Over the Hill: Older Characters in Fantasy and Sci Fi

One of my favorite reads last year was The House in the Cerulean Sea, by TJ Klune. Besides the delicious plot and characters, one of the things I liked best about it was that it gave us a forty-year-old protagonist, caught up in a reckoning of what he’s done with his life, where he wants to go from there, and how to deal with his expanding waistline — all that great stuff we start to think about when we hit our forties and fifties.

It’s not that often that speculative fiction has older main characters, at least, not in books with singular or few points of view. When there are bigger ensemble casts, with multiple points of view, this is far more common. Think Tyrion Lannister in A Song of Ice and Fire, or Chrisjen Avasarala from The Expanse. Or the screen adaptation of Good Omens, which chose actors in their fifties for the roles of Crowley and Aziraphale. I love all of these characters, but in a larger cast their age becomes diluted, more of a balance for younger characters and less of a leading voice.

There are certainly books out there that check this particular box of allowing older characters to take center stage. One that comes to mind is the fantastic City of Blades (Divine Cities #2) by Robert Jackson Bennett, with General Turyin Mulaghesh. She’s a foul-mouthed and one-armed badass on the verge of retirement, and she’s everything I didn’t know I wanted in a fantasy protagonist. Another great entry in this category is the novella Burning Roses, by SL Huang. In this retelling of the myths of Red Riding Hood and Hou Yi the Archer, the main characters, who thought their days of adventure were in the past, must come out of retirement and join forces to battle evil once again. But the truth is, sci fi and fantasy — particularly fantasy — tends to focus on younger characters, at most in their thirties (and that’s often pushing it!).

If it’s rare to see older main characters, it’s even harder to find stories where they are allowed to be the main romantic protagonists. This is where, once again, The House in the Cerulean Sea shines. Another that does older romance beautifully — and was probably my absolute favorite book of 2021 — is Light from Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki. This gentle love story between a former violin prodigy who made a deal with the devil and an alien space captain hiding out on Earth in a donut shop warmed me all the way down to my toes. It’s wonderful to see books out there that remember that romance isn’t just for youth.

There will always be an interest in coming-of-age stories, and tales that deal with young adults seeking their place in the world. However, I like to think there’s just as much space for books about the challenges and regrets that come with age and experience. Characters that are not so much ‘over the hill’ as seeing the world from the heights of hard-earned perspective. Hopefully, the success of books like the ones I’ve mentioned here, as well as TV shows such as Our Flag Means Death (yes, I know it’s not exactly fantasy, but middle-aged pirates! In love!!), will remind us that we can put people over forty in the spotlight and let them thrive.

Summer 2022 Updates

It’s summer! Which means it’s time for a rousing game of ‘what’s been happening in J’s world?’

Writing

First off, I sold a story to a really exciting anthology. Fit For The Gods is a collection of diverse and inclusive retellings of Greek myths, edited by Jenn Northington and S. Zainab Williams, to be published by Vintage/Knopf. I know there were a LOT of submissions for the open call, so I was utterly thrilled that my modern-day Brazilian version of Circe and Odysseus was selected! Go here to read more about this project and to see the full list of authors.

The new fantasy anthology by the authors of DISTAFF is still in the works. It’s been rough getting moving, as COVID brought one disaster after another to our team. But I have hopes that this will be our year, and I can’t wait to share my story of fae seduction and addiction to wild magic with everyone!

Moving away from short stories, I’ve been working on something new for a while. It gave me some trouble as I searched for the right voice and angle, but it’s finally clicked, and I think this is THE version that will move forward. It doesn’t have a title yet, but I’m really excited about my sci-fantasy tale of ghost hunters, set in Brazil several decades into the future.

Community

In other news, my team and I wrapped up the 2022 virtual New England SCBWI conference, and feedback has been mostly positive. There were some truly great workshops and presentations, and you can click here to read my post-conference post. This marks the end of my tenure as conference director — what was supposed to last two years lasted three, due to COVID, and I can honestly say that I really enjoyed it, though I’m also happy to pass on the role to next year’s directors. I’m not stepping fully away from our fabulous regional team, however, as I’ve taken on the job of gathering and organizing Member News for our quarterly NESCBWI newsletter.

As for other organization updates, I decided to join the British Fantasy Society, after taking part and thoroughly enjoying one of their online events earlier this year. I also took the plunge and applied to the SFWA, recently renamed the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Association, and am now a full member.

I’m still avoiding large gatherings and am not planning to go to any in-person conferences or conventions in 2022. For next year, I plan to attend at least BOSKONE in February and NESCBWI in late April/early May, both of which will hopefully be in-person. I would really like to attend a horror convention, too, to connect with some of my horror community friends in person, so let’s see if I can make that happen…

Personal

On a personal level, we travelled to Austin, Texas in June to visit family, and had a wonderful few days. What a great city! We spent a day in neighboring Wimberley, too, and came home in love with the local landscape.

July brought our Big Family Trip: after four years (due to the pandemic), we finally returned home to visit our families and friends in Brazil. We managed to fit in a visit to the Iguaçu Falls, and to the beach, too! Leaving was, as always, bitter-sweet — we love our life in the USA but part of our hearts will always remain in São Paulo.

Now we’re home, with September all too close. This year we see our youngest off to college, so that makes both of them gone. Fingers crossed that it will all go smoothly!

