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Today’s guest is speculative fiction author SL Huang! Her short fiction includes the novelette “The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist,” a science fiction retelling of “The Little Mermaid”; the science fiction story “The Woman Who Destroyed Us,” which was selected for the recently-released anthology The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 13; and the dark fairy tales in the Hunting Monsters series, “Hunting Monsters” and “Fighting Demons.” She’s also a writer for The Vela, a collaborative space opera serial that just began releasing season one episodes last month, and the author of the Cas Russell series, which has a protagonist with a math-based superpower. Zero Sum Game, the first of these science fiction thrillers and her debut novel, was published last year and will be followed by book two, Null Set, on July 9!

Null Set Cover Zero Sum Game Cover

Being a Woman

When I was a child I hated the color pink.

Pink, society told me, was a girl color. And it wasn’t that I didn’t like being a girl—I did—but I didn’t want to be a girl the way I was told. Anything I was told was “girly” I automatically rebelled against.

This might have been a defense mechanism, considering how out of step I felt with my own gender in so many other ways. It’s not been an uncommon experience in my life to be insulted or mocked for “not thinking like a girl” or “not understanding women.” I’ve been flat-out told—usually by women, and usually not as a compliment—that I shouldn’t “count” as one of my own gender because I didn’t interact the way I was supposed to. On the flip side, I’ve long felt comfortable and welcomed in male-heavy spaces, so I tried to find some pride in that.

Of course, much has been written about how problematic the “not like other girls” narrative is. And I completely agree with the objection to denigrating anything feminine as somehow lesser. But in my case, even after I struggled past such cultural influences, feminine things and women-centric environments often still felt . . . uncomfortable. Like an ill-fitting shoe. Not for me.

Worse, when it came to the representation of women in books and movies, sometimes the pendulum would swing from “more strong female characters!” to “stop writing women as if they’re men with boobs.” Though the latter is a good thing to consider to a point, too often I saw people’s arguments devolving into telling people to stop writing exactly the women who were most like me, framing them as “not real women.”

I found myself in the rudderless place of feeling alienated from my own gender, but feeling like it was sexist to identify that way. Of wanting to see more women like myself in books, but hearing this was somehow bad representation.

(Once I read a list mocking the traits “strong female characters” have as shallow and unrealistic, and I fit every characteristic on that list. Not the most fun moment.)

To people well-versed in feminist criticism, the answer here might seem obvious: all manner of binary declaration, essentialism, and extremism is a false solution. We need to respect and value all women, of all stripes—women who are more stereotypically feminine, more stereotypically masculine, or not even along those axes at all. But it took me quite a while to work through all this in my own emotions and in my relationship to both my gender and to the culture surrounding me. And though gender presentation doesn’t have any sort of pure causal relationship with gender identity—plenty of women feel all sorts of ways about traditionally feminine activities or women-centric initiatives—in my case, a big step to figuring all this out was coming to question whether I was a cis woman at all.

It took coming out as genderqueer for me to feel comfortable with also being a woman.

I currently identify as both. And I’ve never been prouder of the latter half of that identity. Genderqueerness somehow not only fit me in a way that felt well-tailored and correct, but understanding that part of me ironically made the “woman” part fit a thousand times better. As if acknowledging that I’m not entirely female made me able to claim the female pieces without so much guilt and conflict.

This is far from a universal experience of people who identify off the gender binary, many of whom reject binary identities entirely. Where I do feel similar to many nonbinary people is that my gender is still something I’m figuring out—but so far, in my case, my journey with gender has oddly helped me stop being so uncomfortable when people identify me as female. I no longer feel my previous ill-fitting cringe when people recommend me as a female author or a woman to watch. I no longer feel out of place in female-centric spaces the way I used to, and when included or recognized this way it feels much more whole and correct, like it’s okay for me to be a part of them because being a woman is part of me.

And I’ve become very, very comfortable saying we do need more women like me in media, whether or not those characters share my complicated and evolving gender identity. Because if I’ve learned one thing from my personal relationship with gender: it’s all individual. And it’s all fine.

