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Today’s guest is Hannah Whitten! Her first Wilderwood novel, For the Wolf, is described as “a dark, sweeping debut fantasy novel about a young woman who must be sacrificed to the legendary Wolf of the Wood to save her kingdom” that is for “fans of Uprooted and The Bear and the Nightingale.” It has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Kirkus, and it will be released in about a month—on June 1!

For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten - Book Cover

The first fantasy I ever fell in love with was the Chronicles of Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander, best known for the animated movie Disney made based off the second book in the series, The Black Cauldron. The movie was, to put it lightly, very bad. Thankfully, by the time I got around to watching it, I had already devoured all of the books and thus couldn’t have what is a really excellent story marred by lackluster execution (I did develop a weird crush on The Horned King, though, which really shouldn’t surprise anyone).

Oddly, it wasn’t the first book in the series that caught my eye at the library and made me want to read them all, though. It was the third.

The Castle of Llyr, the third book, had a gorgeous illustrated cover depicting Princess Eilonwy, the love interest of main character Taran, holding a golden sphere and a crescent necklace. I remember her face so vividly—she looked so sad. And despite her fairly passive pose, her expression is quietly fierce, in a way I can’t quite explain but definitely feel. The artist managed to capture something in her eyes that was both soft and aching and spoke of barely-harnessed power. I picked up the series just because I wanted to read this book and know this girl’s story.

The Castle of LLyr by Lloyd Alexander - Book Cover

It didn’t disappoint. Spoilers ahead: Eilonwy is a gifted sorceress, imbued with ancestral magic that her former foster mother, Achren, is desperate to wield. She’s kidnapped and brainwashed, with Achren planning to rule through her by controlling her mind and thus her magic. Taran and her friends, naturally, travel to rescue her from her literal tower prison. When they arrive, Eilonwy has no memory of them, and barely any memory of herself. The things that make her a whole person have been stripped away, leaving only her power as a sorceress and her position as a princess.

I don’t know whether the metaphor was completely intended—having Eilonwy reduced to only an archetypal placeholder, her power viewed as something to be controlled rather than inherently her own—but it stuck with me. It made me think about power structures in fantasy, specifically power given to non-cis-male characters, and how it’s so rarely allowed to be kept. How power wielded by anyone other than a (usually white) cis man is often seen as something that must be done away with in order to be “good.”

In The Castle of Llyr, at least, Eilonwy doesn’t stay devoid of her agency—and when she regains it, it’s through the reclaiming of her magic. As part of her plan to take over Prydain, Achren has Eilonwy read from a spellbook that only she can decipher. But rather than read the spells and fully bind herself into Achren’s thrall, Eilonwy burns the book and saves herself.

Achren, the villain who locked the princess in the tower, is saved, too. Her plans are dashed, and in subsequent books she joins with the heroes to take down Arawn, the Big Bad of the series to whom she previously owed fealty.

The book isn’t groundbreaking, especially by our standards now. But it was the first high fantasy book I read that truly gave the “princess” character agency—that really gave her wants and desires of her own, to the point where the absence of them was a marked tragedy. Granted, they were squeaky-clean, nice desires, desires that didn’t ask much of the narrative to give to her. But they were there.

I have my qualms, sure. When Eilonwy regains her magic, she burns her family’s spellbook, reducing the scope of her power (because Too Much Power Bad, you see), and by the end of the series, she becomes little more than a prize for Taran to win. But for all that, I still think about The Castle of Llyr often. I think about a princess who owns her magic, and how the narrative (mostly) let her have it. How the story was about her learning to use it, rather than the magic being good or bad in and of itself, and how the resolution of the tale came down to Eilonwy’s choice.


So much epic fantasy is about being caught in destiny’s teeth. Pulled along as a moving piece inside a story so much bigger than you, playing a role that maybe you feel unequipped for, but managing to rise to the occasion nonetheless. Our unassuming main character defeats the empire, throws the ring in the volcano, becomes the rightful ruler, successfully completing every step despite their shortcomings or internal debate, because They Were Destined For This, even if they fought against it at first.

I didn’t want to write that story.

Or, to be more precise, I wanted to write a story that could’ve been that, but wasn’t. A story where choice was the central factor. The characters might be caught in destiny’s teeth, but they were going to make damn sure destiny had a hard time swallowing them down.

