Continuing my series of spooky SFF reads you can pick up to get into the October spirit, here’s day two!
The Poison Throne by Celine Keirnan
What’s it about?
Daughter of the king’s trusted confidante, Wynter grew up close friends with the two royal princes. Returning to the castle where she was raised after a long absence, she quickly learns that something has changed. The king has become a malevolent shadow of himself, his eldest and favoured son missing, and gibbets, torture, and whispers of a horrific ‘Bloody Machine’ have turned Wynter’s childhood home into a nightmare.
This is the first book in the Moorehawke Trilogy, a dark but still airy-feeling character driven fantasy series by Irish author Celine Keirnan. They’re fast reads with really compelling relationships and a lot of diversity!
How SFF is it?
Very! It takes place in a barely alternate Earth populated by talking cats, friendly ghosts, and werewolves howling in the night. It has a late west European medieval/early Renaissance feel to it. While not really high fantasy — few characters have any sort of real magical abilities — it definitely fits nicely into what you’d expect from a fantasy novel.
Why is it spooky?
Those friendly ghosts I mentioned above aren’t being so friendly anymore. The castle the book takes place in is haunted, and where once it’s spirits were friends, they’ve turned strange and mad and malevolent. There are some really outright eerie sequences involving the castle’s undead denizens!
This book also just has a sense of creeping dread about it. There isn’t much action and it’s a very slow burn, but it works well with the heavy sense that Something Is Wrong, that terrible things are happening and are only getting worse, that there is some awful unknowable secret just under our feet.
Finally, there’s some grisly details that add a gothic tone to it all, with the tortures mad King Jonathan is inflicting on his subjects and the way the castle has changed.
Some of my cast, like Chris, Olivia, and Rosemary, were important parts of the full series before they were even fully formed. Others didn’t really find their place until I started writing, like Maris, Will, or Kolston. The latest comer to the core cast is definitely the brilliant engineer Emilia Banks, which is funny… because she’s one if the most integral characters to the story as a whole.
Em’s origin story is a lot like Maris’s. As you might remember from my Backstage Character Pass on our favourite policewoman, Officer Dawson was added late when I realized that my first book didn’t pass the Bechdel test, and I think she’s a great example of how adding characters to fill a quota is actually a great thing! She contributes so much to the world and is so fun to write and adds such friction and spice to the rest of the cast! The series would definitely be worse off without her. Em is a lot like this.
After a single scene with Maris, I knew that this woman was gay as the hills. And I… kind of didn’t love it. In a lot of wars, Maris can seem like a lesbian stereotype. She’s stout, muscular, tough, no-nonsense, grizzled, and butch. I felt uncomfortable with having my lesbian conform to so many tropes. I turned to my lesbian friend and asked her how she would proceed and what she thought about this.
Her solution was pretty simple. Gay women, especially “mannish” ones like Maris, as often just gay as a character trait rather than an actual lifestyle. To avoid Maris being just a trope, I should give her a love story and make her lover as important to the story as Maris herself.
This right here is me miming a kiss to my friend. I really can’t thank her enough.
I thought about what kind of woman Maris would fall in love with, I thought about what blank spaces another cast member could fill in the world and the story, and I thought about the venn diagram where those two things overlapped. Like magic, Emilia Banks sprang to life.
Em is a lot of fun to write. She’s one of the most serious characters in my main cast, but she’s got some dry wit going on. She’s intelligent and kind and determined and deeply in love with Maris. She brings some much needed colour to Tarland’s isolationist racial purity, and shows us a bit of the world outside of Darrington’s sheltered walls. She’s also extremely logical and analytical. But I think what really makes her stand out is her passion.
There are two main types of character in the Faraday Files. There are the ones who are just trying to go about their lives and avoid the looming apocalypse scenario bearing down on Tarland, and those who have become ideologically embroiled in the politics and the discourse about what should be done about it. Em is neither. She is as disinterested in debating ideology as she is in putting her head in the sand. The debate about how to handle Tarland’s economic and social crises has been raging for a decade now without any real progress, and Emilia is so Done With It. People talk and talk and talk and talk and nothing ever happens, so why bother talking? Why not just get out there, headfirst, and do things?
One of my favourite things about Em is that she always puts her money where her mouth is. Both literally — she’s independently wealthy and uses her own money to fund her research — and figuratively. Emilia is dead set against categorization from top to bottom. It’s a corrupt, horrible system that is keeping Tarland in the dark ages, not the shining beaon of progress like so many claim. As a citizen of Tarland who has reached her majority, Em is legally obligated to undergo categorization, and she has. And yet, neither the reader nor the characters (other than Maris, of course) know what proficiency she has, because she won’t use it. Maybe it would make her life more convenient, or allow her to work legally and grow her fortune, but Emilia won’t play a role in the system she despises. I think that’s pretty impressive.
The Timeseer’s Gambit mostly serves as an introduction to the indomitable Miss Banks, but don’t worry — you’ll be seeing a lot of her in The Heartreader’s Secret. While the book is named for Rachel Albany, who has a big role to play, it’s as much Em’s book as it is Rachel’s.
