Throwback Thursdays: Cat-Waxing 101

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

Back in March of 2012, author Elizabeth Bear shared the tricks successful writers use—tricks you can definitely trust, now that she’s finished her critically-acclaimed Eternal Sky trilogy with the publication of Steles of the Sky. We hope you enjoy her advice in this blast from the past, and be sure to check back every other Thursday for more!

Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth BearBy Elizabeth Bear

Over the years, I have written a great many articles and blog posts dealing with the nuances of the publishing industry, but there’s one topic I’ve never touched on before.

It’s one of the arcane secrets of the successful writer, jealously guarded. One of the secret handshakes of the clubhouse of publishing success.

Only now, with the cooperation of Tor, can I reveal it to you—and I’m risking my career and perhaps even my very safety to do so. It’s something every writer needs to know, and from time immemorial that secret has been passed down in back rooms and at two a.m. sessions in convention bars.

I speak of “How to wax a cat.”

I can’t count, over the years, the number of times a dewy-eyed young would-be author has looked at me in surprise and horror after overhearing a few casual lines passed between more established writers. “Bear!” they cry. “You are an animal lover! Why would you do something so terribly cruel?

Well, Grasshoppers, I am here now to reveal a great secret. The cat is a metaphor.

Cat-waxing (also known as cat vacuuming to some) is something writers undertake in order to complete important research, to give the brain the time it needs to do the subconscious processing so essential to creative work. There are a number of techniques, but here’s how I handle it.

First, you must determine if you wish to wax your cat for shininess, or for smoothness. Both have advantages—reducing allergens, waterproofing—but if you are going to wax your cat for smoothness I recommend sedating it first—for the comfort of the cat, and the safety of the human.

In either case, before you commence waxing, you must first create a clean and dust-free environment in which to wax. Dust will adhere readily to a freshly waxed cat, and then you’ll just have to start all over again. To create a proper waxing environment, select a space that you can completely control, clean it thoroughly, and drape it in plastic sheeting. You’ll want to wear a freshly laundered white-cotton full-body coverall or perhaps a Nuclear-Biological-Chemical suit as well, to avoid getting fibers from your clothes stuck in the cat wax.

The television show Dexter provides an excellent model of the sort of environment that’s best.

Having prepared your waxing chamber, it’s important to secure a good wax. There are several dedicated brands of cat wax which do an excellent job, and a number of writers use non-proprietary waxes, such as Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax (despite the name, intended for surfboards) or Homer Formby’s furniture wax. You will likely wish to experiment with a variety of waxes before making your final selection.

Once you have secured the cat, the space, the sedative, and the wax, you will also require a source of warm water and some dust-free cloths. First, grasp your cat gently but firmly by the scruff…

…oh, I see we’re out of time.

This article is originally from the March 2012 Tor/Forge newsletter. Sign up for the Tor/Forge newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox twice a month!

The Week in Review

Welcome to the week in review! Every Friday, we comb through the links and images we found and shared this week, and pull the very best for this post. Consider it concentrated genre goodness from all around the web.

The Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie Brennan

  • Carrie Vaughn also has a reveal: check out the cover of Low Country, her upcoming Kitty Norville novel.
  • Tor.com’s Rocket Talk podcast is back. This time, they’re talking about the world of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives series.

 
The Tor/Forge Newsletter went out this week!

 
And, just to make Friday that much sweeter, here’s a list of sweepstakes and sales we have going on!

Romancing the Mantis

The Ophelia Prophecy by Sharon Lynn Fisher

Written by Sharon Lynn Fisher

I never expected to be writing about bugs. If someone had proposed the idea to me, I would have said bugs and romance? Ick factor = terminal. And yet here I am less than a month away from the release of The Ophelia Prophecy, my post-apocalyptic biopunk romance about a race of human/insect transgenic organisms.

It all started one morning a few years back when I woke with the final images of a dream bleeding over into consciousness: Two praying mantises squaring off in a formal fighting stance, threatening each other with wooden staffs. I don’t know what it was about that dream—it was incredibly compelling. I can still remember the knocking sound their staffs made, punctuating this graceful, martial-arts-like dance.

