Women in SF&F Month Banner

Today’s guest is RITA Award–winning writer Ann Aguirre! Her Sirantha Jax books, beginning with the romantic space opera Grimspace, are addictive reads that wonderfully balance plot and action with character development and relationships—and due to that combination, it was a series that made me realize that I could love science fiction every bit as much as fantasy! She’s also the author of many more books, including but not limited to the Corine Solomon series (urban fantasy), the Dred Chronicles (romantic science fiction set in the same world as Sirantha Jax), and the Razorland series (YA dystopia). Her two newest novels were both released during the previous couple of months: Honor Among Thieves, the first book in a new YA science fiction series co-written with Rachel Caine, and The Wolf Lord, the third book in the paranormal romance series Ars Numina.

The Wolf Lord by Ann Aguirre Honor Among Thieves by Ann Aguirre and Rachel Caine

I first sold to New York in 2007, over eleven years ago. That book was Grimspace, a story I wrote largely to please myself because it was hard for me to find the sort of science fiction that I wanted to read. I love space opera, but in the past, I found that movies and television delivered more of the stories I enjoyed. At the time, I was super excited to be published in science fiction and fantasy.

My first professional appearance was scheduled at a small con in Alabama. I was so excited for that, so fresh and full of hope. Let’s just say that my dreams were dashed quite spectacularly. I was sexually harassed by multiple colleagues and the men I encountered seemed to think I existed to serve them. To say that my work wasn’t taken seriously is an understatement. That was only reinforced when I made my first appearance at SDCC (San Diego Comic Con) six months later.

There, the moderator called me the ‘token female’, mispronounced my last name without checking with me first (she checked with the male author seated next to me), and the male panelists spoke over me, interrupted me at will, and gave me very little chance to speak. I remember quite clearly how humiliated I was, while also hoping that it wasn’t noticeable to the audience.

Dear Reader, it was very noticeable. Afterward, David Brin, who was in the audience, came up to me with a sympathetic look and he made a point of shaking my hand. He said, “Well, I was very interested in what you had to say.” With a pointed stress on the word “I.”

This was pretty crushing for me as a baby writer. It sucked to discover that my work didn’t carry the same weight as my peers. I struggled with it for quite a while, attended other cons and tried to figure out why I constantly felt like I didn’t fit. After a while, though, I started comparing notes with other writers, like Ilona Andrews. She’s had similar experiences at SFF cons and like me, she tried negotiating those waters politely at first.

With limited success. So I stepped away from SFF for quite a while. Now, I’m taking stock, figuring out what progress has been made in the last ten years. Is it better for women? Since I’m on the periphery these days, to me, it seems like it might be opening up a bit. I’m glad to see more women being nominated for important awards, but I think there’s probably more work to do yet. Not only for women but for non-binary writers as well. The fact is, it’s still easiest to gain recognition if you’re a white cis male SFF writer.

I asked a few of my colleagues for their thoughts, and Ilona Andrews writes, “What can we do better to even the scales in SFF? If you are a female and especially if you’re a WOC, grow some shark teeth. Stop demurring. Stop undercharging. Stop avoiding conflict.  Stop taking less than a man for the same amount of work. Support other women. Call out haters when they sneer. That’s all I’ve got.”

I’m happy to report that there is light at the end of the tunnel, as reported by Piper J. Drake: “My experience in SFF has been overall positive even though the majority of my books are not SFF at this time. I started as an SFR / PNR and steampunk author. I still love SFF and UF and plan to write in those genres again eventually.” However, she offers a caveat: “But my experience has been limited and focused. I’ve been a guest host an @WritingExcuses podcast – which has a predominately Fantasy and Science Fiction audience. I’m staff/instructor on the Writing Excuses annual workshop and retreat.”

Which means that we need to keep pushing for those seats at the table. The community won’t change unless we agitate for it. I don’t have any easy answers, but I am glad to see some progress.