I now wear shocking, eye-searing shades of pink whenever I feel the urge. And I try to write more and more women in more and more infinite varieties: women who kick ass or don’t, women who are kind and generous or women who are jerks, women who are fashion mavens or family matriarchs or whip-smart nerds or all of the above. Queer women, trans women, older women; women who think differently from their peers or question their own identities; women from a broad richness of cultures and backgrounds. Women who intersect with all variations of the human condition.

There’s no limit to the number of deep and true ways we can represent women. And there’s no limit to the ways in which we can be one, either.

SL Huang Photo
Photo Credit: Chris Massa
SL Huang is an Amazon-bestselling author who justifies her MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction. Her debut novel, Zero Sum Game, came out from Tor Books in October 2018, and her short fiction has sold to Strange Horizons, Analog, and The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016, among others.

She is also a Hollywood stuntwoman and firearms expert, where she’s appeared on shows such as “Battlestar Galactica” and “Raising Hope.” Her proudest geek moment was getting to be killed by Nathan Fillion. The first professional female armorer in the industry, she’s worked with actors such as Sean Patrick Flanery, Jason Momoa, and Danny Glover, and been hired as a weapons expert for reality shows such as “Top Shot” and “Auction Hunters.”

She’s currently on a film hiatus in Tokyo, but you can find her online at www.slhuang.com or on Twitter as @sl_huang.

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Today’s guest is Elizabeth Fitzgerald! Her wonderful fan work has been recognized by the Ditmar Award multiple times: her Earl Grey Editing blog has been nominated for Best Fan Publication in Any Medium three times (including this year, whose finalists were just announced), and she was also a finalist for Best Fan Writer last year. She’s also a reviewer and podcaster at the Skiffy and Fanty Show, one of this year’s Hugo Award nominees for Best Fancast, and a short fiction writer—her story “New Berth” also earned her a 2019 Ditmar Award nomination for Best New Talent!

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Faerie YA and Valentine

Holly Black’s Tithe was one of those books I’d been waiting my whole life to read. I was in my mid-twenties before I came across it, so possibly a little old for its target audience, but that didn’t stop me from devouring it and its sequels in short order. Since then, I’ve read a large number of the faerie YA books inspired by the series, but none of them quite lived up to that first one.

Until Valentine by Jodi McAlister was published in 2017. This is a book set in an Australian town and is about four teenagers who are born on Valentine’s Day. One by one, they begin to go missing as the Unseelie fae try to hunt down which of them is Seelie royalty swapped at birth.

As I’ll be discussing the series in some detail, I highly recommend reading it first if you care about spoilers.

While Tithe and Valentine share some similarities, under the surface they are doing very different things. Where Tithe set the tone for the subgenre, Valentine attempts to subvert what are by now some very well-established conventions.

One thing they share in common is the way they show how dangerous the world can be for women. The familiar can’t always be trusted—not only do faeries deceive with their glamours and charms, but mortals also have their own unpleasant secrets. Violence can come from a face you trust. You don’t always have to be wandering through the forest alone to risk abduction when a crowded dance party works just as well. Food and drink can’t be trusted not to leave you in thrall.

But there remains a seductive appeal. This is the same appeal that Twilight and many other paranormal romances tap into, where the line between threat, protector and love interest is a little bit ambiguous. This is also where Valentine diverges somewhat. While the book is an enemies-to-lovers story, as is usually the case with faerie YA, it sets aside the deadly opponents angle in favour of a pettier you-drive-me-up-the-wall vibe. This allows it to side-step some of the more toxic relationship tropes and puts the romantic relationship on more even footing. It’s not a book where Stockholm syndrome is a concern (although the series touches on that later, using side characters to explore and undermine this trope). Finn still does his best to protect Pearl, but has some difficulty as he struggles to adjust to a new view of the faerie-inhabited world and his place in it. Pearl’s headstrong and stubborn nature doesn’t make it any easier; she’s not interested in being protected, instead doing her best to protect Finn in return, along with the other people she cares about.