Like Maris, I think Em is a great case for how a character added to tick a box can actually be a huge blessing to a story. I adore her, and response to her has been super positive! But she wouldn’t even exist if I weren’t committed to real diversity in my work.
Chris and Olivia are back! Join them and the timeseer, Will Cartwright, as they take on a serial killer, a historic trial, and their own relationships in The Timeseer’s Gambit!
The Timeseer’s Gambit is now available from all major online retailers! You can pick up your digital copies from Kindle on Amazon, and physical copies from Barnes & Noble, Chapters.Indigo , or any of the worldwide Amazon sites!
I am really proud of this book and so, so excited to get it out there and into your hands! Early reviews are really positive so far and I can’t wait to see what you all think!
RELEASE DAY FAQ
Where can I get the book?
The retailers I link above are the best places to get the book! Here are some specific questions I know I’m going to get:
— LOCAL PEOPLE:
Unfortunately, I still don’t have physical copies on hand. They are coming! If you don’t want to wait, order a copy from Amazon or Chapters! If you don’t mind waiting, watch this space for updates on events.
— KOBO/NOOK USERS:
I hate to say it, but my books will not be available on these platforms. I know how bad it sucks. I’m a Kobo user for life, myself. But I have to make money for my work, and the past year has shown me that the vast majority of my writing income comes from the advantages that being Kindle-exclusive give, while my Kobo and Nook gains are, comparatively, very low. It sucks, but take it up with Amazon.
I read the whole thing already! Where is Book 3?
Book 3 is the most complicated book I’ve written yet, and it’s taken some time to really get going on it. But it’s underway now and I hope it’ll be out next year. I hope. It might not be until 2018, but it will come, and, I hope, be so awesome that it will be worth the wait.
I read the whole thing and I want to hear you talk about specific things from it!
I have sooo much to say about the work I did on book 2 and how intensely personal a lot of it was to write. But I don’t want to jump out the gate and start spoiling things willy nilly! There are a lot of surprises in this book. I want you guys some time to think about them before I jump in start talking about my writerly perspective.
I want to help promote the book! How can I help?
Share it! This is the number one best way to help me out. Books are passed via word of mouth more than any other type of popular media these days, and the easiest way you can help me is by telling someone else to read it. Specifically:
— WRITE A REVIEW
Reviews spread the word! Positive (or even negative or neutral!) reviews help make a book more visible online to searches, and help increase eyes on the title!
— SHARE ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Just sharing a post like this one can help! It’s all about getting it out there.
— GIFT COPIES
If you want to be especially helpful, gifting copies to friends or local libraries is the absolute nicest thing you can do for me. Again: word of mouth is how books spread!
Some folks from my writing group and I were hanging out this weekend. I was gushing about how excited I was to read one of their works in progress. And really, I’m so stoked to get my hands on this book. It’s this Lovecraftian steampunk ghost hunting frontier sort of affair that is so my jam. It’s going to be so good, you guys.
I mentioned how I wished that my central plot was as amazing and bonkers and mythos-rich as hers, and we laughed about that, and she pointed out that I intentionally wrote the world of the Faraday Files as steeped in mundanity. That was my goal, and I accomplished that goal.
“Yeah, that’s true,” I agreed. “I did it this way so there wasn’t as much chance that I’d get mired up in all the details and my insecurities about doing it justice and eventually lose the book up my own ass.”
After a moment of strangely loaded silence, I realized that both my friends had immediately leapt to the assumption that I had not been taking the piss on my menagerie of failed manuscripts. Rather, they thought that I was trying to lay down some sick backhanded burn on them. I hurried to explain, we all laughed about it, and the moment passed, but it’s been sticking with me.
I made that comment entirely based on my own personal experiences and was surprised my friends could take it as criticism. The thought had never even occurred to me. And yet, at the same time, they were both equally certain that it was about them because it had seemed equally personal to their perceived faults as a writer.
NK Jemisin, one of my favourite authors, had some interesting things to say after the release of her most recent novel, The Fifth Season. I put it on my list of the best books I read in 2015, and it’s absolutely and utterly brilliant — one of the most complex, rich, and interesting books I’ve ever read in the fantasy genre. She’s come clean about how the book almost never happened. Her insecurities would have lead her to abandon the project without the support of the people around her encouraging her and pushing her onward. How could a book so brilliant make the writer feel anything but bursting pride?
There’s a scene in The Timeseer’s Gambit that I’d been excited to write since I first outlined the series. It’s this huge set-piece that happens in multiple parts and has almost every important character in the Faraday Files in it, all pursuing their own agendas at the same time. When I finished it, I was devastated. I couldn’t believe how badly I’d fumbled this scene that had been in my head since I’d started writing the series. How could I possibly come back from this? I should probably just quit writing, if this is how I handle my big important scenes. I left the scene for a few weeks, lost in a funk. When I booted the laptop up again and read it with new eyes, I realized that it was fantastic, even in its first draft form, and I’d done everything I’d set out to do.
The expectations and demands we put on ourselves as writers can be really extreme. And as I’ve known for a while, they’re universal. We all feel that gloom settle around us when we think we’ve failed to do our vision justice, and we all struggle with visions so vast and detailed in our minds that it seems impossible that we could do them justice. And sometimes that leads to us abandoning the vision entirely, thinking that it’s better to leave it unfinished than ruin it with our incompetence.
