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Today I’m thrilled to welcome Nisi Shawl! Her short fiction includes the story “Cruel Sistah,” which was selected for The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2006: 19th Annual Collection; the novella “Good Boy,” a World Fantasy Award finalist; and the short story collection Filter House, a Tiptree Award winner and a World Fantasy Award finalist. Her first novel, Everfair, was published last year and is one of this year’s Nebula Award nominees!

Everfair by Nisi Shawl Filter House by Nisi Shawl

Golden Ages

By the time my debut novel Everfair appeared I was 60 years old.  I’m working on a sequel; if the first publisher I’m shopping it to buys it, I could well be 65 when that sequel—Kinning, I call it—appears.

I never thought I’d get this old.  Getting old is not something women are encouraged to anticipate.  It’s a losing battle, evading age, but one every woman in the world’s dominant culture is expected to fight.  Though often we’re given examples of what it’s like to be old: Lolling about on our laurel wreaths, basking in the glory of our grands and great-grands, clasping the tender hands of our lifelong lovers or gazing in satisfaction upon our monumental artistic or scientific accomplishments.  Or, daringly, all of the above.  But old age in these visions is a resting state, not an active one.

If you haven’t gotten around to it by 40, the saying goes, you never will.

Fifteen years ago, at the age of 46, I became First Runner-Up for the Ursula K. Le Guin Prize for Imaginative Fiction with my story “The Beads of Ku.”  After several months spent puzzling over the question of why I hadn’t won outright I homed in on a passage in my text that seemed to provide an answer:

As the woman Dosi grew older, she began more and more to stay at home and to leave all the business to Fulla Fulla.  At last she became ill, and though Fulla Fulla nursed her mother diligently, she died.

Dosi’s death and her disappearance from the rest of the story must have annoyed Le Guin, who had probably long since tired of authors demonstrating how disposable old women were.  She was over 70 herself at that point, yet by no means over and done with her days of derring-do, as anyone privileged to watch her speech at the National Book Awards twelve years later can attest.

So I’ve learned not to simply discount and discard the middle aged and older women I write about.  In her 40s, Everfair’s Lisette is an international spy and the author of subversive political commentaries, and her lover Daisy, 55, loads and unloads freight-hauling dirigibles and holds the powerful government post of Poet.  My fictitious older women are writers and fighters and merchants and movers and shakers of every sort.  They go places and have adventures.  Fantasy and horror and science fiction adventures.

Like Octavia E. Butler, like many other black authors of imaginative fiction, I’ve been asked why I write it.  Why not stick to the “realistic” genres such as “street lit” and depict knife fights, crack addiction, teen pregnancy, and so on?  I usually answer those sorts of questions by saying that science fiction, fantasy, and horror deprivilege the status quo; an alternate history’s events may transpire less tragically, SF’s futures can reverse oppression, as can horror’s presents, and fantasy can heal us of it.  Also, SFFH can be used to bring marginalized characters to the story’s center by shifting your readers’ focus away from those who fall into the default.  This is as true for age as for race: prepare to dump your assumptions when encountering Le Guin’s Yoss, the stubborn, retired science teacher heroine of “Betrayals”; or menopausal Calamity, islander heroine of Nalo Hopkinson’s novel The New Moon’s Arms.  These women love and lose, change and challenge the world on their own terms.

Write what you know, we’re told; a wise instructor once pointed out to me that this is truest on an emotional level.  On an intellectual level knowledge is easy to fake and quick to obtain.  You can do a bit of research to learn how much fodder a horse eats daily.  You can extrapolate from current data to figure out how many years of travel it would take a spaceship powered by solar wind to reach a particular planet.  But the wonder of finding a mermaid unconscious on a deserted beach?  That you need to have felt in order to properly convey it.  That or something similar.

I feel the bravery and independence of old women not just because I’ve been one myself for the last decade or so, but because of my mother’s example.  At 81, June Rosilee Jackson Rickman Cotton is a self-described “tough old bird.”  She flirts, she fusses, and she does not give in.  She does not give up.  She does not give any sort of fuck.

