Cass’s Birthday Review Bonanza

We didn’t quite hit 50 reviews on From Unseen Fire, but we’re closer than we were a month ago! I’ll call that a win, so —

As promised! 30 reviews of books I’ve enjoyed, all of which I posted to Amazon over the past 30 days! There’s a broad range here — YA and adult and even middle grade, science and history, fantasy and sci-fi and romance and more. Do yourself a favor and check some of these out!

  1. Roar, by Cora Carmack: I really, really enjoyed this. The magic is innovative and intriguing, and while the characters take the shapes of some familiar tropes, they’re tropes I thoroughly enjoy, and each has some unexpected qualities to keep things interesting. Roar in particular is someone whose feels I feel. Her emotional journey is very real, and I can’t wait to see where it goes. A gripping good read.
  2. Hunter, by Mercedes Lackey: This was a fun start to a new series! I love the way that Lackey explores magic in so many different ways, and here, she envisions a post-apocalyptic world where magic has re-emerged — and with it, all the mythic monsters from legends across the globe. I enjoyed the idea of Hunters-as-celebrities, and that’s where the book feels most like the Hunger Games, in its examination of entertainment having become the new opiate of the masses. I actually would’ve loved to have seen that aspect of the book pushed further. The heroine reminds me of the star of one of Lackey’s earlier series, Diana Tregarde, which I loved. She’s motivated by a keen sense of responsibility and the desire to protect the defenseless. I listened to this one on audio and am looking forward to enjoying the rest of the series.
  3. Never Deceive a Viscount, by Renee Ann Miller: A delightfully fun romance novel! The dialogue sparkles, and it’s wonderful to follow these characters on their journey towards happiness. I particularly love that Miller is willing to explore heroines outside of the stereotypical debutante mold — reminiscent of Madeline Hunter and Lisa Kleypas.
  4. Tyrant, by Stephen Greenblatt: Greenblatt delivers a searing indictment of the Trump regime and all those who enabled its rise — without once directly making mention of modern politics. The commentary is certainly there, though, for those with eyes to see. Greenblatt provides a walk through Shakespeare’s examinations of demagogues, civil unrest, factionalism, and patriotic duty in terms accessible for a popular audience. We can only hope that Shakespeare’s assessment that tyrants only ever enjoy short reigns will prove true in the modern age.
  5. The Poppy War, by R. F. Kuang: Enthralling but brutal. This book started off reminding me of The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss, but about two-thirds of the way through, it takes a sharp left turn into… something else. Kuang’s historical inspiration shows, and her exploration of the dark themes of war is unflinching. This is a tough read, but well worth it.
  6. The Belles, by Dhonielle Clayton: Pretty in pink with a lot of potential. The Belles explores weaponized femininity in action, but also embraces a lot of feminine tropes and values that get shunted to the side in many other works of fantasy (and, let’s be real, all of media). It was refreshing to read a heroine whose power is rooted in what lots of other books dismiss in order to have heroines who “aren’t like other girls”. And this book is gorgeously rendered with full Rococo splendor. The world-building brings up a lot of interesting and innovative uses of magic, as well as exploring the political and cultural implications of a world that has allowed itself to become so terribly reliant on the magic of a very few individuals. There’s a lot of room for these ideas to grow, and I’m excited to see what happens in Book Two.
  7. The Rogue Not Taken, by Sarah MacLean: I really enjoyed this one, even if it does fall into a few of the “why are you doing that, what on earth are you thinking?”/”I am feeling a thing/taking an action solely to provide plot conflict” holes that romance novels, much as I adore them, are often prone to. MacLean’s characters are always sparkling with just enough shades of darkness to be interesting, and this book is at its best when it’s a road trip romp.
  8. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, by Steve Brusatte: This was a delightful return to paleontology for someone who was once a dinosaur-obsessed kid. Brusatte’s prose is engaging and vivid, but not pop-science. He delves deep into the evolutionary transformations that created the dinosaurs, developed them, and then killed off the ones who didn’t turn into what we now know as birds. (And yes, he does come down very firmly on that point — not that birds evolved from dinosaurs, but that birds are literally dinosaurs, if a specific and somewhat odd subset of them, the way that marsupials are a specific and somewhat odd subset of mammals). I do feel like the book would have benefited from more illustrations, though, especially when he’s discussing the relative sizes of dinosaurs and their genetic brethren, or other physiological developments. Brusatte’s writing is at its best and most evocative when it it as its most imaginative: describing the fight between a T-rex and and a trike, painting the picture of the Mesozoic landscape, or chillingly rendering the catastrophic impact of an asteroid hitting what would become the Yucatan peninsula. (Seriously, that last bit put a hitch in my throat, as though it hadn’t happened 65 million years ago). Overall, this book reminded me of what joy there is in studying and imagining these creatures who once owned our world.
