Reading Recommendations (while you’re waiting for FROM UNSEEN FIRE)

Hallo! Cold, grey, dreary wintry days always have me wanting nothing more than to curl up with a good book, so I thought I would share some of my favorites with y’all. Not just favorites, but favorites that, in some way or another, I think will be enjoyable to the folk who will like From Unseen Fire. Or, if you like these books, I think it quite likely you’ll enjoy From Unseen Fire!

Some are on the list because they’re Roman historicals: Colleen McCullough’s wonderful Masters of Rome series, and the exquisite explorations of famous or forgotten women by Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray, and Michelle Moran. Others are classical-flavored fantasies, like Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives and Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes. Some are fantasies with elemental magic or other magical systems I find delightful, such as Mercedes Lackey’s Elemental Masters series or the works of Cat Valente. A few are nonfiction resources: Tony Perrottet’s Pagan Holiday and Philip Matyszak’s wonderful Roman resources. A great many are simply wonderful epic fantasies, often with historical aspects: Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel trilogies, Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters series, the tri-authored Heirs of Alexandria series, the works of Guy Gavriel Kay.

So while you’re counting down the days til September 5th (230, incidentally), give some of these a try, or revisit some old favorites!

Aven Cycle Suggested Reading

And while you’re on Goodreads checking those out, add From Unseen Fire to your “to-read” list!

My Princess, My General

I was always into princesses.

It was natural. I was born in 1985. I was the perfect age during the Disney Renaissance of Belle and Jasmine. So from the start, my heroines were women who read, women who stood up for themselves, women who did what was needed instead of what was expected.

But Princess Leia was a revelation. Long-time readers already know the story of how I found Star Wars and how it changed my life, and Leia was a huge component of that. I was eleven years old, and I wanted to be Princess Leia when I grew up. She wasn’t just outspoken and independent — she was in charge. She was ready to sass her way to her execution, if that’s what it took to protect her people. She grabbed the gun from the idiot boys who weren’t being effective with it, and she made her own escape route. She led a rebellion and she fought in its trenches, so devoted that she had to be dragged out of Echo Base while the ceiling was caving in on her. She saved the man she loved, and when a sexist creep tried to humiliate her and punish her for her daring, she choked him to death with absolutely no mercy or remorse.

She also was the proof that there was space for me in that universe. My middle school friends and I all sensed that, even if we couldn’t put the words of feminist criticism to it at the time. We just knew that the boys couldn’t tell us we weren’t supposed to play Star Wars, because Leia was in it, and not as an accessory or a trophy. She was there and active and wouldn’t have stood for anyone telling her she shouldn’t be.

Because Star Wars was what launched my determination to be a writer, Leia Organa set the mold for my heroines. The first one basically started out as a blonde version of Leia, but as I grew, so did she. For twenty years, I’ve been exploring myself through the leading ladies I write, but there’s a little bit of Leia at the core of all of them — that heart of kyber.

I did grow up — at least, I grew into adulthood. “Up” is debatable, and I certainly never outgrew Princess Leia or Star Wars, but I did discover the woman behind the legend.

Carrie Fisher was not a porcelain perfect princess.

Carrie Fisher helped me realize — continues to help me realize, because it’s a process, not a moment — that I am beautiful and more importantly, worthy, no matter what my weight is, no matter that I am, let’s face it, getting older every year. That I am clever and worth loving, even when depression and anxiety get in my way. That I need not be ashamed of who I am, flaws and all, because I am here and I am trying. That striving to be the best version of myself doesn’t mean I have to flagellate myself when I fall short. That I should be gentler on myself sometimes, and harder sometimes. That I can — and will — produce good things, good work and good art, even in the midst of personal crisis or chaos.

