Women in SF&F Month Banner

Today’s guest is science fiction writer Emily Skrutskie! She’s the author of The Abyss Surrounds Us, The Edge of the Abyss, and Hullmetal Girls. Bonds of Brass, her latest novel and the entertaining, fast-paced first book in a space opera trilogy about a pilot and his best friend/crush/formerly-secret heir to the Empire, is out today!

Bonds of Brass by Emily Skrutskie Book Cover

The Badass Mothers of SFF

Many readers have a BrandTM. A type of character you just can’t help but love. For some, it’s fancy sad boys. For others, it’s fierce girls with knives. But for me, there’s one character type that I rank above all others. One kind of character I just can’t get enough of.

Bad. Ass. Moms.

I’m not really sure where it came from. My own mother is a planetary geologist and badass in so many respects—a woman who’s held a career in a male-dominated field since the Voyager days AND finds the time to whip up the most incredible Slovak and Slovenian desserts when she’s not busy, oh, I don’t know, parsing data coming back from the New Horizons mission or jetting around the world to encourage other women to pursue STEM. Maybe it’s that. Maybe it’s the freshness inherent in the archetype. I’ve grown up with so many stories where young women go on adventures until at last they can comfortably settle into domesticity and live happily ever after. It feels like a breath of fresh air every time I see a story about a woman whose future included both homemaking and continuing adventures.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains: I sit up straighter every time a story throws a cool mom at me. Today, I want to share some of my favorites.

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin Book Cover Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh Book Cover

1. Essun, from The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. It’s difficult to talk about just one fraction of the Broken Earth trilogy without talking about the genius of the whole of it, but one of my favorite aspects of the book is how deeply it dives into motherhood and all its complexity. The story begins with Essun’s quest to avenge her murdered infant son and rescue her daughter from the father of her children, who has turned on them for their orogene abilities. As the trilogy progresses, Essun must reckon with her daughter’s world-shaking, possibly world-ending powers and her own, and the delicate interplay of managing your own abilities and trying to train the next generation to be better in the face of what might be the apocalypse-for-good-this-time had my heart in my throat with every page.

2. Mrs. Silver, from Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh. I was already all in on Silver in the Wood before Mrs. Silver showed up, but when she all but kicks down the door halfway through the novella, I felt like I’d been given the most incredible unexpected gift. The story is about Tobias, the wild man and local legend who tends the woods around Greenhollow, and Henry Silver, the hapless heir to the local estate who doesn’t realize that the gruff groundskeeper he’s been flirting with and the folk story he’s been tracking are one and the same. When shenanigans threaten Henry’s life, in storms his mother, a badass monster hunter ready to square up for her kid and team up with her son’s new flame to save his life.

Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller Book Cover Bloodline by Claudia Gray Book Cover

3. Masaaraq, from Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller. I’m a known whale aficionado. I love weird mind-bonding tech. And when you tell me that a story has a lesbian grandma mentally nanite-bonded to an orca who kicks off a whole mess of trouble when she rides into town on its back with a polar bear in tow on a mysterious mission—well. Masaaraq is the beating heart of the story, and when Miller artfully draws all the threads around her and her role in her family, I wanted to shake his hand and thank him for writing my ideal read.

4. Leia Organa, from Bloodline by Claudia Gray. In Bloodline, Claudia Gray gives us our first real glimpse of Leia handling the complications of being a mother, a senator, and Vader’s daughter. The Star Wars films never gave her the time to process all these facets of herself onscreen, but Gray does it with a deft hand, painting an aching portrait of a woman exhausted by both duty and the vicissitudes of image that stand between her and doing her job. I deeply love seeing this era of Leia’s life, and it’s my secret wish that someday we’ll get to hear even more about it—especially if it’s Claudia Gray writing it, because she just nails Leia’s voice.