Valentine Cover Ironheart Cover Misrule Cover

Which brings me to one of the things I loved most about Valentine. As with many YA books, those in the paranormal subgenre tend to privilege romantic relationships above all others. While Pearl’s relationship with Finn remains central to the story, it’s far from the only important thing to her. Instead, it’s her best friend Phil that she will move heaven and earth for. What makes this especially interesting is that Phil doesn’t act as a sidekick to Pearl, who does her best to make sure Phil doesn’t find out what’s going on and is thus protected. This leads to its own problems as Phil grows steadily more angry about being deceived and ignored. Thus, the relationship has its own arc instead of being flattened out by the romance. And Pearl is very conscious that narrowing down her life to just her relationship with Finn is not something that could ever satisfy her—a view I found refreshingly feminist.

Another thing that the series share in common is the inclusion of queer relationships. Tithe was one of the few books I’d read at the time that included a gay character—a trend that doesn’t seem to have been picked up by many of the books that followed. Nor did it end well for the character in question, who ends up in an extremely toxic relationship with an Unseelie fae before he is rescued (though I suppose I should be heartened by the fact that he wasn’t killed off). Valentine shows how things have progressed in the time since Tithe was published, allowing Pearl’s sister to develop a healthy lesbian relationship in the background of the series.

It also takes diversity a step further by including several non-white characters. Most notably, the golden boy of the town is an Aboriginal guy called Cardie. He’s a genuinely lovely guy who is quick to help out Pearl whenever she needs it. When the series begins, he’s Pearl’s nominal crush, though she comes to realise he’s not where her heart truly lies. As the series progresses, he comes to act as the moral compass, advocating for compassionate but sensible action and by calling Pearl out on some questionable choices. As McAlister has noted at some of her author events, this idea of an Aboriginal boy as the golden boy of a rural Australian town is perhaps the biggest piece of fantasy in the book, given Australia’s history of racism. McAlister also treats him respectfully by not positioning him as a Mystic Native Guide to Pearl or by tragically killing him off (a real risk, given the body count of the series).

So, while I continue to adore faerie YA, I hope that Valentine will pave the way for more stories in this sub-genre that include consent, diversity and healthy relationships.

Elizabeth Fitzgerald Photo Elizabeth Fitzgerald is a freelance editor and owner of Earl Grey Editing. She also writes reviews and podcasts for the Skiffy and Fanty Show. Her fiction has appeared in Next and Mother of Invention, among other publications.  She lives in Canberra, Australia. An unabashed roleplayer and reader of romance, her weaknesses are books, loose-leaf tea and silly dogs. She tweets @elizabeth_fitz

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Today’s guest is fantasy writer Tessa Gratton! She is the author of several young adult fantasy novels, including Strange Grace, the books in the Blood Journals series, and the books in the United States of Asgard series. She has also published short fiction, including the stories “Beast/Beast” and “This Was Ophelia,” and she’s a writer for Tremontaine, a collaborative serial prequel to Ellen Kushner’s Riverside series. Her first adult fantasy novel, The Queens of Innis Lear, was just released in paperback—and it will be followed by another Shakespeare-inspired companion novel, Lady Hotspur, early next year!

Lady Hotspur Cover The Queens of Innis Lear Paperback Cover

Death and the Fantasist

When my mom died last October, I tried to write a normal eulogy. The drafts were fine, but I’m a professional writer. I thought I should do better then fine for her. All my best work is fantasy, so I tried fantasy: I wrote little fairy tales about Mom, and even though she wasn’t really a dragon or a queen or a garden witch, the stories were still true.

