The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I talk about books I got over the last week – old or new, bought or received for review consideration (often unsolicited). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

There are two books to discuss this week, including one of my most anticipated releases of the year!

Stories of the Raksura: Volume 2 by Martha Wells

Stories of the Raksura: Volume 2 by Martha Wells

This second volume of stories about the Raksura will be released on June 2 (trade paperback, ebook). It contains two novellas and three short stories. “The Dead City” is a novella about Moon before the beginning of the first novel. The novella “The Dark Earth Below” and the short stories “Mimesis” and “Trading Lesson” take place after the third novel. The short story “The Almost Last Voyage of the Wind-ship Escarpment” focuses on different characters in the same world.

I love the three novels in The Books of the Raksura (The Cloud Roads, The Serpent Sea, and The Siren Depths). The Three Worlds is a unique setting, and the main characters are quite endearing. I’m reading Stories of the Raksura: Volume 1 right now, and so far I’m enjoying that very much as well.


Moon, Jade, and other favorites from the Indigo Cloud Court return with two new novellas from Martha Wells.

Martha Wells continues to enthusiastically ignore genre conventions in her exploration of the fascinating world of the Raksura. Her novellas and short stories contain all the elements fans have come to love from the Raksura books: courtly intrigue and politics, unfolding mysteries that reveal an increasingly strange wider world, and threats both mundane and magical.

“The Dead City” is a tale of Moon before he came to the Indigo Court. As Moon is fleeing the ruins of Saraseil, a groundling city destroyed by the Fell, he flies right into another potential disaster when a friendly caravanserai finds itself under attack by a strange force. In “The Dark Earth Below,” Moon and Jade face their biggest adventure yet; their first clutch. But even as Moon tries to prepare for impending fatherhood, members of the Kek village in the colony tree’s roots go missing, and searching for them only leads to more mysteries as the court is stalked by an unknown enemy.

Stories of Moon and the shape changers of Raksura have delighted readers for years. This world is a dangerous place full of strange mysteries, where the future can never be taken for granted and must always be fought for with wits and ingenuity, and often tooth and claw. With these two new novellas, Martha Wells shows that the world of the Raksura has many more stories to tell…

The Gods of Laki by Chris Angus

The Gods of Laki by Chris Angus

The Gods of Laki will be available on June 9 (trade paperback with the audiobook scheduled for release in July).


From the author of Flypaper comes an adventure about mysterious underground volcanic forces and a savage plot to alter the Earth’s climate.

A race to unveil the secret of Laki, a volcano on the southern shores of Iceland, pits our heroes—a sixteen-year-old Viking girl from the tenth century, a German geologist from World War II, and a former Secret Service agent protecting a female volcanologist—against evil forces with a plan to cause an eruption using explosives, altering the global climate through the release and forcing the price of oil to skyrocket.

Everyone and everything on Laki is in danger, including the possibility of ever unraveling the mysteries of the place, as it faces burial beneath a carpet of lava flows. Caught underground by the fracturing physical breakup of Laki, everyone finds themselves ensnared by Laki itself—an unseen, implacable foe that seems everything but a benign presence. Every move they make appears to be guided and controlled by an intelligence that permeates the netherworld.

Only gradually, through all the conflict between the various factions, does everyone begin to realize that it is Laki itself that has always been in charge.

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I talk about books I got over the last week – old or new, bought or received for review consideration (often unsolicited). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

There’s only one book to discuss this week, but it’s one I’m very excited about!

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth #1) by N. K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season will be released on August 4 (paperback, ebook). N. K. Jemisin’s other work includes the Inheritance trilogy (beginning with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms) and the Dreamblood duology (beginning with The Killing Moon), and she has received nominations for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award. I absolutely loved The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Killing Moon so I’ve been looking forward to this one ever since I first heard about it!


This is the way the world ends. Again.

Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze — the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years — collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.

