Five Authors I’m Thankful For

Thanksgiving is a time when we lay negativity aside and focus our attention on what we love, those people and things that give our lives savor and make us smile when we get up in the morning. I know that whatever might go wrong in my life, I can always conjure a smile at the thought of all the wonderful books I have yet to read. As long as I have even one unread book to look forward to, life is good.

So for my Thanksgiving blog, I send my gratitude toward authors who have created stories that have captured my imagination. I’ve chosen five who are still turning out new books I’m itching to lay my hands on.

Juliet Marillier is one of those writers I read in the desperate hope that a little of the lyrical beauty of her writing style will rub off on me. To read Marillier at her best — Wolfskin, my introduction to her; the original Sevenwaters Trilogy, beginning with Daughter of the Forest — is to step through a gossamer curtain into a country where the supernatural feels quite natural and music and story-making are as highly prized as soldiership. Marillier has created some very remarkable heroines, my favorites being the mystical priestess Nessa of Wolfskin, whose boundless empathy helps reshape the values of a wounded Viking warrior, and Fainne of Child of the Prophecy, who overcomes the darkness in her own soul to use her immense power for good. Marillier also, more often than not, gets the romance right. Book I can’t wait to read: Tower of Thorns, the second book in the new Blackthorn and Grim series.

Kate Elliott I discovered a couple of years ago, when I read her science fiction novel Jaran. I liked it, and was moved to explore more of Elliott’s work, but it wasn’t until I read Cold Magic, the first volume in her Spiritwalker Trilogy, that I fell wholeheartedly in love — with Cat Barahal, the smart, curious, and introverted heroine; with her bond with her more extroverted cousin Bee; and with Elliott’s wide-ranging world building and incredibly diverse cast of characters. Elliott can take me places I want to go, full of dangers and surprises and the company of intriguing characters. Book I can’t wait to read: Black Wolves.

Brandon Sanderson is one of the better-known authors in current fantasy, and one of the most prolific; I believe he has four major series of novels currently ongoing. His style isn’t quite as breathlessly lyrical as Marillier’s, and his world building isn’t quite as rich as Elliott’s, but his work draws me in every time, and I love his practice of creating lead characters who, while flawed sometimes to the point of being downright irritating, are basically good. His series The Stormlight Archive is one of the few current large-scale epic fantasies that doesn’t follow the grimy, cynical “grimdark” trend of having “heroes” who are interchangeable with villains and presenting honor and empathy as mirages in which only fools believe. (Grimdark does have its place, but it’s not my preference.) Book I can’t wait to read: the third Stormlight Archive novel, Oathbringer.

Kate Forsyth also writes epic fantasy on a broad canvas. I started her work a little backwards, with the Rhiannon’s Ride series (The Tower of Ravens et. seq.), which I didn’t realize was a direct sequel to an earlier series. Thankfully I had no trouble following it, and I thought her work fun, engaging in storytelling terms though not as impressive in terms of style or depth. Not until I read Bitter Greens, a compelling blend of fantasy and historical fiction in which the tale of Rapunzel is retold alongside the story of seventeenth-century author of fairy tales Charlotte-Rose de la Force, did I realize how brilliant an author Forsyth could be, in both style and substance. When I turned to the first book in her earlier epic fantasy series, The Witches of Eileanan, I read it with fresh appreciation of her skill, and now I’m dedicated to hunting down all the remaining volumes. New book I can’t wait to read: The Beast’s Garden, the next in the “fairy tale” series.

I’ve already tipped my hat to Django Wexler once before on this blog site, when I defended his Shadow Campaigns series against the charge of having “too many female characters.” (Note to all authors of epic and historical fantasy: you can never have too many female characters.) But his giving prominent roles to multiple female characters is only one reason I’m thankful for him. He writes complex characters of both genders, giving even his villains an understandable perspective. He creates a sometimes sumptuous, sometimes gritty landscape and builds believable nations and cities from historical material. He also offers an empathetic depiction of a lesbian love affair, something many male authors (and not just males) might lack the courage to do. Book I can’t wait to read: Volume 3 of this series, The Price of Valor. The fourth book, The Guns of Empire, is due for a release next year.

Honorable mentions:

Sharon Shinn. Book I can’t wait to read: Jeweled Fire.

Elizabeth Bear. Books I can’t wait to read: Karen Memory, An Apprentice to Elves (co-written with Sarah Monette).

Guy Gavriel Kay. Book I can’t wait to read: Children of Earth and Sky.

Miles Cameron. Books I can’t wait to read: The Fell Sword and The Dread Wyrm, the remaining books in the Traitor’s Son trilogy.

