A Winding Thread: Coffee Shops and Tea Houses

A Winding Thread is an occasional blog segment which looks at tales that connect by theme, setting, character, or vibes. (For previous installments, check out Green Magic and Books and Journeys.) With the winter cold settling in for the season, I’ve gathered a trio of stories that touch on coffee and tea shops, because the only thing better this time of year than a book and a mug of tea is tea and a book about tea! 

My picks are: Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune; A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers; and Legends & Lattes, by Travis Baldree.

Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune follows the newly-dead (and not happy about it) lawyer Wallace Price, as he settles in at Charon’s Crossing, a teashop that serves as a waystation for the recently deceased as they prepare to move onto the Afterlife. Wallace is an embittered man who has somehow throughout life lost any spark of joy he might once have had. But in his days spent with the teashop’s owner, Ferryman Hugo Freeman, Wallace rediscovers the taste of joy, and gains a taste for tea — and for Hugo himself.

This delicate and moving novel is not only a love story, but an ode to the cycle of life. Without ever being trite, it discusses death in all its many shapes and colors, and was a sweetly satisfying and emotional read. So, in a book about death, where does life — and tea — come into it? 

Klune’s teashop serves as a fictional respite, a temporary breathing space. Hugo, the owner, has already been through his own journey, which leaves him free to simply be there for the souls passing through his domain. The book, then, focuses on the teashop’s ghostly patron: Wallace. In his path to growth and acceptance, tea is ever-present, from that first personalized cup upon his arrival, to the shared enjoyment of the tea plants in the garden, to the gentle cadence of watching customers come and go like the tide. The role of tea in this is simply to be there, a steady, warm presence that buys Wallace the time he needs to come to terms with his own life story.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers introduces a whole new world, a post-industrial wonderland where humans have learnt to live in harmony with each other and with nature. But even the most idyllic settings cannot stop people from discontent, and so it is for Sibling Dex, who is searching and failing to find meaning in their life. Dex has left their sheltered life in a monastery to be a traveling tea monk, tasked with offering patrons all over the land a moment to breathe, or to confide, or to lament. But when Dex meets one of the elusive robots who live in the wild, they are forced to consider the question: ‘what do people need?’ And to think about what they, themselves, want from life.

This tender and hopeful novel continues the narrative of change that we see in Klune’s book, but the focus of the story is on the ‘tea shop owner’ themselves. Tea, here, serves as a reason to reflect, to pause life and think about what comes next, and where one’s path should lead. Yes, tea still exists as a respite, but only for the patrons. For Dex, tea begins as an adventure, an opportunity for transformation. But what happens when the kettle brews up more questions than answers; when the necessary change must come from within and not from without?

If Under the Whispering Door makes us think about acceptance, and A Psalm for the Wild Built creates space to consider our own path in life, then my third pick, Legends & Lattes: A Novel of High Fantasy and Low Stakes by Travis Baldree takes those two themes and builds on them, arguing that even when we know exactly where we’re going and have embraced our choices, there’s still room to grow. This charming tale introduces us to Viv, a battle-weary orc warrior who is determined to hang up her sword and open the first ever coffee shop in the city of Thune. Amid the trials and tribulations of starting a business, Viv soon finds out that no one, not even formidable former warriors, can go it alone. And the life she’s been dreaming of will only become a reality once she opens her heart to the new friends she meets.

Refuge is the central theme in this one. Legends & Lattes is similar to my second pick in that here, too, we have a character seeking change through something new. But it is also different: when the desired life change is set in motion, instead of inner discontent it brews up a hunger for more, leading to new friends, a new found family, and a sense of belonging. Only when this is achieved, can the refuge that Viv builds for herself truly come to be.

Respite. Reflect. Refuge. In truth, all three words could apply to any of those three novels. Whatever the particular meaning that tea (and coffee) take on in each of these tales, they are bound by a common thread of taking time to breathe, to figure out one’s place and path in life. This trio of quiet stories focuses more on the internal than the external, gifting us a variety of answers for common desires: the desire to be free from the roles we’re given, often by ourselves; the desire for self-understanding; the wish to belong. And if we come away from reading with a little extra warmth in our hearts and the urge to sip a nice cup of something? Well. I’ll just pop the kettle on.

Let Me Like You: Writing Great Characters

Where’s the spark?

As any epic fantasy fan knows, there are currently two big fantasy franchise prequel shows on screen. The first is, of course, The Rings of Power, set thousands of years before the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings take place. The second, for fans of a darker brand of fantasy, is House of the Dragon, set some two hundred years or so before Game of Thrones.

With the shows airing side-by-side, this is a perfect opportunity to look at how the two productions have handled character creation within the scope of epic fantasy.