  9. Circe, by Madeline Miller: This wildly successful book does not need my review to help it, but I have a specific purpose: I particularly want to recommend this book to anyone who’s felt bereft of Mists of Avalon since learning about Marion Zimmer Bradley’s various crimes. CIRCE isn’t as complex as MoA, with only one point of view, and it isn’t as long, but it has the same lush immersion in a mythic world. The language is gorgeous and inundating. And Circe herself is a magnificent character, so very real and understandable. Her loneliness is palpable. I ached with her through so much of this story. But her strength is formidable as well, and her vengeance glorious. So I recommend this book, too, to anyone who’s ever called herself a witch. Circe’s magic as a path to agency resonated with me so strongly, like a piece of myself I’d forgotten was there.
    I listened to this on audio, and it was magnificent. It felt, in some ways, like the right way to hear the story, as though I were at Circe’s knee, curled up on her hearth and lounging against the flank of one of her tame lionesses.
  10. License to Quill, by Jacopo della Quercia: This book was utterly bonkers, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It’s Shakespeare given the 007 treatment, with all the conspiratorial madness you might imagine that entailing. della Quercia bases his story around Macbeth and the Gunpowder plot, and he tosses in actual witches, a not-really-dead Marlowe, Walsingham and son as spymasters, Francis Bacon in the role of Q, and a horse named Aston. Also Medicis, because why not? What’s fun is that della Quercia clearly knows his Elizabethan/Stuart history and his Shakespeare very well — and then throws them out the window when it suits him. I think Billy Shakes would approve.
  11. City of Lies, by Sam Hawke: Thoroughly thrilling! Part espionage intrigue, part class warfare, part murder mystery, CITY OF LIES is a captivating and occasionally heart-wrenching tale. The world is full and detailed: Silasta feels like a real city, with shades of Rome, London, or Tenochtitlan, yet entirely itself. Jovan and Kalina are compelling protagonists, each with glorious strengths and touching vulnerabilities. I greatly enjoyed this and look forward to continuing the series!
  12. Gilded Cage, by Vic James: Class warfare takes on new meaning when one class can use magic and the other can’t. This book is a little like if the Death Eaters had won in Harry Potter and had used their powers to take over all of Muggle Britain… but if they’d done that a few hundred years ago, and so now everyone just perceived their dominance as “normal”. James has written a dark and captivating tale with strong characters and a fascinating central struggle. I’m looking forward to seeing how the chess pieces play out.
  13. Heroine Complex, by Sarah Kuhn: Imaginative and exciting! If you love the pop culture references and quippy snark of the MCU, you’re going to love the tone of Heroine Complex. This book has fantastic wit, and it’s wit particularly tuned for the Millennial ear. There’s a lot of good heart in here, too, with an emotional journey that feels very real. I recommend this whole series for the full effect.
  14. The Waking Land, by Callie Bates: The Waking Land immerses the reader in a lush and intricate fantasy world. Elanna is a heroine to really — dare I say it? — root for! Both the world-building and Elanna’s emotional journey are gorgeously crafted, and Bates has magnificent dexterity with words. The stakes are high and compelling, and you’ll find yourself desperately invested in both Elanna and her nation.
  15. Catullus’s Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet, by Daisy Dunn: Catullus is my favorite ancient poet, and this is an ambitious exploration of his life — about which we, really, know quite little. I’m always a bit skeptical of attempting to reconstruct a poet’s life from their work, because it requires an assumption of autobiographical writing that is not necessarily accurate, but nothing here seemed wildly off-course. It gives a good view not only of Catullus and his poetry, but of the world he lived in — the decade or so before Julius Caesar’s most famous years. Dunn’s translations are also lively and engaging, and I’d be interested to read more of them.
  16. The Lost Queen, by Signe Pike: I’ve seen this book described as a mix between Mists of Avalon and Philippa Gregory, and to be honest, I would say it’s much more “Philippa Gregory but for someone even most history nerds have never heard of”. It lacks the epic scope and moral complexity of MoA. That’s not a bad thing in of itself! But I don’t think the MoA comparisons do the book any favors. This book has strong characters and a very clear, straightforward story. Pike renders her world in magnificent detail, and Langoureth’s story is engaging. I look forward to the next installment.
  17. Cinder, by Marissa Meyer: There are a lot of fairy tale retellings out there, but the Lunar Chronicles series has, for my money, the most inventive and compelling reworking of familiar themes. I love the whole series, and really, Cress is my favorite, but since I’m recommending these books for blog followers, you really do have to start at the beginning with Cinder. In Meyer’s version, Cinderella is a cyborg. And a mechanic. Her glass slipper is a cybernetic foot. Her best friend and faithful helper is an android. Her prince is the Emperor of the Eastern Commonwealth, a pan-Asian conglomerate that forms part of the Eastern Union. And while evading her stepmother is part of her story, a lot more of it has to do with a plague ravaging the Commonwealth and with the sinister Lunar Queen. Meyer has done incredible work creating a believable sci-fi world for her fairy tale heroines to inhabit, and Cinder is a magnificent heroine.
  18. Dealing with Dragons, by Patricia Wrede: This is my number one middle grade fantasy recommendation. You want a heroine with agency? One who stands up for herself and refuses to let others direct the course of her life? Meet Cimorene. Great for kids who’ve run through things like Percy Jackson, Land of Stories, Warriors, etc.