Ms. Drake also adds, “I’ve volunteered my time to the Nebula Conference programming committee. Both times I’ve attended the Nebula Conference, my experience has been mostly positive. I’ve been respected or at least never treated with disrespect. I’ve been genuinely welcomed by many.”

So that’s good news for me, Ilona Andrews, Rachel Caine, and Kate Elliott, who has seen more changes in the community than I could articulate. One thing’s certain, however. We need to build a community where everyone feels welcome, and I’m open to ideas on how to best achieve that.

Thanks for having me on the blog!

Ann Aguirre Ann Aguirre is a New York Times & USA Today bestselling author with a degree in English Literature; before she began writing full time, she was a clown, a clerk, a voice actress, and a savior of stray kittens, not necessarily in that order. She grew up in a yellow house across from a cornfield, but now she lives in sunny Mexico with her husband, children, and various pets. She likes books, emo music, and action movies. She writes all kinds of genre fiction for adults and teens.

AnnAguirre.com | @MsAnnAguirre

Women in SF&F Month Banner

Today I’m thrilled to welcome Mary Fan to the blog! She’s the author of the Jane Colt books, a completed space opera/cyberpunk trilogy, and Starswept, YA science fiction romance featuring a violist. In addition to writing novels, she also co-edits and has written stories for the Brave New Girls series, science fiction anthologies about girls in STEM, whose sales benefit the Society of Women Engineers scholarship fund. Her next novel, the young adult fantasy Flynn Nightsider and the Edge of Evil, will be released about three weeks from now—on May 15!

Flynn Nightsider and the Edge of Evil by Mary Fan Starswept by Mary Fan

Not the Main Character, Not the Sidekick

Whenever there’s an ensemble cast in a sci-fi/fantasy, a familiar pattern emerges. The main character, the hero, is almost always a cis/straight/white guy. There’s a guy best friend who exists to prop up the hero—to do those little side-plot things and give funky quips now and then. There’s a guy mentor who doles out wisdom to help the hero with his quest. And then there’s The Girl. The Girl is often the most high-caliber of the bunch—smart and kickass and witty and better-at-everything-than-the-hero… and still a sidekick. Despite all her impressive traits, her story line is inextricably woven into the hero’s; she exists to advance his story. Take away the hero, and she disappears. Usually, she’s also the love interest.

One way to avoid depicting The Girl as merely a sidekick is to just write about female main characters. But what if you want to write about a male main character and a female not-main character? How do you keep her from falling into the trap of better-at-everything-but-still-the-sidekick?

I ran into this issue while I was writing my YA dark fantasy, FLYNN NIGHTSIDER AND THE EDGE OF EVIL (Crazy 8 Press, May 2018). Back then, I’d just finished writing a book with a female main character (ARTIFICIAL ABSOLUTES, Red Adept Publishing, 2013) and wanted to write a guy main character to switch it up (funnily enough, EDGE OF EVIL remains my only book with a male protagonist). I’m sure there were also some defaults going on in my mind; most fantasies I’d read up to that point had starred male heroes. When I set about brainstorming the book, I knew I wanted there to be a prominent female character as well. But she wouldn’t be a sidekick. Heck no. While she’d be secondary in terms of point-of-view chapters and the book’s main plotline, she’d be able to exist without the male protagonist.

The characters I wound up with were oppressed-schoolboy-turned-rebel Flynn, the main character, and monster-fighter-plus-freedom-fighter Aurelia. Flynn, by necessity, couldn’t know too much about what was going on in the world and the plot. He was the reader’s stand-in in terms of discovering all the twists and turns the story would offer, and so he got most of the POV chapters. Aurelia, meanwhile, had secrets to keep—from both Flynn and the reader. Yet just because the spotlight wasn’t on her didn’t mean she was just waiting in the wings to be called upon. While I was outlining the book’s plot, I took care to see that she had her own story line. And when I was finished, I wound up with a character who was basically the protagonist of a different book—one that intersected with the book I was writing, but could have been its own thing. In other words, I could just have easily written AURELIA SUN AND THE EDGE OF EVIL and had a fully developed story (though there wouldn’t have been as many mysteries). And if Flynn were to vanish from the book, she’d still have plenty to do.