Most old women have had taken away from us just about everything life taught us to care for: friends, youth, beliefs, belongings…in some cases health and mobility.  Memories.  Lovers.  Parents.  Children.  Divested of these, we become less and less tightly chained to maintaining the current state of affairs.

At the same time as our losses are occurring, though, we receive extraordinary gifts.  Such as freedom.  Such as broadened and deepened perspectives.  Gifts that can render us especially fond of ringing changes on hegemonic constructions of inevitability.  In other words, especially fond of speculative fiction.

We read it.  I average 50 books a year.  I have no stats from a wider sample for you, only these shots of my overfull shelves and the growing to-be-read pile beside my mother’s bed.  At the moment June is working on Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season; she’s already gotten through Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country and the Delany tribute anthology I co-edited, Stories for Chip.

We write it.  No, we’re not the only ones writing speculative fiction, but since there’s no compulsory retirement rule for authors, we’re plenty.  Keep learning, keep improving, and you can keep writing as long as you want.  Off the top of my head, without even opening a search tab, I can list eleven living Grandes Dames of SFFH: Kit Reed, Carol Emshwiller, Eileen Gunn, Jewelle Gomez, Karen Joy Fowler, Pat Murphy, Pat Cadigan, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Kathleen Alcalá, C.J. Cherryh, and the inimitable Ursula.  Death has robbed us of a few others, such as Octavia, who died at the tender age of 58.  Younger than me.

We are it.  This, more than anything else, is the connection I want everyone to make between old women and speculative fiction: equivalence.  Identity.  Like all humans we face the unknown every day; unlike most humans, we know that.  Death has touched us intimately.

Also, the future is where we old women live: we’re time travelers who more than once have witnessed our world unravel and respin itself.  We have the emotional dissonance, the cognitive estrangement necessary for understanding SFFH and conveying its meaning to others.  We notice the gaps between what is and what might be, what was and what might have been.  Between what we’re promised—or threatened with—and what might actually come about.  We are rich in insights; our minds mint brilliance, our hearts shine with the burnished glow of our stories, our sagas.  The long, long years ring with our epics’ chimes.  Hear them, share them.  Act them out.  Make them your own.  They are what await all you literate women reading this: ages of gold.  Spend them well.

Nisi Shawl’s alternate history/steampunk novel Everfair is a 2016 Tor publication and a Nebula finalist.  Her 2008 collection Filter House co-won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award.  She’s a founder of the Carl Brandon Society, a nonprofit supporting the presence of people of color in the fantastic genres, and serves on Clarion West’s Board of Directors.  Shawl was selected as Guest of Honor for WisCon in 2011, the Science Fiction Research Association’s convention in 2014, and Austin’s upcoming Armadillocon in 2017.

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Today I’m delighted to welcome fantasy and science fiction author Fran Wilde! Her debut novel, Updraft, won the Andre Norton Award, received the Compton Crook Award, and was a finalist for the Nebula Award for Best Novel. It’s followed by the second book in the Bone Universe trilogy, Cloudbound, with the third book, Horizon, following in September 2017. She’s also the author of several short stories and the novelette “The Jewel and Her Lapidary,” a finalist for both this year’s Hugo Award and Nebula Award!

Bone Universe Trilogy by Fran Wilde

In Your Narrative, Messing with Your Perspective

I remember the first time a beloved series (Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy) shifted narrative-focus characters on me between books. It was a bit wrenching. I was grumbly for hours. WHERE DID GED GO aughhh @[email protected]!%$%(#.

And then I got into the story.

Tenar was different, but as excellent a guide for Tombs of Atuan as Ged had been for Wizard of Earthsea. Better even. Because Ged was there too, and back again in The Farthest Shore, but now I’d gained a wider view of both him, of Tenar, and the world around them.

When I set out to write Updraft, the first book in the Bone Universe series, I knew the story could be told from either Kirit’s or Nat’s perspective. I’d heard Kirit’s voice initially and loudly; I had to tell her story first. But when it came to writing Cloudbound, which is about learning to lead in the face of adversity, I knew the voice needed to be Nat’s. Even as I made the shift, I remembered reading Tombs of Atuan and missing my favorite, but the story—and the world—required a broadened perspective. In Horizon, the third and final Bone Universe book out this September from Tor, I’m using perspective shifts again, including two voices already familiar to my readers.

