[Guest Post] Sarah Chorn, on the LGBTQ+ History of the Wild West

Sarah Chorn’s upcoming novel, Of Honey and Wildfires (pre-order link, review), is a fantasy set in a place heavily inspired by the American Wild West. It’s also a novel with multiple queer characters, both in terms of gender and sexuality. I was thrilled when Sarah was willing to let me host a guest post she wrote, about the queer history of the real Wild West, which is an aspect of history that rarely seems to get mentioned in the history books.

Read to the end for a special giveaway announcement, too!

Without further ado, I’ll let Sarah’s words speak for themselves!

When I realized that all of my characters in Of Honey and Wildfires fell under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, I kind of panicked. You see, I don’t plan my characters. At all. I do not map them out. I don’t even usually have names for them that settle in until well after I’ve written the first few chapters. I like to let them tell me who they are as I fill up those blank pages.

But I had an incident with Seraphina’s Lament, where someone told me that they worried my book was “too diverse” and “there aren’t any straight people in it” and that haunted me. Ultimately, they argued, I risked losing readers due to it. So when I ended up with two lesbians and one trans point of view character in Of Honey and Wildfires, I heard those words again, and thought, “Oh shit, what if this is too gay, or not realistic enough? What if this is too much diversity? What if people can’t handle it and I lose readers?” I didn’t plan it that way, but when characters reveal themselves to me, I’m very, very reluctant to change anything that I learn about them. This is how these characters live when they are inside my brain, and to bring them to life I need to be true to the core of who they are, else what’s the point?

So I had three points of view, and all of them are LGBTQ+ and I remembered what someone told me after reading Seraphina’s Lament and really got nervous. Should I change my characters? Should I make at least one of them straight? Should I essentially force my story into a more socially acceptable box? Should I change who my characters are?

I ended up doing what I do every time my nerves get the best of me.

I did research.

Of Honey and Wildfires is set in a secondary world, but I largely based it off of the Wild West in the late 1800’s, and I did a huge amount of research to bring a lot of the details to life, so researching this particular topic was not so much of a leap for me. In fact, I was rather surprised I hadn’t done it before.

It turns out, there is a whole LGBTQ+ history to the Wild West that most people never really know about. According to this article in True West Magazine, the words gay or homosexual didn’t come to mean what they mean today until well into the 20th century. The first recorded use of homosexual wasn’t until 1868, and the word heterosexual is an even newer word, first seen in print in 1924.


(Photo from True West Magazine, in the linked text above)

The argument is, these terms and the concepts they represented weren’t quite as solidified as they are today, and so the line between genders and gender roles wasn’t quite as solid, rather more of a soft, moving target than we tend to think, especially when we consider images of the Wild West, the rugged mountain men, the cow wrangler, the gun slingers.

There is a quote from the afore quoted article that says it all, as seen here:


More than that, when these all-male groups lived together, think mining camps, mountain men, etc., often times groups would form family units, where some would do the more “feminine” tasks of housework and the like, while others did the mining/whatever.

It should be noted that not all of these partnerships, termed “bachelor marriages” were sexual. Some were just partnerships so they could better function as a unit to get things done both on the home front and in the wider world. However, it does show how the typical macho cowboy image wasn’t all as divided between gender roles as a lot of us tend to think. Read more here.

It is not just relegated to women, however. In this article in the LA Times, the story of One-Eyed Charlie was told. One Eyed Charlie was known as fastest stagecoach riders in the west. Once Charlie died, and an autopsy was performed, they discovered that One-Eyed Charlie was actually a woman, Charlette Darkey Parkhurst.

With all that said, one can imagine how the Wild West could foster such societies that blurred commonly perceived general roles, and how a person could live a life that felt truer to who they actually were under all that wide-open sky, with society so far away.


(Image from Atlas Obscura, Regina Sorenson and others on the Minnesota Frontier)

When Peter Boag did his research for Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past, he fell upon a whole bevy of nearly unknown documents detailing the lives of people assigned one gender at birth, but lived elsewise out on the frontier. According to Boag, likely the segment of the population in the Wild West who lived such lives were probably a lot more prevalent than anyone has realized. Trans people have been in existence as long as there have been people. Boag posits that a lot of people saw the possibilities of reinvention in the West, and made their way to the frontier, and lived lives that felt truer to who they were.

And it makes sense. Out in the West, there was a lot more room for a person to get lost. It was a place you where you could show up, surround yourself with people you’ve never seen before, and be the person you’ve always longed to be with no one knowing any different.

scgp4As stated on The Forgotten Trans history of the Wild West on Atlas Obscura, another aspect of trans history in the west is stated here, and this is perhaps why we don’t know more about it. Humans, as ever, are so good at explaining things away.

It was easy for tabloids and historians of the time to explain away trans men as a quirk of the frontier. It was, after all, a land dominated by men: violent, physically demanding, and steeped in the oppression of women. It seemed logical that certain women might choose to disguise themselves as men for safety, or to gain access to power and agency—with no queer motive. “If people thought you were a man, you wouldn’t be bothered or molested, there’s good evidence that some women dressed as men to get better paying employment,” Boag says. The best job most women could hope for in the Old West was cooking or housekeeping. On the other hand, someone assigned female at birth who passed for a man could earn real wages.

But, as argued on the linked article, this idea of people assuming specific gender roles to fit into society better, find better jobs, etc., is likely part of why this aspect of society in the Wild West was so rarely talked about, and little known to us now.

And while that was likely true for some, there were people who did assume certain gender roles to do one thing or another (we’ve all heard the stories of the female soldiers assuming male roles so they could go to war, for example), it really wasn’t always as simply explained away or brushed under the rug as all that.

Another case and point on the Atlas Obscura article (seriously, read that article) is the case of Mrs. Nash, who was assigned male at birth, but lived in Montana, worked as a laundress, and was married to three men before she died. Mrs. Nash, arguably, cannot be explained away by higher paying jobs, and the like.


Mrs. Nash, photo from Atlas Obscura

Now, I’ve talked a whole lot about men, but I haven’t said much about women, and there’s a reason for that. You can probably guess it. Throughout history, women have largely been left on the fringes, not important enough to mention. In my endless digging about this fascinating topic, I’ve found precious little about the females who have lived out on the frontier, unless they were trans.