Just because a character isn’t the focus of a book doesn’t mean they have to exist as a glorified support beam. A strong secondary cast is vital to any book; they make the world more interesting and expand the story. What makes them more than sidekicks is that they each have a story of their own to tell—a story that could exist with or without the chosen main character.



Break the enchantments. Find the truth. Ignite the revolution.

A century ago, the Enchanters defeated the evil Lord of the Underworld, but not before he’d unleashed his monsters and ravaged the earth. The Enchanters built the Triumvirate out of what remained of the United States, demanding absolute obedience in exchange for protection from the lingering supernatural beasts.

Sixteen-year-old Flynn Nightsider, doomed to second-class life for being born without magic, knows the history as well as anyone. Fed up with the Triumvirate’s lies and secrecy, he longs for change. And when he stumbles across a clue that hints at something more – secrets in the dark, the undead, and buried histories – he takes matters into his own hands.

Before long, Flynn finds himself hunted not only by the government, but also by nightmarish monsters and a mysterious man with supernatural powers … all seeking him for reasons he cannot understand. Rescued by underground rebels, he’s soon swept up in their vision of a better world, guided by a girl as ferocious as the monsters she fights. But as the nation teeters on the brink of revolution, Flynn realizes three things.

The rebellion is not what it seems.
Flynn himself might be more than he seems.
And the fate of the world now rests in his hands.

Mary Fan Mary Fan is a sci-fi/fantasy author hailing from Jersey City. Her latest book, FLYNN NIGHTSIDER AND THE EDGE OF EVIL (Crazy 8 Press, May 2018), is a YA dark fantasy about a world overrun by monsters. She is also the author of STARSWEPT (Snowy Wings Publishing, 2017), a YA sci-fi romance, and the completed JANE COLT sci-fi trilogy from Red Adept Publishing.

In addition, she is the co-editor, along with fellow sci-fi author Paige Daniels, of the BRAVE NEW GIRLS anthologies, which feature stories about teen girls doing techy things in sci-fi worlds. Proceeds from the the anthology’s sales are donated to the Society of Women Engineers scholarship fund. The third volume, BRAVE NEW GIRLS: TALES OF HEROINES WHO HACK, will be released in July 2018.

When she’s not writing, Mary enjoys singing, skiing, and traveling the world. Find her online at www.MaryFan.com.

Women in SF&F Month Banner

Thank you so much to all of last week’s guests! Here’s a summary with links to their pieces in case you missed any of them:

The Reader-Recommended Science Fiction/Fantasy Books by Women Project: In 2013, Renay started the recommendation list project linked on the sidebar—and it’s been a part of Women in SF&F Month ever since! Earlier this month, she revealed the latest list of recommended books by women including submissions from 2017, and once again, you can add up to 10 books by women that you read and loved in the last year so the list continues to grow!

Now, I’m excited to announce the final guests coming up next week, starting tomorrow:

Women in SF&F Month 2018 April 23-24 Schedule

April 23: Mary Fan (Flynn Nightsider and the Edge of Evil, Starswept, Jane Colt)
April 24: Ann Aguirre (Sirantha Jax, Ars Numina, Razorland, The Honors)

Women in SF&F Month Banner

Today, I’m thrilled to welcome Claire North! Claire North is a pseudonym for Catherine Webb, who has written several young adult speculative fiction novels including two Carnegie Medal finalists, Timekeepers and The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle. She is also Kate Griffin, who authored the Matthew Swift and Magicals Anonymous books—two related urban fantasy series set in the same version of London. As Claire North, she’s published the Arthur C. Clarke Award finalist The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Touch, the World Fantasy Award–winning novel The Sudden Appearance of Hope, and The End of the Day. Her next novel, 84K, will be released on May 22!

84K by Claire North The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Strong Women!

I went to see a man about writing for theatre.  “I’m a novelist,” I explained, “But I’m really interested in learning about playwriting.”