Martha Wells. Book I can’t wait to read: The Edge of Worlds, the latest in her series Books of the Raksura.

Mercedes Lackey. Book I can’t wait to read: From a High Tower, the latest in her Elemental Masters series.

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Interview with Beth Warstadt

Today’s guest is Beth Warstadt, author of Megan’s Christmas Knight, published by Gilded Dragonfly Books.

First, tell me a little about yourself.

BW: I’m a Tennessee girl who married a Connecticut Yankee and now lives in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. We have two grown sons who are both in currently in college. I have Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in English from Emory University in Atlanta. When I’m not working as a special education paraprofessional or writing, I love to read or watch movies. I’m also a fairly competent cook, with some particularly sought after cookies and brownies in my repertoire.

When did you first decide to become a writer? What led to the decision?

BW: Like most writers, I’ve been making up stories all my life, but I made the conscious decision to become at writer when I turned 40 years old. I figured I was about half done with my life, and if I was going to have a writing career I had better get on with it.

What’s your favorite thing about being a writer?

BW: I love disappearing into a story. I prefer to write when I am home alone, and I can really get inside the heads of my characters and get the feeling for a particular setting that I am creating. It’s the same thing I love about reading and watching movies, except that I get to control when the story ends.

Describe your new book.

BW: Megan’s Christmas Knight is a romantic Christmas fantasy. Megan is a woman running away from her life because of something terrible she has done. She is rescued by a mysterious stranger, Nick, who sends her on a quest that helps her learn about love and forgiveness. At the same time that he is helping her he begins to question some of his own rules about his life, especially the ones that keep him alone.

Who are some of your favorite authors, and why?

BW: I love Diana Gabaldon and read her Outlander books with a pen in hand to underline her descriptions or dialogue that I consider extremely well written. I have done the same with George R. R. Martin, although I am a little put off by the violence in the Song of Ice and Fire books. I also frequently return to the classics like Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte, and I am an avid Tolkien fan.

What are some of your favorite holiday stories (books, movies, TV specials), and what do you love about them?

BW: There are so many—how do I pick? Let’s start with A Christmas Carol in many of its versions, from Alistair Sim to Mickey Mouse. I also read it every year. I can recite “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by heart. I just watched Elf again tonight. I connect with the Grinch both in cartoon and live action formats. I love the book Polar Express more than the movie, but the movie is good too. I have also managed to acquire a copy of The Nutcracker featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov. I could go on and on. What do I love about them? I love the idea of the magic of Christmas, of people coming together with love and hope and generosity and kindness, and I am particularly drawn to stories of transformation. That is the inspiration for Megan’s Christmas Knight. What better time for a troubled woman to experience the miracles of love and forgiveness than at the most magical time of the year?

Also, I tried to work in as many allusions to these works as I could. At the beginning, for example, “The wind charged in like a freight train, whipping dried leaves into Meg’s face with broad, open palms” calls to mind “as the dried leaves before the wild hurricane fly” from A Visit from St. Nicholas.” My character, Nick, is a man of few words just like St. Nick “spoke not a word but went straight to his work.” I dropped these little references throughout the book.

As a reader, what would you like to see more of? Conversely, what would you like to see less of?

BW: I like for my heroes to be heroic, so I am always looking for characters I can get behind and cheer for, men and women who rise above their common place in the world. As far as what I would like to see less of, I think there is an audience for every kind of writing, but for myself, I lose patience with a book that sacrifices the story to achieve a more immediate but short-lived impact.

Romance done right?

I learn the darnedest things when I peruse the Web. I always enjoy checking out The Mary Sue blog site, for even if I don’t agree with all the positions the articles take, they always offer me food for thought. This morning I found a report on a scientific study that claims men are not attracted to women who can (or try to) make them laugh. They appreciate girls who laugh at their jokes, but not ladies who tell jokes of their own. The scientists who conducted this study certainly didn’t talk to any of the men I’m privileged to know well, all of whom appreciate women who can match them quip for quip.

If this study is accurate, how much of the blame — and the responsibility for sparking a change — may lie with fiction? In “The Decay of Lying,” Oscar Wilde famously theorized that art does not imitate life, but rather, life imitates art. Art shapes our perceptions and expectations. So much of our understanding of what is normal, what is right, what is masculine or feminine, and what is romantic, springs from the stories we take in. If Wilde is right, as I believe he is, those of us who write fiction have the power to challenge stereotypes and reshape outworn and limiting tropes, if only we choose to do so.

