Shattered Sands At The Midpoint – An Interview With Bradley P. Beaulieu

veil-of-spears-front-cover-smAlthough it has been awhile since I read A Veil of Spears, the third book in The Song of the Shattered Sands by Bradley P. Beaulieu, it has stuck with me as one of the best things I have read so far this year. As such, I decided to see if I could talk with Bradley now that his series is half published and see how he felt it was going. He graciously responded to me, and now that I have my act together I have finally been able to get the questions and answers up! Enjoy:

So you have now finished Veil of Spears and are three books (published) into your six book series. How do you feel? Do you feel that you are on track? Relieved to be over the halfway mark? Worried about the ending?

As always, I’m roughly one book ahead of the publication schedule. I’ve just finished Book 4, Beneath the Twisted Trees, so it feels like I’m four-sixths of the way there instead of only halfway! But it feels good. In A Veil of Spears, It finally started to feel like I was providing more payoffs instead of always setting things up. So in that respect it’s satisfying. It’s nice to pull back the curtain on some of the things I’ve hidden for so long. And the series itself is on track. I knew where it was headed from the beginning, and it’s pretty much stayed on course the entire time. I’m really looking forward to finishing up the last two books and calling the series done!

After all this writing what is the thing you are most proud of in the first three books? Any particular scene that made you go “damn I am good” or a character you love?

One of the things I was really keen to explore is this notion of the loss of one’s family, the loss of one’s heritage, and the rediscovery of those things. I think some of it stems from loving things like The Lord of the Rings with all its hints of lost civilizations. Well, now I get to have my cake and eat it too! I hint at a ton of things from the past and get to revive them over the course of the books.

So it’s been a real pleasure to realize that goal. I’m not done yet. There’s still more to uncover and more for Çeda to do, but it’s been great to see it all unfold. And I’ve done it through the main character, Çeda, who has also grown up in the telling of this tale. It’s been very rewarding to see her blossom as the books have progressed. She’s been through a lot, but is coming out the other side stronger for it. Harder. At the same time, though, she hasn’t lost sight of what matters most to her: her friends, her family, her tribe.

What have you learned from each of the three books? Are there any areas you felt you needed to improve on the second half of the series or are you perfect in every way?

I think every writer is evolving. One of the things that I’ve tried to pay attention to in the past few books (with some stinging but very helpful comments from my editors!) is to be careful about over-explanation. Writers have to take care with past events, be they backstory, events from previous books, or even events in the same book that for whatever reason are being rehashed (usually due to some unfolding mystery). Explain too little and you confuse the reader. Explain too much and they feel pandered to, or worse, get bored. It’s always a bit of a challenge to decide where to draw the line, but often I was erring on the side of explaining too much, fearing the reader would get left behind. I’m adjusting a bit, trusting the reader more, and I hope it’s creating a smoother read for fans of the series.

I know this is like asking who is your favorite child, but who is your favorite character and which is your favorite book in the series (and why)?

Well the easy answer is Çeda, and it’s true. She’s the focus of the series. She’s the one who’s guided my choices the most.

That said, there is a close runner-up. Meryam. She’s someone who started off as a player in the game that’s unfolding in Sharakhai, but I didn’t envision her as being quite as big a player as she’s turned out to be. She’s bold. Driven. Much more than I gave her credit for initially. And while she’s ruthless, her actions are completely believable from her perspective. I’ve really enjoyed writing her scenes, and seeing how her story is starting to unfold. She’s become a wildcard in the series.

How much research have you done between books? Song of the Shattered Sand is some of my favorite Middle Eastern/Arabian inspired fantasy and as someone completely ignorant of the culture I am curious how much comes from their lore.

I tend to do the most research in the customs of the Middle East, traditions surrounding food and holidays. I also like to research garb and weaponry, sometimes fighting technique, either in single combat or in larger conflicts, just to get a sense for how those things would have played out in our world at that time. I also like absorbing stories, legends, mythology from that time period. One of my favorite acquisitions in recent years is Sharaz-De: Tales from the Arabian Nights by Sergio Toppi, published by Archaia Press. It’s a stunningly beautiful book, filled with retellings from the stories in Arabian Nights (or A Thousand and One Nights). It’s well worth it for the artwork alone, but also if you’re interested in Arabic tales.