Why do this? In secondary world science fiction and fantasy, where a limited point of view can narrow focus (often with excellent results), a shift in perspective can also expand the story. The choice is both a difficult one for an author and an opportunity, one numerous authors in both adult and YA series engage.

Shifting points of view between series books is a different kind of literary tradition from the one-perspective series. The strategy multiplies narrative focus and that allows readers to see characters from close up and far away. It’s also often a feat of narrative voice, as each new character’s story must feel distinct from that which preceded it. I thought I’d use my spin at Fantasy Cafe to ask other women writers why they’ve elected to shift narrative focus in some of my favorite series. (And I’m hoping you’re preparing your own lists for the comments at the end.)

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin The Broken Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin The Kingdom of Gods by N. K. Jemisin

In N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, Yeine Darr narrates The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Oree Shah takes The Broken Kingdoms, and Sieh—the child god—speaks The Kingdom of Gods.

I asked Jemisin what some of the considerations for shifting the point of view character between books in the Inheritance Trilogy were and whether the worldview changed.

This is awkward to answer, simply because it implies that the story could have been told in any other way. But the trilogy was the story of the gods’ falling-out and reconciliation, and how this affected the world over millennia. No single human being’s perspective or experiences could possibly have encompassed that. Even with the three characters I used, I still had to elide a few thousand years to keep the story interesting and moving at a relatable pace. So, Yeine showed how the Gods’ War impacted the power brokers of the world; Oree showed how it impacted ordinary people and how the echoes of past violence tend to linger in the present; Sieh showed how it impacted the gods themselves. Meanwhile all three perspectives, which covered about 100 years in the human world, showed how events which seem like yesterday to gods cause massive upheavals in human society.

The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard took a different turn in her Dominion of the Fallen series.

Set in an alternate turn of the century Paris devastated by a magical war, the first volume, The House of Shattered Wings, was focused on a particular House fighting a cold war of attrition and magical intrigues, and three characters within the House. When it came time to write volume two, The House of Binding Thorns, I felt that some character arcs had been settled by volume one, and that to feature the exact same cast of characters would lead me to create new problems & new arcs for them. … So I gave some of them a break from being dragged strange places and repeatedly pummeled (only half a joke: I’m pretty rough on my characters) Finally, I wanted to shine the light on different areas of my setting—in particular, factions we hadn’t seen before—and this was much easier and natural to do by adding new characters.

Changing the characters naturally changed the focus of the narration, which is what I was after—though there were a couple surprises. The first book was deliberately claustrophobic, confined to the one House—the new one changed locations within the space of a few chapters, which opened up vast areas of Paris we hadn’t seen before, like the Houseless areas, the suburbs, and the underwater kingdom under the Seine (dragons! I love dragons. Sorry). Not only the world changed, but so did the worldview: in the House of Shattered Wings there were no “powerless” characters: everyone had magical powers and no one really had to deal with going hungry. In book two, Françoise, who is Houseless, has a much harder time (even though she has a community to help out). And in fact, the theme shifted from a meditation on exile and loss to communities and how to belong, which is a different take on the idea of loss—it ended up a very different book.

All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear By the Mountain Bound by Elizabeth Bear The Sea Thy Mistress by Elizabeth Bear

And in Elizabeth Bear’s Edda of Burdens Trilogy, Mingan, Muire and Cathoaire, Muire’s son, help keep the narrative focus fluid.

The biggest consideration in changing narrators in a series is, of course, the risk of alienating the readership. But the Edda of Burdens was always envisioned as a trilogy of books about three different, intimately linked people at three different points in history, and the plan was that all three books could be read in any order, which would give the reader a different perspective depending on what way they came to the narrative. So characterizing any book in it as, precisely, a prequel or a sequel to any other is difficult, because the events take place in one order; the books were written in a different order; and they were published in a third. 😀

So I didn’t really have any options; each of the three characters gets a book to play protagonist, and they’re supporting characters in the other protagonists’ stories. They’re stuck to one another by fate—by their wyrds, more or less—and their stories don’t really exist independent of their relationships.

