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Today’s guest is E. Lily Yu! She received the Astounding Award for Best New Writer in 2012, and her story “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” was a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Awards for Best Short Story that same year. Her short fiction has been published in numerous magazines, including Tor.com, Lightspeed, and Uncanny, and been selected for several “best of” anthologies. On Fragile Waves, her first novel, was released earlier this year.

On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu - Book Cover


Unlike the limp little infant in Perrault and Grimm, blitzed with all kinds of blessings she never asked for, the young reader and pupal writer can choose her fairy godmothers and the gifts to receive from each of them.

To celebrate women in fantasy, here are four of my fairy godmothers and the gifts their books gave me.

* * *

Tamora Pierce gave me the wrong dreams, by which I mean precisely the right dreams for a sensitive and imaginative child, beginning with the Song of the Lioness cycle.

One must always carry a dream of some sort in one’s pocket for direction, like a sailor sighting on a star. Even if the dream is infeasible, it may lead the dreamer toward courage, say, or endurance of suffering, or an encyclopedic knowledge of the various pieces of a suit of armor.

Long before I dreamed of becoming a Mars mission scientist, a physicist, or an English professor, I was determined to become a knight, sword and all. I told the author as much, when I finally met her at a signing.

“What are you doing instead?” she asked.

I’d become a writer, I said.

She laughed wickedly and steepled her fingers. “My master plan is working!” she said.

* * *

Patricia McKillip showed me the sorcery of language and syntax. Her sentences awed me with their elegance. Take this example from The Tower at Stony Wood, a list-making of images that leaps into the fateful arrival of a stranger, full of assonance, consonance, and slant rhymes (ornate mirror, hawk/water, scatter/blackbirds, bright sky):

“Beyond her, the images in her ornate mirror changed constantly: a hawk plunging out of the sky straight down into water to drag a fish out of the current, the pepper-scatter of blackbirds against the bright sky, the rider just coming into view down the road.”

Almost any sentence of McKillip’s would do.

What she accomplished with language was to me its own kind of magic, an incantation in text, impossible to reproduce in film. Before I studied rhetoric and Latin, her books taught me asyndeton, polysyndeton, other such devices, and a love of the precise use of semicolons. Long before I read Chaucer, the Pearl Poet, and the Breton lais, The Throme of the Erril of Sherril showed me the playfulness of antique English with a charming cnight in a norange orchard.

* * *

Diane Duane taught me the alchemy of real places and things.

I read The Book of Night with Moon before I ever visited New York City. As a result, the first time I went, I insisted on seeing the backwards constellations in the sea-green ceiling of Grand Central, and the computer catalogues at the New York Public Library with their CATNYP screensavers, neither of which are, as far as I know, ordinary tourist attractions, and both of which delighted my heart.

These anchors in reality, along with a papyrus fragment I saw in a book that I am certain the author saw also, illustrated with a cat cutting a serpent with a curved knife, made the world suddenly and wonderfully strange. For if Duane could describe what existed, what I could visit and see and confirm with my own eyes, in a beautiful and coherent vision of the world that included what couldn’t and didn’t exist, then much more was possible than I had ever thought—at the wise and worldly age of twelve.

* * *

A friend gave me A.S. Byatt‘s Possession for my seventeenth birthday, I think—my memory is inexact—and it immediately burned itself into my sky, as one of the stars that I navigated by.

Though Byatt writes short fantasies elsewhere, Possession, in spite of its cover painting of Merlin and Vivienne, does not break the rules of our ordinary world. And yet speech, characters, places, poetry, and detail, from a garden flat with forbidden garden to a rucked-up bedsheet, are charged with all the richness and mythical power of high fantasy. Until I read Possession, I did not know that this could be done, that a book could be an enchantment without magic, a bewitchment without witches, that prose alone could make this drab gray quotidian world seem deeper and more gorgeous for the length of a novel.

* * *

By some mystery of the universe, books often come to us when we need them, when we are ready; these writers’ books arrived when I could learn from them.

There are, of course, far more than four authors whose books have been gifts and teachers and keys to me. There are far too many of them to count. But these are some of the countries of mind I walked when young, that I might not be able to walk again if I tried now.

So it goes with the world.

My hope is that, by the same magic, my own books also find the readers who need them at the right time. If I’m lucky, in twenty years or so, I’ll meet a newly minted writer, shiny and nervous, handing one of those books back to me for a moment. Perhaps I’ll laugh as wickedly as the thirteenth fairy over the stories they must spin and the dreams they will dream.

Or perhaps everything that should be said will already be written.

E. Lily Yu is the author of the novel On Fragile Waves, published by Erewhon in 2021, as well as thirty-five short stories in venues from McSweeney’s to Tor.com. Her stories have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards, and have appeared in twelve best-of-the-year anthologies.