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  1. Flying witch artwork by astromoali Welcome to Fantastic Top Fives with Wyrd & Wonder! Wyrd and Wonder have brought back their Top Fives prompts, so every Friday this month, we’ll be tackling the prompts in our 5-Star Books in Five Words feature. The first prompt was: Your Favourite Magical Systems or Spells. The second was: Your Favourite Songs That You Associate with the Magical – so we looked at magic systems that used song! Last week we looked at Our Favourite Magic Casters This week, it’s Magical Ingredients – we chose to interpret this as a story that requires lots of elements to come together, a story that has a magic system that needs ingredients! A big thank you to all our contributors for their excellent recommendations! Underlined book titles in bold contain links to reviews on this site. Beth: A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I Lin. Blending tea makes beautiful magic Gray: Legends and Lattes by Travis Baldree Ratman baker makes Cinnamon Buns Nils: Edgedancer by Brandon Sanderson Food fuels a Surgebinder’s powers! Hil: A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by Ursula Vernon Remember your familiar sourdough starter Julia: Seeds of War by Joáo F. Silva Untypical older characters do rock Theo: Asterix in Switzerland by René Goscinny Gaul chases flower in flat-land. And there we have it! Our last 5-Star Reads for this year’s Wyrd and Wonder. We hope you enjoyed all our recommendations! Follow #WyrdAndWonder on socials to find out more about the feature Flying witch artwork by astromoali The post 5-Star Books in Five Words – Magical Ingredients appeared first on The Fantasy Hive. View the full article
  2. Today we’re super excited to welcome Reese Hogan back to the Hive! Not only can we reveal the cover of his upcoming post-apocalyptic tale of trans identity MY HEART IS HUMAN, but we’re also treating you to an exclusive excerpt! First of all, the official blurb: It’s been nine years since the government banned all technology. So, when Joel Lodowick, a young transgender father struggling to support his five-year-old daughter, has an old bionic upload itself into his head, he is faced with a Go to the cops and risk prosecution? Or use the robot’s skills to turn his life around? Scared of losing his daughter, Joel chooses the latter. Heightened intelligence and physical enhancements quickly land him a better job and a brighter future. But things take a sinister turn when Joel realizes his uninvited companion has an agenda of its own, which may or may not include leaving him in control. Unable to approach the government who covered up the truth about AI sentience, Joel finds himself on the run. With his daughter’s life on the line and his own body turning against him, he must find a way to convince the bionic in his head to value his human life before he loses the chance forever. And now for the cover! Cover designed by MoorBooks Design. Website: moorbooksdesign.com Instagram: @moorbooksdesign www.facebook.com/MoorBooksDesignStudio/ Let’s hear a little from Reese: MY HEART IS HUMAN is a story with many layers, encompassing topics including the fear of tech, the struggle to be accepted as transgender, the need to express ourselves through music and art, and ultimately, what it means to be human. The cover designers did an incredible job using a high-concept image to capture all of this: the laptop with a half-human, half-bionic heart trapped behind a shattered screen, with band stickers on the background depicting pride and trans colors in worn but vibrant definition. It’s everything I’d hoped for when I wrote this book, and I couldn’t be happier with it! My Heart is Human is due for release 11th July 2023. You can pre-order your copy HERE! Exclusive Excerpt Joel unzipped the hoodie and slid it from his shoulders, gritting his teeth as he worked the sleeve past the sodden bandages. It looked even worse than he’d expected: the white wrappings were soaked in red and slipping loose in places where the moisture had drenched his clumsy bandaging. He knew it was probably too early to be worrying about infection, but he couldn’t help putting a tentative hand to it, feeling for hot skin or swelling. He couldn’t tell anything. It was just a mess of pain, especially the raw parts that had been exposed where the bandage had slipped. He swallowed back a surge of nausea, trying to focus. The bionic first. Then he could decide whether to bring this to the hospital or not. He collected the business card he’d dropped when he stumbled, then made his way to the other side of the couch, lowering himself onto the edge of the end table. Clear line of sight to his daughter’s door. Upright enough to come to his feet at a second’s notice. The phone within grabbing distance. Would any of it matter? He cleared his throat. “Acubens?” he said. “If you’re still around, please come out here.” After a second, he heard the unmistakable whir of Acubens’ metal joints. The bionic came out of his bedroom. It stopped, studying him with those emotionless eyes. “Where were you?” said Joel quietly. “You instructed me to stay out of sight until you needed me again,” said Acubens. “That’s true,” Joel allowed. “But still…surely a Sapling officer should’ve found you. It’s their job.” “I projected a negative refractive index,” Acubens said. “This caused the light reaching the back of the closet to bend around me, thereby preventing the officer from seeing me.” Negative refractive index? What the hell was it talking about? Did the Sapling agent know it could do this? No, of course not; he didn’t think it could even be turned on. It means technology reaching a point where it starts evolving on its own… Joel’s throat tightened. He fought to keep his breath even. “What about that locator beacon they mentioned? What kept that officer from walking straight to you?” “My locator beacon is no longer functional,” said Acubens. “Why not?” “Sometimes, components can be damaged during moves from one storage room to another. If so, it could have caused a hardware fault when I was reactivated.” Joel nodded uncertainly. Slowly, he pushed himself to his feet. Not slowly enough, though, because the room pitched again. He grabbed the back of the armchair just in time, struggling to see through the spots blurring his vision. “You’re looking very pale, Joel,” said Acubens. “I’m fine,” said Joel, drawing in a ragged breath. Stay focused. All he had to do was walk over to Acubens and pull that chip out of the back of its neck. Then he’d clean his wound again, get rid of the body, and move on with his life. The life with no job, no one to watch Clementine, hardly any money, a serious injury… He was about two feet in front of Acubens when the bionic spoke again, in the same soft mechanical tone. “It goes against my programming not to help, if possible. Tell me what I can do.” A chill went through Joel. It almost sounded like it was trying to bargain. But surely not. If it was capable of bargaining—of wanting to bargain—it would have done so before the cops had shown up. Unless it hadn’t known then, he realized. Before it had heard them here, it probably hadn’t fully grasped bionics’ status in this new society—or lack thereof. It was one thing to realize bionics weren’t being used anymore, but quite another to know they were being actively hunted. But it shouldn’t matter, right? It was only a machine. “For example,” Acubens went on, “my knowledge could be very beneficial to someone in your situation. Wouldn’t you agree?” Joel swallowed through a suddenly dry throat. He forced himself to meet its eyes. “Honestly?” he said. “Yeah. It would be beneficial. And if I could get all your knowledge without the danger of keeping you here, I would. I’d also ask you to babysit, get me a new job, and teach my kid algebra. But none of those things are worth getting hauled in for. It sucks. I know. But I don’t want to get locked up and never heard from again either, and I sure as hell don’t want that happening to my daughter. You get me?” Acubens’ eyelids flickered. “But if there were a way, you would do it,” it clarified. “Of course,” muttered Joel. “Who wouldn’t?” If hearing that its knowledge was desirable made any difference to this machine before it was shut down, who was he to deny it that small comfort? He raised his right hand and slid it to the back of Acubens’ neck, worried he’d find only smooth metallic skin, but there was the seam, exactly as he remembered. He popped the panel open and ran his fingers through the wires beneath it, feeling for that chip. The whole time, he stayed in front of Acubens, holding its gaze. There was something undeniably intimate about it—shutting something down as he stared into its eyes—that gave him a weird feeling in the pit of his stomach. He pressed his fingers farther in, looking… He froze as something wrapped lightly around his left arm, right over his wound. He wrenched his gaze from Acubens’ face and looked down, seeing his own blood running in rivulets over Acubens’ metallic golden fingers. “W-What are you doing?” he choked out. “I am implementing a solution to fit your needs,” said Acubens. Before Joel could answer, another wave of dizziness hit him, followed by stabbing pain in his skull. He gasped as his knees buckled. Acubens caught him—he thought—but his head was spinning so fast that gravity had ceased to exist. A surge of fear shot through him. He was gonna pass out. He couldn’t pass out. He grasped for something to hold onto, anything, but the room pitched again, and he fell this time, hard. His head slammed against the carpet. White stars exploded in his vision. He squeezed his eyes shut, whimpering through the sudden onslaught of pain and nausea. It seemed like an eternity passed as he lay on the floor, barely clinging to consciousness. But gradually, the world stabilized again. When he finally forced his eyes open, the first thing he saw was Acubens lying a foot away, motionless and staring, like a corpse. A low buzz of panic hummed at the base of his skull. The room was dead quiet except for his own labored breathing. Slowly, he pushed himself to his knees, being careful with his wounded arm…until he realized that the pain of it wasn’t blinding him anymore. In fact… He ran his right hand over the back of his left forearm, feeling the wet bandages, the residue of blood beneath them. And below that, a closed scar, as if the skin around the gaping wound had been sealed together. That buzz of panic intensified. He put his hand out and shoved the bionic’s body. “Acubens. Acubens! God damn you, wake up and tell me what happened!” “You wanted my knowledge, Joel,” said Acubens. “And you needed my help. I have found a way to give you both.” Joel jerked back, a scream catching in his throat. The voice had come from inside his head. Reese Hogan is a transmasc science fiction author from New Mexico. His short fiction has been published in The Decameron Project, A Coup of Owls, and on the Tales to Terrify podcast, as well as in two anthologies. My Heart Is Human is his fourth novel. In addition to writing, Reese enjoys singing in the New Mexico Gay Men’s Chorus and running. He lives with his two children in New Mexico. The post MY HEART IS HUMAN by Reese Hogan (COVER REVEAL AND EXCERPT) appeared first on The Fantasy Hive. View the full article
  3. Cuddesdon road, early morning mist by Christian Guthier “…And sometimes you come out of the fog into clarity, and you can see just what you’re doing and where you’re going, and you couldn’t see or know any of that five minutes before. And that’s magic.” ― Neil Gaiman Do you know what you are doing when you’re writing? I’m not talking about plotting versus pantsing. I’m talking about the deep, core knowledge that speaks to what your book is truly about. Because I’ll tell you, most times I have no clue. My first book was for all intents and purposes a ghostly love story, but after the first draft was completed I realized (thanks to an astute friend’s comment) that it was REALLY a love letter to a place I was wrestling with leaving. I wrote my whole second book thinking it was about Peter Pan, when in actuality (as another friend pointed out) it was really about motherhood and the feelings I was experiencing as my kids left for college. Yet at the same time clearly some part of my brain — my subconscious, my muse, my higher being, call it what you will — knew EXACTLY what I was grappling with, because it sprinkled enough clues throughout my writing that these deeper themes — leaving a beloved place, motherhood — are evident. And once I was aware of them, I could refine them and make them deeper, which made my overall story so much richer. As I’ve gotten further along on my writing journey, I’ve tried to deliberately tap into this “hidden” part of my brain, rather than wait for it to work on its own. Occasionally what I come up with makes no sense in the moment, but later will prove to be an invaluable plot twist or character development that surprises even me. And the ideas that don’t work are still helpful because they compel me to look at my story from a different angle. So how can you harness this “smarter” part of your mind? There are a couple of tricks I’ve found over the years that help: Create blank space. Did you ever write a secret message with lemon juice? Remember the excitement you felt as you held a seemingly empty piece of white paper up to a heat source and the letters swam to the surface as if by magic? With all the noise in my day-to-day life, my subconscious can have difficulty making itself heard. But if I can create a blank space, the thoughts and words can swim to the surface where I can catch them. For me, creating this blank space usually involves challenging exercise, preferably outside. After a tough run or hike the endorphins created help my thoughts become peaceful, and whatever my subconscious is working on can rise to the surface. Almost as good are long walks somewhere soothing, such as an uncrowded beach, where I am completely unplugged. The repetition of the scenery combined with the gentle motion of walking jars deeper thoughts loose. Some of my friends find the same results with a long shower, a bath by candlelight, or meditating in a serene environment. Use background noise when you write. I”ll put a single song on repeat and play it over and over, so that the words lose meaning, or I’ll use a playlist of classical music or ambient sounds the same way. It blocks out the daily thoughts that prevent me from getting in touch with my deeper writing brain. Work while you sleep. I use this approach when I’m stuck on something — a plot twist, a character development issue, etc.. Right before I go to bed I will read over my latest draft, and then as I’m lying in the dark trying to sleep I’ll go over it in my head, telling it to myself as if it is a bedtime story, leaving off just at the point where I’m stuck. I’ll do this for several nights in a row. Sometimes I’ll actually dream about the book, and recording that dream gives me insight on where to go next. Other times, I’ll get a flash of inspiration as I’m settling down to write that I swear is due to the work my subconscious has been putting in at night. Don’t stare at the sun. Finally, when all else fails, I try ignoring whatever plot hole or character flaw is bothering me. Instead I let it percolate somewhere just out of my conscious mind’s reach. By allowing it space, a fresh take or answer often seems to spontaneously pop into view. Now it’s your turn — how do you tap into your subconscious when writing? [url={url}]View the full article[/url]