As Leia Organa and as herself, Carrie Fisher was the heroine so many of us needed, as girls and as women. Losing her was never going to not suck. Losing her now, at the end of this gods-forsaken dumpster fire of a year, just seems like insult to injury. Losing her when this world’s equivalent of a Hutt crimelord is taking charge of our erstwhile-democracy, to thunderous applause… I struggle to find words for the unfairness of it.

leiafucktheempire

She was only 60. She should have had so much more time, more years to create and to inspire and to love and be loved. And we should have had her, the hopeful symbol of rebellion from our childhoods, a shining beacon of “no-fucks-given” for our adulthoods. We should have had her to help us through what will be, no doubt, a dark time for the Rebellion.

But the thing is — we still do. We have her work and her words. We have Princess Leia and General Organa and Carrie Fisher, there to inspire us — and now part of the Force surrounding us and binding us together. From her enduring legacy, we can remind ourselves to fight evil wherever we see it, whether it’s a fascist regime with matching hats or the hateful voices in our own heads, trying to tell us we don’t matter.

2016 took our heroes from us.

In 2017, we will be the heroes.

Time to step up, y’all.

And may the Force be with us.

leiastealthing

Reading Recs for Women’s History Month

Fuse Literary (the agency that represents me) ran a reclist on Tumblr for Black History Month all through the month of February, and they’re looking to do so again in March for Women’s History Month. Since this is an area of personal interest and importance to me, I took up the challenge when they asked for some recs — and I thought I’d share them with y’all, too.

Admittedly my list cants towards medieval and Renaissance studies in England and western Europe, since that was the main focus of both my undergraduate and graduate studies, with a hefty dose of the classics thrown in for good measure. I’m hoping that the recs I see this month will help me build a diverse to-read list! I need to expand my horizons past the bounds of what I focused on in school. And yes, not all of the historical fiction is perfect from the view of historiography (neither, for that matter, are some of the older nonfiction titles) — but that’s okay. Historical fiction doesn’t have to be 100% accurate to serve the purposes of getting readers interested in the topic and of raising the visibility of women in history.  My rec doesn’t mean that the book is 100% flawless — it means I enjoyed it, I think others would, and I think it helps the cause of women’s history month.

Historical Fiction

  • Daughters-of-RomeKate Quinn’s Roman series: Mistress of Rome, Daughters of Rome, Empress of the Seven Hills, and Lady of the Eternal City, releasing this week. A fascinating era of Imperial Rome in which the women behind the fasces played a hugely significant role. I’ve really enjoyed these books — they were a major influence a few years ago when I was deciding to write Aven — particularly because there are so many different women in them. No woman has to be Everything. They can be difficult, stubborn, manipulative, unlikeable. They can — and do — make mistakes. And, they’re part of a vibrant world, one in which women played a huge role, both in public and in private.
  • catherine called birdyKaren Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy, a YA novel (maybe considered MG now? I have trouble with that boundary since as a kid I read whatever I wanted whenever I wanted) depicting 13th century England through the eyes of a knight’s daughter. One of my all-time favorite books. Catherine’s voice is so wonderful, and it’s a great thing when a historical book makes a nine-year-old reader see herself in it.
  • Michelle Moran’s Nefertiti and The Heretic Queen, about her niece Nefertari. I really enjoy these for how they speak to the interplay of political power and religion in ancient Egypt, and to the role that women played in the establishment of the pharaoh’s power and legacy.
  • Stephanie Dray’s Cleopatra’s Daughter series, about Cleopatra Selene, the only child of Cleopatra to actually survive to full adulthood and make a life for herself. Michelle Moran also has a book on her. They’re quite different — Dray’s takes a slight historical fantasy angle, endowing Selene with the powers of Isis — but they’re both pretty revelatory for an interesting but often-overlooked figure in early imperial Rome.
  • Gillian Bagwell’s The Darling Strumpet, a novel about Restoration actress Nell Gwynn, mistress to Charles II. This book doesn’t shy away from the ugly things about the era, but it still represents Nell as a buoyant character, in spite of all the difficulties she faces.
  • DovekeepersAlice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers: the siege and fall of Masada through the eyes of four Jewish women. The narrative tone of this book is pretty different from a lot of historical fiction, but it’s an engrossing read.
  • Stephanie Thornton’s The Secret History, a novel of Byzantine Empress Theodora, one of the greatest true rags-to-riches stories you’ll find. I wish it spent a bit more time on her later life, but it’s still great for opening the door to one of history’s all-time most-fascinating women.
  • Jean Plaidy. Just. All of it. She wrote a ton of books from the perspectives of notable women, mostly medieval and Renaissance, mostly but not entirely English and French. She makes them all the heroines of their own stories — even when they’re the villains in each others’. They’re older books, so the historiography approach isn’t, y’know, fully modern, but I still love these books for making the women of famous eras so visible.