There is some evidence and records of some Native American tribes, like the Lakota, who used to perform certain rituals for the women who did not want to marry. They would twine a rope to form a “baby” between them. Though the exact purpose of the ritual is unknown, the implications seem clear enough. Read more here.

Willa Cather was likely the most famous lesbian who lived on the frontier. And of course, one must think of the areas where women lived amongst women, and men frequented, but never stayed: the whore houses, some of which have left records of relationships between women.

So with all of this, it is pretty obvious that there is a wide and nuanced LGBTQ+ history of the Wild West, probably a much larger history than any of us really know of. I do suggest clicking on all the links above, because all of these articles are worth reading, and I’ve only really scratched the surface on this.

Ultimately, I decided to keep my characters as they were, to be true to who they were. That’s the whole point, isn’t it?

Back when I was facing this same issue with Seraphina’s Lament, I told a friend of mine what was bothering me. I asked if I should rewrite some of the characters, add in more straight people, and they replied, “Sarah, if every character in your book was straight, no one would ever say, ‘your book is too diverse.’ This isn’t really an argument about diversity.” I’ve kept those words with me. There have been LGBTQ+ people throughout history, in every country, region, and historical period in the world.

I found this rather hidden history of the Wild West to be incredibly fascinating, and I think it is unfortunate that we do not know more about this, and that we are not taught more about it. I felt, in the end, that Arlen, Cassandra, and Ianthe are perhaps a bit more representative of the Wild West as it truly was, than I’d originally thought.

Thank you so much, Sarah, for writing this piece and letting me host it. It really was a fascinating read!

And now, for the giveaway announcement! Sarah has kindly agreed to give away one (1) ebook copy of Of Honey and Wildfires, .epub or .mobi as the winner prefers. All you have to do to enter is to comment on this article with your favourite queer character from an SFF novel, and tell me why. What makes that character so special to you? What makes them awesome?

Don’t forget to leave contact info (email address, Twitter, etc) so I can contact you if you win!

This contest is open internationally, entries will close at 11:59 PM, PST, Monday April 27. The winner will be drawn and announced on April 28, and the winner’s contact information will be forwarded to Sarah Chorn so she can reach out regarding the prize. Best of luck to all who enter, and I look forward to reading your comments!

GUEST POST: Amelia Smith on Kazuo Ishiguro’s THE BURIED GIANT

Today, SPFBO author Amelia Smith is dropping by to give us her thoughts of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, The Buried Giant.

I used to think that fantasy was a genre, and that I knew what it was about. Then I tried to write a nice, quick, pulpy fantasy novel, and discovered that I had no idea what I was doing. That was almost a decade and a half ago, and the boundaries of the genre haven’t gotten any less blurry for me.

I had read fantasy novels, dozens of them. My favorites included C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, which I’d read multiple times in elementary school, and The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley (which I’ve since tried to re-read, and didn’t like it as much as I used to). What I was aiming for was a mix of imagination and allegory, but apparently that wasn’t enough. I needed a plot and characters, too, so I got those. I drafted, revised, rewrote, and revised again. Then I looked around, only to discover that this so-called genre wasn’t what I thought it was at all.

Within speculative fiction, there are dozens of sub-genres with non-overlapping or barely overlapping readerships, from shifter romance to literary fairy tales to hard sci-fi to “Tolkien knock-offs.” My husband and I both read speculative fiction, but he reads mostly Lovecraftian short stories while I lean towards literary fantasy novels. I also read literary fiction, and sometimes the literary stuff is as fantastical as the fantasy. I mean, why isn’t Salman Rushdie’s work shelved in the fantasy section? Why isn’t Jo Walton in general fiction?

The line between literary fiction and fantasy is blurry, but sometimes an author tries to cross over (sort of) and trips up horribly. I’d heard good things about Kazuo Ishiguro, so when the buzz got going about The Buried Giant I checked it out. It was not what I would call a masterpiece. In some ways, it was like looking at my own first efforts to write fantasy, but also reminiscent of Phantastes by George MacDonald (first published in 1858) a book I fought my way way through recently because of C.S. Lewis’s gushing introduction to it. Phantastes was rich with allegory and description, not so strong on the forward drive of plot. The Buried Giant had a slow, foggy atmosphere which hearkened back to that Ur text of 20th century fantasy.

Ursula LeGuin criticized Ishiguro for his reluctance to embrace the fantasy genre, which led to the highest profile discussion I’ve seen of the literary/fantasy genre divide. People got a bit worked up about it. I got a bit worked up about it. I saw fantasy – the Tolkien knock-off kind – shelved with general fiction at another local library. I asked why. No one seemed to know. As it happened, one of the local library book clubs was reading The Buried Giant, so I went along to the meeting. The members of the group were mostly women well over the age of 70, and on the whole they didn’t love the book, but their big objections had very little to do with the world-building or genre-bending. Instead, they wanted to know was what the author was trying to do, what the message of the book was.

They seemed to be looking for allegory, one of the reasons I got into writing fantasy in the first place. I’ve been thinking more about plot and such lately, but that drive for allegory is still part of the process. It was a prominent characteristic of much of the fantasy I read early on, and I sometimes still see it, though more often in those books which land on the literary/general fiction shelves despite their fantastical elements. There’s probably more action and adventure on the genre bestseller lists.

Sometimes, I’d like to see all the segregated genres lumped back into general fiction at my local library. People who “don’t read fantasy” are missing a lot of good stuff, stories which they would probably enjoy. Meanwhile, the genre shelves themselves contain a huge variety, and I often find myself jumping up and down explaining to people that no, it’s not all sexist Tolkien knock-offs any more. I don’t think it ever was.

authorphoto400sq-300x300Amelia Smith writes articles about Martha’s Vineyard, books about dragons, and blog posts about nothing in particular. To learn more about her, visit www.ameliasmith.net. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

GUEST POST: Language and Fictional Cultures, by Kameron Hurley

Today, I’m extremely privileged to welcome the award-winning Kameron Hurley to Bibliotropic. She kindly agreed to write a guest post on language and culture, and it’s one of the things I can definitely say I’m thankful for on this Canadian Thanksgiving.

