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Today’s guest is Sam Hawke—whose recent debut novel, City of Lies, was one of my favorite books of 2018! This wonderful epic fantasy follows two siblings as they work to unravel mysteries surrounding their Chancellor’s murder and their city suddenly being under siege. Though it features poisonings, war, and betrayal, it is ultimately an optimistic book with main characters seeking to do the best they can in the face of difficult circumstances—and they and their stories are excellent!

City of Lies by Sam Hawke Cover Image

The Sewing Test

There is a particular kind of character in SFF. You know her. She’s smart and tough, determined, decisive, and she can kick the collective arses of any takers. She comes in a few varieties—in better stories she’s an Alanna of Trebond or a Brienne of Tarth, with depth and history and more than one dimension; in weaker ones she’s an empty Strong Female Character™ who has no real contribution to the plot other than Being Awesome While Female—but either way it’s her prowess at fighting, particularly against men, that sets her apart.

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love to fight. I had no particular talent at any other sport, but fighting? That I was good at. Small and quick and tough, I sparred and wrestled with my older brother all throughout my childhood, and watched Jackie Chan movies and Royce Gracie dominating the original UFCs. I married my jujitsu training partner (our most beloved wedding photo is me accidentally ogoshi-ing him on the beach) and we teach a club together. My six year old did an escape from half guard last night at training that almost made us weep with pride. I bloody love fighting, is what I’m telling you. It seems a natural fit, when I went to write a big fat fantasy novel, to write my lead in that mould.

Instead, I wrote a woman, Kalina, with a chronic illness who couldn’t fight to save her life. Literally. I wrote a book in which the main characters’ problems couldn’t be solved by the strategic and entertaining use of violence even if they had the skills to deploy, and I did it purposefully. I did it in part in response to my own sewing test.

Let me explain.

The sewing test is failed when a book deploys a lazy code to tell me how much better, more interesting, more deserving, the female character is than those silly other women by making a point of having her hate sewing or embroidery or [insert other feminine-coded activity or trait of your choice—but you wouldn’t believe how often it’s sewing]. These days, if a book does this, I’m out. It’s not just lazy, it’s not just a cliché, it’s a statement by the author that I’m expected to cheer on one woman by disparaging the rest of them.

Listen, I was as much of a tomboy as anyone. I was a small, skinny, flat-chested teen with short hair I wouldn’t brush and bruises all up and down my shins and forearms from sparring. All of my close friends were boys. I liked martial arts, rock-climbing, SFF books, rock music. I wasn’t pretty, I didn’t own any makeup or heels, I was scrappy and smart-mouthed, and scornful of shopping and shoes. I was one of the top maths and science students in my school and I had no fucks to give for people who thought I couldn’t or shouldn’t do something because I was a girl. So stories of girls rejecting arranged marriages, seizing power, joining the army, outdoing their brothers and their fathers and the men who underestimated them, fighting, winning? These were my jam, they were made for me, they were my very lifeblood.

By their very nature these are often intended to be stories of rebellion and fortitude, stories about escaping the box that society has crammed you in. And there’s nothing wrong with that—don’t we all dream of escape, sometimes? Nor is there anything wrong with any of the traits that we see in these characters. It’s fine to be tough and smart mouthed, to be sexually aggressive, to be physical, to desire travel and adventure. It’s fine to be brash and practical and to bravely fight for what you believe in. Undoubtedly our cultural enjoyment of the tough tomboy who breaks free of her societal constraints has played its part in the positive change in the genre over time—why, it’s entirely possible now to fill your reading calendar exclusively with novels that do not solely centre men, in which women matter, without trying too hard—and I applaud her for that.

The danger, though, is a trend toward attaching our respect and enjoyment solely to those types of characters at the expense of other kinds of power and strength and importance.

Basically, there’s a nasty underbelly to over-reliance on this very limited model of ‘strength’, and it’s rooted in the same insidious patriarchal BS that gave us the old style women-as-objects-to-be-rescued stories: here are traits which are traditionally coded as masculine, which you have been taught are more valuable than traits which are coded as feminine. See how you should cheer on this woman because she’s different and better than those other women, who are weak and shallow and worthless. Reward her for those traits, and punish those who lack them. Applaud Arya Stark as she gets her bloody revenge, and make sure Sansa is dragged through the mud for her foolish hopes and desires and ambitions. Write a book that seems to be full of strong amazing women—but do it in a way that’s actually deeply contemptuous of them.