He talked for forty five minutes without pause, at the end of which he congratulated me on my clear yet silent intelligence, and invited me to go away and write “five strong women”.

My heart sunk.  Dear god spare me, I thought, but spare me from another goddamn strong woman.

Oh don’t get me wrong—more than ever we need empowering symbols of kick-ass awesome ladies.  We are in a world which still teaches girls not to fight, run or argue.  Our global leaders are especially charming on how important it is to possess women by their sexual organs.  But the power of stories is that they make you believe—not just know, but believe—that you can be awesome.  That you can change the world.  And in this sense the Strong Female Character is a blessing, an uplifting gift to future generations, and should be celebrated, amen.

However.  The tools we use to progress will after a while, hopefully, change the world enough that new tools are needed too, and I wonder if we aren’t coming up on that time.  After all, the Strong Yet Kind Beneath Their Traumas Male Character isn’t an idea we have ever felt the need to celebrate.  Men just are strong.  They just are confident, outgoing, assertive, brave—and if they’re not that is itself a source of great literary exploration and angst which I would argue is as oppressive to men as anything currently propagated against women.

The wholeness of male characters doesn’t need to be stated, they simply are; unless you genuinely believe that without a male Doctor Who, boys are going to grow up stunted because of the lack of any other male role models.  Because, wow, doesn’t Rey emasculate Star Wars by… you know… that way she sorta exists, the shadow of her boobies making it basically impossible to perceive the existence of Poe, Finn, Luke or Han?  Whatever next?  A Captain Marvel movie, taking it to 1 out of 18 MCU films starring women?  Goodread’s “best of science fiction list” containing fewer than 88% men, and more than three of the women being Ursula Le Guin—and more than three of her (awesome) books on that list not having male protagonists?  IT’S A CRAZY WORLD WE LIVE IN.

Slow exhale….

And here’s the nub of it.  A complexity is permitted to our Strong Men that is frequently denied to our Strong Women, because the female “strong” is itself often a trap that denies a place for true human depth.  Strength is not tenderness; compassion; kindness—all words that are associated with “feminine”, another concept that needs a serious bit of contemplation.  Instead we celebrate “strength” in an era where women still feel that they need to be extraordinary to compete with a male perfectly average.  Novels by female authors are reviewed less, rewarded less; and that’s just the book industry.  In our fiction and our lives, we fight for recognition, and become “ice queens” and “ball-breakers” and clichés of “strength” that simultaneously deny our complexity, imprison us in these labels.  Remember when Wonder Woman was released, and critics declared she was diminished by being beautiful, and sexy?  How did we get to this place, where to be a Strong Woman is also to be not sexual or vulnerable?  How did this idea which should have set us free, tie us up in so many knots?

What do you think of when you think of Strong Woman in SF/Fantasy?  A great many male writers have sat down with the excellent and awesome intention of putting in more Strong Women, and the result is often… well… clad in leather with a sword.  Or a big gun.  Frequently monosyllabic.  Brisk bordering on arctic.  Words unnecessary.  Cutting.  Strong.

It’s not just male writers—women are also sucked into this with great ease, and I’m happy to hold my hands up and say I have definitely dabbled in these Strong Women tropes.  In the best situations, these ladies are kick-ass awesome, professionals who know what they want and how they’re going to get it.  In the worst, our literary women are secretly deeply motherly and caring beneath their steely exteriors and will at the end of the story find fulfilment by casting off their guns and ambitions and having a baby, because hurrah, fulfilment.  Motherly motherly fulfilment.  In the absolute, absolute worst case, the Strong Female Character is a victim of violent sexual abuse, which made them Hard Yet Pained, and which hugely traumatic experience is used to justify why they’re so Tough, rather than being Sensitive and Tender, as though sexual violence can just be thrown in as a bit of background colour.  Sometimes they’re strong for a few pages, the kindly yet brave heart of the story, until they’re brutally killed on page 7, thus provoking the man to learn by their awesome example.  Their awesome… dead… example.

