adversaries, they're also bound to and dependent on Jess. One of the book's major themes is interdependency—what responsibility do you owe those to whom you are connected by blood or circumstance?

Some of my favorite (and more lighthearted) scenes in Black Water Sister involve Jess’ aunt and mother arguing about the efficacy of their respective religious beliefs. Where did those scenes come from, and why did you want to have your characters discuss different belief systems?
It seemed natural to me to include such discussions. There tends to be an idea of religions being mutually exclusive: If you say you're Christian or Muslim, that implies a whole worldview that excludes any belief drawing from any alternative faith tradition. But that doesn't actually match the reality in a multicultural society like Malaysia. 

My aim wasn't to suggest that any one vision of the world is the correct one but to represent that diversity of belief that exists within families and communities and even individuals. As a Chinese Christian, for example, you may still revere your deceased relatives, in accordance with the Chinese tradition of ancestor worship. I suppose some people would say that is wrong, but when it comes to this sort of thing, I'm much more interested in what is than what should be.

What does your writing process look like? Has it changed at all during the pandemic?
It's changed with every book! To complete my first novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, I wrote in the evenings and weekends while working full time as a corporate lawyer. I went part time after getting my book deal, so I benefited from having a couple of working days a week to devote to writing the follow-up, The True Queen. Black Water Sister is the first novel I've completed since having a baby—and that really messes with your schedule! The pandemic aggravated the "lack of time" issue, but I'm lucky to have a very supportive partner and family. I aim to write a little bit on a regular basis, so not every day, but most days. That will get you surprisingly far.

You’ve published several published books, but you still work as a lawyer. Do you find that any lessons from your work as a lawyer bleed into your writing, or vice versa?
Like many creators, I'm a perfectionist when it comes to writing. This is genuinely unhelpful. It makes you feel that the best outcome, if your work can't be perfect (and no work can ever be perfect) is for it not to exist. The single most helpful thing my legal career taught me was that the work just has to be good enough. Clients won't pay for you to spend hundreds of hours on something to make it perfect; it just has to solve whatever problem they have. Bringing that "good enough" mindset to my writing has made it possible for me to write much better stories than I otherwise could have done.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Black Water Sister.


Not a moment is wasted in Black Water Sister. Was there anything that you left on the cutting room floor that you wish could have made it into the final book? 
In earlier drafts of the book, Jess was aided by a retired Indian Malaysian teacher called Puan Thilaga. Puan Thilaga represented a few different things—the diversity of Penang and the syncretism of its religious traditions, but also the possibility of acceptance and reconciliation, because she had a different attitude toward queerness than the older generation of Jess’ family. I ultimately cut Puan Thilaga's chapters from the book as they weren't really pulling their weight, but I miss her.

In a recent Twitter thread you talked about your love of Tolkien and the necessity of good food writing in epic fantasy. There are also some memorable moments with food in Black Water Sister. Why do you think great fantasies often feature great food?
My favorite books tend to combine the sublime with the mundane. Fantasy is a great vehicle for that because it's capable of conveying a sense of the numinous—the inscrutable, the magical, the extraordinary—while also being attentive to the small details of everyday life, like what meals the characters are having.

Who are you reading right now? What are you most excited about in fantasy today?
We're in a real golden age of fantasy at the moment, with so many exciting voices from historically underrepresented groups being published. Shelley Parker-Chan's alternative history novel She Who Became the Sun is bound to be a huge hit. It combines drama, romance and tragedy in an epic reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of China's Ming Dynasty. I'm also really looking forward to reading Isabel Yap's debut short story collection, Never Have I Ever, which mixes magic and Filipino folklore with immigrant tales; T.L. Huchu's The Library of the Dead, an Edinburgh-set urban fantasy about a teenage speaker to the dead who draws on Zimbabwean magic and Scottish pragmatism to solve a mystery; Aliette de Bodard's Fireheart Tiger, a romantic fantasy brimming with political intrigue set in a precolonial Vietnamese-esque world; and the concluding installment to Fonda Lee's Green Bone Saga, an epic family drama with all the style and excitement of a Hong Kong gangster movie. 

 

Author photo by DJ Photography.