(It’s more than that, of course. It’s also a product of our cultural fascination with violence as a solution—our love affair with creative ways of inflicting harm on each other has led us, I think, to prioritise physical conflicts and solutions, and in so doing we lose precious opportunities to tell different kinds of stories and come up with creative methods of resolving those conflicts. But that’s another article.)

There are all kinds of strength. There’s valour in staying home and keeping it functioning while others are away at war. There’s strength in raising children, in caring for our elders. There’s as much grit in persevering through domestic hardships as in the trenches, as much intellect in managing emotional needs as broad scale strategic ones, and mastery with a sword is no more inherently impressive than mastery with a needle (again, this is another article, but historically sewing is one of the most important skills in a society). If you show me in your story that you don’t understand that… well, no hard feelings, but I’m moving on.

So, I wrote Kalina. She is kind, emotionally intuitive, clever, and psychologically if not physically resilient. She can’t run, she can’t fight, she needs a lot of rest. And I hope that readers will appreciate her strength and her skills as no less valuable than a warrior’s or an assassin’s or a Queen’s. I also hope that people—especially women—will see themselves in her in the way that I saw myself in the scrappy little Aryas of SFF.

She is fucking great at sewing.

Sam Hawke Photo
Photo Credit: Kris Arnold Photography
A black belt in jujitsu, Sam Hawke lives with her husband and children in Australia. CITY OF LIES is her first novel.

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I’m excited that the eighth annual Women in SF&F Month is underway. Thank you so much to last week’s guests!

All guest posts for April 2019 can be viewed here, and here’s a summary of last week in case you missed any of the essays:

And next week, there will be guest posts from:

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April 8: Sam Hawke (City of Lies)
April 9: Marina J. Lostetter (Noumenon, Noumenon Infinity, Lifeboats)
April 10: Arkady Martine (A Memory Called Empire, “The Hydraulic Emperor”)
April 11: Samantha Shannon (The Bone Season, The Priory of the Orange Tree)
April 12: Jenna Glass (The Women’s War, Faeriewalker)

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Today’s guest is editor, reviewer, and translator Rachel Cordasco! She runs the wonderful site Speculative Fiction in Translation, which is dedicated to providing information on speculative fiction works that have been (or are being) translated into English—from reviews, to interviews, to The Big SFT Spreadsheet, to compilations by year and indexes by language, and more! I’m thrilled she’s here today to discuss speculative fiction in translation by women, and if you want to read more with this particular focus, you can also check out the special issue of Anomaly she curated in 2017, Anomaly #25: Speculative Fiction in Translation by Women.

Speculative Fiction in Translation Site Header

The Women of International SF

With the marked increase in speculative fiction translated into English (SFT) over the past ten years, we’ve also seen a rise in the amount of SFT by non-Anglophone women, whose translators also tend to be women. These numbers tell us not only that women are being published around the world in ever greater numbers, but that their novels, collections, and short stories are attracting attention in the Anglophone world, in which translations themselves still account for just a fraction of books published each year.

Focusing on 2018–19 shows us that this trend is continuing, especially in the realm of the short story collection. In this period, Anglophone readers have gotten/will get the chance to read ten collections of mostly dark fantasy by women, with seven of the collections translated by women. And while they come to us from around the world (including Russia, Indonesia, Japan, Bosnia, Slovakia, and Korea), almost half come from either Argentina or Spain. When many of us think about Latin American speculative fiction by women, we think about the highly-acclaimed Angelica Gorodischer, whose stories and novels have been well-known for decades for their dark comedy and unique approach to the fantastic. In the second decade of this century, we have even more such writers, including Sara Gallardo (Land of Smoke, tr. Jessica Sequeira) and Samanta Schweblin (Mouthful of Birds, tr. Megan McDowell) from Argentina; and Cristina Jurado (Alphaland, tr. James Womack) and Sofia Rhei (Everything is Made of Letters, tr. various translators) from Spain. Schweblin, Jurado, and Rhei have all appeared in previous years, publishing novels or stories in English translation, while Gallardo, who died over thirty years ago, is just getting her English debut. And while Gallardo’s Land of Smoke is a kind of magical realism that prompted one critic to call it a “poetic communiqué from an exceptional imagination,” Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds and Jurado’s Alphaland reach more toward the dark and surreal side of life, blurring the real and the bizarre into ultimately haunting collections. Rhei’s collection is the most sci-fi of the group, with stories about parallel worlds and alien planets that instantly transport the reader.