  4. Today, we’re thrilled to be taking part in the cover reveal for Aliette de Bodard’s upcoming sequel! Publishing on the 12th October, A FIRE BORN OF EXILE is a beautiful exploration of the power of love, of revenge, and of the wounds of the past. This fast-paced, heart-warming space opera is set against a backdrop of corruption, power and political scheming in the far reaches of the award-winning Xuya universe. Before we check out the gorgeous new cover, let’s hear more about the story itself: The Scattered Pearls Belt is a string of habitats under tight military rule . . . where the powerful have become all too comfortable in their positions, and their corruption. But change is coming, with the arrival of Quynh: the mysterious and enigmatic Alchemist of Streams and Hills. To Minh, daughter of the ruling prefect of the Belt , Quynh represents a chance for escape. To An, a destitute engineer, Quynh has a mysterious link to her own past . . . and holds a deeper, more sensual appeal. But Quynh has her own secret history, and a plan for the ruling class of the Belt. A plan that will tear open old wounds, shake the heavens, and may well consume her. And now to the cover! I am absolutely loving all the purple! The illustrator is Alyssa Winans, you can find her on Instagram as @alawinans and Twitter as @AlyssaWinans. Art direction was by Rachael Lancaster. A Fire Born of Exile is expected for release on 12th October 2023 from Gollancz. You can pre-order your copy HERE The post A FIRE BORN OF EXILE by Aliette de Bodard (COVER REVEAL) appeared first on The Fantasy Hive. View the full article
  5. As some of you may know I am currently undertaking a creative writing PhD with the catchy title Navigating the mystery of future geographies in climate change fiction. This involves reading and watching a lot of climate change fiction (cli-fi) and the Fantasy-Hive have kindly given me space for a (very) occasional series of articles where I can share my thoughts and observations. Birnam Wood is on the move . . . Five years ago, Mira Bunting founded a guerrilla gardening group: Birnam Wood. An undeclared, unregulated, sometimes-criminal, sometimes-philanthropic gathering of friends, this activist collective plants crops wherever no one will notice: on the sides of roads, in forgotten parks, and neglected backyards. For years, the group has struggled to break even. Then Mira stumbles on an answer, a way to finally set the group up for the long term: a landslide has closed the Korowai Pass, cutting off the town of Thorndike. Natural disaster has created an opportunity, a sizable farm seemingly abandoned. But Mira is not the only one interested in Thorndike. Robert Lemoine, the enigmatic American billionaire, has snatched it up to build his end-times bunker–or so he tells Mira when he catches her on the property. Intrigued by Mira, Birnam Wood, and their entrepreneurial spirit, he suggests they work this land. But can they trust him? And, as their ideals and ideologies are tested, can they trust each other? A gripping psychological thriller from the Booker Prize-winning author of The Luminaries, Birnam Wood is Shakespearean in its wit, drama, and immersion in character. A brilliantly constructed consideration of intentions, actions, and consequences, it is an unflinching examination of the human impulse to ensure our own survival. The first duty of fiction is to entertain, to keep us turning the pages with compelling characters and intriguing plots and Catton – as the youngest ever Booker prize winner for her novel The Luminaries (2013) – certainly has the skill set to craft a gripping story with her new novel Birnam Wood (2023). Catton gives us a variety of engaging point of view characters each harbouring different agendas. Mira Bunting – the de facto leader of the supposedly horizontally structured Birnam Wood collective, a group that flirts with legality in repurposing abandoned scraps of land by planting them with crops to grow and sell. Shelley Oakes – Mira’s long-standing and long-suffering deputy, the rock of logistical reliability that shelters and nurtures Mira’s mercurial enthusiasms. Tony Gallo – the returning founder member, once a brief romantic interest for Mira, coming home from a four-year sojourn abroad where his investigative journalism career has not taken off as he had hoped. Owen and Jill Darvish – the fifty-something couple, the former about to be knighted for services to pest control, the latter heiress to the family estate bordering the remote Korowai National Park. Robert Lemoine – the enigmatic but charismatic billionaire who has made a not-yet-public deal to buy the Darvish’s out. A landslip has isolated the estate by turning a through route into a cul-de-sac. This, together with the Darvish’s extended absence, makes it seem the perfect target for another Birnam Wood guerrilla planting escapade. However, on a solo reconnaissance trip Mira unexpectedly encounters Lemoine. The interests of billionaire capitalist and enthusiastic environmentalist become entangled as the story moves from bucolic through elements of mystery and thriller to somewhere ultimately much darker. Catton’s prose is just as good as you would expect from a Booker prize winner. Novice writers are often warned against exposition with a ‘show don’t tell’ mantra that eschews pages of description devoted to a character’s backstory and motivation. However, as with all writing, execution matters more than hard and fast adherence to principle. Catton’s introductions to her characters illustrate that exposition is not necessarily all bad. For example, when we meet Mira scanning and scrolling over satellite images of the potential Darvish planting site, we are entirely in her head and thoughts but it is an entertaining place to be as Catton shifts the proximity of her third person narrator. Up close we have “It occurred to Mira that the image might have been captured mere moments before the quakes; the motorists pictured might now be dead. She told herself this experimentally as if testing for a pulse; it was more a private habit, formed in girlhood, to berate herself with morbid hypotheticals” (p. 5). More distant “Like all self-mythologising rebels, Mira preferred enemies to rivals, and often turned her rivals into enemies, the better to disdain them” (p. 8). The richness of Catton’s prose extends to descriptions of setting as well as character. “…above the black void of the Korowai ranges, the Milky Way was a liquid swash of white” (p. 59). Or “The hills on the far side of the lake were bathed in sunlight, their brown and purple slopes transformed to amber, steel and sage, the sky behind them a perfect watercolour fade from azure down to baby blue” (p. 63). So the writing with its convincing depictions of place and person draws the reader in and on and through the story. Various people converge on the Darvish estate as the story progresses, not just the Birnam Wood Collective and Lemoine, but Lemoine’s dodgy guards with a hidden mission, and Tony Gallo acting independently of Mira and her band as he searches for a big story, and even Owen and Jill Darvish summoned home for different reasons. It all makes for an increasingly toxic cocktail in a story whose pace ramps up remorselessly towards its climax. I could have taken issue with the science at a few points such as, the remote surveying that has probed beneath the ground from drones high in the air, the nature of the mineral extraction that is Lemoine’s side-project, the ease with which a severely injured person might move some distance in wooded hilly terrain. There are other aspects of the plot that feel a bit contrived – the confluence of some tabs of acid, a merry gathering, a code change and a sudden job offer that together create a devastating moment of crisis for all concerned. However, events move along with sufficient pace and vigour to sweep the reader over or through such glitches. The more entertaining the story, the more scope an author may have to slip in some pedagogy of political, moral or environmental messaging through the words and actions of their protagonists. Catton pulls few political punches in the words and actions she gifts her characters. As the author Ken McEwan affirmed “Fiction hates preachiness… Nor do readers like to be hectored” (Tonkin, 2007). However, having activist characters creates opportunities for some deep and searching political discussions, most notably when Tony Gallo on his first return to a group meeting, gets into a lengthy esoteric argument with another member. I remember the persuasive sophistication of the argument but not the detail which I suppose only emphasises the difficulty cli-fi has in delivering complex political messages even to the already-converted such as me. Gallo’s dismay deepens when Mira arrives late at the meeting to reveal the deal Lemoine has offered of funding and support that will move the amateurish and financially fragile Birnam Wood to the next level of incorporation and an enlarged profile and impact. Gallo’s hoped for a prodigal return ends with him leaving in high dudgeon, after the group has accepted Lemoine’s generosity at face value. For the reader, however, Catton lays bare the amoral venality of Lemoine with a credible depiction of someone who thinks their wealth has put them above the ordinary considerations and obligations of humanity. He is cold and manipulative to his employees. “He got out his phone and dicked about on twitter for a few minutes more, just to remind them that their time was his to waste if he wanted to” (p. 84). He delights in making people feel awkward in his presence, yet is capable of charm when it suits his purpose. Lemoine’s own vision of himself, as Catton presents it, is of “the kind of man who saw every crisis as an opportunity” (p. 79) (The kind who would have gouged profits out of covid?!). “a builder in the Randian sense” (p. 79) (Channelling Ayn Rand and the capitalist ‘heroes’ of Atlas Shrugged (1957)?) “hedging his bets against any number of potential global catastrophes that he himself was doing absolutely nothing to prevent and might even be taking active measures to encourage if there was a profit to be made” (p. 79) (Feeling secure in the notion that wealth in sufficient excess will cushion its owner against any disaster) Outwardly he tells Mira his success is all a matter of “luck and loopholes and being in the right place at the right time, and compound growth taking care of the rest,” (p. 198) but inwardly Catton tells us Lemoine “had possessed ever since he could remember a sense that he was special, that he was better than other children” (p. 226). We are given a compelling insight into that narcissistic sense of entitlement that turns power into corruption – the mantra that “I got this, so I must deserve it” or “I can do this, so I should” – be it paying oneself inflated bonuses, pushing crony contracts, or exploiting the law. Catton has Lemoine reminisce on his upbringing and how absent parents an ill grand-parent, and long held secrets drove his psychopathic self-reliance. She shares his ultimate satisfaction of rejecting a call from his estranged father on the successful billion dollar flotation of Lemoine’s company. Tellingly, Catton writes “His sovereignty was his revenge” (p. 227) which could be read as a reference to William Rees-Mogg’s polemic The Sovereign Individual (Davidson & Ress-Mogg, 1997) which describes how in a global world of supremely mobile wealth the elite individuals can rise above the constraints and chains (regulation and obligations?!) of citizenship in mere nation states. Certainly, Lemoine epitomises that detached aloofness of the Sovereign Individuals of late-stage capitalism – one that is bitingly critiqued by Catton in her depiction of both Lemoine’s cold self-interest and Tony’s despairing idealism. Lemoine for all his awfulness is more amoral than immoral, like capitalism itself. Capitalism is a self-perpetuating, self-protecting system whose instinctive measures to (A) safeguard its profits and protect its own interests, create (B) an inevitable pressure towards deregulation, exploitation, price gouging and political manipulation to remove/minimise regulation. One can no more say Capitalism is evil, than one can say a wolf is evil – but they are both dangerous. They both need regulation, training – chaining even – if they are to inhabit the same space as a fair and sustainable human civilisation. The unfolding story of Birnam Wood reveals a lupine cunning to Lemoine that is as captivating as it is horrific. However, Catton, is careful not to cast Mira, Tony and the Birnam Wood activists as saintly innocents – passengers in events. Sarah Dimick has written about the continuum of guilt in the climate crisis and how cli-fi literature addresses guilt (2018), and Jon Raymond in his novel Denial (2022) flags up the non-zero culpability of consumers as agents in the developing crisis. A point Tony echoes in saying “You’re never going to address the root cause of the problem, which is the market itself – and how we’ve all becomes so individualistic and consumeristic” (p. 99). As Tony goes on to observe, in a popular kindle highlight, “There’s something so joyless about the left these days…so forbidding and self-denying. And policing. No-one’s having any fun, we’re all just sitting around scolding each other for doing too much or not enough” (p. 102). He returns to the theme of the divisions within progressive movements “why was it that people on the left were always talking about who was actually on the left… it was pretty off-putting to be treated like a double dealer all the time” (p. 147). and having afforded his world trip through inherited wealth, Tony also embraces the “kind of excessive rugged practicality” of roughing it outdoors to prove he is “not just yet another Marxist intellectual cliché, not just yet another armchair critic with soft hands and smug opinions” (p. 160). So Tony neatly illustrates the contradictions and vulnerabilities in progressive movements, struggling to establish an internal consensus of legitimacy while fending off external accusations of being hypocritical or patronising. Dimick’s notions of a continuum of guilt are relevant here, in that if we can accept a degree of our own culpability we are more able to rise to our responsibility to those less at fault, while also demanding accountability and action from those more at fault. But there are also lessons for activism in not belittling people for their failures either by action or omission, but instead inspiring them with the opportunities they can deliver. The Birnam Wood Collective illustrate another conflict within progressive climate action. As George Marshall has highlighted in Don’t Even Think About It (Marshall, 2014) there is a certain puritanical disempowering joylessness to climate change movements that present narratives of doom and gloom, as though parading down Oxford Street wearing a “The End is Nigh” placard. The dystopian forecasts of early cli-fi have been similarly off putting and Matthew Schneider-Mayerson highlighted how hope, joy and effective collective action could be more inspiring narratives for Climate change fiction to present (Ted Lasso Is an Unexpected Masterclass in Environmental Storytelling, 2021). This is captured in the air of joy and sociability (and a little bit of romantic tension) in the group dynamics of Mira’s gathering of planters camped out in a sheep shearing shed on the Darvish estate. However, there is also the underlying deceit that Lemoine has not played straight with them. In trying to move from a fringe group – where at times everybody feels “squeamishly, just a tiny bit like members of a cult” (p. 157) – to one with national or even global reach, the group has been lured and possibly irrevocably distorted by a billionaire’s dollars. It may not be the $44 billion that has been paid for a popular but increasingly subverted, less effective and arguably poisoned social media forum. However, the power of money to corrupt idealism is effectively depicted – particular in Shelley’s transition through the events of the novel. As Mira says in confrontation with Lemoine “What’s even more fucked up is that you totally have it in your power to make things better. Like, in all of history, there has literally never been a group of people better equipped to avert catastrophe than the billionaires alive today” (p. 200) – yet Lemoine, and so many of his fellow billionaires, prefer to spend their money emasculating and traducing what they perceive as opposition, as threats to a wealth they could never spend in a hundred lifetimes. Shahidha Bari’s review in The Financial Times bills Birnam Wood as ‘an explosive climate change thriller’ in ‘the expanding literary subgenre of “cli-fi”’ (2023). I – and others[i] – would