What was your inspiration for the series? Was there any particular ideas, books, or events that you experienced that led to it? In particular I would love to know your inspiration for a story involving hunting 12 kings with different powers using poem riddles. It combines so many of my favorite things and I would love to know how you came up with it.

The story had a really long evolution. It took me years to develop. The basic desert city was first. The asirim, the strange mummified creatures who steal into the city each month, came very early as well, long before I knew who Çeda was or that there were in fact twelve kings. Slowly, the city and its status as a great power in the world unfolded. And I found out who Çeda was. I knew by then that I wanted it to be a story about rediscovery, and what better way for that to happen than if her mother was taken from her and if she had almost no connection to her family and her people? But as I thought about it more, I wanted there to be some connection from Çeda to her mother. That was how the book of riddles was born. Her mother had secrets. Very dangerous secrets. And she and Çeda both loved literature. What better way to pass down her mother’s secrets than through a book they both loved? Once the idea came to me, I really embraced it. It’s become one of my favorite parts of the series: this one thing, a book of poems and stories, linking mother and daughter beyond death and setting this grand tale into motion.

In general, do you have any favorite fantasy/sci-fi books? What are you reading right now?

Some recent favorites have been Jason Hough’s The Darwin Elevator, China Miéville’s The City & The City, Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, and Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes. Right now I’m reading Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines on audio and Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld on ebook, and really enjoying both.

The series takes place in a beautifully realized desert setting. What is the most thirsty you’ve ever been, and how did you draw from that experience when writing these books?

I’ve loved writing about this grand desert. I’d wanted to write a desert-based fantasy for a long while. It kept showing up in my short stories and even in my first published trilogy, where the characters traveled to a vast desert in part of the final installment. More than being thirsty, I’ve drawn on the times where I’ve been in really hot settings. Try Phoenix in summer. I also lived in Southern California for five years, and went on various hikes and excursions. It’s dry down there, and those experiences helped me as well. We’re always told “write what you know” but sometimes we forget that we can both write what we know and extrapolate from tangential experiences to create a whole new experience in our books. Perhaps “borrow from what you know” would be a better way to put it.

 

Thanks again to Bradley for stopping by!

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Revenant Gun – Interview with Yoon Ha Lee

81s4snnvywlThe incredible author of Revenant Gun, Yoon Ha Lee, agreed to answer some of questions of our about his complex and gripping The Machineries of Empire series. Thank you again Yoon for taking the time to talk to us, and everyone else enjoy our questions and answers below! Revenant Gun comes out this week and you can find our review of it here. There also is a blog tour happening right now, so be sure to be on the lookout for other interviews and articles about Yoon.

I deeply admired your ability to world build in the first book in a way that relied on the reader’s engagement and willingness to accept the gaps. How hard was it to leave a lot of the stuff open ended to the reader, while still getting general idea across?

Honestly, while I had an outline and a bunch of notes, in writing Ninefox Gambit I made up a lot of stuff as I went!  Patricia C. Wrede makes an interesting distinction between what she calls “iceberg” worldbuilders and “bubble” worldbuilders, and I definitely tend toward the latter.  “Iceberg” worldbuilders are people like Tolkien–they come up with the deep history of the world and its cultures and maps and everything.  “Bubble” worldbuilders make up things as they go and everything is on the surface–there may be hints but there aren’t 500 pages of backstory lurking in the background.  Of course, she says–and I discovered it to be true–that “bubble” worldbuilders turn into “iceberg” worldbuilders when they write a longer work like a series, because you start actually having to keep track of what you’ve said and you need to keep your world consistent within itself.  Leaving a lot of things open-ended was a natural side-effect of the way I built the world.

How did you elevator pitch this story to your publisher? I have been asked to give a short description of the series before and completely failed so I would love to steal your answer.

Fortunately, I was able to look up my query letter to agents, which is probably pretty close:

Captain Kel Cheris is ordered to recapture a space fortress whose takeover by heretics my disable her nation’s advanced technologies, which depend on the state religion.  The weapon given Cheris is a dead tactician, Shuos Jedao.  Jedao may be the only one capable of outthinking the fortress’s defenses.  But he went mad during a former life, massacring his own soldiers, and while he seems sane now, no one knows how long that will last–least of all Cheris, who has been made host to his spirit.

Um.  I’m not going to pretend that’s the best pitch in the history of pitches; it’s very definitely a skill I’m still working on!

What was your inspiration for the series? Was there some external force or did all of this series majestical weirdness solely come from the depths of your mind?

