Is it Okay if I Cook You Slowly?

Trial of Intentions by Peter Orullian
Written by Peter Orullian

I learned the phrase “Violating Your Expectations” in college, when studying Shakespeare, and it’s stuck with me ever since. It’s the idea of taking a reader someplace they’re not anticipating. With my series, The Vault of Heaven, that was always my plan: To begin in a warm place of familiarity and comfort, and then apply heat enough to boil you. Kind of like that thing where the crab is placed in a pot of room temperature water. It sits, content. And before it knows what’s happening, the water is boiling, cooking the crab.

I started down that path with my first book, The Unremembered. Now, in my second book, Trial of Intentions, I turn up the heat. And there are a number of things in the book that I think equate to cranking the dial on the stove.

First might be the music. In book one, it’s clear there’s a music magic system. But it’s not understood or used much. In Trial of Intentions, that changes. In spades. Not only does a character use that ability with savage intent and results, but she also goes to the one place where she can study it. Take it further. These were some of my favorite scenes to write, as I found in them a dark beauty.

And, in keeping with the “violate your expectations” theme, there’s this whole science thing that begins to amp up in book two. This is where readers who think they have one of my main characters pegged as a farm boy are in for some violation. I’m a bit of an amateur astronomer. And I use it as a leap point for creating an entire city dedicated to science and populated with colleges of astronomy, physics, mathematics, philosophy, and cosmology. Like the music scenes, these were a blast to write, and also where the lion’s share of my research time was spent.

Of course, what’s an epic fantasy without war, right? And I give you some. In fact, there’s an entire culture dedicated to what it calls “gearworks”—the building of siege engines and the like. But then, I had this counter notion: What if one of the main characters decides that it would be best to avert war? While some people are building alliances and escalating to war on a grand scale, others are employing every means possible to stop the war before it begins. I found the juxtaposition of these opposing motivations a fun challenge to write.

I’ve also spent quite a bit of time on my magic systems. So far, there are five. But most of that time was devoted to creating what I call “governing dynamics.” Each magic system ladders up to a set of unifying principles. It made sense to me that this world would have something akin to mechanical laws for magic, laws that different cultures would tap into in different ways. The various cultures might not even call those laws by the same name. But readers will see that all these different magic systems tie into something I call Resonance. I think it gives the world a kind of coherence.

Finally, it’s always been the case that the world of my series is a harsh place. So much so that there are those who find refuge in self-slaughter. This is only lightly touched upon in The Unremembered. But in Trial of Intentions, suicide steps into the glare of the spotlight. It lays near the center of motivation for at least one of my characters, who’s seen it up close and too often.

Like I said, this was always part of the story. But when I finished writing book two, I realized the resonance of it was stronger than I’d planned. Or maybe that’s just my read of it, because I had a friend recently make that choice. The book doesn’t linger overlong on the topic, but I hope it gives some emotional context for a few of the characters and their relationships.

In the end, however, some carnage is inevitable. Battles happen. Some involve skills of science. Some involve swords. And some, music magic.

All of which is to say, I think Trial of Intentions turns the gas up to get the pot boiling. Cook you good.

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Follow Peter Orullian on Twitter at @PeterOrullian, on Facebook, or visit him online.

Pirate’s Booty: Black Market in the French Quarter

Pirate's Alley by Suzanne Johnson
Written by Suzanne Johnson

In Pirate’s Alley, the new book in the Sentinels of New Orleans series, the pirate in the title refers to the undead historical pirate Jean Lafitte. The charismatic French smuggler led a kingdom of a thousand ruffians south of New Orleans in the early 1800s and played a pivotal role in defeating the British at the Battle of New Orleans exactly 200 years ago this past January.

What Jean Lafitte likely did NOT do, however, was lollygag in that narrow passageway in New Orleans’ French Quarter we know today as Pirates Alley. (The real alley has no apostrophe in its name, New Orleans never having been a place to dwell on such frivolities as punctuation.)

When the city was laid out and the original St. Louis Cathedral built in 1720, an alleyway was left open to provide a shortcut from the Place d’Armes at the front of the cathedral to Royal Street, behind it. Today’s Pirates Alley is still about 600 feet long, 16 feet wide, and covered with cobblestones installed in 1831.

One New Orleans legend insists this alley was a popular spot for pirates to hang out, which is how it got its name. Another insists that Jean Lafitte, who controlled black market goods flowing into New Orleans with which he’d undercut the local merchants, would conduct business in the alley, right under the merchants’ noses.