Now Essun must pursue the wreckage of her family through a deadly, dying land. Without sunlight, clean water, or arable land, and with limited stockpiles of supplies, there will be war all across the Stillness: a battle royale of nations not for power or territory, but simply for the basic resources necessary to get through the long dark night. Essun does not care if the world falls apart around her. She’ll break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.

Today I’m delighted to have a guest post written by Naomi Novik to share with you! She is the New York Times bestselling author of the Temeraire series, beginning with His Majesty’s Dragon, and her latest novel, a standalone titled Uprooted, is out today. Uprooted has been one of my most anticipated books of 2015 ever since I first heard about it, and while I haven’t quite finished reading it yet, I’ve loved the three quarters I have read. The writing, the main character, and the magic are all phenomenal, and I haven’t wanted to put it down—it’s been awhile since I read a book as compelling as Uprooted!

Uprooted by Naomi Novik


My very favorite thing about writing — about almost any creative work — is the wonderful experience of falling into flow. You know flow if you’ve experienced it, that glorious mental state where you find yourself sailing through words or code or art almost effortlessly, often with an underlying sense of sure confidence that your work is going well, with no desire to stop working. Oddly, it’s not that work done in a state of flow is actually better — in my experience, the parts that come easy are indistinguishable from the parts that come hard. It’s that working in a state of flow is infinitely more fun. Flow makes work into pleasure. It’s a literal high, the drug of choice for workaholics.

I don’t really believe in writer’s block in the sense of a state you get stuck in where words just won’t come. But I do believe in writer’s block as an absence of flow. Flow is oddly fragile — it’s so easily wrecked by interruptions, anxieties. Especially if you are used to writing in flow — if you’ve only ever written from a place of pleasing yourself, writing something for the joy of it, something that you’re inspired to write — then when that flow won’t come, it can absolutely feel like a block, something in your way, the damming of a river. But instead of trying to figure out how to break out of writer’s block, I think we would be better served as writers by reframing the problem in a positive way: how to get into flow.

I don’t have a single answer for this myself. I’ve needed to find a new solution myself for almost every book I’ve written, as though I have to sneak up on my own brain. When I was working on Uprooted, I heavily used the pomodoro technique (a timed method of working in 25-minute slices at a time). I’ve used writing longhand, going to sit in a wifi-free cafe, and the delightfully named Write or Die app.

Each of those tricks got me through a tough patch of the book, where flow-killing interruptions proliferated. In my experience (and I’d really love to hear about your own, if you’ve found anything like this), the trick would get me a few days, a week or two, and after that flow would begin to start coming on its own — until the next interruption broke my stride, and I’d have to go back to the trick to get going again.

What’s interesting is the same trick doesn’t work more than once. I couldn’t seem to make myself start the timer, or go to the cafe, the next book around. Research on flow suggests that it requires regular new challenges — so maybe throwing yourself a new curveball of process may in fact be the kind of stimulus the brain needs to get there. Or giving yourself new work to do, working in a different medium — Rachel Hartman wrote here not long ago about how joining a singing group helped her unlock a writer’s block, and I’ve found that often swapping into a different story or doing some visual art for a while can help knock something loose in me.

What about all of you? Any ideas for finding flow? (I am hoping to save answers for my own future use!)

I also share this fanvid by lim, one of my favorites, a fabulous illustration of the addiction of flow (and the struggle of interruptions).

Naomi Novik
Photo Credit: Beth Gwinn

Naomi Novik is the acclaimed author of His Majesty’s Dragon, Throne of Jade, Black Powder War, Empire of Ivory, Victory of Eagles, Tongues of Serpents, Crucible of Gold, and Blood of Tyrants, the first eight volumes of the Temeraire series. She has been nominated for the Hugo Award and has won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, as well as the Locus Award for Best New Writer and the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. She is also the author of the graphic novel Will Supervillains Be on the Final?
Fascinated with both history and legends, Novik is a first-generation American raised on Polish fairy tales and stories of Baba Yaga. Her own adventures include pillaging degrees in English literature and computer science from various ivory towers, designing computer games, and helping to build the Archive of Our Own for fanfiction and other fanworks. Novik is a co-founder of the Organization for Transformative Works.