There were several inspirations!  First let me talk about Legend of the Five Rings (L5R), a collectible card game/roleplaying game originally created by Alderac Entertainment Group (it has since been bought out and rebooted as a Living Card Game by Fantasy Flight Games).  I started playing it in college, and one of the things that sucked me in was the lore.  Its setting, the land of Rokugan, is a sort of fantasy feudal Asia (mostly Japan) and one of its key features was that you could join one of several clans, each with its own specialties–for example, the Lion Clan was known for its honorable warriors and tacticians, the Crane Clan for its elegant courtiers and duelists, the Scorpion Clan for its ninjas and seductresses.

Fast forward a number of years.  A man named Rich Wulf wrote a modern-day, cyberpunk-influenced fanfiction series about the setting called Rokugan 2000.  Inspired, some friends and I conceived of a space opera version of L5R called Rokugan 3000.  (A number of people around the web had the same idea–we were hardly alone.)  I was really excited about writing fic for samurai in space.

There was a catch, however.  AEG was looking for another writer for its official Story Team, and I wanted to apply.  And I knew that if by some miracle I succeeded and joined the Story Team, I would have to stop writing fanfic for the setting.  As luck would have it, Robert Denton III and I were both selected for it (Robert is currently writing for FFG now, as it happens, among other things).  So I shelved Rokugan 3000.

I still wanted to write space opera, though.  I had a great experience working with folks at AEG but ended up leaving after a year, and decided that it would be a good time to try to write a space opera in a setting of my own devising.  The hexarchate has influences from Rokugan–the factions were loosely inspired by the clans.

There were other influences.  In high school I read Jack L. Chalker’s Spirits of Flux and Anchor series, and one of its features is magic-like effects caused by manipulation of math and computers, as well as areas where magic doesn’t work.  I’m not sure I would recommend the books to a modern reader, as they have some notable flaws (Chalker’s portrayals of female characters and sex changes were sometimes odd), but Chalker was a history teacher and I was fascinated by his explorations of historical processes.

Finally, there was ethnomathematics, which I learned of through Marcia Ascher’s Mathematics Elsewhere.  I never had the privilege of meeting Ascher during her life, but it turns out it’s a small world–I found out later that she was the godmother of a college friend’s brother.  In any case, the whole idea of calendars affecting the laws of physics in a magical fashion came both from Ascher’s writing and from reading Harlan Ellison’s “The Paladin of the Lost Hour,” which was the first time I really thought about differing calendar traditions in the context of fiction.  In real life, of course, I was used to lunar calendar celebrations vs. the Western calendar in South Korea (fun fact, you get to celebrate New Year’s twice!).

Considering there was so many cool and weird things in this series, I want to know, what came first, Jedao as a shadow, or the calendrical system?

The calendrical system.  Jedao as a shadow I made up on the spot.  I will own that as I approached the scene where he’s initially attached to Cheris I felt a stab of panic wondering how to make him sufficiently interesting…

The idea of the Hexarchate is extremely intriguing and the sort of weird self-propagation of its values through factional competition and prejudices feels very natural. The whole thing always feels like it is teetering on the edge, but manages to remain in control. Where did the Hexarchate/Heptarchate start for you? Why did it feel important to have separate factions as a coalition instead of a sole ruler with a feudal duchy like system?

See above about being inspired by clans in Legend of the Five Rings!  I admit that my feeling is that a system that precarious should only have lasted a couple centuries, tops, but I decided that strict plausibility was less important than having fun, especially in a space opera.  I went with coalition rule because I thought that had more potential for exciting infighting and also because I’m a little burned out on evil empires with sole rulers, so I wanted to do something a little different.

Of the six factions in the world, which do you see yourself belonging to?

I took the faction sorting quiz that Solaris came up with (http://www.solarisbooks.com/post/2065) and came out as a Nirai.  Since I have a B.A. in math, I suppose that tracks, although I didn’t pursue math further (ironically because I didn’t want to give up writing for six or seven years while doing a doctorate).  In real life, I see myself as one of the masses of unaligned citizens, a redshirt sort of person.

You decided to expand a lot of the world building and explain a lot of the science in the final book as opposed to the first (which I loved). Why keep your readers in the dark so long?