Also, I turned fifty in April, and have been slowly working on completing my ‘50 for 50’ project — a list of fifty things I want to accomplish before my next birthday. Some are small and free, like the letter I wrote to my younger self or the walk I plan to take on that trail that I haven’t explored yet. Others require time and/or money, like the brand-new tattoo I got yesterday! And some of the things on my list are shared experiences, like the back painting my youngest did for me or the family visit to a local Renaissance Faire… It’s been a fun project, and I may just repeat this next year too, though perhaps on a smaller scale!

Anyway, that’s it for updates, and I hope you have lots of lovely creative and personal plans of your own to carry you through to the end of the year, no matter how big or small!

A Winding Thread: Books and Journeys

A Winding Thread is an occasional blog segment which looks at tales that connect by theme, setting, character, or vibes. (For the first installment, go to Green Magic.) This time, I’ve gathered a trio of stories that touch on journeys and books — after all, it’s July, and what could be better than traveling with a good book (or ten)?

My picks are: In Other Lands by Sara Rees Brennan, The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern, and the graphic novel Coming Back, by Jessi Zabarsky.

In Other Lands, by Sarah Rees Brennan, published in 2017, is a standalone young adult fantasy novel that plays with the magic school trope, sending the young, bookish (and delightfully obnoxious) Elliot into a fantasy realm where scholars are underappreciated, fighting abilities and war are considered the leading traits in human society, and where all the other creatures (elves, dwarves, harpies, mermaids, etc.) that share the land are deemed lesser than their human counterparts.

Elliot, being Elliot, is excited at the chance to immerse himself in books and learn all he can about everything that is not warcraft, and less delighted by the extreme physicality of much of the Borderlands camp. He has the (mis)fortune to fall into a tangled friendship with fellow students Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle (an elven warrior) and Luke Sunborn (of the legendary Sunborn clan), the biggest complication being that Elliot — unloved and ignored at home and bullied at his old school — has no idea how to do friendship in the first place. It is largely a coming-of-age tale, as we follow Elliot in the four years of training camp and watch him grow in sociopolitical awareness, compassion, and even save the world a few times.

Books in this work serve very clear purposes. Both the camp library and books themselves are a haven, a place to retreat and to hide. They’re also Elliot’s weapon of choice, in both a defensive and offensive sense, used to decipher the world and to conquer a place in it. With knowledge gained in books, Elliot goes on several missions to other lands and helps bridge the cultural differences that threaten to push the quick-to-violence humans into battle instead of peace talks. Here, books are both the familiarity that Elliot clings to when he crosses into the Borderlands, and the means to set out on journeys and problem-solve the many issues that exist in this flawed magical realm. 

Books and stories have a far more overarching role in Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea, published in 2019. In this delicately woven tale by the author of The Night Circus, a book is the key to a magical place where story is everything. In the labyrinthine Harbor that sits above the underground Starless Sea, stories are past, and present, and future, and occasionally out of time entirely. They are puzzles, and riddles, and answers — sometimes to questions the protagonists had never thought to ask. And intertwined with the main story, there are shorter parallel tales that weave a background tapestry that comes sharply into focus as all the threads begin to align.

The Starless Sea is at heart a tale about finding yourself, even if you have to lose yourself to do so. When grad student Zachary Ezra Rawlins comes across a mysterious book in his college library, the last thing he expects is to find a scene inside depicting him as a young boy. His attempt to understand leads him below ground to the Harbor, a place that is more than just a library; it is a realm of lost cities and seas, of love stories and sacrifice. As Zachary travels the paths beneath with fierce Mirabel and handsome Dorian, he begins to unravel the tangled threads of his own story and that of his companions, and the new story that emerges feels both surprising and inevitable.

Here, we have tales that serve a wide variety of purposes: they are doorways, they are destination, and they are purpose — destiny itself, if you will. The stories (within stories, within stories) are the entire journey from start to end. Books are not the practical haven that they serve as in Brennan’s novel. Instead, they are the entire and all-consuming world. One thing the two books do have in common, however, is characters thrust into strange worlds who must rely on the information they find in books and stories to navigate those alien waters.

My last pick is a graphic novel, Coming Back by Jessi Zabarsky. This one’s the outlier, not just in its narrative format, but because it is less about books themselves — though one of the two main characters is a librarian — and more about the stories that form the backbone of a society. Published in 2022, Zabarsky’s work looks at what happens when people grow rigid in their ways, adhering too strictly to the stories that make up their culture without allowing room for change.

In a community where almost everyone is magic, shapeshifter Preet is the strongest of all. Her wife Valissa, however, has no magic, but as the town librarian, it falls to powerless Valissa to face an attack upon their repository of knowledge and laws. Valissa sets out on a spiritual voyage through the magical lands accessed within the library’s depths. In the meantime, Preet is forced to leave everything she knows behind when she adopts a child and breaks one of her community’s most sacred laws.

While they are both on their own journeys — one literal and one magical — Preet and Valissa learn very different lessons. Valissa, that change and fluidity are necessary, and Preet, that there are many ways to live a life, and her community’s way is only one possibility. When they are finally reunited, things do not go smoothly, but eventually they realize these different lessons can be combined to lead their people on a new path. 

The journey here is knowledge; it’s about leaving old, outdated stories behind and creating others that make more sense. There is an intersection with The Starless Sea, in that both books deal with allowing stories to end when their time is over, and making space for new stories, for new directions in which to travel. In Valissa’s words, “We’re strongest when we can learn from each other, as our ancestors did. We’re strongest when we can bend and change to help one another.”