Alphaland by Cristina Jurado Cover Hybrid Child by Mariko Ohara Cover

Surrealism and dark fantasy are also at the center of collections by Tatyana Tolstaya (Aetherial Worlds, tr. Anya Migdal), Intan Paramaditha (Apple and Knife, tr. Stephen J. Epstein), Yukiko Motoya (The Lonesome Bodybuilder, tr. Asa Yoneda), Asja Bakić (Mars, tr. Jennifer Zoble), Uršuľa Kovalyk (The Night Circus, tr. Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood), and Ha Seong-Nan (Flowers of Mold, tr. Janet Hong). Collections like these offer readers an unflinching and unrelentingly dark look at modern life and what lies just beneath the surface.

Of the ten works of novel-length SFT by women out or coming out between 2018 and 2019, three are from Japan, which itself has a long tradition of sophisticated, excellent speculative fiction (especially science fiction). Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary (tr. Margaret Mitsutani) depicts a post-apocalyptic Japan, in which the old remain healthy while the young wither away; Mariko Ohara’s Hybrid Child (tr. Jodie Beck) is an award-winning story about motherhood, murder, and cyborgs; and Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (tr. Stephen Snyder) takes up questions of memory and trauma on an island where forgetting is the norm.

Novels by women from Korea, Finland, Catalonia, Argentina, Russia, the Dominican Republic, and Israel span the range of speculative fiction, from the psychologically-harrowing dark fantasy of Vita Nostra (by Marina and Sergei Dyachenko, tr. Julia Meitov Hersey) to the biohorror/science fiction of Dark Constellations (by Pola Oloixarac, tr. Roy Kesey) and everything in between. For instance, The Vestigial Heart (by Carme Torras, tr. Josephine Swarbrick) imagines a teenage girl waking up in a future filled with emotionless, robot-dependent humans, while The Heart of the Circle (by Keren Landsman, tr. Daniella Zamir) offers us an alternate-world fantasy about sorcerers and their fight for the right to exist.

Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergei Dyachenko Cover Dark Constellations by Pola Oloixarac Cover

All of this, dear reader, is still not all, but if I went into all of the short-story-length SFT by women that came out in 2018-19, this post would be miles long. Instead, I’ll just mention a few of the especially notable ones. Man Booker International Prize-winning Polish author Olga Tokarczuk had her chilling story about genetic experimentation published recently in Hazlitt (“All Saints’ Mountain, tr. Jennifer Croft), while Italian author Clelia Farris saw her blend of science fiction and fantasy about a strange addictive substance published in Future Science Fiction Digest (“The Substance of Ideas,” tr. Rachel Cordasco). French author Melanie Fazi’s fantastical story about disease and statues came out in World Literature Today (“Our Lady of the Scales,” tr. Edward Gauvin), and Latin American Literature Today printed a story about trauma and holographic images as witnesses by Gabriela Damián Miravete (“They Will Dream in the Garden,” tr. Adrian Demopulos). Finally, Algerian author Safia Ketou’s story “The Mauve Planet” was published in English for the first time on Arablit.org (tr. Nadia Ghanem).

The women who write, translate, and publish speculative fiction around the world enrich our literary lives and enhance our understanding of the world(s) around/beneath/within us. So if you haven’t read any of these women before, or are looking for more from authors you already love, bring this list to your favorite bookstore or read some of the stories online. You’ll be glad you did.

Rachel Cordasco has a PhD in literary studies and currently works as a developmental editor. She also writes reviews for publications like World Literature Today and Strange Horizons and translates Italian speculative fiction. For all things related to speculative fiction in translation, check out her website: sfintranslation.com.