Nonfiction

So — What are some of your favorite books about women in history, fiction or nonfiction? I only have about eight books sitting on my to-read shelf at the moment, so clearly I need some more. 😉

The Amazing Life of Flatware

Okay, y’all, this is why I find history so ridiculously exciting.

The Tokyo National Museum released information today regarding the dating of a blue glass dish found in a 5th-century tomb in the Nara Prefecture. Why is this super-interesting? Because the glass is of Roman origin. In 5th-century Japan!Japan-Roman-Glass

Imagine the life this flatware must have had. It starts off probably somewhere on the Italian peninsula, as scientists identified it as belonging to a style and composition of glass created in the Mediterranean region roundabouts the 2nd century CE. That it traveled from there is no big surprise — by the 2nd century, Rome pretty much owned the entire Mediterranean. They called it Mare Nostrum, Our Sea, for a reason.

Except this glass may have made it all the way to Ctesiphon, in the Parthian Empire that was then ruling Persia, in fairly short order, because it was found, that Japanese tomb, with a glass bowl originating from the Sassanid Empire. Okay, sure, the set could have been assembled at any point after that, too, but it makes sense that the Roman dish and the Sassanid bowl would’ve come together in the mid to late 2nd century. Ctesiphon (about 22 miles south of Baghdad) would be the largest city in the world in the 6th and 7th centuries, but in the 2nd century, it was a major target for the Romans in their (entirely doomed, what-were-they-even-thinking) attempts to conquer Parthia. They actually managed to capture the city not once, not twice, but five times — three of those in the second century alone! So perhaps this humble little glassware found its way to Ctesiphon during one of those periods, when Romans were a larger presence in the city. Did it travel with the Imperial regalia? Or was it just in the luggage of some tag-along senator? Or did it get passed through the hands of an enterprising merchant?

Over the next three hundred years, this flatware travels — unbroken! — across all of Asia. How? Why? I’m having so much fun speculating. Maybe it got traded eastwards as the Sassanids expanded, making its way into Central Asia through their contacts. Maybe it went south to the Persian sea and through the trade routes with India. Maybe it passed through the Sixteen Kingdoms. What houses (or palaces) did it live in? Who ate off of it? What conversations took place over it? What arguments? What seductions?

Then, in the fifth century, as Japan is trading extensively with China and Korea, someone, somewhere, decides to send it over the water. By this point, the empire that gave birth to this little glass dish has possibly already collapsed, certainly degenerated, but it’s still chugging along.

And some Japanese guy likes it enough that he decides to be buried with it.

And it stays there.

For over 1500 years.

History, y’all.

For Bear

From my yearbook, 2002

Everyone — if they’re lucky — has that teacher. The one who manages to send a hook into your soul and pluck out something you didn’t even know was there — who challenges and encourages and supports in equal measure.

For me, and for hundreds of other students who have passed through the Thomas Jefferson/Maggie L Walker Governor’s School since the late ’90s, that teacher was Bear O’Bryan. We lost him, suddenly and shockingly, this past weekend.

