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Today’s guest is Nafiza Azad! She is a co-founder of The Book Wars, a website dedicated to children’s literature, and the author of the soon-to-be released YA fantasy novel The Candle and the Flame. This book—which she described on Goodreads as being “mostly about women being women in the most fantastic ways possible”—is her first novel, and it will be released on May 14!

The Candle and the Flame Cover

The Strong Woman: Politics of Feminine Power in THE CANDLE AND THE FLAME

My maternal grandfather passed away on the 18th of February. We got the news early in the morning, just after Fajr. I remember my ammi sitting frozen, her back towards us. I don’t know what was going through her mind at that point. I don’t know what flavour of grief she tasted at the moment.

An hour later, two of my dad’s sisters, my aunts, showed up and formed an unspoken and unacknowledged wall around my mother. They stayed by her side the entire day, feeding her, talking to her, helping her with the little rituals that come with the passing of a loved one.

Of the many people who came to our house that day, many of them were women. Time after time, I witnessed the latent strands of a sisterhood spark into life and buoy my mom. This sisterhood transcends language; it is forged from a background of shared experiences, losses, and life.

The prevalent narrative in the West where women of colour, especially Muslim women, are concerned seems to be one of oppression. I freely admit it, in some cases, oppression is definitely the truth. However, despite reluctance to believe otherwise, the truth is female power is not defined exclusively in the language prioritized by the West. In The Candle and the Flame, I wanted to show the kind of feminine power I grew up with; a feminine power that is akin to silk-covered steel. A power characterized by grace.

The majority of the characters in The Candle and the Flame are women; I am fascinated by the multiple ways femininity can be expressed. Fatima is the protagonist of the novel so I will say the least about her as I feel you should experience her growth for yourself. Achal Kaur, a woman in her sixties, is Fatima’s boss. She moved to a new country with her entire extended family, started a new business and made a success of it after she was widowed. Her power does not have the scent of blood but one of sheer perseverance and a stubborn refusal to give in to life.

Aruna is the king’s wife and though she is a crowned queen, she struggles to fit in a family among people who never let her forget she is not of them, that she is an Other. How she defines her strength is distinctly different from the way Achal Kaur describes it.

Bhavya is the lone princess of Qirat, the country in which the story is set. She struggles with feelings of incompetency and inferiority. Her journey towards self-realization and actualization is longer and more difficult because of the unique position her birth places her in.

These women live in a patriarchal society though they are lucky enough to be among people who do not actively oppress them. Just like my mom and my aunts, just like me and my cousins, these women engage in a brand of feminism called intersectional feminism (termed by Kimberle Williams Crenshaw). It is vastly different from the kind of feminism the West recognizes and sometimes differs enough that it is not even considered feminism by them.

However, the idea that the feminism that champions white women and their issues is the same kind of feminism POC women want and need is not just erroneous but also dangerous as it perpetuates the notion that there is only one way to be a woman.  Obviously this is untrue; there are multiple ways of being a woman just as there are multiple ways of expressing feminine strength.

It is this theme that I engage with prominently in The Candle and the Flame. While Fatima does have physical strength and shows it off in fights, she does so infrequently. She concedes to the authority of her elders and withdraws from situations out of respect to their age. She curbs her tongue and tailors her language to be within the boundaries placed upon her by the culture she lives in. Bhavya, the princess, on the other hand, flouts age and authority almost daily. Aruna is always breathtakingly proper and makes her politeness a weapon with which she deals with people who seek to oppress her.

I believe that feminine power is one of the most potent kinds of power there is, especially since people seem to frequently disregard women and what they are capable of. YA fantasy, in particular, has, in the past, paid close attention to and portrayed girls and women who are strong and use swords to prove it. It is time other kinds of femininities and different kinds of strength were given the spotlight. The Candle and the Flame is amongst the many other books being released this year that do just that.

Nafiza Azad Photo Nafiza Azad is a self-identified island girl. She has hurricanes in her blood and dreams of a time she can exist solely on mangoes and pineapple. Born in Lautoka, Fiji, she currently resides in BC, Canada where she reads too many books, watches too many Kdramas and writes stories about girls taking over the world. Her debut YA fantasy, THE CANDLE AND THE FLAME, will be released by Scholastic in 2019.

