But isn’t this a girl book?

My favorite book to recommend to readers of a certain age, or those shopping for them, is Patricia Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons. It’s a perfect rec for middle grade readers with an interest in fantasy who have already consumed the “big” titles at that level — Warriors, The Unwanteds, Land of Stories, Percy Jackson — but who might not be ready for full-on YA yet. It’s great because, despite being an award-winner with a special place in the hearts of many, it is an older book, and so it doesn’t have the marketing splash that the big series do. But I read it as a kid, and it stuck with me, so I absolutely love recommending it to others.

The protagonist, feeling constrained by the expectations their life defines for them, embarks first on a quest of self-betterment. They learn all sorts of useful skills from the palace staff, everything from fighting to cooking to Latin, because they don’t just want to sit around and be waited on all the time. But when their parents try to force them into a life they think is too small, too tedious, too ordinary, they run away and decide to become the “official captive” of a dragon. They then end up having to figure out how to defeat a wizard who’s trying to steal the dragons’ magic and poison them. And that’s just the first book — the rest of the series has more tricks and twists, surprising rescues, and dashing feats of heroism.

Did you notice that I used a gender-neutral pronoun throughout that description? That’s because the protagonist is a girl, Cimorene — and that fact alone puts parents off buying this book for their sons. Never mind the fact that this is, at heart, an adventure story. Parents frequently take one look at the cover, as I’m pressing this book I’m telling them is amazing into their hands, and dismiss it. “But isn’t this a girl book?” they ask me.

Y’all.

Your sons can read a book with a female protagonist. It won’t hurt them. I promise.

In fact, evidence suggests it’ll be really good for them. It’ll teach them to empathize with the girls and women in their lives. It’ll help them see that it’s not just boys who are the center of stories. It’ll help normalize female protagonists for them, so that female-led stories can stop being rarities for us to cling to and can instead be just stories, like male-led stories have always been.

So please, stop asking me, “But isn’t this a girl book?”, because I die a little inside every time you do.

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!

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.

Signed ARC Giveaway!

It’s the Ides of March! Some of y’all may know that I have a bizarre affection for this day. While working at the ASC, I blogged about it almost every year.

This year, though, I thought I would commemorate the occasion by hosting a giveaway for my own tale of cutthroat politics in the classical world!

Enter this Rafflecopter giveaway for your chance at a SIGNED ARC of FROM UNSEEN FIRE! That’s right — I’m giving away one of my precious advanced reader copies, which I will personalize just for you!

But hurry! The giveaway closes March 20th.

Enter Now!

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Witches & Warriors: An Anthology

Witches and WarriorsI’m delighted to announce that the Witches & Warriors anthology, in which I have a short story, is now available in both paperback and e-book format!

This anthology of sci-fi and fantasy short stories benefits the Sirens Conference, an annual gathering dedicated to the diverse, remarkable women of fantasy literature: authors, readers, editors, bloggers, librarians, and more. Last year was my first time going, and it was such a dazzlingly wonderful experience. I cannot wait for this year’s gathering, coming up in less than two weeks! Each year, Sirens makes scholarships available to provide registrations across three groups of people: fans of color/non-white fans, those submitting exemplary programming proposals, and those with financial hardships. I’m utterly delighted to have contributed to one of the projects that will support those scholarships!

My contribution, “The Price”, is a small secondworld fantasy featuring a village witch and a devil-may-care warrior. It’s about what you want, and what you’ll do to get it. It’s about how to decide what shape your life will take. It’s about sacrifice, and where you draw the line between giving and giving too much. And it’s about the lingering pain, when the one you love decides something else is more important.

I’m rather proud of it, and I hope that you’ll give it a read, and support Sirens in the process.

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!