A ghostly grandmother refuses to give up her grip on the living in Zen Cho’s new fantasy.

Interview by

Marina Lostetter lures readers in to her complex new fantasy with a killer premise: a death mask imbued with the knowledge and personality of a serial killer has been stolen. We talked to Lostetter about how she developed her alchemy-inspired magic system, why The Helm of Midnight needed to be told from three different perspectives and more.

Your past work has been in the realm of hard science fiction. What led you to write your first fantasy novel? Was there anything that surprised you about writing in this genre?
I've always dabbled in both sci-fi and fantasy in my short fiction, and the first draft of The Helm of Midnight was about halfway done when Noumenon went out on submission, so in some of ways I think of it as my second novel, rather than my fourth.

I think secondary-world fantasy's greatest strength is also its biggest challenge. The author is responsible for every aspect of the world. So, when I'm writing it, I get to break free from reality, but there's also no real leaning on reality. For example, if a government functions a certain way, it's because I chose for it to function that way, not because it just does. And I can use a lot more short-hand in sci-fi, because there are real-world touchstones I can reference directly. In fantasy, if I want to use cultural touchstones, I have to establish them first.

Is there another subgenre of SFF that you haven't explored yet that you would like to? And are there any that you have no interest in?
I'm a very never-say-never kind of writer when it comes to dabbling in different genres. I like to keep my options open and play around. I have an alternate-history novel with giant monsters and dieselpunk aspects that's been sitting half done on my hard drive for a while, and I would love to be able to get it out into the world one day.

"To paraphrase Dickens: Charbon, the serial killer, is dead to begin with."

The setting of The Helm of Midnight is elaborately detailed. What is your approach to world building? Where and how does a world begin to take shape for you?
My world building is a tad haphazard in early drafting. I usually only have a tentative grasp on the rules I'm trying to put in place, and end up just throwing in fun things that I later either change to conform to the rules or reform the rules around. The Helm of Midnight was especially challenging world building-wise, because I knew from early on that I wanted hidden history to be a big part of it. Which, essentially, meant I had to world build in layers.

In your magic system, people can bottle and harness emotions, thoughts and time. Do you remember how you first came up with this idea?
The Helm of Midnight incorporates one of my previously published short stories, which features the knowledge-based and time-based magic. When I expanded the world and integrated that short story into a new plot, I wanted to expand the magic system as well. Since the system already focused on enchantments, I decided the magic itself should be mined and harvested from different materials: knowledge magic is in wood, time magic is in sand/glass, nature magic—which is characterized by evolution and transference—is in metals and emotion-based magic is in gemstones.

If you had the chance, would you like to have such powers yourself?
I think any of these enchantments would be great to have—save for the fact that I know how they're made. Let's just say Arkensyre's enchantments are not responsibly sourced.

What was your inspiration for the five-pointed, multi-gendered pantheon?
I hadn't yet built a religion for the Valley of Arkensyre when I expanded the magic system into five magics, and it felt natural to assign each kind of magic to a god. You'll notice above that I only mention four kinds of magic, and that's because when we're first introduced to the world in The Helm of Midnight, one god and their magic-type is unknown. I chose to have a five-gendered pantheon because I wanted to highlight that many genderized aspects of culture are constructions. Five gods with five genders means it's natural for the people of Helm's world to treat gender more like a spectrum, and to reflect their pantheon by using any of the five gods' pronouns for themselves.

The Helm of Midnight is written from three perspectives, all of which take place in different timelines. What was challenging about such a complicated structure? Why was this approach the best way to tell this story?
Each character has their own journey, and the three perspectives end up converging with all the force of planets colliding—which was very exciting for me to write, and I hope is equally exciting to read!

To paraphrase Dickens: Charbon, the serial killer, is dead to begin with. The novel kicks off when his death mask—imbued with his knowledge and an echo of his personality—is stolen. Knowing how and why he began killing prior to his death is essential to grasping what's really going on in Arkensyre Valley. Krona is a Regulator, tasked with re-containing his mask. Hers is the present-day perspective and really gives us a baseline understanding of how society is "supposed" to work. It's Melanie who feels like the odd one out at first. Her storyline might initially seem divorced from the other two, but the entire narrative hinges on her and her bizarre encounters with magic.

