Monday, November 28, 2011

The Apocalypse Gene

One announcement before we move forward with this week's special guests:  Hadley Rille Books is celebrating its birthday with special offers on all its titles:  just $0.99 for the Kindle or Nook editions; this includes all novels by Terri-Lynne DeFino, Kim Vandervort and Karin Rita Gastreich.  The sale lasts only through November 29, so if you haven't yet ordered your electronic edition of your favorite titles from HRB, now is the time.  Happy reading!

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We are delighted to have as our guest bloggers this week Carlyle Clark and Suki Michelle.  Clark and Michelle are co-authors of The Apocalypse Gene, released just this past October by Parker Press.  This critically acclaimed blend of science fiction and fantasy is set in a near-future Chicago.  The protagonist, Olivya, is a spirited young African American woman whose unique ability to see auras becomes a key weapon in a struggle upon which the fate of the world – and perhaps the universe – depends.  I recently finished reading The Apocalypse Gene, and will be posting formal reviews on Amazon and Goodreads in the next week or so.  In the meantime, I can give the novel my highest recommendation for anyone interested in imaginative blends of sci fi and fantasy that engage the reader with imminent danger, nonstop action, a healthy dose of romance and a touch of well-placed humor. 

Please join me in welcoming Carlyle and Suki to Heroines of Fantasy.

Olivya-Wright-Ono is a fifteen-year-old, sword wielding, aura seeing, African–American girl born into a near-future dystopian Chicago. She lives on the pages of The Apocalypse Gene and loves nothing more than to share her adventures. That she has that opportunity is a miracle. First, let's talk about what her authors didn't know when they started writing her story.

  1. We didn’t know that there was such a word as "dystopia" let alone that it was a whole genre or that it was the genre we were writing. Needless to say, we hadn't yet heard of The Hunger Games, and didn't until the manuscript was almost complete.
  2. We didn't know there was a term called POC - Protagonist of Color – or that there were very few in YA Speculative Fiction – especially those who are female.
  3. We didn’t know that Olivya’s story, as it developed, would refuse to stay within the strict boundaries of any genre.
  4. And we certainly didn’t know that new authors who try to enter the scene with a novel that combines Dystopia, Urban Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Paranormal, and even Cyber-Punk was enough to make agents' and editors' heads spin.

In our ignorance, innocence, and enthusiasm, we forged ahead. At last it was ready to present to what we thought would be waiting arms of agents and publishers. How surprised we were to discover that the story, being utterly unique, met no pre-established marketing paradigms, that there was no proven sales model to encourage agents and publishers to snap it up regardless, as most of them said, of its originality, the quality of writing, or the fresh new characters. Most rejected it with regret simply because the novel refused to be part of any trend.

Then along came Parker Publishing who specializes in multiethnic literature. They loved our story for their Moxie imprint, and they loved Olivya. The Moxie heroine, as Parker describes her, surmounts all obstacles in her path, and learns lessons from each.  MOXIE heroines are the antithesis of unrealistically pretty and shallow characters that have been popularized in much of YA fiction.

This is a perfect description of Olivya! When the book was released, we were greeted with high praise from professional reviewers and many beloved readers - words like "unique", "refreshing," 'wildly imaginative," and of course, "original." 

Olivya is a headstrong girl, rough around the edges, and highly determined. You can't dictate to her – you’re lucky if she'll even pay attention. At first, we wrote her weapon as a good old katana. No. Olivya wanted an obscure Japanese sword called a nagamaki, which has a handle as long as its damn blade! That's just how she is - difficult and opinionated - but so much more. Loving one moment, cynical the next, and filled with pain because her aura sight forces her to see the suffering of the pandemic with exquisite agonizing intimacy. She had every right to give in to despair, but that's just not her style.

Carlyle Clark and Suki Michelle

Olivya is a fighter. She won't give up on her sick mother, her dying world, or on hope itself. The odds against her are staggering. Horrifying myths and monsters spring to life around her. Shivpacks run the streets of Chicago, hell bent on chaos. Cancer is ravaging the world.  Challenge after challenge arises. The one thing you can count on is that Olivya is the embodiment of MOXIE. She will fight whether it is against monsters and mayhem or for the preservation of love and hope.  Olivya . . . Will . . . Fight.