She lives in New York City with her husband Charles Ardai, the founder of Hard Case Crime, and their daughter, Evidence, surrounded by an excessive number of purring computers.

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I talk about books I got over the last week – old or new, bought or received for review consideration (often unsolicited). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

It’s been awhile since I did one of these features due to last month’s blog event, moving, and traveling last weekend! It’s been an extraordinarily busy couple of months for me, but I’m working on getting back into writing reviews and weekly features. This week I’m just going to cover some of the highlights of books I received from April through now, and next week I’ll continue writing about each week’s books as usual.

I am currently working on a review of The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord. I’d like to finish it this week, but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to due to some other things I need to do this week. However, there will definitely be a guest post by Naomi Novik on Tuesday, which is the same day her novel Uprooted is being released! Uprooted was one of my most anticipated 2015 releases, and after reading about three-quarters of it, I’m quite certain it will end up being one of my favorite books of 2015. It’s a fantastic book, and I haven’t wanted to put it down.

On to the books!

Defiant by Karina Sumner-Smith

Defiant (Towers Trilogy #2) by Karina Sumner-Smith

Defiant, the second book in the Towers Trilogy, was just released last week (paperbook, ebook). I thought Radiant, the first book in the series, was very unique and thoughtfully composed (my review) so I’m very interested in finding out what happens next. The final book, Towers Fall, is scheduled for release in October of this year.


Once, Xhea’s wants were simple: enough to eat, safety in the underground, and the hit of bright payment to transform her gray-cast world into color. But in the aftermath of her rescue of the Radiant ghost Shai, she realizes the life she had known is gone forever.

In the two months since her fall from the City, Xhea has hidden in skyscraper Edren, sheltered and attempting to heal. But soon even she must face the troubling truth that she might never walk again. Shai, ever faithful, has stayed by her side—but the ghost’s very presence has sent untold fortunes into Edren’s coffers and dangerously unbalanced the Lower City’s political balance.

War is brewing. Beyond Edren’s walls, the other skyscrapers have heard tell of the Radiant ghost and the power she holds; rumors, too, speak of the girl who sees ghosts who might be the key to controlling that power. Soon, assassins stalk the skyscrapers’ darkened corridors while armies gather in the streets. But Shai’s magic is not the only prize—nor the only power that could change everything. At last, Xhea begins to learn of her strange dark magic, and why even whispers of its presence are enough to make the Lower City elite tremble in fear.

Together, Xhea and Shai may have the power to stop a war—or become a weapon great enough to bring the City to its knees. That is, if the magic doesn’t destroy them first.

Pocket Apocalypse by Seanan McGuire

Pocket Apocalypse (InCryptid #4) by Seanan McGuire

The fourth InCryptid book was released in March (mass market paperback, ebook, audiobook). I love Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye series, and I also had a lot of fun reading the first book in this series, Discount Armageddon (my review). While I didn’t like it quite as much as the first book, I also enjoyed the second book, Midnight Blue-Light Special (my review). I haven’t yet read Half-Off Ragnarok, which changes the focus to a different member of the Price family than the first two books—Verity’s brother, Alex. Like the third book in the series, Pocket Apocalypse is about Alex Price.


Endangered, adjective: Threatened with extinction or immediate harm.
Australia, noun: A good place to become endangered.

Alexander Price has survived gorgons, basilisks, and his own family—no small feat, considering that his family includes two telepaths, a reanimated corpse, and a colony of talking, pantheistic mice. Still, he’s starting to feel like he’s got the hang of things…at least until his girlfriend, Shelby Tanner, shows up asking pointed questions about werewolves and the state of his passport. From there, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to Australia, a continent filled with new challenges, new dangers, and yes, rival cryptozoologists who don’t like their “visiting expert” very much.