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Today’s guest is urban fantasy and science fiction romance writer Jessie Mihalik! She’s the author of The Queen’s Gambit, a science fiction romance novella in the Rogue Queen series, and she is currently releasing the sequel, The Queen’s Advantage, as a serial on her website (with several chapters available to read now!). Her latest book, Polaris Rising, is the first novel in a new romantic space opera trilogy, the Consortium Rebellion. The second book in this series, Aurora Blazing, is scheduled for release in October 2019.

Polaris Rising Cover Aurora Blazing Cover

On Writing and Reading Science Fiction Romance

Thank you so much for having me as a guest! Today, I want to talk a little bit about my experience writing science fiction romance, how I try to meet the expectations of both genres, and why you should give cross-genre books a try.

Polaris Rising, my debut novel, is a space opera and a science fiction romance. My heroine is a kick-ass space princess who becomes reluctant allies with an outlaw soldier. Shenanigans ensue and they fall desperately in lust, then in love. The relationship is at the core of the story, but there are also spaceships, battles, politics, rescues, and friendships—all of the things you’d expect from space opera.

When I started writing the book, I knew it might struggle to find the right audience, the right niche. Science fiction romance is something of a balancing act, and I deeply appreciate all of the writers, especially the women, who came before, forged a trail, and made the road far easier for me to follow.

Science fiction romance merges two genres with very loyal, very vocal fanbases, each with their own expectations and biases. Whenever that happens, it becomes tricky to please everyone—hence the balancing act.

On the science fiction side, some readers are deeply skeptical of anything labeled romance, sometimes without ever having read a romance. I’ve had conversations with people where they perk up at “space opera” then immediately deflate when I follow it with “romance.” Then they tend to find somewhere else to be.

I’m seeing it less than I used to (thanks again to all of the writers who forged this road before me!), but it’s a teensy bit frustrating to constantly have to defend that a good romance can also be good science fiction. And maybe my book isn’t it. I mean, I’d like to think it is, but I’m a little biased. Regardless, books that are great at both exist, and have for decades, if not longer. The two genres are not mutually exclusive.

On the romance side, some readers are deeply skeptical of science fiction in general. They think it’s not for them, either because they think it’ll be too technical or because they’ve been repeatedly (and unfairly) told “it’s not for you.”

And that’s a tragedy, because science fiction spans so many subgenres that there’s very likely a niche for everyone. Hate military SF but love cyberpunk? You’re still a science fiction fan. And from a technical perspective, science fiction ranges from extremely intricate and detailed hard SF to more hand-wavy space opera where the focus is more on the characters than the technology, so you can find exactly the level of technical detail you want.

I was lucky that as a kid, I read everything and no one teased me about it. Or if they did, it didn’t stick. I read Herbert, McCaffrey, Adams, and Tolkien—and so many more—as fast as I could tear through them. Science fiction and fantasy were the foundation of my formative reading years. I loved the escape, the vastness of new worlds.

Then in high school, I found romance. I’d borrow my grandma’s Harlequins and read them on the bus. And I was absolutely teased for reading them, but that didn’t stick, either, because romance filled a hole in my reading that I hadn’t even realized was there. I wanted those happily ever afters and impossible dreams coming true.

When I sat down to write a book, I wanted both. I wanted happily ever afters and the vastness of space and new planets. So I wrote both. And I had a blast doing it.

If you’re an aspiring science fiction writer, especially a writer who wants to dabble across genres, do it! Write the story you want to write.  Don’t worry about how it will be received or if it will work.

All of that comes later.

Write the story that’s in your soul and readers will find it. We need all kinds of stories, not just the things that stay neatly in the lines.

So go forth and boldly create!

And if you’re a reader who’s been hesitant to cross into a new genre, maybe dip in a toe. Check out a book from the library. Check out five books. You won’t lose anything except a little bit of time and you might find a whole new world that is exactly what you didn’t know you were missing.

Happy reading!

Jessie Mihalik Jessie Mihalik has a degree in Computer Science and a love of all things geeky. A software engineer by trade, Jessie now writes full time from her home in Texas. When she’s not writing, she can be found playing co-op video games with her husband, trying out new board games, or reading books pulled from her overflowing bookshelves. Find her online at www.jessiemihalik.com.