As Kirkus says in their review, “This novel is ultimately about belief, belief in yourself, your friends, your family, and the future.”  We are proud to present Olivya to the world. She is a sorely needed role model for young women of every race, and we thank Parker Publishing’s Moxie for giving her that chance.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Food, Glorious Food!

What is Thanksgiving without food?

I’ll admit it: I love to eat.  It’s probably no great secret that the rest of us do, too.  But food means more than just sustenance—what we put in our mouths is a central focus of our lives and defines who we are as individuals and as a culture.

So why is food largely absent from fantasy?  Authors provide occasional mentions of food: the giant roasted boar at the banquet, the dead rabbit shared around the fire.  But we fantasy authors, with all of our imagination and creativity, could do so much more.  Food can be used not as a throw-in detail (or as too much detail), but to actually define our characters and the world in which they live.

Use food to define personality.  One of the petty criticisms of Ken Scholes’ fantastic first novel, Lamentation, was that his main character’s preference for chilled fruity wines was unrealistic.  Where did his minions find the ice, after all?  While this detail can distract the reader, it also helps create this character.  Through the series, Rudolfo changes from a carefree lover of chilled wine and women to a strong leader.  In later books, when he starts hitting the chilled wine rather heavily, it says something altogether different about his character, and Scholes doesn’t have to use much space in the novel to do it.

As much as our likes define us, our dislikes define us more, and can say a great deal about our personalities in very few words.  A child who only eats pizza and chicken nuggets?  Picky.  A person who refuses to drink anything but red wine from a certain label?  Discerning.  What conclusions can you draw about someone who enjoys everything?  Who prefers lots of meat, no meat, or rich foods?  Who refuses to eat that dead rabbit, and instead fetches her own berries from the forest?  A simple mention of what a character chooses to eat (or not) can say so much about your character in only a few words.  

Use food to define social class.  One of my favorite scenes to write in Song and the Sorceress was the one in which Ki’leah, a runaway princess, tries to figure out how to eat without silverware in a totally different environment.  The people around her dig in with pocket knives and fingers, a method completely foreign in her world of polished silver forks and knives.  It’s a huge culture shock, as it should be for any member of pampered royalty thrust into the wilderness, and says a great deal about social structure and manners in Ki’leah’s world.

Use food to define families and traditions.  It intrigues me that many modern fantasies don’t incorporate the same traditions that we hold dear.  There is no Thanksgiving, no Passover, no gathering of family in the kitchen to put together a meal.  Yet these are important elements of our cultural heritage.  For many of us, gathering to make the Thanksgiving meal as a family is almost more important than consuming the end result.  How can food help define your characters’ ideas about family and their relationships?  How can the simple preparation of a meal define their place in a greater tradition?

Food as cultural signature.  Most people know what it means when something is as “American as apple pie.”  Whether we like it or not, our culture is defined by our love for fried chicken and fast food.  A universally-recognized sign for all things American looks suspiciously like the golden arches.  We also define other cultures by what they eat, whether they enjoy rice, bangers and mash, or baked ziti.  And this is where fantasy runs into the most trouble: nothing says Euro-centered fantasy like that infamous roasted boar.  In fact, I would argue that the boar has become a more prevalent stereotype in fantasy than the sexy female love interest.  Got boar?  Check!  Consider instead finding some dish, even creating your own, that defines your culture in a stronger way. 

Perhaps most importantly, let your characters eat!  They do need sustenance for that long journey, battle, or interrogation.  Let your executioner munch a turkey sandwich while he tortures your hero.  Have your heroine grab a bit of jerky on the road (or at least let her stomach growl).  Food is a part of your characters’ lives as much as it is a part of your own; and, with just a few small details, you can build a better world.        

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Story We Created

(I apologize for the formatting kerfuffle here. I have been trying to get it to look like it's supposed to for half an hour now, and it's just not working. I'm certain Karin or Kim will be able to fix it! For now, you'll have to suffer with my lame-ass tech skills.)