Once upon a time, a ferocious dragon made herself into a beautiful, clever woman in order to live a mortal’s life. She was passionate and eager to learn everything about people, about the world, and still as ferocious as ever, always ready to argue her cause, stand firm for what she believed in, but willing to change, too, when faced with equally passionate argument and evidence. As you know, the only way to kill a dragon is to find its heart, and so as dragons often do, this woman took out her heart and divided it into pieces, hiding shards inside her children, her husband, her family, and friends. Weakened by human mortality, the dragon’s fire burned up, and she died. But her heart remained hidden inside a hundred other hearts, and no other dragon has ever found a better resting place.


This is a true story, too:

I had vivid nightmares as a kid, and Mom told me to imagine a hero to help me out when I was afraid. “They’re your dreams, your brain is doing it, so put your brain in charge.” She recommended Superman or Princess Leia as excellent fellow monster-slayers. It worked. I don’t know if I believed her so completely that I learned to lucid dream, or if I’d have been able to do it regardless. The result was I grew up remembering my dreams, and often was aware that I was dreaming. I could usually wake myself up from a nightmare, or change it if I was having a strong-willed night, or if I woke from a good dream I could slip right back into it. I taught myself to fly at least once a month.

Since Mom died, and for a few months beforehand, I’ve been too tired and sad for vivid dreams, or to remember them. My dreams lately are impressions and flashes and feelings, without storylines or the extravagant world-building I’m used to. Then early in March I dreamed about a murder mountain (don’t ask) and at one point I was in the car with Mom, strategizing how to save a bunch of people.

I suddenly realized I was dreaming and that when I woke up Mom would be dead.

I wanted to stay asleep forever. I wanted to talk to her about everything I’ve been trying to do since she died, I wanted to ask if she was ok. Of course I woke up almost immediately.

If this was a fairy tale, the story would go like this:

Once upon a time a beautiful, clever woman taught her only daughter a magic spell to transform dreams into reality. The daughter used her power for good (mostly), and became a great, wandering storyteller, until the day her mother died, and the power vanished. The daughter was afraid, grieving, and didn’t know who to be without her magic. But one night her mother came to her in a dream and handed the power back, saying, “It was yours all along, we only shared it.”

Jo Gratton Photo
Jo Gratton at the Army-Navy Game in 1979

Last year my debut adult fantasy novel was published. The Queens of Innis Lear is a retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, and is about how a mother’s death can leave a wound raw enough to ruin families, kingdoms, and magic itself.

I wrote it because I’ve been frustrated with the play for twenty years. There’s no motherhood in the play whatsoever. Lear’s wife is never mentioned, and we don’t know if his three daughters have the same mother, different mothers, or ever knew her. The two eldest daughters are demonized by Lear for being childless themselves.

In writing Queens, I wanted to deconstruct how a lack of concern for motherhood and care-taking, and the devaluing of women’s relationships, directly creates toxic patriarchy. It’s a fantasy novel because magic is such a useful tool for metaphorically pointing at our society’s problems—I’ve always been a believer in reading and writing speculative fiction as one of our most important methods for asking the right questions of our world.

I wrote Queens before my mom even got sick. I cannot imagine what that book would be if I tried to write it now, or during her illness.


When people ask why I write what I write, I used to easily respond that I write to change the world. Stories, even—no especially—speculative stories, can deconstruct oppression and fight imperialist thinking, they can ask questions with language people don’t always have in the real world. Stories changed me and I’ve always found power there.

So I used to write to change the world.

I meant it, and still do I guess, except that when I think about changing the world, right now there is only one thing I’d use all my power to change: I’d make more time for my mom.

That’s impossible, and selfish, and Mom disapproved of selfishness more than anything else. But some days I don’t care about helping others, or compassion, or making the world better, because the world was fundamentally diminished when she died. I was diminished. Even if the world can get better, it will never get back what we lost when we lost her.

I wonder, why do I write in this lesser world?


Since 2011 I’ve had six young adult fantasy novels published. YA fantasy is where I laid the foundations of my career, and if you’re anywhere near it, you’ve probably heard people discussing the trouble with parents.

