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Today I’m thrilled to welcome World Fantasy Award-nominated author Kat Howard! Her debut novel, Roses and Rot, is an immersive story involving art, dark fairy tales, and two sisters with a complex relationship—and was one of my favorite books published in 2016! I’m very much looking forward to the release of her second novel, An Unkindess of Magicians, in September 2017, as well as her short fiction collection, wonderfully titled A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, in 2018.

Roses and Rot by Kat Howard An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard

“Why are there so many women in your stories?”

I was at my colleague’s class to guest lecture, not to snark, and the guy asking the question seemed genuinely interested. So I bit back my automatic response, which was, “Why shouldn’t there be?” and explained.

I talked about things like seeing teams of heroes on the page or on the screen where there was only one woman in a group of five or seven people, and how that tricks us into thinking that small percentage is the normal amount of space women should take up in society. I talked about the issues around the women that do show up in media, only to be defined solely by their relationship to men—the characters who are nothing more than someone’s wife, someone’s daughter, someone’s mother. I explained how that was made worse when the female character was fridged—when that wife, daughter, mother existed in the story only to have something horrible happen to her, so that her pain and suffering resulted in a male character becoming a hero. And so part of what I wanted to do as a writer, I said, was to push back against these defaults—to make a point of including women in my stories, as both main characters and in minor roles, so that people would get used to seeing them on the page.

I don’t know how much of my answer got through.

At the end of the day, my most honest answer is still: “Why shouldn’t there be?”

I’ve always been a reader, and when I was a kid, I would play pretend games with my favorite books and stories. I would imagine that I was in those worlds. And, quite often, I would imagine that one of my favorite characters was actually a girl in disguise. I didn’t want to be a boy, you see, I just wanted to be in the story. I wanted to have a thing to do, other than wait around to be rescued. Pretty much the only time I didn’t gender flip my favorite was when I pretended to be Princess Leia (though, I did give her a lightsaber in my version. Lightsabers are cool.)

Even before I could articulate that there were books I loved that also frustrated me because I couldn’t see myself in them, that was what I felt. And look, I’m an able-bodied, cis, white woman, so I know that when it comes to representation on the page, I have it better than a lot of people.

Still. I have frustration.

There aren’t enough women on the page. There weren’t enough when I was growing up, and there aren’t now. How do I know?  Because we still notice them, when they do show up. I don’t mean that women should be invisible in stories—that’s pretty much the opposite of what I want to see. But I do mean that I want female characters—lead characters, antagonists, secondary characters, red shirts—to be so common that their presence is as unremarkable as that of the men. I want to read stories where women have adventures, and where they lead quiet lives. I want them to be portrayed as imperfect assholes, and as chosen heroes. I want them present in the same number, and having the same range of human experiences as the male characters.

And so because I’m a writer, when I write, I consciously choose to tell stories about women, to make them present. Because we exist, and our stories matter.

Because “Why shouldn’t there be?” is a sufficient answer, after all.

Kat Howard Kat Howard’s debut novel, Roses and Rot, was named one of Publishers Weekly’s Best SFF books of Summer ’16. Her next novel, An Unkindness of Magicians, will be out in September ’17 from Saga Press. Saga is also publishing her short fiction collection, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone in early 2018. She’s written a novella, The End of the Sentence, with Maria Dahvana Headley, and a variety of short stories. She currently lives in New Hampshire and you can find her at: http://www.kathowardbooks.com/ and on twitter as @KatWithSword.

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Today I’m thrilled to welcome historical fantasy author Yangsze Choo! Her debut novel, The Ghost Bride, garnered much recognition after its release in 2013 and was a finalist for several awards, including the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature, the Shirley Jackson Award for Novel, and the Goodreads Choice Award for Fantasy. It is also a New York Times bestseller and was selected as an Oprah.com Book of the Week, among receiving other honors. You can listen to a sample from the audiobook edition of The Ghost Bride on the author’s website (and read all about the recording process—she narrated it herself!).

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

Old Houses and New Beginnings

Where does a story begin? For me, that process is usually rooted in old buildings.

I’m planning a research trip to Dalian, a city in the part of northern China previously known as Manchuria. “What will you do there?” asked a friend. I had to reply that I wasn’t quite sure, but my main purpose was to wander around and look at old buildings from the early 1900s. Once I was actually there, then I’d have a better idea (I said hopefully).