Writers choose to shift point of view in a series for a number of reasons, and the results are as varied as the writers themselves.

For the Bone Universe, I wrote a bit about the uses of multiple perspectives last year, and I’ll continue to write about it as the series comes to a conclusion in September. The crux, for me, is this: Different perspectives unearth different layers and different ways of seeing the world. I expanded a bit on this, and I’ll excerpt here:

Especially with first person point of view, readers become very familiar with a certain voice and a certain worldview early. The literary device of the “I” as narrator becomes a mask that we can look through, and adventure in, using the persona of that character. Shifting narrators between books means taking a risk — jarring a reader’s assumptions about the world, the story, and the characters themselves.

In the case of Cloudbound, that was a really important thing to do, and worth the risk. Cloudbound is a story about leadership, and Nat is a very different character from Kirit. He’s more investigative, more determined to play by the rules — even when he doesn’t know the rules — and he’s had a very different life experience from Kirit’s. Allowing Nat to explore the city of living bone in his own way, and to see Kirit as she’d once seen him, also gave me the opportunity to reveal parts of the world and the story that Kirit might not have seen herself.

I love that there are quite a few of us working within the tradition of shifting points of view. So, Ursula Le Guin, I’m sad I balked at first, and I’m so glad I learned to look for the expanded perspectives.

More series with shifting narrative focus include Octavia Butler’s Parable series, Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series, Sarah Rees Brennan’s Demon’s Lexicon, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, Kristin Cashore’s Graceling series, Lois Lowry’s Giver, and Malinda Lo’s Ash and Huntress.

What are your favorites? Add your perspective! (See what I did there?)

Fran Wilde
Photo Credit: Steven Gould
Fran Wilde is the author of the Andre Norton- and Compton Crook Award-winning, Nebula-nominated novel Updraft (Tor 2015), its sequels, Cloudbound (2016) and Horizon (2017), and the Nebula- and Hugo-nominated novelette The Jewel and Her Lapidary (Tor.com Publishing 2016). Her short stories appear in Asimov’s, Tor.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer, Nature, and the 2017 Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror. She writes for publications including The Washington Post, Tor.com, Clarkesworld, iO9.com, and GeekMom.com. You can find her on twitter @fran_wilde, Facebook @franwildewrites and at franwilde.net.

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It’s hard to believe the month has flown by this quickly, but the third week has come to an end—thank you so much to all of last week’s guests! Before announcing the guests for the last week of April, here’s a brief summary of last week’s essays in case you missed any of them:

Yesterday I also announced I’m giving away a copy of The Empire’s Ghost by Isabelle Steiger, an epic fantasy coming in May. Residents of the US and Canada are eligible to win, and the giveaway will run through April 28 (Friday).

If you haven’t already done so, there’s still time to add 10 science fiction and/or fantasy books by women that you read and loved in the last year to the ongoing list of reader-recommended SFF books by women.

And now, I’m excited to announce the schedule for the final week of guest posts, beginning tomorrow!

Women in SF&F Month 2017 Guests

April 24: Fran Wilde (Bone Universe trilogy, “The Jewel and Her Lapidary”)
April 25: Nisi Shawl (Everfair, Filter House)
April 26: Megan Whalen Turner (Queen’s Thief series)
April 27: C. A. Higgins (Lightless trilogy)
April 28: Bridget (SF Bluestocking)

Courtesy of St. Martin’s Press, I have a copy of The Empire’s Ghost by Isabelle Steiger to give away! This debut novel—also the first book in a new epic fantasy series!—will be released in hardcover and ebook on May 16. Those from the US and Canada are eligible to win; more details on the book and giveaway are below.

The Empire's Ghost by Isabelle Steiger


Isabelle Steiger has crafted a powerful and masterful debut with The Empire’s Ghost, the first book in a haunting new epic fantasy series.

The empire of Elesthene once spanned a continent, but its rise heralded the death of magic. It tore itself apart from within, leaving behind a patchwork of kingdoms struggling to rebuild.