A third legend says it was in this alley that Jean Lafitte met with General Andrew Jackson in late 1814 to make the deal that placed pirates fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with the outnumbered American soldiers to fend off the British.

The first two stories are unlikely.

For one thing, the alley is mere yards from the Cabildo (now the Louisiana State Museum), built in the 1700s to house state government. Here, the Louisiana Purchase took place and, in the Place D’Armes (now Jackson Square) in front of it, criminals such as pirates were hanged.

Pirates Alley is also next to the site of the “Calaboose,” an infamous prison where—you guessed it—pirates got locked up and held in squalid conditions, often only emerging when it was time to swing from the hangman’s noose.

So the legends that the alley, which would have been an unpaved strip of mud in Jean Lafitte’s day, was a pirate hangout? I don’t think so.

Pirates Alley does have significance to our favorite French pirate, however. Jean Lafitte’s older brother Pierre, his partner in the family business, was arrested and imprisoned there in 1814 for smuggling and piracy. Pierre, quite a few years older than Jean, suffered greatly in the harsh conditions of the Calaboose for months while Jean tried to secure his release; he’s believed to have suffered a stroke while chained to the wall of his cell.

Did Jean Lafitte and Andrew Jackson strike a deal in the dark alley? Probably not. Jackson was outraged at being forced to make a deal with the “hellish banditti” he thought Lafitte to be, and Lafitte thought Jackson was a pompous blowhard. Sources seem to indicate that most of their negotiations were conducted in writing.

Still, shortly after Jean agreed to provide the general with intelligence on the British (who were also trying to make a deal with him), Pierre Lafitte made a sudden “escape” from the Calaboose.

To get from the prison to the Mississippi River, on which he likely fled the city, Pierre and his brother would have passed through—where else?—Pirates Alley.

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Follow Suzanne Johnson on Twitter at @suzanne_johnson, on Facebook, or visit her blog.

A Spectrum of Worlds

A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab
Written by V. E. Schwab

Setting.

To most writers, it’s a backdrop, to some even an afterthought, but to me, it’s always been a character. Setting is one of the very first—if not THE first—thing that comes to me when I’m writing a book. It’s not that I don’t care about the other pieces—the people and the plot and what have you—it’s that for me, as a writer and a reader, setting IS one of the most important aspects, and it’s always integral to the plot.

Sometimes, its importance is obvious, as in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, in which a second London lurks under the surface of the first, or Andy Weir’s The Martian, set entirely on the surface of Mars. It might be a time as well as a place, as in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, in which Ursula is continuously reliving the years leading up to World War II. Other times, it’s built into the fabric of the story in other ways, like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, set across a Canadian expanse after an apocalyptic disease. Or perhaps it creates a framework for the plot, as with Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train. Whatever the form it takes, and whatever the framework is fantasy, thriller, dystopian, historical, the fact remains that a good setting is a living, breathing element, a character all its own.

My newest book, A Darker Shade of Magic, houses not one but FOUR versions of London (Grey, Red, White, and Black), and each one takes a different shape: Grey the mundane world, Red the magical empire, White the wasteland, and Black the source of all power.

In essence, A Darker Shade of Magic—or ADSoM for short—gave me a chance to turn my setting into not only a character, but an entire supporting cast. Through the four iterations of London, bound together by only a name, I was able to explore not only time, but also space, and the ways that different actions shape the world in which they happen. The color terms and relative absence/presence of magic are not the only things that set the Londons apart. Though each ones occupies the same geographical footprint, with the Thames (or the Isle, or the Siljt) at its heart, each city was inspired by a different part of the world, a different aesthetic, a different breed of empire. The worlds sit, layered like pages of paper in a book.

Grey London, which you could call the template, is based on the world as we know it, modeled on early 19th century England, with its smoke-clogged streets and its ailing mad king. If there was magic once, it has been forgotten.

The crown jewel of the worlds, Red London, features a plush, eastern motif, full of spires and night markets, spices and luxury. Here magic thrives, woven into every part of life, respected by some, worshiped by others, and used by all.

Its neighbor, White London, a world once more powerful than Red, is now slowing dying, starved out by the magic it tries to control. It has the arctic air of the far north, ruled a pair of wolf-like twins, Astrid and Athos.

And Black London, well, no one knows. The site of a magical catastrophe, and sealed off from the other worlds, it’s the city known only through bedtime stories and nursery rhymes. Until now.