I’d like to make a brief note on the role of libraries; in all three works, libraries serve as gateways. This is metaphorical in In Other Lands, with the library as a house of knowledge that can cause transformation. In Coming Back, the library is a literal portal, leading to a shift in values and to making room for new knowledge. And in The Starless Sea, we have the college library, which provides the key in form of a book, and we have the Harbor, a library that is an entire storyworld in itself.

Ultimately, this trio of tales deals with how books affect us: on a personal level, in our interactions with others, and as a wider society. Stories can be a refuge, a validation, a weapon, a path, a purpose, a treatise… or simply bring joy.

“We are all stardust and stories.”

Erin Morgenstern, The Starless Sea

The Darkest Timeline

In the Community episode Remedial Chaos Theory, a die is thrown, over and over. Each time, the episode restarts, creating a new timeline. One of these is the Darkest Timeline. In this particular case, all versions start out with the same setting and characters, and with each throw the writers simply play a game of ‘what if?’ In our own writing, these variables are not fixed. We create new ones for each tale we tell. So, out of all the possible variables, what is it that makes a story dark? 

I lead a writing group for teens at my local library. At one of our recent meetings, the discussion centered around stories that take a walk on the dark side. We tried to look at this from all angles: genre, aesthetic, mood, plot, themes… After all, ‘dark’ can have many meanings. A horror tale is, by definition, dark. But realistic fiction can be, too, especially when it deals with thematic threads such as death or trauma.

(One thing my teen group brought up is that theme does not necessarily equal dark. You can bring up trauma with a gentle touch, allowing space for joy and hope. Hope — throughout or at the end of a story — is great for tempering dark themes!)

Genre, of course, plays a big part in whether a story is dark or not. Each genre has its conventions, so while a cozy mystery will never be dark, a crime procedural will definitely tread in the shadows. Know your genre and know its conventions! Yes, they can be bent, and mixed, and played around with, but if your aim is to go dark, it helps to know your audience. 

Mood and aesthetic are also key, helping set the scene for your story. Even the most mundane setting can turn dark: how many gut-curdling fictional scenes have played out in everyday places like supermarkets, high schools, and playgrounds? The teens in my group had some great suggestions to get in the right mood, including Pinterest boards, music, watching movies, and keeping a dream journal — we’ve all had those deeply disquieting dreams that haunt us for days, and even if you don’t use the dream itself, you can tap into the remembered emotions to fuel your writing.

Dark stories can start off in your face and obvious from the very first page. But I prefer those that open with the barest promise, and then build up the shadows, layer by layer, until we can no longer see the light. The most successful stories bring it all together in this transition from metaphorical day to deepest night: characters, genre, setting, themes, mood, all working towards one single goal — to immerse the reader in the darkest timeline. 

Have Book, Will Read #29

Spring is quickly turning into a Connecticut summer and, once the pollen count settles, I’m looking forward to lazy weekends spent with a book in the hammock. For now, I’m hiding my allergies away inside, and what better way to escape prime sneezing season than to get lost in a story?

Recent Reads: All the magic! (Science is magic too, right?)

I managed to grab John Scalzi’s new offering, The Kaiju Preservation Society, almost as soon as it hit my library’s shelves (I was second on the hold list). I love Scalzi’s clean prose and easy worldbuilding—his work always feels so effortless, and all I need to do as a reader is let go and enjoy the ride. This standalone novel was just the book I was looking for: well-paced, quirky, and a heck of a lot of fun.

Stuck as a food service app driver after getting fired from his corporate job during the Covid-19 pandemic, a lucky delivery connects Jamie Gray to an old college acquaintance who offers him a well-paying job in an ‘animal rights’ organization. The first catch? A ton of non-disclosures to sign. The second? The ‘animals’ are massive dinosaur-like creatures known as kaiju that live in an alternate dimension. And it turns out they really do need protecting—from human poachers who could put both the kaiju and our Earth at risk. The Kaiju Preservation Society is a top read, and one I thoroughly recommend.

The graphic novel Magical Boy (Volume 1) by The Kao riffs on the magical girl genre made popular by manga and anime. Teenager Max is already dealing with coming out as a trans guy and trying to navigate the pitfalls of high school. Then, just to complicate matters, he finds out that all those childhood stories of magic his mother liked to tell are real: he really is the last in a long line of Magical Girls tasked with protecting humanity from the dark forces of evil. Now, with support from a loyal group of friends, Max must accept and learn to use his powers, come out at school, get his parents to accept his gender, and become the world’s first Magical Boy. All in your average school week!

Originally a webcomic, and published as a graphic novel in 2022, Magical Boy hits all the right notes. It’s the perfect mix of sweet, sassy, and heartfelt, with darker topics such as transphobia, homophobia, and bullying handled perfectly, keeping the story light but not trivializing these issues. The main character, Max, is lovely, and this first volume slowly collects a delightful ensemble cast that promises the best sort of chaos for the upcoming conclusion in Volume 2.

I’ve been a fan of The Tarot Sequence series by KD Edwards since I found his work last year. Set in New Atlantis, which just so happens to be located on the island of Nantucket off the coast of Massachusetts, this urban fantasy has everything you want from the genre: awesome magic, secrets and lies, a wide range of supernatural creatures, and a corrupt and ancient society that coexists uneasily with the human world. The characters are wonderful, and this has quickly become one of my favorites series ever. (As a bonus, the author has a series of free novelettes and short stories available on his website to add extra color to the world.)