Bear taught American literature and creative writing at the Governor’s School in Richmond, Virginia. As an educator now, I tell stories about him all the time — how he never had to raise his voice to settle his students, how his classroom was a refuge and a comfort, how much we all wanted to impress him. He set high bars and expected us to clear them — and no one wanted to disappoint him. Anglophile and genre-fiction-lover that I am, I’m not really the biggest fan of a lot of “classic” American literature, but by heaven, I tried for him. For Bear, I read every damn word of Moby Dick and Fountainhead. In his class, we engaged in Socratic seminars that taught us more about how to use our brains than about the books we were discussing. We put Thoreau on trial for tax evasion (I’m still mad that I, as the prosecution, lost just because my co-counsel totally flubbed the cross-examination, but I also still remember Bear catching up to me in the lunch line later to tell me that had “aced it” even though the jury hadn’t gone my way). We put together personal anthologies — a legendary project in the school, that you spent your freshman and sophomore years hearing about from the juniors and seniors. Each student had to pick a personal theme (mine was “Identity”) and assemble a compendium of essays, poetry, prose, artwork, and such relating to that theme, then write personal responses to them. It was such a special thing — at the end of the year, we traded them in class and read from each others’. We could block out things that were too personal, if we wanted, and though I’d let my heart spill in all its gruesome glory all over those pages, I decided not to censor anything. Through that bravery, I ended up finding out how much I had in common with a girl I hadn’t really bothered to get to know up until then, who I definitely would’ve pegged as too cool and pulled-together to be facing the same tangled identity issues I was struggling through. He made us open our hearts not just to ourselves but to each other, fostering that awareness of a world outside yourself that is so critical to growing up.

I looked back on my personal anthology recently, and while some of it is pretty embarrassing to recall (as is true, I think, for most things from most people’s teenage years), it also provoked a strange fondness in me for the girl I was then, tumultuous and melodramatic though she was. Someone on Facebook commented that he’d done the same thing recently, and suggested that maybe it’s time for a new one, to reflect where he is now — I wonder if that might not be a great collective project for his former students to undertake, revisiting his signature project in his honor.

In his creative writing class and on the literary magazine, we learned a lot more about what the act of writing can do for the human soul. Bear’s guidance nudged me out of the fairly narrow confines I’d written in up to that point and got me exploring new avenues, new viewpoints. I even gave poetry a try (I’m not much good at it, but once again — I tried for him). Across that year, we learned about narrative structure, point of view, tone, and voice. And we learned to work together creatively, evaluating each others’ strengths as writers and finding the ways to make the most of them. At the end of that class, each student assembled a portfolio of work — the things we’d done that year that we were most proud of. I cried when he gave me mine back with an A+ and a note saying, “We’ll be studying you someday.” He was so sure. He knew I’d be a success as a writer, at a time when I was far from that confident in myself. That this man I admired so much had so much faith in me… it’s been an inspiration and an instigation to this day, to live up to that potential that he saw and to make him proud. I still have that note, tucked away somewhere in my notebooks and papers.

The 2001-2002 MLWGS lit mag crew

Bear provoked my intellect and my creativity, but he was also unfailingly kind and patient with chaotic teenage emotions. Two moments in particular stick out for me. One was on 9/11. The news about New York came just as second period was ending — but no one knew anything at the time. For a while we weren’t even sure if it was terrorism or a horrible accident. My next class was creative writing. Bear came in, switched on the radio, and said, “Take notes. Write.” No one talked. We just listened, as the second plane hit, as the towers fell, as the stories of death and devotion rolled in. We listened as a plane hit the Pentagon. And that’s when I started, very quietly, freaking out — because my father, who worked in public safety and national security, had been on his way to the Pentagon for a meeting that morning. I didn’t want to say anything, but Bear noticed that something was wrong. He came up behind me and quietly asked if there was someone I needed to call. Gratefully, I nodded, ran out to my locker and the illicit cell phone I had stashed there, and confirmed that my father had only gotten halfway up 95 before word about the WTC hit and the governor called him back to Richmond. I was able to return to class much calmer than I’d left it.