But when a new dictator, the ambitious and enigmatic Imperator Elgar, seizes power in the old capital and seeks to recreate the lost empire anew, the other kingdoms have little hope of stopping him. Prince Kelken of Reglay finds himself at odds with his father at his country’s darkest hour; the marquise of Esthrades is unmatched in politics and strategy, but she sits at a staggering military disadvantage. And Issamira, the most powerful of the free countries, has shut itself off from the conflict, thrown into confusion by the disappearance of its crown prince and the ensuing struggle for succession.

Everything seems aligned in Elgar’s favor, but when he presses a band of insignificant but skilled alley-dwellers into his service for a mission of greatest secrecy, they find an unexpected opportunity to alter the balance of power in the war. Through their actions and those of the remaining royals, they may uncover not just a way to defeat Elgar, but also a deeper truth about their world’s lost history.

Courtesy of the publisher, I have one copy of The Empire’s Ghost to give away! This giveaway is open to residents of the US and Canada.

Giveaway Rules: To be entered in the giveaway, fill out the form below OR send an email to kristen AT fantasybookcafe DOT com with the subject “Ghost Giveaway.” One entry per household and one winner will be randomly selected. Those from the US or Canada are eligible to win this giveaway. The giveaway will be open until the end of the day on Friday, April 28. 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.

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

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Today I’m thrilled to welcome Hugo Award-winning author and editor Kristine Kathryn Rusch! Her work spans a vast range of genres and subgenres: science fiction (the Diving Universe and Retrieval Artist series); fantasy (The Fey series); science fiction romance (Assassins Guild series, as Kris DeLake); fantasy/paranormal romance (Fates series, as Kristine Grayson); mystery; and more, with many books under those names plus others! She is also the editor of the recent science fiction anthology Women of Futures Past, which contains stories written by women throughout the twentieth century.

Diving Into the Wreck by Kristine Kathryn Rusch Extremes by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Representation Matters

In mid-April, I’ll be teaching a class for professional writers on how to write science fiction. I assign a lot of world-building and character exercises, make the writers write several stories, and do a lot of what-if work. I love doing that, because all those exercises motivate me as well.

I also have to think hard about my approach to things. I tend to revise what I’m doing as an artist because my students inspire me, sometimes through their questions, sometimes through their determination, and sometimes by the light in their eyes.

This year, though, I’ve had added inspiration. I last offered this class in 2013. Whenever I teach, I assign reading that the students must do before the class starts. I do this, so that we’re discussing literature when we talk about sf, not movie tropes.

That year, a lot of writers had told me how sad it was that women never wrote science fiction. (Apparently, these people had no clue I was a woman…who wrote science fiction….) It had become a social media meme. A lot of women were talking about using pen names to hide their gender because sf wasn’t friendly to women.

I was stunned by this, because sf/f is incredibly friendly to women. I read sf/f by women when I was a girl, back in the 1960s. As Stephanie Burgis wrote in her post here last year, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t write sf/f about women or write sf/f under my own name, because I was reading books by and about women as long as I could remember.

Read her post, thanking the writers who came before. Because she’s right about everything, including this. She wrote, “Representation matters to all of us. It matters hugely.”

It does. And I hadn’t realized until 2013 that women had become mostly invisible in the sf/f field, especially in short fiction anthologies and in what the powers that be considered “good.”

When women told me that no women wrote sf (stunning me, because, hello! Me! Woman! SF writer!), I decided to prove those women wrong. I was going to assign my class a year’s best or something, maybe the Hugo awards volume, that would be from one of those 1990s years where women dominated the awards ballots.

And I discovered that I couldn’t find any anthology of classic sf with more than one or two stories by women in it.

Representation matters, remember. No wonder these young female writers thought they were blazing new trails. They couldn’t find the older trails, because there were none easily available. We women writers who came before were relegated to dusty old magazines or we were writing in genres that routinely got dismissed by the critics.

Women of Futures Past edited by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

So I edited a book called Women of Futures Past. The year I edited the book, I read a lot of great fiction by women. I found so much excellent work that I had to limit the book to the accepted historic start of modern sf (1926, Amazing Stories—a magazine that had a female associate editor on its masthead starting in 1927) and end with 1999.