The characters are as much a product of their setting as anything else. The main characters, Kell and Lila, come from different Londons. Kell, a magician with the rare ability to move between worlds, belongs to the elite and fantastical Red London, while Lila has grown up as a street rat-turned thief in the magic-less Grey world. To them we add the Danes, the rulers of White London, desperate to hold on to power, and their servant, Holland, bound not by will, but by magic.

I’m a firm believer that when crafting a story, the world—or worlds—in which it’s set must come before the characters. It must shape them. For what are people, if not the product of their environments? A setting is wasted when it simply exists to fill the space behind the action. Similarly, when the characters and the world in which they live are bound by nothing more than convenience.

The characters of ADSoM are diverse, and so are the settings they occupy. When you step into the book, you step into several worlds, each one different, but all connected, as tangled with each other as the kings and queens, magicians, smugglers, and thieves who roam them. They are a strange cast, my Londons, but I can’t wait for you to meet them all.

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Follow V. E. Schwab on Twitter at @veschwab, on Facebook, or visit the magical Londons online.

Dolls Aren’t Just For Children

The Doll Collection edited by Ellen Datlow
Written by Ellen Datlow

Dolls, perhaps more than any other object, demonstrate just how thin the line between love and fear, comfort and horror, can be. They are objects of love and sources of reassurance for children, coveted prizes for collectors, sources of terror and horror in numerous movies, television shows, books, and stories. Dolls fire our collective imagination, for better and—too often, for worse. From life-size dolls the same height as the little girls who carry them, to dolls whose long hair can “grow” even longer, to Barbie and her fashionable sisters, dolls do double duty as child’s play and the focus of adult art and adult fear.

—The Doll Collection, Introduction

I’m a doll lover. I admit it. I collect whole dolls and parts of dolls: heads and arms and legs Datlow_VoodooDolland torsos. Voodoo dolls (I used to go down to New Orleans every few years and each time would discover different styles); three-faced dolls, the kind whose faces change from sleeping to smiling to crying with a twist of a little gadget at the top of the head; kewpie dolls, the adorable creatures invented by Rose O’Neill; Japanese kokeshi dolls, made of wood with painted faces and bodies. A changeable Little Red Riding Hood/wolf/grandma doll given to me by a friend. A two headed Chernobyl kitty made for me by that same person, inspired by my account of the tour I took to the infamous nuclear accident site in Ukraine, and given to me by my class, the summer I taught Clarion West. The next time I taught, several years later, my students each made me a doll on a stick modeled after themselves. My love of dolls is no secret. Anyone who enters my apartment can witness that interest.

Why do I collect weird dolls? No idea. I’ve recently found photographs of me as a young child with a doll I was given by my grandparents. She’s pretty normal. I remember owning a knock off of the popular “Ginny” doll of the 1950s. Again, nothing weird about her. My mom wouldn’t buy me or my sister Barbie dolls—she thought they were too mature for kids, but also they and their clothing were expensive.

So I never owned a Barbie doll—until an enterprising friend created a three-faced Barbie Datlow_VampireBarbiefor me: Piranha Barbie (with a mouth made of a wicked-looking sea shell), Vampire Barbie (a couple of very pointy canine teeth) , and the dog-faced girl (not adapted from a Barbie, but instead a baby doll). I’ve also been privileged to visit Japan’s largest private collection of Barbie Dolls, owned by a Tokyo businessman.

I personally am not creeped-out by most dolls (except perhaps the very disturbing, lifelike dolls created by Japanese artist Katan Amano), but I know many people who are. Why might that be? Dolls often reside in “the uncanny valley” a phrase that refers to a theory developed by robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970: it posits that objects with features that are human-like, that look and move almost, but not quite, like actual human beings, elicit visceral feelings of revulsion in many people. The “valley” in question refers to the change in our comfort with these objects—our comfort level increases as the objects look more human, until, suddenly, they look simultaneously too human and not quite human enough, and our comfort level drops off sharply, only to rise again on the other side of the valley when something appears and moves exactly like a human being.

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Follow Ellen on Twitter at @EllenDatlow, on Facebook, or visit her website.

It’s Not a Costume, It’s My Day Job

The Eterna Files by Leanna Renee Hieber
Written by Leanna Renee Hieber

I’m asked often if my being a professional actress helps me as a writer. It entirely does, in more ways than I likely understand about my own process at any one given moment. Being an actress is a holistic aspect of how I see the world and operate as an artistic professional.

One of the most often complimented aspects of my work is my ability to create atmosphere and ‘set the stage’ for my novels. This is most certainly due to a life on the boards. My penchant for diving deep into character, reveling in the intricacies of dialogue and inner monologue, comes from professional theatre and playwrighting training, novel writing coming to me as a professional venture after I’d established myself in the former.