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Today’s guest is Hafsah Faizal! We Hunt the Flame, her YA fantasy debut novel inspired in part by ancient Arabia, has received starred reviews from Booklist and The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books. You can read chapter one on Hypable right now—and you can read the book in its entirety when We Hunt the Flame is released on May 14!

We Hunt the Flame Cover

Nearly every author introduces a trope into their novel at some point, whether to eventually subvert said trope, or use it—particularly in fantasy—to create a touchstone for a reader, providing some semblance of grounding in this vast new world you’ve tumbled into.

WE HUNT THE FLAME is one of those books: you’ll find multiple tropes that made their way into the story via some subconscious effort or another (with the exception being the beloved enemies-to-lovers trope, which I knew going in that it had to make an appearance in my book). If I were being truly honest, most of my debut’s content stemmed from some part of my subconscious I’ve yet to understand. So when I was recently asked why I used a particular trope in which Zafira Iskandar, one of the book’s two narrators, masquerades as a boy, it took some thinking on my part to find an answer. Some really deep thinking.

Because it was worded in a way that made me feel wrong: “Isn’t it ironic that Zafira struggles with her gender-obscuring cloak while the author herself is covered?”

Which to me, was asking “was it a secret plea?” The answer, of course, is a resounding no. But the question itself shook me—how could I have done such a thing without thinking it through? Until I figured out why, I knew I wouldn’t be able to justify my answer, even to myself, and it wasn’t long before it hit me.

Zafira Iskandar is headstrong. She’s proud of what she’s done, and she’s content with who she is. It’s the outside world that worries her. In the caliphate of Demenhur (one of the five states that make up the kingdom in which the book takes place), women are scorned upon. They’re blamed for every wrong that befalls the people. This is why Zafira begins masquerading as a boy. It means the Demenhune Hunter is famed and lauded for the selfless act of feeding ‘his’ people. Zafira knows that if her caliphate found her out, she would be shunned, her accomplishments twisted into something ugly. Every false judgement would be placed on her, simply because of who and what she is.

It’s important to know that when I began writing WE HUNT THE FLAME, it was early 2014. I was twenty, and I’d been blogging for around three years then, hiding behind a logo of my blog. I was content, but aware: no one really knew I was Muslim. Which was fine by me. But no one knew I was a niqabi, veiled and very, visibly Muslim. So by 2014, I was making a name for myself in the publishing community, sharing design tips and tricks until the moment of truth dragged everything to a screeching halt: Book Expo America invited me to chat about design in NYC, and to finalize the program, they needed a headshot.

I distinctly remember how simple those words were: send us a high-res headshot and a brief bio, but what they didn’t realize was how life-and-death that moment felt to me. Here I was, steadily growing my presence and establishing a platform, my identity an easily-kept secret, and everything was suddenly teetering off a precipice. Posting a photograph of myself online equated to inviting people to judge me before they got to know me. It invited them to blame me for terrors and horrors and fears and insecurities.

That moment in my life, which was filled with the excitement of being invited to an event I never thought I could attend and the fear that this is it—I’m done for, bled into my writing. It seeped into my words and shaped Zafira into who she is. At that point in time, she was me and I was her.

Because we’re both perfectly content with who we are—it’s the external, unfounded perceptions that scare us. We’ve both learned to fight back against these perceptions. If we don’t challenge them, if we don’t pave a better path for the ones who will follow: who will?

So while I did incorporate a well-loved trope, it took on a new meaning when I realized why I had done it.

I like to think I was weaving in yet another little piece of my soul.

Hafsah Faizal Photo HAFSAH FAIZAL is an American Muslim and brand designer. She’s the founder of IceyDesigns, where she creates websites for authors and beauteous goodies for everyone else. When she’s not writing, she can be found dreaming up her next design, deciding between Assassin’s Creed and Skyrim, or traversing the world. Born in Florida and raised in California, she now resides in Texas with her family and a library of books waiting to be devoured. WE HUNT THE FLAME is her first novel.

