Women in SF&F Month Banner

Women in SF&F Month opens today with a guest post by Nebula and Locus Award–winning author Samantha Millsand a giveaway of her upcoming science fantasy debut novel, The Wings Upon Her Back! Her short fiction has been published in Strange Horizons, Uncanny Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and others, and her stories have appeared on the Locus Recommended Reading List and the BSFA Awards longlist. “Rabbit Test,” her most recent short story, won the Nebula Award, the Locus Award, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and it was included in The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2023. The Wings Upon Her Back, which is coming out in trade paperback and digital formats on April 23, has garnered starred reviews from Booklist, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly. More information on the book follows with more on how to win a copy below “The WIP of Theseus,” her essay about a question she explores in her debut novel.

Cover of The Wings Upon Her Back by Samantha Mills


A loyal warrior in a crisis of faith must fight to regain her place and begin her life again while questioning the events of her past. This gripping science-fantasy novel from a Nebula, Sturgeon, and Locus Award-winning debut author is a complex, action-packed exploration of the costs of zealous faith, ceaseless conflicts, and unquestioning obedience.

[STARRED REVIEW] “A triumphant debut novel.” —Booklist

[STARRED REVIEW] “This cathartic adventure will stay with readers long after the final page.” —Publishers Weekly

[STARRED REVIEW] “VERDICT Mills’s debut novel is complex and haunting, filled with beautiful prose and timely themes of political and religious upheaval and personal journeys.” —Library Journal

Zenya was a teenager when she ran away from home to join the mechanically-modified warrior sect. She was determined to earn mechanized wings and protect the people and city she loved. Under the strict tutelage of a mercurial, charismatic leader, Zenya became Winged Zemolai.

But after twenty-six years of service, Zemolai is disillusioned with her role as an enforcer in an increasingly fascist state. After one tragic act of mercy, she is cast out and loses everything she worked for. As Zemolai fights for her life, she begins to understand the true nature of her sect, her leader, and the gods themselves.

The WIP of Theseus
Samantha Mills

What is the heart of a story? This is something I think about a lot during the planning process, when the work is still shifting, clarifying, taking shape. It’s something I think about again during the editing process, when I’m chopping it apart, replacing/removing/combining characters, adding subplots. Is it still the same story it was at the start? At what point is it something new?

In 2020, Uncanny Magazine published a story of mine called “Anchorage.” The original idea was for a haunted apartment complex. It was going to be told from the perspective of a ghost wandering multiple floors, observing but unobserved, piecing together the story of this place. Then somewhere along the way I got bored and the setting changed to space, and instead of a ghost it was a robot. But I wasn’t satisfied with the robot, either, so it developed into something much more enthusiastic and strange. Also, now there was an anchorage floating around out there, and a persistent problem with lichen.

Is it the same story? I could still write the ghost story if I wanted to, and I don’t think anyone would say I was copying myself — even if deep down it would feel like I was exploring the same sense of isolation, the same story of an observer who loves the people she observes, but can’t connect with them in the way she really wants. Was it a new story as soon as I changed the setting? Did the anchorage make it wholly unrecognizable from the ghost story, or was it the lichen? Maybe I just keep telling the same handful of stories over again, with the settings changed and my perspective maturing over time.

As a society we’re drawn to retellings, too, but there’s a point where they evolve so far that the source material is barely more than a nod and a wink. Is The Lion King really Hamlet? If not, what tipped it over the line from remake to inspired-by? Perhaps more difficult to pinpoint: is every stage production of Hamlet the same Hamlet? Or is it a new play with every cast change, directorial decision, set design, degree to which the script may or may not be abridged?

If you watch the same stage run of the same script five nights in a row, is it new every night? Why or why not?

If we get real galaxy brain about it, we can conclude that yes, every tiny difference creates something unique and therefore different, tada, take that, check and mate.