Now this sort of travel planning is exasperating, especially if you’re dragging two children and a long suffering husband along with you (what better way to spend the family holiday?!) but I’m looking forward to it. Not only because I’ve already pored over the old maps and photographs of trams and Russian-inspired architecture, but because I have the sneaky suspicion that I’ll run into scenes from my new book there.

When writing fiction, it’s important to get the details right so that the reader feels grounded. I’ve found that if I have a hazy sense of where places are, that translates to an even fuzzier impression for the reader. Details matter, from the colour of the sky to the exact distance when your calf muscles seize up trudging from the railway station. Above all, however, there’s the atmosphere of the place; a deep personal impression that shapes the mood and possibilities of the book. Sometimes, it’s so strong that it’s like another character.

Old houses hint at stories and secrets; their rooms capture the fleeting impressions of feet that have worn down wooden stairs and hands that have polished banisters. When I wrote my first book, The Ghost Bride, I was inspired by a Chinese house in Penang, Malaysia, that had fallen into disrepair. Built by a wealthy Chinese merchant to house his extended family and consisting of courtyards and rooms upon rooms, it was like a tightly constrained world. I could almost feel the weight of family obligation—very helpful when writing the tale of a young woman who is asked to marry a dead man! The decay of the house also suggested the parts of the book which take place in the Chinese world of the dead.

My second novel, The Night Tiger, is about an eleven-year-old Chinese houseboy who suspects that his master is actually a man-eating tiger. Set in 1930s Perak, I couldn’t have written it without the memory of a deserted black and white colonial house. These bungalows, left behind by the British in Malaysia and Singapore, are known as black and white houses because of their colour scheme: tropical mock Tudor dark wood, against white plaster. Some have been beautifully restored, while others lie in ruins. High-ceilinged and gracious, they have a sort of desolate charm that always makes me want to stop and look at them.

When I was a child, we went one day to explore one of these abandoned houses. In hushed silence, we peeked in through the shuttered windows, imagining the parties the empty rooms must have seen. The garden was overgrown with lalang, but you could still see traces of some kind of order. Flowering bushes were planted near the front. In the back, we found some chili padi that had grown wild and reseeded itself. It was very lonely and quiet, with a bright, sunny sadness that left a deep impression on me. I wondered what happened there, and why nobody lived in it anymore.

I’m not sure what I’ll find when I get to Manchuria—perhaps the hazy coalescence of a story I already have in mind, or a new tale that runs away in a different direction—but I’m looking forward to it!

Yangsze Choo Malaysian author Yangsze Choo’s debut novel, The Ghost Bride, is a historical fantasy set in 1890s colonial Malaya and the Chinese world of the dead. It was an Oprah.com Book of the Week, NYTimes bestseller, Indie Next List Pick, Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and Goodreads Choice Award Finalist for Best Fantasy. Yangsze likes to eat and read and can often be found doing both at her blog www.yschoo.com.

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Today I’m delighted to welcome fantasy author S. Jae-Jones! Wintersong, her New York Times bestselling debut novel just released earlier this year, is a young adult book starring a composer determined to free her sister from the clutches of the Goblin King (and will be followed by a companion novel, which is scheduled for release in 2018!). Her blog features some fantastic pieces on its origin and some of her inspirations, and you can read an excerpt from Wintersong on the Griffin Teen website.

Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

The Albatross

Every day, I write with an albatross about my neck.

Most of the time, I don’t notice its weight, but whenever I speak of my book, I can feel it hanging there, transforming from an albatross to the elephant in the room everyone is too polite to discuss. I smile, I nod, I continue as though I don’t feel it there, sitting as heavy as denial upon my chest as I answer questions, sign books, and pose for pictures.

I am an American writer of Asian descent.

The first time I truly felt the weight of my albatross was at the launch party for Wintersong. After a successful panel with my fellow young adult fantasy authors Roshani Chokshi and Marie Lu, we opened up the floor to questions. We gave answers both earnest and glib to those who asked us where we got our inspiration, how we came to be published, what our writing process was like, until we got to the final question of the evening. A young woman—a teenager—raised her hand and asked, “How does being Asian influence your writing?”

And I had no answer, earnest or glib.