  19. It’s Your Universe, by Ashley Eckstein: I wish I’d had this book as a baby geeklet. That would have been impossible, though, since Ashley Eckstein & I are close in age, so I’ll settle for doing what I can to put it in the hands of every bb geek I can manage. Eckstein’s story is inspirational, but it’s really her can-do attitude that shines through in this book. Like any true Disney princess, she imbues others with the power to believe in themselves and their dreams.
  20. Labyrinth Lost, by Zoraida Córdova: An enchanting, amazing adventure. Labyrinth Lost gives readers of the modern age a true hero’s journey — with a Latina heroine who just happens to be a bruja. Córdova has created an elaborate world to enchant any reader, and Alex is a complex and wonderful heroine. I love that she’s allowed to make mistakes and not always have a perfect attitude. Her emotions are raw and real. I so enjoyed walking beside her on her katabasis.
  21. Women & Power: A Manifesto, by Mary Beard: An excellent treatise. Beard has a powerful way with words, and this manifesto, drawn from two of her lectures (which I would kill to attend), should be stapled to the head of anyone who’s ever mansplained. Beard ties the modern attempts to silence women who speak out to millennia of misogyny. I’d love to see her tackle this subject more long-form someday.
  22. The One Hundred Nights of Hero, by Isabel Greenberg: A beautiful tapestry of a story and a magnificent graphic novel. This put me in mind of Cat Valente’s Orphan’s Tales, an intricately woven story with women’s strength and voices at its core. As someone who glories in the written word and the power of storytelling, this book sank hooks into my heart in so many ways.
  23. The Storm before the Storm, by Mike Duncan: I listened to The History of Rome podcast for years and loved it. What Duncan has done here is answer a question he gets asked all the time: Is America collapsing like the Roman Empire? And his answer is, if we’re at any parallel to Rome’s history, we’re in the decades before the collapse of the Republic. As it happens, they’re some of my favorite decades in Roman history. Duncan has, as anyone who’s listened to his podcast knows, a deft hand at explaining complex situations. I enjoyed getting to experience him in a less episodic form, where he had a bit more freedom to build upon themes and investigate a central thesis. I highly recommend this not only to history fans, but to folk looking for a bit of perspective on our current political morass.
  24. The Six-Gun Tarot, by R. S. Belcher: This book is so strange in such an amazingly good way. It’s Weird West, with all that entails — eldritch creatures, steampunk curiosities, and a cast of rough-around-the-edges misfits with secrets to hide. I wasn’t sure about this book when I first picked it up, but I ended up thoroughly enjoying it. The story and characters alike drew me in and took me on an entertaining journey.
  25. The Glass Town Game, by Catherynne Valente: Somewhere between Wonderland, Narnia, and Fairyland, you’ll find Glass Town. This book has a lot of the whimsical feel of Valente’s Fairyland novels, with an added literary edge. Highly recommend this flight of fancy!
  26. You’re Never Weird on the Internet, by Felicia Day: I utterly adored this memoir, not least because it made me feel as though Felicia Day and I have a lot in common and could be friends. So many of her experiences as a young geek, a growing geek, and an adult geek resonated with me, as did her struggle with anxiety and depression. Day is candid and raw, but the entire memoir is suffused with wit and optimism nonetheless. (This is another one I did on audio, as Day reads it herself, and I feel like that added an awesome extra quality. It’s one I can happily return to when I feel like I need a boost).
  27. Rules to Catch a Devilish Duke, by Suzanne Enoch: This has been one of my favorite romance novels of the past several years, and it’s one I happily re-read, especially to warm me up during the winter. Sophia is exactly the sort of heroine I have been yearning for: cheerfully independent, even in the face of difficulties; not a virgin and not ashamed about it; knows what she wants sexually and isn’t afraid of her passions; good-natured and forgiving but not a pushover; decisive and undeterred from pursuing what she wants out of life. The most excellent thing about this book is that the hero and heroine are so beautifully well-suited for each other. Their interactions while they’re alone at his estate are just gorgeous — warm and funny, passionate and teasing, thoughtful and challenging — everything that a marriage should be. Their romance is magnificent.
  28. Longbourn, by Jo Baker: I really enjoyed this, not least because if you’ve ever worked in the service industry, parts of Sarah’s experience will resonate, despite 200 years worth of removal from her era. Longbourn retains clear affection for its source material even as it pulls at the threads that hold Austen’s society together. The view from belowstairs is well worth examining, and Baker gives it a compelling treatment.
  29. Secondborn, by Amy A. Bartol: An exciting and engaging story. With some Hunger Games-esque notes, Bartol has created a fascinating world and populated it with interesting, multi-faceted characters, including an active and tenacious heroine. The action whips along, making for a compelling read.
  30. Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, by Ben Blatt: As bad as I am at math, I really enjoy statistical analysis. Pair that with wordsmithing, and you get a book designed to appeal to the nerdiest parts of my personality. Blatt dives deep into how authors use words — how they favor some over others, how their use changes over time, how well they adhere or don’t to well-known maxims of writing (even when they’re the one who laid those maxims out). I appreciated that he didn’t only look at ~literary classics~, but included a number of genre books in his analysis as well. This book was geeky good fun!