That trouble being: parents are frequently written out or killed in a lot of children’s literature. Both because of the traditions of Western fairy tales that so strongly inform the genre, and the practical necessity of getting Mom and Dad out of the way so kids can have adventures. Of course there are many amazing children’s and teen books with active parents, and authors frequently find ways to engage with living, active parental relationships—it’s just that the trouble with parents is something every author has to think about a lot.

Of my YA fantasies, there are ten main point of view characters. In four of the books one of the main characters’ mothers is dead before the book begins. In a fifth, one of the main characters’ moms dies before the end. There are three absent, though living, moms who abandoned their child for a variety of reasons (destiny, fear, shame). Only two of my ten main characters could possibly be said to have good moms, and of those, one is the aforementioned mom who dies by the end of the book. Taken as a pattern it’s not a good look, and I joked when I was writing Strange Grace that I wanted to put in the acknowledgement, “And hey, Mom, I finally managed a book where no moms die!” but it was not to be, alas.

That said, I never truly worried about it, focusing instead on individual books and characters and what that story alone needed.

Until my mom was dying.

Now I think about it all the time.

Mostly I think about what I got right and what I got wrong, and how different the experience of losing your mother must be at sixteen than it is at thirty-eight. I think about where to put motherhood, how to engage with mothering and care-taking through teenage relationships, and I realize again and again that even though mothers specifically are absent, most of my YA books engage with found families, with learning to make relationships, build communities, and fighting to make the world better. My mom, at least, has influenced my work in ways I had never considered before.

I still don’t know who to be without her, but I think I know what she’d want me to strive for.

Once upon a time, there was a daughter. When she was a child, her mother gave her a spell to let her control her dreams. But when her mother died, the power vanished. The daughter wandered, dreamless, powerless, because there was nothing to do except keep moving. Keep stumbling forward, keep acting, keep being. And as she explored the dark world, finding sharp edges, perils, and the new shape of the shadows, she slowly realized she was sad, but not afraid, because she remembered the sound of the spell and the curve of her mother’s smile. She thought maybe—maybe—she could rediscover her power simply by trying to use it.


When I started to work on my 2020 adult fantasy in 2017, Lady Hotspur, I knew it needed a lot of moms in it. It’s a companion novel to The Queens of Innis Lear and is based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part i, with the characters shifted heavily or completely toward women on the gender spectrum. The play itself is about a prince and his relationship with his father, the king, and with his mentor, a clownish old knight. It’s about reputation and who crafts such a thing, about how we tell stories about ourselves and our relationships, and how those things make us vulnerable or strong, because our enemies can tell stories, too, and we can lie to ourselves. Here are some amazing facts: At the start of Lady Hotspur, nearly everybody’s mom is alive! Nearly everybody’s mom is active in their lives! Better yet, a lot of moms survive the whole book! And it begins with a mother coming home from exile and making herself a queen.

I was about ten thousand words into the first draft when Mom was diagnosed with Stage IV uveal melanoma. This is a disease with a 85% attrition rate in five years. Mom made it about eighteen months.

My writing was given a terrible new urgency, because more than any other book, this one is about me and my mom. It describes and deconstructs our relationship, which has been amazing, terrible, easy, impossible—so many things, because like her I am strong-willed and opinionated. She taught me to fight for what I believe in, that science can lead us to God, that we are here to make the world better, and to marry my best friend. Sometimes, our ideas about what would make the world better clashed, and we argued heatedly. I stopped caring about God, which was traumatizing for both of us. She didn’t expect me to literally marry my best girl friend, so we fought about that, too, for a while. But because neither of us forgot that one of the things we believed in and therefore had to fight for was each other, we came through it and for the last fifteen years my mom was one of my best friends.

Lady Hotspur is about queens and lady knights, about generational trauma, about building a system that is better than the last, where maybe choosing love can literally reshape the landscape (because magic is real). It’s a fantasy with monsters and war and blood magic and wizards, because those are the tools I use to tell a true story.

The dedication has been there since the first draft.