Essentially, it took three perspectives across three timelines because there are aspects of the story that are outside each character's purview. The audience is getting the full story, not the individual characters.

Melanie's point of view was the only one that gave me any problems structure-wise, which I think stems from the fact that her perspective is the one that incorporates the original short story. It was also a bit of a challenge to make sure all three perspectives wove together in a way that made each chapter in a new point of view naturally flow from the last.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Helm of Midnight.


What's one thing you would suggest a reader keep in mind as they read this book?
Each character is moving through the narrative acting on what they believe to be true, rather than what is true.

What's next for you?
I have another book coming out this year! Activation Degradation will be released on September 28, 2021. It's a thriller-esque sci-fi novel set in Jovian space, featuring soft robots, queer space pirates, action-adventure and unreliable narration.

 

Author photo © Jeff Nelson.

Marina Lostetter lures readers in to her complex new fantasy with a killer premise: a death mask imbued with the knowledge and personality of a serial killer has been stolen.

Interview by

In P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn, the world was forever changed in 1872 when a man named Al-Jahiz opened a portal to another world and let all manner of magic into our own. Decades later, someone claiming to be Al-Jahiz returns from the dead goes on a murderous rampage through Cairo, threatening both the delicate balance between the world powers and the uneasy accord between humans and the supernatural. We talked to Clark about the inspirations behind his alternate history.

I love the world you've created! How do you start world building at the very beginning of a project? Was there any specific moment or image that kickstarted your vision of an alternate Cairo?
Thank you! I think for this world—what I think is now called the Dead Djinn universe—the idea began with an image in my head of the main character, Fatma, in the suit and a dead djinn hovering over her. Who knows what made me dream that up? But once it was there, I needed to figure it out. Who was this person? Was this a detective story? Maybe she’s a detective. No, maybe she’s an agent. OK, what’s with the dead djinn? What’s even the larger mystery here? And it went on and on like that, until I had a story.

Egyptian mythology (among other African and Middle Eastern cultures) has a strong influence in this book. Was there any specific work that inspired you? What draws you to the stories of that corner of the world?
My earliest years growing up, I was exposed to a lot of Afro-Caribbean folklore, Hindu cosmology and Muslim festivals (like Hosay)—part of my environment. So the non-“Occidental” has always been part of my lived experience. And I think I’ve always found myself searching for it, no matter where I’ve ended up.

"I didn’t have a plan for writing anything else here after my short story 'A Dead Djinn in Cairo.' It was the reception by readers that inspired me to do more."

Fatma, Siti and Hadia are such fun characters to see interact. How do you approach writing dynamic conversations?
With all characters, I try to imagine how they would approach a situation or react to others. I think of them the way I would real people, with certain personality traits, habits, quirks, etc. So when Siti says something, I ask myself how Fatma would respond, or Hadia. And I just try to stay true to who they are.

Dr. Hoda is my favorite side character so far, so I have to ask—will she get her assistant?
LOL. Great question. I like side characters like Dr. Hoda precisely because they leave the door open to revisit them later. In the meantime, if I can get readers to identify with them (despite their limited presence) and see them as characters with depth, I’m happy.

Is there anything from your personal life you drew on to write this book? Or do you prefer not to think consciously about what parts of your life go into your work?
There are parts that are based heavily on my memories of visiting Cairo. And certainly, I pulled from themes and issues in my head at the time I was writing. The Dead Djinn world as a nod to anti-colonialism reflects much of my own personal bias. But overall, the characters and whatnot have their own experiences and lives that are quite separate from my own. Also, I haven’t yet actually seen a djinn.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of A Master of Djinn.


Do you want to continue writing stories in this world? If so, do you have a plan for how many more books you would like to write, or will you just see where the story takes you?
Plan? No plans here. I didn’t have a plan for writing anything else here after my short story “A Dead Djinn in Cairo.” It was the reception by readers that inspired me to do more. Fortunately, because I enjoy world building, I always leave myself different doors and paths to explore. So, I don’t have anything yet in mind. But who knows?

What have you read and loved recently?
I am reading Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé. The prose and imagination are magnificent!