FOR THE WOLF is, fundamentally, about choice. And, to quote Season 7 Episode 1 of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, it’s about power.

I attribute a lot of that to Red. I’m very much a character-first, plot-second writer, and when Red first dug into my brain, she was not the noble hero, or even the “angry girl” protagonist that has seen so much love in recent years. She was resigned and reckless. She was both strong and brittle, a study in contrasts, imbued with power that she detested and was fascinated by in equal measure.

And she wanted so much.

That was the most crystallized part of her, the center from which it all grew, the plot and the world-building and everything else—Red wanted, and she was in a position where all her wanting was pointless. A Second Daughter meant for sacrifice from the beginning, barely a person at all. A bundle of raw nerves and lashed-down power and endless yearning for things she’d never have.

And then: a life, after she’d thought it was all over.

At the risk of spoiling a book that isn’t out yet, I won’t go into plot details. But it turns out the power that seemingly resigns Red to one fate is more malleable than she thinks. It turns out the situation she and Eammon, the Wolf, find themselves in, forced into roles of villain and victim, is more able to be changed than either of them anticipates.

Because all of it comes down to choice. To giving destiny the finger and forging a different path with nothing but your will, forcing the life you’ve been given to change shape around you, rather than the other way around.

Red does that with her magic. She takes the power within her and makes it bend, makes it do what she wants, remakes the world because she wants and she wants and she’s going to find a way to get it.

And she never has to give a single bit of that magic up.


I refer to WOLF often as fairytale soup—it’s a bunch of different influences tangled up in knots, the pieces of them taken apart and fitted back together. But while there are elements of “Beauty and the Beast,” “Snow White and Rose Red,” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” it’s no accident that the Red Riding Hood factors are the ones that are most in play.

It’s easy to see the thread of a morality tale in the Grimm Brother’s version of the Red Riding Hood story, the one we’re most familiar with. Between the scarlet cloak, the basket full of sweets, and a literal admonition to the heroine to “stay on the path,” it couldn’t be more of a purity tale if you smacked an early-2000s Christian alt-soundtrack behind it. Stay on the path, don’t get lured into the woods, because the things that look harmless are just waiting to eat you up.

My Red is a little different.

She’s an adult, for one thing. She carries nothing into the woods, because she herself is the sacrifice required. And these woods have no path for her to follow—she has to make her own, wandering into the dark, thinking it’s her end when it’s only her beginning.

Like the fairytale, my Red is susceptible to temptation. To making her own way rather than following the trajectory laid out for her. To wanting so much more than she’s been given, maybe wanting too much. To having a soft spot for monsters.

But she isn’t punished for her wanting, or for her power. Instead, it becomes the catalyst for the transformation of her world, and herself. Red has no illusions of being good. She just wants what she wants, and she fights tooth and nail to get it.

Those are the kinds of stories I want to read. The kinds of stories I plan to write for as long as they’ll let me. Stories that tell us there is power in our wanting, and that the magic we have is ours alone.

Photo of Hannah Whitten

Hannah Whitten has been writing to amuse herself since she could hold a pen, and sometime in high school, figured out that what amused her might also amuse others. When she’s not writing, she’s reading, making music, or attempting to bake. She lives in Tennessee with her husband and children in a house ruled by a temperamental cat. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @hwhittenwrites.

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Today’s guest is Helene Wecker! She is the author of “Majnun,” a story published in the World Fantasy Award–nominated anthology The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories, as well as the New York Times bestselling novel The Golem and the Jinni. Her first novel, a wonderfully written historical fantasy book combining folklore with New York City around the turn of the twentieth century, also won the Mythopoeic Award for Adult Literature and the Harold U. Ribalow Prize and was a Nebula and World Fantasy Award finalist. The Hidden Palace, a sequel to her debut, will be released soon—on June 8!

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker - Book Cover Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker - Book Cover

I wanted to be an actor, once upon a time.

This was in my school years, during the height of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Broadway musical spectacles, back when one could still sing Memory unironically at a tryout. I memorized every Original Cast Recording I could find, but I only won a few roles in my school plays, probably because I couldn’t carry a tune.

In high school I was cast in The Crucible, and even though mine was the smallest part in the show (Betty Parris, ten years old, spends most of the play asleep in bed) the rehearsals still ate into my study hours. Predictably, my grades tanked. I was horrified, and so were my parents. So I quit acting and worked crew instead, which was stage-adjacent but less demanding. I painted sets, hung backdrops, and mooched around in the wings, envying my friends who’d managed to land good parts and maintain their GPAs.