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I am delighted to welcome Somaiya Daud today! Her YA science fiction novel, Mirage, centers on a young woman who is torn from her family and home moon because of her remarkable similarity to a princess in need of a body double. It’s one of my new favorite books; it’s powerful, emotionally intense, and character driven with beautiful writing and realistically drawn relationships. Mirage also introduced me to a new favorite main protagonist: Amani, whose empathy, bravery, and wisdom come to life through a phenomenal narrative voice that perfectly reflects her poetic soul. I just love Mirage, and I am excited to continue this story in Court of Lions (scheduled for release in 2020).

Mirage by Somaiya Daud

Ideologies of Space

Why are they in space?

This is a question I receive often—most often in reviews that I shouldn’t be reading, but nevertheless, the question persists. It’s part of a constellation of questions that, at their root, share a common source. Why do they rely on the antiquated system of tribes? Why do they hold to old customs?

To me the root of these questions is a misunderstanding of the genre of futurisms often perpetrated by the genre itself. The future often presented to us is sleek and modern, presented as culturally neutral even as it embeds itself in the values and cultures of a specific class and culture. Everyone speaks English or is translated into English, everyone wears pantsuits or skirts, everyone’s hair is pressed or curled or cut into a particular bob. It’s rare that I see braids, dreads, jewelry, or culturally specific dress on anyone from Earth, and rarer still that those aliens who look human aren’t white.

I truly love fantasy—I think that is readily apparent in the world building of Mirage, in the clothes descriptions and the palace intrigue. But fantasy as a genre is about imagining our past. What are the myths and legends that we respond to on a bone-deep level? How do we imagine heroes of our past and how have they shaped us today? It’s about alternate histories and re-inscribing our pasts with new meanings. In the right hands it’s an important and interesting project, but not the one I wanted to take on.

If fantasy is about the past, then science fiction is about the future. And not just how technology will evolve, either. It is explicitly about who gets to exist into the future, how they get to exist and why. Many want to push forth the idea that modernity and following that futurity are culturally neutral terms, but here’s the truth: everyone’s going to the future. The question is how and what they’ll be allowed to take with them. Colonial ideologies and powers want a single, unified future presented as culturally neutral, but if we’re given a choice, if we’re handed the mic: do you really think we wouldn’t want to take our traditions and languages and family formations with us? Do you think we want to leave our scriptures and gods behind?

‘Why wasn’t this just a fantasy’ is just a different way of saying ‘why weren’t these characters and their traditions relegated to the past?’ It’s a way of saying, ‘I don’t want to imagine them in the future.’ It is necessary to imagine a future where people who look as I do, speak as I do, think as I do, are not only in the margins of a space epic, but in the center. Where not only are their clothes worn and their palaces occupied, but that they are worn and occupied by them. If science fiction is the genre of the future, then where are we and why aren’t we speaking our languages? Why don’t we get to wear our traditional dress, even as the ball gown and tuxedo manage to leap from genre to genre and time period to time period with little criticism?

Why are they in space?

Because I want them to be. Because our futures should be multiple, varied, and challenging. Because tribal family and nation formations exist the world over and persist into the future. Because old traditions are never old, they are made new year after year, decade after decade, by the people who care to preserve them. Because there is a latent violence in an imagined future with a single language, a single mode of dress, and no alternate ways of being.

Because we deserve to exist in every timeline: past, present, and future.

Somaiya Daud Somaiya Daud is the author of Mirage, and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington. A former bookseller in the children’s department at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., Somaiya is passionate about Arabic poetry and the cosmos. You can find her on Twitter at @SomaiyaDaud.

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Today’s guest is fantasy writer Tasha Suri—whose amazing debut novel, Empire of Sand, went straight to my favorites shelf on Goodreads after I finished it. Set in a world inspired by Mughal India, Empire of Sand is an elegantly written, character driven, deeply affecting book that excellently weaves in themes like resistance, choice, and the strength of bonds between people. Most of all, I loved the character at the heart of the novel, Mehr, and the way she paves her path with hope, courage, and determination. I’m excited to read her sister Arwa’s story in Realm of Ash (coming in November), and I am thrilled that Tasha Suri is here today!

Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Fairy tales are obsessed with feet. Pretty, gravity-defying feet. Flippers turned into feet. Feet mutilated, chopped or burned, preferably sourced from a woman’s legs.