argue that cli-fi has long passed beyond notions of subgenre, some cosy niche within science-fiction, and is more a theme that can be detected and depicted across a range of genres. However, paradoxically Birnam Wood makes scant mention of climate change itself, so much so that one might almost think it should be termed Cap-Fi or Bil-Fi rather than Cli-Fi given its central plot of small-time eco-group becoming entangled with big-time capitalist billionaire. But then, the authors and screenwriters of Cli-Fi have resorted to a variety of settings and allegories to try and get a clear message across. For example the film Don’t Look Up (McKay, 2021) makes absolutely no mention of climate change. However, its impending extinction event comet strike presents a brilliant allegory for the climate crisis and our collectively incoherent and ineffective response, sabotaged as it is by commercial self-interest, political venality and wilful human apathy. In a similar way, Birnam Wood offers another allegory for the self-inflicted crisis we face. The ruthless Lemoine serves as a synecdoche for rampant libertarian capitalism. Mira Bunting and her fractured and fractious collective showcase the divisions, vulnerabilities and existential angst of progressive movements. The fictional Korowai National Park could stand for the whole Earth. Viewing Birnam Wood as capitalist-fi or billionaire-fi one might pigeonhole it within eco-criticism rather than cli-fi. However, capitalism and climate change are entangled in each other. I might not go as far as Kim Stanley Robinson in his somewhat reductive argument that Capitalism and climate change are ‘two sides of the same coin, cause and effect’ (Robinson, 2018). As Clark notes, in describing climate change as a wicked problem, it “has no unitary object” or no single cause “to confront” (Clark, 2010). Nonetheless, while capitalism may not be the only culprit in climate change, on Dimick’s continuum of guilt – it is right up at one end! There is a traditional view of fiction that – in putting readers in a character’s shoes – literature can help develop empathy. The hope of much cli-fi is that by building empathy for those adversely impacted by climate change (for example Maria in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (2015)) readers may become more aware of the issues in climate change and more moved to act. However, empathy is not the only emotion, and as Ursula McTaggart has noted (2020) in an analysis of Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975) – hope and also anger are useful emotional vectors for moving people to act. Shahidha Bari, at the conclusion of her review notes that “Catton’s heart-racing thriller keeps us guessing to the end. But if there’s danger everywhere, there’s hope too – and that’s a remarkable accomplishment.” However, my own feelings on closing Eleanor Canon’s finely crafted and fast-moving tale were definitely more of anger. References Abbey, E. (1975). The Monkey Wrench Gang. Philapdelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. Bacigalupi, P. (2015). The Water Knife. New York: Knopf. Bari, S. (2023, February 16). Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton – an explosive climate-change thriller. Retrieved from ft.com: https://www.ft.com/content/004b34bb-5e3c-4e14-901f-c11bee082648 Catton, E. (2013). The Luminaries. New York: Litte, Brown and Company. Catton, E. (2023). Birnam Wood. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. Clark, T. (2010). Some Climate Change Ironies: Deconstruction, Environmental Politics and the Closure of Ecocriticism. Oxford Literary Review, 32(1), 131-149. Davidson, J. D., & Ress-Mogg, L. W. (1997). The Sovereign Individual, Mastering the transition to the Information Age. New York: Simon & Schuster. Dimick, S. (2018). ‘From Species to Suspect: Climate Crime in Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer’. Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, 51(3), 19-35. Goodbody. (2020). Cli-Fi – Genre of the Twenty-First Century? Narrative Strategies in Contemporary Fiction and Film. In M. Löschnigg, & M. Braunecker, Green Matters: Ecocultural functions of literature (pp. 131-153). Leiden: Brill. Johns-Putra, A. (2016, March/April). Climate change in literature and literary studies: From cli-fi, climate change theatre and eco-poetry to ecocriticism and climate change criticism. (M. Hulme, Ed.) WIREs Climate Change,, 7, 266-282. doi: 10.1002/wcc.385 Marshall, G. (2014). Don’t Even Think About It; why are brains are wired to ignore climate change. New York: Bloomsbury. McKay, A. (Director). (2021). Don’t Look Up [Motion Picture]. McTaggart, U. (2020). Literature that Prompts Action: Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang and the Formation of Earth First! ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Enviornment, 27(2), 307-326. doi:10.1093/isle/isz120 Rand, A. (1957). Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House. Raymond, J. (2022). Denial. New York: Simon & Schuster. Robinson, K. S. (2018, November 2016). To Slow Down Climate Change, We Need To Take On Capitalism. Retrieved July 23, 2022, from Buzzfeednews.com: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/kimstanleyrobinson/climate-change-capitalism-kim-stanley-robinson Schneider-Mayerson, M. (2021, September 17). Ted Lasso Is an Unexpected Masterclass in Environmental Storytelling. Retrieved from gzimodo.com: https://gizmodo.com/ted-lasso-is-an-unexpected-masterclass-in-environmental-1847695754 Tonkin, B. (2007, April 20). Ian McEwan: I hang on to hope in a tide of fear. The Independent. Retrieved from enjoyment.indepdendent.co.uk: http://enjoyment.independent.co.uk/books/features/article2424436.ece [i] As Adeline Johns-Putra noted “It is probably more accurate to identify climate change as a topic found in many genres” (2016, p. 267) while Goodbody observed “Cli-fi is not a genre in the scholarly sense, since it lacks the plot formulas and stylistic conventions that define genres such as science fiction and the western. It tends rather to borrow and blend elements of different genres (thriller, post-apocalyptic novel, crime, fantasy, horror)” (2020, p. 136) The post BIRNAM WOOD by ELEANOR CATTON appeared first on The Fantasy Hive. View the full article
  6. It’s been a rough year in publishing. (Isn’t it always, though?) We keep getting hit with articles about sales and consolidations and literary agencies folding or firing people. Then there’s the AI problem—don’t get me started. I’ve been on the road to various events and writing retreats in the last six months, and I’ve spoken with a good number of author friends and I keep hearing about “soft sales” and fear of what’s next. It’s all too much doom and gloom for my taste, because you know what? There is something next. Storytelling is fundamental to our existence, so we will find a way to deliver those stories, even if things have to change a little bit… Speaking of change, putting all of that doom and gloom together has validated something for me that I’d long ago suspected, and it appears to be true now more than ever. It’s the secret to winning in publishing. And it’s in plain sight. The secret to winning is to learn how to pivot. To be flexible. To get loose and stretch and change directions. You may need to pivot if you’ve suffered endless rejections on a particular project (or several), if your sales are flat, if it’s “not the right time in the market for this book,” if you’re burned out on your genre because no matter how many novels you write in that category, you can’t seem to make any traction…and more. There are lots of reasons to pivot. And there are lots of reasons we despair and become bound up over the idea of changing directions. Moving into unknown territory can feel scary. The truth is, however, that pivoting isn’t a bad thing. If fact, it may be the best choice you’ve ever made. First and foremost, pivoting equals freedom. When you pivot, you’re freed from your past and your track record and your numbers. Pivoting offers a new beginning, breathing room, and plenty of fresh opportunities. You may take a new pen name. Try a new genre. Work on a collaborative project. Find an agent or publisher better suited for your work. Become the publisher yourself, and be the one you’ve always wanted. It may spark ideas you’d never considered. Perhaps you learn a new aspect of storytelling beyond books. Authors who are “winning in publishing” learn to pivot over the years of their writing career, and they lean into the freshness and the freedom it brings. It’s how they create their successes. When they hit a bump in the road, they buckle up their seatbelts and put their foot on the gas. They don’t despair (for long). When they find themselves in the midst of an emotional reaction to some perceived failure, they don’t free. And they don’t keep doing the same thing over and over again. They don’t beat themselves up (for long). They learn to let go. They lean into the new and fresh. They relish the idea of being free, of finding the fun in the challenge again. Pivoting may also mean a whole other kind of freedom. This kind of freedom is understanding and accepting where your boundaries lie. Perhaps you’ve had enough of the rat race, the thin promises, or the ups and downs of a business that never offers a guarantee. In this case, pivoting away from the business of publishing is the best answer. That’s perfectly okay, too. Listen to your needs. Take a break from writing, or perhaps let it become a hobby you enjoy doing to nurture yourself. Let it become fulfilling rather than depleting. Sometimes learning to let go is exactly what you need, for a time. Ultimately, it’s important not to view pivoting as a failure. Creative pursuits—or rather, careers in the creative arts—are more challenging than most. They are only for the lion-hearted and some would say, the foolhardy (raises hand). So, look ahead at your path. Where might it deviate from the one you’ve planned? Where might you venture in a new direction? Where might you grow into another part of your creative self that you didn’t really know existed? Go there, when the time is right. Don’t become bogged down in the doom. It’s fleeting, like everything else in this life. Instead, pivot, refresh. It might just be the best thing that ever happened to your writing journey. It may just be the secret to winning in the way only you know how. Have you had to pivot during your publishing journey? [url={url}]View the full article[/url]
  7. Flying witch artwork by astromoali Nils and Beth loved the Tag Team they did for Women in SFF so much, they decided to bring it back for this year’s Wyrd and Wonder! Bkfrgr and Ariana of The Book Nook created the Tag Team tag (HERE). It’s a chain link based on theme association, and we thought it would be a fun tag to kick things off with! Here are the rules as set out by Bookfrgr and Ariana: The rules, as far as there are any, are as follows: Pick a friend to play with Decide on a prompt to get you started (this can be absolutely anything you want it to be) Make a thematic connection to the book picked by your partner, Six Degrees stylie (see link) See where your chain of books takes you (and make your chain as long as you like) Definitely link back to our posts so we can see your book chains and grow out TBRs This time, Nils started our chain with a favourite magic caster – let’s see where we got! If you’d like to jump in at any point, tag us on social media so we can see your chain! Prompt: Magic Casters The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna I’ll start with one of my recent favourite Magic Casters, Mika Moon from The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna. Mika is a character who is completely in love with her WITCHY MAGIC, she’s always experimenting with SPELLS and brewing MAGICAL TEA. Though under her society’s leader, Primrose, Mika has to keep her abilities SECRET and not draw any attention. Though Mika is a witch who loves to BEND THE RULES, so when an eccentric old man finds a video of her experimenting with spells on YouTube, he contacts her and asks her to tutor three young children whose magic is out of control. This is a delightful COSY read, with plenty of HUMOUR and a heart-warming SLOW BURN ROMANCE. – Nils Threadneedle by Cari Thomas Great start Nils! This made me think of Threadneedle by Cari Thomas, which is also all about WITCHY MAGIC but is much DARKer and certainly not cosy. Set in London, this is a world where MAGIC IS SECRET, there’s a MAGICAL UNDERWORLD. Anna is raised by her aunt, who believes MAGIC IS BAD and SINFUL and should be repressed. However, when Anna starts a new school, she discovers other girls who can also do magic, and they form a COVEN. They open up for Anna a whole new world, a whole side to magic she didn’t realise existed. It opens Anna’s eyes to what’s happening at home, just how ABUSIVE her aunt is, and finally leads her to discover some pretty big FAMILY SECRETS and BETRAYALS. There’s a very dangerous CURSE that Anna and her new FOUND FAMILY must try to break together in order to free Anna. – Beth Cackle by Rachel Harrison Okay Threadneedle sounds so good! Going on the themes of magic being a secret and also sinful, I’m reminded of Cackle by Rachel Harrison. This is another COSY READ set in the small town of Rowan. After a pretty messy break-up with her boyfriend, Annie Crane moves from Manhattan to a more suburban lifestyle, where she can start fresh. When arriving in Rowan she’s head over heels in love with the town and people, particularly glamorous Sophie who immediately befriends Annie. There’s something a little DARK about Sophie, the townspeople SHUN AND FEAR her, calling her sinful. At first Annie thinks it’s because Sophie is an unmarried woman living alone, but she soon discovers Sophie is a WITCH and can WIELD GREAT POWER, and so can Annie. Sophie teaches Annie to UNLOCK HER POWERS, to TRANSFORM INTO A STRONGER WOMAN. – Nils The Year of the Knife by G D Penman Ah that does sound a lot like Threadneedle, with new friends helping to unlock her powers! The URBAN setting of Manhattan reminds me of The Year of the Knife by G D Penman. Sully is also a WITCH who is somewhat SHUNNED by her colleagues as she’s a MAVERICK, STRONG-WILLED, and doesn’t give a damn about bureaucracy and politics. She’s a lesbian in love with a VAMPIRE, and there’s a strong NOIR tone to the narrative. Sully must SOLVE a series of MURDERS that are being caused by apparent POSSESSIONS by DEMONS. In the process of uncovering SECRETS and certain things HUSHED UP BY THE GOVERNMENT, Sully tries to solve a particularly COMPLEX SPELL which would enable her to WIELD GREAT POWER. P.S Her MOTHER IS A RIGHT BITCH #mummyissues – Beth The Justice of Kings by Richard Swan I love how this game leads us to talking about similar themes which connect the stories but ultimately very different books. As soon as you mentioned murders, demons and possessions I immediately thought of The Justice of Kings by Richard Swan. Our narrator Helena tells the story of her time spent as a clerk and Justice in training under the TUTELAGE of Konrad Vonvalt. The Emperor’s Justices act as detective, judge and executioner for any crime committed against the EMPEROR’S RULE and every Justice has their own unique abilities and obtains secrets passed down through the Order of Justices. Vonvalt is the Emperor’s most trusted Justice and holds ARCANE POWERS with the ability to use the Emperor’s Voice, a means of COMPELLING a person to reveal the truth. He is also adept at NECROMANCY. Throughout the first book and its sequel The Tyranny of Faith, Helena and Vonvalt (along with a few others) have to SOLVE MURDERS, uncover CORRUPTION, and stop a powerful GRIMOIRE with the secrets of unlocking power from the DEMON WORLD falling into the hands of a RELIGIOUS FANATIC. – Nils The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart Ha, you’re very right Nils! So, when I hear Emperor, I immediately think of our current read, but I’ll go with the first in the trilogy for the sake of this exercise! The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart is a very different book indeed to The Justice of Kings, but it has an EMPEROR