As promised, here is the story created this week in Heroines of Fantasy. I needed a few more than five lines to close it out, but I think it turned out really faboo. That old saying about too many cooks ruining the soup?? Not in this case! I give you--Our Story...
Light, the final ingredient, and the most elusive. Maia gathered up the ribbons she found in the crusty trunk her grandfather kept under his bed. "From older days, when I was young and full of spice," he told her, and winked, and tucked the ribbons back into the trunk. Maia knew better; these were no bobbies passed by poxy-doxy-girls to favor young men just in from the sea. They were light, trapped and coveted; and her grandfather was nothing of the kind.
She twisted the ribbons around her wrist, watched the play of light and shadow, delighted in the slip of silk and satin against the warmth of her skin. What she could do with these tools! She could work the magic of these little slips of light in ways her grandfather only dreamed. What he had never understood, she knew: it took a woman's touch to unlock the secrets of light and shadow, to find the gray areas trapped within.
If only her grandfather could see the complex tangle of ribbons now. But would he understand? That was something she'd never know, but his perspective on the world was quite different and rigid. But Grandmother, she would have understood. And she would appreciate the new way.
Maia ran a strand of green silk between her thumb and forefinger. Green, the light of life. Could she use it to give temporary life and a temporary voice to Grandmother? She knew she couldn't bring back the dead, but what if she could allow Grandmother to speak for a short time? What secrets, what magics would she reveal?
She knew fire would be necessary. She searched for matches and the tiny brass burner her mother used for incense. She set the burner on the windowsill, coiled the green ribbon in its cup. The first match fizzled, but the second caught. She touched its bright orange flame to the frayed tip of the ribbon. A tendril of smoke spiraled up.
A soft knock at the door caught her attention for a moment. Then faded away again. The words tripped off her tongue, slipped from her teeth and into the shadows like bats into the haze of dusk.
“Maia,” the voice said. “Your dinner's getting cold.”
Then the door opened, revealing in the glow of lamplight, the terror on her grandfather's face.
“What are you doing?” he hissed.
Maia paled. "I was just—I thought—"
Grandfather spied the tiny wisp of smoke and shoved past her, intent on snuffing it out.
Maia hesitated, the words of the spell pregnant on her tongue. Now was her moment, if she would speak, and reverse the damage Grandfather had done, so long ago.
“No!” she cried and snatched the cup from grandfather’s hand. Off her tongue fell words bright and fierce. They strengthened the orange spark. Green light wound its way through the strand of silk and exploded into joyously into the air.
“Oh, child, you don't know what you've done,” said grandfather, a look of incredible sadness on his face.
Light danced in shades of jade, mandarin, vermilion, cerulean; flames twisting around each other in an ever more frenzied rhythm. The center of the vortex rumbled and writhed, then expanded outward, forcing the walls to bend and groan. Without warning, the magic imploded. All color, all light was sucked into darkness. In the black silence that ensued, Maia drew a frightened breath and reached for her grandfather's hand.
“Maia, is that you?”
“Grandmama? I can't see you.”
“No!” shouted grandfather, squeezing her hand tight. “You don't know what you've done.”
“You said that already, Grandfather,” said Maia, “and you're hurting my hand!”
A tendril of smoke curled up from the bowl and stroked Maia's cheek. She shivered, for the smoke wasn't warm, it was cold and slick as a newly-caught fish.
“Edmar always did have an exaggerated sense of drama, didn't you, Edmar?” said Grandmother's voice, as cold as the smoke. Grandfather squeaked and dropped Maia's hand, backing away from the smoke.
“Ediris, forgive me!”
Maia felt a cold chill as the draft wafting around her legs and arms subsided. Grandfather? Grandmama? All was still. And black.
“I forgave you long ago.” Grandmama curled around her husband, like the cold, like the smoke. “It is forgetting I will not do.” Light burst from grandfather's eye sockets, his ears, his nostrils. Grandmama sucked him in, sucked in his life, his light; and when grandfather was a husk drifting soundlessly to the ground, Grandmama turned to Maia.
“How do you follow that up?” asked the Narrator. “I mean, really. That's pretty exciting stuff.”
“Shut up,” snapped the reader. “Tell the story.”
Grandmama looked at Maia, the dribble of grandfather's light wet around her mouth. A long, black tongue snaked out licking the room to darkness again. “Come here, my pretty,” the fish-belly voice said.
Maia slipped shaking hands under her apron and pulled the rest of the ribbons, still in their complicated knots, from the waistband of her skirt. Did she have enough time?
“You are not my grandmama,” Maia said, bunching the ribbons in her fist. “She was wise and brave and kind.”
“And tasty.” The thing-not-grandmama moved closer. “Edmar did not believe his playthings would bite back, but he learned," she licked her lips, “and so did his beloved Ediris.”
“Grandma, what big teeth you have!” said Maia.
“Oh no, no, NO!” said the reader. “That has been soooo done already!”
The Narrator cleared her throat in embarrassment. “Sorry. Let me try again...”
The thing took another step, and Maia could see that it drifted, rather than walked, as though it was woven together from smoke and fog. The scent of burned hair and sulfur hung heavy in the air.
“It won't hurt very long, unfortunately,” the summoning said.
In the hall, the grandfather clock tolled the hour, its song filling the room with dulcet tones. The creature turned towards the sound, its head cocked, transfixed by the melody it played.
Maia felt the ribbons in her fist. If only she could see their colors in the dark. Wait, what was that? A little flash of red sailed up her fingertip. Which ribbon had it come from?
“Red for fire,” whispered a voice close beside her ear. “To burn away the darkness and dark creatures.”
Not-grandmama didn’t appear to hear the voice, but could Maia trust it? She'd already stumbled into one curse calling-forth and feared another. But the-thing-not-her-grandmother was already turning back towards her, and she had no choice. She played her fingers rapidly against the ribbons until red sparked again and spit out the words.
“Red is not for fire,” Maia thought. “Red is for blood. For life!”
The ribbon twisted, slowly smoldering down to ash. The chimes of the clock continued to ring: twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen; eventually she stopped counting.
She ran.
The thing not her grandmother gave chase, cold flicking at Maia's heels. Its fishy breath chilled the back of her neck.
“Yes, yes, run. The light tastes better when young and heated.”
“Follow me to your doom,” Maia whispered between panted breaths, ribbons clutched tightly in her hand.
Down the hill, over the tops of the trees, Maia saw the pennant flying from the top of the town's abattoir, a place she usually avoided at all costs, but today the place she most needed. The twists and turns of the forest trail swallowed her up, but didn't throw Not-Grandmama off her trail.