Like the three of us, this teenager was also of Asian descent. I watched her face, shining with hope and eagerness as Roshani and Marie gave their answers. The albatross about my neck stirred, flapping its wings and fanning the flames of my guilt. Roshani spoke of the tales of both her Indian and Filipino heritage she read about as a child, while Marie told an amazing story about witnessing the events of Tiananmen Square as a little girl and how that influenced the dystopian world of her novel, Legend.

I had nothing to say.

My debut novel has no overtly Asian elements. It was inspired by Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, and the myth of the Erl-king. It is set in late 18th century Bavaria and in a Germanic-influenced fantasy world populated with goblins and Lorelei. It is also the most personal and most me book I have ever written.

Those who know me know how I am a lover of all things dark, gothic, and Romantic (with a capital R). Percy Bysshe Shelley, Phantom of the Opera, German-language musicals, Flowers in the Attic, Jacques Cocteau films, Jane Eyre, Crimson Peak, Ann Radcliffe (with whom I share a birthday). I have an aesthetic, as the kids say, and I live that aesthetic to the hilt in the fashion choices I make, the movies I consume, and the books I read and write. It is a distinctly European aesthetic.

It is also mine.

Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti The Phantom of the Opera

I am the first generation born in America on my mother’s side. My mother is also the person responsible for my aesthetic. She passed her childhood favorites on to me: Pollyanna, Anne of Green Gables, Jane Austen. We spent long weekends marathoning BBC’s Pride & Prejudice with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. She confessed that her very first literary crush was Gilbert Blythe. Her major was English. She made sure I was fed a steady diet of literature and Korean food, feeding my brain as much as my heart.

What she never did was make me feel inadequate.

No, like the ancient mariner of Coleridge’s poem, this albatross is a burden of my own making. American identity is an incredibly fraught and complicated subject, especially as it is both intensely personal and unavoidably political. Where you belong, who claims you, what you claim, what you honor, what you absorb, some of these are choices you make, but others are foisted upon you by others. I thought I had resolved my sense of identity years ago, only to find myself litigating it over and over again.

Write what you know.

I wrote what I knew in my debut novel. I knew my love of classical music, of underworld stories, of sibling relationships, of all things creepy and unsettling. I am goth. I wrote my goth identity into a book. That was the easy part.

The hard part was defending it.

Publishing is a business of managing expectations. I was an acquiring editor at a Big 5 imprint before I became a writer, so I knew very well how to manage business expectations when it came to advances, royalties, print runs, etc. I can divorce my sense of worth from any number of zeroes, my personal self from my artistic output. I am not my book. Except when I am.

I could manage my own expectations, but what I did not expect was managing everyone else’s. The expectations carried by my face and my name. The cover apparently doesn’t match the insides. I feel guilty about that. Guilty, and afraid.

Writing fantasy when you are a non-white American writer can be like stepping through a minefield. If you don’t write from a non-white tradition, are you failing the identity you’ve claimed and that has claimed you? If you do write from the tradition of your ancestors, what if you get it wrong? English is my first language. It is the language in which I speak, think, and write. Korean is my milk tongue. I speak it badly, and with an American accent. Would I write Korean fantasy with one as well? The guilt comes from fear, and fear feeds the guilt.

If I wrote realistic contemporary fiction, would my guilt be less? If I wrote what I knew in a realistic way, I would write about a girl with a Korean mother and a white father, tennis clubs and cotillion, California sunshine and New York City skyscrapers. But my life is as much a fantasy for readers as my debut. I am a first-generation Asian-American, but the trappings of my life do not fit in with the typical narrative of immigrant children. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, where there is a sizeable Asian population, many of whom have been in America for generations. I grew up with a lot of mixed-race families, where the tension between the Old World and the New was not necessarily a clash of ideals, but one of amiable and occasionally intense negotiation. I have no charming and palatably exotic anecdotes of my mother misunderstanding some aspect of American culture I can relate on panels. I have no inspirational stories to give about overcoming or defying parental pressure to become a lawyer or a doctor. My parents encouraged my artistic pursuits and even offered to support me financially if I decided to become an animator or a writer. In short, I have no way to “prove” how my being Asian influences my writing, in either my life or in my work.