There is no word in English for schadenfreude, the feeling of delight one has at the misfortunes of others. English speakers end up using schadenfreude to describe this feeling because we have no better alternative, and like tortilla or faux pas, it eventually starts to enter the English lexicon. English itself is mishmash of many different languages, product of an island country that was invaded time and time again by many different cultures, and then went out and conquered most of the world, bringing back pieces of language and culture from societies around the globe, Borg-like.

Language is an important consideration when I’m building fictional worlds, because it says a lot about not only the history of a culture, but also gives a window into the culture itself. There has been much ink spilled about the idea that in the ancient Greek world, their limited language for color meant that they may not have perceives a full spectrum of color, because they simply had no name for it. Both “wine” and “the sea” were described as the same color. And when you are told that the word for a particular color is the same across a wide spectrum, it can, indeed, change the way you see the world. Ask anyone who has struggled with desire outside of the heterosexual default we see in the media and hear about as we grow up in the United States. It’s incredibly difficult to imagine a way to be, to name one’s feelings and desires, when one has no story, no language, with which to describe it.

I took this knowledge of language and how it shapes us into account when building the fictional worlds in my epic fantasy series, The Mirror Empire and Empire Ascendant. One of the societies I built was a pacifist, polyamorous, consent-based culture which has no word for “bastard” or “fuck.” There is also no direct translation for “rape,” which is not something that has historically been used to oppress or as a method of terror and genocide in this society, and does not carry any stigma for its victims, any more than any other violation of the country’s consent laws. They have no historical reason or precedent for such behavior.

If characters from this country want to use these words, they need to switch to a language whose culture cares about whether or not someone’s father is known, and where the act of having sex is considered a violent, dirty word. The language people had to express themselves and what they valued was an intrinsic part of making that society live and breathe in a way that felt organic.

Similarly, when I created the Saiduan culture with its three genders and violent method of assimilation and ascension to power, the language they used was very different from that of my pacifist culture. We have a gendered hierarchy in the West, still, that continues to position women as Other, or women as Things. Adding a third gender meant reconfiguring what a gendered hierarchy would look like in both language and practice in this new culture. Because the society itself was deeply hierarchical, I knew I would not get rid of the idea of gendered hierarchy – in fact, one of the primary struggles that one of the characters from this country undergoes is trying to overcome her own misogyny, her own belief that as a woman she cannot lead, though she has been leading her whole life. She says that as a man or “even as an ataisa” this could be permitted, but as a woman, and her assumptions give us a little window into the broader culture’s assumptions. Language and culture gave her no way to imagine a future where she sat at the top of the hierarchy.

Whatever culture you choose to build, considering how the language and culture will inform one another will help make your societies more believable. If I could give one piece of advice about worldbuilding to aspiring writers, it would be this: every decision you make about a culture needs to inform every other decision. They each will have a ripple effect. One cannot simply plunk in a polyamorous family structure across an entire society and have everything else in the whole culture sound just like a middle class New Jersey neighborhood circa 2015. All of the choices we make inform all of the other choices. It’s in following each decision we make to its logical conclusion that we build truly rich and unique societies.

Kameron HurleyKameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire and Empire Ascendant and the God’s War Trilogy. Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer; she has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, the Gemmell Morningstar Award and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, Year’s Best SF, The Lowest Heaven, and Meeting Infinity. Her nonfiction has been featured in The Atlantic, Locus Magazine, and the upcoming collection The Geek Feminist Revolution. She has a website, and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

GUEST POST: Ferrett Steinmetz on What Kind of ‘Mancer He’d Be

Many thanks to Ferrett Steinmetz for being willing to write such an interesting post. It started off as a simple question relating to the world he created in his novels, Flex and The Flux, and turned into so much more than I hoped. Read on to see why.

So in the world of THE FLUX, if you love something deeply enough, your obsession with that will punch holes through the laws of physics.  And because people obsess about weird damn things, THE FLUX features perhaps the oddest group of wizards ever set to page: paperwork-wielding bureaucromancers, crisply-folding origamimancers, bruised and battered Durdenmancers, blank-faced masqueromancers, and of course everyone’s favorite character, Valentine the pudgy goth videogamemancer.  (That’s her on the cover, wielding an Xbox controller like a gun.  If you were facing her down in an alleyway, you’d wish she had a gun instead of her controller.)

Yet the question’s been asked: if I were a ‘mancer, what kind of ‘mancer would I be?

Interestingly enough, I’m the perfect age to become a ‘mancer: middle-aged.  Obsession isn’t a young man’s work – I mean, yeah, we all know some kid who got a yen for lockpicking in college, but those are often fleeting things.  It’s easy to obsess when you’re in your early twenties and can chug a case of Red Bull with no aftereffects and the world is still fresh and new and awesome.  You may think it’s obsession, and the universe thinks your adoration is cute, but really it’s that first blush of romance where you’re head-over-heels in love because you have nothing to compare it to.

To become a ‘mancer, you have to marry your obsession.  And stick with it.

But the kind of obsession that is strong enough that the universe actually steps back and goes “…hey, maybe she’s right” and lets you fire a Portal gun to teleport between walls?  That takes decades.  You have to keep with it long enough that you’re still into long after the patina has clouded your vision.  You have to still keep with it when your back starts to ache and your body protests after that third all-nighter.  You have to keep re-falling in love with your obsession – okay, you’ve folded the same crane a thousand times, but you still look forward to that thousand-and-first challenge of getting a razor-sharp crease.

In the FLEX universe, Paul is about average.  He blossomed into ‘mancy in his early forties.  Valentine is highly unusual in that she opened up her ‘mancy in her late twenties.  And I often hear happy college kids telling me, “Oh, I love Anime!  I’d be an Animemancer!”  And because I’m kind, I don’t correct them.  But I think secretly that they can talk to me in a decade if they’re still speed-snorting torrents of Naruto.

The other thing that makes for a good ‘mancer is, well, something to escape from.  Happy people generally don’t become ‘mancers: hell, as someone says in FLEX, the formula to create a ‘mancer is “Withdrawal. Obsession. ’Mancy.”  And so the question is, am I dysfunctional enough to become a ‘mancer?