The Hourglass Throne is the third installment, closing off the first trilogy in what is pitched as a nine-book arc. This time, Rune Saint John is up against an ancient power that threatens all of New Atlantis. But he’s not alone; this is book three, after all, and Rune’s found family has grown. It’s not just him and Brand anymore—Rune has people who care about him now, if he can only learn to let others shoulder some of the responsibility! I have so much love for every one of Rune’s peculiar little crew, and to see him, Brand, and Addam grow into true leaders (and parents!) has been wonderful.

Now Reading: In space… Space… Space…

When I first heard that Charlie Jane Anders was dipping her toes in YA with the Unstoppable space opera trilogy, I said ‘sign me up’. The first book, Victories Greater Than Death, was just the right mix of breathless and breathtaking, with plenty of sweet and quiet moments to temper the action. I’m currently reading the sequel, Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak, and so far, it’s living up to the first installment. This time, we’ve moved away from Tina to embrace two alternating points of view: Rachael and Elza. It’s always a gamble switching POV in a series, but so far it’s definitely paid off. I love them both so much, and we still get plenty of Tina’s voice via the text messages and emails sent to Rachael and Elza. Two thumbs up for this endearing space saga.

To Read: *does the robot* *trips and falls on face in the middle of the dancefloor*

The Murderbot Diaries series by Martha Wells should need no introduction. Spanning novellas, a novel, and short stories, the series has won numerous awards and accolades and a huge fanbase, too. I’ve had the first three novellas sitting in my Kindle for a while, and I feel like I’m finally ready to jump into the tale of the former Security Unit AI who gains independence, which it primarily uses to watch soap operas. Book 1, All Systems Red, here I come!

I hope you’ve all got some great books lined up, ready to enjoy in the warm weather (or to snuggle inside with, for those of you in the southern hemisphere). Happy reading!

Conference Round-Up: NESCBWI 22

Art by Gina Perry

The New England SCBWI Spring Conference ended two weeks ago, and I’m finally crawling out of a haze of post-conference exhaustion and Covid to write this post. Yes, Covid. I’m thinking of getting a t-shirt made: ‘I went to a virtual conference and STILL caught Covid!’

Our regional kidlit conference is very dear to my heart. I love the friendly vibes, and the real and present sense of community. I was thrilled when I was asked to help co-direct the event. For 2022, the theme we went with is Find Your Star: Let it Shine. When I chose the theme, I was thinking about how every writer and illustrator treads their own path. Our dreams take different shape, and so do our goals. We work at different speeds, and in different ways. One person’s star may not be another. The night sky is made up of a multitude of constellations, and all of them are wonderful. I wanted the conference weekend to be an opportunity for attendees to find THEIR star, and let it shine.

But even online conferences need a lot of planning. Before any shining could be done, speakers had to be invited, workshops submissions assessed, and volunteers brought on board as moderators and for other behind-the-scenes jobs. Then there are contracts, and budgets, and numbers to crunch, before registration even opens. And a LOT of head-scratching and problem-solving. The team — myself, my new co-director Jim Hill, and Regional Advisor Kris Asselin, with a huge amount of tech help from Assistant Regional Advisor Christy Yaros — had our work cut out to make everything work on a virtual platform: two Keynotes, one Friday Night Welcome event with multiple speakers, a publishing panel, one guided meditation, twelve Ask-a-Mentor sessions, and thirty-four workshops, including eight intensives! And socials; lots of time for online socials, including the Friday night Open Mics.

As the countdown went from weeks to days, and then hours, our team was both excited and anxious: would the tech run smoothly? Would all of our faculty and moderators manage to log in? WOULD WE HAVE A CONFERENCE AT ALL? Spoiler alert: yes, to all of that. Christy had to do a lot of last-minute tech magic, but we got everyone who was meant to be online there, and (I hope!) most attendees, too. 

Thanks Stacy!

I don’t have space to go over everything from the weekend (and I’m still catching up with workshop recordings!), so I’ll end this with a few highlights from the main events. To everyone who came, whether faculty, volunteer, or attendee: thank you for being there, thank you for being you. Find your star, BE your star, and let your light shine.

  • Jane Yolen talked about the layers of time that books take — from writer, agent, and publisher — and pointed out that the only time we have control over as writers is our writing time; a lesson on patience from a Master for those seeking a career in books!
  • Heidi Stemple and Rajani LaRocca held a great Creative Conversation. Rajani urged us to follow the dopamine — “Find the thing that makes you light up and hold onto it”; while Heidi told us “Have grace with yourself. Do not expect the perfect novel to appear.”
  • Keynote speaker Tara Lazar returned to Heidi’s words, reminding us again, “Have a lot of grace with yourself.” She also told us to do what makes us smile, and to follow our internal age as a guide for writing kid lit. Cue lots of fun comments in the chat box as to what age we all secretly are! (Personally, I suspect I alternate between twelve and sixty-two…)
  • Our illustrator Keynote John Parra said, “Find truth in what you do.” He also gave some great practical advice: make sure you have a place to work and that it’s ready to go; procrastination is the worst thing for creatives.
  • And last (but certainly not least), our publishing panel brought some hard truths but also a lot of hope. Agent Liza Fleissig asked us to #nevergiveup. “There’s space for everyone. (…) Your star will shine when your stars finally align.

“A book, too, can be a star, explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.” Madeleine L’Engle.

Some of our fabulous New England SCBWI Regional Team

A Breadcrumb Trail of Self

There’s been some writer chatter across social media lately about the need to separate the author from the character. And this is good and necessary, because we are not our characters. Often our creations behave in ways we would never ever find okay in real life — because this is fiction, this is storytelling, and even the worst sort of character serves a purpose in our narratives.