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. 😉

Early Exposure to SF/F

I read a comment on a Fantasy Faction article earlier today that made me sad. In an article about how women are systematically under-represented and under-marketed in the SF/F genres, some dudebro felt the need to comment asking, and I quote, “Honestly, who really cares if there aren’t as many female authors as male authors…?” Apart from the obvious answer — the person who wrote the article, the many female authors, their fans, and anyone else with two brain cells to rub together — he then somehow managed to top his own ignorant, entitled self by explicating that fantasy is male dominated because things like adventure, exploration, self-realization, and wanting to protect and provide for a family are experiences that are particular to the male gender.

Yeah.

This attitude is both depressing and offensive. It’s almost bewildering to me that people can still actually think that in 2014 — but, then again, it’s not, because I’m all too familiar with just how little so many people think of women. Being politically active will dispel you of any illusions to the contrary real quick, as will just, y’know, being a woman in public.

But it still baffles me that this attitude can be sustained in the world we live in now. The blinkers that someone has to put on not to see women for what they are must just be astonishingly large. To so wholly fail to understand that half of the species has hopes and dreams and desires just like your half… I understand that many men (and some women) can do this. I just don’t comprehend how they manage it.

And it got me thinking about my very first experience with the fantasy genre and how that may have shaped my own outlook.

I'm readyMy earliest experience with fantasy, at least that I can remember, wasn’t Disney. It wasn’t the cherished book of fairy tales I had, whose illustrations are still what pop into my mind first when anyone mentions Rapunzel, the Snow Queen, or the Princess and the Pea. It wasn’t My Little Pony. It was The Last Unicorn. The film, not the book — but when I later discovered the book at age 12, I thought it was one of the most brilliant things that had ever happened to me. I know I wasn’t any older than 3 when I first saw the movie, though, and it had a profound impact on me. I wanted to watch it over and over again. I memorized all my favorite lines. I had my cousins playing “free the unicorns” with me in the crashing waves of the Outer Banks. Over the next few years, the games got more complex. I have vivid memories of, age 5 or so, essentially role-playing a sequel to the book in my grandmother’s backyard. Schmendrick had gotten kidnapped by an evil sorcerer, and we plucky band of young girls had to go save him. There was much climbing of trees and scraping of knees.

These memories are important to me for a lot of reasons. It one-thousand-percent discredits the notion that fantasy is a boys-only genre, that little girls don’t like adventuring, that women fundamentally lack those relationships. And it discredits the idea that little girls can only see themselves as damsels in distress. It never even occurred to me. Probably because the women in that story, my first exposure to the genre, were anything but helpless maidens waiting for a rescue. Molly and Amalthea smash that trope all over the place. It may have been written by a male author, but it’s definitely a female-centric story. Molly is a cantankerous mature woman, far from virginal and innocent, who up and decides that, yes, she is joining this adventure. Just shows up and says, “I’m ready.” She works hard, isn’t afraid of getting her hands dirty, and says what she thinks. For her, the reclamation of herself comes later in life than the stereotypical coming-of-age, but it’s no less important for that. (Indeed, as I close in on 30 myself, I think it may be even moreso). Amalthea is, as a unicorn, proud and standoffish, yet somewhat reluctant to embrace her destiny as the last of her kind. When she gets turned into a woman, she spends a while looking like the stereotypical damsel in distress, maybe even wanting to be — but it doesn’t fit. Her destiny — her birthright, which that commenter believes only male characters are endowed with — catches up with her. She has to stand up to evil. She has to drive the Red Bull into the sea and free her people. She has to avenge Prince Lir. No one, least of all the ladies themselves, suggests that their female bodies preclude them from these experiences.

Would my outlook have been much altered if this hadn’t been my first experience in the genre? I doubt it. I grew up with such supportive parents who were equally happy to buy me dolls or dinosaurs, to take me to dance classes or to teach me to rappel, that I developed an immunity to a lot of the gender-coding that affects kids. (Which is certainly not to say I never internalized any misogyny, just that it wasn’t of that particular girls’ toys/stories vs boys’ toys/stories type). But I’m still glad that The Last Unicorn was my first introduction to the genre. It meant I never had to doubt if there was a place for me in it.