So sure, there’s still a need for our Strong Female Character, because there’s still a huge battle to be fought for the hearts of tomorrow; but also a need to new conversations about what this means.  Happily, I’d argue that a great deal of the recent successful fiction both by and about women—such as N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, Naomi Alderman’s The Power, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series, Becky Chambers’ Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Francis Hardinge’s The Lie Tree—are doing this awesomely.  Their characters are Strong in the male sense—in that they are permitted agency, choice, faced with challenges that they then must confront.  They grow, they learn, they make mistakes, they fall, they suffer, they pick themselves back up.  They defy labels.  They defy being pigeonholed into the box of “strong but won’t have sex unless tamed” or “strong and scarred by experience” or “strong and lonely” or… whichever box it is that permits no personality beyond the label.  They are people, whole and true.  And surely that is where the dream is going, and has always been going, and it is our duty as lovers of stories—and women too—to remember this.

Women in SF&F Month Banner

Today I am delighted to welcome Jeannette Ng! Under the Pendulum Sun, her debut novel, is gothic fantasy in which Victorian missionaries journey to Arcadia with plans to convert the fae to their religion. It was just released in October 2017—and, as was announced just a couple of weeks ago, Jeannette Ng is one of this year’s finalists for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer!

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng

An Incomplete Taxonomy of Fairies, with examples

Mystical, mysterious and magnificent, everyone thinks they know fairies.

The word itself conjures up vivid images and subtle variations in spelling[1] can mean a world of difference. And so just as many (but not all) readers felt that there was something fundamentally un-vampire about sparkling in sunlight, any new incarnation of fairies needs one foot in the old.

Much of the reinvention of fairies is rooted in a need to explain their actions. Their fundamental Otherness and frequent actions as enablers of simple plots with superficially flimsy explanation result in a need to create a framework for that to make sense. After all, why is a sleeping curse on the child an appropriate retaliation for being snubbed to party? These new reasons often play on old themes, justifying their idiosyncratic actions of the fairies. Some are quite playful, such as J M Barrie explaining in Peter Pan that fairies are unable to feel more than one emotion at any time due to their diminutive size.

Fairies as Other

But any taxonomy of fairies must begin with their Otherness, held in contrast to the human and the normal. As the concept of the anchoring norm of society and story shifts, so do the fae with it. Many folkloric traditions, such as the Italian, have only female fairies. The chivalric romances of the middle ages are replete with fairy queens and fairy brides, each more powerful and beautiful than the last. Other stories have fairyland be a place of strange and opposite logic, existing beyond the boundaries of civilisation, beyond walls, behind mirrors and under the ground. Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin features fairies that are incomprehensibly alien, likened to the indecipherable Linear A[2].

George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has fae-like beings who are literally named The Others. Malevolent and mysterious, they exist beyond the Wall and at first are said to be nothing more than fairy tales to scare children.

Otherness does not always necessitate horror as Robert Weinberg’s A Modern Magician features a changeling who is compelled to annoy all those around him with constant eating and assorted other behavioral quirks.

Fairies as People

Yet in stark contrast to the very alien fairies, sometimes they are just people. Despite their strange (or not) appearances, they behave with human logic. The fairies of Mercedes Lackey’s SERRAted Edge series may still fear iron and are incapable of creativity, but they are still very human in their behaviors and emotions. Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted has fairies with frivolous and sensible dispositions but both are relatably normal, with some even living as people.

Fairies as Predators and Parasites

Reports on real changelings are likely rooted in the people’s misunderstanding of neurodevelopmental disorders, paired with the belief that the real “healthy” child has been stolen away. This scrap of folklore has persisted from WB Yeats’ “The Stolen Child” to the 1986 film Labyrinth. Abduction or seduction away to fairyland has become a cornerstone to its idea.

Catherynne M. Valente’s beautiful Fairyland series opens with a Green Wind inviting September, a twelve year old girl, on a journey to the great sea that borders Fairyland. More sinister abductions are often paired with the theme of the fairy realm as predatory or parasitic. Fairies can feed off the passions of people and seek to induce them for their own satisfaction, such as in Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely series. Emma Newman’s Split Worlds novels have deeply unpleasant fairies that fit this mould, unable to leave their own realm and seeking entertainment from mortal playthings.