From that dream sprang the idea for the Manti—a genetically modified race born of biohacker experiments run amok. Although most of the Manti are mantis-based, the term is actually shorthand used by non-genetically modified humans for any insect-human hybrid.

When I decided my story was going to be about a Manti prince falling in love with his enemy—a human archivist with a secret ticking away inside her like a time bomb—I asked my critique partner if she thought I was crazy. Would I really be able to pull off a story like this? Could bug people be sympathetic, let alone sexy? Almost two years later, I still crack up over her reply: “Stay away from low-rent bugs.”

And obviously spiders. I could never write a book about spiders. (Famous last words.)

So Augustus Paxton (“Pax”) was born, son of the Manti amir, who led his race to victory over the human creators who spurned them. Most of what is Manti about Pax is on the inside, with the exception of a set of scars where a superfluous pair of arms was removed, repeatedly, in his childhood. But his sister, Iris, is a winged queen of nightmares, with preternaturally large eyes and arms that double as deadly weapons. There’s a scene where she confronts a wolf/human transgenic holy man (later turned potential lover) that’s a sort of tribute to the dream that inspired the book.

Distasteful as these creations became to humanity, they were always beautiful to me. I imagined them as a sort of futuristic fae—dark, mysterious, and warlike. Deeply conflicted about their nature. Alternately revering and reviling humanity. Reveling in beauty and sensual pleasure.

I found fantastical but real-world examples to inspire my characters. Pseudocreobotra wahlbergi, the spiny flower mantis, which was the model for my villain, Priestess Cleo—beautiful and deadly. And Dalara garuda, a 2.5-inch solid black “warrior wasp” that can both sting and bite—if the military was going to genetically engineer insect-based fighters, this guy would definitely make the top three species of interest. And of course Scarabaeidae, the scarab beetle, which served as inspiration for Pax’s ship Banshee, a blend of plant and insect DNA and artificial intelligence. Banshee is the first of the Manti to be kind to the human heroine, Asha, and also one of my favorite characters in the story.

The Manti, engineered by scientists applying artistry to their experiments, learn from their creators. Their capital, the ancient city of Granada, has been transformed into a living, breathing, organically evolving work of art. A riot of color and texture, with Gaudi-influenced architecture brought to life by biotechnology.

A fitting home for the creatures that wander its streets. And not a low-rent bug in sight.

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From the Tor/Forge April 7th newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.

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Rules vs. Guidelines in Fantasy

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Written by Katherine Addison

I have loved fantasy since I was a very little girl. My father read to me: L. Frank Baum, J. R. R. Tolkien, Susan Cooper, C. S. Lewis, David Eddings, Robert Jordan. As I grew older, I scoured both school and public libraries, read fantasy and science fiction and horror: Stephen King and Isaac Asimov and Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel R. Delany and Lois McMaster Bujold and Angela Carter. I never stopped loving fantasy, never “grew up” into a preference for realism. And I have always, always loved what Tolkien calls secondary world fantasy, stories that take place in entirely made up worlds.

I love writing those stories as much as I love reading them. I love the freedom they offer for the exercise of sheer invention. And thus one of the things that frustrates me terribly about secondary world fantasy as a genre is how hidebound it has become. The combined impact of The Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons (both excellent entities on their own merits) has created a set of genre conventions that have almost become rules, rather than merely guidelines. One of these rules is that all fantasies shall be quests; another is that no fantasy world shall ever approach the Industrial Revolution.

Obviously, these rules get broken all the time, which is a good thing. But they remain in the background, like the ceiling in “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb” that could lower and squash you at any time. And it can be very hard to think around them.

The Goblin Emperor was an attempt to contravene both rules. There is no quest, and this is a world with both magic and a lively technological and scientific community. (I never have understood why magic would negate technology, even though many stories I love take that as a guiding principle.) And the technology turned out to be decidedly steampunk.