It was a controversial decision!  I often enjoy that kind of storytelling, though, so I wanted to give it a go.  One of my favorite examples of it is C. J. Cherryh’s The Faded Sun, where you learn about the different aliens (especially the mri and regul) as you go on.  (Obviously, I’m nowhere near as skilled a writer as someone like Cherryh!  But one ought to aim high, if one is going to do things at all.)

As for explanations in book three, one reason is that it seemed cruel to leave readers hanging in the last book of a trilogy.  The other reason has to do with choice of viewpoint characters.  In Ninefox, Cheris doesn’t really think about how things work if they’re a part of her everyday ordinary existence; when I read a book set in the modern day and someone turns on a light switch, I don’t need two paragraphs explaining power generation and distribution to me, I just need to know that flicking the switch makes light appear.  Even in a fantasy, if someone throws a fireball, I don’t need to know the grand unified theory of how fireballs happen; the name of the spell tells me it’s a ball made of fire, so why belabor the obvious?

In Revenant Gun, on the other hand, the main viewpoint is that of an amnesiac Jedao.  Not only that, but he’s a few centuries out of date.  So I explain things when Jedao learns about them, because it’s part of his process figuring out the world around him and what to do about it.

Not to spoil anything, but the conclusion to Revenant Gun leaves Jedao’s fate very open ended, would you consider doing another series about him or is this the end for your grand tactician?

Actually, I’m at work on a collection of stories set in the hexarchate, part reprints and part new materials, and one of the stories picks up after the end of Revenant Gun, with Jedao and Cheris going on an adventure together, quarreling all the way.  So stay tuned?  I’m not sure I have another series in me–I think I need to do something different for a bit, next–but I won’t rule it out.

What are your favorite sci-fi and fantasy books? Who are your favorite strategists in fiction and why?

Oh, you’d ask the hard question!  Iain M. Banks’ Player of Games, which I loved so much with its game-playing and metacommentary and double-crosses that I’m afraid to read more Culture books because how are they going to live up to it?  Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs is a fantastic exploration of magic, gods, and colonialism married to a spy thriller.  Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, of which my favorite is Memory, although you need to read the others first for it to make sense.  C. J. Cherryh’s Cyteen with its brilliant and disturbing exploration of nature vs. nurture and genius characters everywhere.  Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant, which has an antihero protagonist who weaponizes economics, although it’s not for the faint of heart.  For something completely different, C. S. Pacat’s Captive Prince trilogy, which is erotic fantasy.

And just because I’m a tease, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, which I read in ARC and which is coming out in 2019, in which an emissary from a tiny space station takes on a hungry empire based on a mixture of the Aztecs and the Byzantines; and S. L. Huang’s Zero-Sum Game, a near-future thriller about a female mercenary who is so staggeringly good at math that it’s essentially a superpower.

Favorite strategists or tacticians in fiction who we actually see doing their thing include Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan, who terrifies the spit out of me.  If Miles were real, I would make it a point to live the next galaxy over because he’s dangerous.  Baru Cormorant from Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant, one of the rarer female examples.  There’s also a great female chessmaster in Ilana C. Myer’s Fire Dance.  If you allow anime, then Lelouch Lamperouge from Code Geass and Kaizuka Inaho from Aldnoah.Zero, and if you allow kdramas, Misil and Seondeok from The Great Queen Seondeok.

What is up next for you now that Machineries is done?

I have a middle-grade novel coming out from Disney-Hyperion in January 2019, Dragon Pearl.  It’s a space opera based on Korean mythology–you should have heard my mom’s ? response when I asked her for help researching pungsu jiri, the Korean version of feng shui!–in which a teenage fox spirit goes on a quest to clear her brother’s name after he allegedly deserts from the Space Forces to search for a powerful magical artifact that can change worlds.

Currently, I’m wrapping up the hexarchate short story collection, and after that I’ll be writing a novel for Solaris inspired by the curious story of the paint pigment PO49 or Quinacridone Gold.

Often in military science fiction I find a lot of the writing transfixed by the technology of war, without considering the consequences of using it. However, a lot of the technology in your series was showcased with a sense of wonder, followed by an incredible feeling of foreboding before the full brutality of it was revealed. Was this a deliberate effort on your part? And if yes, why did you feel the reader should go through this realization with each new weapon?

I know that brutal depictions of violence and carnage are not for every reader, but that was deliberate.  I feel that the effects of terrible weapons should not be shied away from.  While I do not have a military background, my father spent some years as a surgeon in the US Army, so I grew up with an awareness that when people go to war, someone has to stitch the survivors back together.