As the article points out, the idea that a woman who tells her own jokes isn’t attractive to men (because women’s jokes aren’t funny) has its roots in an old and oft-reworked “romantic” script that casts “the man as the ‘performer’ who will ‘win over’ a woman, while the woman plays the role of withholding gatekeeper.” These words take me back to Nancy Armstrong’s Desire and Domestic Fiction, a study of Victorian ideals of womanhood that I read while I was beavering away at a dissertation on fairy-tale motifs in nineteenth-century British novels. It included a piece of advice from a conduct book, for girls to cultivate the “mild and retiring virtues” rather than the “bold and dazzling ones,” because the latter were likely to inspire “admiration rather than affection” (as if the two couldn’t go hand in hand). In other words, men should talk, and women should listen; men should joke, and women should laugh in response; men should be impressive, and women should be impressed. A capable, competent woman is not desirable.

Apparently the ideas expressed in this relic of the nineteenth century are still hanging around our necks, fed by decades of our pop culture. The Defrosting Ice Queen trope is everywhere, from Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers films to Jurassic World. Films like Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish feature strikingly unique heroes whose love interests are the epitome of bland ordinariness. Then we have the legions of YA fantasy romance novels following in the footsteps of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, in which an ordinary human high school girl’s life is given unwonted purpose when a bold, dazzling male vampire/werewolf/angel/demon/alien/whatever shows up. Boys are impressive, girls are impressed, again and again and again.

Which brings us to the article’s crucial question: “Can we really not imagine romance as an equal opportunity impress-me fest?”

I write romance fantasy. At times I get the feeling some consumers of geek culture would like me to be ashamed of this, but I refuse to be. I understand the dissatisfaction with romance, and the low expectations associated with it, when I look over the books I’ve read in the past two years and see how many of my favorites include no central romance at all (Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings; Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names; Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook; Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead) or have a love plot that I find the novel’s least interesting/appealing aspect (Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky Trilogy; Kate Elliot’s Spiritwalker Trilogy; Betsy Cornwell’s Mechanica; Marissa Meyer’s Cinder; Naomi Novik’s Uprooted). Yet if I don’t care for the romances I see in speculative fiction, my answer in my own writing isn’t to shun romance as inherently unworthy but to try to do it right, on my own terms.

In my novel Atterwald, the heroine must win over the hero, if she’s to have any luck curing him of the wasting disease that afflicts him. It takes some doing, but in time she impresses him with her imagination, optimism, and warm heart, and he starts to reveal impressive qualities of his own. The situation between hero and heroine in my follow-up novel The Nightmare Lullaby is even more difficult, as each has reason to distrust the other. Yet slowly and surely they win each other over, discovering in each other intelligence, empathy, and integrity.

One of my favorite writers of romantic plots in fantasy and sci-fi, Sharon Shinn, created a compatible couple in her novel Jovah’s Angel, an agnostic engineer and a shy, intellectual angel (this time it’s the heroine who isn’t quite human). One of their evenings together is described this way: “Their conversation was thoughtful, unhurried, built half of memories and half of observations, and Caleb had never felt so completely in tune with himself or another human being” (258). Now there’s a description I wish I’d written.

A few other books/authors that I feel get the love story right: Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards! (Sam and Sybil are a delight); Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog; Steven Brust and Emma Bull, Freedom and Necessity; Emma Bull, War for the Oaks (one of the few human heroine/nonhuman hero romances I actually like); Patricia McKillip, The Sorceress and the Cygnet (Meguet and the Gatekeeper); Lois McMaster Bujold, Paladin of Souls; Juliet Marillier, Wolfskin, Son of the Shadows.

What are some fantasy and sci-fi novels you feel get the romance right? Let me know in the comments below. Look for more information about The Nightmare Lullaby in the coming weeks.

Interview with Andrea Sommers

My latest guest is Andrea Sommers, author of When It’s Love I’ll Let You Know, recently published by Gilded Dragonfly Books.

First, tell a little about yourself.

AS: I’ve lived in Georgia for over 20 years, but I still think of myself as a Southern Californian (because people from California always think they’re just a little bit cooler than everyone else, despite all evidence to the contrary). I’ve got two kids, two cats, but only one husband. I love reading good books and complaining about bad ones, I love grammar, I love television, I love theater, and yes, I love Facebook. It is unlikely I will ever train myself not to double space after a period when I type. According to those who supposedly know, I have really, really terrible taste in music. I lose my reading glasses a dozen times a day.

