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

Have Book, Will Read #27

We’re moving into my favorite season, and I am here for embracing those autumn clichés like long walks on blue sky days to see the changing leaf colors or cozying up with a blanket and a giant mug of tea. And you know what goes well with blankets and tea? Books. Well, warm puppy cuddles, too, but mostly I was going for books. I’ve read some great stuff over the past few months, and it was actually hard to pick which ones I wanted to share. But there’s only so much space in a blog post, so here are my latest book recommendations.

Recent Reads: The supernatural and all the super feels…

First on my list is Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger. This YA book had been on my to-read list since before it was published; I’m embarrassed it took this long to get around to it! Little Badger’s debut novel has won a long list of awards and accolades, and it deserves them. A tale of family love, teenage friendship, and the pain of cultural and historical erasure, Elatsoe is sweet-natured and deals with some pretty difficult themes in a gentle and thoughtful manner. Plus, ghost dog!

Ellie can summon the ghosts of animals, a skill passed down through her Lipan Apache bloodline. Her family are caretakers of the stories shared from generation to generation, and when Ellie’s cousin is murdered, she draws upon this heritage to solve the case, uncovering a tangled web of greed and dark magic. Ellie —named for her six-great grandmother Elatsoe — is a wonderful protagonist, as is her best friend Jay, and I am always happy to see great boy/girl friendships that don’t need to be pushed over the line into romance.

Stepping away from speculative fiction for a bit, another YA book that had been on my to-read list for a while is Aristotle and Dante Solve the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. Sáenz has won recognition both as a novelist and as a poet, and his poetic touch shines through in this book about a Mexican American teen navigating high school, family relationships, identity, and sexuality. Set in 1987, the story starts the summer that fifteen-year-old Aristotle Mendoza meets Dante Quintana at the local pool, sparking a friendship that changes the world for both boys.

This was one I savored rather than devoured, reading a few pages at a time and enjoying the beautiful prose and quiet storytelling. This isn’t a Big Action story; instead, it’s about the small ripples of emotion that feel so huge when we’re young. It’s dialogue and internal thought, it’s rainy days and introspection. It’s about the shared moments that color our lives. This book made me cry in the best sort of way! 

On the non-YA front, I finally read Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, and it’s every bit as delightful as I expected. I loved the TV show and had already heard great things about the novel before the show was made, so I figured it was time to invest in a copy of my own. I’m just sorry it took me so long to get to it — I would have liked to have read it before the show came out, because even though it was a wonderful adaptation, it definitely colored my perception of the story.

For those who haven’t seen the show OR read the book, well, first of all, you should probably fix that. If you’re a fan of cheeky fiction with a side order of the absurd, this story about an angel and a demon who team up to try and prevent the apocalypse from happening because they enjoy life among humanity too much is an absolute treat. Add in a witch who partners with a witch-hunter, a centuries-old book of prophecies, and the young Antichrist and his gang of human friends, and the scene is set for a romp of Biblical proportions. Two thumbs most definitely up.

I’ve read some really great graphic novels lately, and I wanted to give a shout out to Power Up, a deliciously fun work by Kate Leth and Matt Cummings. Diverse in every sort of way imaginable, Power Up brings together three recently-superpowered humans (and one fish) as humanity’s newest and most clueless protectors.

The universe was expecting four champions to emerge, fulfilling an ancient prophecy. Instead, there’s a pet shop employee, a busy mother, a construction worker… and a goldfish. Power Up is lighthearted and honestly adorable, and has some really good supporting characters, too. The edition I read had all six issues of this series in one book.

Now Reading: Fight the good fight!

I saw Fonda Lee talk about her book Zeroboxer at a Worldcon panel, and it’s been on my list ever since. I’m a few chapters into it and really enjoying the punchy (ha!), well-written action and great characters. If you need a great example of how to write about a fictional sport, this is it! The novel follows Carr Luka, a rising star in the weightless combat sport of zeroboxing, as he grows in fame but uncovers a terrible secret that could risk everything that he’s worked so hard to win.