The Middle English Sir Orfeo stands at an intriguing intersection as it is a reworking of the Orpheus and Eurydice story from classical myth, but that Eurydice is not dead, but abducted to a fairyland inhabited by those thought to be dead but are not. It presents a fascinating early example of a hellish fairyland, strikingly raw in its imagery of men and women suspended in their moment of death, headless and limbless, drowning and burning.

Fairies as Abstract Concepts

The seasons or the elements are often woven in to explain the very fabric of these otherworldly beings. They are beholden to these large semi-abstract concepts, either acting in accordance with them or simply advancing the concept itself upon the mortal realm. Julie Kagawa’s The Iron Fey series features Winter and Summer Courts.

Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies puts another twist on the fairies as they are from a parasitic alternate dimension and cleave not to elemental concepts but ancient stories and tropes. The Fair Folk of White Wolf’s Exalted table top RPG are all about comporting themselves to what is narratively appropriate, manipulating others by magic or guile to fulfil the correct story role.

Fairies as Mirrors

The fairy court as a mirror to the mortal one has probably Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream to thank for popularising its trope, with many productions doublecasting Oberon and Titania with their earthly counterparts, Theseus and Hippolyta.

Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell uses this mirroring as scathing social critique. Lady Poole is bartered away by men into the fairy world of endless dancing and forced frivolity. Stephen Black finds himself the reluctant accomplice and servant to a fairy king. Their otherworldly bondage clearly parallels their earthly oppression.

Fairies can also be a bright, resplendent mirror as Edmund Spenser’s infamously long epic poem The Faeirie Queen was written to flatter Queen Elizabeth I[3]. Swaddled in layers of cloudy allegory, Gloriana rules as benevolent monarch over a court of virtuous knights.

[1] I hazard to say that the rule of thumb is that the more e’s you have the more malevolent they are. So a “fairy” is a sparkly pixie of childhood whimsy and the more faux archaic spelling of “faerie” and “fey” are the dark adult creatures. But there are many exceptions to this rule. Jim C. Hine’s engaging Princess series come to mind.

[2] Linear A being one of the yet undeciphered writing systems of the ancient world.

[3] And arguably criticise. It also has the dubious honour of being among the ten most boring classics that Jasper Fforde’s heroine is condemned to read.


About Under the Pendulum Sun
Catherine Helstone’s brother, Laon, has disappeared in Arcadia, legendary land of the magical fae. Desperate for news of him, she makes the perilous journey, but once there, she finds herself alone and isolated in the sinister house of Gethsemane. At last there comes news: her beloved brother is riding to be reunited with her soon – but the Queen of the Fae and her insane court are hard on his heels.

Jeannette Ng Jeannette Ng is originally from Hong Kong but now lives in Durham, UK. Her MA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies fed into an interest in medieval and missionary theology, which in turn spawned her love for writing gothic fantasy with a theological twist. She runs live roleplay games and is active within the costuming community, running a popular blog.

Women in SF&F Month Banner

Today I’m thrilled to welcome Ausma Zehanat Khan to the blog! In addition to writing the award-winning mystery novel The Unquiet Dead and its sequels, she’s also the author of the fantasy series The Khorasan Archives. The first novel in this quartet, The Bloodprint, was released in October 2017, and the next book in the series, The Black Khan, will follow later this year—coming in October 2018!

The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan The Black Khan by Ausma Zehanat Khan

The Companions of Hira

My fantasy series, The Khorasan Archives, explores many different themes, but is ultimately about the power and agency of women. The Bloodprint, the first book in the series, features a group of powerful women mystics known as the Council of Hira. They are led by the High Companion, Ilea, who is manipulative, duplicitous and full of secret schemes. But the true head of the Council is my main character, Arian, who is known as the First Oralist of Hira because she’s an expert linguist in a world where language is power.