The big production my senior year was Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim’s fairy-tale extravaganza. Even if you aren’t familiar with it, you know the main characters: Little Red Riding Hood, Jack of Beanstalk fame, Cinderella and Rapunzel, a malevolent old witch, and a baker and his wife. A Narrator stands at the edge of the stage, in command of the story, as the characters venture from their homes into the nearby woods, all of them in search of something. Cinderella wishes to attend the royal ball; impoverished Jack has to sell his beloved cow. The baker and his wife — Sondheim’s own creations, but rooted in folktale tropes — want to lift the curse that prevents them from having a child.

Along the way, the characters cross paths. Cinderella meets her prince; Rapunzel escapes her tower. Jack climbs the beanstalk and slays the giant. By the end of Act One, the villains have been thwarted, the curse lifted. Punishments and rewards are bestowed as appropriate. We reached the right conclusions / And we got what we deserve, they sing as they leave the woods. All is tenderness and laughter / Forever after!

At rehearsals, the true theater nerds among us told stories, almost certainly apocryphal, of audience members at the Broadway premiere who’d left at the end of the first act. The stories had reached their well-known ends; they’d assumed, quite reasonably, that the play was over.

Fast forward twenty years, give or take.

In 2013 my first novel, The Golem and the Jinni, was released into the world. It’s the story of Chava and Ahmad, two supernatural creatures who arrive in Manhattan in 1899. Chava, the golem, is shy and cautious, and drawn to help others; Ahmad, the jinni, is capricious and free-spirited. Both must learn how to disguise themselves as ordinary human immigrants, and make new lives for themselves. Being polar opposites, they spend their scenes together in constant argument. Nevertheless I’d ended the book on a hopeful note, suggesting that they were about to embark on a relationship together.

I was lucky, and The Golem and the Jinni was successful enough that, before long, I could start thinking seriously about selling my next book. Readers seemed interested in a sequel; my publisher, too, liked the concept. I had a few vague ideas for other, non-Golem-and-Jinni books, but none of them were clamoring to be told. I was now mother to a two-year-old, with a baby on the way. I was turning forty, and I was tired. The first book had taken me seven years to write. I really, really didn’t want to do that again.

Write a sequel, said my weary brain. It’s got to be easier than starting over from the beginning.

I began to think up plot outlines, likely-sounding scenarios. I wanted something multi-layered and full of detail, with my two main characters at its heart. I also invented another golem, this one male, as well as a jinniyeh, a female jinni. These new dramatis personae would be closer to their traditional portrayals in folklore and legend than Chava and Ahmad, whom I’d designed as more human-seeming. I brought back a number of supporting characters from the first book; one of them, the Park Avenue heiress Sophia Winston, I elevated to main player status. And at the center were Chava and Ahmad and their new, tentative romance. How would it work, in practice? They’d have to learn to reconcile their conflicting natures, to meet in the middle somehow — and that would create tension enough to power a novel, wouldn’t it?

I wrote a proposal, got the go-ahead, and dove into the first draft — and before long, the problems set in. How much of the previous book did I need to recap? Could I do it gracefully, without As-You-Know-Bobbing my way through the first hundred pages? I began with a cold open set a decade after the first book, and alternated the forward motion with flashbacks — but then the flashbacks started to take over the book, and the momentum slowed to a crawl. I stopped, backed up, started over. Intoxicated by my research, I shoved in all sorts of flotsam: policemen, boxing rings, gentlemen’s clubs, nickelodeons, New York State sanatoriums. I came to my senses after a while, and cut out half the plot.

So far, so familiar; I’d had growing pains with the first book, too. But something more troubling was happening. The more I wrote about Chava and Ahmad’s fledgling relationship — the flying sparks, the tension that was supposed to propel the book’s emotional engine — the more irritating and superficial their arguments became. He looks at other girls, Chava fretted. She thinks she’s better than me, Ahmad grumbled. Oh, grow up and get over yourselves, I wanted to tell them. These were characters I’d spent years getting to know, and now I felt like I was stuck at a dinner party next to a couple of self-involved jerks, wishing they’d go to couples therapy already and leave the rest of us alone.