I’m alternating fiction with Never Say You Can’t Survive by Charlie Jane Anders, a book which is part writing craft talk, part inspiration, and part memoir. The tagline on the cover is how to get through hard times by making up stories, and it’s just what I was needing to read right now. I’m just over halfway through, and would definitely recommend it to writers who prefer broader insights over more formal step-by-step advice.

To Read: Who’s the villain here?

Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki was released this week, and I have a copy I preordered that I need to go and pick up from my local indie. I’m really looking forward to this one! It’s pitched by the publisher as “a defiantly joyful adventure set in California’s San Gabriel Valley, with cursed violins, Faustian bargains, and queer alien courtship over fresh-made donuts,” and honestly? It sounds fantastic.

Talking about new books, there’s an upcoming November 2021 release that I’m excited to read. All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman is a sort of villainous Hunger Games, blurbed as “a blood-soaked modern fairytale” where seven families compete for control over a wellspring of magic.

A reminder to readers! I shouldn’t have to say this, but please don’t pirate books. The many, MANY moral considerations aside, it’s simple math: when sales numbers drop, publishers don’t renew contracts, so you end up without being able to read the next great thing by your favorite author. Libraries are a great free resource, or keep an eye out for e-book sales — there’s always a promo, eventually. And if you do have the money to invest in books, please consider ordering from your nearest indie store!

Wishing you all a lovely autumn (or spring, depending on where you are!), and lots of good stories to keep you going in the last stretch of 2021.

Puppy cuddles for everyone!

Have Book, Will Read #25

It’s prime reading time, with snow piled up outside my window and the lure of warm blankets and an equally warm dog to cuddle. After the past year, where my book habits trended more to comfort than new material, it’s been nice getting back to digging away at my to-read list. Hopefully I’ll manage to keep up the momentum!

Recent Reads: Romance, magic, and all that jazz

The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough has been sitting on my shelf for a really long time. I’m actually embarrassed by how long it took me to get around to reading it. I’m so glad I finally did! This is a gem of a book, at the same time heart-warming and heart-wrenching. I’m not usually one for crying when I read, but this one managed to make me both smile and shed a few tears.

Brockenbrough’s beautifully written tale is set in 1937, where the immortals Love and Death have gathered for one more round of their eternal game. Their chosen players? Flora, an African American teenager who sings in her family jazz club for a living but dreams of setting world records as an airplane pilot, and seventeen-year-old Henry, a white boy whose path in life has been set in stone by the foster family he lives with, regardless of his love for music. The story switches between four points of view — the unwitting players and the two immortals —plunging us right into the heart of post-Prohibition Seattle.

I can’t talk about Game without mentioning another recent read, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V.E. Schwab. Superficially, both books have a lot in common. They both feature immortal beings who play with the humans who fascinate them. They both have ties to the past, though while Game is anchored in the 1930s, Addie skips and jumps through recent centuries, pausing at key moments of history. They both feature love stories, and boys named Henry. But they are also very different books.

While the first one remains, for the most part, tight and focused, Schwab’s book is a sprawling, meandering beauty, dipping in and out of the past as an embroidery needle dives into a vast tapestry. It tells the tale of Addie LaRue, a young French countrywoman from the early 1700s who strikes a bargain with an unnamed power and becomes immortal, yet cursed to always be forgotten. Until she meets, in modern times, a young man who remembers her. Schwab’s prose is, as always, that perfect mixture of lush and sparse, and this was a delight to read.

Forged, the latest title in Benedict Jacka’s urban fantasy series, continues leading Alex Verus down the difficult path he’s been walking for a while now. Hunted by both light and dark mages, and with his girlfriend Anne losing herself to the dangerous entity she’s bonded to, Alex is running out of allies and options if he wants to save himself, his friends, and — most of all — Anne.