I wanted to show her in a finished copy, but I didn’t finish in time. The week before she died, I was alone with her and Dad in her hospital room, and I knew I couldn’t wait. I pulled the manuscript up on my phone and showed her the dedication page, but she couldn’t really read anymore. So I read it to her, after a few shaky attempts.

For my mom: you didn’t need to be a queen to make the world better.

Outside, it might have been beautiful or storming, there might have been busses rushing past or crows yelling, and in the hallway the hospital moved along with its regular business, which can be surprisingly loud. But inside the room, we were quiet.

Mom managed to say, “I’m sorry I’ll never get to read it.”

I whispered back, “That’s ok, you’re already inside every page.”


Tessa Gratton Photo
Tessa Gratton is the author of Tor Books adult SFF The Queens of Innis Lear and Lady Hotspur, as well as several YA series and short stories, most recently the original fairy tale Strange Grace from McElderry Books. Though she’s lived all over the world, she’s returned to her prairie roots in Kansas with her wife. She is the associate director of Madcap Retreats and worked as the Lead Writer for Serial Box Publishing’s project Tremontaine. Visit her at tessagratton.com.

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Thank you so much to all of last week’s guests! Before announcing the schedule for week three (which starts tomorrow!), here’s some information on where you can find anything you may have missed.

All of the guest posts from April 2019 can be found here, and in last week’s guest posts:

At the beginning of this month, Renay discussed history, SFF fandom, and lists—and introduced the latest version of the recommendations list of science fiction and fantasy books written by women. She also issued an invitation to add more books by women writers that you loved this month so the list continues to grow. (If you already added some favorites to the list last April, you can add up to 10 SFF books by women you discovered over the last year—and thank you so much to everyone who has recommended books for the list!)

Next week, Women in SF&F Month 2019 continues with guest posts by:

Women in SF&F Month Schedule Graphic

April 15: Tessa Gratton (The Queens of Innis Lear, Lady Hotspur, Strange Grace)
April 16: Elizabeth Fitzgerald (Earl Grey Editing, Skiffy and Fanty)
April 17: SL Huang (Zero Sum Game, Null Set, “Hunting Monsters”)
April 18: Alix E. Harrow (The Ten Thousand Doors of January)
April 19: Sara (Fantasy Inn)

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Today’s guest is fantasy author Jenna Glass! She writes young adult speculative fiction (Nightstruck, Replica, Faeriewalker), urban fantasy (The Gifted, Nikki Glass, Morgan Kingsley), and paranormal romance (Guardians of the Night) as Jenna Black. Her newly released first epic fantasy novel, The Women’s War, is described as being set in a world in which “a revolutionary spell gives women the ability to control their own fertility—with consequences that rock their patriarchal society to its core.”


During Women’s History Month, I wrote this list of some of my favorite books with especially wonderful heroines. Each one is strong in her own way, even if she’s not the type to beat up the bad guys.

Mercy Thompson: Moon Called Cover Alpha and Omega: Cry Wolf Cover

I love both the Mercy Thompson and the Alpha and Omega series by Patricia Briggs. There are a lot of strong female protagonists in urban fantasy, but what I love best about Mercy and Anna is that they manage to be heroic despite being physically outgunned practically all the time. They triumph through wit and strategy and courage rather than through brute force.

Archangel Cover

Archangel by Sharon Shinn. This is one of my all-time favorite books. I love that the heroine, Rachel, is a deeply flawed and damaged human being. It’s a difficult proposition in our culture to create a truly likeable, angry heroine, but Shinn manages to do that with Rachel. So many romantic stories feature tortured and angry heroes, but this one successfully flips that trope on its ear.

The Cruel Prince Cover The Wicked King Cover

The Cruel Prince and The Wicked King by Holly Black.
This is another series that does a great job of creating a flawed heroine and making it easy to root for her anyway. Jude is ambitious, which is a trait that is often made to seem unattractive in girls and women. There are times her ambition—and sense of self-preservation—cause her to make questionable decisions, but I love her anyway and can’t wait to see what happens next.