Book Meme

Another survey borrowed from Jodie Llewellyn.

What are your top three book pet hates?

1. The virginity/hymen myth getting perpetuated in romance novels. It’s bad enough to keep telling the people reading them (many of them young women who may not have sexual experience yet – it’s certainly where I got plenty of my early sex ed from) that a woman’s first time should be painful, but the fact that these female authors don’t even seem aware of the basic anatomy of the situation just drives me up the wall. Spoiler: the hymen isn’t a couple of inches inside the vagina, and in almost all women, it’s not a barrier, but rather a membrane that already has perforations and has generally stretched plenty enough to accommodate invited appendages (or, y’know, tampons, for that matter). If it is a barrier, that’s an actual medical condition it generally requires surgery (not intercourse) to perforate it. The internet is full of debunkings for further reading, yet almost all romance authors still get this spectacularly wrong, thus perpetuating the misinformation to millions of girls and women each year.

2. First person present tense. It takes a *lot* to get me to stick with a book written that way.

3. When the climax and denouement are all crammed together into the last three pages of the book. (Looking at you, Mercedes Lackey). I have no problem with it taking a while to get there, I like backstory, I like world-building, I don’t mind tangents if they’re interesting — but once we get there, I want my investment to pay off.

Describe your perfect reading spot

This right here:

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The beach at Corolla Light, NC. When the sun is just right and it’s not too blazingly hot, about 80-odd degrees, with a nice breeze off of the water. Of course, if it’s too hot outside (as it often is in July and August), then our house has the second-best place: a white chaise lounge on the top floor underneath a ceiling fan.

Tell us three book confessions

1. I’m a book hoarder. I have trouble getting rid of books even when I know damn good and well I’m not going to read them again. (Though most things on my shelves I have re-read at least once).

2. I tend not to like “literary fiction”. I’m definitely a genre girl. Things that are too real, too present bore me.

3. Nonfiction puts me to sleep. I don’t know why. I suspect it has something to do with being mildly narcoleptic. Even when I’m super-interested in the topic, like Roman legions or Tudor fashion or what have you, I can rarely get through many pages before I nod off. (This occasionally makes research really difficult, and gave me no end of trouble during college and grad school).

When was the last time you cried during a book?

A couple of days ago, while reading Son of the Shadows by Julliet Marillier. There’s a character death that hit me super hard. But I’m a sentimental wretch; I cry at everything.

 How many books are on your bedside table?

Three at the moment. Two books on my bed (because I have a queen-sized mattress and sleep alone except for the cat, so really the other half of the bed is there for storage). And then there are eleven on the shelf above my radiator, right next to the bed — they’re divided into “things I just read and haven’t re-shelved yet” and “things I’m going to read next in more or less the order I might read them”.

 What is your favourite snack to eat while you’re reading?

Goldfish crackers. But that’s my favorite snack for anything.

 Name three books you would recommend to everyone

1. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

2. The Orphan’s Tales, by Catherynne Valente

3. Catherine, Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman

 Show us a picture of your favourite bookshelf on your bookcase

Couldn’t pick just one, so you’re getting three:

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Harry Potter shelf of my Favorites case (all 7 books, all the supplementary books, my con journal, con programs, various bits of memoribilia, and also a couple of swords)

 

medieval shelft of my history bookcase (complete with knights to guard it)

medieval shelf of my history bookcase (complete with knights to guard it)

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one of my overflowing romance shelves (haters to the left)

Write how much books mean to you in just three words

Friends. Fantasy. Felicity.

Binge Writing

This week, the New York Times published “Impatience Has its Reward: Books Are Rolled Out Faster“, an article discussing the trend towards releasing book sequels faster and faster, three within a year or even all at the same time, to encourage “binge reading”. It’s a response to the way Netflix encourages binge watching.