I’ve really enjoyed this series, which has only one more book yet to come. It’s been an interesting ride, starting out in Book 1 (Fated) with the near-powerless (in comparison to other mages) diviner Alex and watching him over time carve that power out for himself, while making some rather questionable choices in order to do so. Alex has become very much a grey character, which I honestly kind of love. We are all the heroes of our own stories, but Alex has come to a point in his saga where he’s being forced to take a good hard look and decide if he’s actually a hero, or if he’s becoming what he most feared: a dark mage like his former Master, Richard Drakh.

Now Reading: Teen hero shenanigans

I’ve been watching the Young Justice animated series and, after reading up on the characters, I grew curious about the original comic book run that inspired the TV reboot. I’d read that, despite using some of the same storylines, the TV show has very little else in common with the comics, and now that I’ve been dipping into the Young Justice world, I absolutely agree.

I devoured Young Justice Books 1-4 in a few breathless days and am now finishing up Book 5. While the TV show centers on the first Robin, Dick Grayson, the comics focus on Robin number 3, Tim Drake. The original core three — Robin, Impulse, and Superboy — soon find their team expanding with the addition of Wonder Girl, Arrowette, Secret and, later on, Empress (with Lil’ Lobo as an unofficial member). Their adventures lead us on one wild ride after another, and the books are full of absolute laugh-out-loud moments. I can honestly say I’ve never used the word ‘zany’ in a review before, but that description fits Young Justice perfectly. Delightful.

(And yes, unfortunately I had to read YJ on my phone, as my library’s reading app doesn’t work on my laptop or iPad. Thank goodness for smartphone zoom features!)

To Read: Darkness rising

I’ve been on a library rampage lately and that means I’ve got two more books waiting to be read before their due dates roll around. The first is Paul Cornell’s London Falling, the opening title of his Shadow Police series. I love a good supernatural investigation book, and have heard good things about Cornell’s work, so I’m looking forward to it!

The other one is Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, which I picked up after a post on Tor.com sparked my interest in this award-winning science fantasy novel about necromancy and cut-throat politics. This is the first book in the Locked Tomb trilogy, and I’ve seen it mentioned so many times I figured it was about time I checked it out.

Here’s to hoping you all have some good books set aside to get you through winter (or summer, for those below the equator!). With the current sub-freezing temps in Connecticut, and more snow than anyone except ski resorts could possibly want, I personally need ALL THE BOOKS. Happy reading to all!

Naming Characters in Sci Fi and Fantasy: Part 2

Click link for Naming Characters in Sci Fi and Fantasy: Part 1

“Names are important as they tell you a great deal about a person.”

Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

Now you’ve had a while to consider your world in general, it’s time to put some thought into your main character(s). What feel do you want people to get when they meet them on the page? Do you want readers to immediately emphasize with them, or will your characters have to work for appreciation?

Sam, for instance, is usually a ‘nice guy’ name. Think Sam Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings. Sam Winchester from Supernatural (discounting the whole ‘soulless Sam’ phase…). Or bar owner and shapeshifter Sam Merlotte from Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries. If you name a character Sam, readers are signaled that this is probably NOT a villain.

Names have nuances, shades. This doesn’t mean they belong exclusively to ‘good’ or ‘bad’ characters, but names can be a good indication of personality. Think Maggie Stiefvater’s Ronan Lynch, from her Raven Cycle books. There’s a sharp name if I ever saw one, and it suits the shaved-headed street-racing Ronan perfectly. Another sharp name, also with an ‘R’ coincidentally, belongs to private investigator Rojan Dizon, the world-weary main character in the fantasy trilogy by Francis Knight that starts with Fade to Black.

Names can play off each other, too. In Victoria Schwab’s Monsters of Verity YA duology, the narrative is shared by two main characters: Kate Harker of the knife’s edge smile and August Flynn, the heart-of-gold monster with the soft gray eyes. Hard vs gentle in the names, and hard vs gentle in their personalities, too. A perfect combination.