It’s that last part that really leaves us with the guilt, though. Pushing through it and getting the thoughts out there can feel terrible, but I think we all invariably realize that we sold ourselves short, and our work is better than we thought it was. It was true for me, it was true for NK Jemisin, and I’m sure it’s going to be true for my friends, too. In that moment, I was more ashamed of the manuscripts I’d left behind thanks to my own angst than anything else, and that, I think, is what echoed with my friends.
It’s a good reminder that we’re better than we think we are. And that everyone else, from the unpublished to the brilliant multi Hugo- and Nebula- Award nominees, is going through the same things and fighting with the same anxieties.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been pretty much talked to death already. Of course it has! It’s the biggest deal of a movie that’s come out since… well, since the last Star Wars, probably. And unlike the last Star Wars, this one is really, really good. It’s only natural that everyone has said everything there is to say about it already.
But despite it all, when I decided that I was going to start blogging more regularly, one of the first things I decided I had stuff to say about is the new Star Wars. Specifically, the writing in the new Star Wars.
I’m not sure audience reactions to Kylo Ren is what Disney hoped or expected. Famously, they’ve got tons of merch for him that they can’t move while, in turn, the demand for Rey merchandise far outpaces available supply. No one wants Kylo Ren action figures. Why would they?
Disney seems surprised. But I don’t think anyone who actually worked in a creative capacity on the movie is, and that’s because Kylo Ren is as far from cool or admirable as possible, and also… kind of perfect.
I’ve talked here about my approach to creating characters. In short, what’s most important to me is that a character is real and who is interesting. Likabilty comes a distant third. My priority is that my characters feel like cohesive people, with tons of little pieces that all fit together to make a believable whole. And by that standard, Kylo Ren is the best character Star Wars has ever had.
It makes me a little sad that his face is plastered all over the internet from the Emo Kylo Ren twitter to thousands of memes on tumblr, because possibly the best moment in the movie is when we see that face for the first time. After all the build up, the reveal that he is… a completely normal, relatively handsome young man is absolutely brilliant and underscores what makes him the best cinematic villain in recent history: his banality. He’s not a mastermind with plots within plots, cool and enigmatic and stone-faced. He’s a confused, frustrated young man, desperately trying to live up to a legacy he doesn’t even understand. He’s petulant, petty, temperamental, and lost. It’s absolutely brilliant.
I’ve seen criticism of the character based around the fact that he is a retread of problems with the prequel movies. Anakin Skywalker is a brat and widely agreed to be a failure of a character. Kylo Ren is a brat, too, so doesn’t that make him a failure? But this is a misunderstanding of the entire concept of framing. Anakin was framed as a great hero tragically lost to the dark side, a handsome and charming young man respected by the morally upstanding Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi and admired by the intelligent and competent politician Padme Amidala. His characterization as a sullen punk undermines what the audience is supposed to see when they look at him. But Kylo Ren is exactly what he’s made to be. His cranky, unhinged petulance actually contributes to his standing as a villain. Driven by such petty desires, the audience really does feel like the character will do anything to achieve his goals without thinking it fully through. This makes him frightening… and a little bit pitiable. We think Kylo Ren can be saved, just maybe. But do we want him to be?
DIVERSITY COMES TO STAR WARS
My best friend in middle school showed me the movies when we were twelve years old and I was smitten from moment one. I loved the world, the characters, the romance. I loved blasters and Jedi and the Millennium Falcon and lightsabers and Chewbacca’s voice.
And I loved Leia Organa.
Is there any young girl who didn’t? Leia is a dream. A beautiful, smart, kickass, tough princess with gorgeous but practical hair and costumes that run the gamut from gowns to fatigues, who gets a young Harrison Ford eating out of her hand and saves the galaxy. She’s femme enough for girly girls, tough enough for tomboys, independent enough for the most pragmatic of us and syrupy enough for the most romantic. Leia is a damn near perfect female character, despite some infamous missteps.
But she’s also the only female character. And despite her efforts to try, no one character can be everything to everyone.
The prequels were even worse. Still just the one female character, but this time, she’s little more than a love interest!
Then comes The Force Awakens. It knows that it needs to do better, and it does. The protagonist is Rey, the tough, scrappy, strong-willed scavenger girl with the power of a strong potential Jedi. And seeing her in the cockpit of this movie, owning most of the major scenes, would have been enough to thrill me down to my toes on her own. But Rey is just one character, and the movie doesn’t stop there! It gives us the hardass Captain Phasma, the eccentric Maz, and, of course, an older and world-weary Leia Organa herself to stand around and beside Rey. I’ve always stressed that the key to strong female characters is varied female characters, and The Force Awakens delivers that. Amazingly, out of those four major female characters, only one is young and conventionally attractive. Maz is an alien, Leia is in her fifties or sixties, and you never even see Phasma out of her armour!
Are we done yet? God, no! Because here comes a charming black man as Rey’s costar, the lovable, high-energy stormtrooper Finn. The trilogy’s central trio is rounded out by Poe Dameron, played by a South American actor and possessed of an ambiguous sexuality that has fans all guessing. Everywhere you look, there are more and more diverse characters.