A lot of people have been scrambling to frame this as a good thing, but I’m far from convinced. From a reader’s perspective, it is perhaps good, in that “instant gratification” sort of way — but, as a reader, I worry tremendously that it will mean sacrificing quality in favor of quantity. People are holding up GRRM as an example of what happens when there’s not enough pressure on a writer to get a story completed. I don’t think he proves their point as well as they’d like, though. A Dance with Dragons may have taken him six years to write, but then they seem to have skimped on the editing. I understand the impulse — people had been waiting so long, they wanted to turn it from pen to profit as soon as possible. I got it the day it came out, and the first edition had at least five typos, not to mention that it just plain seems to have needed at least one more round of revisions, to scrape out some of the unnecessary repetitions and extraneous bits. Neither a fast nor a slow process guarantee you a good book — only good writing and good editing will do that.

I also know plenty of readers who “binge read” already. Just not in the same fashion. When I first started reading Julia Quinn’s romance novels, it was two books into her Bridgerton series. There were six more yet to come. I didn’t mind waiting for those — but in the meantime, I had her entire backlist to tear through. And then I started looking at the authors she liked, and the ones who liked her — Lisa Kleypas, Suzanne Enoch, Kat Martin — and then I got to tear through their backlogs. I’ve done the same thing with fantasy authors, with historical fiction, with thrillers. That’s part of the joy of exploration, and I worry about discouraging that.

And, I worry about what this sort of release schedule will do to a series’s ability to build a fandom. Part of the great joy of being in the Harry Potter fandom while the books were still being released was the waiting. It gave everything time to percolate — time to re-read and find new hints, time to speculate, time to introduce the series to new readers, time to adjust to new canon once it did come out. I feel like, if everything comes out so quick, new series won’t have that chance to grow. Many may just find themselves as flashes in the pan, hot for a brief time, then quickly fading and forgotten. And how sad that would be.

As a writer, it concerns me even more than as a reader. One commenter on the article’s breakdown on Jezebel characterized it as pretending to encourage binge reading, when really it’s encouraging binge writing. I think that’s precisely the right way to put it. Another expressed suspicions that this is more to cater to the movie industry than to readership, which is certainly not out of the realm of likelihood. Whoever’s benefit it’s for, it certainly doesn’t seem to be the writer’s.

Now, if an author really can turn out good work that quickly, and have it revised and edited and properly prepared for publication that quickly, then so much the better. But not everyone can. I would argue that most can’t. Many of those authors who do have multiple books appear in a year have a team of ghost writers assisting them, from my understanding. I’ve been reading romance novels long enough to have seen that, when authors who’ve been on a book every 12-18 months suddenly start pushing to every 6, the quality suffers. I’ve actually really enjoyed watching Gail Carriger’s career the past few years, because she’s outright admitted when projects need more work, when trying to put out multiple books in a year has been damaging the quality of her work. I like that she’s pushed back against the pressure.

More concerning still, this model would do a lot, I suspect, to push out those writers who cannot yet write full-time — ie, most writers. Under these expectations, your option is either to have a full trilogy finished before you start querying and then be able to devote the time to revising it as a whole as your agent and editor deem necessary — or else to sell the first book and know you’ll be able to finish the other two within a year. If you’re working a full-time job (or more) as well to pay the bills, that’s less likely.

I’ve learned that, under optimal circumstances, I can write 3000-4000 words a day. I don’t get optimal circumstances very often. Optimal means that I’m on vacation from my other two jobs, free of all other obligations. But even if I had the liberty and leisure to do that six days a week, even if I could turn out the minimum word count in a month or two, the book would still need further attention. Not all of those words would be good. Not all of them would be serve the story. The book would still need rounds of revision. Even if you’re quick at that — as I believe I am — it still just takes time, going back and forth, re-reading what’s there, making the changes. And I would still need to research at some point, and to read — because a writer has to read, to be a good writer. And all of that takes time.

Books take time. Books should take time. That’s my thought on the matter.