who has SHUT UP THE PALACE after the death of his wife and runs his Empire using CONSTRUCTS – creatures he is able to make and COMPELS to do his bidding using bone shard magic. Locked in the palace are his daughter, Lin, and his foster son, Bayan, and they COMPETE through a series of TESTS set by the Emperor to win keys to various rooms in the palace, which UNLOCK FURTHER KNOWLEDGE about the SECRET MAGIC. Meanwhile, the Empire is bubbling with UNREST through MISRULE, poverty, and the fact that children are forced to take part in the tithing festival, where a shard of bone is removed from their skull, sometimes killing them. Jovis is fast becoming a FOLK HERO as he rescues children along with his MAGICAL ANIMAL COMPANION Mephi. There are lots of society-altering SECRETS in this XANXIA! – Beth Swashbucklers by Dan Hanks Damn, I love The Drowning Empire trilogy so much! There’s just so many cool and fascinating elements included! One of my favourites is MAGICAL ANIMAL COMPANIONS, and Swashbucklers by Dan Hanks has an awesome MAGICAL and SPIRITUAL fox called Tabitha who mysteriously appears when the main character, Cisco Collins is in dire need of help. Swashbucklers begins with a MYSTERIOUS MURDER, one which causes our main protagonist, Cisco Collins, to return with his son, George, to the town he once grew up in. Yet Dark Peak is no ordinary town—in 1989 a SUPERNATURAL EVENT occurred, one which involved a pirate GHOST called Deadman’s Grin, the gates of HELL being opened, and where four young kids united to save the world. With signs of HISTORY REPEATING ITSELF, Cisco can no longer RUN AWAY FROM HIS PAST, he remembers exactly what happened that night, and he is determined to make his friends see the truth. – Nils Gods of the Wyrdwood by RJ Barker Speaking of RUNNING AWAY FROM YOUR PAST, that’s exactly what Cahan du Nahere tries to do in RJ Barker’s upcoming Gods of the Wyrdwood. As a child, he’s CHOSEN by the monks of a particular god to FULFIL A PROPHECY, and he spends his childhood undergoing GRUELLING TRAINING. He’s very scared and lonely, and finds solace in a LONE FRIEND who teaches him the way of a kinder, lesser-known god. Cahan lives in a world where the FORESTS are avoided because they’re almost SENTIENT in their DANGER – people who enter do not tend to return. Cahan is able to travel through the Wyrdwood as he understands and abides by the LAWS of the SPIRITS OF THE FOREST to do no harm. Cahan lives on the outskirts of the community, an OUTCAST who NO-ONE TRUSTS, but who the village finds depending upon when war comes to their walls. In order to use his magic, Cahan must TAKE ENERGY AND LIFE from someone, and he has SWORN TO NEVER DO SO AGAIN. But how then can he defend the village? Also, there’s an ANIMAL COMPANION! – Beth From a cosy read about witches to a deep dark forest trying to kill you via urban LGBQT fantasy and an island archipelago that moves with the seasons. Phew! Where can you take our chain next? Flying witch artwork by astromoali The post Six Degrees of Magical Separation – Wyrd and Wonder 23 appeared first on The Fantasy Hive. View the full article
  8. No matter how many times I’ve tackled it, written about it, and even given workshops on it, backstory always trips me up. Unless we begin a story from the protagonist’s birth, backstory seems inevitable (although Ann Napolitano did, in fact, write Hello Beautiful from William’s birth, but that’s rare in a contemporary novel). And that means we face the question of how much backstory to offer, and when. Most of us tend to err on the side of too much, too soon. Surely, we think, the reader needs to know all about the character’s past—especially those Important Wounds, and quickly—in order understand motive, conflict, and goal! Maybe. First, let’s map the terrain a little. Backstory as context One kind of backstory is the straightforward relating of an “event-in-the-past”— how a couple met, for example—that gives us a context for the primary (front) story. The protagonist is well-aware of how she met her husband, so this is for the reader. What sort of content belongs in these backstories? Often, backstory scenes have to do with a character’s childhood—to show how a trait, need, desire, or fear became established. Trauma tales. Origin stories. That day when George was bullied in third grade? Showing it in a scene will bring it to life, right? And then the reader will bond and care and understand why George is afraid to speak his mind, as an adult. And if we really want to show how important that pattern is to George’s actions and choices, we might want to include two or three escalating incidents. Um. Another maybe. To use myself as a bad example: In my WIP, I had the idea that my protagonist (let’s call her Lisa) had a really terrible mother whose behavior left Lisa feeling deeply split about what it means to be a woman. I wrote several scenes, intended for the opening chapters, to show the pattern developing in Lisa’s childhood. I thought it was great (insert mortified blush)—until I realized that it wasn’t. As a case history, it may have been accurate. But novels are not case histories. All I really needed was a single fragment of memory: Twelve-year-old Lisa walking through the house as she left for school, a glimpse of her mother sitting on the rumpled bed, wrapped in a sheet, and a strange man urinating without bothering to close the bathroom door. You get it, right? Readers are smart. How to bring that backstory onto the page, into the front story? One way is to have the protagonist tell someone else about it—for a plot-related reason, of course. For example: a friend who’s pondering marriage and wonders if “how we met” matters, or a grandchild who’s struggling to understand why her own parents are divorcing—a reason, in the present-day story, for this incident from the past to be relevant. Another way is to have the protagonist recall the memory when she finds an external prompt, like an old necklace or photo album, that serves as a trigger. A third technique is through interiority (thinking, remembering). That needs to be used in moderation, however. Otherwise, we get long passages of a character talking to herself about stuff she (presumably) already knows. We don’t do that in our real lives. When to shift to the past, and how much to include? In general, for backstory information that fleshes out a character’s past, it’s better to wait and be a little stingy. Waiting creates anticipation and uncertainty, which are good for a story. And if we wait until the appearance of the memory right then is essential for the forward-moving story, it has a chance to do double-duty: thickening the reader’s understanding of the character, while also moving the plot forward. Less keeps us rooted in the primary, forward-moving story. Lingering too long in the past pulls the reader out of the story and creates the extra problem of how to get in and out of the flashback in a seamless, believable way. We need to account for the passage of time while the character was busy a-remembering or, with longer flashbacks, resort to scene breaks and time-stamps that tend to chop up a narrative. Backstory as a Big Reveal Another kind of backstory is the Big OMG Revelation when the character suddenly remembers, learns, understands, or confesses something important about her past. It’s a before-and-after moment, a turning-point. This new knowledge changes everything. Up until now, she’s repressed, misrepresented, misunderstood, or simply been unaware of a vital fact about her earlier life. But now, after the Big Reveal, she can act, choose, overcome, or accept something that was impossible before. What is revealed, and to whom? The content of that revelation can be just about anything. The secret of her birth. A sibling she never knew about. A tragedy or shame or crime in her family’s history. The information can be revealed to the reader, the protagonist, or another character. Depending on who’s been let in on the secret, the Big Reveal can serve different functions. To the reader: If information has been withheld from the reader, the reveal might be an effective surprise that brings everything together in a new way and illuminates the bread crumbs that were there all along (think: Agatha Christie). To the POV character: This can work well when the protagonist’s denial or ignorance is part of her emotional journey. Maybe someone was manipulating her, or trying to protect her, and that’s why she never knew. Or maybe she didn’t really want to know. When and how she finds out, and how she responds to that knowledge, can be a turning-point in the narrative. To other characters: If the protagonist has kept a secret from other characters, the act of revelation can be an act of confession. She finally tells the very person she thought she could never tell, and because of that act, she forgives, is forgiven, accepts, heals, matures. Here again, the revelation/confession can be the key to her emotional arc. (It could also be someone else who tells her secret, or an accidental slip-up, although giving the protagonist the agency here is often best.) How to bring that backstory onto the page, into the front story? It doesn’t necessarily have to be through a great big dramatic scene. As I said, the reader is smart. He can put it all together from fragments of memory, snippets of dialogue, and bits of interiority, well-chosen and strategically offered. If we trust the reader, give him space, and let him do some of the work—my hunch is he’ll enjoy the book even more. In fact, if we trust the reader, we may not need backstory at all. As Dave Corbett reminded us in his post last spring, we can learn what we need to know about a character through present-day behavior. I echoed that point in my own post, when I discussed the structure and mechanics of flashbacks and shifts in chronology. As I wrote: “We get it that Lindsay is guarded and defensive, because that’s how she behaves. Do we always need to see the event that made her like that?” Maybe not. Think about it. When we meet someone in real life and see that he’s a people-pleaser or doesn’t like anyone to challenge him, we don’t need to know the whole story about what happened in third grade. We simply deal with him, respond to him, as we find him in the present. Same for characters in novels. What do you think? Do you struggle with backstory, as I do? In what ways? What’s helped you? Is there a way an author has handled backstory, in a novel you read, that you thought was especially effective? Do you prefer a lot of vividly-drawn backstory, a little strategic backstory, or hardly any? [url={url}]View the full article[/url]
  9. Marian Womack is a bilingual writer of Gothic, Weird and Science Fiction. Her writing features strange landscapes, ghostly encounters and uncanny transformations. She has published the Andalusia-set novel The Swimmers (2021), selected as one of the best ten SF books of 2021 by The Sunday Times. She is also the author of the Walton & Waltraud uncanny mystery series, which includes The Golden Key (2020), On the Nature of Magic (2023), and the forthcoming Casting the Ruins (2024). Her short fiction has been collected in Lost Objects (2018), nominated to two British Fantasy Awards and one British Science Fiction Association Award, and in the forthcoming Out Through The Window, Into The Dark. She lives in East Anglia and works as a librarian. Website | Books | Instagram Welcome to the Hive, Marian Womack. Let’s start with the basics: tell us about On The Nature of Magic – why should readers check it out? Writing this book has really been so much fun, and I hope that is something the reader can sense. It’s the second adventure for Helena and Eliza, two detectives in early twentieth-century London. The premise of the first book is that Helena pretends to be a medium in order to do detective work, until of course she stumbles upon the supernatural, including her own powers, whereas Eliza is an amateur scientist/sceptic who has trouble accepting Helena’s world. This new adventure is more ambitious, involving time-slips, strange machines, and supernatural powers that are difficult to interact with and be controlled by humans. All this against the backdrop of occult Paris and early French cinema. I really feel it is a development from The Golden Key, a much richer foray into Helena and Eliza’s world. There are other women joining forces with them as well—I really wanted to give them a Scooby-gang. There is George Méliès, and Alice Guy, and Nicola Tesla. There is magic—or is it science?—the eerie and slippery kind. The book revolves around a team of fierce women trying very hard to keep things in order in a world that, needless to say, does not always thank them, or even acknowledge them. Tell us a little something about your writing process – do you have a certain method? Do you find music helps? Give us a glimpse into your world! I’ve always been involved in art projects parallel to my writing, and I find that it really helps my process if I can walk away from the writing for a bit and do a collage, or work with my Victorian Columbian printing press, or sew a book—I have recently taken up bookbinding and have become quite addicted. For the past few years, since the pandemic especially, I have noticed I need these craft-y outlets much more to keep the writing going. Perhaps this is because my current WIP has taken me down very dark rabbit-holes at times, and I’ve had to take long breaks from it from time to time. And yes, there is always music in our house. We are a very musical family: my brother plays in not one but three bands! I am an obsessive Joanna Newsom fan, read her lyrics as if they were poetry; which they are. And I have a soft spot for Tori Amos. Her music came into my life when I was a teenager living in Andalusia, and she was so different from absolutely everything around me, and at once so oddly removed from my experience while speaking directly to it. I remember listening to Boys for Pele as if it were a religious experience. Those two are always in the background, so much so they even made it to the book’s acknowledgements. Then there are always albums that inspire me when I am writing: alternative bands, flamenco, and folk music. Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez gives me enough energy to carry me past a writer’s block, every single time. My current WIP involves folk music as part of the magic system, so I’ve been listening to loads of English folk music in the past few years, so much so I feel I could write a thesis about it. The book would simply not exist without those songs. Speaking of worlds, what inspires your worldbuilding? Do you have a magic system/s? If so, can you tell us a bit about it? I’m always trying to portray very subtle, liminal moments of ‘magic’, I love my characters, and my readers, not knowing exactly what has happened. Was that a supernatural moment, an occult occurrence? Or did nothing remarkable happen? Perhaps it is because I am, and always will be, a child of the Gothic, with its trope of terrors that could be imaginary. One of my favourite novels is The Course of the Heart. That, to me, is utter perfection. The absolute moments of darkness that are so subtly handled, which makes it all the more horrid, of course. I am in awe of that. What (or who) are your most significant fantasy/sci-fi influences? Are there any creators whom you dream of working with someday? I just mentioned M. John Harrison. I am also a huge fan of both Nina Allan and Lisa Tuttle. I was incredibly lucky to publish them both in Spanish translation when I worked in publishing in Madrid, which was a privilege. I absolutely adore Spanish poet and novelist Sofia Rhei—she has had some of her work translated into English, so you can check her out! We collaborated in a YA Steampunk novel back in Spain, and are now writing a Tarot together. Elizabeth Hand is also up there as someone I am always reading and re-reading, perhaps even trying to emulate. Then, as well as authors, there are presses, editorial lists one looks at and feels what an honour would be to be part of. I experienced a huge fan-girl moment when I discovered Unsung. I was still living in Spain when I read their first books; I remember reading The Beauty and having an instant moment of recognition: those were the books that I wanted to be writing. The same happened when I discovered Undertow. It has been an honour to make it to a couple of their anthologies, a Year’s Best Weird Fiction and their lovely The Silent Garden: A Journal of Esoteric Fabulism. I feel that independent publishers, putting together those editorial lists that are so personal, so incredibly well-crafted, are also creators, their lists themselves communicating a story and an imaginary. And then there are artists I adore. I publish the fiction of artist Charlotte Cory, and doing any sort of collaboration with her would be incredible. We are role-players and table-top gamers at home, and I would love to write for or collaborate with any of those, in some shape or form. Which girl who has been a dungeon master doesn’t want to write D&D professionally one day? We see such varying opinions from authors when it comes to the time of editing their books. How have you found the editing process? Enjoyable, stressful or satisfying? I’ve been extremely lucky in my editor. She completely gets my stories, my characters, my process. The moment of stress is always there when you open the notes and suggestions, but I cannot deny it: my editor has made my books 100 times better, and I am so thankful for her keen eye, dedication and patience with me. We always appreciate a beautiful book cover! How involved in the process were you? Was there a particular aesthetic you hoped they’d portray? I cannot say I have been very involved; although the suggestions are always sent my way, which is very courteous. But in the end that is a part of the process I have less input with. Can you tell us a bit more about your characters? Do you have a favourite type of character you enjoy writing? My favourite character at the moment is one I call ‘cute-emo-guy’; sadly he belongs to my WIP! However, both Helena and Eliza have been wonderful to write. They have led me to unexpected places. Eliza started off as a sidekick, and she ended up as the protagonist of the second book, I could not resist her! It is a wonderful experience to be able to engage with your characters during more than one book, and to explore further where they can go. Then again, I love writing the Gothic heroine who is not sure if she is experiencing the Occult or imagining it… That is a journey I never tire from. The world shifts, and you find yourself with an extra day on your hands during which you’re not allowed to write. How do you choose to spend the day? Probably working with my printing press, or heading to London to second-hand bookshops—if there is a PBFA fair near to Cambridge I will be there—or else to a museum. I am quite a museum nerd; I like writing about museums in my fiction, almost as much as I like writing about libraries. If I wasn’t a librarian I would work in a museum. One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why? I have to write a dinosaur here or my three-year-old daughter will kill me. Ed: HA! I have an eight-year-old like that. Tell us about a book you love. Any hidden gems? So many! I co-run a tiny micro-press where I indulge in artists books and little weird things I love, and we are publishing an English version of an absolute gem, The Topless Tower by Argentinian writer Silvina Ocampo. I can best describe it as a surrealist novella that is a cross between Alice in Wonderland and The Master and Margarita—two of my favourite books—so yes, it is ripe for re-discovery, I hope. Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress? Have you any upcoming projects which you can share? I am currently revising the hardest novel I have ever written, and by far the most important to me. It’s about the scandal of stolen babies in Franco’s Spain. This has proved a particularly hard topic; the writing process has at times taken me to a very dark place. It would have been impossible for me to engage in any way or form with this topic if I had not explored it through the lens of speculative fiction, of fantasy. The novel started as one thing, and it has ended up taking the shape of a horror, dark academia novel, the last thing I expected when I first sat down to it three years ago. It involves doubles, convent schools and Santas Incorruptas, a sort of scary witchy-Catholic figure/demon, and music, a load of folk music. And Robert Graves and Laura Riding, strangely enough. I promise you it all makes sense in my head! Ed: It sounds fantastic, and also it sounds a very important story to be told. Are you planning anything fun to celebrate your new release? Do you have any upcoming virtual events our readers may be interested in? I am attending FantasyCon this year, which I am really excited about. I know this sounds so far away in time; but to be honest time has been weird for me since the pandemic, so to me it is pretty much around the corner. I will have a little dealer table with my micro-press, so I am hoping that readers of Helena and Eliza’s adventures will come and say hello to me there. Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing? I probably have got many things wrong, and things have not always gone like I expected or wanted. But I’ve kept trying to write the books I wanted to read, and therefore to share with others. Hopefully some of them will be a fun read for someone. Thank you so much for joining us today! On the Nature of Magic is out today from Titan Books! You can pick up your copy HERE The post Author Spotlight: Marian Womack (ON THE NATURE OF MAGIC) appeared first on The Fantasy Hive. 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  10. This past weekend, I went home to visit my parents for Mother’s Day. Other than the rocks and shells and sea glass my mother collects, and which I bring her from whichever locale, near or far, I happen to visit over the course of a year, she is determined to get rid of pretty much everything else in the house. Which is how I found myself in the garage, going through boxes of things, looking to see what could be tossed or sold. In doing so, I came across a box of old notebooks and a folder, inside of which was the four-page handwritten story I wrote in fourth or fifth grade, the first complete story I ever wrote. I have vague recollections of writing it for a school assignment, hand flying frantically across the pages the night before it was due (a theme that unfortunately continues to this day, though I’ve upgraded to a laptop), but what I don’t remember is where this story came from, or why I decided to write about a bus driver pulling a gun on his students on their first day of school. The bus driver’s motivations are similarly vague, but when he says to the main character and her friends that they’ve “solved too many mysteries for [his] liking”, I recognize something about who I was when I wrote that story– a huge fan of Scooby-Doo and a voracious reader of all things mystery – Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, The Boxcar Children, Trixie Belden, the A to Z Mysteries… If you could name it, I had probably read it, and since I hadn’t managed to find myself as part of a real-life mystery solving youth gang, I did the next best thing. I gave life to one through my characters. My characters (and their level of self-insertedness) evolved as I did over time. In my middle and high school writings, I can tell you exactly which boy I had a crush on as I wrote the first few pages of new story after new story. If I couldn’t get them to like me in real life, I could contrive some fantastical story to throw my characters together–sudden telepathy shared only by them, or being snowed in overnight at school. By the time I was in college, I had mostly moved past that. Instead of two dozen barely started stories, I had one mostly complete, and then finally complete novel. My characters were no longer Kasey 2.0, but their own fully fleshed out characters. I felt good about where I was in my writing and was convinced that this book would be the one that would net me an agent and eventually a book deal. And then, in the summer of 2017 I realized I was trans. And after putting my writing on hold for a time as I dealt with that, I had the initial idea for the book that will soon be out in the world as my debut novel, and immediately knew that this story was the one I was meant to tell. The novel’s main character, Asher, is a trans guy like me, though past that, many of the similarities end. Unlike me, he realized he was trans at a young age. He’s a visual artist, while I prefer the written word. He’s averse to conflict and struggles to stand up for himself–an issue I’ve never had, and he’s afraid to come out, particularly to his unlikely to be supportive grandparents. While there are moments, emotions, small specific bits stolen, or at least transfigured, directly from my own life, Asher is far from a self-insert. And yet, Asher’s story is not one I could have written before 2017, before the me I became after realizing I was trans, and all the moments that have come since. Though we are all constantly growing and changing, so often it happens so slowly or so consistently that it is only in hindsight we can recognize the changes. Like looking back at your elementary school picture day photos and wondering when exactly you lost the baby fat on your cheeks, or whether you chose your own outfit for that day for the first time. And sometimes, like realizing you are trans one summer day as you look into the mirror, the changes in who you are and who you will become hit you like a meteor striking the Earth. The arrival of the pandemic was, in some ways, one of those meteors, probably not just for myself, but for many of us. I was living in university housing, provided in exchange for helping plan and run events within the undergraduate dorms, when the school I worked at became one of the first in the country to send its students home for the remainder of the semester. At the same time, my year-long Novel Incubator program went virtual. As everyone retreated to their family groups and “pods”, I was suddenly alone. Where before I spent hours in the dining hall chatting and working on my book, went out to bars and chatted books and life with the writer friends who had become like family in our almost year together, now I was confined almost entirely to my room. It wasn’t just a space for sleeping; now it was a space for hanging out, for eating, for working out, for working, and for a stretch of time, for staring blankly at my wall as loneliness-induced depression settled over me. Though (like my main character Asher), I was raised Catholic, I had abandoned that religion, all religion really, in my early teens, and never much looked back. But when the pandemic hit, I found myself desperately in search of some type of community and, remembering the sense of community I had felt when I attended my first Shabbat service a few months before on the eve of the boy I tutor’s Bar Mitzvah, decided to look into an Intro to Judaism class. Fast forward 3 years past that initial December Shabbat, and I am now officially Jewish. When my Rabbi hears that I’ve got a book coming out next year, he excitedly tells me that we need to add it to the Temple’s library and maybe plan an event. I tell him, almost embarrassed, that my book has no Jews in it. He says that’s fine because I’m a Jew, but the Kasey who wrote this book, the Kasey who couldn’t have written it before 2017, but who is a different Kasey than the one I am in 2023, was not. Except that even that distinction, between not-a-Jew and a Jew didn’t come upon me like a meteor striking the Earth. It came upon me like the uphill climb of a roller coaster, a steady climb whose beginning I can still see if I turn my head and look back. My debut comes out approximately a year from now. And in that time, I will need to start work on a second novel for my publisher. It won’t be a sequel, but because I sold my novel in a two-book deal, it will have to be something. The problem is that I don’t yet know what that something will be. And it terrifies me. My Dad, one of my biggest fans, asks me why I don’t just go back to the book I had written before this one. He tells me how much he enjoyed the draft of that book. And while I’m flattered, the answer is this: I can’t go back to that novel any more than I can go back to the self-insert stories of my middle school years, or the gunman-on-a-bus short story I wrote in fourth grade. Not just because I’ve grown as a writer, but because I’ve grown as a person. My characters are not me, but they, like the worlds and stories they inhabit, are mine. We are inextricably linked. The Kasey of today can no more write a story devoid of Jews than I can write a story devoid of trans people. And so, while I may not know what comes next, what I do know is this: It will be a story that only I can tell, and it, like the elementary school pictures of me with bangs cut straight across my forehead and baby fat on my cheeks, will be a snapshot of a moment forever frozen in time. As a writer, how do you feel when you look back at old work you’ve created? How has your work changed over time? [url={url}]View the full article[/url]
  11. ‘You are mad, brother, the plains or the desert will claim us all, coinless, meaningless, bleached bones in sand. And what will we have achieved then? What great mark will you have left on this world?’ What happens when your past comes back to bite you in the ass? Ree is a woman who comes from a violent, blood-stained past. Having left that life behind, she has been wandering for years searching for a safe place to settle with her young niece, Javani. She thinks she’s found it upon a small farm on the edge of The Mining Country in Kazeraz. The days are long and gruelling, filled with hard labour and little reward, but it is relatively peaceful. That is until two sets of professional killers begin a hunt to find an older woman and a young girl believed to have ties to the Shenak throne. What follows from then is a chaotic chase across the desert through mountains and mines, explosions and battles, and a desperate race to survive. The Hunters is packed to the brim with madness and mayhem, humour and anarchy, mysticism and alchemy, but most of all it holds characters you will absolutely love, and those you will love to hate. Though the Plains and the Mining Country is a harsh, barren place filled with corruption, violence and much loss, I would say that The Hunters falls less into the grimdark genre as Wragg’s previous Articles of Faith duology had and sits firmly as a fantasy Western-adventure. Yes, the world is ruthless, and as I would expect from Wragg, the characters are morally grey and are not all that heroic, or even successful, but hey these are characters who continuously try to be better. Javani is a typical teenager, prone to surliness, she’s wilful and demanding but beneath that there is a tender innocence, an endearing kindness and a heartbreaking need to feel loved. Ree, on the other hand, is emotionally hardened, practical and fierce, but in a low-key kind of way so as to not draw attention to herself. Her relationship with her niece Javani is strained, neither seeming affectionate or close to one another, but watching them both grow pulled on my little heartstrings. My next two favourite characters were Anashe and Aki, our tempestuous brother and sister duo—they immediately stole the show for me! Aki thinks he’s a poet, a wordsmith, a blessing from the Goddess and Anashe is immensely irritated by his antics. The dynamics between these two made me laugh out loud. They argue, snipe and irritate each other, but still their love for one another permeates. You can see it in the way Anashe is fiercely protective of Aki, and more than anything she wants to bring him a semblance of peace. After the death of their father and later their mother, both siblings search for answers, for closure. Damn you Wragg, you once again provided plenty of characters who I immediately became attached to and their journey of looking for a place to belong, to find people to belong with, made me sob (a lot) by the end. ‘The work I did, and who I was, or am, are two separate things. I did a lot of jobs, some violent with words, some violent with acts. I am me, and always was.’ This is a book which does hit you emotionally many times, but of course, Wragg also injects much superb humour. Aki was perhaps the funniest of them all, but the more shady characters, the villains of this tale, provided much comedy too. Prince Lazant and his scarily faithful assassin Khalida are both cold-blooded killers, unwavering in their mission, and damn do they cause a lot of chaos. The bandit Movos Guvuli and the giant Horvaun warrior, The White Spear, made me laugh out loud with their antics and their ambiguous motives. Some of my favourite scenes included a battle with camel riders including a headless camel, and a mad chase across the desert ending in an exploding bridge! ‘Sister, my words! How am I to compose my works without vocabulary, without lexicon? I am bereft, I am shorn and impoverished, my very-‘ ‘Sounds like you have plenty of words,’ Javani volunteered. ‘By the Goddess, you are right! I am restored! The light shines upon me again. Once more shall the desert echo to the sounds of The muscles of Ree’s jaw were standing proud, casting deep shadows. Are we being fucking followed?’ The Hunters delivers much glorious pandemonium, I tell you! Yet Wragg also balances this fast paced action with many poignant reflections during the quieter moments, the moments by campfire, in the dawn or dusk where all journeys take a lull. Wragg touches upon themes of corruption and morality, which he also explored in the Articles of Faith duology. We are shown how corrupt the Guildmasters are, the ones who are supposed to uphold the law and be just are the ones stealing from the hard working labourers, the miners who risk their lives to make the most money, only to then have the Guild take it away. It’s easy to see why people like Guvuli would turn to banditry and lawlessness. However, what I most loved was the exploration of motherhood, family bonds and the importance of stories. Here is where the characters revealed much more about themselves, where we really dig beneath their skin. The notion that labels such as ‘mother’ come with daunting expectations, one’s that Ree runs from but Javani desperately needs, really hit me. Though it is not the labels which truly matter, it matters more on your deeds and what you mean to one another. Yet to counter this, acknowledging who you are and facing your past has its own freedom, as our characters discover, you can’t run from yourself or your responsibilities forever. This leads into the importance of stories and of their purposes. Although the fantasy element is rather low-key, with alchemy used in weaponry, there are also the mystical stories Aki tells of a reincarnated minions of the Goddess of creation and of her adversary, Usdohr and his demons hiding in human vessels. Wragg leaves it to his readers to decide if those stories hold truth, if some of our characters are these reincarnated or demonic figures, or whether they were just used to distract Javani from their many dire situations. I loved the ambiguity of that. Stories also hold a significant link to the past, and if you’ve read The Black Hawks, you’ll spot some nice familiar figures within Ree’s stories, which I found fun. Yet they also help us find a connection with the people we have loved and lost, as seen through Aki desperately seeking stories of his mother. I’m tearing up just thinking about it. Though most of all, I loved how these characters shape their own story. The Hunters was everything I expected and so much more—achingly heartfelt, addictively fast-paced and hilariously chaotic. This is a story of motherhood, of finding your path, and of finding freedom. Wragg delivers an absolutely explosive, quite literally, start to the Tales of the Plains trilogy. ‘History has no end, little one, but the stories we tell are wrapped within it, and some stories are told over and over and over, to begin again as soon as they are ended.’ ARC provided by the author and by Harper Voyager in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for the copy! All quotes used are taken from an early ARC and are subject to change upon publication. The Hunters is out 20th July 2023 but you can pre-order your copy HERE The post THE HUNTERS by David Wragg (BOOK REVIEW) appeared first on The Fantasy Hive. View the full article
  12. Spring has finally arrived here in the Mighty Mitten. Well, on most days. As I type this, it’s 53°F under gunmetal gray clouds, with brisk winds stirring the big lake to a distant roar. But you know what? I’m sort of relieved. At this point, my weedy-but-otherwise-empty garden beds and planters are basically mocking me. Warm sunshine only makes the mockery more hurtful. Something about spring’s arrival this year has left me… well, I guess the most fitting word is exhausted. Around here, spring brings a crop of seasonal chores. So far I have: washed the windows and screens; washed and set up two of our three porches; washed and set up our patio and its furnishings; and cleaned out the garage, attic and crawlspace—filling a dumpster in the process. All of that and somehow I feel nowhere near to being ready for summer. Still, I know that unfinished seasonal chores and their accompanying exhaustion are only contributing factors to a general sense of overwhelm. I’ve still got a second book in a trilogy to release. I thought it would be out by now, but it wasn’t meant to be. The list of pre-publication boxes to check feels unending. The very minute book two actually releases, a new list of unchecked boxes for book three will land at the center of my desk. All the while, the list of things I should be doing to promote book one sits visibly across the desk, mocking me and shaming the other two lists into looking meaningless. Damn, this turned into a whiney-ass opening, didn’t it? And yet, it’s how I feel. Just in case there’s anyone else who’s feeling run-down rather than revitalized by spring, I thought I’d make a list of the ways in which I’ve been seeking to nurture myself as a writer, stave off feelings of overwhelm, and beat the seasonal blues. Find the Good—I’ve written about “flipping the script” before, right here on WU, and yet somehow I need constant reminding to do just that. Take my whiney-ass list of complaints above. So I have to wash windows and install screens. The flip side of that? I have a home with forest views and wonderful airflow. The flip of having only two of three porches summer-ready? I have THREE goddam porches—a veritable trifecta of excellent spots to relax. How about those bookish chores—what’s the flip side of those? It’s not just that I’ve had the opportunity to work on this trilogy for a decade, to tweak and polish it to my satisfaction. On top of that, I’ve arrived here at a moment when the means to publish the story myself, and to produce three beautiful books in the process, has never been easier or more accessible. How’s that for flipping the script on a whiney-ass opening? It doesn’t always completely cure what ails you, but for me, taking the time to find the good ALWAYS helps. Slow Down & Take It All In—Sometimes I don’t even realize how caught up I am in a nonexistent race. My untended garden beds are a good example. Every time I look at them, I feel bad and kick myself. I see what other self-pub writers are doing, on a very regular basis, to promote themselves and their books, and the result is the same—I feel bad and blame myself. When I slow down and think about the root causes of these feelings, I can see how often they’re born in comparing my circumstance to others. I have neighbors and friends who already have their gardens looking summer lush. But any fool can see that it’s not a race. The weather has hardly been nice enough for sitting outside and enjoying the gardens anyway. We work on our gardens for our own pleasure and fulfillment. If others enjoy them, it’s a side-benefit. My publication journey is even less of a race. I mean, autumn will eventually put my gardening ambitions to rest. But hopefully my books will have life long past such seasonal limitations. Heck, I’m quite sure there are some fantasy readers who won’t even consider starting book one until all three books have been published. Book two will be ready when it’s ready, as will book three. Getting the details right, and enjoying the process, is far more important than the speed at which they appear. I still hope to have all three books out within a year’s time, but that’s more of an aspirational guideline than a hard-and-fast deadline. In the long haul, what difference will a month or two make? I’m a lucky guy. I don’t need to publish my books to pay the bills. I’m doing it for my own fulfillment. If others enjoy them, it’s a huge side-benefit. A benefit that will perpetuate my fulfillment. Avoid Contagion—There are a hundred versions of the old joke (did Groucho do it first?) that goes something like: Patient—“I have pain in my arm when I move it like this. What should I do?” Doctor—“Stop moving it like that.” For me lately, the metaphoric pain in my arm is dwelling on social media sites and keeping track of publishing stats/ratings/rankings. Partaking is like exposing myself to something that may make me unwell, so why do it? Granted, there is valuable information, communication, and connection to be found in these activities. In some instances, it’s critical to stay on top of it. But keeping my exposures brief helps to reduce the risk. When I’m at my best, I find I can quickly peruse Twitter and IG, respond as needed, and limit my check-ins to a couple a day—in and right back out again. I try to avoid lingering and/or doomscrolling, and have been getting better. And feeling healthier for it. Book reviews are trickier for me. I enjoy hearing the positive takeaways of readers and reviewers—it can provide needed fuel for maintaining forward momentum. I try (really hard) to avoid internalizing the negative I encounter. They say we writers need to develop thick skin, but here in my sixth decade on earth, I find that I’m pretty darn comfortable in my skin as it is, thank you. After working for over a decade to get this series to where I’m satisfied with it, I’m not looking to adjust my storytelling to fit what a few deem to be more palatable to the marketplace. After all, a story that’s palatable to all is impactful to none. I understand that my doctor/patient and contagion exposure metaphors are a simplification. Few of us can actually simply avoid online engagement. Besides, it’s far from being all bad. Still, I like to remind myself of the absurdity of continuing to engage in behavior that I know will not provide fuel, or nourish my hope and joy. Read Something Completely Different—As much as I love fantasy, and want to support my fellow fantasy authors (particularly the self-pub community), reading nothing but my own genre for an extended period can start to feel more like a job than a respite. Worse, I occasionally fall into the ole’ comparison game when I read too many of my fellows’ books in a row. I’m finding that the remedy is simple. I merely intersperse my reading with books outside my genre. For example, I recently finished Strangers in the Night: A Novel of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, by WU’s own Heather Webb. It was the perfect remedy, and a wonderful break in my routine. Changing it up imbues the storyteller in me with a renewed sense of curiosity and wonder. Now I’m excited to get back to my list of epic fantasy titles. Write—If there’s one thing I hope you take away from this piece, even if it merely reinforces something you already knew, it’s this: moving forward with your writing is the best cure for whatever is ailing you artistically. If I’m feeling down—overwhelmed or beaten-up—diving back into story is sure to make those feelings fade or disappear. Besides the immediate benefit, I’ve found that having made daily progress with a writing project inoculates me with positivity, sure to help stave off the infection of overwhelm, the internalization of unhelpful critique, or the impulse to run nonexistent races. This journey has been the most rewarding aspect of my life. Fulfillment is found in momentum. There is no finish line, just waystations, to nourish and refuel us, propelling us onward. The goal is perpetuation not destination. Stay healthy, friends. Doing so keeps us seeking illumination that can be shared. How does your garden grow, WU? Is there any spring in your step? How do you self-heal? [url={url}]View the full article[/url]
  13. Flying witch artwork by astromoali Welcome to Fantastic Top Fives with Wyrd & Wonder! Wyrd and Wonder have brought back their Top Fives prompts, so every Friday this month, we’ll be tackling the prompts in our 5-Star Books in Five Words feature. The first prompt was: Your Favourite Magical Systems or Spells. The second was: Your Favourite Songs That You Associate with the Magical – so we looked at magic systems that used song! This week, it’s Favourite magic casters, which is pretty straightforward! A big thank you to all our contributors for their excellent recommendations! Underlined book titles in bold contain links to reviews on this site. Nils: The Magician’s Daughter H.G. Parry. Saving A Wizard And Saving Magic Julia: Mennik Thorn from Shadow of a Dead God by Patrick Samphire Fun, sarcasm, action, magic, chaos! Dorian: Rincewind from the Discworld books That one spell’s a doozy! Theo: Sarilla from Last Memoria by Rachel Emma Shaw Unforgettable magic of stolen memories! Gray: Shai from The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson Counterfeiting memories to save empires Beth: Sully from The Year of the Knife by G D Penman Love my troubled lesbian witch Next week will be our last 5-Star Books for this Wyrd and Wonder, and we’ll be looking at Magical Ingredients! Follow #WyrdAndWonder on socials to find out more about the feature Flying witch artwork by astromoali The post 5-Star Books in Five Words – Magic Casters appeared first on The Fantasy Hive. View the full article