But in practice, this simply isn’t true for reader experience, and reader experience is the world I’m living in! Swapping out character names isn’t enough to dodge a plagiarism charge, and even an earnestly written work can be branded derivative, cliché, too tropey even for its trope-lovers.

What makes an old story fresh? What makes a work of art satisfyingly different from the works that came before, whether accidentally or deliberately in conversation with them? We want to scratch the same old itches; we also want to be surprised and entertained. Make it familiar, but make it fresh, is the advice we’re often given as writers.

All of this goes into planning a new book. It has to be the same enough to fit on a shelf in one’s genre, but it has to be different enough to stand out. And in the course of editing, an author might tug it a little more in one direction or the other, weirding it up or dialing it back, attempting to find that sweet spot of familiar-but-fresh while still clinging to the story they are really trying to tell, at the heart of the thing.

I became so interested in this question that it leaked into the book that would become my debut, The Wings Upon Her Back. I wrote the first draft in 2017, pregnant with my second child, working by day and taking care of a toddler at night, feverishly trying to get something, anything on paper. That draft was about emotional abuse, an exercise in exorcism as I worked through lingering questions about a relationship that was nearly a decade in my past. Over the next several years my perspective matured, and subsequent drafts looked at the situation from more nuanced angles. It became less about a single moment in time, and more about cycles, the things we pass on, changes wrought over time. An essay crept into the text, a new thesis laid out in interludes between the main action.

I began to wonder if it was the same book I’d started with — and I began to wonder about myself. Was I the same person who had started the book? After years of parenthood, pandemic stress, and family tragedy, I barely recognize the life of the person I was in 2017. But I’m still me, aren’t I? I have a little more life experience every day. But I am also still eminently predictable to the people who know me best.

As I wrote the final draft, a meta-narrative crept in about slow transformations and the disorientation of trying to pinpoint moments of change. The characters ask each other directly: Is the person who wakes up the same as the one who fell asleep the night before? Or are we ever-evolving, an entirely new person from one moment to the next, unique iterations of a loosely connected core memory set?

Do we really change? is what I’m asking. Or are we every person we have ever been?

The main character of my novel, Zemolai, has to face her past in a very direct way. As a child, she gave up everything to serve a charismatic leader. Twenty-six years later, that leader has taken control of the city, and Zemolai must grapple with the fact that in her youthful idealism, she helped enable a fascist state. There is a moment in the book when she falls back on defensiveness — she was only a child when she joined the cause, after all. She couldn’t have known where it was going. And one of her new companions pushes back, “So when was the tipping point? Was there one day you were innocent, and the next day complicit?” It is a question that haunts Zemolai, and it is a question that haunts the book. Has she really changed? Or is she still caught in the same old story?

After years of cycling through ever-more inward-looking iterations of this book, I had to type The End for the last time and let it go to the printer. It’s frozen now, an amalgamation of all the things I ever wanted it to be. I hope you like where it ends up.

Photo of Samantha Mills
© Samantha Mills, 2023
Samantha Mills is a Nebula, Locus, and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award winning author living in Southern California. You can find her short fiction in Uncanny Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, and others, as well as the best-of anthologies The New Voices of Science Fiction and The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2023. Her debut novel, The Wings Upon Her Back, is coming out in April 2024 through Tachyon Publications. You can find more, including social media handles and a full list of published work, at www.samtasticbooks.com.

Book Giveaway

Courtesy of Tachyon Publications, I have one trade paperback copy of The Wings Upon Her Back to give away!

Giveaway Rules: To be entered in the giveaway, fill out Fantasy Cafe’s Wings Upon Her Back Giveaway Google form, linked below. One entry per household and the winner will be randomly selected. Those from the US are eligible to win. The giveaway will be open until the end of the day on Friday, April 19. The winner has 24 hours to respond once contacted via email, and if I don’t hear from them after 24 hours has passed, 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.

Note: The giveaway link has been removed since it is now over.