I tried to use stories from each era, stories of different subgenres, and stories by writers everyone should know, but lots of modern readers don’t any more. Some of the writers are bestsellers, still working today, but not included in most women-only anthologies because these writers are writing space opera or not writing about gender issues. And I couldn’t include some writers no longer with us because the managers of their estates (all male) were completely uncooperative.

The book came out last year, and has received good reviews. The sales are good as well.

But more importantly, to me, it’s being taught in various places, including my upcoming workshop. Yes, I assigned that book, along with great books like Paula Guran’s 2016 Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas (which includes Nnedi Okorafor’s “Binti,” which is one of my all-time favorites, period), and Ken Liu’s Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation (which includes another favorite of mine, Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing”).

In 2013, no one had published a novella-length sf-only anthology in a long time. And in 2013, no major American sf publisher would ever have thought of publishing any kind of sf short stories in translation, let alone publish an entire volume of translated short stories.

The world has changed, partly because of the uproar on social media. Yeah, I complained about current writers saying no woman had come before. As Eleanor Arnason titled a blog post on Strange Horizons, what were we? Chopped Liver?

And then I realized—a lot of us realized—that parts of our field’s history had become special knowledge, reserved only to those of us who had lived through the past. We women were here, but no one talked about us, no one collected our work in book form, no one pointed out what we had done.

We weren’t chopped liver. We had become wallpaper. Exceptions, even though we weren’t, really. Not at all. We were—and always had been—part of sf.

We just had to reclaim our place here. And, in the U.S., we also had to open the door to other cultures and other ways of thinking. We still have a lot to explore. But the exploration has started, finally, and it’s revitalizing the field.

2016: The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas edited by Paula Guran Invisible Planets: Contemporary Science Fiction in Translation edited/translated by Ken Liu

The field has changed dramatically since my personal revelation in 2013. Some new best-of editors have entered the crowded publishing field, and these folks are not just looking at the same-old same-old writers for material. These editors are finding stories from all cultures, all genders, and all walks of life. (Finally!)

It’s an exciting time to be an sf reader, and I think it’ll only get more exciting as the years progress.

The changes in the past four years have been dramatic. I hope they’ll be equally dramatic in the next four.

The field stagnated in the early part of this century—at least in its anthologies and best-ofs. I’m so happy to see the changes. SF should always move forward. Like everything, it takes a few steps forward, then a few steps back. But I feel like the field is moving forward again.

It sure makes my teaching job easier. Unlike 2013, when I only had a few anthologies to choose from, none of which pleased me, I had a plethora of good work to offer my students to show all the possible things that sf as a genre can do.

We’re in a renaissance. Or maybe a new world. And I think it’s marvelous.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Photo Credit: Lauren Lang
Kristine Kathryn Rusch isn’t just a Hugo-award winning editor. She’s a New York Times bestselling sf writer who has won or been nominated for more sf/f awards than she can count. She also writes mystery as Kris Nelscott, and romance, and anything else that strikes her fancy. Her female characters include Boss, a spaceship wreck diver who does her best to stay out of trouble, and Noelle DeRicci, who heads security for the Moon. Both women are older and more than a little prickly, sharing that in common with their creator, at least. To find out more about her work, go to kriswrites.com.

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Today I am delighted to welcome Leanna Renee Hieber! Her lovely debut novel, The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, won two Prism Awards: one for Fantasy Romance and one for Best First Book. This book and its sequel, The Darkly Luminous Fight for Persephone Parker, were re-released in one volume titled Strangely Beautiful last year (with some new edits and scenes!), and the Prism-Award-winning prequel, The Perilous Prophecy of Guard and Goddess, is being re-released as Perilous Prophecy in June 2017. Her work also includes the Magic Most Foul trilogy beginning with Darker Still, the Eterna Files (The Eterna Files and Eterna and Omega, soon to be joined by The Eterna Solution—coming November 2017), and the Prism Award-winning futuristic novella Dark Nest.

Strangely Beautiful by Leanna Renee Hieber Perilous Prophecy by Leanna Renee Hieber Eterna and Omega by Leanna Renee Hieber

The Gothic as a Canary in Fear’s Coal Mine

I’ve spoken at great length on blogs, passionately at conventions, on writer’s panels and at universities around the country on the importance of the Gothic novel in literary history. I also find it an inextricable element of psychological history.