Australia is a cryptozoologist’s dream, filled with unique species and unique challenges. Unfortunately, it’s also filled with Shelby’s family, who aren’t delighted by the length of her stay in America. And then there are the werewolves to consider: infected killing machines who would like nothing more than to claim the continent as their own. The continent which currently includes Alex.

Survival is hard enough when you’re on familiar ground. Alex Price is very far from home, but there’s one thing he knows for sure: he’s not going down without a fight.

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Seveneves will be released on May 19 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). This sounds pretty interesting, and it has an opening line that makes me want to read more and find out what happened: “The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.”


From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Anathem, Reamde, and Cryptonomicon comes an exciting and thought-provoking science fiction epic—a grand story of annihilation and survival spanning five thousand years.

What would happen if the world were ending?

A catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking time bomb. In a feverish race against the inevitable, nations around the globe band together to devise an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere, in outer space.

But the complexities and unpredictability of human nature coupled with unforeseen challenges and dangers threaten the intrepid pioneers, until only a handful of survivors remain . . .

Five thousand years later, their progeny—seven distinct races now three billion strong—embark on yet another audacious journey into the unknown . . . to an alien world utterly transformed by cataclysm and time: Earth.

Neal Stephenson combines science, philosophy, technology, psychology, and literature in a work of speculative fiction that offers a portrait of a future that is both extraordinary and eerily recognizable. As he did in Anathem, Cryptonomicon, the Baroque Cycle, and Reamde, Stephenson explores some of our biggest ideas and perplexing challenges in this breathtaking saga.

The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris

The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris

This novel was released in the UK last year, and it was just released in the US earlier this month (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). It sounds excellent, and I’ve wanted to read it ever since first hearing about it. (I actually already own the UK edition, but I thought I’d include it here even though I already discussed it in one of these posts because I’m glad to see it was also released in the US.)


The first adult epic fantasy novel from multi-million copy bestselling author of CHOCOLAT, Joanne Harris.

The novel is a brilliant first-person narrative of the rise and fall of the Norse gods – retold from the point of view of the world’s ultimate trickster, Loki. It tells the story of Loki’s recruitment from the underworld of Chaos, his many exploits on behalf of his one-eyed master, Odin, through to his eventual betrayal of the gods and the fall of Asgard itself. Using her life-long passion for the Norse myths, Joanne Harris has created a vibrant and powerful fantasy novel.

Loki, that’s me.

Loki, the Light-Bringer, the misunderstood, the elusive, the handsome and modest hero of this particular tissue of lies. Take it with a pinch of salt, but it’s at least as true as the official version, and, dare I say it, more entertaining.

So far, history, such as it is, has cast me in a rather unflattering role.

Now it’s my turn to take the stage.

With his notorious reputation for trickery and deception, and an ability to cause as many problems as he solves, Loki is a Norse god like no other. Demon-born, he is viewed with deepest suspicion by his fellow gods who will never accept him as one of their own and for this he vows to take his revenge.

From his recruitment by Odin from the realm of Chaos, through his years as the go-to man of Asgard, to his fall from grace in the build-up to Ragnarok, this is the unofficial history of the world’s ultimate trickster.

Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter

Gemsigns (®Evolution #1) by Stephanie Saulter

I have heard that Gemsigns is excellent, and I’m really excited about reading it! The second book in the trilogy, Binary, recently became available in the US and Canada after being released in the UK last year. The conclusion, Regeneration, is scheduled for release in the UK in August of this year.


Starburst magazine raved that Gemsigns, the first novel in a series, is “a fascinating and compelling read, exploring the boundaries of human behavior, religious influences, and the morality of the everyday person. It comes highly recommended.”