There is an ever-present debate in writing about what is more important: plot or character. You’ll hear terms like ‘character-driven’ or ‘plot-heavy’, but ultimately the divide comes down to whether a writer (and reader) prefers a focus on character or plot. I’d argue that well-written characters can easily carry a weaker plot but that, however fabulous your plot is, you still have to create characters that interest readers. You still need that spark of connection that drives the need to read, to discover, to embrace.

And here is where the two shows, for me, part ways. Whatever the plot weaknesses, or the Tolkien-lore-related discrepancies, The Rings of Power has something crucial going for it: characters I’m invested in and want to follow to the end. Fierce, socially inept Galadriel; stoic and honorable Arondir; a young Isildur, desperate to find his path. Yes, I want more of the awkward bromance between besties Elrond and Durin. I want more of Halbrand teetering between duty and denial. I want all the Bronwyn content, please!

House of the Dragon, on the other hand, is failing miserably on the character front. Now, I love myself a morally gray character, a scoundrel, a snarky yet lovable baddie. I don’t need characters to be likeable, in a hero, light-side-of-the-Force sense of the word. But I do need to like them. I need to be able to root for them, or at least want to follow their arc, even while screaming, “NO! You absolute dumpster fire of a human, don’t DO that!” But HotD has exactly zero characters that I like, and this, for me, is a huge problem.

The original TV show (and books) had great characters that I really, truly loved. Arya Stark. Jon Snow. Tyrion Lannister. Brienne of Tarth. Grey Worm. The list goes on. Not every character I enjoyed was a good person, or was good all the time. But I liked them, and I wanted to see where their stories would end. The prequel show, however, is sorely lacking in interesting characters. I dislike them all so thoroughly, and find them all so boring in their awfulness, that I’ve pretty much given up on the show at this point. (Of course, the production isn’t helped by the decision to time skip every few episodes, bringing in new actors to play aged-up versions of characters and adding to the disconnect.)

Last year I took an online writing course with YA author Maggie Stiefvater, known for her rich characters. There was a lot of emphasis on spending time with your cast before even writing one single word, and after watching the trainwreck that is House of the Dragon, I can see where she’s coming from. I’ve always considered my own work more plot than character driven, but even so it’s always been clear to me that if you care about your cast, if you write characters people can care about (yes, even if they’re evil), then at least half the job is done: to light that spark and give readers a story they can connect to.

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.

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!

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!

Building the World of Conjuror Girl: a guest post

I’m thrilled to welcome SF/F author Stephen Palmer to the blog as he stops by on the tour for his brand new Conjuror Girl trilogy. And for a double treat: a guest post AND an interview!

The Conjuror Girl trilogy, which includes Monique Orphan, Monica Orvan, and Monica Hatherly, is published by Infinite Press. Monique, an orphan in an alternate Victorian England, has a strange talent normally only found in men. It is a talent that turns men bad and drives them to seek power, but must it do this to Monique too?

The Delicate Balance of Worldbuilding, by Stephen Palmer

The foundations of stories need to be strong and deep, for if not the structures built upon them collapse. Authors know this – they build worlds, discovering people who live in those worlds. If their worldbuilding is flimsy, the narrative falls apart and the people never have a chance to reveal themselves. No book.

I’m lucky. I’ve always had a vivid imagination, which when I was sending around what became my debut Memory Seed helped lodge the world of Kray in my soon-to-be editor’s mind. Like plant roots, the foundations of Memory Seed were strong.

There are certain rules in worldbuilding which I think help if you know them. In my new Conjuror Girl trilogy, the world is an alternate Victorian Britain – 1899/1900, in a gothic version of my home town of Shrewsbury. The world I built therefore had a curious property which I’ve rarely encountered before, that of pre-existing. My job in making the world of Conjuror Girl was to transmute something already in existence. I can tell you that this task was enormous fun. “Task” in fact is not the right word – relish is better.

One of these tricks of worldbuilding is detail. I learned this early on when, critiquing a poor early version of Memory Seed, my beta reader made comments on a tiny detail which for him brought the world alive: graffiti scrawled in green algae covering a street computer display. I saw again what he had seen; saw it through his eyes. That detail signified people doing what people always do. The city was alive.

Graffiti and algae were enough to signify to the reader what Kray was like. Everything else the reader would bring themselves. And this is an important lesson. Too much detail is as bad as too little. You have to get it just right. Too little, and there’s not enough to spark the reader’s imagination. Too much and they don’t have anything to do.

In Conjuror Girl I wanted to convey a dark, grim, forbidding town. I chose certain details of the real town, exaggerating them for gothic effect. I made sure St Alkmund’s Cemetery was as spooky as possible, including a semi-sentient tree and tomb-inhabiting anti-bees. Meanwhile, the bell fruits of the Bell Tree, which is described as if it is made of non-living material, can be eaten once rung – unless rusty, that is; then they’ve gone off. When I imagined a tavern in Fish Street, for some reason a dog sung from a high window.