Some people have stories of war veterans in their families.  I don’t have that, really.  But I’m Korean-American and we do have stories of the Korean War.  The one that I remember most keenly is the one my mother told me. Her mother–my grandmother–already had two small children plus a baby, and she was evacuating Seoul with her family a couple months after the war broke out.  Grandma made the hard decision for the family to abandon the baby by the side of the road so that the other children would have a better chance of survival.  But another woman picked up the baby and brought her back to Grandma and said, “You forgot this.”  Grandma didn’t have the heart to abandon the baby again.  That baby was my mother, and it is because of that woman, whose name we don’t know, that my mother survived, and that I am here today.  So I always try to remember that war has a cost, not just for the soldiers but the civilians, even though in this trilogy I chose to focus on the soldiers, who are no more and no less human than the people they are fighting for.

Thanks again Yoon, and be sure to check out The Machineries of Empire if you haven’t already!

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Douglas Adams Never Gets Old

 

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I found myself unusually nostalgic this Memorial Day weekend. The nature of the holiday feels like one of reflection and remembrance, and it made me start thinking of books and movies I enjoyed a long time ago. A item that was in both those mediums was Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. While most agree it is a phenomenally good book, feelings about the movie are a little more controversial – but I am a big fan. HBO has it in their movie library for free (if you have the service) and you should check it out if you haven’t.

I don’t usually revisit a lot of media. The nature of how I read and watch things revolves around an ever growing pile of new things to experience before I die. This unfortunately does not leave a lot of room for revisiting old favorites – something I am finding I want to do more and more. I got into the fantasy and sci-fi genres about 20 years ago, and the first books I read are starting to lose their crispness in my memories. Hitchhiker’s was one of those books, and all I could really remember about it was a couple of key plot points and that I had a profound and life changing experience when I read it. So I decided to rewatch the movie and see if it recaptured the spark I felt a long time ago, and unsurprisingly it metaphorically lit me on fire.

Adams never gets old. He is quoted endlessly on clothes, laptop decals, and Facebook pages because it is so hard to read Hitchhiker’s and not feel something memorable. It is deliciously ironic that a book about “no one understanding the meaning of life”, feels like it was written by one of the few people who have the answer to life’s biggest question. Hitchhiker’s is just filled to the brim with witticisms that are funny and poignant at the same time, and rediscovering it after all these years just makes me like them more.

I have tossed The Guide on the pile of things to be read. No one needs to hear my thoughts on Hitchhiker’s Guide, because I doubt I need to convince any of you to read it. This means it will cut into my review time and put me behind my schedule of books – but frankly I don’t care. Hitchhiker’s Guide is worth the inconvenience and I am so excited to dive back into its wonderful and comforting pages.

-Andrew

The Murderbot Diaries and Dominaria – An Interview With Martha Wells

32758901Martha Wells is a woman with a ridiculous number of talents. I have recently been selling her Murderbot Diaries series to anyone who will listen. She also has a number of popular full length books and does writing for a number of established fictional universes such as Star Wars. Most recently, it was announced that Martha would be tackling the story for Magic the Gathering’s next card set, Dominaria, and writing the story pieces that come out alongside the new cards. With so many cool things going on for her, I decided that I really wanted to see if I could talk with Martha about what it was like to write in so many different formats and subjects. To my joy, she got back to my numerous questions about her work and the answers are posted below, enjoy:

I have been reading your Murderbot Diaries and describing them as novellas. Do you think of them as novellas? Or just short books? How do you define them as works of writing in your mind?

The first one was actually intended to be a short story, and then I realized it really needed to be longer. I still wanted to keep it short, so novella length seemed perfect. I’d also written novella-length work before, in my two Stories of the Raksura collections. It just seemed the right length to tell the story.

The Murderbot series has some of the best writing for a shorter novel I have seen. What is your technique when it comes to dividing page space in a book this small, and how does it differ from a book like The Cloud Roads?

Thank you! I don’t think I used any particular technique. I’ve written a lot, including a lot of work at shorter lengths, and after all that experience I just have a feel for how to pace a story or book for the length I want. In a longer novel like The Cloud Roads, there’s more room for subplots and more detailed exploration of the world. In a novella, you have to concentrate on the story and let the reader pick up on the details of the world as the plot develops.

What was your inspiration for the Murderbot Diaries? What made you want to write a story about relatable AI’s with a talent for killing people?