Some would say this isn’t important, but I know they’re wrong. Because I was a little girl who looked at Leia and saw the only real role model in cinematic genre flicks available to me. I’m so excited to see a new generation of young girls have their own Leia. I want black boys and queer children to see themselves in Finn and, hopefully, in Poe. And hell, just for myself, as a woman over 30 and officially “old” by Hollywood standards – I’m glad that Leia Organa and the amazing Carrie Fisher who brings her to life are still allowed to show their faces on the big screen. It’s been forty years since Leia blasted her way into the garbage chute, and Leia is back. She’s still wielding a blaster, saving the galaxy, and showing all the girls who grew up admiring her that we don’t belong on a shelf just because everything isn’t as tight as it used to be.
UNPREDICTABLE CHARACTER ARCS
A lot of the few criticisms I’ve seen about The Force Awakens seems to focus on the idea that it’s glorified fanfiction that gives the viewer that they want to see instead of what would make a good movie. Putting aside a whole interesting discussion about fanfiction culture and whether or not wish fulfillment is inherently bad, I actually just… disagree.
Most assuredly, The Force Awakens walks a thin line between homage and reboot, with the major beats from A New Hope being retread consistently, but the thing I admired the most about the new film and the stage it set is that it didn’t give me what I wanted. At all.
Before I knew what an OTP was, Han Solo and Princess Leia were my OTP. I cared so much about those two. I read every single book in the Expanded Universe, just hoping for little insights into their life after Return of the Jedi. The only thing that I wanted going into The Force Awakens was to see them happy together.
Without getting too heavily into spoilers, not only did the film not give me that, it gave me pretty much the opposite of that. Tragedy poisoned the heart of their marriage and their relationship. Leia retreated into her work, trying to make the world a better place to compensate for her own loss. Han regressed to a worse but easier version of himself where he didn’t have to think about his grief. They drifted apart and eventually separated. Their reunion isn’t passionate or joyful. It’s quiet and weary and bittersweet, their relationship still scarred by all the lost things that silently stood between them.
Before I’d seen the movie, I’d have sworn this would have ruined it for me, but it didn’t. And that’s because good, interesting writing is more valuable to me than even my first OTP. Seeing Han and Leia so heartsick was hard and it certainly wasn’t what I was hoping for, but it was narratively satisfying. It showed me something I wouldn’t have thought I wanted and invested me in that. And that’s good writing.
There was a time where I’ve had given anything to know that Luke, Leia, and Han all had a happy ending together after the Ewok party at the end of Return of the Jedi. And The Force Awakens didn’t give me even a breath of that. The trio had been torn apart and had each turned to broken versions of themselves. And against all odds – I liked it. It gave me something I didn’t know that I wanted. What else can I ask for?
It’s been an amazing year for me in reading. Normally, there are only a couple books in a year I discover that I want to share with everyone I know. In 2015, not so much! There were long stretches where I found I had a hard time reading at all because I’d burned through three winners in a row and doubted I could find anything that could measure up! It’s honestly hard to narrow my best reads of 2015 down to just five, but I’m going to try. In no particular order…
1. The Fifth Season – NK Jemisin
I’ve loved every book that Nora Jemisin has written. She’s an immensely talented writer and her stories are incredibly unique. Her work is always so utterly unlike anything I’ve seen before, and that’s part of what makes it so engaging. But only part. Just as much credit has to be given to the pure strength of her prose. Jemisin’s writing can carry you away as she bends the rules of language and uses words as paints.
The Fifth Season blows everything else she’s written out of the water. It’s dark, it’s beautiful, it’s unforgiving, it will make you wince and sob and wish and think. It tells a unique, fantasy story about marginalized groups without ever descending to the platitude of allegory. It’s grand, epic, and apocalyptic, filled with some of the most fascinating and complex world-building I’ve seen in fantasy, but it’s also intimate and personal.
2. The Girl With All The Gifts – Mike Carey
The thing about The Girl With All The Gifts is that as soon as you know anything at all about it, it’s already half ruined. I could say that it inhabits a genre I usually have no use for, but then I’d have to assign it a genre, and that would ruin it. I could say that it’s the best take on one specific theme I’ve ever seen, but if I name the theme, that would also ruin it. I could talk about how it lets female characters do things that female characters rarely get to do, but I don’t want to talk about those things, because that would spoil that they happen!
I’ll recommend The Girl With All The Gifts in the same way the back of the book does: this is a story about a little girl named Melanie. She wants to marry a prince and loves going to class and learning. Every morning, she’s unchained from her bed, strapped into a chair, and wheeled into the schoolroom by military personelle. She jokes that she won’t bite, but they never laugh.
It’s a book where you discover… everything. You start with only that knowledge – a little girl named Melanie locked in a room in a military base – and bit by bit you unearth her story. And it’s absolutely brilliant. If you’re the type who can go into a book with blind trust that it’ll be good, check it out and please don’t find out anything else before you do!
3. Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, and Abaddon’s Gate – James S. A. Corey
I’m cheating and counting these three as one book due to being the first three in a series that I really can’t pick a favourite from.