If you’re writing a story set in the real world (whether sci fi, urban/contemporary fantasy, or other subgenres), you have some serious decision-making to do with regards to classic vs trendy names. In Part 1 of this post, I already mentioned Scalzi’s option to use long-lasting names like John and Susan. In my Blade Hunt Chronicles books, I have a vampire — Alex — who’s almost 1000 years old. I wanted a name that could have plausibly been in use and yet still felt current, and I figured that Alexander was a timeless choice. The problem with trendy names is that they can date quickly, so if you want something a little different, think hard about which modern names feel as if they may have lasting power.

This brings us to the kid lit names vs adult names conundrum. If you’re writing for teens or preteens, you’re going to need names they can relate to — whether you’re dabbling in real-world sci fi/fantasy or far future/secondary worlds. Unless you’re setting a story in the 1980s, Tracy is probably not a good choice for your female lead (though it may be perfect for an older supporting character like a parent or mentor!). Rick Riordan is great at names that are fun enough to appeal to his middle grade and YA readership, while at the same time escaping the ‘trendiness trap’: think Perseus ‘Percy’ Jackson ( a nod to the Greek and Roman mythology that most of his work is based on) and others such as Annabeth, Leo, Jason (another nod to mythology), and Nico. 

Hot tip! Use your own kids or borrow one from a friend to test your names on. I bounce YA character name ideas off my teen daughter, and her feedback is priceless.

When it comes to stories that are not real-world based, there’s more leeway. But you still need to take youth appeal into consideration. In the Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins’ main character Katniss is named after a plant. However, variations of names with ‘Kat’ in them are common enough (and another of those timeless classics) for the name to feel relatable. This is a great name, by the way: the hard K sound suits Katniss’ hard-as-nails personality, and the sibilance of the ending evokes an arrow let loose. So good!

How about where to source names? Baby naming sites are, of course, a fabulous tool. There are so many of these sites nowadays that you can add search words to narrow things down. For instance, ‘Celtic baby names’ might help with your sword-wielding fantasy heroine; ‘unusual baby names’ may lend a sci fi vibe to your blaster-toting wise-cracking space mercenary. There are sites that let you narrow your search down by number of syllables, and you can always look up names with a particular letter if you know the vibe you’re going for.

There are specialist sites, too; I once spent a pleasant afternoon looking up names used in Britain around 1000 CE for my coven of ancient witches. And you can also search surnames; there are several sites that will help you find the most common ones to fit your character’s background, or surnames that have been around for centuries — handy if your thing is urban fantasy and your detective just happens to be the heir of a long line of demon slayers. But don’t discount looking closer to home… My kids’ school directories and yearbooks are a great resource for first and last names. The same goes for town Facebook groups or the local newspaper. 

Hot tip! Keep an ongoing list of interesting names you come across, even if they have nothing to do with the story you’re writing; someday you’ll thank past you. I keep a list on my notes app and update as I use up names or find new ones, and I’m very thankful for past me!

And, finally, we can’t talk character naming without talking diversity. We live in a beautifully diverse world, and hopefully your work will reflect that, even if you write second world fantasy or far-flung sci fi. If you’re writing in a contemporary setting, as I tend to do, then naming is where it all starts. Your work has an entire cast of major and minor characters, so please put some thought into what identities you choose for them.

Naming Characters in Sci Fi and Fantasy: Part 1

“The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,

It isn’t just one of your holiday games;

You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter

When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.”

T.S. Eliot, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats

“Names and attributes must be accommodated to the essence of things, and not the essence to the names, since things come first and names afterwards.” 