Another trick is Gene Wolfe’s classic advice: appeal to the senses. What colours mark the conjurations of the Reifiers? Only purple and orange. What do you hear when you’re by the river? The twang of swans’ wings. What do Etis Gmu’s pillows smell of? Lavender.

Worldbuilding is like consciousness. Our minds notice details in the real world, but the rest of it we fill in ourselves. Readers do this. Too little and they’re starved, too much and they’re overwhelmed.

An Interview With Stephen

JSM: From the Edwardian steampunk world of your Factory Girl trilogy, to the cyberpunk future of Beautiful Intelligence, or the psychedelic surrealism of Hairy London, setting is a huge part of your work, almost a character in its own right. What are some of the real-world inspirations for your work, and in particular for your Conjuror Girl trilogy?

It’s been observed that for an author with a lot of SF in his catalogue I almost never go into space. But I like to stay on Earth because it’s this planet and its future which interest me. So, in the broadest view, the whole planet is my setting. Individual real-world settings though are particularly important for me. Sometimes they’re greatly transformed versions of real places, as in Memory Seed, the soot-black gothic Mavrosopolis (Istanbul) of The Rat & The Serpent, or the madcap re-imagining of London gone hirsute in Hairy London. Occasionally they’re entirely imaginary, for example the hallucinatory river island of Tommy Catkins. For Conjuror Girl I was inspired by my home town of Shrewsbury. I grew up nearby and went to school there. It’s usually regarded as Britain’s finest Tudor town, and for many years I’d wanted to set a novel there. Walking around the streets and alleys beneath some of the finest black-and-white buildings in Britain was more than enough inspiration, though, me being me, I made the novel’s version much more gothic. Some of the localities I left as they are, but I mutated some streets and added a few extras of my own.

JSM: Following on from the previous question, what comes first for you, plot or setting? What drives the creative process when you’re writing something new?

Generally, this works in two parallel ways. I’ll have an idea of the kind of novel I want to write – for instance, an AI novel – and usually there’ll be some character who is the inspiration. The best example of that is Kora, the titular Girl With Two Souls of the Factory Girl trilogy. Tommy Catkins himself would be another, though he appeared along with his watery setting. Sometimes though there are small but vivid mental images which are the key, for instance the two I had when walking around Windsor Great Park in the early 1990s, images which went on to inspire Memory Seed. Plot always comes second, following on from character. Even with a tech-driven novel like Beautiful Intelligence it was the two main characters, Leonora and Manfred, who drove the idea to split the plot into two sections. My creative process these days is to put down the best possible first draft of a novel. This is a risky strategy, against intuition and the usual writerly advice, but what I aim to achieve is to transfer the “magic” and “wonder” of what I myself am experiencing for the first time onto the printed page. If I can do this to my own satisfaction, I know my readers should also feel that vibe. I find that second and subsequent drafts almost always lose their special glamour. For less experienced writers this is not the way to go, but when you get to my age it becomes a possibility. Some of these intense first drafts don’t work however – those are the novels that don’t get published. I’ve accumulated a few now…

JSM: You’ve dabbled in a wide variety of science fiction and fantasy sub-genres. What are some of the challenges this versatility brings? How do you make the switch from one genre to another when starting a fresh project, and do you have any tips for writers who would like to work across different genres?

To be honest, genres and sub-genres are of minor significance to me. I’ll usually have an idea of which one a novel might appear in, but I never write to that genre. All my novels are their own things. The Factory Girl trilogy for instance is categorised as steampunk, but that example lies outside what steampunk is usually considered to be. I don’t sense any challenges, I just write what I need to write, and do it with absolute conviction and sincerity. It’s true that my fans don’t know what they’re going to get next, but they do at least know they’ll get something written with conviction, and which, in a lot of cases, will be unlike anything on the market. My tip therefore is that most difficult of pieces of advice – you have to be your own brand. For most new writers that’s an impossibility because of the state of the market and the nature of books, but for more established authors (Kim Stanley Robinson is a good example) it is possible to be successful in a variety of genres and styles. The other thing worth mentioning is that my publisher is a British indie, which means I have more opportunity to present fresh or unusual novels. No large publishing house in their right mind would accept a novel like Hairy London. My relationship with my tolerant, understanding and insightful editor is a large part of why I’ve been able to do the work I’ve done over the last seven years.

JSM: From climate change to women’s rights, you never shy away from asking tough questions in your work. Do these topics emerge organically when you write, or are they an integral part of the plotting and outlining process? And how did you decide which underlying political themes you wanted to include in your Conjuror Girl trilogy?