  14. Flying witch artwork by astromoali And so we come to the last week of our read along with Wyrd and Wonder! This year, Beth and Nils joined in with Lisa’s (Dear Geek Place) read along of Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. We’ll be sticking to the following reaching schedule, and posting a weekly discussion of that week’s chapters. Lisa will be doing the same on her blog, and everyone is welcome to join in! If you don’t have a blog, feel free to join in the conversation on Twitter or Discord. Week 1: Chapters 1 through 7 (hosted by Lisa) Week 2: Chapters 8 through 14 (hosted by the Fantasy Hive) Week 3: Chapters 15 through End (hosted by the Fantasy Hive) SPOILERS AHEAD: This post is a book-club style discussion of the novel, rather than a review to tempt new readers in. We do discuss plot points, character motivations, and twists – if you have not read the book and do not want it spoiled, please do not read further! Sophie has the great misfortune of being the eldest of three daughters, destined to fail miserably should she ever leave home to seek her fate. But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. Her only chance at breaking it lies in the ever-moving castle in the hills: the Wizard Howl’s castle. To untangle the enchantment, Sophie must handle the heartless Howl, strike a bargain with a fire demon, and meet the Witch of the Waste head-on. Along the way, she discovers that there’s far more to Howl—and herself—than first meets the eye. Week 2 – Chapters 15 through End And so we reach the final chapters of our read-along! Hands up who’s still muddled by the ending? Let’s see if we can’t untangle it… Let’s start with the epic magic battle we’re treated to in ch16! What did you make of it? Was all the magic easy to visualise? Beth: Do you know what it reminded me of? Merlin and Madam Mim’s wizard’s duel in the Disney movie The Sword in the Stone. I felt like it was quite the bombardment on the senses, and perhaps not the easiest to follow, it was quite chaotic. Nils: Definitely chaotic! But that’s a great comparison to Merlin in The Sword in the Stone. It felt very cinematic, like flashes of different montage scenes rather than an elaborately flowing battle, and yet I loved it! With us seeing the battle play out through Sophie’s eyes, probably the first heated duel between two mages she’s ever seen, there’s also a nervous energy to it, an atmosphere of wonder coupled with threat and doom. Jones writes this section well and it’s a chapter that I’m sure will remain memorable. Beth: I loved the image of the townspeople all gathered in the harbour watching the battle though, the excitement and drama of it all. Like a fight breaking out on the school yard, only a lot more dangerous obviously… What I did love was the way the curse was coming true! That’s a fun element to try to follow, although I didn’t fully understand the implications of it all. And still don’t, really. It’s a cool curse, but I’m not fully sure why the Witch needed to curse him to be able to catch him… Nils: Yes I loved that too, although I’m not too shy to admit that I kept forgetting some elements of the curse! However I did remember the mermaids, and I was overjoyed when they showed up, even though it was only briefly. I also liked the shadowy monsters both Howl and the Witch turn into nearing the end of the battle, turning things just a shade darker. Following the battle, it’s decided they must move Calcifer, and so Howl purchases the hat shop. This is one of the few moments in the book where we witness Howl actually perform a magic spell. What did you think of the move and the resulting flower shop? Beth: This is one of my favourite parts of the book. I love DWJ’s descriptions of the castle room settling itself into Sophie’s old home; I thought it was a great way of imagining how this magic castle can be different places at once. Because when you actually stop to try and consider it, it can do some weird things to your brain! I’m trying to recapture the first time I read this, but it’s too closely bound to my foreknowledge of the story from having watched the movie, but I think it was this point where I knew for sure Howl knew there was a spell on Sophie, and that he did in fact love her. Nils: That’s a great point, Beth. I hadn’t considered that this was our first clue that Howl loved Sophie, but looking back on it that makes complete sense. Beth: Everything about this move is his way of giving Sophie a gift; he’s given her a way of going home, but then the manor house kind of represents the kind of home he would set her up in if he could. And the flower garden! A beautiful demonstration of his magic which Sophie can appreciate for its usefulness. Nils: I loved the visual aspect of this scene so much and the way it hit your senses. I could easily close my eyes and picture the vibrant blooming flowers in the garden and the beautiful bouquets throughout the shop, I could imagine the sweet fragrances and the odd pungent ones, I could feel Sophie’s overwhelming joy upon seeing it all. She knew she’d be far more satisfied selling flowers than making and selling hats and her own magic was better suited to it too. Beth: It was something similar enough so that she’d feel confident doing it, but new enough that she could make it her own and I loved how she took to it. You’re right, it’s such a big hit to the senses! Nils: I just have to also say that the scene where they move Calcifer was a really tense one! Though when Calcifer is described as perching on the shovel that Howl is using to move him, with his little tiny fire-shaped hands holding on to the side trembling, I did have a little giggle and thought ‘awww how cute’, but I also nervously hope he wouldn’t snuff out. Yes I did in that moment get caught up and forget I’d seen the film! Beth: Lol Nils! It was interesting seeing him so fragile and vulnerable in that moment. It’s revealed that Howl knew Sophie was under a spell for a long time! Why do you think he kept it a secret? Beth: I think it’s all to do with the fact that only part of the curse was by the Witch of the Wastes, and a lot of the curse had to do with Sophie herself. Nils: Ohh Beth, I hadn’t considered that but it makes total sense. Sophie was always underestimating herself and doubting herself so perhaps part of lifting the curse was for her to see her true worth. Beth: Exactly that Nils! I think only Sophie could cure herself, but if Howl told her he knew about it, she wouldn’t fight for herself. I don’t think there’s anything Howl could actually do for her anymore, except give her space to discover her own strengths, and recognise his love for her. True love conquers all! Nils: The sweet taste of true love’s kiss! I thought at first maybe Howl just wanted to keep it a secret to maintain Sophie’s privacy as privacy seems to be a big deal to Howl, he hated anyone going in his room! Though, your point makes a lot of sense Beth. Beth: Oh I hadn’t even thought of that, but now you mention it that’s very true! Let’s explore some of the revelations from these final chapters! Firstly, what were your first impressions of Percival, previously the dog-man? Beth: I was pretty suspicious of ‘Percival’ the first time round, that it was something far more complicated than a servant who had been turned into a dog. I thought it was sweet how he trailed Sophie around as a dog, and how Michael says he always wanted one. And again, I loved how angry Howl got with Sophie for not telling him, I thought that was a fantastic moment of real emotion from Howl. Sophie is far from perfect, I had to keep reminding myself that she is actually only 18, and a lot of her mistakes borne from ignorance were understandable. But this felt more wilful, despite the dog telling her not to tell Howl, she should have absolutely told him so that he could break the spell! Nils: I was suspicious of Percival too, but more so because at that point in the story almost every character we come across is not as they seem, they were all becoming oddly magicked in some way and it felt like we hadn’t discovered their true identity yet. I was utterly confused why the dog-man knew Lettie. I was switching between Percival being Prince Justin and Wizard Suliman, and could never really decipher which one he was, which I guess in hindsight makes sense now! Beth: Ha! It does! And that’s a really interesting point Nils, I think Michael is the only character who isn’t something other than he seems! Nils: Like Beth said though, Sophie did begin to become rather frustrating when it came to her interactions with Howl. Sophie was constantly at odds with Howl and a lot of the time it felt unwarranted. He is a wizard after all, if she had shown some trust and honesty he could have cleared up the spell upon Percival a lot sooner! And let’s address the scarecrow and the fact that Howl had Wizard Suliman’s skull sat on his counter this entire time! Beth: I couldn’t remember the exact details of who was who, but I remembered the dog was either the Prince or Wizard Suliman… and it was definitely something I suspected when I read it the first time. But trust DWJ to make it that little bit more complicated! Again, this was another thing I felt a little frustrated with Sophie for: they might have been able to solve a lot of problems a lot sooner if she’d stopped sending the scarecrow away! Nils I know you found what the Witch had done to the Prince and Wizard Suliman super macabre! Nils: Although at first I completely understand why she sends the Scarecrow away, having one chasing your castle desperately trying to get inside is pretty terrifying! Though later on as she begins to learn more about magic, spells and curse, surely she could see that the Scarecrow was someone who needed their identity revealed! Beth: Yes! She doesn’t stop to question it, does she? Nils: But yes Beth, I know I’m skipping ahead a little here, but that scene where Sophie confronts the Witch in the Waste and the Witch reveals what she’s really done and what she’s planning to do was very macabre, for a kids book, but I know younger me would have loved it! Meshing together parts of Prince Justin, Wizard Suliman and Howl’s head would create the perfect figure for the Witch to use as the ruler of Ingary, and having the Witch in charge is a scary thought in itself. Though it also shows us just how far and how dark her plans go. Knowing the skull was Suleiman’s all along, desperately trying to find a way to talk and spill its secrets was pretty freaky! Beth: It was super dark, and like you, I’d have loved it when I was little. “Or had Howl slithered out so hard that he has come out right behind himself and turned out what most people would call honest?” Is this a particularly fair comment from Sophie? How has your perception of Howl changed over the book, if at all? Nils: I pretty much loved Howl from his very first scene and not for one second did I ever believe the rumours about him stealing young girls away and taking their souls. Maybe because I’d already watched the film, but I think it’s more because Howl seemed eccentric, chaotic and a touch flighty, but never evil. I think Sophie’s judgement of him was very off key throughout many chapters, she seemed able to easily see the good in others except Howl. Beth: Oh Nils that’s so true! She’s certainly a lot harder on him than other people. And I don’t think it’s at all fair of her; she makes these assumptions about him, and despite all evidence to the contrary, sticks to them. Nils: I think if she had given him a chance a lot sooner, she’d have seen that although he tried to avoid certain things, Howl had been honest all along but his plans to conquer the Witch, find Prince Justin and Wizard Sulliman were obscure. Beth: I did at first think he was vain and obsessed with women, but you’re right, it is eventually clear that what appears to be his cowardice is actually a careful dance around the Witch, not to get noticed. Seeing as he’s the last element she needs, he’s right to be cautious. By the end of the book, I was also wondering if all his romancing was because he was scared he couldn’t fall in love, because Calcifer had his heart? Nils: You might just be right there. Speaking of perceptions, how do you think Fanny was able to recognise Sophie so easily? Do you feel Sophie’s original perception of Fanny was wrong? Beth: I think Sophie is quite easily swayed by other people, isn’t she? I don’t think Martha was entirely wrong about Fanny, but she certainly wasn’t entirely correct either and it’s a shame Sophie didn’t trust her own instincts enough. Which, actually, is an issue with Sophie throughout the whole story… Nils: Thoroughly agree Beth, Sophie is very much influenced by other people’s perceptions. The idea that Fanny was exploiting her could easily have been cleared up if she’d actually talked it through with her. Her step-mother wasn’t particularly cruel to her, nor was she showing signs of malicious intent, she was a woman trying to keep her family from poverty and I don’t think Sophie appreciated that enough. I do think Fanny was using Sophie perhaps a little too often, so she is not entirely faultless, but I feel Sophie had a tendency to also “slither out” of confronting honest conversations and finds it easier to just believe others. What do you think Beth? Beth: You’re right Nils, she was always too afraid to confront the truth of anything. I did also wonder if the reason why Fanny was able to recognise her was because maybe the spell was wearing off a little by then? When the spell does wear off, we only know because Howl comments on the colour of Sophie’s hair, so we don’t actually know by the time Fanny sees her, how old she still looks or acts? Nils: Yeah we don’t get a lot of descriptions about Sophie’s appearance, so that’s kind of left to us to decide. Say one thing for DWJ, she loves a good twist. Did you guess Calcifer was actually a fallen star? How about that Miss Angorian was one too? Which was the biggest twist for you? Nils: Jones included some great twists and nope I didn’t see either of them coming! Although Beth, you reminded me it’s in the film, so I should have remembered that!! Oh the Miss Angorian twist was the biggest one for me, I was expecting a revelation when it came to Calcifer, but Miss Angorian being the Witch’s fallen star was a real shocker! How cool was that scene though Beth? When they’re trying to capture Miss Angorian?! Beth: Miss Angorian was such a good twist, that I fell for it twice! I didn’t see it coming the first time around, I genuinely thought she was Suliman’s fiance, and I thought it again this time! The confrontation in the Witch’s weird castle of clay and porcelain was fantastic, and so imaginative. She was really quite sinister, wasn’t she, and she’d completely taken control of the witch by then! Nils: Bingo, we found an author who can actually fool you!! Beth: I’m really not enjoying this reputation lol!! “Howl showed kindness rather strangely” What do we think of Sophie finally realising that Howl is not as bad as she once perceived? Nils: Finally! The penny drops! That was literally my reaction! In all seriousness though, I was relieved, I was desperately waiting for Sophie to soften towards Howl, to see him as I saw him and to become friends, which they both very much needed. Beth: Ugh, yes! Nils: I felt sorry for Sophie’s loneliness, for her lack of seeing how wonderful she is and can be, and I knew if she’d just trust in Howl they’d make great friends and with Michael and Calcifer, a great found family. You know I love that trope, Beth! Beth: I was actually getting so damned annoyed with her Nils! It was taking her forever to see the wider picture! When Sophie tells Howl that she is a failure because she’s the eldest, Howl responds, “Garbage… you just never stop to think” and that she’s “too nice”. Would you say this is a fair criticism of Sophie? Nils: I do feel that Sophie often made rash decisions, like you said previously Beth, she doesn’t trust her own instincts. Therefore her decisions are reactionary, she doesn’t take the time to look at situations and see them in different ways with different perspectives. That’s not a bad thing, we all do that, but in certain circumstances Sophie’s life would have been easier if she’d just stopped seeing herself as insignificant and started to trust her own judgement. Beth: And that’s exactly the curse she was under, all along. Nils: Absolutely. As for being “too nice”, again that’s not a bad thing, I’d take being too nice over being too angry or harsh, but it can lead you to being used, being taken advantage of, as Fanny did to her in the shop. I think Sophie needed to just become more assertive but not lose her kindness. Balance is the key! Beth: I thought it was a strange thing to say of her, because I’m not sure she was too nice. I think she lacked the courage to speak up for herself, and I think she struggled with confrontation to the point she’d let others have their way at the expense of what she actually wanted to do. But I think if she was nicer, she wouldn’t have been so judgemental towards Howl, or jealous. The last few pages are something of a chaotic climax, but how did you feel about the various pairings by the end: Sophie and Howl, Michael and his Lettie (Martha), and Lettie (the real one) achieving her apprentice with Wizard Suliman? Nils: I’m all in favour of cosy reads at the moment and that ending with all the pairings was so wholesome it made me smile. Beth: It was wholesome! Nils: I was pleased that Michael finally got to be with Martha, who he’d been utterly besotted with and that Martha got her wish of marrying a man she loved. Lettie also had her wish fulfilled as she had always wanted to learn all she could of magic, so that was nice. Beth: It’s like everyone had their own place at last, and everyone could be who they wanted to be, and not what their apparent roles dictated they should. Nils: That’s true. Although Howl and Sophie’s pairing felt a little abrupt to me, a little too convenient? I was hoping their relationship would grow into a romantic one, but I didn’t expect them to be in love instantly, even though Howl dropped subtle hints of his affection for her. However, I guess Jones didn’t want Sophie to be without her own share of love and happiness at the end, and I can’t really criticise that, Sophie deserved Howl’s love. Beth: Oh I’m quite surprised you thought that, because I saw it as an inevitability! It seemed clear to me for a long time that Sophie was in love with Howl but wasn’t aware; her jealousies, and then how upset she was when she suspected he might like her but thought it was just the suit. Likewise for Howl, I think he starts falling for her quite early on and that’s why he puts up with all her eccentricities and cleaning and bossing. She’s resistant to his charms, and that in turn charms him. Nils: I think it was in the way Sophie treated Howl for the majority of the book that made me a little surprised by how in love she was at the end. Im very glad she was though! Finally, what were your overall thoughts? Nils: Howl’s Moving Castle is enchanting in every way. The quirky characters, the bantery humour and the many twists along the way kept me excited throughout, always eager to discover everyone’s true identity. Jones doesn’t incorporate a magic system as such, but the magic used has its rules and limitations nonetheless, and it bleeds into every aspect of the world of Ingary, it creates some visually wonderful and thrilling scenes, and most of all the magic is fun to see unfurl. Beth: This is the kind of magic I like best, the kind that is just there. I think it’s something of an old fashioned notion of magic, like in Narnia, or Wonderland. Nils: Jones also incorporates themes of loneliness, family bonds and wrongful perceptions, which add a layer of depth. This isn’t a book that talks down to children, it’s a book they can enjoy and perhaps even learn from. Beth: Which is why I think adults can enjoy it so much too. And I don’t think she purposefully wrote it so that adults and children could enjoy it, I just don’t think she cared about this notion of writing something in particular way so that it’s “aimed at” a particular group of people. Instead, she just had a story to tell. It’s a messy and sometimes confusing story, with things vaguely gestured at rather than outrightly said; but for me, that’s the charm of it. We hope you enjoyed our read along discussions! If you’d like to join in the conversation, you can comment below, or on our Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter! The post HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE by Diana Wynne Jones – READ ALONG Week 3 appeared first on The Fantasy Hive. View the full article