But. But. We don’t create in a vacuum. Writers take inspiration from the world around them, and the key word here is inspiration, not copying, not actual transmutation from real to fiction. If you ask me who I base my characters on, I’ll probably say ‘no one’, and that includes myself. This is true, but also not true.

True: none of my characters are me.

Not true: all of my characters are me, in small ways, often hard to define.

It’s not as simple as saying, this one bites their nails like I do. That one has brown hair. (Spoiler alert: they all do. There was just too much reverence for blue-eyed blondes when I was growing up in 1980s Brazil, and teen me just wanted to see brown hair like mine taking center stage.) Yes, I often borrow quirks and habits for my characters (after all, I know what it feels like to bite your nails down to the quick, until your fingers are raw and tender), but the ways in which my characters are me are a lot more subtle than that.

At first draft, they’re often two-dimensional sketches, a suggestion of who they might become. In part because I’m still getting to know them. And in part because, at this stage, I’m more focused on getting the story into a basic shape that makes sense. Plot is key. Later, I’ll fill in the blanks. I’ll breathe life into my characters, and try to make them more than walking, talking paper dolls.

The real character work starts when I begin revising that most basic of drafts. Here, it helps to dig into my own feelings to color in theirs. Anxiety, sadness, anger, hope, love, fear… The specific moments remain mine, but the emotions, or rather, the memory of those emotions, are all there for the borrowing. And so, I add a dash of this to one character, a sprinkle of that to another. They begin to come alive, and to take on an existence of their own. They’re not me, none of them. They are their own creatures. But in that spark of life, there is some of my own self to act as fuel.

I suspect that, if you were to take every character I’ve ever created, you would find an entire trail of breadcrumbs, a trail of self that leads to me. A million jigsaw pieces, a broken mosaic of mirrored slivers that reflect the million undecipherable fragments of self. Me. And not me, all at once, all together.

A Winding Thread: Green Magic

Another month, another book post. This time, it’s a brand-new blog segment which will occasionally (when the mood strikes me) visit books that connect by a winding thread of theme, setting, character, or vibes. Today I’m looking at green magic with a trio of stories that draw on nature: Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh, The Green Man’s Heir by Juliet E. McKenna, and The Silver Nutmeg by Palmer Brown.

Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh was published in 2019 and is the first in the Greenhollow Duology. It won the World Fantasy Award for best novella, and it’s easy to see why. Part fairytale and part romance, this is a story of old magic, forgotten gods, and new love. 

Tobias Finch is a giant of a man more tree than human. He lives in the woods with his cat and guards the land from supernatural perils. But he can’t protect the locals from the darkest of all dangers, one anchored in the passing centuries. And then a new owner comes to Greenhollow Hall. Henry Silver is handsome, determined, and brimming with unwise curiosity. Before long, Tobias finds himself drawn into Silver’s orbit. But here, too, there is danger, as the younger man’s presence drags buried secrets into the open and forces Tobias to face his own past, lost to time.

Despite the dark undertones that emerge every now and again, Silver in the Wood is a sweet and tender tale. Time is often slow and syrupy, and the words beat to the tempo of tree sap and green growth. Tobias himself is a gentle soul — tall and broad, with long wild hair, but at the same time patient and kind. Borrowing from myths of the Green Man, he’s every inch the magical guardian archetype, living among the trees with only the local population of dryads for company until he allows Henry to slip in through the cracks. This is the perfect hammock read for a spring day, and long after done, the magic of its pages lingers on.

Published in 2018 and a finalist in the British Fantasy Awards, The Green Man’s Heir is the first in Juliet E. McKenna’s ongoing Green Man urban fantasy series. I say ‘urban fantasy’, but it would be more correct to say rural fantasy since the story is set for the most part in the Peak District in England. The choice of setting moves the usual supernatural concerns for this genre from the big city bustle into nature, where the designs and desires of mythical creatures are literally as deep-rooted as the ancient land itself.

Here, too, we have the guardian figure, in the shape of Daniel Mackmain, born to a human man and a dryad, a spirit of the trees. Daniel’s greenblood gives him his tall, strong stature and his ability to see the otherworldly, but here the similarities between him and Tobias end. Tobias is seen by many as intimidating simply because he is large and taciturn, but is soft and kindly. Daniel with his short-cropped hair and quick temper is a lot more thuggish, often having to hold back his anger at those around him (and just as often, failing). He also lacks an anchor — Tobias is bound to the wood he lives in, lost in time but centered in place, while Daniel is lost and clearly searching for meaning. He moves around the country restlessly from job to job, his only tenuous ballast a connection to trees and wood.

Enter the Green Man. In this version, he is a magical guardian spirit who requires an agent in our contemporary world who he can act through. Daniel is the perfect man for the job, already in synch with the mythical world and sharing the Green Man’s affinity for the wilderness. There’s a killer in the woods, and soon Daniel is up to his neck in a murder investigation with supernatural undertones, treading a thin line between doing the Green Man’s work and being arrested as a suspect himself.

Despite the parallels — the woodlands as both character and setting, the use of the Green Man myth, the physical similarities between Tobias and Dan, and the inclusion of nature spirits such as dryads as an integral part of the story — this is a very different beast. Part crime thriller, part supernatural mystery, part deep dive into local history and mythology, it’s a fast-paced, intense, and often dark read, one to save for the comforting embrace of a blanket, a mug of tea, and your favorite chair. (And maybe stay away from trees!)

