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Today I’m thrilled to welcome fantasy author Katherine Arden! Her debut novel, The Bear and the Nightingale, was released early this year and is absolutely fantastic: it’s atmospheric with lovely writing, and it has a compelling heroine at the center of it all. Since it’s my favorite 2017 release and one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, I’m incredibly excited that there will be two sequels—and the first of these, The Girl in the Tower, is scheduled for publication in January 2018!

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

My first books were dusty, yellowed hardbacks with the pages stitched in, and one of my earliest memories is the smell of old paper. I started reading early, and once I got the hang of it, you could not pry books from my hands. I would finish one and reach for the next, as if they were Oreos. Old and dusty Oreos.

Why old and dusty? In those days before YA, there were not many options available for a precocious reader between books for children and books for adults. My parents, doing their desperate best to feed my book habit, started steering me toward novels written before 1930 or so; mostly, I think, because the romance in older books leans towards euphemism and not bodice-ripping.

I had a passion for adventures—fantasy, history, or science fiction, it didn’t matter. So I happily spent my childhood pinging from old copies of Treasure Island to The Three Musketeers to Dracula, Captain Blood, and Tarzan, barely aware that there were people today, right now, also writing books. Who cared? I had all the books I needed.

But in my middle school years, I began vaguely, and then painfully, to notice that the female characters in all my beloved books didn’t really do—anything. Mina and Lucy, Arabella Bishop, Constance Bonacieux and Jane Porter—they spent a lot of time getting rescued, or being beautifully helpless. However, none of them ever made a decision that drove the plot. Or even affected their own lives. That sort of thing was left to the hero.

It annoyed me. I always wanted to be Tarzan. I never cared about being Jane.

This irritation, the beginnings of youthful independence, and a very good local librarian, finally acquainted me with authors writing in my own decade. I was twelve or so when I discovered characters like Tamora Pierce’s Alanna of Trebond, Robin McKinley’s Aerin Firehair, just two examples of many. I discovered young heroines who did things.

I still remember my delight when I saw the cover of Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, with an armored girl on a white horse, facing a dragon. I opened that book and started reading and after that Tarzan never had a chance.

Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley

My particular conundrum is not one faced by young girls reading today. In 2017, girls have a legion of heroines for role models: powerful women, who create their own stories. We have come a long way since Dracula or Dumas. Passivity is not considered a prerequisite for femininity.

However nowadays it seems to me that young women reading face another problem. And that is that so many heroines are—perfect. This modern heroine is perfectly beautiful, of course, but also modestly unaware of her beauty. She must possess unusual if not superhuman skills, be chosen for a special destiny, and finally be utterly oblivious that every man in the entire book is madly in love with her.

Demanding perfection of women—even fictional ones—is in some ways the third cousin of the marble passivity of their 19th century forebears. It is just as impossible, just as unrealistic, just as restrictive.

I didn’t want to land in either extreme when I finally got around to trying my hand at a book—with a heroine—of my own. But when I started writing my own first novel, The Bear and the Nightingale, I had no idea how to walk the line between passive and perfect, between flawed and extraordinary. How does a writer balance the desire to write someone remarkable, with the equally powerful desire to create a human being, not some paragon?

My book is set in 14th century Muscovy. How do you make a woman powerful, writing about an era when women were not allowed power?

My answer, for what it’s worth, was to try to give my heroine something that I had rarely encountered in any of my reading, recent or not.

I gave her self-acceptance.

Such a small thing, right? Well, in some ways yes. In other ways no. My main character, Vasilisa, is a strange girl; she sees the world differently than other people. But she refuses to be afraid, and she refuses to doubt her own senses. No matter who tells her otherwise (and at one point in the novel, pretty much everyone is telling her otherwise) she accepts herself and the world as it is.

That, I came to realize, was what I wanted most from a main character. I wanted to write about a person who, even when she is afraid, or lonely, never thinks—it literally never occurs to her—to be anything less than she is, or to live her life with anything less than integrity.

It seems to me that our heroines—even the brave ones, even the beautiful perfect ones, even the modern ones—are too often drenched in self-doubt.

It seems almost to be baked in the modern girl’s DNA. If you are extraordinary, of course you must long to be ordinary, to fit in, to be a normal girl with a normal life. But if you are ordinary, of course, then you berate yourself for not being beautiful enough, clever enough.

It’s a conundrum that we—and our heroines—just can’t win.

Except by being ourselves. Bravely. Unquestioningly. No matter how hard it is.

Katherine Arden Born in Austin, Texas, Katherine Arden spent a year of high school in Rennes, France. Following her acceptance to Middlebury College in Vermont, she deferred enrollment for a year in order to live and study in Moscow. At Middlebury, she specialized in French and Russian literature. After receiving her BA, she moved to Maui, Hawaii, working every kind of odd job imaginable, from grant writing and making crêpes to guiding horse trips. Currently she lives in Vermont, but really, you never know.

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Thank you to all of last week’s guests for another great week! It’s now time to announce guests for Monday–Friday, but first, here’s a brief summary of last week’s articles in case you missed any of them:

Yesterday I also announced a giveaway of one book from the list of recommended science fiction and fantasy books by women. Click here for more details.

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

Women in SF&F Month 2017 Week 3

April 17: Katherine Arden (The Bear and the Nightingale)
April 18: Maureen (By Singing Light)
April 19: Sylvia Izzo Hunter (The Midnight Queen, Lady of Magick, A Season of Spells)
April 20: Leanna Renee Hieber (Eterna Files, Strangely Beautiful, Magic Most Foul)
April 21: Kristine Kathryn Rusch (Women of Futures Past, Retrieval Artist, Diving Universe)

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This week I’m giving away one book from the list of nearly 2,000 recommended SFF books by women! In 2013, Renay of Lady Business came up with the idea of issuing an invitation to add some favorite science fiction and/or fantasy books written by women to create a recommendations list. We’ve increased the number of books every year since by continuing to ask for 10 SFF books written by women read and loved in the last year. (If you haven’t already contributed 10 of your favorites this year and would like to do so, you can add books here.)

For this giveaway, the winner can pick one book from the list that is available from the Book Depository for less than $15 (in US dollars). This is an international giveaway, but to be eligible, you must be from a country qualifying for free shipping from the Book Depository.

There are many excellent books that apply, such as:

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

Giveaway Rules: To be entered in the giveaway, fill out the form below OR send an email with the book of your choice to kristen AT fantasybookcafe DOT com with the subject “Book List Giveaway.” One entry per household and one winner will be randomly selected. Those from a country qualifying for free shipping from the Book Depository are eligible to win this giveaway. The giveaway will be open until the end of the day on Friday, April 21. The 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 winner. Once the giveaway is over all the emails will be deleted.

Good luck!

Update: The form has been removed since the giveaway is over.

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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.