Maia burst through the last stand of trees into the clearing which held the abattoir, into a wall of sound composed of lowering and panicked beasts. Red ash rose from her fingers, spreading and transforming the blood this place was soaked in into a glowing web of red light, scintillating drops of red as numerous as the grains of sand on a beach, fascinating Not-Grandmama as Maia hoped they would.

That which was not Grandmother ground to a halt, mouth opening and closing with desire. "Beautiful! I must count them all."
Greed twisted its features into a parody of happiness. Sobs of mind-numbing fear shuddered Maia's little body, and she curled up on the ground, her fingers still open, the red ribbon continued to turn to red ash, the blood into red light.
The creature sucked eagerly at the red light, and grew. Maia, past the hope of her life continuing, watched through her salty tears as the not-grandmama blew up like a pig bladder in its greed.
“Red for blood, green for life, gold for light, blue for courage, and pink for love…” Again that voice whispered, so far away and trembling. The thing-not-grandmama towered over her now, sucking and still not sated. Maia tugged the blue ribbon from the clutch in her fist. She stuffed it in her mouth and swallowed.
“What is this?” shrieked the creature. “You dare take what is mine? What I was tricked into giving that old man and his wife? I will have it back. Right. Now!”
Not-grandmama grabbed Maia around the waist, hauled her into the air. Eyes wide open, the blue ribbon burning warm in her belly and snaking its courage through her blood and bones, Maia faced the black-tongued maw.  Breath like monsoon wind hit her face, fishy as the cold and twice as rank. Maia held her breath. As her head dipped between the creature’s lips, she thrust her fist in and let the pink ribbon fall onto its tongue.
Not-grandmama gagged. It swallowed. And then it burped.
The question never came. Not-grandmama dropped Maia to clutch at its throat. Maia rolled to the ground, coming up in a crouch. She watched the thing shrink as she had watched it grow, a silent scream splitting its lips like a gash. From that gash, light. It shot past Maia.
“I am sorry, child,” a voice like the rush of wind whispered. “I was a fool. My trunk is yours, and all inside.”
Not-grandmama jerked and twisted on the ground, its now-nubby hands twitching, and then still. Light drooled out of the corner of its mouth, its eyes, its nostrils, swirling colors like syrup in cream. Maia heard, “The green summoned it, the red fed it, the pink destroyed it. You carry the blue inside of you now. What you do with the gold is your choice. Peace, dear child. Forgive us both.”
Maia struggled to her feet. Her fingers, cramped into an aching fist, held a gold ribbon. She loosened her grip, one digit at a time, watching the play of light and shadow; knowing it for what it was. Maia wrapped it tenderly around her wrist and kissed the knot she made to hold it. Stepping gingerly over the husk once not-grandmama, she headed for home and the trunk that once belonged to her grandfather who had been no such thing, and the magic never his.