The Silver Nutmeg by Palmer Brown is the outlier here. It’s a children’s book, for a start, and an old one at that. First published in 1956, my own copy was printed in the UK in 1957. It was bought second hand at a school book sale when I was maybe seven or eight, and it enchanted me for years. The binding is cracked, the book is water stained from when I decided it would be a good idea to keep it in a box in my ‘secret tree perch’ (yes, I was that sort of child), and lots of the delicate illustrations by the author were colored in by the previous owner. But I never could bear to part with it, and so it sits on the shelf next to my Narnia books (new, the originals literally fell apart) and my well-loved copy of E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle.

This is the sequel to Brown’s first book, which I have never read. I always figured The Silver Nutmeg landed in my lap by an act of serendipitous book magic, this strange and quirky tale that had me so smitten as a child, and I never went searching for anything else by the author. It tells the story of Anna Lavinia, who makes her way over the field and into the woods and all the way through the dew pond to the upside-down land where Toby — another Tobias — lives. This Tobias isn’t a Green Man; in fact, among his own people he’s a rather ordinary little boy. But he does fulfill the role of guide and guardian of magic for Anna Lavinia, with magic being the strange rules, physics, and culture of the land through the pond.

There are other connections to the theme of green magic. Nature plays a big part in this story, as facilitator and conduit for the power that allows Anna Lavinia through to Toby’s world. From the start, the author’s descriptions of plants and scents weaves a unique backdrop that quickly sinks under our skin, offering an unlikely mixture of fauna and flora that marks this as a place apart, somehow here and not at the same time. And the different sources of water — the dew pond, the spring, the well — have their own parts to play. Once through the pond and into the other side, we reach Toby’s home, in a dim, cool valley lit by the indirect sun that filters through the still-water places that connect both worlds.

A book this old is not without its flaws, of course. There is a recurring use of harmful period-typical stereotypes regarding the Roma people. And the gender roles are dated, despite Anna Lavinia’s father declaring that a girl must grow up to have a point of view. But it is still charming, peppered with quirky drawings by the author as well as original songs and poems that manage to feel both strange and familiar all at once. This is definitely a book for warm summer afternoons in the park or garden, and on rereading it I understood what drove me as a child to keep it in a box up a tree, as if by treating it as a windfall treasure, nature might reward me with my very own portal to lands beyond.

Perhaps if I were to pick a single thread that unites these three very different stories, it would be oak trees. The oak, of course, is a powerful druidic symbol of pre-Christian magic in the British Isles, and it plays an important role in these books. An oak serves as Tobias Finch’s anchor to life and to the forest; oak trees and their wood symbolize safety for Daniel Mackmain, and a connection to the Green Man; and an ancient grove of oak trees both embraces and feeds the dew pond that is Anna Lavinia’s portal to adventure, with an acorn playing the part of herald between Anna Lavinia in one world, and Toby in the other. And since oaks are a keystone species found in many parts of the globe, what better symbol for a bit of literary green magic?

“At once slow deep green rolled over him. He took a breath, and another, smelling old rotting leaves and healthy growth and autumn light. He felt almost as though he could have planted his feet and become a tree himself, a strong oak reaching up to the sky, brother of the old oak who ruled the wood.” 

Silver in the Wood, Emily Tesh

Have Book, Will Read #28

2022 started off with lots of Reading Energy and I’m actually surprised at how much I’ve gotten through in the past month and a half. Two months, if you count the very end of 2021… It’s been a frosty, frozen winter, and I was more than happy to shut out the cold with a blanket, a cup of tea or two, and a good story. Here are some of my top books from these past couple of months.

Recent Reads: marvelously magical…

I took Jo Zebedee’s The Wildest Hunt on a short post-Christmas break all the way up in frozen Lake George, and it was the perfect location for this haunting tale of otherworldly peril. I love Jo’s writing style, which to me is the perfect mixture of breathtaking action, practical storytelling, and beautiful setting.

The Wildest Hunt takes us to the heart of Donegal in northwest Ireland, where a commission for an on-location painting promises the perfect Christmas holiday for a psychic artist and her boyfriend. Then a dangerous winter storm closes in around the picturesque but remote cottage, and the couple are forced to flee. But worse than the storm are the creatures that hunt within it. A thrilling story for fans of dark contemporary fantasy!

I read Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth last year, but I needed time to get my head around the ending. Part of me wasn’t sure I even wanted to read the next book in Muir’s genre-bending space necromancers series, but I’m really glad I finally did! Harrow the Ninth is a mind-break of a complex tale, twisting in and around and up and down; a book so thoroughly confounding (in the best sort of way) that my daughter made themselves a Reddit account just to be able to discuss theories! (Spoilers for Gideon next, but not too many…)

Harrow, the second in the Locked Tomb series, picks up just after the frantic events that mark the end of Gideon. Newly made lyctor Harrowhark Nonagesimus finds herself on board the Emperor’s warship, sworn to take her place beside him in his centuries-old war. The story time-skips back and forth across the universe, landing Harrow among new allies who may just turn out to be enemies, with a sword she cannot control, and the fear that just keeps on giving: has her mind finally shattered?

I’d seen book chatter about A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske, and had it on my to-read list long before it came out last November. When I finally got hold of it, I devoured it in one long sitting. (Seriously. My family just sort of got on with life and let me be. They know me too well!) If you’re a fan of delicious Edwardian drama with healthy dollops of romance and magic, then this is the book for you. And, luckily, the sequel comes out this November.

When an administrative error appoints Robin Blyth, the young and harried baronet of an impoverished country seat, as the civil liaison to a secret magical society, things begin to go wrong from the very start. Facing new enemies, a deep-rooted plot, and a deadly curse, Robin’s only hope lies in the hands of his magical counterpart, academic bureaucrat Edwin, who may have hidden depths under his prickly exterior.