Cass’s Birthday Review Campaign

We are just past 4 months since From Unseen Fire hit the shelves! We are also one month out from my 33rd birthday. So this seems like an awesome excuse to say…

I would like to have 50 Amazon reviews of From Unseen Fire by my birthday!

BirthdayReviewCampaign

Totally doable, I think! I’m standing at 32 right now, and I am sure there are eighteen folk out there who’ve read the book but not yet dropped a review at Amazon.

Why do I want this? Amazon’s promotional algorithms kick in when a book hits 50 reviews, meaning that From Unseen Fire will start appearing in those “you may also enjoy” boxes when folk are looking at books by other fantasy authors. Judging by what’s currently on From Unseen Fire‘s page, that might mean Naomi Novik, Katherine Arden, R. F. Kuang, Holly Black, Rebecca Roanhorse, maybe even Jacqueline Carey or George R R Martin! It’ll also start appearing in those genre-focused targeted emails that Amazon customers get. It has the potential to really boost an author’s sales — Plus, it would just give me the warm fuzzies to know that I’d finally joined the 50-review club.

So, if you’ve read From Unseen Fire and haven’t yet left an Amazon review, please do so before September 20th! It would help make my birthday super-awesome. You do not have to have bought the book on Amazon in order to review it there, either — though you do have to have an “active account”, which means having spent money with them in the past year. I know plenty of folk have ethical problems with Amazon, and to be honest, I’m with you — but they are the devil authors must deal with in the modern publishing world. But by all means, purchase from your favorite local indie store before dropping that review on the Big A.

If you’ve already left a review — thanks! Now go encourage someone else to read it and leave a review. 😉 Or, go find something else you’ve read recently and leave it a review. Let’s spread the review love!

And that’s what I’ll be doing for the next month. For each of the next 30 days, I’m going to find a book I’ve read that I haven’t left an Amazon review for and remedy my laxity. At the end of the month, I’ll post a list of all 30 of those books for your perusal and TBR-padding enjoyment!

Go forth and review!

False Starts

The theme this week over on the Deb Ball is “the manuscript in the drawer”, and I thought I’d expand a little bit upon what I wrote over there. I chatted about this on Twitter a while back, too. I have been, across my life, a prolific writer. Since the age of 11, when I decided I wanted to be a writer, I’ve started scores of projects. Honestly, it’s possibly hundreds — but that just sounds ludicrous, and lots of them were, like, single-page vague concepts anyway, so I usually just say scores.