Monday, November 14, 2011


Well, either this is going to be a lot of fun, or there will be plenty of cricketsong in Heroines of Fantasy this week. I'm hoping for fun.

Back in the before-times, when I was a Girl Scout leader, I naturally had my girls do the writing badge. Ok, there were several writing-related badges, and we did them all. We were an artsy group. An activity I came up with to satisfy one of the requirements was writing a collective story. We started with a picture, and five lines. Each girl had to add another five lines before passing it on to the next. In the end, we had a story, and a lot of laughs because, inevitably, the girls got a little naughty with their storytelling--poop-jokes when they were little, and a bit bawdier once they hit middle school.

We have so many heavy conversations in HoF, I thought, given the festive time of year, we could use a bit of a revel. Let's have at it, shall we?
Light, the final ingredient, and the most elusive. Maia gathered up the ribbons she found in the crusty trunk her grandfather kept under his bed. "From older days, when I was young and full of spice," he told her, and winked, and tucked the ribbons back into the trunk. Maia knew better; these were no bobbies passed by poxy-doxy-girls to favor young men just in from the sea. They were light, trapped and coveted; and her grandfather was nothing of the kind.
(pic removed)

Here are the rules--FIVE LINES ONLY! No cheating. And the only thing I ask is that you not be offensive. Sex and/or violence is allowed, but please don't get too graphic. Posting ends midnight on Saturday, November 19th. I'll conclude with the last five lines, and post the whole collective story on Sunday, November 20th. Sound like fun? Join in!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Villainesses and Anti-Heroines

Happy November.

For various reasons that are beyond the scope of this blog, I've decided to take it easy on myself with this month's post, and give all of you a treat while I'm at it: an audio-recording of a reading I did this past September from my short story 'Creatures of Light'. 

'Creatures of Light' is a portrait of Selenia, a brilliant and ruthless woman scientist living in a fantasy Age of Exploration. The audio-recording includes just two scenes from the short story, both featuring some remarkable organisms that Selenia studies. One day this short story will be expanded into a full-length novel; until then I can give you this small taste of what is to come.

Selenia has been mentioned on this blog before; I brought her up in the discussion following our very first post in September (Why Fantasy?) as a possible example of an anti-heroine.  And because a week cannot pass on Heroines of Fantasy without a discussion of some kind, I'd like to pull out the topic of anti-heroines once again, and couple that with the topic of villainesses. 

Here are my questions for you:

What do you like to see in your anti-heroines, and your villainesses?  What makes this kind of character appealing, engaging; a woman we might actually relate to even as we abhor her decisions and actions?

Who are your favorite anti-heroines and villainesses, and why?

What would you like to see in an anti-heroine or villainess that you have not yet seen in your reading?

Do you expect the anti-heroine or the villainess to act in ways that are qualitatively different when compared to the anti-hero and the villain?  Why or why not?

You don't have to tackle all these questions in one week, of course.  But if you're up for sharing your thoughts on at least one, I'd love to hear them.

While you're mulling over what to write in your comments, here's that audio recording I was talking about.  I hope you enjoy Selenia; she's one of my favorite characters to work with.

Posted by Karin Rita Gastreich