T.J. Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea was one of my top books of 2021, so I was pretty excited to read his latest, Under the Whispering Door. The story follows Wallace Price from his own funeral and through the in-between time that’s supposed to soften the transition between life and the great beyond. He’s placed under care of ‘ferryman’ Hugo, who runs a teashop. In coming to terms with his death, Wallace has the chance to find himself again — the self he’s somehow lost along the years. And if romance is brewing among the tealeaves? Well, that just might land Wallace and Hugo in a spot of hot water…

I took a while to warm up to Wallace and the book as a whole, but it grew on me gradually, and by the end I never wanted it to end. Now, I realize the genius in it: Wallace doesn’t particularly like himself, either. He has constricted himself into a box he’s built, year by year, and he no longer resembles who he used to be. As Wallace slowly lets go of his crafted persona, and reconnects with himself, we discover Wallace, too, and slowly fall in love with the character. 

Additionally, the book deals beautifully with saying farewell and was an incredibly cathartic read. I cried so much at the end, but good crying. It turns out that, after two years of Covid and more than that since I’ve seen my family in Brazil, what I really needed right now was a gentle, thoughtful, kind book about death in all its forms and nuances. 

Now Reading: that healing magic…

I tore through Witchmark, the first book in C.L Polk’s Kingston Cycle, in just under a day. Luckily, the next two books in the trilogy are out and ready for reading. I’m currently at the start of the second, Stormsong, and have the third, Soulstar, all ready to go once I’m done with that one.

This series is an absolute treat! Set in a fantasy world based on an Edwardian England, shadowed by a war with a neighboring country, the first book introduces us to Miles Singer, a runaway noble and mage who has followed the calling of his healing magic to work as a doctor. Miles’ world is one of hidden magic that runs the country, concentrated in the hands of a select group of powerful families, and of shameful secrets that could see the downfall of everything society takes for granted. I’m really looking forward to seeing where the plot is heading, after the breathtaking whirlwind that was the first in the trilogy.

To Read

Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey sounds like the sort of unmissable romp custom made for my enjoyment. The story of Esther, who stows herself away in a Librarian’s book wagon to escape an arranged marriage, is set in a near-future American Southwest which, according to the publisher “is full of bandits, fascists, and queer librarian spies on horseback trying to do the right thing.” Yes, please!

Everything goes on hold in our house when a new Incryptid novel is released, and March brings the latest installment of Seanan McGuire’s fabulous urban fantasy world. This will be the first time we get a novel from the point of view of Alice Price — aka Verity, Alex, and Annie’s underworld-exploring, de-aged, ferociously competent hellion of a grandmother. In Spelunking Through Hell, Alice makes a final desperate pan-dimensional attempt to find the husband she lost fifty years before in an incident with the entity known simply as the crossroads, and I, for one, cannot wait to get started.

I hope you all have some good books on your own to-read lists. Here’s to warmer days ahead, and to springtime reading outside in the sunshine!

The Book Coach Way: an interview with Christy Yaros

I met Christy Yaros at the first ever writer’s conference I attended, just a few months after moving to the USA. We’ve been critique partners for years, and Christy’s always had a keen editorial eye for plot and pacing. So when she told me she had started certification for book coaching, I knew it was a perfect fit.

Christy has been working as a certified book coach for a while now, and as a freelance editor for longer. She’s deeply connected to the kid lit world, both through her passion for YA and middle grade fiction, and her commitment to the New England region of the SCBWI, where she is the assistant regional advisor for Connecticut and Rhode Island. When I decided to take a deeper look into book coaching — something that seems to be everywhere at the moment — I could think of no one better to guide me through it then Christy.

JSM: Hi Christy, thanks for stopping by! Let’s start with the basics: what does a book coach do? Give us the nutshell description…

Hi Juliana! Thanks for having me. Basically, a book coach (also known as a writing coach or a story coach) is an expert in story and how books work. I’ve read the craft books, taken the courses, attended the workshops, studied the well-written books, and I synthesize that information and present it to the writer the way they need it to write, finish, or improve their specific story and grow as a writer.

I ask you a lot of questions, mostly “why?” and “and so?” to dig deep into your characters and your story. I tell you all the things you are doing well, and the things you can improve. I don’t just tell you what not to do, but WHY you shouldn’t do it. And then give you ideas for ways to improve it. I want you to walk away really understanding how story works, how your story works, and why your story works. And just like your characters, undergo a transformation. And that really means something different for each writer and each book.

My mentor Jennie Nash of Author Accelerator said it well: “Guiding [writers] from confusion (what am I writing, who am I writing for, what should I say, what do I believe, am I really good enough to say it, is anyone really going to care?) to the confidence of knowing (this is the book, this is the structure, this is the message, this is the audience, and these are the exact words I am going to use to engage my reader) is exactly what a book coach does.”

 JSM: There are a lot of misconceptions about coaching. What are the most common ones that you come up against?