A friend recommended me Leviathan Wakes years ago, promising diverse and memorable sci-fi. I bought it and it’s been sitting on my shelf for a long time. I love sci-fi, really, but it always takes me just that little bit more gumption to dig into than my other genres of choice, and the book looked a little intimidating. I finally got around to reading it this year in preparation for The Expanse TV adaptation on Sy-Fy and oh my god, I can’t believe I put something this amazing off.
The Expanse are amazing, wonderful books. I’ve always had a taste for the Lovecraftian, and The Expanse is something entirely unique in that the space horrors leave us alone until we actually go into space to find them. They’re also as strangely beautiful as they are deeply horrific.
It’s appropriate that the books are being made into TV, because I find they have the same appeal as my favourite television series do. They’re filled with well drawn, likeable characters, and a damned compelling central conflict that’s framed in new and exciting ways in each separate book. They’re also amazingly diverse and have some of the best minority characters (and certainly the highest volume of minority characters) that I’ve seen in books this year. Leviathan Wakes strays a little too close to typical white-guy sci-fi, but the authors make up for it in spades in the rest of the series. I’m devastated that after Cibola Burn and Nemesis Games, I’m going to have to wait for the next one like a peasant, biting my nails down the whole time.
4. A Natural History of Dragons – Marie Brennan
I enjoyed Brennan’s Onyx Court series. Especially the brilliant third book, A Star Shall Fall, which is one of my favourite novels of all time. So I was prepared to like her newest Lady Trent Memoirs series. I was not prepared for just how much.
As you may have guessed, I love mannered fantasy. I also, coincidentally, love ladylike fantasy protagonists who are nevertheless tough and empowered. And on top of that, I love anything that mixes science with magic. So I shouldn’t have been surprised by how much I adored this book. But I still didn’t expect just how much it captured me. As much as I loved the plot, a travelogue romp about curses, religious sects, smuggling rings, and conspiracies, what I loved a thousand times more was the natural history itself. Every time Isabella did a dissection, or wrote down her observations about how a dragon moved or nested or its hunting behaviours, I was just utterly captured.
The conceit of the book – framed around being a fictional memoir written by Lady Trent herself – just adds another layer of enjoyment. Isabella’s passion for learning comes across through “her” writing, and I held my breath when she was close to breakthroughs and cheered whenever she finally teased out some bit of new knowledge about the creatures she loved so much.
5. Words of Radiance – Brandon Sanderson
Sanderson is undoubtably one of the most talented fantasy writers of this age, and I feel comfortable stating that his work is going to be remembered for generations to come. The fantasy he writes today is going to be a bar set for the future of the genre. No one writes world-building as complex and layered as he does, and no one is so perfectly in control of every aspect of the story they want to tell.
Despite all this, he’s never been one of my personal favourites. His writing focuses very much on combat, on tests of strength, and on becoming more powerful. He does it better than anyone, but it’s not my usual cup of tea. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read of his, but never with total abandon before.
Words of Radiance changed that.
I did just mention that I love ladylike protagonists who are very strong and tough and complex and empowered! I’ve always been very girly in a lot of ways, and I’ve always found it hard to find female characters who are overtly feminine without being damsels or background characters. Words of Radiance is very much about Shallan Davar, a quirky, determined, and complicated artist who is everything I love in ladylike protags. She also happens to be, amusingly enough, another natural historian, eager to unlock the secrets of the strange world these books are set in. Shallan has the kind of backstory that could make a stone weep, but her determination to see a good world and live there is deeply affecting and touching.
Shallan, combined with the unbelievably detailed world Sanderson has created in this series, made this book something that captured me from its first page to its eventual thousandth. I’ve thought about it constantly since I put it down and I really can’t wait for the next one.
There you have it! Each of these books are absolutely brilliant and you should seek them out! I can’t wait to discover all the great books I’ll find this year and I can’t wait to share them with you.
We love all our characters equally, of course, and all differently. Some (Chris) have deeply personal roots in our own souls. Some (Rachel) are such a labour of love to get right that every word is precious. And some (Olivia) are just damn fun to write. But deep down in our hearts, I think we all have one that we knew we’d save from a fire if we had to choose.
For me, that’s William Cartwright.
Will’s origin story is definitely the oddest of my main cast.
Part of constructing the world of Darrington City was embedding fun mystery-solving avenues into the world. The gift of timeseeing let me roll a lot of modern detective tech into one. Namely: video surveillance, DNA testing, and fingerprinting. The ability to get a glimpse into the crime scene at the time the crime happened.Timeseeing itself was fully fleshed out very early on.
But the timeseer was kind of an amorphous blob. I knew she (yes, she!) had to be a major character in the grand scheme, an integral part of the core cast. Otherwise, her abilities would seem too convenient whenever they were wheeled out. Beyond that, I just decided I’d get to her when she arrived. My original outline for The Deathsniffer’s Assistant even has a line for the scene in which Will first appears – “meet timeseer character (flesh her out later.)”