And as a guy who suffers from severe depression and social anxiety… yeah.  Almost certainly.  There are times when I look back on my day and see nothing but a crumbled set of ruined relationships, self-abnegation, and failure – and yet I look at all my manifest flaws and go, “But I can write.”  Sometimes, writing is how I escape depression, where I think “Crap, I’m a wreck of a human being, I’ve got no redeeming qualities – so let’s posit a universe where obsession creates magic, what ramifications would that cause?”  And I lose myself in fictional worlds.

Finally, the biggest question is: Am I obsessed enough to become a ‘mancer?  Because like I said, this isn’t some superficial commitment.  I mean, I like a lot of things – when I was a kid, I made my family take me to see Star Wars in the theater fifty-five-and-a-half times.   Why “A half,” you ask?  Because at one point, my grandparents misread the time the showing started, we got there an hour early, and so I made them take me into the theater to watch the last half of Star Wars,and then watched the whole movie again.

My grandparents were saints.

But even though I owe my life and my wife to Star Wars – we met in a Star Wars chat room – and I’m getting family Star Wars tattoos before the premier – but I don’t think about everything in terms of Star Wars.  I just enjoy Star Wars.  And to really have the universe stop and pay attention to you in the FLEXverse, you have to view everything through that warped lens.  You have to get up, look in the mirror, and wish you were a Jedi when you’re brushing your teeth… And that’s a pretty rare trait.  It’s established explicitly in the book that only about one out of every 50,000 people have that sort of devotion.  (And most of them die to instant karmic backlash, so the number of surviving ‘mancers is closer to one in 250,000.)  So I don’t know.

And then I think that I wrote for twenty-two years before I sold my first novel.

I think about how I wrote seven novels that didn’t sell and yet I never gave up, churning out well over a million words, never having sales, keeping at it no matter what.

I remember when I got into the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and thinking, “Six weeks is a lot of time to ask off from my job.  I hope they give it to me – because if they don’t, I’ll quit.”  And I’d worked at that place for a decade.

And I think yeah, there’s probably a reason I wrote a novel where obsession creates magic.  Because I was obsessed, for so many years.  I burned to tell stories people wanted to listen to.  And I just – would not – stop.

Then finally, I wrote a book that was weirdly personal.  It’s got, as noted, a man who made an art out of the DMV.  It’s got gratuitous references to donuts.  It’s got a chubby attractive woman who enjoys the hell out kinky sex and yet that’s not her defining trait.  It’s got a close father-daughter bond.

I’m not sure if I’d be a ‘mancer.  But I do know that THE FLUX is still magical for me.  And I really hope it’ll be for you, if you read it.

ferrettFerrett Steinmetz is a graduate of both the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and Viable Paradise, and has been nominated for the Nebula Award, for which he remains stoked.

Ferrett has a moderately popular blog, The Watchtower of Destruction, wherein he talks about bad puns, relationships, politics, videogames, and more bad puns. He’s written four computer books, including the still-popular-after-two-years Wicked Cool PHP.

He lives in Cleveland with his wife, who he couldn’t imagine living without.

Find Ferrett online at theferrett.livejournal.com or follow him @ferretthimself on Twitter.

Post-script from Ria: Reading these books is a wonderful trip, but both books have given me an interesting bittersweet feeling, because there’s a part of me that longs to be that devoted to something, even if the rest of the world thinks I’m spending too much time on it and ought to go live my life in some normal healthy way. I spent a good chunk of my youth trying to figure out who I was, mostly my trying to imitate the interests of others, and I’d fall in and out of love with various things. Nothing stuck. But there was, and still is, this burning ember in the back of my mind that tells me if I find that one thing, that shining obsession, then I’ll properly find myself, I’ll become myself, and whatever the rest of the world thinks won’t matter because I have my niche. I see characters like Mrs. Liu and her dozens of ‘mancy-created cats and my heart aches a little, because I both want to be her (I do love my cats, and take care of them better than I take care of myself most days) and to be the me that has carved out my own obsession-space in the world. I had the idea that if I could be defined by an obsession, I would finally have a definition.

I think these are the kinds of books that will resonate with anyone who’s even felt a touch of that mentality, and those who have felt at a loss to explain to the rest of the world just why something means so much to them when it doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone else.

GUEST POST: Reimagining Paris, by Aliette de Bodard

Today, Aliette de Bodard is awesome enough to drop by with a fantastic post about the Paris she wrote for The House of Shattered Wings.

I wrote The House of Shattered Wings partly as a love letter to Paris.

It might seem a little paradoxical, as one of the first things I’ve done with the book is nuke the city: in the novel, the Great Houses War (my alternate equivalent to World War I), was fought not between countries, but between magical factions, and the resulting backlash tore the city apart, destroying the familiar monuments and turning the city into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Among other things, Notre­Dame is a ruin, the Sorbonne University has been burnt down to the ground, and the Grands Magasins are saturated with magical booby-­traps, and you do not go there unless you have a death­-wish.

However, no matter how destroyed, the city is still recognisably Paris; and its geography is still familiar — ­­and so is its society, which I loosely based on the 19th Century and the novels I read as a child. I wanted to a write a fantasy that was set among familiar streets and familiar sights, and would incorporate many of the things I grew up with. Equally, I didn’t want this to be the tourist view of Paris: there’s nothing wrong with this narrative, but I wanted to present something a little different, a city from the point of view of those that live there (or in the case of my characters, survive!).

I drew on a lot of things for the world in the novel: the first is the history of the city and of the French state, which I took and twisted sideways to make this post­-apocalyptic world come alive. The Seine has long been Paris’s sustenance, an important source of commerce and supplies, but also a line of defence: Ile de la Cité and Ile Saint-­Louis, Paris’s two natural islands, are also its historical heart (the city’s motto, Fluctuat Nec Mergitur, “battered by the river but does not sink”, is a clear reference to this). In the world of the novel, the Seine has become corrupted by the spells cast during the Great War: venture too close to it and you run the risk of being dragged underwater by invisible tendrils. Banks are off-­limits, and even bending over the parapet of a bridge can be lethal.