I’ll give you three:

  1. The big one is if you need help, you’re not a real writer. If anyone finds out you worked with a coach, then they’ll think less of your writing. But pick up any book and read the Acknowledgements. You’ll find a host of people who the writer is thanking for their help on the book. We can’t write in a vacuum. If you have an editorial-minded agent, they’ve done a form of book coaching. Your in-house editor at the publishing company is doing a form of book coaching. But the fact is in today’s publishing climate, editors don’t have the time they had in the past to work with your story from the beginning.
  1. Another one is that the book coach will try to make your story theirs or steal it. The famous editor Max Perkins said (to editors), “An editor does not add to a book. At best he serves as a handmaiden to an author. Don’t ever get to feeling important about yourself, because an editor at most releases energy. He creates nothing.” And that’s exactly the goal of a book coach. I’m not trying to make your book mine, I’m trying to make your book more YOU. I’m digging deep with you into what you want to say about the world through your story, and helping you make sure you’ve said it. And that you’ve said it well. I want you to write the best story you can. Your story. Your book. But maybe I’ll end up in your Acknowledgements. 🙂
  1. A third misconception is that book coaching is a scam. This one is tougher because there are people out there who will take advantage of writers. When I first started training under Jennie Nash in the fall of 2019, if you Googled “book coach” you’d mostly see an article or a podcast featuring Jennie. Now everyone is calling themselves a book coach. You have to do your due diligence to see if your coach or editor is legit. Jane Friedman has some excellent resources on her blog for that. Personally, I have a Curiosity Call with every potential client. And I turn away more than I accept. Maybe that’s not good business, but I really want to help writers. And sometimes you’re not ready for a book coach, or at least not a book coach like me. It’s a big investment.

JSM: For the best results, what sort of mindset should a writer have when contacting a coach? And what preparation should they do beforehand?

First and foremost you need a growth mindset. You have to want to learn and get better, knowing there may be setbacks.

Second, you need to think about what you want out of a coaching relationship. What level of “toughness” can you handle? Some coaches have a gentler approach, and some don’t pull punches. What level of commitment can you make, financially and with your time? Most coaches work with weekly or bi-weekly deadlines. And 1-on-1 coaching is an investment.

You’re paying someone to tell you the truth. I’m not your mom or your best friend. I’m not going to smile and tell you your book is amazing if I think you can make it better. Obviously, you yourself are amazing. You’re brave enough to put yourself out there emotionally. So you have to be receptive to the advice you’re being given. If you want someone to pat you on the back and tell you it’s perfect, you’re probably in the wrong place. The goal is to make your story the best version of itself. And to make you a stronger writer. And sometimes that means you’re going to have hard conversations or delete your favorite scenes because they don’t move the story forward. Sometimes you’re going to have to start all over. Sometimes you figure out your idea isn’t actually a story. And I think if a writer is not ready for that kind of work, they might not be ready for a coach.

Also, do your research. Just like when you query an editor or agent, make sure they actually work on the genre/category you write. For example, I only work with children’s novels. And I don’t do horror. Some coaches I know only do speculative fiction, or only memoirs. One only works with the LGBTQ community. These coaches focus their skills in those areas, so you’ll get the most out of them. I would personally be wary of someone who says they work on anything. That’s a lot to keep up with, so can they really? You should definitely have a call or video chat before you sign a contract. You want to make sure your personalities mesh or you might not be comfortable tackling the deep questions with them.

JSM: What are the first steps when you take on a new client? How do you establish a good working relationship?

First, I have a curiosity call with every potential client to make sure we’d be a good fit for each other. If we both pass that test, we decide what service they need. Do they only have an idea? Are they stuck in the middle of a draft? Are they ready to revise? Do they keep getting rejections but don’t know why?

Then we sign a contract that lays out what we both expect out of the coaching relationship.
Next, we’ll have another call to talk about their writing goals, their timeframe, the level of commitment they can do right now. And then we’ll work backwards from there to make a schedule that makes sense for that writer at that moment. Then I give you a packet and send you off to work on your first deadline!

Signing a contract and setting boundaries helps us establish a good working relationship. Part of my job is to keep my writer accountable. Another part is to give them honest, objective feedback. But they also need to feel comfortable with all of that.

JSM: Is there a difference in how you work with an author who intends to self-publish versus an author who intends to pursue traditional publishing (i.e., with an established press)?

I only work on fiction, so there isn’t much difference in the way we work on a high level. (If you were doing nonfiction, you’d have to do an outline and sample chapters to get an agent/publishing contract vs just writing it if you are self-publishing.)

If the writer is looking to publish traditional, they need a marketable book. So we would work to figure out what that means. What conventions need to be followed? Where would it fit in the marketplace? What are some comparable titles? 

With self-publishing there’s more leeway to do things the way you want to, but ultimately you do still need to produce a good book that will sell.

When you get to the other levels of editing, usually someone seeking representation or traditional publishing would get the story in good enough shape to sell. That means coaching and/or developmental editing. Some writers might invest in line editing, but we wouldn’t waste time on copyediting or proofreading, because the agent and/or in-house editor is going to want to make more changes. Plus they handle copyediting and proofreading. When self-publishing, the writer does need to make sure that once the high-level story elements are set, that they get developmental editing and copyediting (and proofreading once the manuscript is typeset!).

JSM: Last of all, one for fun: two truths and one lie about book coaching!

1. Book coaching and editing are the same thing.

2. Working with a book coach will make you a better writer.

3. Book coaches provide a solid sounding board for your story ideas.

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Drumroll! And the lie is… Number 1! Christy says: Not all book coaches are editors, and not all editors are book coaches! (But I happen to be both.)

A huge thanks to Christy for answering all my many questions! Check out her website for more information: christyyaros.com. Christy has a brand new podcast with fellow coach Sharon Skinner which you can listen to at coachingkidlit.com. And you can find Christy on Twitter and Instagram @ChristyYaros.

<All images in this post belong to Christy Yaros and are used with permission.>