Jade War by Fonda Lee Book Cover Rebelwing by Andrea Tang Book Cover

5. Kaul Wenfrom Jade War by Fonda Lee. Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga is fresh as hell in so many aspects. It’s a fantasy where technology is somewhere around the 1970s, an East Asian spin on Godfather-style mob movies, and so richly built that you could lose yourself for days in its world. One of the freshest aspects—and the most appreciated for me—is Wen, a transcendent standout among fictional mob wives. The second book in the series sees Wen grow into her role in the No Peak clan and into motherhood as she and her husband Hilo start their family and expand their business. I absolutely love the way Lee writes Wen’s strategic, practical point of view, and I can’t wait to see where she goes in Jade Legacy.

6. Sophie Wu, from Rebelwing by Andrea Tang. Rebelwing presents an absolutely fascinating generational dynamic: the parents who won the revolution and the kids they raised in the new order. And of those parents, none is more delightful than Sophie, mother of the novel’s protagonist Pru and the woman who essentially authored the revolution with her writing. When her daughter gets mentally bonded with a cybernetic mecha dragon (I know, right?), Sophie is there to help her through her own revolution—and lend a hand if things get sticky.

Emily Skrutskie Photo
Photo Credit: Mariano Merchante
Emily Skrutskie was born in Massachusetts, raised in Virginia, and forged in the mountains above Boulder, Colorado. She attended Cornell University and now lives and works in Los Angeles. Skrutskie is the author of Hullmetal GirlsThe Abyss Surrounds Us, and The Edge of the Abyss.

Women in SF&F Month Banner

It’s April, and for the ninth year in a row, this month is dedicated to highlighting some of the many women doing wonderful work in speculative fiction! Starting tomorrow, this blog will be featuring guest posts by women doing work in science fiction and fantasy, discussing everything from their experiences and inspirations to thoughts on writing and speculative fiction to the current pandemic. I’m incredibly excited about sharing their essays with you over the next few weeks!

Women in SF&F Month was created after some discussions that took place in the online science fiction/fantasy book community around March 2012 regarding review coverage of books by women and the lack of women blogging about books being suggested for Hugo Awards in fan categories. Seeing the responses to these—including the argument that women weren’t being reviewed and mentioned because there just weren’t that many women reading and writing SFF—got me thinking about spending a month highlighting women reading, reviewing, and writing speculative fiction to show that there certainly are a lot of us. At that time, April was the earliest this could happen, and I was astounded by the number of authors and reviewers who accepted my invitation to write a guest post, as well as their wonderful pieces.

Things have changed a lot since 2012 and the years that closely followed it, but especially given that everything has seemed under threat lately, I think it’s important that women’s voices continue to be heard and have run the series every April since. One thing that has not changed is that I continue to be astounded by all the wonderful essays that are part of this series, and I am incredibly grateful to everyone who has written a piece for it.

There’s also an ongoing recommendation list project that has been part of it since the second year. In 2013, Renay from Lady Business not only wrote about her personal experience with finding it difficult to find books by women when she was starting out as a young genre fan but also asked readers to submit up to 10 SFF books by women that they loved. Those individual recommendations were made into a list containing the number of times a work was submitted, and we’ve collected new book recommendations and added to the list every year since.

After combining the entries from 2019 with those from previous years, the list has grown to include 2,710 individual titles, many of which have been recommended multiple times. (There is one book that has been recommended 58 times!) Once again, you can add up to 10 favorite SFF books by women here. If you’ve already added your favorites before (or find it too daunting to narrow down all of your favorites to just 10 books), you can add up to 10 of your favorite SFF books by women that you’ve read in the last year.

If you missed Renay’s essay last year, she wrote about history and described lists like this as follows:

“This is one way of remembering the past and writing the story for the future to look back on. It’s small, but history is a collection of small stories of human endeavors.”

I love this description and think it gets straight to the heart of it. Thank you, Renay!