I’ve seen a lot of stories about AIs who want their freedom and immediately use it to kill humans, which seems like a very human-centric view of the situation, motivated by guilt at how the humans are using the AI. So I wanted to write an AI who was mostly indifferent to humans, who just wanted to be left alone, who had no particular desire to hurt anyone that wasn’t trying to hurt it.

Murderbot’s love of media left me with some big questions. Do they love TV because their personality was programed to love TV? Is it something that they completely developed on their own? How much of Murderbot’s identity was crafted by code and how much was made by her experiences or something else?

No, it wasn’t programming. As a combination of AI and human brain tissue, the constructs like Murderbot all have the potential to develop their own personalities. The governor modules are supposed to keep that from happening, but they aren’t always successful. I think that becomes more obvious in the later novellas where Murderbot encounters other contracts and bots.

You have written a number of sci fi and fantasy novels at this point. In your opinion, what are the major differences when it comes to writing in each genre?

I don’t really think there’s much difference at all. They both require consistency in world building and engaging characters that the reader will care about.

I saw the announcement that you would be writing a series of shorts for Dominaria, the next Magic the Gathering set. Are you a magic player yourself? Is this something that you pursued because you wanted to write in the magic world or was this something where Wizard of the Coast came to you for your excellent writing?

They approached my agent with the offer to write the fiction for Dominaria. I’ve been familiar with Magic for a long time through the artwork, which is so gorgeous, though I’d never played the game. (Most of my game-playing experience is all in older RPGs.) I was excited by the opportunity to do something new, in such a well-established, beautifully illustrated world, and it’s been a lot of fun.

What is different (easier/harder) about writing for an expanded universe like Magic (or Star Wars, as I know you have some books in that ring as well)?

It takes a lot of research. Even if it’s something that you’re a big fan of (like in my case Star Wars and Stargate Atlantis), as a reader or viewer who isn’t thinking of writing in the universe, there’s a lot of detail you can miss. When you’re going to actually work with an established universe, you have to take in a lot of detail, understand how everything works, as well as the personalities of your characters. It’s a lot of fun, but it can be a lot of work, too.

How do you feel about your Star Wars novel Razors Edge being relegated to the now non-canon Legends timeline? Would you like to write another Star Wars book in the current canon universe?

It was very disappointing. I really like the current canon universe and the new movies, but I’m not sure it’s something I’d want to do again.

Is there another license you’d be interested in writing for that you haven’t had the opportunity yet? (e.g. Marvel, DC, Harry Potter, etc)

If I had the opportunity, I’m a huge Doctor Who fan, so I’d be tempted to write something for it. But right now, I want to concentrate on my own universes.

What are some of your favorite sci fi and fantasy novels?

I have a ton of favorites. Right now I really enjoyed The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera, the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch, The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin, the Court of Fives series by Kate Elliott, Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee, Jade City by Fonda Lee.

The cover art for your work is consistently amazing, do you have a favorite piece of cover art out of all of your novels?

It’s hard to pick one. I think the covers for the Books of the Raksura by Matthew Steward and Yukari Masuike are some all time favorites.

Do you wear novelty socks?

Sometimes! I have octopus socks.

Thank you again to Martha Wells for taking the time to answer some questions, and for those of you unfamiliar you can start reading her new Dominaria storyline next week on the Magic the Gathering site!

Pornokitsch – End Of A Titan

This week we got some very sad news in the reading world. Pornokitsch, one of the largest reading blog/sites around and site that constantly feels dangerous to have in your google history at work, is shutting down. PK has been a valued resource for readers and other reviewers for years, and is part of the reason I decided to get into reviewing in the first place.

Jared in particular, the PK member who handles most of the fantasy content, is one of the best reviewers out there – bringing tons of insight and wit to all his reviews. I regularly disagree with him on his assessments of books, but think that all of his opinions are well argued and worth listening to because he takes a ton of time and effort to formulate them.

The reasons cited for PK shutting down is that it just wasn’t fun enough to do anymore. I can definitely understand that mentality, we were unable to get a post out this Tuesday just due to how busy we are, and having to deal with that sort of impact on your life for the 10 years that PK ran must have been exhausting. However, while I wish them the best of luck and understand why they are closing shop I will still miss them dearly, and maybe The Quill to Live can make the best of a sad thing and shamelessly steal part of their reader base.