The Host Cover

The Host by Stephenie Meyer. In this one, you get two epic fantasy heroines in one body! Both Melanie (the human) and Wanda (the alien who inhabits her body) are epic in their own, beautifully contrasting ways. Melanie is bold and brave and physically heroic, while Wanda is submissive and compassionate and self-sacrificing. Together, they make a great (if uncomfortable) team.

The Shadowed Sun Cover

The Shadowed Sun by N. K. Jemisin. I love all of Jemisin’s books, but Hanani is probably my favorite heroine. I love watching her journey from timid and uncertain apprentice to strong, self-assured woman. I also love how she continually defies the roles society attempts to impose on her.


Jenna Glass Photo Jenna Glass wrote her first book—an “autobiography”—when she was in the fifth grade. She began writing in earnest while in college and proceeded to collect a dizzying array of rejections for her first seventeen novels. Nevertheless, she persisted, and her eighteenth novel became her first commercial sale. Within a few years, Glass became a full-time writer, and she has never looked back. She has published more than twenty novels under various names. The Women’s War marks her first foray into epic fantasy.

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Today’s guest is fantasy author Samantha Shannon! Her internationally bestselling debut novel, The Bone Season, is the first book in a series with the same name as its opening installment. Her latest book, The Priory of the Orange Tree, is a New York Times bestselling standalone epic fantasy novel with dragons and one of the most gorgeous covers I’ve ever seen (also featuring dragons!).

The Priory of the Orange Tree Cover

Epic fantasy is the genre where everything plays out on the grandest of scales. This is a realm of sprawling lands, of ancient feuds, of conflicts that could save or end the world. In this genre, a writer needs to think big.

Yet a paracosm—an invented world—is something like a tapestry. No matter how vast it is, it’s made up of a multitude of threads. It’s in these threads—in the fine details—that a picture, or a story, comes to life. Even as we think big, we must also think small. With that in mind, I thought I’d share my inspirations for some of the little details in my latest novel, The Priory of the Orange Tree.


The sinister bird

One detail that crops up in Priory is the eerietale of the sorrower—a bird that makes a sound like a baby just as it begins to cry. Disgraced alchemist Niclays views the sorrower as a symbol of his life in exile: ‘The whisper that never quite turned into a scream. The wait for a blow that never came.’ Many people on the island of Seiiki believe these dark-winged birds to be possessed by the spirits of stillborn children, and fear that their song can bring on a miscarriage. This has caused the sorrower to be sporadically hunted throughout Seiikinese history. The hic-hic-hic is rumoured to have driven one empress mad with frustration as she searched for a baby she could never find. It’s a chilling story that would never have occurred to me without a real-life inspiration.

In July 2017, I visited Japan to conduct some on-site research for Priory, since Seiiki is loosely based on Edo Japan during its period of sakoku (鎖国 ‘chained country’). On the day I arrived, I decided to shake off the jetlag right away and visit Ōsaka Castle. As I walked back to my hotel through the heat of the summer afternoon, I passed a line of trees and heard a sound. To this day it remains difficult to describe, but the closest I can get to a comparison is the sound of a grizzling baby.

There was no baby to be seen on that street. No one around at all, in fact. A moment later, a dark-coloured bird fluttered past, and the sound ceased. Every hair on my arms stood on end.

To this day, I have no idea what species of bird flew past me, or if the sound even came from a bird. I’ve wondered if I experienced an auditory hallucination—acoustic aura has occasionally been reported in people who suffer from migraines, as I do. Whatever I heard in Ōsaka that day, I remembered to scribble a description of the sound in the notebook I’d brought with me to Japan, and as soon as I got back to London, I spun that strange experience into the story of the sorrower.


The cruel mountains

In the acknowledgements of The Priory of the Orange Tree, I thank my mum for inspiring me to build the world as high as it was wide. It’s because of her that The Priory of the Orange Tree has mountains with names and distinct characters.