For years the human race was under attack from a deadly Syndrome, but when a cure was found–in the form of genetically engineered human beings, Gems–the line between survival and ethics was radically altered. Now the Gems are fighting for their freedom, from the oppression of the companies that created them, and against the Norms who see them as slaves. And a conference at which Dr Eli Walker has been commissioned to present his findings on the Gems is the key to that freedom. But with the Gemtech companies fighting to keep the Gems enslaved, and the horrifying godgangs determined to rid the earth of these “unholy” creations, the Gems are up against forces that may just be too powerful to oppose.

The Stars Seem So Far Away by Margrét Helgadóttir

The Stars Seem So Far Away by Margrét Helgadóttir

The Stars Seem So Far Away was released earlier this year (paperback, ebook). I’m intrigued by this one since I enjoyed what I read of the sample from The Stars Seem So Far Away on Amazon, plus I saw that Thea from The Book Smugglers loved it.


The last shuttles to the space colonies are long gone. Wars, famine and plagues rage across the dying Earth. Fleeing the deadly sun, humans migrate farther and farther north. Follow the stories of five very different survivors as they cling to what is left of life in a future North.

Margret Helgadottir’s kinetic prose immerses the reader in a future woven from the threads of Nordic history, studded with jewels pillaged from our mythic past.’ – Damien Walter, Columnist for The Guardian

Finely observed, beautifully written; Margret Helgadottir’s stories have the chill brightness of new myth. She is a writer to watch. – Adam Roberts

Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley

Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley

Magonia was released toward the end of last month (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). I’ve heard great things about Maria Dahvana Headley’s writing.


Neil Gaiman’s Stardust meets John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars in this fantasy about a girl caught between two worlds… two races…and two destinies.

Aza Ray is drowning in thin air.

Since she was a baby, Aza has suffered from a mysterious lung disease that makes it ever harder for her to breathe, to speak—to live.

So when Aza catches a glimpse of a ship in the sky, her family chalks it up to a cruel side effect of her medication. But Aza doesn’t think this is a hallucination. She can hear someone on the ship calling her name.

Only her best friend, Jason, listens. Jason, who’s always been there. Jason, for whom she might have more-than-friendly feelings. But before Aza can consider that thrilling idea, something goes terribly wrong. Aza is lost to our world—and found, by another. Magonia.

Above the clouds, in a land of trading ships, Aza is not the weak and dying thing she was. In Magonia, she can breathe for the first time. Better, she has immense power—and as she navigates her new life, she discovers that war is coming. Magonia and Earth are on the cusp of a reckoning. And in Aza’s hands lies the fate of the whole of humanity—including the boy who loves her. Where do her loyalties lie?

Black Dog Short Stories by Rachel Neumeier

Black Dog Short Stories by Rachel Neumeier

These short stories are set after Black Dog but before the upcoming sequel Pure Magic except for one prequel story. I’m excited about both this and the novel Pure Magic (which I believe is being released fairly soon as well) because Black Dog was one of my favorite books I read last year (my review). Black Dog Short Stories is currently available as an ebook.


Natividad is delighted when the Master of Dimilioc gives her permission to go Christmas shopping in a real town, since she definitely needs to find gifts for her brothers. But did Grayson have to assign Keziah to go with her?

Étienne Lumondiere has annoyed Miguel once too often, throwing his weight around and belittling ordinary humans. But Miguel’s going to fix that. He just needs to work out a few more details of his clever plan.

It’s tough for a black dog raised outside Dimilioc to adjust to being a team player. But Thaddeus is determined to impress Grayson . . . until he is unexpectedly confronted by a black dog kid who reminds him a little too much of himself.

The Dimilioc executioner is the mainstay of the Master’s authority, as Ezekiel knows better than anyone. He has never questioned his role in Dimilioc . . . until now.

“Christmas Shopping,” “Library Work,” and “A Learning Experience” all take place between Black Dog and Pure Magic. “The Master of Dimilioc” is a prequel story that takes place several years before the events of Black Dog.

Depth by Lev AC Rosen

Depth by Lev AC Rosen

Depth was released toward the end of April (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). I’m curious about it because I loved Lev AC Rosen’s novel All Men of Genius (my review).