Galileo Galilei, Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo

So you have a cool idea for a story. You’re ready to start writing. But, wait! What’s your main character’s name? And what about the best friend/love interest/mentor/talking animal sidekick? If you’re anything like me, you need that perfect names to move forward. But deciding a character’s identity isn’t quite as simple as pulling up a bunch of baby naming sites. (Disclaimer: I love baby naming sites!) First, you need to do a bit of homework…

Before anything else, take a moment to think about your story’s world. I’m not saying you need to write up a 50-page document on your universe (unless that’s part of your process), but it’s worth doing some brainstorming, even if you’re a ‘pantser’. Is your story set in contemporary times? In the future, but still on Earth? Is it set in an alternate history past? In space, centuries from now? In a completely new fantasy world? 

Doing a little worldbuilding before you name your characters (yes, even the ones with minor ‘walk on’ roles) is crucial as names add layers and texture to your story. If you’re writing in contemporary times or in a near enough real world past/future to be relatable, it’s also a way to bring in diversity by way of first and/or last names. In Andy Weir’s The Martian, for instance, which is set in a not-too-distant future, character surnames include Martinez, Ng, and Kapoor.

What if your story is set further in the future; will completely new naming conventions and trends have set in? John Scalzi gets around this in his Old Man’s War universe by using classic names that have been around for centuries and will most likely endure — John, Harry, and Susan, for example. Not only does this make historical sense, but it also serves to give us an initial familiarity that goes on to be turned on its head once the characters arrive in space and their entire lives change. After that, the soothing weight of his ‘Harrys’ and ‘Johns’ becomes a tether to a life left behind. In contrast, the different alien peoples his characters encounter all have unique naming conventions depending on their languages and biology (in terms of vocalization). 

In Pierce Brown’s Red Rising universe, set on Earth’s colonies within our solar system, names have moved on from contemporary choices and naming conventions are according to social caste. The upper class, for instance, leans heavily on Latin names from the Roman period: Virginia, Pax, Titus, Adrius, Nero, etc. It’s a nod to his characters’ Earthly origins, but also helps underline the importance of the military and the separation between classes.

If you’re writing sci fi with no Earth connections, you have a little more freedom. But it helps to give the main characters names that at least feel familiar. In Star Wars (a galaxy far, far away), we have Luke and Leia to anchor the story. In Jo Zebedee’s Inheritance Trilogy space opera, key characters like Kare and Ealyn sound like they fit right in with Zebedee’s Northern Irish background. The same goes for secondary world fantasy. Of course, you can go as wild as you want with character names. But if they feel like names we might see in our day-to-day, it’s easier to relate. Elspeth Cooper’s Gair (The Wild Hunt) and Peter V. Brett’s Arlen and Leesha (The Demon Cycle) come to mind — they’re different, yes, but not so much that we can’t imagine them in our lives. Of course, a well-known trick in secondary world fantasy is to use variations of everyday names, lending instant familiarity. In this category we have characters like George R.R. Martin’s Jon Snow, Jaime Lannister, or Benjen Stark (A Song of Ice and Fire). 

Once you know your world, it’s time to pick it apart a little and set a few naming standards to help readers navigate your fictional universe. Do your dystopian future rebels use military-style callsigns? Do your fantasy working class characters tend to be named after the saints in your fictional religion? Do the northerners and southerners in your world have distinct histories so that names have regional variations?

Robin Hobb is a great example of this in her Farseer books. The nobility in her Six Duchies is often named after a virtue. Members of the Royal Family include Chivalry, Verity, Patience and so on. Flower names tend to appear amongst the commoners — Laurel and Nettle, for instance. In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R Tolkien also uses flowers as girl names among his hobbits — Sam Gamgee’s daughter is named Elanor after the golden blossoms of Lothlórien, and his wife’s name is Rose. In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, many of the kings seem to follow a naming pattern, too: see Caspian, Rilian, and Tirian. And in her Seven Realms/Shattered Realms books, Cinda Williams Chima has a cool convention for the Royal Family of her Queendom of the Fells: Raisa ana’Marianna is daughter to Queen Marianna ana’Lissa and mother of Alyssa ana’Raisa. 