In my universe, several magical factions-­cum-­fortresses called Houses fight each other for influence over Paris. The names of those Houses are easter eggs based on history and geography. The first and foremost House is Silverspires, the major location of the novel. It is of course located on Ile de la Cité, because it was the first House founded, at a time when the city was the island; its name, Silverspires, is a reference to the numerous churches which used to be found on the island before the great renovation of Paris in the 19th Century. Another House, Hawthorn, is located in the Southwest of Paris in Auteuil: during the first half of the 19th century, Auteuil was a verdant village in the countryside, one of the places where the rich had their secondary residences. Accordingly, Hawthorn is famous for its gardens, which it has managed to keep intact (more or less) even in the years after the war.

The 19th Century was a time of unprecedented advances (in the alternate history I describe, those are powered by magic), and of large territorial expansion of the French on other continents. The novel is set sixty years after the Great Houses War: in the wake of the devastation, that century (and especially the Belle Epoque) has become the Golden Age, the halcyon days everyone seeks to remember; but there are also remnants of the colonial empire. Commerce still flows through the port of Marseilles from Asia, and one of the major characters, Philippe, hails from Annam (present­-day Vietnam), while minor ones come from Morocco, Senegal and other French colonies.

Another thing which I used was the geography of the city, and the way it would change in a post­apocalyptic setting. Because the Seine is now impregnable, the Houses which hold islands (Ile de la Cité, Ile Saint-­Louis and the artificial Ile aux Cygnes) now have an advantage over others, as they are harder to storm. Conversely, places like Hawthorn, which are basically countryside, have no natural defences: one of the reasons why Hawthorn and the other Houses are so eager to bring Silverspires down is because of the unfair advantage Silverspires now holds.

Finally, the society I present is drawn from many things: as I said, it is a twisted version of the Belle Epoque, with social mores affected by a devastated setting, but still present. The class system has receded and left in its place a stratification based on who belongs to a great House, and who doesn’t; on who has magic, and who doesn’t; and people make snap judgments based on this. I drew on my classical reading for this, to get both the feel of what it would be like in an upper­-class/bourgeois portion of society (within the Houses), and what being outside this system would entail: the society in the novel is a cross between Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (which vividly portrays both the plight of the oppressed and the obliviousness of the powerful), Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin novels (the adventures of a gentleman-­thief, but more importantly a powerful cross-­section of French society pre-­WWI), and Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo (which, in addition to the revenge plot, has wonderful parties and very vivid politics among the bourgeoisie). All were invaluable for creating the interactions between characters who ranked from heads of Houses to more minor roles like alchemists, bodyguards and servants.

This is the underside of the iceberg, of course: in the novel, which has a fast-­paced, character-­driven noir plot, I seldom had time to pause for history lessons. But there is enough of it there, I hope, to make this strange, unfamiliar and yet utterly recognisable Paris come to life; and to give the reader a whirlwind tour of what might have been, in a slightly sideways City of Light!

Many thanks, Aliette, for writing this post for Bibliotropic! And to everyone who hasn’t yet read The House of Shattered Wings, what are you waiting for?

GUEST POST: What Would I Give Up Writing For, by Fran Wilde

This post was supposed to go live yesterday, so my apologies for the delay. And many thanks to the wonderful Fran Wilde for writing such a wonderful and personal guest post.

Is there anything I would give up writing for?

At this point in my life, absolutely nothing can stop me from writing. I’ve found a good working pace, and have enough support from family that I can tour in promotion of a new book like Updraft, work on the next book (or two), teach at workshops, be a guest at conventions, and all the rest of the things that go with a writing career.

I also have some freelance clients that help support my writing costs.

But a few years ago, “nothing can stop me from writing” was not my answer.

A few years ago, I was just starting out, and money was really tight. My spouse and I were newly married, and my spouse needed to go back to school. I’d already completed an MFA in poetry, was working on a Masters’ in Information Architecture and Interaction Design, had several large freelance jobs lined up, and was settling down to work on a manuscript when we realized that, in order for my spouse to return to school, I would need to work full time, or more than full time. I ended up taking on additional freelance programming and writing gigs, a full-time job, and two teaching positions at local universities. That’s a lot of hours.

To make room for it all, I set the manuscript aside for the time being, and my spouse and I made a deal that I’d come back to it when my spouse graduated.

Yup. I know how that sounds. If you’d told college-me or high-school me I’d be doing that, I would have been horrified. The risks of setting aside a career to help someone else’s career and establish a family at the same time are enormous, and my dream career lagged in the meantime.

But looking back now, it was a good decision. We were able to give ourselves a little bit of financial stability, I gained a ton of new skills that paid well, and when my spouse graduated, the job opportunities added to that. It was not always perfect, and certainly when the economy got rough things were difficult, but we patchworked our way through.

I did it because had no illusions that writing was a guaranteed path to fame and riches.

Those were the good reasons why I set my writing aside.

The bad reasons why I set writing aside were something else entirely — and those almost kept me from picking my writing back up again.

Bad reason number one was that I didn’t value my writing nearly enough. I felt that because it didn’t make any money, it wasn’t worth anything.

Bad reason number two was that I felt that I needed to put others (family, students, friends) first. I figured I’d get around to my writing after all the other things were done.

And bad reason number three was that I didn’t believe in myself.

Boy was I wrong about those reasons. They were terrible, and they kept me from writing, submitting, and writing more.

When I finally discovered that my writing was worth something, even if it didn’t make a ton of money, that if I didn’t put my writing first, no one else would, and that I needed to believe in myself before others would.

That’s when I was able to pick up my writing again, and stick with it, after giving it up for a long time.

I did that by going to writers’ workshops, finding a community of working writers, and listening — or trying to — when someone complimented my work. I began to get stable ground beneath my feet in a new way. And that was vitally important to picking up my writing again and getting rid of the bad reasons for not writing.

The focus I was able to give to Updraft, and the books and short stories before and after it, happened solely because I ditched those bad reasons. I’m glad I did.