The point is that From Unseen Fire is my first book on the shelves, but it’s so far from my first book that I hardly know where to begin. Here’s just a sampling of some of the things I’ve worked on in the past twenty-one years: 

  • Age 13, a cyberpunk novel written at the behest of my 8th grade English teacher. We were supposed to write 50 pages of something over the course of the whole year. I turned in a 300-page novel. I’m pretty sure my teacher was both proud of my dedication and a bit dismayed at having to grade that mess. As I recall, the plot consisted of lots of spying and subterfuge to save a futuristic empire from a maniac warlord, or something. My parents read it and were alarmed that I knew what a concubine was.
  • Phantom of the Opera from the POV of the corps de ballet, cowritten with a friend. It was filled with every cliche trope you could possibly imagine — torrid love affairs, heroines struck down with blindness and/or tuberculosis, the Opera House catching fire, main characters madly in love with our not-at-all-self-insert OCs… the whole shebang. We role-played a lot of it out, too.
  • Something I started around age 14 that would have been sort of like Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives — fantasy focused around a competition w/ rebellion knitted in. Hero’s journey with female lead, too. This is one I had completely forgotten about until I tripped over it while combing through old files. I feel like a lot of “I’ve started to read fantasy books yet am not finding myself in any of them because it’s all boys doing boy things, well, to heck with that” attitude fueled this one.
  • “Wings of Glory”, which was something with…bird people? I don’t even know. I wrote a few highly dramatic interpersonal scenes but had no greater plot.
  • “Fire”, a secondworld fantasy that actually held the seeds of what would become the magic system of the Aven Cycle. There was a princess who did a lot of questing. This one I actually finished, about age 16, I think?
  • Young CassSo. Much. Fanfic. Starting with a Star Wars series called “Days of the Alliance”, written and rewritten many times from ages 12-mid 20s, most recently with the characters as morally-grey Rebel SpecOps. My middle and high school friends got this distributed to them via inbox. I had learned a painful lesson about sharing anything to the Star Wars section of fanfiction.net, particularly if you had the nerve to be a girl writing these things, so I kept most of this closer to the chest — but I had the delightful experience of having friends begging me for updates!
    (Dear Disney: I’d still super love to write this for real; call me).
    Later on, through college, the fanfic was mostly Harry Potter based. I spent a lot of time exploring Bellatrix Black, Sirius Black, and Rowena Ravenclaw, in particular. The Blacks just fascinated me in a sort of Jungian “explore the dark mirror of your own nature” sort of way, while with Rowena and the other Founders, I was determined to write a more historically-appropriate version of the Founding of Hogwarts, since JK Rowling apparently can’t distinguish pre-Norman England from the 15th century. Then, post-grad-school, my attention turned towards Wizarding America, in concert with two of my besties, and we wrote a ton of material for a Tumblr Blog that was very successful right up until JK started trying to write America, which she does so poorly that it depressed us into giving up. (JK Rowling does. not. understand. this country).
  • A dystopia set in rural Virginia, also written and rewritten many times from about ages 16 on. In senior year of college, I re-envisioned it in my screenwriting class and ended up polishing it to the point where I felt willing to submit it to contests. It actually made it to the semi-finals of the Final Draft competition (a fairly large and well-known one) in 2011!
  • Map“Relics”, a rewrite of “Fire” in my early twenties that was somewhat better but still groaning under the weight of fantasy tropes. In this version, the questing princess had a bit more of a purpose: she had to go looking for the sacred relics that represented the eight magical elements of her world. (I told you it contained the seeds of the Aven Cycle’s magical system; I’ve been thinking about these things for a long time). This project was also a ridiculous worldbuilding timesuck. I’m pretty sure I charted the royal family tree back, like, eighteen generations. But, hey, if George R R Martin can get away with it…
    (Also, looking at that map helps me pinpoint roughly when my handwriting cemented into its adult form).
  • A Trojan War retelling from the viewpoint of (of course) the prophetess Cassandra.
  • Steampunk Camelot. Honestly this one never got much farther than that general idea. Might be fun to revisit as a sort of Celtopunk project instead?
  • A few false-starts at Regency romances. I figure I read enough of them, why not give writing them a try? Answer: I get too bogged down in the history.
  • An Aladdin retelling set in the pre-Islamic Sassanid empire. This one I’d love to pick up again at some point when I can do the grad school level research required.
  • A high tech Trojan War set in outer space, where Troy is a space station & its walls are impenetrable force fields. Also never got much further than concept.
  • A story of the Fae set in Williamsburg VA in the 1760s. Another one I’d like to revive. Maybe as a short story?
  • “The Antares Project”, a steampunk AU I’ve been dabbling with since ‘06. This is the one I blogged about for the Deb Ball this week. It has a great world (based on if the US lost the War of 1812) and fantastic cast that I adore and no plot. A lot of great scenes written. No coherent story. Sigh.
  • And then the two I’m *actually* working on now in addition to Book Two: the Julie d’Aubigny-inspired space opera romp, and a secondworld fantasy with star-based magic.