In a post-apocalyptic flooded New York City, a private investigator’s routine surveillance case leads to a treasure everyone wants to find—and someone is willing to kill for.

Depth combines hardboiled mystery and dystopian science fiction in a future where the rising ocean levels have left New York twenty-one stories under water and cut off from the rest of the United States. But the city survives, and Simone Pierce is one of its best private investigators. Her latest case, running surveillance on a potentially unfaithful husband, was supposed to be easy. Then her target is murdered, and the search for his killer points Simone towards a secret from the past that can’t possibly be real—but that won’t stop the city’s most powerful men and women from trying to acquire it for themselves, with Simone caught in the middle.

Today I am giving away two copies of The Girl at Midnight by Melissa Grey! This debut novel, a young adult fantasy, is also the first book in a trilogy with the second and third books planned for 2016 and 2017. To learn more about the book and author, visit Melissa Grey’s website or follow her on Twitter. Giveaway details are below (giveaway is US/Canada only).

The Girl At Midnight by Melissa Grey

ABOUT THE GIRL AT MIDNIGHT (read an excerpt):

Beneath the streets of New York City live the Avicen, an ancient race of people with feathers for hair and magic running through their veins. Age-old enchantments keep them hidden from humans. All but one. Echo is a runaway pickpocket who survives by selling stolen treasures on the black market, and the Avicen are the only family she’s ever known.

Echo is clever and daring, and at times she can be brash, but above all else she’s fiercely loyal. So when a centuries-old war crests on the borders of her home, she decides it’s time to act.

Legend has it that there is a way to end the conflict once and for all: find the Firebird, a mythical entity believed to possess power the likes of which the world has never seen. It will be no easy task, though if life as a thief has taught Echo anything, it’s how to hunt down what she wants . . . and how to take it.

But some jobs aren’t as straightforward as they seem. And this one might just set the world on fire.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House, I have two copies of The Girl at Midnight to give away! This giveaway is open to residents of the US and Canada only.

Giveaway Rules: To be entered in the giveaway, fill out the form below OR send an email to kristen AT fantasybookcafe DOT com with the subject “Midnight Giveaway.” One entry per household and two winners will be randomly selected. Those from the US or Canada are eligible to win this giveaway. The giveaway will be open until the end of the day on Friday, May 22. Each winner has 24 hours to respond once contacted via email, and if I don’t hear from them by then a new winner will be chosen (who will also have 24 hours to respond until someone gets back to me with a place to send the book).

Please note email addresses will only be used for the purpose of contacting the winners. Once the giveaway is over all the emails will be deleted.

Good luck!

Update: Now that the giveaway is over, the form has been removed.

Today I’m delighted to welcome Stephanie Saulter back to the site! Gemsigns, her first novel and the first book in the ®Evolution series, is currently available in both the UK and the US. (I haven’t read it yet—it was recently added to the to-read pile—but I’ve heard it is excellent.) The second novel in this science fiction trilogy, Binary, was released in the UK last year and is available in the US today!

Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter Binary by Stephanie Saulter

Violent Impulses, or How We Think About Conflict

It’s great to be back at the Fantasy Café, at the end of another month celebrating women in science fiction and fantasy. Last time I was here I argued that gender is part of a narrative of power, privilege and dominance, and that it’s within our power to rewrite that narrative. It got me thinking about some of the other presumptions that are so ingrained we end up reiterating them over and over again: both in the books we write, and in the stories we tell ourselves about how the world works.

This is important, because there’s a connection between the stories we know are fiction and the ones we believe are true. Sociologists and anthropologists will tell you that cultural artifacts such as literature tend to guide and reinforce our understanding of real-life events. Stories help to pattern our thinking; they build up our attitudes towards people and places, institutions and customs, actions and reactions. As someone who writes fiction which draws on the social sciences as well as on genetics and information technology, I’m keenly aware of those patterns of belief and presumption – and given that fiction almost invariably relies on some kind of conflict to provide a sense of significance and urgency, it strikes me that how we resolve fictional conflicts is relevant to how we think about real ones.