But I couldn’t figure out what else to do. I’d designed the entire book around this putative romance, so I gritted my teeth and kept writing. Deadline extensions came and went. At last I gave the manuscript to a trusted reader. Their response was multi-layered, full of detail. At its heart was the word boring.

It’s over, I thought as I lay in bed, staring up into the dark. I thought there was more to their story, but I was wrong.

And the back of my brain told me, That was just Act One. They went into the woods, and they came out again. It’s the start of Act Two.

The second act of Into the Woods is quite a bit darker than the first.

It doesn’t start off that way. Jack and his mother now live in luxury, thanks to the gold he stole from the giant. The baker and his wife have a new baby; Rapunzel and Cinderella have married their princes. All have gotten what they thought they wanted — but none of it is quite what they expected. Jack pines for the kingdom in the sky, and the baker is uncomfortable with fatherhood. The princes, having won their elusive sweethearts, realize that it was the pursuit itself they truly loved.

Then, disaster arrives. A Giantess, the wife of the giant from Act One, climbs down the beanstalk looking for justice. She blunders about in search of Jack, destroying houses and castles. The terrified characters debate whether to give the boy to her before she tramples them all. But he’s nowhere to be found — and so, in their panic, they offer up the Narrator instead.

The quiet pause onstage as the characters’ calculating gazes turn toward the oblivious Narrator is one of my favorite moments in all of theater, and it gives me the shivers every single time. Simply by acknowledging his presence — and, by extension, their own fictional existence — they break free of the story’s control. Anarchy is loosed upon the stage. “You’ll never know how the story turns out!” the Narrator cries as his own creations drag him to his doom. “You don’t want to live in a world of chaos!”

The Giantess kills the Narrator and stomps off, squashing Rapunzel by accident. Soon Jack’s mother and the baker’s wife are dead as well. The characters aren’t in the Narrator’s tidy story anymore, but Sondheim’s, which is uglier and messier and far more real. Here, people die for no good reason. The consequences they suffer may be from someone else’s actions, and sometimes the only decision that’s left to them is whether to run from an unpleasant truth, or turn to face it head on.

I began to ask, what unpleasant truths were my characters running away from? What could I find that was already there, that would give life to their tedious resentments?

I went back, again, to the beginning. I put everything else aside and, in a spirit of desperate experimentation, wrote a scene where Chava and Ahmad go to Central Park on a cold winter night. In the park, they pass by a frozen pond, and Ahmad decides to try ice skating for the first time. Chava is against it: he’s a creature of fire, and a fall through the ice would kill him instantly. He waves away her objections and wobbles out onto the lake. Chava calls after him to be careful. Intent on his keeping his balance, Ahmad calls back, Stop fretting, Chava, I know enough to hide from the rain!

That line transformed the entire book.

Ahmad lives half a world away from his desert home and his own kind. An iron cuff around his wrist keeps him locked in human form, which means that he can’t speak in his own language anymore — but he can still think in it. It’s an inner link to his past, which he remembers as a truer existence than his life in New York — a past, moreover, that he feels he must hide from the woman he loves. The cavalier ways of the jinn go against everything Chava believes in, and he’s afraid that if she looks too deeply inside him, it’ll only drive her away.

Chava, of course, has noticed Ahmad’s refusal to talk about his earlier life, but she doesn’t realize the true reason behind it. She can only assume that he thinks her too prudish and naive to hear the details; at times, she wonders if he’s right. And on the rare occasions when Ahmad lets something slip — when, for example, he unthinkingly translates a jinn idiom into human language — it’s a painful reminder of the gulf that still exists between them, even after everything they’ve shared.

Finally. Some real tension.

I went forward from that scene and rewrote all their bickering with this new dynamic in mind. The entire shape of the book began to change. Now, instead of looking like a bad teen comedy, their relationship hinged upon a deeper question: Is it possible for someone to assimilate into a radically different society while maintaining a sense of continuity, a wholeness that includes both past and present? And can their loved ones in their new, adopted home — their friends and partners, the children they bear — ever truly understand the life they left behind?