You don’t have to over-complicate your character naming, but having a few standards in place to help readers understand things like nationality, class, alien species, or religion is a relatively simple way to build richness and depth into your story (and it can be lots of fun, too). It means that, instead of a random mishmash of names, your readers will be able to identify a consistency that adds realism to your fictional world and brings it to life.

These aren’t the names you’re looking for…

See Part 2 for my thoughts on individual character names, as well as a brief look at differences between names in stories for children/teens and adults. Also: sources!

NYC SCBWI and Boskone 57 Schedule

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Con bags at the ready…

It’s February tomorrow, and February brings ALL THE CONS. Or, well, two at least.

I’ll be in NYC next weekend for the SCBWI Winter Conference, which runs from February 7-9. I’m not part of any official programming, but will be wearing my ‘NESCBWI Regional Conference Co-Director’ hat (not literally. I own no fancy conference hats, alas), so come and find me if you want to talk about all things books, writing, and kid lit, or just to hang out and have a cup of tea in the hotel lobby. Hit me up on Twitter! @jspinkmills

From February 14-16 I’ll be in Boston for my yearly pilgrimage to Boskone. I’ll be on three program items, which leaves me plenty of time to catch up with people and make new friends. Planning to go to Boskone for the first time? Already a regular but we haven’t met yet? Come and find me — let’s chat!

Besides hanging around the lobby bar or attending other people’s panels, here’s where you can find me at Boskone:

Blood-Curdling Science Fiction

15 Feb 2020, Saturday 11:00 – 11:50, Marina 2

Where does the thin (red) line between science fiction and horror lie? Why does science fiction horror fascinate us so much? What is it about horror in SF that is so absolutely terrifying? What examples do we have of science fiction that will make your blood run cold? And is it getting harder to make SF fiction that is truly scary?

Errick Nunnally (Moderator), Juliana Spink Mills, Julie C. Day, Nicholas Kaufmann, Darrell Schweitzer

Books That Get Kids Reading!

15 Feb 2020, Saturday 18:00 – 18:50, Harbor II

Hundreds of new children’s books are published every year. Yet recommended reading lists still include the same old children’s classics, with only a few new titles. Our panelists share some of their favorite new children’s books and authors from recent years that should be added to the lists.

Juliana Spink Mills (Moderator), Michael Stearns (Upstart Crow Literary), Julia Rios, Adi Rule, Trisha J. Wooldridge

Broad Universe Group Reading

15 Feb 2020, Saturday 20:00 – 21:20, Griffin

Join members of Broad Universe — a nonprofit association dedicated to supporting, encouraging, and promoting female authors of science fiction, fantasy, and horror — as they read tidbits of works and works in progress. Readers will include LJ Cohen, Marianna Martin, Roberta Rogow, Juliana Spink Mills, and Trisha J. Wooldridge. Moderated by Elaine Isaak.

Finding YOUR Story

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More essence than solid shape…

I’m stuck at the moment on a passion project. I have other things I could be — should be — working on. Like revising the YA novel I wrote over a year ago. Or finally getting around to finishing Star Blade, the last part of my Blade Hunt Chronicles trilogy. But over and over, I find myself drawn back to the fantasy work-in-progress I’ve been obsessing over for the past year or so.

Sometimes, stories arrive clear-cut and blazingly obvious. We can see where we have to go and how to get there, and the characters are set from the start. There will be ups and downs in the writing — there always are — but these are stories that almost lead us by the hand. They’ll need revisions, and edits, and sometimes a full rewrite or two, but their general structure is there from the very beginning.

Other times, there are stories that are nebulous. More gut feeling than sign-posted path. More essence than solid shape. We want — need — to tell them, but it’s hard when we don’t know exactly what form the telling should take. This is one of those stories. I can almost see it, but not quite. It’s been through a full draft and a partial rewrite, besides a one-chapter experiment that just didn’t work at all. Each of these ‘takes’ has been different, with only the bare bones of worldbuilding and characters in common. And now I have an idea for an entirely new version. Part of me thinks that I’m chasing moonbeams, and that this story either isn’t really mine, or that I’m not yet ready for it. But the rest of me just can’t let it go.