I’m a predictable beast.When I give myself permission to do something “later,” it always ends the same way. I get to the scene in question and still haven’t decided what to do. So it happened with my timeseer. Olivia and Chris entered the room, looked my amorphous blob in the eyes, and right then and there my blob needed a name, a face, a history, and a personality.
I’d kind of haphazardly assigned a few traits to my blob in the back of my head. She was going to be soft, beautiful, spiritual, and gentle. A little bit fey. Not quite connected to what was going on around her, always living in the pasts that she could see. I’d kind of stuck a name to her, too, scribbled on a post-it note and stuck to the blob. Hannah.
Tire screeches right about now. Doesn’t this sound a lot like Will’s handler, the soft-spoken and gorgeous Officer Hannah Burke?
Why, yes! Yes it does.
As Olivia and Chris looked the blob in the eyes, it occurred to me that Chris was the only major male character in the core cast. And I didn’t really like my spiritual, listless timeseer. I didn’t have a sense of who she really was beyond a list of traits I thought would be interesting to write. There was nothing to pull them together. I had no sense of her as a person at all.
So I rolled everything way back. Square one. I looked at what a timeseer was. Someone with the rarest, most valuable categorization. Someone whose magic was almost mythical in a world where magic is nothing. The one gift that’s still “special.” What would someone with that ability be like?
Uh, well, they’d be kind of a ponce.
And then – bam. Fireworks in my brain, and like Athena out of Zeus’s forehead, William Cartwright appeared. A puff of smoke, a trill of fanfare, and an entire character was standing where the blob had been. I didn’t slowly discover Will, his history, his motivations, his personality, his backstory. In one moment he was not. And in the next, he was.
I think this is why he’s so special to me. I have to think very hard about my characters, about all the little pieces that make them who they are. I’ve only very recently finalized the last details of Olivia’s childhood! It takes time to assemble truly human characters. But it wasn’t like that with William. As soon as I discovered him, I discovered all of him. And, not content to just be a talking surveillance camera, he pushed himself into every last corner of the story.
It’s hard not to love a character with that much agency over his fate.
I kind of think of Will as a chihuahua. When you first meet him, you’re taken in by how tiny he is and how he looks so decorative. How cute! But just like the dog, Will’s territorial, cranky, peckish, and furiously loyal to a very small group – so loyal, in fact, that he’s willing to make anyone outside that group his enemy. Lots of bark and lots of bite in a package so small and adorable it’s hard to take seriously. But underestimating Will is a bad idea. He’ll mess you up, mate.
As you might be able to guess from the title, The Timeseer’s Gambit is Will’s book in a lot of ways. His appearances in The Deathsniffer’s Assistant are few, but I’ve been told quite a few times that he makes a really strong impression. I absolutely can’t wait until you get to know him better in the sequel. You’ll find out where he and Chris know one another from, and really get into some meat of his character. I hope you all love him as much as I do!
What did you think of Will? Are you looking forward to unpacking his mysteries and finding out where he knows Chris from and why Chris doesn’t remember him? And do you agree with what some readers have theorized – that there’s some attraction going on between the two young men?
One of the reasons I chose Curiosity Quills over other publishers was the promise of a close community of writers. And I’ve found that in spades. There are so many great people who share the imprint and I’m honoured to know all of them. One of the writers I connected most strongly with was Tegan Wren, whose tweets about the guilty pleasure of Captain Crunch spoke to me on a deep and hungry level.
Tegan’s greatness as a person lead me to seek out her book. I was surprised when it was a contempory romance novel! It turns out that CQ had just launched a romance imprint and Tegan was one of their first big “gets!” As some followers might know, I have a taste for trashy historical romances. You know, the ones with naked Fabio on the cover clutching some debutante in a rose silk gown. But I’ve never been much for contemporary romances, and especially not ones with single POV!
But I liked Tegan – a lot. So I decided right then and there that I was going to read this book whether it was my type of thing or not. Even if I hated it, this person I liked so much would pocket some royalties!
Right, so, I most definitely did not hate it.
Tegan Wren’s Inconceivable! is a novel wherein forthright American university student Hatty catches the eye of the handsome, popular Prince John while belting karaoke. John is tickled by her folksiness and honesty, and Hatty is charmed by his Prince Charming looks and noble nature. They begin a romance fraught with sexual frustration, contracts, and secrecy, dogged by paparazzi and gossip-mongers. Part 1 of the book follows their courtship and eventual engagement, while Part 2 and 3 get into the real twist of the story. There’s no royal happily ever after waiting for Hatty and her prince because they can’t conceive an heir.
The novel is deeply insightful, poignant with emotion, and incredibly personal. It’s also funny, charming, sexy, and a bonafide page turner. I’d say this book kept me up late many nights, but I burned through it in only two, unable to put it down. Even after crawling into bed and turning the lights out, my e-reader ended up back in my hand as I devoured eagerly, quivering to find out what happens next.
I’m so glad to have Tegan here today on my blog answering questions about the book. In a fun double feature, she’s doing the same with me! It turns out that, like me, Tegan bought the book because she liked the author and then got totally swept away. You can read the sister to this interview over [here] and find out how the contemporary romance writer fell in love with my fantasy mystery novel the way same I fell for hers.