I set my books in the late 19th century because it’s the era that birthed the entirety of our understanding of modernity and is thusly somewhat recognizable to us and yet, the Victorians are rife with conflict and hypocrisy that it is a source of dramatic tension and conflict in and of itself.

Leanna Renee Hieber as Lucy in Dracula

Leanna as Lucy in Dracula for the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, photo: Rich Sofranko

One of the most important factors in differentiating the daily life of a modern character from that of any historical character is their clothing. This is especially important for women, whose fashion has changed far more radically and comprehensively than basic men’s clothing through the years. We wear, on average far fewer layers (and pounds) of clothing in the 21st century than the 19th.

Another important gift the theatre gave my historical novels is a tactile reality and personal experience ‘existing’ in other time periods with which I can paint details. How we move in our clothes and interact with our world is something we take for granted, but as a writer, I can’t; not if I’m writing strong, empowered women who, while they may chafe against the restrictive society roles and mores around them, still remain influenced by and bound to the fashion of the age. Knowing what it is like to move, sit, prepare food, lift, climb stairs, walk, trot, run, seize, weep, and collapse in a restrictive corset, bodice, bustle, petticoat, hat, layers, gloves, and other accessories—all of which I’ve been personally subjected to in various historical plays and presentations I’ve acted in—is vitally important to taking the reader physically as well as visually and emotionally through what my characters are experiencing.

LRH_AuthorPhoto_CJohnstone

Photo: C. Johnstone

I write fantasy, so I hardly operate off the ‘write what you know’ principle, but knowing from personal experience some of those intimate details—like the precise unease of chafing corset bones against your skin—helps me consider my heroic ladies of The Eterna Files that much more impressive in all the crazed antics I set them to.

Overcoming restrictions is a big theme in my work. That a restrictive society further enclosed its women in cages of undergarments and elaborate systems of outerwear is too important a factor of world-building not to have at the core, and I hope it sets a vital tone for how readers can feel my work as well as read it.

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Follow Leanna on Twitter at @Leannarenee, on Facebook, or visit her website.

Looking at the World Finn Fancy Style

Finn Fancy Necromancy by Randy Henderson
Written by Randy Henderson

I’d visited Port Townsend often before writing my book, but this time Finn had offered me a tour of its truly magical side.

Finn’s family home, like a surprising number of the houses in this small seaside town, was a massive Victorian affair that might have belonged to the Addams Family, with a yard of tangled plants and gnarled trees. A child would almost certainly find tunnels and caves in that growth, a secret fort, perhaps even a path to fairy land. And the garden — if I didn’t know better, I’d think a Cthulhu cult had moved in and were trying to breed tomatoes and roses together to create a plant of ultimate chaos, destruction, and evil red yumminess.

How could I not have been inspired by such a place?

Finn stepped out onto the porch, his day’s work in the family necromancy business done, his eyes bloodshot and watery.

“Greetings, program,” I said. “You okay?”

“Imagine the sweetest-smelling perfume,” he replied. “Something candy-like. Now, pour a bottle of that into your eyes. That’s the joy of fairy embalming. Why? Because you wrote it that way, you sadistic nerf herder.”

I am your father,” I said, and made the Darth Vader wheeze.

“Lucky me,” he replied, and pushed past me.

We hiked toward town, but I was surprised when we turned north and headed uphill rather than down. Down was the way to the main waterfront street lined with funky shops, museums and restaurants, including the best ice cream shop and pizza restaurant this side of Italy, a giant store full of New Age magic supplies, and even a shop specifically dedicated to writers.

“I thought you were going to show me the secret passages,” I said, referring to the Shanghai tunnels rumored to still run hidden beneath the town, remnants of the 1800s when the town was a major shipping port.

“Too dangerous right now,” Finn replied. “They’re used mostly by feyblood creatures, and you did a good job of getting them riled up. It’s almost like you’re trying to build us up to a war or something?”

I avoided his questioning look and quickened my pace, whistling the chorus to “Blasphemous Rumors” by Depeche Mode.

Finn caught up with me, and as we passed the enormous, castle-like fortress of the Jefferson County Courthouse, he described the history of the town. Its many grand Victorian buildings spoke to the dreams of the town’s early builders, that this was going to be one of the biggest port cities in Washington. Unfortunately, the Great Depression, a lack of railroad connections, and a nasty infestation of gremlins killed that dream. But when most mundanes abandoned the town, the area’s rich and important magical history made it a natural home for humans and creatures of a magical nature.