I’m excited to start the guest posts tomorrow! This week’s schedule is as follows:

Women in SF&F Month 2020 Week 1 Graphic

April 7: Emily Skrutskie (Bonds of Brass, Hullmetal Girls, The Abyss Surrounds Us)
April 8: CW (The Quiet Pond)
April 9: K. S. Villoso (The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, The Agartes Epilogues)
April 10: Jennifer Estep (Crown of Shards, Elemental Assassins)

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature in which I highlight books I got over the last week that sound like they may be interesting—old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (the latter of which are mainly unsolicited books from publishers). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included, along with series information and the publisher’s book description. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Once again, I hope you are all doing as well as you can be at the moment. And once again, I have not been very good at concentrating on getting any writing done in the last week, so it’s straight to the latest book arrivals today!

A Phoenix First Must Burn Anthology - Book Cover

A Phoenix First Must Burn: Sixteen Stories of Black Girl Magic, Resistance, and Hope edited by Patrice Caldwell

This YA speculative fiction anthology with stories about Black girls and gender nonconforming teens was released earlier this month (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). It was edited by literary agent and People of Color in Publishing founder Patrice Caldwell and contains stories by her and 15 other authors, who are listed in the book description below.

The cover reveal on Bustle includes Patrice Caldwell’s introduction, and you can look inside A Phoenix Must Burn on the Penguin Random House website.

This has an amazing author lineup, and stories of hope sound especially wonderful right now!

 

Sixteen tales by bestselling and award-winning authors that explore the Black experience through fantasy, science fiction, and magic.

With stories by: Elizabeth Acevedo, Amerie, Patrice Caldwell, Dhonielle Clayton, J. Marcelle Corrie, Somaiya Daud, Charlotte Nicole Davis, Justina Ireland, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Danny Lore, L. L. McKinney, Danielle Paige, Rebecca Roanhorse, Karen Strong, Ashley Woodfolk, and Ibi Zoboi.

Evoking Beyoncé’s Lemonade for a teen audience, these authors who are truly Octavia Butler’s heirs, have woven worlds to create a stunning narrative that centers Black women and gender nonconforming individuals. A Phoenix First Must Burn will take you on a journey from folktales retold to futuristic societies and everything in between. Filled with stories of love and betrayal, strength and resistance, this collection contains an array of complex and true-to-life characters in which you cannot help but see yourself reflected. Witches and scientists, sisters and lovers, priestesses and rebels: the heroines of A Phoenix First Must Burn shine brightly. You will never forget them.

Additional Books:

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature in which I highlight books I got over the last week that sound like they may be interesting—old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (the latter of which are mainly unsolicited books from publishers). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included, along with series information and the publisher’s book description. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Hope that you all are doing as well as you can be right now and are surrounded by good books!

I tried working on a review of my favorite book of the year so far, The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K. S. Villoso, last week, but I found myself too distracted to concentrate on writing. In the meantime, I wanted to recommend it to those looking for excellent character-driven fantasy with a vivid voice. It hooked me from the very first sentence, and I absolutely loved it.

Here are the reviews written since the last time there was one of these posts in case you missed any of them:

  • Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia — This is a delightful standalone Popol Vuh–inspired novel in which our protagonist accidentally binds herself to a Mayan god of death and goes on a quest to restore him to 100% pure god. It didn’t have a lot of in-depth character development, but I really enjoyed the writing and mythology (and any part set in Xibalba!).
  • Moontangled (The Harwood Spellbook #2.5) by Stephanie Burgis — This short, sweet, compulsively readable novella set after Thornbound tells the tale of a romantic misunderstanding between magician-in-training Juliana Banks and politician Caroline Fennell. I found it to be more of a diverting story than a memorable one, but I had fun reading it even if I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Snowspelled (the first Harwood Spellbook installment) or Spellswept (the prequel novella).