Nowadays, instead of the entire musical, high schools can choose to perform “Into the Woods Jr.,” a stripped-down version that omits the second act. I understand why such a thing exists; the original’s a heavy lift, especially with Sondheim’s notoriously tongue-twisting lyrics. I also assume that some schools skip the second act so they can avoid its difficult subject matter, and I can’t help feeling a little salty about this. Yes, some of the characters make bad and cowardly choices, and they aren’t necessarily punished for them. There’s philandering, and abandonment, and plenty of indiscriminate death. (When the play debuted in 1987, many theater critics saw the rampaging Giantess as a metaphor for the AIDS crisis. Apparently Sondheim’s reply was that he hadn’t intended it, though he didn’t argue against it either.) But at the end of the second act’s chaos and misery lies the possibility of self-knowledge. The grieving characters no longer wish for the things that a story has told them to wish for. Instead, connected to each other by their shared experiences, they leave their demolished homes and come together to care for each other, a found family. The play ends not with the first act’s superficial happiness, but the possibility of future joy.

In the end, the book that became The Hidden Palace took me just as long to write as The Golem and the Jinni did. I finished it during a pandemic, in a months-long marathon of sleepless nights that I really, really don’t want to do again. I’m forty-six years old, and I am tired. But at last my book is something I think I can be proud of, and after seven years spent wandering through the woods, I’m feeling pretty joyful about it.

Photo of Helene Wecker
Photo by Kareem Kazkaz

Helene Wecker is the author of THE HIDDEN PALACE (Harper, June 8, 2021). It is the sequel to her debut novel THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI (Harper, 2013) which was awarded the Mythopoeic Award, the VCU Cabell Award, and the Harald U. Ribalow Prize, and was nominated for a Nebula and World Fantasy Award. The novel was chosen as an Amazon Editor Top 20 Pick, an Amazon Spotlight Debut, an Indie Next Pick, one of Entertainment Weekly’s top Ten Works of Fiction for the year, Audible’s Top Debut Novel Audiobook of the Year, and featured in Buzzfeed’s and Kirkus Reviews’ best books of the year features as well as many other national outlets. Her work has appeared in Joyland, Catamaran, and in the anthology THE DJINN FALLS IN LOVE AND OTHER STORIES. A Midwest native, Wecker holds a B.A. in English from Carleton College and an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from Columbia University. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and children.

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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is fantasy author M.J. Kuhn! Her debut novel, Among Thieves, is described as “a high-stakes heist novel set in a gritty world of magic and malice, and perfect for fans of Six of Crows!” While waiting for its release on September 7, you can read some great posts on her blog, find her on Facebook or Instagram, or follow her on Twitter.

Among Thieves by M. J. Kuhn - Book Cover

I think most of us have seen those posts online calling out some of the super cringey ways some cishet male authors describe their female characters. But sexism in writing isn’t all ridiculously personified breasts and damsels in distress. Sometimes, it’s a lot more subtle than that. So subtle, in fact, that even self-proclaimed feminists like myself need to be wary of falling into the traps.

That’s right. This is gonna be a call-out post—of myself.

Well, sort of.

Growing up, I read almost nothing but fantasy—and I read a lot of it. Some of my favorites at the time were the classic, old-school fantasy series. The “fun” thing about many of those older fantasy reads, like tales by Tolkien or Jordan, is that the female characters are either nonexistent, or their arcs are almost completely defined by their desire to impress or win over the male characters around them. Not exactly a great template for young fantasy writers who want to tell stories about compelling, self-possessed women. The good news is, the market is definitely shifting to include more stories about characters who are not white, cishet men! Finally, stories about complex female characters actually have a fighting chance! The bad news is, in order to actually write those stories about compelling women, authors have to fight more than just outdated industry standards.

We have to fight our own internalized misogyny.

How many of us have caught ourselves having unwelcome, socially conditioned thoughts regarding other women (or ourselves)? In everyday life, internalized misogyny can show up in the form of body image issues, or a general unconscious bias in favor of men (ugh). But it doesn’t stop at the tip of the pen. If we’re not careful, it can seep into our writing as well.

That horrible, unwanted sexism tends to creep into my own first drafts in a few places. The first is small, but ultimately still important, in my opinion. Unnamed side characters. The random guards my characters must sneak past, the tavern-keeper they order an ale from once—you get the idea. 99% of the time, in my first drafts, I automatically default to writing these characters as men. Which invariably results in Editing Brain M. J. reading through that draft and saying, “WHERE ARE ALL THE WOMEN IN THIS WORLD?”