I blame this on airships. Zeppelins and dirigibles and blimps and hot-air balloons. I love them, just as steampunk loves them, and insofar as I can tell you the idea that sparked The Goblin Emperor, it was the desire to put elves and airships in the same story. Once I’d made that world-building decision, the rest of it became inevitable, and I loved figuring out the details of how the airships fit into elvish society and thinking of names for the goblin steamships. When I realized the vast central palace could have a pneumatic tube system, I was excited for days.

The hardest part was the bridge that runs as a motif through the entire book. I’m not an engineer; I don’t have the first idea how you’d actually go about building a steam-powered retractable bridge. I was stuck on that problem for an incredibly long time. But Steven Brust said something that saved me. He said that when you’re describing made-up technology, he doesn’t want to know how it works, he wants to know how it runs. And that gave me the idea of a working model instead of a long expositional presentation, and that turned into one of my favorite set pieces in the book—which is also a scene in which magic and technology are used together.

Because as far as I’m concerned, the openness of invention in secondary world fantasy means that writers can build worlds where technology and magic are intertwined or where they are at odds or anything in between. If you can imagine it, fantasy will let you write about it, and that is the most powerful and enduring reason that it is my best-beloved among the genres.

Fantasy means never having to say, “It can’t be done.”

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From the Tor/Forge April 7th newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.

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Throwback Thursdays: Odd Historical Facts

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

A lot of our authors spend considerable amounts of time researching for their books. Often, they stumble across weird and interesting facts that stick with them. Mary Robinette Kowal is no different, and when her book Shades of Milk and Honey came out in August of 2010, she wanted to share some of the odd historical facts she discovered. To celebrate the release of her new book, Valour and Vanity, enjoy this blast from the past, and be sure to check back every other Thursday for more!

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette KowalBy Mary Robinette Kowal

When one decides to write a historical novel, even if it is a fantasy, one must brace oneself for copious amounts of research. Research which feels as though it will never end. The curious thing about all this research is that much of it does not show up on the page. While writing Shades of Milk and Honey, set in an alternate England in 1814 I learned a number of things which surprised me. Here are a few my favorites.

What it means when a letter was crossed.

In Jane Austen’s day, sending letters was expensive and you were charged for the number of pages. The way to avoid a hefty postage fee was to write the letter, then turn the page 90 degrees and write across the previously written lines. (Trivia note: I had a reference to a crossed letter in Shades of Milk and Honey but cut it because it was too hard to explain and the fact that it was crossed wasn’t important to the story.) Curious about what a crossed letter looked like? Here’s an example from Miss Austen herself in the Morgan collection.

There is no such thing as a left shoe.

Until about the 1850s, left and right shoes were identical. Only by wearing them would the shoe begin to acquire a left and right shape. When Louis XVIII was fleeing Napoleon in 1815 he said, “…it’s my slippers that I regret most… Nobody understands what it means to lose slippers that have taken the mold of one’s foot.” While footwear is important, he might perhaps need to work on his priorities.

How to turn the table.

A formal dinner was a lengthy affair lasting several hours and had very rigid etiquette tied to it. Typically served in several courses, each course would consist of dishes already set upon the table. Gentlemen would be assigned to escort a lady to dinner, seating her on his right. He would help the lady with dishes and would converse with her during the first course. After the first course, all the dishes would be removed and replaced. A gentlemen would turn and converse with the lady on his left and vice versa. If you were pinned with an unfortunate conversationalist as a dinner partner, you couldn’t wait to turn the table.

Hello is not a word.

I am going to let you know a shameful thing. I slipped when writing Shades of Milk and Honey and use “Hello” in the first chapter of the novel but it’s not a word in 1814. I had rooted it out everywhere else and didn’t notice this one until recording the audio book. In 1814, the word “halloo” was most often used to call hounds. “Hullo” was usually an expression of surprise. Although “hello” is recorded as early as 1830, it didn’t become a standard greeting until the invention of telephone. To greet someone during the Regency one says “Good day” or perhaps “Good evening.”


 
There’s more information about the novel and the people behind the trailer at http://www.ShadesOfMilkAndHoney.com/trailer.