In honor of PK, we wanted to highlight some of their posts from over the years we liked in no particular order. If you haven’t every checked out PK, now is as good a time as any and we hope that people still use the existing content for years to come:

-The QTL Team

On Ursula Le Guin – Forever Dreaming

On Monday, one of the co-writers of Quill (Alex) and I had a conversation about a slippery and hard to define quality of our favorite books that we nicknamed “authenticity”. We were trying to find a way to quantify and categorize this certain power that some books have, but were having a really hard time describing it. Initially I described it as “books without agendas”, but that isn’t right as all books have some sort of agendas. In the end, we realized that what we were grasping at was authors who were able to write books without investing their ego into the story. Alex and I both hate it when you get the sense an author is trying to show you “how clever and smart” they are in their book. Nothing breaks immersion in a story faster than feeling like events in a book are happening solely to prove how brilliant the author is. However, on the other side of the spectrum there are some works of writing that feel like they are more forces of nature than an author telling you a story. The best descriptive we could come up for this quality was authenticity, and it is an extremely rare quality to see in people’s work and the number of authors I find reliably authentic I can count on both hands.

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“I had forgotten how much light there is in the world, till you gave it back to me.” 

I say all of this to put into context the level of my despair on Tuesday afternoon when I learned of the passing of Ursula Le Guin and to help contextualize the size of the beacon of inspiration that just went out. Ursula Le Guin was a paragon of science fiction and fantasy and is, in my mind, probably the single most talented author I have ever read. I have only read five of her many novels and was in the middle of planning out time to read more of the Hainish Cycle when I found out she passed away. In some ways it is easy to see how powerful a writer Le Guin was, it feels like almost every single one of her books won every award that they qualified for when they were published. But I don’t think the awards honestly do justice to the power and emotional depth of her stories. I wrote a piece a while back on “Masters of Prose”, talking about a number of my absolute top authors and why their prose is considered some of the best. You can click on that link to see my words on her, but the important part of it is the attached short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. At just four pages, this is better than most novels I read in a given year.

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“You have to help another person. But it’s not right to play God with masses of people. To be God you have to know what you’re doing. And to do any good at all, just believing you’re right and your motives are good isn’t enough.” 

There are lots of reasons why her works are so good. For starters she was astoundingly smart and had a better grasp of human nature and behavior than most people on the planet. Le Guin was able to transcribe her advocacy of art as a form of political expression for a more just world to the pages of her novels in a way that feels more conversational than most other authors. She wrote in a way that allows readers to feel enlightened at the same time her characters did, exploring the conversation instead of beating them over the head with high minded oration or teachings. Her writing is beautiful and poetic on the level of any of the other prose masters around, while also being direct and easy to understand. And she is incredibly authentic. Circling back to my first thoughts in this post, if I had to pick a single author who represents authenticity in writing it would be Le Guin. She always wrote like her one and only goal was to make the world a better place by fostering understanding and communication between people who need both. Her works are profoundly inspirational, without feeling pretentious or elitist. You don’t gain status by reading a Le Guin book, you gain enlightenment.

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“It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.” -The Dispossessed

It was hard hearing of her loss, and if it is hard for me I can only imagine what it like for her friends and family. I hope they are coping as well as anyone can with the loss and I hope they know that their pain is felt worldwide. One of my dreams was to meet Ursula le Guin and talk to her about the nature of writing. When I heard of her passing I selfishly thought about how unfortunate it was that I couldn’t fulfill that dream. But then I realized, all I would have to do is read one of her novels and I would be inspired with several more.

-Andrew

The City of Brass – An Interview With S. A. Chakraborty

With this impressive year of fantasy coming to a close, I find myself reflecting on all the great books I read this year and reaching out to authors to talk with them more about their impressive creations. One such author in particular is the lovely Shannon Chakraborty, author of The City of Brass, which I reviewed here. A wonderful book about Arabic lore, family, and a magical city in the desert – I got to ask Shannon a number of questions about her debut book, and a few about her upcoming sequel The Kingdom of Copper. The questions are posted below, enjoy:

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I got to hear you and others speak at a New York Comic Con panel about female authors, writing historical fantasy, and writing from diverse backgrounds. It was one of the best panels I have attended at a comic con, so thank you. On it you talked briefly about borrowing from history/the real world and inventing things on your own when you write. How do you balance the two?