The other place I find myself fighting against my own social conditioning is in building the female members of my main cast. Every fantasy project I have ever written has had a majority female cast… and early on in every single project, I have had to fight against the trap of the Strong Female Character™. You know the one. She’s strong because she’s muscly and ice-cold and unfeeling. In other words, she’s as flat as a piece of cardboard. Every project, I have to remind myself that my emotionally vulnerable female characters are just as strong as the scarred, jaded ones. A warrior can have feelings and still be a badass—even if she’s a woman.

Those are just the few that I personally struggle with, but there are more! Fantasy worlds riddled with unnecessary sexual violence, manuscripts filled with oversexualized descriptions of female characters… Internalized misogyny is a sneaky thing. So, how do we combat it? How do we cure ourselves? I won’t pretend I have all the answers here, but I don’t think there is a silver bullet for this particular werewolf. I think it’s just like any other kind of internalized or unconscious bias… you have to put in the work. It’s all about self-awareness—catching yourself in moments where that social conditioning is taking over, and taking a moment to stop and think: “…wait a second, I don’t really believe that.” Then rinse and repeat that literally for the rest of our lives and careers.

When it comes to the battle against internalized misogyny in writing, I know I’m not perfect, but I know it’s a battle worth fighting… so dammit, I will keep fighting it!

Photo of M.J. Kuhn
Photo by Amanda Pregler
M.J. Kuhn is a fantasy writer by night and a mild-mannered university employee by day. She lives in the metro Detroit area with her husband Ryan, a dog named Wrex, and the very spoiled cat Thorin Oakenshield. You can find more information about M.J. online at MJKuhn.com.

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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is Nicole Kornher-Stace! Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Uncanny, and Best American Fantasy, among other publications, and her speculative poetry has been on the Rhysling Award ballot a couple of times with “The Changeling Always Wins” placing second in the Short Form category. Archivist Wasp, her debut novel, was a Norton Award finalist, and both this and its sequel, Latchkey, were on the Locus Recommended Reading List for Fantasy for their respective release years. She has two new books coming soon: Firebreak, a near-future science fiction novel described as “a refreshing take on Ready Player One, with a heavy dose of Black Mirror,” will be out on May 4, and her middle grade debut, Jillian vs. Parasite Planet, will be out on July 20.

Firebreak by Nicole Kornher-Stace - Book Cover Jillian Vs Parasite Planet by Nicole Kornher-Stace - Book Cover

When I was in high school, I had the same weird conversation several times with different girls in my classes. Out of the blue they’d say something to me like “Wow, you’re actually really nice. I assumed you were a huge bitch for some reason.” And I’d kind of mumble something noncommittal and go back to whatever I was doing, because what do you say to that? Thanks, I guess?

In hindsight I think the “some reason” had a lot to do with the fact that I’ve always been a loner and I’ve always had what people refer to as “a presence,” which I translate as: I’m kind of on the tall side and I have legendary resting bitchface.

What really struck me about it, though, was that some of these same girls reacted very, very differently to guys with the same traits. A loner dude is fascinating and mysterious. A loner girl is snooty and cold. A dude with a permanent scowl gets a fascinating backstory headcanoned onto him fast enough to break the sound barrier. A girl wearing that same expression is dismissed as overbearing and hostile. Etc.

I’ve always been a writer—I learned to read and write at age two, and started diligently trying to publish professionally around age 13 or so, with predictable results—and for better or worse, fiction is the lens through which I’ve always seen the world. So I started thinking about how fictional characters get classified according to their traits and genders, and the double standard isn’t pretty. We love to forgive the asshole qualities of male characters, mining their every microexpression for the barest hint of internal contradictions and hidden depths. As main characters they get to be violent, antisocial, self-serving, ruthless, brooding, abrasive, calculating, cruel. Meanwhile these same qualities, impossibly rare in female protagonists, are easy to find in female villains, or in female secondary characters whose anti-hero qualities are often conflated, incomprehensibly, with sex appeal to a male protagonist and not further explored. The same traits that make a male character compelling make a female character “unlikeable.” As if being “nice” is some kind of prerequisite for being an interesting character. Unless, of course, you’re a dude.

It’s the exact same double standard I was experiencing in high school. You don’t see asshole male characters being scorned as “unlikeable,” no matter what they do. They can murder a whole pile of people in cold blood and be worshipped by zillions of readers and viewers, but a woman character who so much as stands up for herself is too harsh, too bossy, too mean.