This article is originally from the August 2010 Tor/Forge newsletter. Sign up for the Tor/Forge newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox twice a month!

The Lost Cosmonauts

The Burning Dark by Adam Christopher

Written by Adam Christopher

It’s the ghost story of the space race–a haunting tale of death and loss, a mystery the truth of which will likely never be proved…or disproved. They are the lost cosmonauts, a group of men and women sent into space and lost to history. As the story goes, Yuri Gargarin was not the first man in orbit. He was the first man in space…who made it back alive.

The story began with the Judica-Cordiglia brothers, two Italian radio enthusiasts who set up an amateur listening post in a disused German bunker just outside of Turin in the late 1950s. Over the next several years, they picked up both Soviet and US transmissions, including communications relating to Sputnik and the first American satellite, Explorer 1.

The brothers picked up something else, too. A serious of strange communiqués between Russian ground control and space capsules which do not appear in any official timeline of space travel. The transmissions–the recordings of which still survive–are straight out of a horror movie. In one, the last dying breaths and heartbeats of a doomed cosmonaut can be heard as his capsule spirals out of control into deep space, while in another the familiar SOS signal can be heard apparently receding as the craft moved away from the Earth. In the most famous recording, a female cosmonaut dubbed “Ludmila” desperately reports to ground control as her capsule burns up on re-entry. The list goes on, a catalogue of phantom cosmonauts who never were, all meeting their ends far above the Earth.

But it’s just a conspiracy theory, isn’t it? An urban legend of space travel. The recordings are unclear, and Ludmila’s mostly unintelligible transmission sounds more Italian than Russian–one theory being that the brothers had tuned into a garbled frequency used by local air traffic control. There are other problems with the recordings, too: incorrect terminology and odd, grammatically incorrect Russian–unlikely to have come from educated and highly trained cosmonauts on an official mission.

And that’s where we could leave the tale…if it weren’t for the fact that the Soviets were secretive, and at the height of the Cold War, people really did disappear in the USSR. On Stalin’s orders, dissidents were erased, their records expunged–even photographs were doctored to delete former aides and advisors who had fallen out of favor. In one apt example, an official photograph from 1961 of eleven cosmonauts has been shown by researchers to have had at least five people airbrushed out of it.

Given the hotly contested space race with the USA, it’s easy to believe that the Russians would have been so keen to keep their failures a secret that all records of cosmonauts killed or lost on missions were destroyed. There is some evidence of this: the death of fighter pilot Valentin Bondarenko during his cosmonaut training, just three weeks before Gargarin’s flight in 1961, was not made public until 1980. Later, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, much documentation relating to the Soviet space program was destroyed or lost.

So, did the lost cosmonauts really exist? Were people sent into space before Gargarin’s historic flight? Unless new documentation surfaces, it’s impossible to tell whether these phantoms are a sad legacy of a secretive program, or just a tall tale to be passed down the generations of space travel enthusiasts and science fiction fans.

But that doesn’t stop us looking at the night sky and wondering, what if there really were others left out there….

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From the Tor/Forge March 17th newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.

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The Power of a Great Time Travel Story

Time Traveler's Alamanc edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer

Written by Ann VanderMeer

Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child; it is there that he changes the atmosphere and tenor of his life. —Robert Louis Stevenson

A few months ago I was interviewed on BBC4 Radio along with Dr. Ronald Mallett, a physicist from the University of Connecticut. Our subject was time travel. Some might find it odd that a fiction editor promoting a new anthology would be appearing on a show with a noted scientist to talk honestly about time travel. But Dr. Mallett isn’t just any scientist. His life was changed completely after encountering The Time Machine by H. G. Wells.

Prior to the interview I had spent several months completely engrossed in the subject. Time travel stories exhibit an astonishing variety. The very conundrum of time travel—Can you actually change the past or future? What happens if you meet yourself in the past?—has resulted in a number of amazing stories. Time machines may be the most popular vehicle for such travel, but hidden doors, mutations, or rips in the space-time continuum can also send travelers hurtling into unexpected moments of history—or into the future. And not all time travelers go willingly.