In Perrault’s Cinderella, the heroine wears slippers made of fragile glass. Her feet are uniquely small and perfect; so small and perfect, in fact, that her bullying stepsisters can only replicate her perfection by cutting off their own heels and toes. In The Red Shoes, a ‘vain’ girl literally has her feet hacked off. The Little Mermaid’s heroine has newly minted mortal feet that cause her excruciating pain with every step, and the evil queen of Snow White fame meets her end in red-hot iron shoes. Wayward women pay the price for their wickedness with their bodies, and often only ankle-down.

It isn’t this focus that most fascinates me about fairy tales (although it does fascinate me; why feet?). Instead, it’s the way fairy tales make their mutilated women perform their suffering through dance. After all, Snow White’s stepmother doesn’t simply die in her red-hot iron shoes. She’s forced to dance in them at her stepdaughter’s wedding. In The Little Mermaid, the mermaid dances for the prince’s pleasure on her new human feet, even though it causes her excruciating pain. The girl in The Red Shoes cannot stop dancing no matter how desperately she wants to. Even when they’re removed, those cursed feet continue to dance before her, mocking her.

Dancing on feet that won’t obey you, that feel like they’re full of knives, or literally burn to pulp beneath you—dancing to your death, in short—is a gendered, sinister magic, a punishment for transgressive women. The female body is sinful. Best get out the knives and pare it down.

Like many young bloodthirsty readers, I grew up with those fairy tales, and all the messages folded up small inside them, about bodies and pain and what it means to be monstrous. But I also grew up hanging out at my grandmother’s house, on her plastic-covered sofa, watching the Hindu religious TV shows she loved, where a child dressed as a blue god danced on the head of the giant venomous king of snakes, quelling him with each furious, joyous stamp of those feet.

Like many children of the South Asian diaspora, I also danced Garba and Bhangra, and stumbled through awkward Kathak and Bharatanatyam classes. Regional dances, in my childhood, became symbols of what it meant to be Indian in Britain, miles and generations from the land my parents and grandparents came from. I was a really astonishingly terrible dancer, but every time I stamped my feet to the beat of the tabla, I thought of crushing monsters under my feet—of poison and snakes and soles dyed blue by venom.

It was only later, as an adult, that I learned about the history of Indian classical dance. Dances have old roots. Bharatanatyam and Odissi, for example, can be traced back to the 2nd century CE. Many dance forms were religious acts of worship, used to transmit epic narratives and venerate the Gods. And many were danced by women whose status remains murky, charged with controversy by a tangled mix of casteism and colonialism and nationalism: temple dancers, devadasis, prostitutes, nautch girls. Women denigrated or venerated, according to the political mood of the century, for their involvement in dance and sex work and faith.

When I began working on Empire of Sand, I knew I wanted to create a magic system based on dance: on the hand sigils or mudras of Bharatanatyam, the symbolism and power of sacred rites rooted in tradition and history. But as I began to write, other things began to claw their way out of my subconscious. I started to think about the price of dance: the way the world can refashion a woman’s body, monstering it or punishing it. The way you can be forced to dance, compelled to, no matter your own will.

People often ask authors where they get their ideas. The truth is, most of us draw inspiration from the mountain of detritus that we pick up over a lifetime, the big sea of trash that lives in the backs of our skulls, waiting to be plucked up and refashioned into something of use: folklore and fairy tales, films and books, family history and lived memory. Fairy tales and Indian classical dance—all part of the muddy waters of diaspora—shaped the dance-based magic of Empire of Sand into what it eventually became.

In Empire of Sand, the heroine Mehr dances on a knife edge, between victimisation and power, worship and exploitation. Sometimes I place my own feet in front of me, one after the other, and think of footsteps that hurt like a knife through the heel, and footsteps that crush monsters, and marvel at how many tales there are just about our bodies from the ankle-down—how much power there is in the tales that write us, and that we write in turn.

Tasha Suri Author Photo - cr Shekhar Bhatia
Photo Credit: Shekhar Bhatia
Tasha Suri was born in London to Punjabi parents. She studied English and Creative Writing at Warwick University, and is now a cat-owning librarian in London. A love of period Bollywood films, history, and mythology led her to write South Asian-influenced fantasy. Find her on Twitter @tashadrinkstea.