1. First off — what would you say to someone (like me) who thought your book sounded interesting, but wasn’t a habitual reader of first person contemporary romance?
I’d say that I’m also not a habitual reader of first person contemporary romance, so I wrote the story for readers like me who simply want a beautiful, complicated, messy love story with a healthy dose of humor and reality thrown in. I’ve realized over the years that even though I read across many genres, one theme that shows up in a lot of books I love is a compelling love story. I thought about the things I enjoy in a romantic story line and tried to incorporate those things into my narrative. So, it’s my hope that INCONCEIVABLE! will appeal to readers who DO enjoy contemporary romance, but it will also appeal to people like you and me who bring a bit more skepticism to these types of tales.
2. Well, let’s dive into the big question. The reason you capture the struggle of infertility so well is because you’ve been through it yourself. How did it feel to tap into those experiences and relive them with Hatty?
Yes, I drew on my own experiences with infertility to write that part of Hatty and John’s story. It was intense to tap into my memories and relive the roller coaster ride that played out every single month we were trying to get pregnant. I’m thankful for my editor, Christina, who knew what it was like to obsess over pregnancy tests, hoping for two lines, and then being disappointed when there’s only one. She played a big role in helping me achieve authenticity. It was cathartic to write this book at a time in my life when I know my own happy ending: my three children, all of whom we adopted from outside the U.S., keep my arms full and my heart happy. I always knew that Hatty and John would also find their own happily ever after, too, and that it would turn other people’s expectations upside down.
3. I can’t help it — I’m a fantasy writer at heart! One of the things that I loved most aboutInconceivable! was discovering the culture and history of the fictional European nation of Toulene. Your world-building could put any of us fantasy types to shame. Could you talk a bit about the process of creating Toulene?
First, that’s a HUGE compliment, so thank you! I love that you asked about this because creating my own country was one of the most fun aspects of writing this book.
I had to decide whether I was going to set the story in the U.K. or elsewhere (my idea for the royalty angle came from wondering what it would be like for Prince William and Duchess Kate to experience infertility). So, this will tell you how my brain works: the idea of creating a new country seemed way less daunting than doing the research to set the book in the U.K. I’ve visited many countries in Europe, but I’ve only spent about an hour in London, and that was at Heathrow. I didn’t have enough firsthand experience with the country to set the story there and have it be believable.
(When you read the book, I hope you can tell I’ve walked the streets in Ghent and Paris because I tried to bring that sense of authenticity to the story.)
Then, I started to think about where my country would be. I’ve traveled a decent amount in the area where Toulene sits (between Belgium and France). I’ve long been a student of the French language and culture. So, it seemed like a fun idea to position my country in a place that’s somewhat familiar to me.
I wanted the dominant language to be English, so I had to come up with a history that supported that. That’s when I decided that the country was founded by disgruntled landed gentry who left England.
I don’t know how you lovely “fantasy types” do it, but I basically built my Toulene “box” and then used whatever I could fit inside it. My husband had the idea of Hatty’s grandfather having done a spread for LIFE magazine in Toulene after World War II. It’s those little details woven into the story that I think (hope!) make the country seem like a real place.
Consistency was very important, as was uniqueness. Why go to the trouble of making your own country if it’s similar to ones that already exist? I’ve had some readers ask me if Toulene is a real country. I absolutely love that question because it means I achieved some level of authenticity.
4. One of the most interesting characters in the book was “Kendra27,” an online friend of Hatty’s. Knowing you struggled with infertility yourself, how much is Kendra27 based on your own experiences?
I knew Hatty had to interact with other women online because for many of us, it’s the most immediate way to connect with other women who are going through infertility. There were five women I met through an infertility discussion group online. I chatted with them multiple times a day when we were trying to conceive. In fact, I’m still friends with one of them on Facebook and we still send each other Christmas cards. Like us, she and her husband ended up adopting kids from overseas. I suppose it’s because of the anonymity and the sense of sisterhood, the online infertility community is a place where women can be ugly-honest with each other about their infertility, how it makes them feel, and the questions they have about procedures. I felt like I was a more informed patient because I’d read so much online about other women’s experiences. I knew which procedures were likely a waste of time and money, and which promised the highest success rates.
The online infertility community is also full of cheerleaders and shoulders to cry on. There was no way I could tell Hatty’s story and leave that out. Obviously, her situation was a bit more unique because she’s royalty, but knowing Hatty’s personality, that wouldn’t stop her from engaging with the online community.
5. Where did the idea to thread newspaper articles throughout the book come from?
Very early in the process of developing this story, I imagined the snarky headlines from the tabloids. I knew they had to be a part of the book because it showed the additional pressure Hatty was under as a member of the royal family. Almost as soon as I thought about a royal couple going through infertility, the “barren-ness” popped into my head. Having worked as a journalist and being a closet-fan of celebrity gossip rags, it was quite easy to write the stories, though it pained me to imagine Hatty and John reading them. Having the articles themselves in the book was also a way to bring in some outside voices and to step outside Hatty’s head for a few moments. I thought it brought a nice change from a pacing stand point.
6. Inconceivable! is a romance novel, but it doesn’t follow any of the usual formulas for the genre. Was it challenging or liberating to colour outside the lines like that?