A Bond Undone by Jin Yong - Book Cover

A Bond Undone (Legends of the Condor Heroes #2) by Jin Yong; translated by Gigi Chang

An English translation of A Hero Born, the first installment in acclaimed Chinese author Jin Yon’s Legends of the Condor Heroes translated by Anna Holmwood, was released in the US for the first time last year. English translations of the rest of the series are being released this year and next with A Bond Undone, the second book, coming out on March 24 (trade paperback, ebook, audiobook).

The publisher’s website has an excerpt from A Bond Undone. A Snake Lies Waiting will be released in September, and A Heart Divided is scheduled for release in 2021.

 

A Bond Undone is the second book in Jin Yong’s epic Chinese classic and phenomenon Legends of Condor Heroes series, published in the US for the first time!

In the Jin capital of Zhongdu, Guo Jing learns the truth of his father’s death and finds he is now betrothed, against his will, to two women. Neither of them is his sweetheart Lotus Huang.

Torn between following his heart and fulfilling his filial duty, Guo Jing journeys through the country of his parents with Lotus, encountering mysterious martial heroes and becoming drawn into the struggle for the supreme martial text, the Nine Yin Manual. But his past is catching up with him. The widow of an evil man he accidentally killed as a child has tracked him down, intent on revenge.

Meanwhile, his true parentage at last revealed, Yang Kang, the young prince Guo Jing must face in the Garden of the Eight Drunken Immortals, is forced to choose his destiny. Will he continue to enjoy the life of wealth and privilege afforded to him by the invader of his homeland, or give up all he has known to avenge his parents?

Additional Books:

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Stephanie Burgis’ The Harwood Spellbook series thus far follows women scandalously refusing to conform to the traditions of Angland, an alternate version of nineteenth-century England with magic and mythical beings like elves and fey. In this world, the Celtic queen Boudicca successfully defeated the Romans, leading to the establishment of a group of ruling women known as the Boudiccate—and a strict gender divide between political and magical careers. After all, it’s known that ladies are suited to pursuits requiring a practical nature, such as governing, and gentlemen are suited to more creative pursuits that will not be hindered by their emotional, irrational natures, such as magic.

But Cassandra Harwood was determined to learn magic regardless of society’s rules and has been working to break down barriers for women. Aided by her perseverance and her family name, she became the first woman to be accepted into the academy for magicians. Though she excelled at it, her magical career was cut short after she had an accident that prevented her from being able to actually cast spells. After she had some time to grieve and accept the fact that her plans had been upended, she decided to use her knowledge to help other women who wished to learn magic do so, and she opened the first school for female magicians in Thornbound. The recently-released novella Moontangled deals with the aftereffects of events in Thornbound for Juliana Banks, a magician-in-training at the new school, and Caroline Fennell, a politician—a secretly engaged couple whose relationship is in jeopardy.

After having received some unusually distant letters from Caroline since the last time she saw her, Juliana believes that the ball at the Thornfell College of Magic will be the perfect opportunity for her and her fiancée to reconnect. But their private excursion into the woods does not end up being the romantic rendezvous she’d imagined: Caroline breaks off their engagement, assuming Juliana will be better off without her now that she’s a pariah with damaged career prospects. Though devastated by this turn of events, Juliana says she understands without telling Caroline how she truly feels, assuming that her formerly betrothed has chosen her ambitions over her.

Yet the woods of Thornfell are dark and full of terrors, and when the fey who lurk there interfere in their lives, both women are determined to protect the one she loves…

Moontangled is a short, sweet, compulsively readable tale that unfolds over the course of one night. Although it is a self-contained story that explains circumstances from both Juliana’s and Caroline’s (third person) perspectives, it’s probably best to read Snowspelled and Thornbound before this novella. Cassandra’s books introduce these two protagonists and the world’s social rules, plus Thornbound has a plot involving both the local fey and the scandal that led to Caroline’s current situation and the romantic misunderstanding. Moontangled most likely can be read and enjoyed as a standalone, but I think having that background on these characters and the Boudiccate’s expectations helps with most clearly understanding its major conflicts.