And that list is so partial, y’all. Just the major things that sprung to mind. If I combed my files and old notebooks, there are so, so many more kernels. There are probably a bunch I have literally no memory of. Because I keep it all — I seriously never delete anything, and I’ve never thrown out a writing notebook. They’re all there, waiting, in boxes that are currently in storage. On my computer, the files are are all neatly archived away. But they’re there. Some of them I may never look at again. Some may only get glanced at with fond remembrance for the child I once was. Some may have good bits I can cannibalize and reconfigure. Some may actually be worth reviving.CMd4-9AUYAEmhZP

I don’t feel that any of them were wasted effort.

Because the thing is this: If you want to be a writer, write.

Write things that don’t work. Write character profiles you never use. Write stories that don’t get past the first page. Write down hazy ides that come to you in dreams. Write ridiculous self-insert fanfic.

Yes, you do have to finish something eventually, if you want to publish, but all the false starts have value, too. It’s all training.

I’m so glad I’ve spent so much of my life playing with words.


If you’re interested in seeing bits and pieces of some of these false starts, join my Patreon! I share snippets of them from time to time — even the embarrassing juvenilia! 😉 

Camp Nano: Writing with Anxiety

Originally written for the Camp Nanowrimo blog this month!


Chin up, PrincessThat meme, right there? That explains a lot about who I am. I’ve got what some people call “high-functioning” anxiety, the kind that makes you a constantly over-wound spring but determined not to let anyone know that you’re screaming internally. I am a Slytherin, driven to achieve and to do so publicly — because if other people don’t know about it, does it even count? And if I’m not doing my best, if I’m not meeting all my goals and checking everything off my list, aren’t I just a lazy failure? Aren’t I letting myself down, and thus letting down literally everyone I’ve ever met?

Well, of course not. But the demon in my head doesn’t know that.

If any of that is sounding familiar, my sympathies. I know how rough it is. Here are a few things I keep in mind to help manage the mental chaos:

#1: Block off time for things that are not writing. This is hard especially when you’re on a deadline or trying to meet a daily Nano goal, but it’s a crucial thing to learn. Anxiety and stress quite literally fray your nerves, neurologically speaking. Your brain needs breaks, but if you’re like me, it’s tough to give your brain that permission. Lately, I’ve been using my bullet journal’s habit tracker to make sure I do things like read for pleasure, tend to my spirituality, and not fall asleep with my phone clutched in my hand. Checking things off on the habit tracker feels like achievement, which assuages the sense of “but if you’re not constantly working, you’re an unproductive loser”. I’m trying to redefine my broken brain’s perception of what productivity is — sometimes it has to be those things which feed your soul and keep you sane. That’s not an indulgence. It’s keeping yourself in top working order by giving your nerves a chance to rest and heal.

#2: Celebrate the small victories. If anxiety is something that makes you super goal-oriented, learn to find some smaller benchmarks in addition to the biggies. Your end goal might be finishing your Nano project, getting published, hitting the bestseller list — but quite apart from the aspects of those things which are outside of your immediate control, those goals are also always going to be delayed gratification. That can make the day-to-day grind a frustrating endeavor. Give you brain a nice dopamine hit by finding things to celebrate more often: hitting a sprint goal, writing a smashing paragraph, learning a new word. Finding things to take pride and joy in on a more regular basis has really helped me to remember that the major goals do not have to eat my entire life or define my sense of self.

#3: If you need more help, get it. Whatever form that help takes — medications, therapy, changes to your life. I wish I had done so much, much earlier. Instead, I struggled for fifteen years, unable to figure out why every so often, my life just seemed to spiral apart beyond my ability to cope with circumstances. Finally seeing a psychiatrist and getting prescriptions to help with anxiety, depression, and insomnia helped immeasurably. They didn’t change who I am — but they dialed the trouble down to a level I could actually manage. That, in turn, made it much easier to actually write. Needing help does not make you weak. Seeking it out is not an indulgence. Accepting it will not dull your creativity.

This anxiety is always going to be a part of me, and in some ways, I’m okay with that. I like being driven to achieve. But I’m also really glad that I’m learning ways to keep it from counterproductively destroying my ability to function. It’s an ongoing process, to be sure! But then, so am I. And that’s just fine.