Then I read Dr. Mallet’s book, Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality. When Mallett was ten years old, his father passed away suddenly of a heart attack. Greatly affected, he lost himself in reading, a pastime his father strongly encouraged, and disovered The Time Machine. Motivated by a powerful desire to see his father again, and maybe even prevent his death at the all-too-early age of thirty-three, Mallett dreamed that he could build his own time machine. As he has said, “My fundamental goal in life has always been to build a time machine” (quoted from the YouTube video, “Dr. Mallett Builds a Time Machine”).

As we talked in the interview, it struck me that reading a science fiction story so deeply shaped his future and set him on this journey. Often stories are influenced by real life, but in this case, a story that was over 100 years old not only gave hope to a young boy, but eventually led him to become part of a team of scientists trying to create a real, working time machine.

I was happy to discover that all of Dr. Mallet’s classic favorite time travel stories were in The Time Traveler’s Almanac. And he shared with me that he found many new stories in the anthology that he enjoyed.

Some of the best time travel stories, indeed the best science fiction stories, are about the connections that people make with each other through science. Reaching into the past to better understand history, sending a message or warning to prior generations or just having the opportunity for a do-over. For more than a century, readers have been enthralled by time travel stories. Whether adventurous, cautionary, or thrilling, these imaginative what-if tales transport us to other worlds.

Today, time travel is as familiar a concept to readers as space travel. Such stories are more popular than ever, including such recent bestsellers as Stephen King’s 11/22/63, Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife attest. The resurgence of iconic TV series like “Doctor Who” has fed into this trend. Time travel also has been popular with teens ever since the publication of such classics as Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, extending to the present-day and such popular youth novels as When You Reach Me by Newberry winner Rebecca Stead. Meanwhile, movies like The Terminator, Back to the Future, Looper, Time Bandits, Donnie Darko, and Safety Not Guaranteed have shown the cinematic range of such tales.

The power of a great time travel story is that not only can it change the reader, as we see with Dr. Mallett, it can also change the course of the world.

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From the Tor/Forge March 17th newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.

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The Week in Review

Welcome to the week in review! Every Friday, we comb through the links and images we found and shared this week, and pull the very best for this post. Consider it concentrated genre goodness from all around the web.

  • We have more amazing art for you this week! Check out the cover for the upcoming novel The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin and translated from the original Chinese by Ken Liu. We can’t wait for this one to come out in October.

 
The Tor/Forge Newsletter went out this week!

 
And, just to make Friday that much sweeter, here’s a list of sweepstakes and sales we have going on!

Throwback Thursdays: The Way of Kings: An Introduction

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

Words of Radiance came out earlier this week! Brandon Sanderson celebrated his new book by writing about his personal history with epic fantasy in the Tor/Forge Newsletter. To continue our immersion in the world of the The Stormlight Archives, we thought we’d revisit this September 2010 article, in which Sanderson introduced his new series. We hope you enjoy this blast from the past, and be sure to check back every other Thursday for more!

The Way of Kings by Brandon SandersonBy Brandon Sanderson

I’ve been asked to introduce The Way Of Kings to you. And I have no idea how to start.

This is an odd position for me. Before, I’ve found it easy to explain my novels. Each one was built around one or two central premises. The gang of thieves who want to rob an immortal emperor. A man cast down by a terrible, magical disease and forced to rebuild a society among those similarly afflicted. A boy who finds that librarians secretly rule the world.

Kings has stymied me each time I’ve tried to describe it. I often end up talking about its creation. (How I started work on it over fifteen years ago. How I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words worth of worldbuilding for it. How much the project has come to mean to me over the decades.) But such things describe the book but don’t actually tell you anything. And so this time, I’m going to try to talk about what The Way Of Kings is.

It’s a book about characters I love. I’ve begun to build a reputation as the “magic system” guy. The author who creates interesting types of magic for every book he writes. On one hand, this delights me, as I do put a lot of effort into the magic in my books. But a great book for me isn’t about a magic, it’s about the people that the magic affects.