Things may change again — a writing career is nothing if not fluid — but I’m glad I’ve taken the path I have, and especially glad I’ve learned the lessons I have. Because now? Absolutely nothing can stop me from writing, every day.

franwildeFran Wilde’s first novel, Updraft, debuted from Tor Books on September 1, 2015. Her short stories have appeared at Tor.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Uncanny Magazine, and in Asimov’s and Nature. Fran also interviews authors about food in fiction at Cooking the Books, and blogs for GeekMom and SFSignal. You can find Fran at her website, Twitter, and Facebook.

Max Gladstone on writing urban fantasy in a secondary world

Max Gladstone was awesome enough to write an utterly amazing guest post regarding something that has fascinated me of late: urban fantasy set in secondary worlds. Most often urban fantasy is set in this world, the primary world, and anything set in secondary worlds usually doesn’t have the same urban feel. Gladstone combines the two things wonderfully in his Craft series. Here’s what he has to say on the subject.

Cities have always seemed fantastical to me.

I grew up all over, but my first serious chunk of childhood was in a small town outside of Cleveland.  We visited the Ground Round for the kids’ menu on Tuesdays, and I remember long roads and strip malls, but it wasn’t Suburban Wasteland by any means—there was a small stand of woods behind our house where I’d play Ninja Turtles or Star Trek.  When I was ten, we moved to a much smaller town on a mountaintop in Tennessee.  The woods spilled over the bluffs’ edge, and patchwork farms spread to the horizon.

I met New York for the first time on a trip up north toward the end of high school, and enough farmboys have written enough farmboy impressions of New York you probably don’t need to read mine—towers, avenues, lights, crowds, Times Square, Broadway, a city big enough to close its arms around a forest, the weirdness of a two-story McDonalds.  I met Beijing between high school and college, enormous sprawl and Bladerunner sky, old men kicking the shuttlecock beside a jade murk lake, old folks dancing to reedy ballgown music, a city that went on and on and on. Soon after that I met New Haven, smaller and scrappier, with a sky that reminded me of Beijing’s at night, like the line of one lover’s jaw might remind you of another.

I didn’t have a lot of experience with cities, so I couldn’t just live in them—I worked to apprehend them, to stitch together a mythology.  Building a myth of a place is a bit different from knowing that place.  They’re connected, certainly, but the New York and Paris and London and Beijing and Jingdezhen and Tokyo in my mind are dark mirrors or surrealist memories of the cities I’ve met.  I build parallel worlds as I travel.

Cities draw people together and force them apart; cities are crucibles of ideas, character, social movement—cities are the wilderness of modern life.  In fairy tales, the boy or girl sets out into the woods to find fortune, fight monsters, chase the golden hind, visit Granny; the modern version of that kid steps off the bus in the Big City, looking for—anything.  John Crowley’s Little, Big nails this change: in its second half, a young man sets off to find his fortune, and we’re three quarters of the way through a travelogue of his passage through The Wood before we realize he’s actually entered New York.  (Tina Fey loves this trope, too—it’s all over Kenny from Thirty Rock, and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.)

But when I started to write the Craft Sequence, I built a secondary world.  At the time, I did it because it felt cool—but “it felt cool” is a convenient clumping of deep logic that I think I can make more explicit.  Cities have mythic resonance, but secondary world fantasy provides an incredibly powerful set of storytelling tools that are hard to even approximate any other way.

In a secondary world, the writer can emphasize particular elements of history or human character that interest her, teasing out connections that might be too subtle to show in mimetic fiction.  If Ursula K LeGuin wanted to play out the fascination with names, naming, and the mutability (or immutability) of identity that underlies her Earthsea books in mimetic fiction, she’d have to take a much more oblique approach, whereas in A Wizard of Earthsea she can dive headfirst into the deepest work.  Robin McKinley, in The Hero and the Crown, forces her hands right down into the earth of family and global history, of ambition and self-deception.  Secondary worlds have limits, too—but they allow a kind of reasoning that works nowhere else.

So there I was, with a city in a secondary world.  But I wanted to bring my readers into my cities, so they could orient themselves, and understand the ways I wanted to reshape my characters—so I drew on the mythical reflections of cities in my head, the almost-New Yorks, not-quite Bostons, sideways Ulaanbataars and funhouse mirror Pragues.  I don’t know those places, not absolutely, not the way Nalo Hopkinson knows Toronto, say, but I know pieces of them, and by breaking them apart and moving them together I can build griffon-cities (lion’s head and body, eagle’s wings) that people recognize.

And once I have these systems, I set about breaking them, which is, of course, the fun part.

maxgladstoneMax Gladstone has been thrown from a horse in Mongolia and nominated twice for the John W Campbell Best New Writer Award. Tor Books published FULL FATHOM FIVE, the third novel in Max’s Craft Sequence (preceded by THREE PARTS DEAD and TWO SERPENTS RISE) in July 2014. Max’s game CHOICE OF THE DEATHLESS was nominated for a 2013 XYZZY Award, and his short fiction has appeared on Tor.com and in Uncanny Magazine.  LAST FIRST SNOW, the next Craft Sequence novel, will hit shelves in July 2015, and is about zoning politics, human sacrifice, and parenthood.

GUEST POST: My Favorite Fallen Angel, by T Frohock

T Frohock is a wonderful author and a great person all around, which is why I was thrilled to be part of the blog tour for her new novella, In Midnight’s Silence. As part of the blog tour, she was good enough to write a guest post for Bibliotropic, talking about her favourite fallen angel.

Gosh, and I have to pick just one …

This is a difficult exercise, because whenever I’m asked about fallen angels, I generally whip out one of my copies of Paradise Lost, then I get utterly lost in the beauty of Milton’s language. Then I revert to The Book of Enoch and become overwhelmed by the sheer number and functions of the angels. Now two hours have passed and I still haven’t written a blog post. So in the end, I switch over to the Internet and plug a random search, and today’s winner is …

… [drum roll please] …

We’re going to go with my favorite fallen angel on film and that is Michael Piccirilli’s Asmodeus in the Australian movie, Gabriel. The story is rather simple: the fallen angels and the heavenly angels fight over the souls trapped within purgatory, which is portrayed as an urban hell filled with abandoned buildings, decrepit trailer parks, and soup kitchens where some of the homeless are actually angels hiding from the fallen. In order to move through the city, the angels have to take mortal form. You can tell the fallen angels from the Heavenly angels by the colors of their eyes.