There are, of course, exceptions. Girls and women in fiction who are allowed to be good guys and assholes at the same time. Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender is unfriendly, selfish, and inflexible. Calhoun from Wreck-it Ralph is war-hardened and brutal. Gideon from Gideon the Ninth is refreshingly, unapologetically annoying. The vast majority of the women in The Expanse give no fucks about their image. Jessica Jones has all the traits of the hard-drinking, hard-boiled, traditionally male noir detective. None of them are nice. They don’t even try to be likeable. They’re too busy getting shit done. But still, many of these aren’t protagonists, and their not-“nice” traits get called out by other characters (think Toph being made to explain her brusqueness to Katara, or Calhoun’s take-no-shit attitude getting justified by other characters recounting the tragic backstory that Made Her That Way), while the same traits in male characters are accepted without question. Not only that, but the same readers and viewers who dismiss these female characters as “unlikeable,” even after their problematic behaviors are so carefully justified by other characters or narratives within the source material, will take on the labor themselves of justifying the same behaviors in male characters, which the narrative never bothers to do because nobody within the narrative expects it.

Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace - Book Cover

It’s always made me angry. And my response when something fictional makes me angry is to write fiction the way I want to see it—not only to make myself feel better (though to be honest that’s part of it) but also for other readers looking for the same. So I write female protagonists who aren’t at all “nice” in the traditional sense. My YA debut Archivist Wasp is a good example of this. In an extremely post-apocalyptic society millennia removed from the collapse, Wasp is a ghosthunter priestess of the goddess of the dead. She was forced into that position from birth and forced to view other girls as rivals, as she has to fight them in ritual serial combat to the death, annually, to keep the role of Archivist. It’s not a role she wants, but she also doesn’t want to be, you know, murdered, so she’s in a bit of a dilemma. She’s angry, and maybe most importantly to me, she never stops being angry. On top of that, this way of life hasn’t let her make any friends, so when she finally does begin to realize she’s actually making one despite herself, it’s a painful process for her, extremely awkward and begrudging. She’s not friendly, she’s not a people person, she’s not “nice,” her entire upbringing has traumatized her tactically and systematically for over a decade—but she’s fierce and loyal and not nearly as self-serving, in the end, as she was raised to be.

I have two books coming out in 2021, and both also have the kind of female protagonist that I had such a hard time finding in fiction. Mal, the main character of my adult SF debut Firebreak, was described by one beta reader as “so crusty yet so loveable” because she’s good without being nice, compassionate without being friendly. She’s awkward and antisocial and angry and really direly awful at feigning bubbly perkiness for the audience of the VR game she livestreams, which is unfortunate for her because she has to scrape together a living from viewer tips. But at the same time she has a strong sense of justice and she sticks her neck out to help people. This is going to sound weird, but she’s a lot like Toby from The West Wing: cares deeply about people on a macro level while being just so very very bad at them on a micro level. Watching that show, I found Toby’s character contradictions really refreshing, but nothing I’d ever seen or thought I was ever likely to see in a female character—he’s got a good heart but he can be extremely unpleasant, and female characters don’t tend to get away with that kind of incongruity—so I decided to write one myself, and that’s Mal. And then in my middle-grade debut, Jillian vs. Parasite Planet, it was important to me to write a kid with anxiety, whose anxiety is depicted as something other than “shyness.” Anxiety wears so many more asshole hats than that! My kid has anxiety and so do I, and it doesn’t look like shyness in either of us. It can, however, look like extreme grumpiness and irritability, and I really wanted to depict that in a girl protagonist, because if there’s one place we need to see female characters allowed as wide a range of emotions as male ones, it might be media aimed at kids. We need to normalize this early and often, and the last thing we need is to tell ten-year-old girls that the occasional shitty mood dooms female characters to fandom dismissal or outright scorn, while falling over ourselves to laud the exact same behaviors in male characters. And while we’re at it, let’s stop saying it to people of all ages and genders, and making our female characters justify their personalities in a way that our male characters never do. Literally nobody—in fiction or in real life—ever needs to hear it.

Nicole Kornher-Stace is the author of the Norton Award finalist Archivist Wasp and its sequel, Latchkey. Her adult SF debut, Firebreak, is forthcoming from Saga in May 2021, and her middle grade SF debut, Jillian vs. Parasite Planet, is forthcoming from Tachyon in July 2021. She lives in New Paltz, NY with her family. She can be found online at www.nicolekornherstace.com or on Twitter @wirewalking.