But perhaps I am looking at it through the looking glass, and right is left and left is right. Perhaps it is my writing that influences every part of me being Asian. I cannot parse and partition parts of myself for mainstream consumption, or even for other Asian-Americans. Every book I write explores some part of me. My love of classical music was the seed from which Wintersong sprang, but my love of classical music came from my mother. Writing this book helped me better understand me, how everything I am grows from a rich bed of influences, including all those piano lessons I took like a good little Asian girl.

I still write with an albatross about my neck, but book after book, story after story, I write it into freedom.

S. Jae-Jones S. Jae-Jones (called JJ) is an artist, an adrenaline junkie, and the NYT bestselling author of WINTERSONG (Thomas Dunne 2017). When not obsessing over books, she can be found jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, co-hosting the Pub(lishing) Crawl podcast, or playing dress-up. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she now lives in North Carolina, as well as many other places on the internet, including Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, and her blog.

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Today I’m delighted to welcome Danya! She’s a librarian and a speculative fiction fan who writes book reviews on her excellent website, Fine Print. I really enjoy reading her thoughts on books and appreciate the way she dissects the books she reads—plus she has fantastic taste, as you can see from her coverage of Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. ButlerSeraphina by Rachel Hartman, The Midnight Queen by Sylvia Izzo Hunter, and Monstress Volume One by Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda!

Fine Print

The Menstrual Menace: Periods in Fantasy Novels

As a dedicated reader and reviewer of fantasy novels, especially those that feature women in prominent roles, I’ve often wondered: what’s up with the representation of menstrual periods in fantasy fiction? We read descriptions of characters covered in grime, authors mention the stink of the road, and stories reference hunger pangs from limited rations as part of daily life in many fantasy novels, so the relative absence of periods shouldn’t be dismissed as unimportant. Even more troubling is that when periods are mentioned in fantasy novels, they’re often linked to some extreme element of the magic system or the threat of sexual violence.

Although not all women menstruate and not all those who menstruate identify as women, menstruation plays an important role in the lives of real-life women and, when mentioned, in the lives of female characters in fantasy novels. Whether you’re looking at things from a biological perspective or a social one, the first menses is a significant and meaningful event for a young woman in fantasy: it can determine whether she’s of marriageable age, signify the awakening of her magic, and more often than not, menstrual periods coincide with dark and distressing aspects of the fantasy world.

Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey Fire by Kristin Cashore

I recently read Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey, a retelling of and prequel to Shakespeare’s play The Tempest that explores the relationship between Prospero, Miranda, and Caliban. In a very disturbing series of chapters, Prospero refuses to tell his daughter Miranda, raised in isolation on a desert island without any other women, what to expect when she “becomes a woman” and she’s thus totally blindsided by the pain and inconvenience her menses bring. Prospero then collects Miranda’s blood-soaked, makeshift sanitary cloths to use as a key ingredient in his shadowy alchemical works. Let’s just say that her menstrual blood isn’t exactly being used to conjure puppies and rainbows.

Similarly, Kristin Cashore’s YA fantasy novel Fire presents menstruation as an extreme complicating factor for the protagonist, inextricably linked to violence and magic. Fantastical creatures called Monsters are drawn to the smell of half-human, half-Monster Fire’s blood, flocking to her in violent hordes. Whenever she’s on her period she must either be hidden away inside fortified walls or she has to be escorted by a fleet of armed guards to prevent her from being killed. So while Fire’s period is acknowledged—an important aspect of the story for many of the book’s fans, including myself—it’s not presented as a routine part of life as a young woman, but rather as an event that can literally get you killed.

First Test by Tamora Pierce Page by Tamora Pierce Squire by Tamora Pierce Lady Knight by Tamora Pierce

Although Miranda and Caliban and Fire are only two examples of novels that discuss periods, they’re pretty typical representations of how menstruation is incorporated into fantasy…if it’s incorporated at all. Those fantasy authors who do make an effort to present menstrual periods as noteworthy events without turning it into an overblown issue are the exception in my experience, not the rule. Tamora Pierce, who addresses menstruation in all of her Tortall universe books, takes an admirable approach to the topic in the Protector of the Small quartet: the protagonist Kel and her friend Lalasa discuss what to expect and how to deal with her first period when it arrives. Personally, I wish more fantasy authors took such an evenhanded approach to the topic of menstruation and would address it for what it is: a simple, if inconvenient, fact of life for many women.