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Today’s guest is internationally bestselling paranormal romance/urban fantasy/contemporary author Nalini Singh! Her speculative fiction work includes the Psy-Changeling series, which contains fifteen novels total beginning with Slave to Sensation; the Guild Hunter series, which begins with Angels’ Blood and will soon contain twelve novels with the release of Archangel’s War in September; and the Psy-Changeling Trinity series, set in the same world as Psy-Changeling. Silver Silence, the New York Times and USA Today bestselling first Psy-Changeling Trinity book, won the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award for Paranormal Worldbuilding and was selected as one of Amazon’s Best Romance Books of the Year. It was followed by a second book in the series, Ocean Light, last year, and this will soon be followed by a third novel, Wolf Rain—coming June 4 in the US/Canada and June 6 in the UK/internationally!

Wolf Rain Cover

Wonder and Freedom
By Nalini Singh

Wonder. It’s a key component of why I’ve always been drawn to speculative fiction of every kind, whether that be science fiction, fantasy, paranormal romance, urban fantasy, or any of the myriad other subgenres that fall within the wider spec fic umbrella.

So much of our world is explored. At this point, the only place where another human being is unlikely to have stepped foot is probably a deep trench in the deepest oceans. The forests have been trekked. The deserts mapped. And while I would love to travel into the unexplored galaxy on a spaceship designed for long voyages, we may not make it there in my lifetime.

The world of the imagination, however, remains a vast vista. There are no limits to the realities we can create. So many of my stories have begun with a “what if” question. What if we had incredible telepathic powers, but those powers caused us to go mad? What would we do to survive? What if our world was ruled by archangels, cruel and beautiful immortals to whom humans are nothing but fireflies whose lights flicker in and out of existence in an immortal heartbeat?

Every question brings with it a new sense of wonder, and a new sense of discovery. I felt the same sense of discovery when I first stumbled upon science fiction and fantasy books as a child. They took me far beyond my neighborhood and even my city. I went to Pern with Anne McCaffrey, and I rode companions with Mercedes Lackey. I stepped on countless starships, learned many magics, and made first contact with a hundred alien civilizations. I’ve fallen down wormholes, stepped into secret kingdoms, been at the mercy of angry gods, and run with shapeshifters under a full moon.

I bring that sense of wonder into all of my books. I explore alongside my characters. I discover new places and new stories. Along with the wonder comes a joyous sense of freedom. I think, often, speculative fiction examines quite dark human emotions and quite dark human stories within fantastical constructed worlds. That created world gives us a little bit more distance. We can more easily look at the heart of who we are, good and bad, light and dark, and not flinch.

In paranormal romance, though I may tell stories in the context of shapeshifters and telepaths, archangels and vampires, the questions can be very much human. The nature of cruelty, and of love, the value of loyalty, and the pain of betrayal. However, the truly freeing thing about speculative fiction is the ability to push the boundaries of what we accept as normal in our everyday lives. So while we can explore the human heart, that isn’t the only available route. My angels and vampires, changelings and Psy, don’t have to act human in the wider sense, because, quite simply, they aren’t human.

That, to me, is one of the greatest challenges and greatest gifts of writing in this genre: the ability to create characters who go beyond humanity, and who force us to accept them for who they are—whether that means they have claws they won’t hesitate to use, the power to destroy entire civilizations, or laws that would be considered barbaric in our world. Within the story, we live in their world, not ours. And each world is new, with a million unexplored facets. We are all travelers in uncharted territory.

I will always treasure working in this genre, and I thank all those who came before me for writing stories that showed me extraordinary worlds and led me on this continuing journey into wonder.

Nalini Singh Photo
Photo Credit: Shay Barratt
Nalini Singh is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of the Psy-Changeling and Guild Hunter paranormal series as well as the Rock Kiss contemporary series. Her books have been translated into more than 20 languages. Singh was born in Fiji and raised in New Zealand, and her extensive travel around the world has informed and inspired the writing of her novels.  She lives in New Zealand.  Connect with her online at nalinisingh.com, Facebook.com/AuthorNaliniSingh, Twitter.com/NaliniSingh, and Instagram.com/authornalinisingh.

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Today’s guest is Swati Teerdhala! The Tiger at Midnight, her debut novel, is the first book in a young adult fantasy trilogy inspired by Indian history and Hindu mythology. You can read a sample from The Tiger at Midnight on the publisher’s website, and you can read the full book after its release on April 23—tomorrow!