I think all writers have a story like this in their past, or perhaps waiting for them to stumble upon it in the future. One that grabs us by the heart and whisper-screams ‘look at me’, that teases and begs and demands to be told. One that just won’t go down easy on the page until we’ve ripped it to pieces to find exactly what part of it is actually ours to claim. This one, this frustrating, enticing, beautiful little tale? I’ll get it written, eventually. I just need to allow myself time, I think, to dig through all the images and ideas and find my story.

Have Book, Will Read #22

It’s freezing in Connecticut, and perfect book-and-blanket weather! Although I must confess that I’ve slowed down on the reading in November — I’m using NaNoWriMo to give my novel rewrite a boost, so have eased off on other people’s words to focus on my own. I have, however, managed to make a nice dent in my to-read list over the past few months, so here are a few favorites from that particular pile…

Recent Reads: A bit of this, a bit of that…

I’ve had Peter McLean’s Priest of Bones languishing on my Kindle for a while, and I’m so glad that I finally got around to it. This is a really good read in the grand old ‘Grimdark Fantasy’ tradition, with a fun cast of characters and some very nice worldbuilding. It follows soldier and field priest Tomas Piety as he heads home from war to reclaim the crime empire he left behind, and soon turns into a game of strategy and intrigue when national politics stick grubby paws into Piety’s business. I absolutely recommend it for fans of this style of fantasy.

My daughter’s been telling me for months that I should have a look at Leigh Bardugo’s The Language of Thorns, and guess what? She was right. You don’t need to have read Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology or her Shadow and Bone trilogy for this, though a working knowledge of her Grishaverse is helpful. However, I’d recommend at least Six of Crows, which is a fabulous heist story in the style of Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora books. Thorns itself is a collection of folktales, some original and others clear retellings of known stories, written in a variety of styles that match the different nations in Bardugo’s expanded world. Lyrical and also surprisingly funny at times, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read.

When I heard that Disney’s upcoming Hawkeye TV show was going to be loosely based on the Matt Fraction Hawkeye comics, I decided to take a look. I’m not much of a graphic novel person, but the little I saw online intrigued me, and I was lucky enough that my local library had the first volumes in one neat omnibus edition. Honestly, this is so good! I’ve always liked Barton’s character in the Avengers movies, but this took things to a new level. Great characterization, and I can’t wait to see how they handle Clint and Kate’s interactions on-screen. Also, I need to read the rest of the series now, especially the one in ASL, which I hear is fabulous.

Both my daughter and I are fans of Seanan McGuire’s InCryptid novels, and the latest in the series, That Ain’t Witchcraft, certainly lives up to the very high bar set by the previous books. We’re once again in Antimony Price’s point of view, as she investigates a little ghost trouble in New England and ends up taking on the Crossroads itself. Annie and Sam are adorable as usual, and the whole ensemble cast is perfect. My only complaint? Now I need a family reunion novella with the entire dysfunctional Price crew united and under one roof, significant others and all… If you like urban fantasy and haven’t yet tried InCryptid, please do! I love these books — they take every one of my boxes, tick them neatly, and hand them back gift-wrapped and beribboned.

Now Reading: “We use it to light things from far away,” I said. “You know,” Tom said, “things you have to light from far away probably shouldn’t be lit at all.” – The Blackthorn Key.

I picked up The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands a while back, and am now on the third book, The Assassin’s Curse. This middle grade historical adventure series is absolutely fantastic! The books center around an apothecary’s apprentice, Christopher Rowe, and his friends, and are set against the backdrop of 1660s England complete with threats of the plague and of political conspiracies galore. The series is fun, well-written, and full of code-breaking, apothecary secrets, and twisty plots. It’s written for kids, but honestly, there’s plenty in them that will appeal to adults, too. Good stuff.