Like the rest of this series, Moontangled is a fun story with a happy ending. Also like the rest of the series, it doesn’t have the type of character depth that makes stories especially memorable to me, yet I admire Stephanie Burgis’ skill at writing this type of story. I really appreciate that these books contain problems that could make a book seem rather heavy—such as obstacles related to gender discrimination, the grief and loss of no longer being able to practice a craft one dreamed of and worked toward, the choice between true love and the surest path to achieving one’s lifelong career goals—without feeling melancholic. This is in part due to them having HEAs, but it’s also due to them having a somewhat whimsical tone and being set in a world that seems removed from ours with the gender perception reversal and abundance of magic: it may be an alternate version of our world with some familiar general issues and attitudes, but it’s VERY alternate.

The main relationship hurdle Juliana and Caroline encountered is similar to the one Amy and Jonathan dealt with in the prequel novella Spellswept (my favorite in this series so far). Like Amy in the prequel, Caroline hopes to one day join the Boudiccate, meaning she’s expected to wed a magician—but instead she fell for and became engaged to Juliana. The two kept their betrothal secret and hoped that Juliana would be able to fulfill her own dream of becoming a magician despite the gender barrier, especially after learning Cassandra Harwood did just that.

With the new magic school for women, it’s possible that Juliana could be that magician, just as they’d planned—but with magic typically being the domain of men, Juliana is going to have a tougher time being accepted as one. And suddenly, Caroline’s swift political climb that made it seem inevitable she’d become a member of the Boudiccate one day reversed, resulting in the miscommunication that is integral to this novella’s plot.

At first, I wasn’t sure that this misunderstanding was believable. Caroline and Juliana were fully aware of the fact that being together might hinder Caroline’s ascension to the Boudiccate when they became engaged, and Juliana’s acceptance into the school for magicians meant that there was hope she would become one after all—which made it seem odd that Caroline would just give up when they faced yet another obstacle. But at the same time, that was the only way they saw this working out and it was going according to plan until Caroline’s aunt/mentor made her professional life unexpectedly difficult.

Although part of me still feels like Juliana and Caroline were close enough that they should have communicated better, I also feel like this ends up being plausible in these circumstances. They did spend some time apart with only handwritten letters for communication, and Caroline had some time to get it stuck into her head that she needed to let Juliana go for her own good. Not being in political circles, Juliana didn’t realize what Caroline was going through since her response to events was to withdraw and keep everything to herself—and with some lingering issues from her upbringing, Juliana’s quick to assume she didn’t mean as much to Caroline as her profession, especially since their engagement was kept secret due to Caroline’s career goals.

Moontangled is the story of Juliana and Caroline working through these problems while facing the problem of protecting each other from the dangers of the woods of Thornfell College—with a dash of magic, of course! I did feel that it resolved too hastily and easily given the scope of the lack of communication and that the fey’s “mysterious” intent was obvious from the start, but I also found it to be an entertaining, diverting tale that doesn’t take long to read due to its quick pacing and short length.

My Rating: 6/10

Where I got my reading copy: Electronic ARC from the author.

Read an Excerpt from Moontangled

Reviews of Other Books in The Harwood Spellbook Series:

 

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a standalone Popol Vuh–inspired historical fantasy novel set during the 1920s, tells the story of a quest to reunite a formerly entrapped Mayan god of death with his missing eye, ear, and index finger—as the brother who separated him from his body parts and imprisoned him in the first place tries to thwart him in order to remain upon his throne.

The journey begins when eighteen-year-old Casiopea Tun inadvertently frees the god, not realizing that the mysterious locked chest in her grandfather’s bedroom contains an imprisoned deity instead of the riches she imagined. When she reaches in to rummage for treasure hidden below the skeletal remains, a bone shard becomes embedded in her hand and the rest of the bones assemble before her, eventually settling into a fully formed—and completely naked—man. He claims to be the Supreme Lord of Xibalba, betrayed by his brother with the aid of Casiopea’s grandfather and now bound to Casiopea through the piece of himself in her hand. She will die if the bone shard is not removed soon, but the Supreme Lord of Xibalba cannot remove it since he’s not 100% pure god without his missing body parts and jade necklace. So Casiopea leaves home to join the search for the items that will restore him to full godhood, leading from her small Mexican town to cities in Mexico and the southern United States—and even into the depths of the Mayan underworld.