220px-Gabrielposter The entire film is shot at night. There is a lot of fighting, because both Michael and Gabriel were warriors, so the narrative fits. You will endure some moralizing over free will and the right to choose one’s destiny, but not so much as to interfere with the fighting and dark urban fantasy feel of the flick. It’s a gritty [grimdark, if you will] take on angels and death, much like The Prophecy, which I also loved, because, hey, Christopher Walken.

In Gabriel, Asmodeus runs a brothel where he enslaves other angels and mortals, who he forces into prostitution. Piccirilli gives a chilling performance as Asmodeus, turning the fallen angel into a psychopath with a cunning tongue. Asmodeus is incredibly vain, and he chooses to live as one of the fallen in order to satisfy his carnal desires.

One of the best scenes in the movie has Asmodeus unwrapping bandages from a woman’s face. Asmodeus has been performing plastic surgery on her to make her look like him. The narcissism of his experiment lies in his argument that everyone should have free will, yet he—like God—intends to recreate mortals in his image. It was a brilliant flip on the narrative, and one of the creepiest scenes I’ve seen on film.

The Asmodeus of legend, though, wasn’t really a fallen angel. He was a demon, who appeared in the Book of Tobit, which is part of the Catholic and Orthodox Biblical canon. In the Book of Tobit, Asmodeus was in love with Raguel’s daughter Sarah, who was a bit hard to marry off, because on her wedding night, Asmodeus would appear and murder her prospective husband before the marriage could be consummated. The angel Raphael helped Tobias drive Asmodeus away so that he could consummate his marriage with Sarah.

Although the line between demon and fallen angel gets blurred, I had no trouble setting that aside to watch Gabriel, and Piccirilli’s performance really makes it worthwhile. I also loved Andy Whitfield (Spartacus) as the angel Gabriel. If you’re into eighties and nineties urban fantasy flicks, you’ll probably enjoy Gabriel. Then you can come back here and tell me about your favorite fallen angel.

tfrohockT. Frohock has turned a love of dark fantasy and horror into tales of deliciously creepy fiction. Her other publications include everything from novelettes to short stories. She is also the author of the novel, Miserere: An Autumn Tale. Her newest series, Los Nefilim, is coming from Harper Voyager Impulse and debuts in June 2015 with the novella, In Midnight’s Silence. She can be found on her website and on Twitter.

Many thanks, T, for the guest post, and the really interesting look at a movie that I now want to watch!

For the record, my favourite fallen angels are Semjaza (whose name popped into my head as a teenager; I didn’t learn for years that it was the name of a fallen angel), and Penemue (He taught men to understand writing, and the use of ink and paper). Fallen angels have fascinated me for a long time, which is one of the reasons I was so eager to ask for a post about fallen angels for the blog tour.

Stay tuned for a review of In Midnight’s Silence, coming later today!

GUEST POST and GIVEAWAY: This Craze About The Undead Just Won’t Die, by Marc Turner

Today I’m playing host to Marc Turner, whose novel, When the Heavens Fall, was released just yesterday. He kindly agreed to drop by with a guest post about the current undead craze.

Many years ago I was reading the blog of an SFF literary agent. In a post-Twilight world, she was bemoaning the number of books in her submission pile that were about vampires. Vampires were supposed to be blood-sucking horrors, she said, not something teenage girls should be swooning over. To make it worse, she was starting to see writers do the same thing to werewolves as they’d done to vampires. Where would it all end? Would zombies be the next monsters to be recast as cool, misunderstood, angst-ridden heartthrobs?

You can see why zombies might be something of a hard sell. Some people like a bad guy no matter how bad he is, but I suspect most readers would be put off by a protagonist who kills in cold blood then promptly starts munching on their victim’s raw flesh. Also, unlike zombies, vampires and werewolves retain a degree of humanity. They can kill someone and feel bad about it afterwards, which I’m sure will come as a great comfort to their victims. Zombies, on the other hand, are just mindless creatures whose only thought is where – or who – their next meal is coming from. How could you win and retain a reader’s sympathy for a character like that?

Do zombies have to be mindless, though? Why does the virus (or whatever it is that turns them into undead) have to strip them of their humanity? What if it didn’t? And what if those undead were then forced to fight for a cause they didn’t believe in, maybe even against their own people, or their own gods? Could you empathise with them then?

A while back I spent some time thinking of a tag line for my debut novel, When the Heavens Fall. The one I came up with was ‘Lord of the Rings meets World War Z’. I should note that this is not a zombie apocalypse story, but if you read the book (if? When!) you’ll understand the reference. WtHF tells the story of a mage who steals an artefact that gives him power over the dead, then uses it to resurrect an ancient civilization in order to challenge the Lord of the Dead for control of the underworld. Crucially, the undead in WtHF are not witless monsters governed by hunger. They are people brought back to (un)life against their will, and compelled to serve the man who has raised them.

If you were designing a force to fight for you, you can see why an army of undead would be a formidable proposition. An undead army has unquestioned obedience, does not tire or feel pain. Mark Lawrence uses undead armies in his Broken Empire trilogy, and in his Red Queen’s War trilogy. Tolkien had them in The Lord of the Rings. Then there is George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones series. When I think of Game of Thrones, I don’t usually think of undead because in Martin’s books it is the people who are the monsters. But even he gives us White Walkers who are able to reanimate the dead as wights.

In a sense, undead are an ‘easy’ enemy – a bit like orcs and goblins. They’re evil. There is no reasoning with them. Put an undead or an orc on the other side to your protagonist, and she won’t have to worry about trivialities such as right and wrong when she gets stuck into them with her sword. The world becomes very black and white. That’s something I wanted to move away from in When the Heavens Fall. One of my viewpoint characters, Romany, starts the book in the same corner – sort of – as the man who raises the undead. She sees the undead not as people, but as tools to be used and discarded. Much the same as she sees everyone else, in fact.