Honestly, I just wrote the story without a genre in mind, thinking it would end up being women’s fiction because I read a fair amount in that genre. But based on some wise feedback I received from several agents, I knew I needed to rework it to fit (somewhat) into the romance genre. It’s still an awkward fit in some ways, primarily because so much drama happens after the wedding. But, I felt confident that my story would find an audience, even if it didn’t fit the traditional mold. I think that’s why Curiosity Quills acquired the rights; they were looking for compelling love stories with satisfying endings that challenged the formulas of the genre. So, it was liberating to write a story I wanted to read, but then I did have to do some tweaking later to make sure the love story was the driving force. I really adore where the story ended up.
7. I can’t even imagine how much research went into this book. While you were learning about European royals, nobles, and locations, did you find any particularly interesting tidbits you couldn’t work into the book?
Honestly, I can’t think of anything I found in my research that didn’t end up in the book or inform a part of the story in some way. I implied earlier that I don’t like to do research, but I really DO love research. For some of Toulene’s history, I made up the stories. The tale of the uncle who married a commoner and died this miserable death was something out of my imagination. If you read enough about the history of Europe’s royal families, it’s easy to see how a scene like that could really happen.
I researched old issues of LIFE magazine and found a famous photo shoot I could credit to Hatty’s grandfather to flesh out a bit more of her family’s history. (It comes up in conversation the first time she meets Prince John’s father.) One of the cool things that started stirring in my brain as I did my research was wondering what role Toulene would play in World War II. I’ve started writing a novel that has a major story line involving this part of the country’s history. However, it’s lower on my writing priority list than a couple of other projects I have going.
(Kate: I’m so excited that Tegan is going to take us back to Toulene some day! What a great tidbit!)
8. Part 1 builds the sexual tension between John and Hatty to a fever pitch, and yet the consummation of their relationship occurs offscreen during a timeskip. Was this a constraint of the book’s structure, or a stylistic choice on your part?
I’m surprised more people haven’t asked about this, so I’m glad you did! It was a stylistic choice. As a reader, I really admire writers who play with my expectations. So, in a romance where there’s clearly this unbelievable attraction between two people, you’d absolutely expect this mind-blowing scene on their honeymoon…(surprise: I wrote it but I never submitted it to any agents or publishers…only about four people have read it). Because of the infertility aspect of the story, I knew there would be plenty of opportunities to address that aspect of their relationship, so I wanted to reveal it slowly through that part of the book. One of the reasons I wrote the book was to pull back the curtain on how infertility invades a couple’s life behind closed doors. Even though discussing infertility is not as taboo as it once was, most people don’t discuss the full ramifications of this medical challenge, and I wanted to explore that as a way of increasing compassion for what infertile couples experience.
Finally, one of the reasons I think a lot of people don’t give romance books a chance is because of the fear of too many hot and heavy scenes. In hoping that my book would have broad appeal, I wanted to ensure I addressed this part of their relationship in a tasteful way that framed it within the context of their infertility.
9. Any hints about what’s coming next from you? I can’t wait to dig into your next book!
Well, I’ve finished a young adult contemporary novel, but I’m currently revising it. I’m getting deeper into a time travel romance tentatively titled CHANDELIERS. It’s about an American French teacher who is doing a reenactment at Versailles when she experiences a time slip. She finds herself at court with Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. And surprise! There’s another person who’s there from present, and he happens to be a handsome doctor. The pair are going to help the monarchs as they struggle to produce an heir. (Sound familiar?) Not long after our time travelers realize they’re madly in love with each other, they stumble upon a way to come back to the present. But they think it may only work for one of them. Will they risk being separated for the chance to return home? Or will they choose to live together in the past? You’ll have to read CHANDELIERS to see what they choose.
The best compliment Tegan Wren ever received came from her sixth grade teacher: “You always have a book in your hand!”
Guided by her love of the creative process, Tegan grew up acting in theatre productions and writing poetry, short stories, and plays. She turned her eye to writing about real life when she worked as a journalist, producing reports for various radio and television stations in medium and large markets in the Midwest and also filing some stories for a major national news network. She spent several years writing online content, which ranged from creating descriptions of toilets for a retail website to composing a blog post about visiting Maui.
She’s had the opportunity to travel overseas, and uses those adventures to inform her writing. She also draws inspiration from her own struggles and life experiences. Tegan and her husband, Patrick, struggled with infertility for five years before becoming parents through adoption.
Tegan is excited to have her debut novel, INCONCEIVABLE!, included in the launch of the new romance imprint Curiosity Thrills from Curiosity Quills Press. She’s a proud member of Romance Writers of America.
Please check out Tegan’s book and get yourself a copy! It’s a wonderful tale of romance and heartbreak and triumph and it’s worth the effort for sure. You can get it here on Amazon for Kindle or in Paperback!
We’re running a giveaway where you can win a free signed copy of THE DEATHSNIFFER’S ASSISTANT mailed to your front door! There are tons of different ways to enter by signal boosting the giveaway or otherwise supporting me and the book online! With less than two weeks left before the book is out (eek!), I appreciate all the support I can get!