Danya of Fine Print Danya is a librarian and blogger from Ontario, Canada. She is the founder of Fine Print, a book review site where she shares her love of fantasy novels, kick ass ladies, and romance…not necessarily in that order. You can find her on Twitter as @danyafineprint.

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Today I am thrilled to welcome New York Times bestselling author Gail Carriger! Her immensely entertaining Parasol Protectorate series, a comedy of manners set during an alternate Victorian era populated by werewolves, vampires, and other supernatural beings, follows the adventures of Alexia Tarabotti—who literally has no soul. Though this series is now complete, she’s expanded the world through other books, including those in Custard Protocol, an ongoing series set after the Parasol Protectorate; Supernatural Society, stand alone LGBTQ romance novellas; Finishing School, a young adult quartet; and more.

Imprudence by Gail Carriger Soulless by Gail Carriger

Got Queer Characters In Your Fantasy? Blame Mercedes Lackey

You know what I get asked a lot?

Why do you include gay characters in your books?

I find the question confusing. Like, Gail, why do you include food in your books? Or descriptions of dresses? Or fragment sentences? It’s part of my DNA as a writer. My world view. My world.

But that also seems to trivialize the whole darn thing.

I guess what I’m really being asked is…

Why did it never occur to you not to?

And to that I say: Blame Mercedes Lackey.

Back when I was first transitioning into reading adult books, it was pretty natural to cross from children’s fantasy (there was no YA as a category back then) into adult fantasy via Mercedes Lackey. (I still hold that Arrows is, in fact, YA. It simply has never been packaged that way. Silly marketing.)

For me that transition went pretty smoothly because, well… her books featured girls and soul bonded horses. I’ve always been one of those super girly girls (aside from being totally not squeamish about bugs and food and dirt and climbing anything that will stand still long enough for me to get up it and… where was I?) Oh yes, so child Gail began reading adult books because white horses with purple eyes on cover. Duh.

Arrows of the Queen by Mercedes Lackey Knights of Ghosts and Shadows by Mercedes Lackey and Ellen Guon

Mercedes Lackey always inhabits her work with gay and lesbian characters. They are not always central characters, as they are in the Last Herald Mage series, but they are always there. (Keep reading Lackey and you end up with poly relationships. Gail, age 14 thought Knight of Ghosts and Shadows had the most romantic ending of any book EVER, and kinda still does.) All these relationships are presented in a supportive light. Which made perfect sense to child Gail with all her Berkeley and San Francisco poet, artist, dancer, musician aunties and uncles (and uncles who were also aunties).

Since then as a grown up professional authorbeast, I’m lucky enough to have socialized with Mercedes on a few occasions. She is just as warm and wonderful as you might hope. I’m afraid when I first met her, my author buddy Lauren Harris and I rather fan-girled all over her. Almost entirely because we wanted to impress upon her the fact that her books were so important because they gave us a model of fantasy that included alternate sexuality. As she went to pains to point out, there were other genre authors doing this before her. But those authors were generally less accessible to young women readers. Her books were/are important because in them queer wasn’t a big deal. It just was. And so when Lauren and I began to write it just was for us, too. In Lackey’s books queer was normal.

And normalization is a powerful instrument of change.

Gail Carriger
Photo Credit: J. Daniel Sawyer
Gail Carriger writes comedies of manners mixed with paranormal romance. Her steampunk books include the Parasol Protectorate, Custard Protocol, and Supernatural Society series for adults, and the Finishing School series for young adults. (All of them contain queer characters in a myriad of forms.) She is published in many languages and has over a dozen NYT bestsellers. She was once an archaeologist and is overly fond of shoes, octopuses, and tea.

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Thanks to last week’s guests, April is off to a great start! It’s time to announce the guests for this week, but first, here are last week’s articles in case you missed any of them:

And now, I’m excited to announce this week’s schedule of guest posts, beginning tomorrow.

Women in SF&F Month 2017 Guests

April 10: Gail Carriger (Parasol Protectorate, Finishing School, The Custard Protocol)
April 11: Danya (Fine Print)
April 12: S. Jae-Jones (Wintersong)
April 13: Yangsze Choo (The Ghost Bride)
April 14: Kat Howard (Roses and Rot, An Unkindness of Magicians—coming Fall 2017)