We mostly – at least in genre fiction – achieve that resolution via some form of violence.

Think about that, particularly within the context of science fiction. Science is a rational process, scientists are rational, process-driven people – yet in these stories as in so many others, the resolution of the central conflict is often irrational, arrived at by force rather than persuasion or the simple calculations of enlightened self-interest. It doesn’t actually reflect the fundamental truth of what that fiction is supposed to be based on. Nor does it reflect the reality of the way that sensible, decent people tend to deal with danger or threat.

In that earlier essay I grumbled about the phrase ‘strong female character’ for its implicit reinforcement of the idea that it is the default state of females to be weak. Today’s grumble is about another phrase that’s become ubiquitous in popular culture: ‘kick-ass.’ This supposedly positive signifier confers an aura of power and righteousness, not merely on the generic ‘female character’ but on any protagonist with whom the reader is meant to identify and sympathise. I wouldn’t have a problem with that, were it not for what is implicit in the term: the presumption that heroism, the effective exercise of moral authority, requires both the ability and the willingness to beat the other guy up.

If that keeps turning up in our stories, then I am very much afraid it’s an indicator of what we really think. For all that we may decry violence and declare that we know might does not make right, if the capacity for violence is an essential requirement not only of our villains but of our heroes, I’d suggest we’re not all that convinced. And if we really want to be convinced, if we really want to break out of that pattern of belief and presumption that equates strength with force, then we need to be more conscious about the stories we tell.

I do not let myself off the hook here; this is not some smug attempt to hold up my own books as models of non-violent conflict (and let’s face it, you probably wouldn’t be inclined to read them if it were). There is both the threat and the reality of physical harm in Gemsigns, and in Binary, and in the final book of the ®Evolution, Regeneration. I’ve absorbed the standard narrative just as much as you have. But I’ll give myself this much credit: violence in these books is always instigated either by the aggressors – those who seek to repress and to dominate – or by those who have been so badly damaged they are unable to master their own impulses. It is never the first recourse of the protagonists, and they never wish to take it any further than necessary to repel an immediate physical threat. There is a scene in Binary in which one of our heroes, in defense of his own life and the lives of others and for reasons entirely outside of his control, does more harm than he intended. The knowledge horrifies him.

Is he a ‘kick-ass’ character? Possibly. But he’d hate to be described that way. He’d hate the idea that his ability to hurt is what readers would celebrate. He’d hope, as I hope, that if you think well of him it’ll be on account of his intelligence, his determination, his preference for thinking through a problem and his willingness to ask for help. He’d want you to value him for his compassion and his capacity to love, rather than his strength and the damage he can do with it.

He’d like you to remember that doing damage is not a thing to be proud of.

I’d like us all to remember that every time we turn to violence in order to resolve fictional conflicts, we are subtly and subconsciously reinforcing it as a stratagem for real ones. That’s another part of our inherited narrative, and it needs rewriting too.

Stephanie Saulter
Photo credit: © Frederique Rapier

Stephanie Saulter writes what she likes to think is literary science fiction. Born in Jamaica, she studied at MIT and spent many years in the United States before moving to the United Kingdom in 2003. She is the author of the ®Evolution trilogy, which is set in a near-future London and uses the lens of an altered humanity to take a new look at the old issues of race, class, religious extremism and social conflict. Her first novel, Gemsigns, has been called ‘a powerful commentary on contemporary society and politics’ and was named among the best science fiction of 2013 by the Guardian. It was released in the US in 2014 to considerable acclaim.

Binary, the second book in the series, follows in May 2015. SF Signal commented that, ‘Some books are good, some books are even great. This one is important.’ The final book, Regeneration, will be released in the UK in August 2015 and in the US in 2016.

Stephanie lives in London, blogs unpredictably at and tweets only slightly more reliably as @scriptopus.