About six months before I finished editing Priory, my mum became fascinated by Mount Everest. She gobbled up documentaries, films and books about the highest mountain on Earth and the people who have lost their lives on it. Once she’d exhausted every resource on Everest, she was on to learning about K2, Dhaulagiri, and the other Himalayan peaks that spear into the so-called Death Zone. Past 25000 feet, in freezing conditions and with limited oxygen, the human body starts to die. The blood runs thick, the heart struggles, and the mind clouds.

My mum’s interests tend to be catching. Before long, I was just as curious about these snow-capped peaks and the impossible risks people take to reach their summits. They seem undaunted by the deep-frozen bodies that have lain for years in the snow—bodies that serve as warnings, as reminders of the danger. ‘The mountains are calling and I must go,’ as John Muir once said. All this inspired me to introduce an event in the backstory of Tané of Ampiki, one of the four narrators in Priory.

Mount Tego, which most closely resembles K2 in terms of appearance and difficulty, is the tallest of the Seiikinese mountains. Steep and brutal, it has shaped and claimed many lives over thousands of years. Apprentices like Tané, who hope to be dragonriders, are challenged to climb to its summit. Should they succeed, they are said to be rewarded by the spirit of Kwiriki, the Great Dragon Elder, who will descend from the celestial plane to meet them.

A mountain climb made perfect sense to me as a test of endurance and commitment for prospective riders. It prompted me to consider the toll of dragonriding on the human body. During one journey, Tané eats cuts of ginger root to alleviate the effects of altitude sickness and suffers from the ‘sun quake’ when her dragon crosses a desert, leaving her exposed to the elements for days. I use her successful ascent of Mount Tego to demonstrate her sheer, bloody-minded determination to succeed in the face of incredible odds. Aged seventeen, Tané, ‘tattered and wind-torn’ and coughing up blood, places her hand on the summit. She is the only apprentice from the South House to do this. Despite being born in extreme poverty, orphaned as a child, and taunted for her background, she alone conquers the mountain.

My interest in the Death Zone also inspired me to create a mountain range called the Lords of Fallen Night, which marks the northern border of the Empire of the Twelve Lakes. Most of these mountains are at least as massive as Everest, and Brhazat—the queen of all mountains— is almost twice its size.


The witch’s lament

One of the characters in Priory is a mysterious enchantress named Kalyba, who originates in the mythos of Saint George and the Dragon. I re-imagine her as a more active and complicated figure in Priory, which approaches the legend from a feminist perspective. Around the middle of the book, Ead—another one of the narrators—pays a visit to the Bower of Eternity, where Kalyba resides, and hears the enchantress singing.

Min mayde of strore, I knut thu smal,
as lutil as mus in gul mede.
With thu in soyle, corn grewath tal.
In thu I hafde blowende sede.

In soyle I soweth mayde of strore
boute in belga bearn wil nat slepe.
Min wer is ut in wuda frore –
he huntath dama, nat for me.

The mayde of strore (‘maid of straw’) refers to the ancient practice of crafting corn mothers, or corn dollies. In pre-Christian Europe, these straw figures, which can take various shapes, were traditionally made from the last of the corn after a harvest. Once the crops had been reaped, the spirit of the corn, which was thought to reside in those crops, had nowhere to live for the winter. The corn dolly provided it with a home. This lovingly made idol would be kept safe until spring, when it would be returned to the soil.

In her song, Kalyba makes a corn dolly, but speaks of how a child will not sleep in her womb. Her backstory is deeply tied in to bloodlines, childbirth, and unrequited love. All of these themes appear in her lament.


Samantha Shannon Photo
Photo Credit: Louise Haywood-Schiefer
Samantha Shannon is the author of The Priory of the Orange Tree. She studied English Language and Literature at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. The Bone Season, the first in a seven-book series, was a New York Times bestseller and the inaugural Today Book Club selection. Film and TV rights were acquired by the Imaginarium Studios. The Mime Order followed in 2015 and The Song Rising in 2017. Her work has been translated into twenty-six languages. She lives in London.