But then she meets one of them – a girl called Danel – and she gets to know her. She unravels some of the mystery behind how Danel and her kinsmen died centuries ago. She learns about Danel’s family, and what has become of them. And that knowledge begins to change her. It is easy for Romany not to care from a distance, but it is harder when she sees first hand how the undead are suffering. Danel certainly does her best to make it harder for her. Before the end of the book, Romany will face a choice: turn her back on the undead and return to her life of comfort and privilege, or risk everything to aid Danel’s people – a people she has helped to condemn to misery and enslavement.

What she chooses to do, and what the consequences of her decision are . . .

Well, you will just have to read the book to find out.

marcturnerMarc Turner was born in Canada, but grew up in England. His first novel, When the Heavens Fall, is published by Tor in the US and Titan in the UK. You can see a video trailer for the book here and read a short story set in the world of the novel here. The short story has also been narrated by Emma Newman of Tea and Jeopardy fame, and you can listen to it free here. Marc can be found on Twitter at @MarcJTurner and at his website.


If that doesn’t have you interested in Marc’s new novel, I don’t know what will. Oh, wait, maybe the chance to win a copy might do the trick!

If you pick a fight with Shroud, Lord of the Dead, you had better ensure your victory, else death will mark only the beginning of your suffering.

A book giving its wielder power over the dead has been stolen from a fellowship of mages that has kept the powerful relic dormant for centuries. The thief, a crafty, power-hungry necromancer, intends to use the Book of Lost Souls to resurrect an ancient race and challenge Shroud for dominion of the underworld. Shroud counters by sending his most formidable servants to seize the artifact at all cost.

However, the god is not the only one interested in the Book, and a host of other forces converge, drawn by the powerful magic that has been unleashed. Among them is a reluctant Guardian who is commissioned by the Emperor to find the stolen Book, a troubled prince who battles enemies both personal and political, and a young girl of great power, whose past uniquely prepares her for an encounter with Shroud. The greatest threat to each of their quests lies not in the horror of an undead army but in the risk of betrayal from those closest to them. Each of their decisions comes at a personal cost and will not only affect them, but also determine the fate of their entire empire.

  • Must have a US or Canadian mailing address; no PO Boxes
  • Must provide mailing address if chosen as a winner, which will be sent to the publisher for shipping and not retained by me
  • Comment on this post to enter; must provide valid contact info in case you win
  • Limit of 1 (one) entry per person
  • Giveaway closes at 11:59 PM, PST, Sunday May 31, 2015
  • Winners will be drawn and announced on Monday June 01, 2015

Thanks very much to Marc for the guest post, and to Tor for the giveaway!

GUEST POST: Barbara J Webb on Writing Urban Fantasy in a Secondary World

Barbara J Webb is one of the participants in the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. Her book, City of Burning Shadows, intrigued me partly because it was an urban fantasy set in a secondary world, and you just don’t see many of those. She was kind enough to write a guest post, talking about just that.

The truth is, I’m in it for the lizards. Everything else grew out of that.

Urban fantasy is a genre close to my heart. Like any imaginative kid, I grew up looking behind doors, under beds, around trees for any sign of magic in the real world. I wanted to open the wardrobe and go to Narnia. I wanted Gaudior the unicorn to swoop down and scoop me up to go save the world.

What is urban fantasy if not an extension of those desires? The hero or heroine moves through a world that looks a lot like ours, except that they can see the cracks, the hidden places, the magic. By the end of the book, they’re invested in the secret world, citizens of a place the rest of us can only dream of.

So if that’s the soul of urban fantasy, why would any author try to write it in a completely different world? Doesn’t that miss the point?

Urban fantasy’s roots are sunk deep in mystery and noir. Mystery is a genre all about details, about making sure the reader has enough information that when you give them the answer, their reaction is, “Of course!” and not, “What?” Noir is a romance of setting. It’s a tattered hero moving through a worn, familiar city and finding darkness in the hidden cracks.

These things are, quite frankly, easier to pull off in a setting familiar to the reader. It’s a challenge to write that kind of story in a second world. When everything starts out strange to the reader, you have to work hard to build the world in a way that they will recognize the things that are supposed to be strange and unusual within the setting verses the elements that are unfamiliar to the reader but everyday common to the characters. And if you fail, it’s not just the worldbuilding that falls apart. It’s the whole story.

All that extra work. Which brings us back around to…why?

The answer: lizards.

The not-really-a-secret secret is that a lot of the time we writers don’t know why we’re writing what we write. Ideas come (from the idea-of-the-month club, mail order from Nantucket, from the idea fairy once you leave him the proper offering of Dickens and Shakespeare) and we put them down on the page, and that’s enough work without trying to figure out their genesis.

I wanted to write about hulking lizard warriors. And bird-people. And people so made of magic that they don’t have a true shape. I couldn’t do that in the real world. So I built a city—a dying city in the desert—and into that city I placed a hero.

Ash is bruised and broken. He’s lost his family, his faith, his purpose. He’s watching his world collapse around him and feels powerless to stop it. But when he’s faced with an old friend in need and a new friend who holds the key to saving Ash’s dying city, he can’t turn away. That one act of humanity drags him into a world of lies and plots and monsters he never imagined.

A secret world.

Once I started writing him, it didn’t take me long to recognize that Ash is a quintessential urban fantasy hero, and City of Burning Shadows was going to be a quintessential urban fantasy story. Which meant—yes, a lot of work. It meant layering the world in fast and deep, so deep that it starts to feel familiar. To build it well enough that when Ash gets to a point of recognizing something isn’t right, the reader is there five seconds ahead of him. Hopefully I pulled it off.

I got my urban fantasy, my noir hero in his broken city. I got the setting I wanted to build with all the magic I wanted to give it, along with the hidden world lurking beneath.

And I got my lizards. In the end, that’s what matters.

barbarajwebbGrowing up in a house that included a library of thousands of science fiction and fantasy books, Barbara J. Webb had no choice but to become a writer herself.

A midwesterner at heart, Barbara has lived in Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas, but finally settled in only two blocks away from the house in which she was born. She enjoys her small-town life with her husband and her cat, and occasionally dreams of keeping horses. Or even better, unicorns.

Her novel, City of Burning Shadows, can be purchased via Amazon.com or B&N.