They’re always integral and they’re always there from the beginning. I remember my first editor saying something to me, that Memory Seed contained what he called “stuff” – by which he meant ethical or philosophical content. A writer to me is someone who has something inside them that must come out into the open via the medium of words. Writing is so often self-discovery. I have a lot to say. Many people disagree with me of course, and that’s good – part of global debate. But I love that aspect of being an author, which I’ve extended into the opinion pieces on my blog. For Conjuror Girl, the main theme is selfishness, which I’ve written extensively about (narcissism) on my blog. This theme underpins the action, which follows the tale of Monique, later Monica, an orphan in the year 1899 with a talent only men are supposed to possess. The novel is also about how men dominate and control cultural thought via patriarchy. But I expect Monica gives those backward-looking, domineering old men a good run for their money…

JSM: We’ve talked about themes, genres, settings… For anyone familiar with your work, it might seem you’ve already covered a huge amount of ground with your published books, but as any writer knows, there’s always room for more ideas. What’s on your wishlist for the future? Are there any settings or sub-genres you haven’t tackled yet and would like to try your hand at?

Not really. There are concepts and formats I haven’t successfully managed yet. I have a love of inns and taverns, and many years ago set a fantasy novel entirely inside a roadside tavern. I think it worked fairly well, though the writing wasn’t great, and it never got anywhere. One editor remarked that fantasy novels tend to be set in huge, expansive worlds, not tiny ones. But it was the challenge of writing a novel set only inside one inn that appealed to me. So I will try that again. I also have still to write a novel composed only of dialogue and incidental action. Recently I’ve become much more interested in dialogue than I used to be. My book The Autist was set in such a way that the internal thoughts of only one character were made plain to the reader, with all the others’ only revealed by dialogue, of which there was a lot. Some readers didn’t like that, but some did. I’m also fascinated by dialect. So my plan is to write a novel set entirely inside an inn composed only of dialogue. I’m sure I could do it with the right characters and themes. Apart from that, I do feel the urge to return to very far future SF. My novel Urbis Morpheos (“A failed experiment.” – SF Foundation) was an attempt to present the reader with a wholly unfamiliar planet Earth. I aim to have another attempt.

The three books of The Conjuror Girl trilogy are out now and available for purchase through all major online booksellers.

For more information on the author and his work, as well as links to the other guest posts on Stephen’s blog tour, please visit his website: stephenpalmersf.wordpress.com

All image rights: Stephen Palmer

The Shadows Inside

Leaning into shadows turns the ordinary extraordinary.

Back in the olden days of pre-COVID 2020, I was on a con panel called Blood-Curdling Science Fiction, on the blurring of lines between sci fi and horror fiction. Our discussion focused on that gray zone that lies between genres. There are many genres that play well with others, but I think that perhaps horror is the one that best suits them all.

Horror and sci fi? Good. Horror and fantasy? Great. You can make it fancy and call it literary. You can pulp it up or lean into gore or slasher fiction; send it into space or ground it on Earth. You can stick some romance in there or comedy, and you’re still golden. Like a nicely paired bottle of wine, horror goes well with everything.

Wine pairings aside, why is it that so many non-horror writers like to lean into the shadows? Take me — I’m an accidental horror writer who doesn’t actually write horror. But I’ve sold four stories to dark fantasy or horror-leaning anthologies in recent times and have another coming out, probably in 2022, that is definitely on the side of nightmares.

Personally, I find playing with darkness in my stories to be cathartic. It’s a way of acknowledging child-me who checked her bedroom wardrobe was tightly shut at night and jumped into bed so nothing could catch her ankle on the way. I’ve outgrown the jumping bit (though I do always shut my wardrobe — old habits die hard!) and have learnt to rationalize those bumps in the middle of the night, but it can be quite gleeful to tap into that younger self who believed with all her heart that magic was real and that shadows had teeth.

It’s not quite as easy to believe in magic nowadays, though I try my best! But the darkness, well. That’s just another flavor of magic, and one too easily remembered. And perhaps this is why so many works of fiction flirt with horror, even if they officially belong to other genres. This darker side of magic, the shadows from our childhood nights that still live inside us, will always make a strange sort of sense. As readers, we know it’s not real. But when daylight ebbs and the sky goes dark, that reality blurs, just a little, just enough to tip the ordinary into the extraordinary. And then, the shadows creep out to play.

Happy Halloween! 

If you’re looking for darker stories, please consider helping out The Pixel Project in their work to end violence against women by buying their first charity anthology, Giving the Devil His Due. It’s full of excellent writers dishing up justice both hot and cold, and profits go to a good cause. More information here.

Also, Shadow Atlas: Dark Landscapes of the Americas is up for preorder! It includes my short story Moon Under Mangroves (a tale of aging, creepy swamp crabs, and a cursed compass) among a long list of work by fantastic authors. I’ve seen the PDF and it’s absolutely gorgeous and just full of illustrations and little graphic design treats! Check out the publisher’s page here.