What else are you working on?
A project I’m not yet supposed to talk about. But let’s just say, I may be writing for a decidedly younger audience. Though the rest of you are welcome to come along, too.

What do you want the reader to walk away with after reading A Master of Djinn?
A satisfied smile. And a hunger for Egyptian street food.

In P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn, the world was forever changed in 1872 when a man named Al-Jahiz opened a portal to another world.

Interview by

When F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby entered the public domain in 2021, it became free game for adaptation. But unfortunately for any future reimaginings of the iconic Jazz Age novel, it’s going to be hard to top Nghi Vo’s historical fantasy, The Chosen and the Beautiful.

Shifting narrators from Nick Carraway to Jordan Baker, Daisy’s best friend and a fan favorite, Vo adds even greater power to Fitzgerald’s depiction of the haves and have-nots of American capitalism by making Jordan the adopted Vietnamese daughter of a rich, white couple. We talked to Vo about Jordan's idiosyncratic allure, the dangers of Hemingway and more.

The Chosen and the Beautiful is a stunning book in its own right, but I’m essentially obligated to ask: What led you to adapt The Great Gatsby and why did you choose this particular genre?
Well, I'm absolutely a fantasist, so of course I was going to write it as a fantasy, and plus, it's just too much fun to miss. The ’20s were wild to begin with, and the temptation to imagine people drinking demon's blood cocktails, trading faces and chasing ghosts was far too strong for me.

The idea of writing something like The Chosen and the Beautiful has been in my mind since I read the book in high school, but it didn't leap to sharp focus until I was chatting with my agent Diana Fox, and she asked if I had any projects I might like to tackle in the future. I told her about what I would do with The Great Gatsby, she told me to stop writing what I was writing to work on that story instead, and that's how Chosen came about.

One of the challenges of adapting a widely known work of fiction is creating something new and vital on a well-established canvas. How did you go about finding spaces to add intrigue, twists and surprises, especially since your readers will most likely be familiar with the events of The Great Gatsby itself?
So in writing The Chosen and the Beautiful, I more than doubled Fitzgerald's word count. This actually makes a lot of sense to me because when I went back to read The Great Gatsby, what I found from a mechanical perspective is that Gatsby is a brick of a book in disguise. Fitzgerald doesn't spell things out so long as the reader walks away with the general point. There are a ton of spaces to explore in the original. The ones that stand out most significantly to me are the secret conversations Jordan Baker is canonically having with Jay Gatsby, the ones that actually set the whole thing into motion, but those are far from the only ones! (cough, lever scene, cough)

"This is one memorable summer in what is going to go on to be a very strange but excitingly entertaining life."

The Chosen and the Beautiful is an exquisitely researched book. Is research a typical aspect of your writing process? And how did you go about it in this case?
Well, I started by reading The Great Gatsby a few times and highlighting everything I didn't understand, every throwaway reference and every sentence that made me wonder what was going on. Then I went after that specific thing, and usually what that did was open the door to a better understanding not only of what Fitzgerald was doing, but of the era itself. One good example is Daisy's casual mention of the twilight sleep when she gave birth to Pammy—I had no idea what the twilight sleep was, and looking it up sent me down a rabbit hole of reproductive rights, medical history and period views on childbirth, motherhood and the rights of women. In general, I find that the more granular my research gets, the better off I am.

I sometimes find myself talking or writing in the tone of whatever I just read or my current long-term project, even in unrelated contexts. Early 20th-century prose is so distinctive, especially that of Fitzgerald, so I’m a little curious: Did it bleed over into other things you were doing as well?
It did! I went to read Kathy Acker's Pussy, King of the Pirates to fix myself up afterwards. I'm a deeply susceptible writer, so I have to actually regulate my reading when I'm in project mode. A poorly timed dash of Hemingway can be disastrous.

Jordan Baker is often thought of as an accessory to the core tragedy of The Great Gatsby, but in The Chosen and the Beautiful you’ve given her a tragedy all her own. What drew you to fleshing out that character in particular?
I think one of the cool things about The Great Gatsby is that Jordan absolutely has something going on in the background. Nick doesn't see it because his eyes are full of Gatsby and the glory of the American Dream turned pyrotechnic, but Jordan's living her own life already in the book. She has her own motivations and her own agenda, things that are murky in the original text, so when I sat down to figure her out for Chosen, it was a lot like working backwards to find her. And then, you know. I added a magical Vietnamese heritage.