The book started its life many years ago being about a young man who made a good decision. I wrote the entire book that way before realizing I’d done it wrong. So I started over from scratch and had him take the other fork, the more difficult fork. The fork that cast him into some of the worst imaginable circumstances, ground him against the stones of a world where there is no soil or sand on the ground.

My goal: to prove to myself, and to him, that the ‘good’ decision was not actually the best one. The Way Of Kings is his story, though he shares the space with several others. They’ll get their own books later in the series.

I want to tell you more, but I don’t have the space here. I want to talk about the art in the book (it’s ambitious, unlike anything I’ve seen tried in an epic fantasy novel before.) I want to talk about the scope of the series, the distinctive world which is so much larger and more real than anything I’ve worked on before. I want to explain the book.

But, for now, I think it’s best to just show you instead.

Enjoy.

The Way of Kings (978-0-7653-2808-3) by Brandon Sanderson was released August 31 from Tor.

This article is originally from the September 2010 Tor/Forge newsletter. Sign up for the Tor/Forge newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox twice a month!

These Are a Few of My Favorite Dragons

Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan

Written by Marie Brennan

It’s a little embarrassing to admit that I’m not obsessed with dragons. Sure, I read Pern at an impressionable age, and I think fire lizards sound like awesome pets (empathy! fire-breathing! teleportation!), but dragons are just one of many awesome things in fantasy that I find interesting. Had the sources that inspired me to write the Memoirs of Lady Trent been a Unicornology calendar and the Unicorninomicon, I might be writing about very different beasts today.

Having said that, I have my favorite dragons, just like many people. In no particular order, they are:

The Wawel Dragon, from the folklore of Kraków, Poland. This is your classic dragon story…almost. The dragon hangs out in a cave at the foot of the Wawel hill, eating peasants and terrorizing everybody; knights try to kill it and fail; the King promises his daughter’s hand in marriage to whoever can save her from being the next maiden sacrificed; you know the drill. The hero of this tale is a suitably humble cobbler’s apprentice—but does he slay the dragon with a sword? Nope. He stuffs a lamb’s skin with sulfur and leaves it as bait for the dragon. Who, upon eating it, develops a terrible stomachache and goes down to the river to try and ease it, but ends up drinking so much water that he explodes.

And then the apprentice marries the princess and everybody lives happily ever after, except of course for the dragon.

Maleficent, from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. I have my fingers crossed that Angelina Jolie does justice to the role, because Maleficent is one of Disney’s best villains ever. How can you not love a wicked fairy with that sense of style, especially when she turns herself into a @#$&! dragon? Sure, okay, she doesn’t start off as a dragon, but when I have a stuffed animal of her in dragon form sitting in my bedroom, I think I have to count her as one of my favorites.

Toothless, from How to Train Your Dragon. (The movie; I haven’t read the book yet, though I intend to.) I feel almost as if I’m cheating here, because Toothless is basically a cat in a dragon’s body—just look at his behavior, and the way that he moves. He even looks a great deal like my friend’s cat Thrace. And given my fondness for cats, that goes a long way toward explaining why I love Toothless so much. He’s adorable, and also awesome.

Kazul, from Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede. The Enchanted Forest Chronicles skewer a lot of the fairy tale and legend tropes; the protagonist, Cimorene, runs away and volunteers to be a dragon’s captive princess so as to escape her expected role in life. Most of the dragons think this is absurd, but Kazul takes her on, because she needs somebody to catalogue her library and organize her hoard. I have a deep fondness for pragmatic characters, so Kazul is precisely my speed.

The fire lizards, from Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books. Because like I said: empathy! fire-breathing! teleportation! I also love a lot of her full-sized dragons—Ramoth, Ruth, Path, and so on—but it would be hard to take care of one in a San Francisco Bay Area townhouse, whereas a well-trained fire lizard would make a great pet. And I don’t think my husband is allergic to lizards; sadly, I can’t say the same for cats.

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From the Tor/Forge March 3rd newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.

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