Another was much less epic in scale, but also telling of the empathy he had for his students. When I wandered in to lit class once, teary-eyed after a particularly dramatic lunch period, he quietly gestured for me to go out and take a few more minutes to compose myself, if I needed them — with no condemnation, no warning about missing the start of class, without drawing any embarrassing attention to me. It was such a simple little thing, but such a tremendous gesture of kindness to a 16 year old who had way more emotions than she had yet learned to negotiate.

There’s always an element of selfishness to mourning, I think, and I’m keenly aware of it as I write this post. I want to honor the man, to tell everyone what an astonishingly good teacher he was, how many students he reached over the years. And at the same time, I’m just eaten up with guilt, that I hadn’t talked to him in a while, not since running into him at the Playhouse when he was chaperoning a trip. He was so happy to see me, so proud that I was working for the ASC, doing something he knew I love. I’m glad I got to see him then, but I’m so sad that I never got the chance to tell him about my book. I thought about writing him to tell him about how things were progressing, but I wanted to wait until there was something real to tell, y’know? Until it was a sure thing, a sale, a preorder-able physical object. Now I feel dumb for holding back.

I’m heartbroken that now I won’t get to send it to him, like I was planning to, inscribed with a note so that he’d know just how much his encouragement meant to me. My mother and I were just talking on Friday about how much I was looking forward to doing that. Over a decade later, I still wanted so much for him to be proud of me.

I had a new idea…

I had a new idea…

Still very much nascent, but there are a few images, perhaps a few beginnings of characters and conflicts starting to swirl around in my head.

Figures in History: Hortensia the Orator

Coolest new thing I learned today: So in 42 BCE, the Second Triumvirate found itself in need of a lot of cash. They did the usual thing, proscribing their enemies. Proscribing, for those who don’t know, meant murdering them and confiscating their estates as forfeit to the state — or, for the ones they felt more tenderly towards, driving them into exile and then stealing their stuff. But they then also did something entirely unprecedented: they levied an exorbitant tax on all women who controlled their own estates in suo iure, demanding a full year’s income from them.

And this pissed off a lot of ladies.

One of them, Hortensia, was the daughter of a famous orator, and she decided to put her heritage and her education to good use. First she appealed to Mark Antony’s wife Fulvia for help — but Fulvia, who had been exempted from the tax, basically laughed in her face. So, with a tribe of other aggrieved women (possibly including Caesar’s widow Calpurnia), Hortensia stormed the rostra in the Roman Forum — thus occupying a decidedly male space — and proceeded to give a pretty bad-ass speech.

Appian renders her speech thusly (translation found here):

‘As was appropriate for women like ourselves when addressing a petition to you, we rushed to your womenfolk. But we did not get the treatment we were entitled to from Fulvia, and have been driven by her into the forum. You have already stolen from us our fathers and sons and husbands and brothers by your proscriptions, on the grounds that they had wronged you. But if you also steal from us our property, you will set us into a state unworthy of our family and manners and our female gender. If you claim that you have in any way been wronged by us, as you were by our husbands, proscribe us as you did them. But if we women have not voted any of you public enemies, if we did not demolish your houses or destroy your army or lead another army against you; if we have not kept you from public office or honour, why should we share the penalties if we have no part in the wrongdoing?

Why should we pay taxes when we have no part in pubic office or honours or commands or government in general, an evil you have fought over with such disastrous results? Because, you say, this is a time of war? And when have there not been wars? and when have women paid taxes? By nature of their sex women are absolved from paying taxes among all mankind. Our mothers on one occasion long ago were superior to their sex and paid taxes, when your whole government was threatened and the city itself, when the Carthaginians were pressuring you. They gave willingly, not from their land or their fields or their dowry or their households, without which life would be unlivable for free women, but only from their own jewellery, and not with a fixed price set on it, nor under threat of informers and accusers or by force, but they gave as much as they themselves chose. Why are you now so anxious about the government or the country? But if there should a war against the Celts or Parthians, we will not be less eager for our country’s welfare than our mothers. But we will never pay taxes for civil wars, and we will not cooperate with you against each another. We did not pay taxes to Caesar or to Pompey, nor did Marius ask us for contributions, nor Cinna nor Sulla, even though he was a tyrant over this country. And you say that you are reestablishing the Republic!’