In creating this women-only group, I tried to meld several different worlds and histories: seventh-century Arabia, more recent events in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, and adventures, miracles and tragedies along the fabled cities of the Silk Road. I also took liberties with the languages of these different regions, providing them with an overlay of English, our modern lingua franca.

I did this for many reasons but mainly because I’d grown up reading histories—particularly of religious traditions—that either excluded women’s voices altogether, or thought of them merely as a side note. I won’t go so far as to say that I re-wrote history—only that I imagined a possible alternate future of that history, where it is women who have the ability to deliver their world from overwhelming darkness.

In histories of seventh-century Arabia that describe the dawn of Islam, I’d come across the names of women in intriguing little glimpses—who with some rare exceptions, were mostly footnotes to a larger story of prophecy and empire. But I wanted to know who these women were and what they might have done if they’d held more power in their hands—or if history had recorded them as doing so. I was particularly interested in the wives of Muhammad, the messenger of Islam, so much so that they inspired my depictions of the women who form the Council of Hira.

So Psalm, the general of Hira’s Citadel was a nod to Umm Salamah, the wise counsellor on whom Muhammad relied for military or strategic advice. Ash, the Jurist, who rules on Hira’s laws, was inspired by Ayesha, a seminal figure who was considered a jurist in her own time, and an authoritative and esteemed source on religious disputations. Mask, Saw, Ware, Rain, Half-Seen, Dija and other members of my Council of Hira, all refer back to figures of this time period.

Some other nods to history or language in the series: the name Ilea is a play on the plural Arabic noun ‘Awliya’, loosely translated as ‘Friend of God’, a rank most often reserved to men. Sinnia, one of my lead characters, is named for Abyssinia—a place of tremendous significance in terms of early encounters between Islam and Christianity, when the Christian king of Abyssinia (the Negus) offered sanctuary to members of the first Muslim community who were fleeing the oppressive actions of the leading tribe of Mecca. My character Sinnia embodies all that was best about that historic interchange—curiosity, courage, wisdom, nobility—and infinite empathy.

Arian, on the other hand, has no single counterpart in history—she’s more of a composite. In modern times she might be a librarian, a linguist, a soldier or a human rights activist. I was thinking of the lawyers, journalists and human rights activists who stand against injustice in their societies. Certain notable women were in my mind. The famous Pakistani lawyer, Asma Jahangir, who dedicated her life to defending the rights of women and minorities. Malala Yousufzai, who was shot by the Taliban, and who is still speaking up for girls’ education around the globe. Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, Iran’s leading human rights advocate. And Nadia Murad, fighting to free Yazidi women and girls from ISIS captivity.

In writing Larisa and Elena, two important characters in my series who are Basmachi warriors, I was thinking of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and Russian human rights activist, Natalia Estemirova, both of whom were assassinated as a result of their courageous work. Larisa and Elena are also named after two human rights advocates from Uzbekistan.

In the real world, the agency of women is often eclipsed in favor of stories and histories that ignore their contributions. With The Bloodprint and The Khorasan Archives, I try to reclaim that space for the women who shape my books—with characters who are inspired by bold, captivating figures from both the past and the present.

Ausma Zehanat Khan
April 6, 2018

Ausma Zehanat Khan Ausma Zehanat Khan is a British-born Canadian living in the United States, whose own parents are heirs to a complex story of migration to and from three different continents. A former adjunct professor at American and Canadian universities, she holds a Ph.D. in International Human Rights Law, with the 1995 Srebrenica massacre as the main subject of her dissertation. Previously the Editor in Chief of Muslim Girl Magazine, Ausma Zehanat Khan has moved frequently, traveled extensively, and written compulsively. She is the author of the Esa Khattak/Rachel Getty mystery series, in chronological order: The Unquiet Dead, The Language of Secrets, A Death in Sarajevo, Among the Ruins, A Dangerous Crossing. She is also the author of The Khorasan Archives fantasy series published by Harper Voyager. Out now, The Bloodprint is the first book in the series.