Eventually, mundanes rediscovered the charm of Port Townsend and started to move or retire there, “fixing up” the area and changing it from a small town full of mill-workers, sailors and ex-hippy artists, to a town focused around tourism and the arts.

“In some ways,” Finn said, “I imagine you could compare the clash of cultures and classes in this town to that of us magicals versus the mundanes, or even humans against the feyblood creatures.” He eyed me sideways. “Though again, I hope you aren’t building us toward some kind of culture war?”

“What’d you say?” I asked. “You want some Culture Club?” I began to sing “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me.”

Finn sighed and took the lead again as I continued singing. We wandered our way eventually to Fort Worden.

Fort Worden is awesome. I love this place more than a brownie loves brownies, more than a Smurf loves to Smurf.

Fort Worden State Park was once a US Army base protecting access to the Puget Sound from any potential invaders in the Pacific, with enormous canons mounted on concrete bunkers. The bunkers remain, ghostly gray structures with mossy walls and rusting steel doors, and labyrinthine tunnels running beneath—a fantasy playground.

It was easy to imagine that those tiny arched holes throughout the bunkers might be doorways used by gnomes; or that the grass-filled stone circles might be man-made fairy rings; or, if inscribed with glowing runes, that the gun placements might be used for some purpose more devastating than even the thousand-pound guns they once held. It was easy to imagine that walking those narrow passages beneath the bunkers might eventually lead you somewhere other than simply out.

And those bunkers are spaced out along bluffs and hillsides covered in a forest of cedar and madrona, filled with hidey-holes and natural tree forts that just begged me to imagine what magical beings truly lived there.

We ended the visit on a bluff overlooking the rocky coastline and lighthouse far below.

“Thanks for the tour,” I said. “It’s always a good exercise to look at the world like a child might. I’ve gotten some great ideas for the sequels.”

“Ah, bat’s breath,” Finn said. “Look, if you’re really writing sequels, can you please just do me one favor?”

“What’s that?”

He blushed a bit as he said, “Maybe not make me so awkward with the ladies?”

I turned and walked back toward town, whistling Simply Red’s “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.”

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Follow Randy on Twitter at @randyauthor, on Facebook, or visit his website.

Death of Dystopia

The Glass Arrow by Kristen Simmons
Written by Kristen Simmons

As a writer of dystopian fiction, I’m often asked about the state of the genre—where I see it heading, and if the market is oversaturated.

The problem as I see it is this: dystopian stories (and I’m speaking primarily about young adult dystopian fiction here) hit a wave of popularity several years ago when Katniss volunteered as tribute. This wasn’t the first in the genre (or rather, subgenre, as dystopian stems from science fiction), and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. But the widespread interest in that story seemed to broaden the definition of the genre, specifically in young adult literature, to include a wide range of themes, including, perhaps most notably, an emphasis on romance and an introduction of diverse protagonists. Young adult literature often has a focus on the raw expression of youth—emotions experienced for the first time clashing with the developmental identity crisis involved in figuring out where one fits in the world. Add to that the pressure of choosing a faction (Divergent), an oppressive government (Legend), or the walls literally closing in (Mazerunner) and you’ve got something pretty intense. I see why people are attracted to it. I am.

Let me interrupt this broadcast for a small confession. I am the first to claim my own ignorance on the subject. The Article 5 series is classified as dystopian. My next book—The Glass Arrow—is as well. Did I sit down intent on writing within those specifications? Nope. I wrote the story that came into my head, and was just lucky enough that someone wanted to read it. This means that everything I’ve said thus far could be completely out in left field. Or, I could be like a great many writers who do the same thing: Write the story, and let the people who are good at marketing do their jobs.

So what is the current state of dystopia? And where is it heading? Honestly, I think it’s doing all right. Yes, there has been a huge focus on it in recent years. Yes, there is a strong-voiced contingency who shout Fahrenheit 451! 1984! Brave New World! (I am the one shouting The Handmaid’s Tale and The Road, just for the record.)

Young adult dystopian fiction incorporates a melting pot of issues, topics, and voices, but if you strip it down to its roots, you’ll likely find the following major headings:

  • Problems with the government (too little or too much or much too much),
  • Economic or class issues (no money or an overwhelming divide between classes), and
  • Oppression in some form (in my new book, The Glass Arrow, women are oppressed.)

I’m not a historian, but I think the human race has bumped up against these issues before. I know every single time I turn on the news I see them. Do I think these things will be problems in the future? Yes. Is that bleak? Maybe a little. But I hope we’ll persevere. And that, my friends, is what dystopian literature is all about. Not the ugliness of our world, but the beauty of our resilience. Not the way we despair, but the fight that drives us to survive despite the circumstances.