You’re welcome, and I’m happy you enjoyed the panel. For me, it’s not really a balancing act; it’s more building from a scaffolding that already exists. I set my books in the “real” world: there might be magic, but there’s also the historical fact of Napoleon’s occupation and the idea that a dish conceived in ancient Persia wouldn’t have New World vegetables in it. But I don’t really mind this or find it limiting; it’s fun to peel back the facts and imagine the emotions and people behind them.

The City of Brass starts in our world in the city of Cairo, but quickly departs it for fantastical lands. Will we make our way back to our world in the future or will be primarily exploring more cities from your imagination?

Both! The books are very much meant to take place in our world—it’s just that djinn exist largely unseen beside humans. We’ll definitely see more of the magical world, but we’ll also see some of our djinn characters visiting that of the humans…perhaps even a city we’ve already seen!

I assume you have to do a lot of research to write historical fantasy. What is the weirdest historical fact or quirk you have come across while researching for you book?

There are a lot but a particular favorite at the moment is medieval treasure-hunting guilds in Egypt. It’s something I need to dig into a bit more for the (hopefully!) next book series, but I’ve always loved learning about how people in the past interacted with their past. I came across a mention of these guilds after an excerpt from a contemporary scholar basically railing against ancient magic and hustlers and was just thoroughly amused by the entire depiction.

Your portrayal of Ali and his family is one of the most organic relationships I have read. Where did you get this inspiration for their dynamic? Did you draw it from your own life? Do you have siblings and which one of them are you?

Thank you! I come from a pretty big family and always enjoy seeing well-done portrayals of complicated, messy, exasperating and yet also still loving relatives; I think it’s a thing many of us can relate to. And I’ve always had a particular fascination with rival princes. They’re fairly common in history, and yet I can’t imagine the emotions that go behind making a decision to war against your own brother.

There was certainly some inspiration from my own family. My twin brother and I are very close, and I was very protective of him, especially when we were younger, even when we were fighting. This was definitely an emotion and dynamic that I was trying to capture with Muntadhir and Ali. Though my brother isn’t a wealthy, libertine playboy destined to rule a shaky kingdom so the similarities end there!

As someone who also has been accused of having a stick up his ass, I particularly identified with Ali. Will Ali learn to relax a little in the future, and can you pass on the secret to taking life a little less seriously to me?

So this is where I confess that I probably have more in common with Ali than I like to contemplate! Not sure I can offer advice, but maybe like Ali, we need to broaden our experiences a bit and learn to let loose on occasion.

One of my favorite things in The City of the Brass is that the most powerful Djinn/Daevas are the healers. I constantly feel that healing magic is undervalued in fantasy, and often relegated to only kind motherly figures. Seeing those powers in the hands of tyrants and others was very refreshing. What inspired you to take this path with your story?

Ha, the fact that I’ve worked in healthcare! I wrote a lot of this while managing a large obstetrics & gynecology practice (while my husband went to medical school), and I really wanted to capture the messy reality of medicine. It’s not always glamourous and noble; it can be exhausting, the work is bloody and tiresome and challenging, and sometimes your patients are terrible. It requires a confidence bordering on arrogance to cut into a person for their own good, and I wanted to show how a character might grow into that.

What is up next for Nahri and Ali? Can you give us any hints of what book two will be about at a higher level?

We’ll be seeing a lot more of the city itself. Nahri and Ali were left in difficult straights at the end of the first book and they’ll need to improve their game—both political and magical—if they want to protect what they love.

What did you learn or improve on over the experience of writing The City of Brass? Have you any lessons you experienced first hand that you would impart to others?

Follow where the narrative is going, not the plot points you wrote down two years ago. I dreamed and played in this world for so long, it was hard to give up on some aspects that I loved. I tried to keep in mind that I was telling a story not writing a history essay.

What do you like to read? What are you reading right now? Was there any book that inspired The City of Brass or inspired you as a writer in general? What are your favorite books?

I like to read pretty widely though in the past year, I’ve been trying to catch up on my SFF. I read a lot of history for research and for enjoyment, and right now I’m split between a history of medicine in the Indo-Islamic tradition and Victor LaValle’s The Changeling. My favorite books are Arabian Nights and Days by Naguib Mahfouz and The Moor’s Accountant by Laila Lalami, though the latter broke my heart!

If you haven’t gotten a chance to check out The City of Brass, I highly recommend it and thank you to Shannon Chakraborty again for taking the time to talk with me.

-Andrew