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Thank you to all of last week’s guests for another wonderful week of essays! Here are their guest posts in case you missed any of them:

All of the guest posts from April 2021 can be found here.

It’s the last week of April, and the rest of this year’s Women in SF&F Month guest posts will go up over the next few days. The schedule for the rest of the month is as follows:

Women in SF&F Month Schedule Graphic

April 26: Nicole Kornher-Stace (Archivist Wasp, Latchkey, Firebreak)
April 27: M. J. Kuhn (Among Thieves)
April 28: Helene Wecker (The Golem and the Jinni, The Hidden Palace)
April 29: Hannah Whitten (For the Wolf, For the Throne)

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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is Tori Bovalino! Her YA debut novel, The Devil Makes Three, is a gothic horror/mystery thriller story in which a summer job at the school library leads to unintentionally freeing a demon from an ancient grimoire. The Devil Makes Three will be out on August 10, and her next novel, a retelling of Christina Rosetti’s “Goblin Market” titled Not Good for Maidens, is scheduled for release next year.

The Devil Makes Three by Tori Bovalino - Book Cover

On the Amorphous Nature of Horror
Tori Bovalino

Thank you to Fantasy Book Café for having me! Today, we’re talking about horror. So many elements of horror come into SFF, especially in recent times when darkness is its own type of escapism.

When I was growing up, my search for reading material had one major bit of criteria: will this scare me? I tore through RL Stine’s catalogue and moved on to Stephen King way before it was socially acceptable. My sister and I had a hardback copy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and the subsequent sequels, which came out at every sleepover. We’d turn the page onto illustrations with our eyes half-closed to reveal Harold or the woman searching for her lost toe. This passion for spooks spread into other aspects of my life: when I had the TV to myself, I’d go searching for ghost hunting shows or murder documentaries. I spent hours online reading ghost stories from my little corner of Pennsylvania, until I was nearly too afraid to sleep. Even now, I spend way too much time on Reddit’s nosleep forum, searching for my next terror.

Horror exists to petrify, to terrify, to remind us of the things that may or may not lurk in the dark. Elements of horror bleed into other areas of fiction constantly: see the supernatural elements and undercurrent of fear in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle and the mix of body horror and suspense in The Cruel Prince by Holly Black.

But what are elements of horror? It’s such a varied genre that it can be hard to pin down. To go back to my childhood, asking Will this scare me? is as good a test as any. At its root, horror is intended to make a reader feel afraid or unsettled. Atmosphere plays an important role in this: does the voice of the book paired with the setting and the emotional reactions of the characters elicit dread? Horror can also contain elements of the supernatural, such as ghosts and demons.

The difference between a book with horror elements and a horror novel, though, is the intention: is fear the primary reaction, or does the plot have a different aim? We can see this difference in films like What We Do in the Shadows. Though the film has many elements of horror (gore, supernatural creatures, dark and mysterious house) these elements are overshadowed by the comedic plot. Thus, Shadows is not primarily a horror film.

The lines are certainly blurry. And the genre itself is incredibly varied. Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica is a recent horror offering set in a realistic world in which humans are farmed for meat. It is very different from a book like Mexican Gothic by Silva Moreno-Garcia, which centers on a peculiar family living in a gothic house. Though these books have their differences, the elements of fear and dread are still present and primarily in the forefront.

When you evaluate the primary question of horror, Will this scare me?, it’s no surprise that there is such variation. How can a genre meant to terrify be consistent when every person’s fears are different? Horror has to be varied to cater to a variety of scary tastes.

When I write horror, or a book with horror elements, I know it’s not going to scare everyone. That’s a given since fear is subjective. If I’m scaring myself, then I’m doing a good enough job. Fear is a basic part of humanity, so of course fiction would seek to mirror that. I love to be scared because it reminds me, with every accelerated heartbeat, that I am alive.


Tori Bovalino is the author of THE DEVIL MAKES THREE, available August 10, 2021 from Page Street.

Photo of Tori Bovalino

Tori Bovalino is originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and lives in London. She holds a BA in English and anthropology from the University of Pittsburgh and an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway, University of London. She is currently a student in Royal Holloway’s Creative writing and practice-based PhD program. Her debut novel, The Devil Makes Three, is forthcoming from Page Street. Tori is represented by Dr. Uwe Stender and Amelia Appel at TriadaUS Literary Agency. She is active on social media as @toribov.