The Tiger at Midnight Cover

The Unlikeable Heroine
Swati Teerdhala

The first time I heard someone call a heroine unlikeable, I was confused. To me, this heroine, Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones, was a character I had been waiting a long time for. I saw her as someone flawed, someone who was simply trying her best.

She starts off as a young girl caught up in her own life and unaware of her surroundings. She was a little selfish, a little naive, a little too trusting. But she was also kind, clever, and tough. Sansa learns and changes over seven seasons, as she grows into a woman. A woman who is complex and so painfully human, I often wanted to cringe and look away in fear that she might expose my own shortcomings. But also a woman so strong in the face of tragedy and terror that she encouraged. Inspired me.

In short, a woman who was real.

That reality spoke to me in a way that was direct and tangible. I felt seen and heard. But this friend of mine complained about all her flaws, saw them as ugly markers of her imperfection and failure as a woman rather than old battle scars from the realities of life.

When I tried to dig into why my friend thought she was unlikeable, I heard something that I’d hear many times again. “She’s too….”

Too loud, too quiet, too emotional, too logical, too cold, too warm, too assertive, too obedient…too much.

As a woman who has constantly been told her entire life that she’s too ‘much’, that hit me deep. It seemed to me that these women, even characters in books, like Katniss Everdeen or Hermione Granger, could never win unless they were able to balance along some imaginary line of likeability solely to keep people’s archaic ideas of how a woman should act intact.

What I learned that day was that an ‘unlikeable heroine’ can be any heroine. And she often is. Women in fantasy get penalized for just about everything you can think of. It’s even worse for diverse women in SFF. Women who challenge stereotypes about their marginalization are also accused of being unlikeable simply for being different.

A hero can murder hundreds, but the tiniest hint that there’s more to him than meets the eye and cults of adoration pop up like magical weeds. Just look at The Darkling from Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse or Kylo Ren from Star Wars. However, a heroine can get knocked for simply having the gall to be selfish or to not sacrifice herself for another character or the group.

The expectations for a woman are to always put others first, to overcome hardship, to be the emotional glue—and to do it all with a smile. Women in SFF have always been kept to the wings and the moment they step onto the stage as multi-dimensional characters, people are unhappy, shocked that a woman would dare to care about something more than her appeal to others or their perception of her.

Why is being unlikeable the worst thing a woman can be?

Women are raised to care about being liked (or loved) over anything else. And according to society, this can only be achieved through perfection. But in fiction, we have the ability to write women to truth. Proud, shy, serene, angry, fierce, emotional, quiet, loud.

When I wrote Esha, the main character of my novel THE TIGER AT MIDNIGHT, I kept this idea of likeability in my mind at first. Esha is consumed by her desire for revenge after the murder of her parents and she’s dedicated her entire life to avenging them. On a hero, this might be an endearing backstory. But for a heroine, I was aware that this could make her unlikeable.

She could be tossed into the annals of fantasy books, another rage-filled woman who would be reduced to simply being a shrew or a caricature. In my first drafts I wrote her to be softer, kinder, less sharp-edged and sharp-tongued. I changed her character arc over the second and third books as I outlined, trying to ease her over that tightrope of likeability she’d have to walk.

But then I realized that would be untrue to the depths I knew she had and the places she could go if she was only allowed to be herself, as we all should be. And if we, as fiction writers, don’t take the steps to challenge the stories we tell about women, who will?

So I made her angry. Cunning. Loyal. Kind. Ruthless.

A complex and possibly unlikeable heroine. But a real one.

Swati Teerdhala Photo Swati Teerdhala is a storyteller and writer. After graduating from the University of Virginia with a B.S. in Finance and History, she tumbled into the marketing side of the technology industry. She’s passionate about many things, including how to make a proper cup of chai, the right ratio of curd-to-crust in a lemon tart, and diverse representation in the stories we tell. She currently lives in New York City.

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Thank you so much to all of last week’s guests! This month is flying by, and I can hardly believe the fourth week of guest posts begins tomorrow. Before announcing next week’s schedule, here’s some information on previous guest posts in case you missed any of them.