April/May Patreon Review

Rosy

There is  moment, in Man of La Mancha, that struck me very powerfully from a very young age. Cervantes, in prison and interrupted in his tale of Don Quixote, is challenged by another prisoner, who asks him why poets are so fanciful, why poets can’t just face up to life as it is? And Cervantes responds gorgeously, bitterly, passionately:

I have lived nearly fifty years, and I have seen life as it is. Pain, misery, hunger … cruelty beyond belief. I have heard the singing from taverns and the moans from bundles of filth on the streets. I have been a soldier and seen my comrades fall in battle … or die more slowly under the lash in Africa. I have held them in my arms at the final moment. These were men who saw life as it is, yet they died despairing. No glory, no gallant last words … only their eyes filled with confusion, whimpering the question, “Why?” I do not think they asked why they were dying, but why they had lived. When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. To seek treasure where there is only trash. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!

I have always been a storyteller, and I have always been an optimist. This, I think affects the way in which I tell stories.

I’ve said — and written — before about how sci-fi and fantasy hold a mirror up to life and question it, but there are a lot of ways to go about that. The dominant trend for the past fifteen years or so has been the grimdark version. Not so much a mirror as a magnifying glass, turning the saturation up on misery and pain. Everything from Batman Begins to A Game of Thrones to Altered Carbon — these things dwell on agony. They stripped down the glitz and color of the 80s and 90s, and with them, the hope. The prevailing message is that everything is terrible, everyone is terrible, and there is no escape.

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Now, obviously, that’s not 100% of what’s out there, but it’s quite a lot of it, especially in SFF. I consume this media, because it’s the current paradigm, but it’s not what I most enjoy. And it’s not what I write.

I’ve been analyzing this in myself lately, and I’ve realized that, when I write, I look at the way things were in the past or the way things could be in the future, and then I ask: “What would change if we, individually and as a people, made better choices?” I imagine life a little more as it should be.

And then, because of the way my brain works, I set about trying to figure out what tuns that should into a could. I’ve watched myself do it in far-off history, re-imagining the Romans; I’ve seen myself do it with nearer history, re-imagining America in the 19th century; I’ve seen myself do it with the future, imagining life in space. I never want to create a utopia. Those go too far; I tend to find them somewhere between boring and unbearably bleak, and they just don’t ring true. No matter how good we humans get, we’re never going to be perfect. We’re messy, emotional creatures, and we’ll always make messy, emotional mistakes. But if we were just a little better, a little kinder, a little more aware, a little less selfish, a little more long-seeing — How might that change things?

And it’s not just about the past or the future. As I started thinking about it, this desire to imagine a better world plays into the characters I’m drawn to in fiction, as well. It’s particularly noticeable in, though not exclusive to, romance.

Because let’s face it: scoundrels with hearts of gold are a rare commodity. Most of them are just irresponsible jackasses. Maybe they’re not bad guys, really, but they’ve never learned to be better. And those dark, brooding types? Entitled jerks, on the whole. Selfish and self-righteous. They are not really the kind of people you want to give your heart to.

But in fiction… they can be.

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In fiction, you can spend at least a few hours imagining that people can change for the better, and that the redemptive power of love can make them want to do so — that the Beast works to prove himself worthy of Belle’s love, that Han Solo does care about something other than his own skin, that the rake reforms. And yeah, I get the argument that portraying relationships like that in fiction sets a dangerous precedent in real life, that it encourages girls and women to think wrong-headedly and invest in men who don’t deserve them. I get it. I’ve lived it. Heart many-times-broken; lesson perhaps-eventually-learned.

It doesn’t stop the yearning to imagine that it still might be true, that loving someone enough could make them want to do better — by you and by themselves and by the whole damn galaxy.

Just like I understand the instinct for the grimdark stories. I understand the idea that forcing us to view our darkest natures might make us own up to them. There’s a place for all these stories. But there’s a place for the rosier versions, too. There’s a place for people to dream, to hope, and to imagine something less brutal. In some ways, that’s a relief; in other ways, it’s a necessary coping mechanism. It’s what keeps us from dying despairing. A story of hope gives us something to keep reaching for.

I know there are some who find that point of view naive, irrational, or unsophisticated. They’re wrong, of course, because they’re assuming it comes from a place of ignorance or insulation, and that’s often quite far from the case. Rather, when you’ve been battered about by the Real World, it’s not unreasonable to want to believe in a version of the universe that could be just a little bit better.

I rather think it’s a thing of courage, to gift your heart with such imaginings.