"Jordan wears her identities with defiance because to do otherwise is to disappear, and she won't have that."

This book tackles a variety of issues, but seems to keep coming back to questions of agency, especially in communities that lack it. What were the broad themes you were considering when writing this book, and what made this format—a literary adaptation, yes, but also historical fantasy more broadly—so well-suited to that task?
One of the posts that I wrapped this narrative around was the idea of being a foreigner, of being othered so often and so rigorously that it became an identity all its own. Jordan wears her identities with defiance because to do otherwise is to disappear, and she won't have that. There's what Jordan wants, what Jordan has resigned herself to and the emerging realization of what she is capable of. It seemed like the liberation and modernization of the ’20s combined with the shadows of World War I and the Spanish flu would be a great place to explore those ideas!

In some ways, The Chosen and the Beautiful lives in multiple genres at once. How do you think about where this book fits alongside other fantasy novels? Were there other books or writers that served as inspirations, other than The Great Gatsby?
When I think about literary inspirations for The Chosen and the Beautiful, I inevitably come back to Angela Carter, most specifically, her work in Nights at the Circus. In that novel, it never mattered what was real or true—what mattered was the story. You didn't have to decide whether or not to believe it, whether it could have happened or not. You're just along for the ride, and that's what I hope for with Chosen, that it's good enough people will come along for the ride.

Fantasy writers (and reviewers, truth be told) can obsess about magic systems, which is part of why I found it so remarkable that your magic is as indistinct and varied as it is. What kinds of inspirations did you draw on for it? Or more generally, where did it come from? 
This is one of the joys and challenges of writing in a first-person perspective and from the perspective of a person who's as strong-willed and canny as Jordan. Jordan exists very hard in her world, and through a lot of effort, she makes it look effortless. To me, that meant that I absolutely had to know how Jordan's world works, but since I'm writing as Jordan, I have to be entirely blasé about it. It's a fun balance to strike, and the moments where it does come out, in Daisy's water witch abilities, in Gatsby's own skills, felt enormously validating.

About halfway through the book, Jordan talks about how much space and air men could take up. That talk crystallized the theme of female agency running through The Chosen and the Beautiful and the historical pattern of male heroes in fantasy. You’ve talked in previous interviews about the importance of point of view when writing historical fiction. Did those considerations change at all for you while writing a historical fantasy?
This would have been a very different story if I had chosen to write it from anyone else's point of view! Jordan's lens allows me and, by extension, the reader to look where Jordan looks. It's at once wonderful because we're suddenly at right angles to the original narrative, and at the same time, it's maddening because Jordan doesn't look like a historian or an anthropologist might. She doesn't even look at things like a storyteller does. If anything, I hope I succeeded in creating the impression that this is one memorable summer in what is going to go on to be a very strange but excitingly entertaining life.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Chosen and the Beautiful.


I won’t get into specifics so as to not spoil anything, but I love the ending of The Chosen and the Beautiful. It is profoundly moving, and it changed the way I interpreted things from earlier in the book. When did you decide on the ending, and its connections to the flashbacks from Jordan’s past?
Okay, I had that ending in mind from the moment I decided to write this. It's there because of a specific line in The Great Gatsby, and it felt so natural that I keep forgetting other people aren't in on it. It was like something falling into place, and I'm still so pleased with that ending and how it feels to me.

What advice would you give to other writers setting out to adapt canonized literary classics or existing historical narratives?
Whatever it is, just start out by loving it. I'm the last person to tell you that you can't write out of spite, but when it comes to adapting someone else's story and putting your mark on it, loving it or being able to find something to love in it is going to get you through a lot more than anger.

Lastly, what’s next on your plate? Do you have any more projects coming up?
More Singing Hills, more dead people, more people who should be dead, and oddly enough, a lot of weaponry!

Nghi Vo takes The Great Gatsby on a dizzying, magical joyride in her new historical fantasy, The Chosen and the Beautiful.

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