2. How would you characterize yourself as a writer? What sorts of stories draw you to them?

AS: Unfortunately, as far as process, I’m a “write a bit…oh, look, shiny!…check email…play Candy Crush” kind of writer. I’m working on my focus. In the story sense, I’m far more interested in my characters and the way they talk and relate to each other than I am in creating complicated plots. That may be why I’m interested in romance- the relationship IS the plot.

I am most drawn to stories with some degree of romance, and even when it’s straight fiction, fantasy, or science-fiction, it’s the romantic relationships that I focus on. (I maintain that Dave Duncan’s A Man of His Word quartet is the most romantic series I’ve ever read.) I’m drawn to books that are well-written and bubble right along with a nearly casual tone. I like my books funny and smart. And I should probably hang my head in shame to admit that if a book has a lot of technical or descriptive passages, I’ll likely skim right over them.

3. Describe When It’s Love I’ll Let You Know. What are your favorite things about it? What do you hope readers come away with, after reading the novel?

AS: When It’s Love I’ll Let You Know is about two people so afraid of falling in love that they don’t realize they did it a long time ago. They’ve both got a lot of self-created barriers to forming a relationship, and that’s one of the things that I like about it. It’s not a series of misunderstandings or about outside events affecting their relationship, it’s about real people and real fears. That said, it’s still fun. Kate and Peter have great dialogue, I find them both quick and funny (Peter cracks me up when he’s deadpan), and they’re people I’d like to hang out with.

I also like the friendship between Kate and Jen. Sometimes friendship is hard. Sometimes people fight and it gets messy. But there’s still a lot of love there and I think their relationship is honest and one that I’d envy.

As for what I’d like readers to come away with? There’s a quote from Kathleen Gilles Seidel (one of my favorite authors for her insights, realistic characters, and because she never writes a sentence that deserves a grammar side-eye). I’ll paraphrase her: She knew her romance novels wouldn’t change someone’s life, but they might change someone’s afternoon. And that’s where I am. I want my reader to really enjoy the experience and to be involved with the characters, to laugh with them and to hurt with them. At the end of the book, I’d like someone to sigh happily and wish my characters well.

Hearing “I’d only planned to read a little bit, but I stayed up half the night” from multiple readers is very sweet.

4. What’s your favorite thing about being a writer?

AS: Imagining how entertaining I’ll be as an old, old lady when I start talking out loud to my imaginary characters instead of keeping it in my head.
Days like today are amazing, too. I had a really good writing day where it flowed and I easily hit the (fairly unambitious) word count I’d set without it feeling like a slog. I’ve had too many days lately that aren’t that way. I’m happier now that I’ve switched to a new project that’s really inspired me, and one that I’m not heaping any self-inflicted expectations on.

5. What books and authors have influenced you most?

AS: I think Anne McCaffrey needs a shout-out. She inspired me to fan fiction before I knew it was a thing. Predictably, I gave her characters romantic relationships, completely ignoring the author’s own pairings because I didn’t agree with them. Because of her, I really started writing.

I’ll also shout out to my ninth grade English teacher, John Kohlmeier, who was the first person who told me I could write well. I’m not sure I’d be doing this without that encouragement.
The early Harlequins of Nora Roberts, Diana Palmer, and Catherine Coulter put me on the road to reading romance.

Now Susan Elizabeth Phillips is who I’d like to be when I grow up. I find it encouraging that she doesn’t pump out a book every six months, and that she produces fun, readable romances that are allowed to take their time developing. She writes books that are long and are allowed to relax and breathe, and there are often secondary romantic relationships included, too. All in all, her books are happy.

6. As a reader, what would you like to see more of?

AS: Heroes that I would enjoy spending time with! Heroes with a sense of humor about themselves, smart guys who don’t have to be dominating or overbearing. I like a *little* bit of alpha in a hero, in that he’s a strong, confident guy, but I don’t have a lot of patience with a man who has to call all the shots. I can’t identify with a heroine who puts up with that nonsense on a day to day basis.

7. As a reader, what would you like to see less of?

AS: Churned out, under-edited books. (As a writer, I have the same opinion, in a more self-serving light. The overabundance of crap makes it harder for a reader to find my books, and makes it easier to dismiss the entire romance genre. Romance gets enough disrespect with bad books feeding that fire.) A lot of people say to me, “I might like to write a book.” My response is always the same. “Great! Write the whole thing, and then find an editor who is smarter than you are.” Very few people can put out a wonderful book from a solitary bubble, and I think too many people are trying to do it without authentic or experienced input.

My Interview on ARTC’s Podcast

Not long ago, my friends at the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company paid me the tremendous compliment of asking me to be interviewed for the podcast. It’s available here! William Brown, one of the founders of ARTC, is a gracious host and questioner. I even like the photograph on the site, which shows me in my standard performing-for-ARTC mode.