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This is why I like fluffy romance novels. It’s why I like Rogue One so much, because even through the tragedy, the message is one of hope, not of annihilation. It’s why I liked the X-Men of the 90s. It’s why Cap and Thor are my favorite MCU Avengers. It’s why I like the vision of the future that Star Trek presents. It’s why I still love and weep at Disney movies. And it’s why I write books the way that I do.

If I’m going to spend time in a fictional world, whether my own or someone else’s, I want it to be a place where I can imagine, at least for a little while, life as it should be.

How to Help Your Friendly Neighborhood Novelist

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1: Acquire: Pick up the book in some form or other! (Which so many of you have already done, and I love you for it). Purchase if you can, but buying isn’t in your budget right now, ask your local library to get it. Libraries are awesome and help get an author’s words in front of many eyes.

2: Review: Preferably on both Amazon and Goodreads. This matters a lot — GR is where lots of readers go to check things out before they buy, and Amazon starts promoting books more once they acquire a certain number of reviews (rumor says 50, but no one’s really sure). It doesn’t have to be long! 5 stars and “I loved it! Can’t wait for the next one!” or similar will totally suffice, and you can copy the same review onto both platforms. You don’t have to have bought the book on Amazon to review it there, either.

3: Recommend: I’m pretty sure more books still get sold by word of mouth than by anything else. If you enjoy a book, tell someone else that you think would like it! (This goes triple if you know someone who, like, works in acquisitions for Netflix or HBO, just sayin’. 😉 )

4: Face Out: I’ve gotten a lot of great pictures of From Unseen Fire “in the wild”, at bookstores, and that is so much fun for an author to see. But there’s also a trick you can do to help visibility in-stores! When you see a book on the shelves, turn it so that the front cover faces outward rather than the spine. Books that “face-out” are more likely to catch the eye and get picked up.

5: Social Media: Share the book with the world! Whether that means sharing/reposting/retweeting the author’s material or creating your own, help get the word out to a larger audience using whatever platforms you’re on. Instagram is very big for books, but FB and Twitter are still great, too. And if the book has a hashtag, like, say, #FromUnseenFire, use that when you post.

Come Away: Some thoughts upon FROM UNSEEN FIRE’s release

Take my hand.

Trust me. I will not let you trip or lead you astray.

I know this path. I found it in the wilderness; I marked its stones and notched its trees.

Take my hand, and let me take you on a journey.

The road will wind and twist, and you may not be able to see around the curves. You may lose sight of the street we came from; you may not be sure what we walk towards. But take my hand, and look at the trees and the dappled sunlight. Hear the birdsong and the secrets whispered in the wind. Catch the scent of green life. Let your skin tingle. Step away from the world and out of yourself, or with yourself, or whatever you most need.

Take my hand, and take your time.

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This is how it feels, putting a book out into the world. From Unseen Fire hits shelves today, and I’m asking readers to go along with me, and I know what sort of a journey I’m asking of them. It’s not the simplest, smoothest path. It requires some investment, and it begs some faith. By some measures, it’s a lot to ask.

My favorite books have always been those which ask this of a reader. The ones that lead me off the garden path and into the deeper woods. Books to savor, books to live in, books that release both their secrets and their hold on the reader’s heart more slowly.

American Gods. Kushiel’s Dart. The Name of the Wind. In the Night Garden. A Game of Thrones. Sandman. The Bear and the Nightingale. Daughter of the Forest. Watership Down. The Lord of the Rings.

Books that take the reader on a journey. And now it’s my turn, to tempt you off the path and into the wilds, to duck beneath the hanging branches, to slip between the hedges, to beckon you along with me, to some unknown adventure.

Will you take my hand, and walk with me a while?

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Which elemental magic would you wield?

Here’s your chance to find out what sort of mage you could be in the world of Aven!

Which elemental magic would you wield?

Take the quiz, find out what god or goddess has blessed you, then share your newfound powers with the world by posting your results to FB, Twitter, Pinterest, all over.

I am, of course, Spirit. 😉

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I’m super-curious to see what results folk get, so if you haven’t already told me on other social media, comment here with what element you control!

And, for the next week, there’s also a link to a new giveaway sweepstakes for an advance copy of From Unseen Fire at the bottom of the quiz, so don’t miss out!

February/March Patreon Review

March also marked the one year anniversary of my Patreon! I am so grateful for everyone who’s supported me and my work over the past year. With From Unseen Fire about to debut, I’m going to be re-evaluating and revamping a bit, to make sure I’m offering the content that y’all most want to see. Keep an eye out for a post to that effect!