To Read: Old friends, new beginnings.

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert was one of my favorite books of 2018! Now I have the ARC for the sequel in hand, and can’t wait to get started. The Night Country releases on January 7th 2020, and returns us to the magic and darkness of Albert’s Hinterland. If you haven’t read the first book yet, give this wonderful blend of fantasy and magical realism a try.

Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater just landed in our mailbox in all its big hardcover glory, signed bookplate and all. Can you tell that we’re fans in this house? This is the long-awaited sequel to the Raven Cycle series, and focuses on Ronan Lynch, my absolute favorite of all Stiefvater’s Raven Boys. To get in gear for this brand new release, both my daughter and I reread the four original Raven Cycle books; now we’re all fired up and ready for more Ronan and Adam, and to meet all the new characters that Stiefvater has promised us for this series.

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Have Book, Will Read #21

It’s 2019! Well, it’s actually been 2019 for a while now, but I haven’t done a book round-up since 2018 so does that mean I get to celebrate New Year’s all over again? No? Ah, well, it was worth a try. *discreetly shoves champagne glass and party streamers under the table*

I actually followed my New Year’s resolution and made a good dent in my to-read list. Okay, who are we kidding, that thing is huge! But I have upped my reading game this year, and it feels good to be back! Here are a few of my favorites from the last couple of months.

Recent Reads: A world tour of mythology.

I’d heard good things about City of Brass, so when I spotted it in my local library, I immediately picked it up. S.A. Chakraborty’s lush fantasy tale starts in the streets of 18th century Cairo and travels to Daevabad, the legendary city of brass, home to the djinn. Beautifully written, and with plenty of twists and turns to keep readers on their feet, I swept through this in a day and a half, absolutely enchanted. 

Another 2018 release that plays with different world mythologies is Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse. Set after a future climate apocalypse has ravaged the USA and the Navajo people have created the magically protected land of Dinétah, the story follows monster hunter Maggie Hoskie on the trail of dark witchcraft and ancient legends reborn. Roanhorse’s prose is swift and fierce, and Maggie is a wonderful character — at the same time flawed and fragile, yet strong as stone.

This next one is a relative oldie compared to the other books in this post, but I’d been wanting to read The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater for a while. I love Stiefvater’s writing style in the Raven Cycle series, and this one has a similar atmospheric allure. However, instead of dusty Virginia roads and rolling hills, we have bracing winds and sea-salt spray, tough island grass and even tougher island people. It plays loosely with the Celtic myth of the water horse, using it to tell a tale of resilience and determination. Very nice.

The Cruel Prince by Holly Black may well end up being one of my favorite books of the year. This dark fairytale has underlying themes of abuse and isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty. The story of a mortal girl, brought up in the land of Faerie among the members of the Royal Court and caught up in the violence and political intrigue that accompanies the fight for the throne, it’s a breathtaking read and I absolutely raced through the pages.

Now Reading: The end of the Shattered Realms.

I’ve only just started Deathcaster by Cinda Williams Chima, last book in the Shattered Realms quartet, but I’m already mourning the end of this series. I was thrilled when, back in 2016, Chima gave readers the chance to dive back into her Seven Realms world with a new quartet of novels, set a generation after The Crimson Crown concluded. It’s been wonderful meeting a whole new cast of characters while enjoying the setting she so beautifully delivered in the previous series.

To Read: It’s all about those sequels…

I have two sequels on my reading list, and I’d like to get to them soon while the previous books are fresh in my mind. Both are the second-in-series of books mentioned above: The Wicked King by Holly Black, and Kingdom of Copper by S.A. Chakraborty. I’m looking forward to jumping back into Black and Chakraborty’s worlds!

How has your reading been so far this year? Any good sci fi or fantasy suggestions? Let me know in the comments!