The Gothic is a subgenre within the classic horror, romance and/or thriller genres; one that explores an intense psychological narrative propelled entirely by dread, and often involving a paranormal element or supposition. The first Gothic novel is widely accepted by scholars as The Castle of Otronto, published in 1764, followed most famously by The Monk (the novel Jane Austen makes fun of in Northanger Abbey), and Mary Shelley takes us into the 19th century as Frankenstein links science-fiction with a Gothic feel. Edgar Allan Poe truly reinvents the genre with unrivaled genius for the purposes of the short story. The late 19th century was full of Gothic tales we still read and adapt endlessly today, thanks to the Brontë sisters, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson and more. In the 20th century, Gothic highlights include Leroux’ Phantom of the Opera, Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House), Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca) and Victoria Holt’s massive body of work. (That is by no means an exhaustive list, here I’m focusing on some of the most famous examples and a few of my favorites.)

The Gothic style can lend itself to a romantic, eerie, sweeping tale or a more dreadful and horrific palette, depending on the story and age range. As a career Gothic novelist, I’ve gone from more lyrical and romantic (Strangely Beautiful) to darker and grittier (The Eterna Files) to a mix of both for a younger audience (Magic Most Foul series), but all my work has that central drive of dread and psychological focus. The environment of a Gothic is key, it has to be a character in and of itself.

Because of the focus on psychological impact, the drive of dread and fear and setting/environment, the Gothic becomes a mirror to society’s worries, and tends to crop up in time periods of significant uncertainty, fear, dread, strife and societal change. I think of the characters of a Gothic as canaries in the coal mines of society’s greatest fears.

Very often those canaries are women. In the classic Gothics, women’s already second-class citizenship, very limited freedoms and lack of agency puts them at greater risk for the incoming threats the story provides. Some historical Gothic tales used this as a mirror addressing the plight of women and any marginalized group in society, while some ran with abusing the already vulnerable, but still lifting up their sacrifices and deaths as part and parcel of the horror.

Dracula by Bram Stoker

I use Dracula as a reference as it’s the most well-read example and the most frequently adapted story ever told. Dracula was written at the height of the Gilded Age, 1897. British, Western and American Colonialism and the effects of the industrial revolution were at a new, fraught height and the world was seeing globalization for the first time.

There was also a growing movement for women’s suffrage and the fight for equality. The “New Woman” as she was termed at the time, was born. Mina Murray chafes against the idea of the “New Woman” in Dracula, even though the story does center Mina’s strength and fortitude, a quality a self-proclaimed New Woman would have celebrated. However, Mina’s body, mind and agency are still subject to the men around her to the very end. Lucy doesn’t even get the chance to fight for herself. She is sexualized then, once Dracula turns her into a vampire, she is beheaded when she subverts the feminine ideal for a monstrous inversion. The punishments dealt to female sexuality in the traditional Gothic are often fatal. The Gothic is an extreme genre, but as history has never been kind to feminine sexuality, and we’re certainly not at peace with it today, the Gothic only serves to take what’s already there and turn it up full volume.

Stoker is fascinatingly complex. A true crafter of story that took his research very seriously, he was fascinated by folklore and took in a century’s worth of vampire fiction and all the lore that preceded it. I tend to refer to Dracula as a “capstone” work of vampire fiction. Health issues made Stoker’s childhood fraught with struggle. Somewhat of an Irish outsider in high-society England, having escaped a domineering father, he became manager of the Lyceum theatre in London, surrounded by other domineering presences. The bombastic yet brilliant Henry Irving, the first actor ever to be knighted, informed Count Dracula significantly. His relationship with women seems to have been a complex dynamic too. He admired many, such as Ellen Terry, Irving’s leading lady, and moved in a vast social circle of gifted performers and writers. His own marriage was a bit strained and he likely struggled with the “New Woman” much as Mina did. It’s my opinion Stoker put a great deal of himself into all of his characters, and echoed the tensions of his world across every page. Those tensions haven’t gone anywhere.