All of the guest posts from April 2019 can be found here, and in last week’s guest posts:

On the first day of the month, Renay discussed history and SFF fandom—and revealed the recommendations list of science fiction and fantasy books written by women with 2018’s submissions included. She also invited you to add more books by women writers that you loved this month so they can be added to the list. (If this isn’t your first time adding some favorites to the list, you can also add up to 10 SFF books by women that you discovered in the last year or since the last time you added them—and thank you so much for recommending books for the list!)

Next week, Women in SF&F Month 2019 continues with guest posts by:

Women in SF&F Month 2019 Schedule Graphic

April 22: Swati Teerdhala (The Tiger at Midnight)
April 23: Nalini Singh (Psy/Changeling, Psy/Changeling Trinity, Guild Hunters)
April 24: Hafsah Faizal (We Hunt the Flame)
April 25: Nafiza Azad (The Candle and the Flame)
April 26: Fran Wilde (The Fire Opal Mechanism, Bone Universe, Riverland)

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Today’s guest is Sara from The Fantasy Inn! She reviews fantasy and science fiction books and also writes some book-related discussions as Sharade. I enjoy reading her blog posts (and Twitter) immensely due to her enthusiasm for the books she loves, her conversational style, and the fact that she makes them just plain fun to read—plus she has fantastic taste in books!

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The Many Strengths of Female Characters in Fantasy

How can you not love a badass heroine in fantasy? Spine of steel, weapon in hand, destroying her enemies and the glass ceiling in one swift, effortless move.

But I must admit that I have a weakness for a different kind of female strength depiction in SFF stories.

Reading T. Kingfisher’s The Seventh Bride reminded me how much I love compassionate heroines. In this Bluebeard-like story, our main character, Rhea, is forced to marry a strange nobleman. Along with the nobleman’s other wives, she has to face challenges that are bigger than her. Rhea is not a warrior, but she certainly is a badass. Her resilience and loyalty are inspiring and uplifting.

Heroines who rely on inner strength to shine and save the day are my catnip. Another example would be Kalina from Sam Hawke’s City of Lies. Her city is under siege, the Chancellor her family has sworn to protect is threatened. In the middle of all this, Kalina’s heroism is a subtle sort—no fanfare, no fireworks; rather, a single-minded purpose, a keen mind, and a big heart.

Quiet courage echoes loudly; and who better to embody it than Patience, in Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy. As the wife of the King-in-Waiting Chivalry, having her husband’s illegitimate son around must not have been the easiest thing to handle. But she went above and beyond, by being Fitz’ eccentric yet fiercely loving mother figure.

The Seventh Bride Cover City of Lies Cover Assassins Apprentice, Farseer Trilogy Book One Cover

It is not, of course, a strict dichotomy: physically powerful heroines on one side and compassionate ones on the other. One of the highlights of the Netflix hit animated show The Dragon Prince is how nuanced and multi-facetted its characters are. General Amaya, the maternal aunt of the young protagonists, is the epitome of a badass warrior in full armour, slaying enemies left and right. But she’s also caring and warm, protective of her family and friends. And, with the return of Game of Thrones, I would be remiss not to mention Brienne of Tarth, another warrior with a heart of gold. She can fight, yes, but she can also pledge herself completely to a cause, however ill-advised it might be…She’s loyal to a fault, a perfect embodiment of the knighthood fantasy.

There are so many ways a woman can be strong, and so many ways it can be represented in fantasy. This diversity is compelling: different heroines have different stories, different ways to achieve their goals, be it defeating a Big Evil or keeping their families safe, or both.

There’s a joy in reading about powerful female characters, because they provide catharsis and escapism, or even inspiration. In their faraway worlds, full of strangeness and magic, those who rely on a softer, quieter kind of power are, to me, the most relatable. And the most compelling to read about.

Sara's Profile Picture Sara reviews SFF books at the Fantasy Inn, along with 6 lovely, only occasionally crazy co-bloggers. She’s Moroccan but now lives in France, where a love of pastries will be her doom. When she’s not trying to shove fantasy books into people’s faces, she’s…well, doing the same but with historical romance books.

You can follow her rambling on Twitter, @SharadeeReads