The Glass Arrow continues on the path forged by The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a story about female persecution, where women are reduced to their ability to conceive. Aya, the protagonist, is caught, hiding in the mountains, by a hunting party of wealthy men from the city. Like other young adult stories, the pace is quick, the stakes are high, and there is an element of romance, focusing, like in Offred’s story, on the conceptualization of Aya’s identity as a woman in a highly discriminatory world. I cannot live up to Atwood’s greatness, but I’ll tell you this: Aya doesn’t let the bastards grind her down. It is my intention, after all, that this story be about hope.

Writers write about life and truth, despite setting, despite origin, despite genre. We magnify reality through a fictional lens. So do I feel the genre is on its way out? Not really. Even if the name changes, the concepts will still exist, and somewhere, someone will write about them.

Pre-order The Glass Arrow today:
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Follow Kristen on Twitter at @kris10writes, on Facebook, or visit her website.

Knee Deep in Mud for Art’s Sake

Pacific Fire by Greg Van Eekhout
By Greg van Eekhout

I almost died writing Pacific Fire. Not to be whiny or anything. But I almost died.

For the second book in the California Bones trilogy, I needed some new, weird, Californian settings, and the Salton Sea fit the bill. Formed in 1905 when engineers accidentally flooded 343 square miles of Southern California desert, the Salton Sea is an eerie slow-motion disaster. From a distance, it shimmers a lovely blue against the craggy brown foothills surrounding it. Up close, it looks like a vast toxic spill, or, as Joel K. Bourne Jr. described it in National Geographic, a lake of dark beer that smells like sulfur and rot. Bombay Beach is strewn with dead fish, and the white sand is actually the pulverized remains of older dead fish.

Salvation MountainReal estate developers in the 1950’s promised buyers a desert paradise, like Palm Springs, only with water. What’s left today are die-hards who like cheap housing and distance between them and the rest of the world. They hang on in the few communities that dot the coast, a few houses and trailers amid the rotting timbers, exposed foundations, and boom boxes and CRT computer monitors abandoned in place. There’s Slab City, an RV campsite and squatters’ colony built on the site of a decommissioned World War II Marine base. And there’s Salvation Mountain, a devotional art installation/residence painted on the side of a mountain by the late Leonard Knight.

The Salton Sea is a weird place, and a wonderful place, and an example of the amazingly wrong and foolish things Californians do when they try to plant paradise in the desert. It had to be in my book, and I had to go there. So, one morning my wife and I set out from our home in San Diego and drove the few hours from one sea to another.

Our first stop was the mud pots in Niland, a field where geothermic activity pushes hot water up through mud to form bubbling, belching, mini-volcanoes. There were a few families tromping around and peering inside the craters, and it all seemed pretty fun and safe. I mean, there were little kids sliding down the sides of the volcanoes, so how dangerous could it be? The fact that my wife thought it prudent to stay back near the car to guard it against…I don’t know, threats…meant nothing to me. I grabbed my gear, by which I mean my phone so I could take pictures, and ventured into the field.

Niland Mud PotsThe mud is actually quite beautiful: smooth and creamy gray, you can soak in it at a Palm Springs spa. I got pretty intimate with the mud. So, there I was, exploring and snapping photos, minding my own business, when I said to myself, “This footing seems a bit unstable, so better watch where I

oh god I’m sinking into the mud it is all the way up to my thigh and I can’t use my hands to get out because I am holding my expensive new phone and it is only one week old!”

That’s what I said. A nearby dad said, “See, that’s why I told you kids not to walk there.” And a nearby kid said, “He’s gonna be dirty.” And then I said, “I hate all people and things.”

Salton Sea MudSomehow, eventually, with no help from anyone, I managed to extricate myself, though I came pretty close to never being seen again by anyone except mole people. I spent the rest of the day exploring the Salton Sea with a full-leg cast of encrusted mud that one could have signed with a Sharpie if one felt so inclined. My wife managed to save my new phone by digging out mud with her Swiss Army knife, but to this day I have to attach the charger with a rubber band.

Well. That’s pretty much it. I admit I didn’t really almost die, but I was humiliated and uncomfortable, and, really, anyone would agree that’s worse than death. I guess my characters in Pacific Fire might not agree, because some of them actually die, but that’s what they get for being in one of my books.