  15. A few weeks ago, my dear friend (and brilliant writer) Jocosa Wade texted me, raving about a new show she was watching. She knew I’d be interested, because the show was created by one of my absolute favorite screenwriters, the marvelous Debora Cahn, about whom I have waxed rhapsodic here in an unabashed WU love letter two years ago. A powerhouse writer with credits on shows including The West Wing, Grey’s Anatomy, Homeland and more, Ms. Cahn has now launched a series of her own on Netflix. It’s called The Diplomat. And damn, it’s good. I binged the first season in a matter of days. Admittedly that was not hard to do, since it was only eight episodes, but the good news is that it’s been renewed for a second season. And you can bet I’ll be watching. From having my heart won over by some of my favorite West Wing episodes, I already knew Debora Cahn had serious game. But with The Diplomat, she really comes into her own, delivering a show that hooks you with the first episode, and never lets go. As the season progresses, Cahn and her writing staff deliver an absolute masterclass for writers of any kind – not just screenwriters. So today I want to offer some lessons I picked up from my first viewing of Season 1 of The Diplomat (because you better believe I will be re-watching it). To me, the show just freaking WORKS, so I want to take a look at WHY it works so damn well. Here’s what I came up with. 1. She picked a setting that matches the size of her story. That might seem like an odd observation, so I’ll explain. There are a fair amount of “messages” in this show, and for that to work, the message needs to fit the medium. It’s probably easier to notice this when it doesn’t fit, so let’s look at a few examples. Aaron Sorkin has long been one of my favorite screenwriters, but even I will admit that sometimes he swings and misses. This is a guy who is ALWAYS trying to tell a Big Story and deliver Important Messages, but he hasn’t always found the right platform. For example, one of his earliest shows was the quirky Sports Night – ostensibly just a show about a sports-themed talk show, such as one might see on ESPN. Originally positioned as a sitcom, Sorkin’s show soon began exploring deeper themes, veering into more of a comedy/drama category, and getting progressively heavier (okay, sometimes a bit ponderous). Ultimately the show ended up getting canceled after never really managing to find its audience, only becoming popular – and only at a cult level – after going off the air. Taking some of the themes (and actors) from Sports Night, Sorkin later found his sweet spot with The West Wing, a TV show where he could explore the biggest, heaviest themes imaginable. And it worked, because it was set in the White House, a place where the discussion and execution of Really Big Ideas was a much better fit. After leaving that show, Sorkin once again scaled down – at least in terms of his setting. His next show was called Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and focused on an SNL-like sketch comedy show. But the show still explored massive themes far more suitable for a milieu like The West Wing, and often fell into preachiness and/or melodrama (in addition to suffering from the worst show title ever). I understand – and admire – how big a story Sorkin wanted to tell. And I suspect Debora Cahn has paid a lot of attention to Sorkin’s wins and losses, because I think she really found the “Goldilocks fit” for her show: a global stage, but with the key political problem being set outside the United States. I feel this crucial distinction makes her show far less polarizing than the blatantly left-slanted West Wing, but still a suitable setting for Really Big Issues. While there is a pretty clear “wokeness” to Cahn’s interracial cast of characters, with multiple women in exceedingly powerful roles, she also shows us some of the pitfalls of liberal politics. With The Diplomat, Cahn gives us an elderly (and okay, somewhat Biden-like) president with some clear flaws, and a female VP who is in possible legal trouble – a far cry from the simplistic “Democrats good, Republicans bad” ethos that pervaded many West Wing episodes. 2. She gives us conflict, conflict, and MORE conflict. And I’m not just talking about political conflict. Because The Diplomat is about FAR more than politics. Cahn explores interpersonal relationships with a level of insight that frankly exceeds Sorkin’s grasp – and I don’t say that lightly. And she does it while constantly ratcheting up the conflict. A perfect case in point is the titular character. The diplomat in question is Kate Wyler, the new United States ambassador to the United Kingdom. Played by Keri Russell, Kate is a serious and experienced diplomatic operative on an assignment she not only does not want; she thinks it is beneath her. She had wanted to be using her skills to resolve challenges in Kabul, Afghanistan, and is frustrated and impatient with the amount of pomp and ceremony involved in dealing with the UK’s political machine. But an attack on a UK aircraft carrier requires her sudden redeployment to Great Britain. Traveling with Kate is her husband, Hal – who is also a career diplomat, and one with a far more powerful (and yes, flashy) reputation than her own. And that’s when things start to get interesting. Her husband’s reputation eclipses her own, and he is clearly used to being the Alpha diplomat. But now he’s basically “the male first lady” to Kate, openly referring to himself as “the wife.” Oh, and did I mention that they are getting divorced? Oh, and that there’s a secret plot to draft Kate for a MUCH higher office? An office for which a divorce would be a deal-breaker? Kate and Hal: It’s complicated. And that’s just the two main characters. The show has a sizable cast of memorable characters, each with their own agenda. And all of their agendas conflict with somebody else’s agenda – and in more than one case that somebody else is their romantic interest or political superior – or both. Seriously, the amount of conflict woven into this show is staggering – and inspiring as hell. I don’t think there is a single person in this show who doesn’t passionately want something that somebody else is violently opposed to, from lead character to dogged aide; from Prime Minister to CIA operative. So, we’ve got Big Themes, on an appropriately sized stage. We’ve got conflict aplenty. Conflict out the proverbial wazoo, one might say (if indeed a wazoo can be proverbial – something tells me those are two words that don’t spend much time sharing a sentence. But I digress…). I mentioned earlier that Cahn’s skill in exploring relationships sometimes exceeds Sorkin’s. Here’s my theory as to why: 3. She’s a woman writing about what is all too often a man’s world. Cahn does an amazing job of exploring aspects of male-female dynamics and perceptions that largely go unspoken, despite being all too real. To his credit, Sorkin would try to do this from time to time, but his maleness often overrode him, resulting in women being rescued or admired by men more often than being respected as equals or superiors (in terms of rank, clout, expertise, etc.). Frankly I think it takes a woman to lay some of these issues bare. For example, a female CIA operative chooses to conceal her relationship with a rising young diplomatic aide, to avoid being perceived only as a person who got her exciting assignment because she was “the girlfriend.” Similarly, Kate is highly sensitive to the fact that she may have been summoned for this role with the hope and expectation that she would represent a “package deal,” with her tag-along diplomatic heavyweight of a husband providing some “bonus” guidance, which they might take even more seriously than the guidance that she – their officially designated diplomat – might offer them. The Powers That Be would then appear to be diverse and inclusive by hiring a female diplomat, all the while hoping to cash in on the diplomatic rockstar husband for the real heavy lifting. And instead of this all being communicated via subtext, which many viewers (particularly male ones) might miss, Cahn has her characters TALK about these elephants in the room. Both couples I’ve just mentioned have some serious come-to-Jesus talks about this stuff, and we learn much about the characters by how they each respond and interact when discussing such awkward and hot-buttony (might be a word) issues. And as I think about it, this is a great storytelling device, while still actually being believable. While Cahn’s characters may be exploring topics that often remain unspoken, don’t forget that these are diplomats – professional communicators accustomed to dealing with situations high on both conflict and sensitivity – so it makes sense that they would be equipped to articulate sentiments that many of us mere mortals would likely struggle with. Well played, Ms. Cahn. Well played. 4. She gives her characters impossible choices. In addition to keeping the show brimming with conflict ranging from potential global war to marital breakdown, Cahn doles out conflict at the individual level, often forcing her characters to choose between their emotions, their ambitions, their personal loyalties and their national duty. A perfect case in point is Kate’s husband, Hal, who is torn between his natural Machiavellian instincts and gamesmanship, his ego, his desire to be a player – both politically and romantically – and his clear devotion to the woman who wants to divorce him. Hal starts out being an easy man to hate, but then we start seeing his other sides, and begin finding ourselves actually sympathizing with how hard it must be to be in his position. At one point, the British Prime Minister corners Hal and flat-out asks for his advice, just after Hal has promised his wife he will not get involved. The agony with which he refrains from counseling the PM is palpable, and clearly takes a toll on Hal, who then goes to blow off steam in what is unquestionably the weirdest scene in the entire season – and the one scene that, for me, just didn’t really work. (Sorry, Debora. But fear not – you’re still my writing crush, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.) 5. She knows how to tell the big stories – and the small ones. Ms. Cahn has proven time and time again that she knows how to write The Big Story – see her astonishing “Supremes” episode on The West Wing for incontrovertible proof. And she continues to display that gift in The Diplomat. But she also has a tremendous eye for the small details, the quiet moments where the sheer humanity of her storytelling shines like a diamond. My favorite such moments – and my friend Jocosa’s as well – are the multiple scenes where we see Hal in the background assembling a breakfast from the seemingly endless buffet that diplomats apparently have at their disposal when hanging out in the hallowed halls of… some hallowed-looking diplomatty and palatial place in the UK that I should probably recognize but don’t. Ahem – back to the breakfast… In each case, Hal ends up leaving the room shortly after his wife enters, and she begins eating what’s left of his food. Around the third time this happens – when we see Hal carefully splitting a blueberry muffin and leaving half on a plate that he walks away from, and then Kate sweeps in and grabs the muffin-half without a second thought – we realize that Hal is literally making his estranged wife’s breakfast each morning, and we sense that we’re witnessing a couple’s tradition that likely has gone on for years. It’s a touching moment of sweetness, showing how a couple terribly at odds can still maintain the habitual niceties of a longtime partnership. Most of that breakfast isn’t for him… 6. She goes all-in on her endings. Here Cahn takes a marked departure from her West Wing background, where episodes often leaned towards the quiet-but-satisfying wrap-up, or maybe a tear-jerking moment of sentimentality. Not Cahn. Every episode ends in a VERY dramatic way, whether it’s a cliffhanger, an OMG moment, a powerful line of dialog, or something even more… explosive. Every. Single. Episode. For those of us writing books rather than screenplays, I think the lesson still works. If your chapters end with the same kind of power with which Cahn ends each episode of The Diplomat, you will have assimilated a major lesson in “page-turner” storytelling. And given a platform like Netflix, Cahn has truly mastered the art of inspiring some “binge watching.” Seriously, it’s that good. To give you some additional perspective, I had a WU post on an entirely different topic nearly completed when I finished the last episode of The Diplomat, but I decided to shelve that piece and capitalize on how jazzed I am by Cahn’s latest creation. It’s just that good. And yes, I’m aware of the unabashedly fanboyish tone I assume when I write about Debora Cahn. But as competitive as I may be – in music, in writing, and in life – I have always been able to take real pleasure in seeing truly great work, even if it’s work I will also admit to envying more than a little. Season 1 of The Diplomat was simply one of the best new series I’ve seen in ages, and remarkably fresh for a show covering the already well-trodden path of the political thriller. So I hope you might give this – or any other show Debora Cahn has been involved in – a look. Whether the stories she tells will be your cup of tea or not, I think you’ll see that those stories are being told with some damn fine writing. And that’s something I’m always in the mood for. How about you? Have you been hooked by The Diplomat? Got any other shows where the screenwriting is rocking your world and/or influencing your own books or stories? Please chime in, and as always, thanks for reading! [url={url}]View the full article[/url]
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