Gods of Jade and Shadow is a charming tale of a young woman discovering how Mayan myths and legends intersect with the real world, narrated via the style of oral storytelling. The start is a little reminiscent of Cinderella given that Casiopea spends her days cleaning and running errands for other family members who treat her like dirt, plus it includes a brief mention of her being too focused on pragmatism to see herself as a tragic Cinderella-like figure. During earlier parts of the novel, I was thinking of it as being a tiny bit like the Disney version of Cinderella if she had a wicked cousin instead of wicked stepsisters, and if she had a Mayan god of death who made her dreams of traveling come true rather than a fairy godmother who sent her to the ball, and if she got fine dresses from a demon instead of that fairy godmother. I suppose one could say it’s also a tiny bit like Cinderella if the Mayan god were also the handsome prince, and if she were racing against the clock to remove a bone shard before it kills her rather than to get home before the magic expires, and if the ending were more bittersweet than happily ever after. But obviously, it becomes quite a stretch to compare the entire novel to the fairy tale after the first few chapters, even though there are some echoes of it with Casiopea’s situation and mistreatment.

I loved Casiopea herself and the way she responded to those injustices. She recognizes that the rest of their family is not fair to herself and her mother, and she does attempt to argue when she knows they are being unreasonable. Her mother chastises her for not just accepting the way things are and worries she will become bitter, but Casiopea does not hunger for vengeance. She simply believes that justice and mercy are worth fighting for, and she’s courageous and kind without being long-suffering or naively hopeful. I also found it interesting that Casiopea becomes less “ladylike” according to the standards set by her family and church throughout her adventure—donning modern fashions, getting a scandalously short haircut after sacrificing her long locks for necromancy, and generally engaging in activities she was taught would lead to burning in hell for all eternity (such as laying eyes upon an attractive naked man to whom she was not married, no matter how little control she had over the circumstances).

Casiopea’s dynamic with Hun-Kamé, the displaced Supreme Lord of Xibalba, is wonderful, especially earlier in the story before their shared link has begun to make him more mortal. He’s so serious that Casiopea’s sarcastic responses are completely lost on him, whether it’s about the simplicity of meeting a demon for the first time (“Do not sell him your soul and you’ll be fine,” he advises) or the purity of coffee (which he believes should never be adulterated with milk). He treats Casiopea with respect, which she is not accustomed to, and he sees her for who she is: someone with a brave, heroic heart. Though this is not a romance, there is a love story that develops between the two as they face obstacles together and Hun-Kamé finds it increasingly difficult to remember what it is to be a god.

Gods of Jade and Shadow is a fast-paced mythical expedition through a corner of the world (and underworld) and is a fantastic book when viewed as such, which is how I believe it’s intended. However, my personal taste does tend toward stories with more in-depth character development, and given that this quickly moves from place to place and character to character, there’s not a lot of time in which to get to know the characters. Not even the major characters—who also include Hun-Kamé’s treacherous brother and Casiopea’s cousin, whose stories also get some focus—are what I’d call three dimensional, although I did enjoy reading their tales. There were also times I found my eyes glazing over toward the middle, even though I was captivated by the beginning, end, and any part set in Xibalba. Those are minor issues overall but are the main reasons Gods of Jade and Shadow was one of my honorable mentions of 2019 instead of one of my favorites of the year.

Gods of Jade and Shadow is a delightful novel inspired by Mayan myths and legends. It’s certainly one of the more notable books I discovered last year, and it’s also available in paperback today!

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: Review copy from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from Gods of Jade and Shadow