If that was anything like her actual speech, then yeah, her rhetoric kicked ass, especially by first-century-BCE Roman standards. Romans loved them some tricolon and erotema. And here’s what Valerius Maximus has to say about her:

Hortensia vero Q. Hortensi filia, cum ordo matronarum gravi tributo a triumviris esset oneratus nec quisquam virorum patrocinium eis accommodare auderet, causam feminarum apud triumviros et constanter et feliciter egit: repraesentata enim patris facundia, impetravit ut maior pars imperatae pecuniae his remitteretur. revixit tum muliebri stirpe Q. Hortensius verbisque filiae aspiravit.

Hortensia, the only daughter of Quintus Hortensius, together with a league of matrons, felt the burden of the heavy tribute demanded by the triumvirs, but when she could dare no men to lend protection to them, she pled the case of the women against the triumvirs steadily and successfully: for exhibiting the eloquence of her father, she obtained that the greater part of the money should be remitted; thus were the words of Quintus Hortensius revived in his feminine offspring, breathing in his daughter.

(And, dude, I did that translation myself because there is no translation of Valerius Maximus’s Facta et dicta memorabilia, which is a damn shame if it’s full of gems like this. And I did it with only a little help from a dictionary — so if it’s a little wiggly, blame my out-of-practice skills; it’s been a long time since I had to remember what to do with all those ablatives).

So basically Hortensia was a badass who stood up to three guys who were blatantly murdering a few hundred people at the time and told them to stuff it. No taxation without representation, she said — and while we should not construe this as a demand for female enfranchisement, she did bring up the very good point that the citizenship of Roman women was not subject to either the same burdens or the same privileges as male citizenship. When the triumvirs tried to send in people to remove her and the other women from the forum, they flat-out refused to go. And the triumvirs blinked. They drastically reduced the number of women who were subject to the tax, and then utterly failed to enforce it.

Yeah. Definitely filing her away for future use.

Pinterest Inspiration Board for Aven

Aven Inspiration Board — Also a great way to catalog bits of research to keep in mind.

The Painting That Started It

Before I began work on Aven, I had been entertaining the idea of a Roman-set fantasy for a while. It seemed to me that there was so much untapped potential there. Since so many fantasies get the typical western-European medieval/early-Renaissance treatment, but with Rome, you get so many different things — a more diverse population (not that, say, 12th century England was entirely homogeneous, but nothing to hold a candle to Rome, which had substantial populations from all over the Mediterranean and beyond), a complex religious system with archaic rituals and competing cults, a better (though by no means ideal) situation for women, layers upon layers of socio-economic-political strata, and, y’know, sanitation. I love my med-Ren studies, but limiting the fantasy genre to that aesthetic is just silly.

The thing that really triggered Aven in particular, though? Was this picture:

The Baths of Caracalla, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1899

The Baths of Caracalla, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1899

It’s my second-favorite painting of all time (after Titian’s Venus d’Urbino). I love how much of a story there is in those three women: the excited perching of the lady on the left, leaning in to impart some gossip or political news; the languid interest of the central figure; the piqued curiosity of the young lady on the right. The baths were such a social place for the Romans, much moreso than modern spas, and for both men and women, they could be important places to conduct business negotiations and political intrigues. There’s so much detail here, and so much personality, that it sparked in my mind and got some gears turning.

So, from Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Baths of Caracalla sprang the idea of the Vitelliae sisters, on whom I could hang my ideas for a Roman-based fantasy story.

Inspiration Board for The Antares Project

Inspiration Board for The Antares Project

A lot of fashion, some gadgets, some maps, some history — all perfect to get me in the mood for working on this project!