Dracula is a wonderful example of the Victorian id on full display. A particular adaptation that brings the book’s “fear of the other” to the fore is Guy Maddin’s Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, an art film adaptation of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s production. Dracula’s fear of the ‘other’ and the unknown is mirrored very clearly by today’s fears and uncertainty regarding globalized economies, social and ethnic changes, immigration, racial tensions and divisive strategies to overwhelm and seize power. We happen to be getting a harrowing refresher course on governmental cabals of greed, corruption and blatant self-interest, though the current magnitude puts the Victorian “Robber Barons” to shame.

Crimson Peak

The Gothic serves “through a mirror darkly” each and every age where it resurges, though truth be told, the Gothic has never gone away. Some of today’s more visible Gothic trends can be seen in Hollywood. Showtime’s Penny Dreadful was Gothic epitome. It showed great promise and incredible performances but failed in its final delivery, you can see that rant of mine here—spoiler warning. While visionary Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak wasn’t a box office success as marketing departments have no idea how to market a Gothic (It was released on Halloween billed as a jump-scare “horror” movie when it should have been billed as a “supernatural suspense/thriller” and released as an alternative Valentine’s Day film), it remains the best example of the Gothic I’ve ever seen, and it does right by every woman who struggled to find her own way out of the hell her story put her into.

In my work, I try hard not to repeat harmful tropes of historical Gothics, while still utilizing the structure, atmosphere, dread and titillating, dark, over-the-top allure of the Gothic. Simply mirroring a woman’s historical situation as trapped property, or her vulnerability and lack of agency, or her second-tier place in society including that of any minority group isn’t enough. She must overcome barriers by her choices, agency, determination and ingenuity. I want all my characters at any historic disadvantage to be as fully realized in their agency and opportunity to change the terrors around them as possible.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle The Last Serenade by Amanda DeWees Brimstone by Cherie Priest

As for a few notable suggestions in the Gothic vein, a show really fulfilling the demands of agency and representation at present is The Exorcist on Fox; a terrifyingly wonderful show with an empowered, nuanced, diverse cast. Also go see Jordan Peele’s Get Out, an important take on the horror genre. Horror and Gothic walk parallel paths. Keep your eye on Hugo-nominated author Victor la Valle (The Ballad of Black Tom) and his work. Amanda DeWees is doing the classic Gothic beautifully, and her doctoral academic background adds extra authority and breadth to her work. Be sure to pick up Cherie Priest’s new release Brimstone. Not only is Cherie one of my favorite writers working today, I know she strives for the same female-forward, inclusive narrative as I do, especially in Gothic and horror genres and Brimstone is one I’ve been looking forward to for some while. And please lift up all kinds of innovative voices around the world presenting their own Gothic-styled tales that reflect the undercurrents, preoccupations and shifting psyches of an ever-changing, ever-connected world, as all these stories can be beautiful, vital canaries fighting for air in dark mines, helping us see clearly through fun-house mirrors while entertaining us all in the meantime.

Happy Haunting,

Leanna Renee Hieber

LR Hieber Author Photo (by C. Johnstone)

Actress, playwright and author Leanna Renee Hieber writes Gothic Victorian Fantasy (Gaslamp Fantasy) novels for adults and teens. Her Strangely Beautiful saga, beginning with The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, hit Barnes & Noble and Borders Bestseller lists and garnered numerous regional genre awards, with new, revised editions from Tor Books now available. Darker Still was named an American Bookseller’s Association “Indie Next List” pick and a Scholastic Book Club “Highly Recommended” title. Her new Gaslamp Fantasy saga, The Eterna Files and Eterna and Omega, is now available from Tor. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies such as Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells, Willful Impropriety, The Mammoth Book of Gaslamp Romance, featured on Tor.com and she writes for Criminal Element. A 4 time Prism Award winner for excellence in the genre of Fantasy Romance, Leanna’s books have been selected for national book club editions and translated into languages such as Complex Chinese, German and Polish. She crafts Gothic, Neo-Victorian and Steampunk accessories on Etsy via the Torch and Arrow shop. A proud member of performer unions Actors Equity and SAG-AFTRA, she lives in New York City where she is a licensed ghost tour guide and has been featured in film and television on shows like Boardwalk Empire. She is represented by Paul Stevens of the Donald Maass agency.

Photo by C. Johnstone