ARTC will be performing at CONjuration in Atlanta, GA this weekend. If you’re in the area, and you love fantasy conventions but would welcome something a little smaller and less hectic than DragonCon, check us out! We’re performing on Sunday at 1 p.m. In “Alba Salix, Royal Physician,” I get to play a hyperactive fairy. This will be followed by “Nothing-at-All,” the play I authored which eventually grew into Atterwald. Each show is a delight in its own way, well worth seeing.

Things I’d Like to See More of in Fantasy Fiction: YA heroines with hobbies

A number of popular fantasy writers, particularly in YA, like to create “blank slate” protagonists, people who have few or no special qualities (at least evident on the surface) until the plots of their stories kick into gear. As their adventures proceed, they discover strengths in themselves they never thought they had. At any rate, this is ideally what happens, and watching it happen can be quite rewarding. Bilbo Baggins, the hero of The Hobbit, is quite happy in his life, with no desire for change. Yet as he’s forced into an adventure, he has to draw on unexpected qualities in order to survive — notably, quick wits, humor, and courage. “There is more about him than you guess,” Gandalf says more than once of Bilbo, and by the end of the story, J.R.R. Tolkien has shown us what he means.

We know thereby that a “blank slate” protagonist can be entertaining, yet I’ve noticed I appreciate such protagonists far more if they are male, largely because of the difference in the stories they tend to be placed in. Male blank slates like Bilbo and Harry Potter and Richard Mayhew of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere discover their heroic potential as they are placed in one crisis situation after another. Reserves of insight, generosity, and resourcefulness get them out of tight spots, and in the end, they save themselves and others. Yet entirely too often, the storylines given to female blank slates revolve around, not adventure, but romance. The girl with no particular interest in life learns to live for her special someone, and the ultimate goal of her story is not to learn to depend on herself and become a rescuer, but to depend on a love interest and be rescued. Crisis situations don’t bring out reserves of courage and ingenuity, because someone else gets her out of trouble.

Books with such “heroines” may be wildly popular with their target demographic of teen girl readers, but I can’t imagine that even as a teenager I would have enjoyed reading about such weak-willed, passive drips. I don’t want a female-shaped empty space that I can fill with my own personality and appearance. I want a heroine I can look up to, one who’s good at something. The heroines who win my heart most quickly are the ones with hobbies and interests.

My last foray into YA fantasy fiction was Betsy Cornwell’s Mechanica. It may be the umpteenth retelling of the Cinderella story, yet for me it stands alongside Marissa Meyer’s Cinder as one of the most enjoyable of those retellings, because its “Cinderella” is an inventor and engineer, who stumbles onto her late mother’s plans and makes them her own. Her goal is not to go to the ball and find romance, but to enter one of her creations in an engineering contest. She actually devises her own glass carriage and glass slippers; while she has some help from a sentient mechanical horse named Jules, she does most of the work herself. At no point is she a blank slate. Her head is full of mechanical dreams throughout, and this makes her perspective fun to read. Some reviewers have complained the book is too much like Cinder, which features the titular cyborg mechanic, also quite good at what she does. But since Mechanica is clearly steampunk and Cinder is clearly science fiction, I see plenty of room for both stories and both heroines.

The female leads of Mechanica and Cinder are both deeply involved in STEM. YA heroines of this kind are regrettably rare, but one more worth mentioning is the brainy young mathematician Caitlin Decter, who discovers and befriends a sentient, far-ranging A.I. in Robert J. Sawyer’s W.W.W. trilogy.

YA heroines with interests and skills in the arts are more common, but rewarding nonetheless. Some of my favorites are musicians: Menolly in Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall of Pern trilogy; Maerad in Allison Croggon’s Books of Pellinor; Zoe in Patricia McKillip’s The Bards of Bone Plain (which also features an archaeologist princess — a double win); Rune in Mercedes Lackey’s The Lark and the Wren; Seraphina in Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina and Shadow Scale. Some artist/ painter heroines include Iris in Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Karou in Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and Madeleine in Andrea K. Host’s …And All the Stars. Then there are those with more generalized interests, for whom reading is not merely a pastime but a passion: Hermione in the Harry Potter series, Honor in Robin McKinley’s Beauty, Morwenna in Jo Walton’s Among Others, and Nepenthe in McKillip’s Alphabet of Thorn.

These sorts of heroines give the young female reader something concrete to which to aspire — to create, to build, to dream. Let’s see more like this, and fewer blank slates.