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Gods, Philosophers, and Robots

The Just City by Jo Walton
By Jo Walton

One of the odd things about explaining what The Just City is about is people’s reactions. The Just City is a fantasy novel about a group of classicists and philosophers from across all of time setting up Plato’s Republic on Atlantis, with the help of some Greek gods, ten thousand Greek-speaking ten-year-olds they bought in the slave markets of antiquity, and some construction robots from our near future. What could possibly go wrong?

Now I get two different immediate reactions to this. The first is from people who say “That’s insane, and I want it now!” The second is from people who say they know nothing about Plato or philosophy in a kind of apologetic way, as if anything that touches on these subjects in any way would require background reading and be kind of boring. When I said I’d written a book (Among Others) about growing up in South Wales and going to boarding school in England, with fairies, absolutely nobody said “I don’t know anything about South Wales” (or fairies, or boarding school) and I don’t think it’s because they had any more background knowledge of those things, I think it’s because there’s an odd kind of cringe before things that are “high culture” and which, without knowing anything about them, many people think are superior and many people secretly think are boring. And lots of people haven’t read Plato—which seems weird to me as I have been reading Plato since I was a kid (which is why I don’t share that cultural cringe) and totally immersed in Plato for the last eighteen months. But there are lots of things I am like that about. Proust, for example. Everyone says how great Proust is, but nobody says it is fun, and I’ve never even tried to read Proust, and even now thinking about it, I shrink away a little bit and think I’d be bored.

So if Plato is, for you, what Proust is for me, first, I think Plato is fun and readable and a weird mixture of brilliantly insightful and totally insane. And The Republic is supposedly a blueprint for a utopia, but it’s really apparent to anyone reading it that it would not work in practice because human nature. And yet… Plato wrote about gender equality two thousand and four hundred years ago. He wrote about striving for excellence, and justice. And The Republic is weirdly specific about some things and just as weirdly vague about others. For the characters caught up in it, it starts to seem completely normal, but a large part of philosophy is of course about questioning everything.

What I’ve written in The Just City is a utopia. No, a dystopia. No, wait, no… no, it’s not an ambiguous heterotopia either. But it’s about a designed society, and about human nature, and consent, and questioning. It’s about two women (and one god) growing up.

I had a lot of fun writing it, and I hope you’ll have fun reading it.

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Three Ekphrastic Dialogues; or NO DUAL WIELDING UNTIL BOOK THREE

The Providence of Fire by Brian Staveley
By Brian Staveley

SCENE ONE
Setting: Book One of the Epic Trilogy

In the first scene the WRITER is bright-eyed, fresh-faced, and recently showered, perhaps even wearing a jaunty blazer. The CHARACTER looks confused, wary, even a little frightened.

Character: Hey! Who are you?
Writer: I’m the writer. I made up your world. I made you up.
C: That’s impossible.
W: Amazing, right? But it’s true. That beard you have–I put it there. That mysterious dude over there–the one in the black cloak; I made him up. That suspicious ancient ruin; I made that up, too.
C: Whoa. Why don’t I…know more stuff? Why don’t I have a better sword? Why can’t I do anything awesome?
W: Like what?
C: I don’t know. Call down a rain of fire on my foes. Maybe I could defeat a dozen knights single-handed?
W: Nice try, kid. This is book one. You can’t be too cool yet. Gotta leave room to grow.
C: Can I at least shave this stupid beard? It itches.
W: Nope.
C: You’re an asshole.
W: Good! You have spirit! You’re starting to get a life of your own!
C: If I have a life of my own, why can’t I shave my…hey! HEY! What the hell just happened?
W: Your house burned down. That guy in the black cloak did it.
C: You made him do it.
W: Sorry. Needed an inciting incident.
C: Well who the hell is he?
W: No way. This is book one. You don’t get to know that. I might not even know that.
C: I think I hate you.
W: Just don’t lose that spirit.

SCENE TWO
Setting: Book Two of the Epic Trilogy

The WRITER looks more disheveled than last time–slightly twitchy, slightly confused. The CHARACTER has a larger sword now. His hand rests comfortably on the pommel.

Character: I shaved my beard.
Writer: No! That’s not until…Fuck it. Fine. I’ve got other problems to deal with.
C: Also, that asshole in the black cloak. The one who burned down my house. He’s Algar Ka, the Dread Lord.
W: What? No. He’s not. He is most definitely not.
C: He totally is. It’s obvious. Should I kill him?
W: Of course you shouldn’t kill him! Are you insane? This is only book two. You’re not even supposed to know who he is yet.
C: Well I know who he is. He’s right there, and he’s not looking. I’m going to stick him with the sword.
W: NO! What do you think we’re going to do in book three? Eat lasagna and watch cartoons for six hundred pages?
C: Here goes…Wait. What just happened?
W: He’s gone.
C: What do you mean, gone?
W: Whisked away by a greater power.
C: By which you mean you. [Shakes head] Fine. Can I do something else awesome? Maybe I’ll defeat those lizard men over there.
W: Fine, fight the damn lizard men, but you can’t be too awesome.
C: Check out this double-sword flip attack…
W: NO. No dual-wielding in book two. No flips in book two. Did you forget that there’s a whole other book after this? Can you please make this fight look difficult? It would actually be ideal if it looked perfectly commensurate with your growing confidence and abilities.
C: Sounds contrived.
W: DO NOT SAY CONTRIVED. Ginny said contrived.
C: Who’s Ginny?
W: I don’t know. Someone on Twitter. She didn’t like book one.
C: Whatever. Contrived. I said it. This is contrived…Ouch! What the hell was that?
W: Lizard man spear. In your leg.
C: The lizard men don’t have spears, you asshole.
W: That one did. Anyway, it’s book two. You needed to suffer a setback. There you go. Setback. Now go get the mysterious cloaked guy.
C: You mean Algar…
W: [Singing loudly] MYSTERY! MYSTERIOUS!
C: I know who he is…
W: Shut up and get him.
C: Where is he?
W: [Whistles innocently] Other end of the continent.
C: The other end of the…why?
W: This is book two. You need to do some walking. Everybody walks a lot in book two.
C: I really hate you.

SCENE THREE
Setting: Book Three of the Epic Fantasy Trilogy

The WRITER looks crazed, even a little demented. Hair is unwashed. Clothes are unwashed. There is a coffee pot filled with stale pizza crusts next to the computer monitor. The CHARACTER, on the other hand, has never looked better. The leg is healed, leaving a nasty scar that does nothing to slow him down. His stare is so hard it might have been hammered out on an anvil.

C: Ah, the Golden Western Sea. Almost as impressive as the Mountains of Night.
W: What? You saw the Mountains of Night?
C: [Patiently] Yes. Chapter twenty-two of Book Two. I defeated the Ice Demons there?
W: Right. Shit! [Scribbles madly on a notecard while muttering] He already saw the Ice Demons? That means none of this works. This whole chapter doesn’t work!
C: Hey, there’s an evil army over there.
W: What? Who are they?
C: You let them loose in Book Two. Said something about needing to set-up the big, set-piece battle.
W: Holy hell, I did. But….
C: Don’t worry, I’m on it.
W: You’re going to attack the army alone?
C: Sure–I got the blessing of the goddess. Plus this orcish gizmo that fits on here, like this. Plus, double battle-axes.
W: NO DUAL….
C: It’s book three.
W: What?
C: I said, it’s book three. I can dual wield now. I can do all the stuff now.
W: [Reverently, to self] It’s book three. We can do all the stuff.
C: There. I routed that evil army. Wait, what is that?
W: [Cackling madly] ANOTHER EVIL ARMY! It’s book three!
C: [Sighs. Annihilates second evil army.] Now what?
W: Kiss your love interest!
C: Did that in book two.
W: Right. Right! Have sex with your love interest! Here–have a whole chapter, just for that.
C: Cool….
W: Now fight these guys!
C: I’m still….
W: Now fight those guys!
C: Fine….
W: Destroy that fortress.
C: Don’t you think there’s been enough violence?
W: IT’S BOOK THREE!
C: Good point. Done. You want me to get Algar Ka now?
W: THERE ARE TEN OF HIM AND HE’S UNKILLABLE.
C: I think you need to take a break.
W: HE’S A THOUSAND FEET TALL. AND GODS. AND MONSTERS. AND A TIDAL WAVE.
C: I’m unleashing the ancient powers.
W: UNLEASH THE ANCIENT POWERS. AND THOSE OTHER POWERS THAT ARE EVEN MORE ANCIENT–UNLEASH THOSE, TOO! IT’S BOOK THREE. UNLEASH IT ALL. IT’S BOOK THREEEEEEEEEEEE!
C: Done.
W: [Reeling.] Done?
C: It’s done. I did it. I won.
W: We won.
C: Well, you went sorta crazy while I did the work, but yes. Now I want to eat lasagna and snuggle my love interest. You should get some sleep.
W: Sleep? [Shakes head slowly, in a daze.] No sleep. I need to start on the PREQUEL.
C: I hate you.

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