fantasy

Review: The Emerald Circus

I’ve written about Jane Yolen’s books before, which I have really enjoyed, especially her short stories. like Sister Emily’s Lightship. With that in mind, when I saw a new collection of Yolen’s stories, The Emerald Circus, I decided to take a look (I actually checked it out of the library!).

This book has some reprints of earlier stories I liked, including Sister Emily’s Lightship and Lost Girls. But I especially enjoyed reading some newer stories I hadn’t read before. In particular, I loved “A Knot of Toads,” which was a creepy, modern-gothic story set on the coast of Scotland. I loved the origins of the story and the references to history, but the characters really shine through, and I love how the main character’s views of the people around her are suddenly upended. Likewise, “The Quiet Monk” was passionate and romantic and beautiful, and the ending had a kind of quiet devotion that I loved. “Evian Steel” was another Arthurian -inspired story I enjoyed. It had a great twist ending, and gave a really fascinating perspective on familiar characters.

“Blown Away” was a dark and disturbing retelling of Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, form the point of view of one of the farm hands on Dorothy’s Uncle’s farm. It was strangely creepy and bleak, and the ending was both haunting and “off” in a fascinating, if not exactly satisfying way. The unreliable narrator and the constant uncertainty about who is telling the truth about Dorothy’s strange disappearance made it feel like there were terrible family secrets welling just beneath the surface.

Overall, I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in Jane Yolen’s writing, or in reading fantasy short stories, particularly reinterpretations of fairytales and legends.

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Fantasy Integration in Saints and Curses

Welcome to everyone stopping by from OWS CyCon 2019! Be sure to check out my author booth (I have one for fantasy and one for science fiction), and sign up for my newsletter using the form at the bottom of the page. Don’t forget to sign up for the giveaway too! I hope you enjoyed your previous stop on this blog hop, and now for my take on fantasy integration into society.

My newest book, Saints and Curses, is a collection of fantasy short stories. Since each story is different, the way fantasy relates to society is slightly different as well. So I’m going to focus on just two stories, “There Was a Nicholas Once,” which you can listen to for free at the Gallery of Curiosities podcast, and “Braids,” which you can find online at Swords and Sorcery Magazine. *Trigger Warning—Depicts Domestic and Sexual Abuse

“There Was a Nicholas Once” is set in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. War, deprivation, and terrifying government purges have left many people struggling to survive. The main character, a witch-child, has horrifying visions that she can barely understand. In a society that brutally punishes anyone accused of disloyalty or dissent, her visions are a danger and a curse. Yet, the witch-child grows more comfortable with her visions, and with the dark powers she can feel in the cold winter forest.

In this story, fantasy isn’t integrated into society so much a dark undercurrent, a sign of the blood and trauma of the past and the desperation of the present.

“Braids” is set in the Middle Ages. When the Haar-witch Cresputina comes to Mont Noire, many people are at first afraid of her. But Cresputina can weave magic into women’s hair as she braids it, and soon all the women of the village come to her for their troubles. But while Cresputina is welcomed by some, others see it as dangerous and evil.

One of the things I like about this story, is that it shows many different reactions to magic, from joy and excitement, to fear and hate. I think that if we discover real life magic, it would likely face the same kind of mixed reactions. Not everyone will want to embrace it, just like some people reject modern medicine or other scientific discoveries today. Yet, I think most people would love a touch of magic in their lives!

Thank you for stopping by my post for the Urban Fantasy blog hop! The next post is on Mary Woldering’s blog, so be sure to stop by her blog next. And if you’re interested in hearing more from me, I’ll be taking over the Fantasy and Sci-Fi Reader’s Lounge Friday, May 17 from 1-2pm, and again on Sunday, May 19 from 8-9pm. Finally, make sure you sign up for my newsletter using the subscribe box below (and put that down for the giveaway)!

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Yes, even more Scifi/Fantasy Very Short Stories!

Yes, I wrote even more science fiction and fantasy Very Short Stories! These appeared on Twitter on the hashtags #scififri, #satsplat, and #vss365! I hope you enjoy them!

  1. "WILLOW! Bring me that antidote!" His slave stumbled into the room, tripping over her feet. He poked her with his cane.

    "Hurry!" Her hands shook as she poured a drink into his mouth. He cursed.

    "Wrong one, stupid girl!" He fell, his mouth foaming.

    Willow smiled.

  2. Water poured out of the sea caves and frothed at the bottom of the cavern, tearing at the rock with hungry force.

    "They call this place Charybdis," he said. "If someone fell down there, they'd be torn to pieces."

    Was that what had happened to her sister? she thought.

  3. She dropped her eyes and blushed, looking pretty and demure. It gave her the opportunity to give surreptitious glance at their guests' weapons. The milk-faced boy carried a fine sword, Damascus steel. His fingers drifted to the hilt like he knew how to use it.

  4. The cauldron boiled and seethed. Frothy black effervescence floated to the top. She sprinkled a couple of milky eyes into the brew. At last, when the smell burnt her nostrils, she poured him a tumbler full.

    "There," she said. "The strongest hangover cure I can make."

  5. The delicate butterflies flit over the surface of the lake, their wings silver and blue in the moonlight. They float around the waterfall and vanish in the mist.

    "Where do they go?" I whisper.

    "No one knows," Gran says. "But mayhap the fairies."

Five SciFi/Fantasy Very Short Stories

I’ve been writing so many very short stories, I’ve decided to blog them by genre:). Here are some SciFi/Fantasy Very Short Stories that I wrote for either #vss365 or #satsplat on Twitter (I’m @TheWiseSerpent).

  1. Her people had only a vestigial stinger, a tiny hooked nail that curled underneath her big toe. Mostly, it made shoe shopping annoying. But sometimes, she thought, easing one foot out of the rope they'd bound her with, it did come in handy. She wiggled off her socks and waited for her kidnapper to return.

  2. He smiles wide enough that she can see his tongue drifting over teeth too sharp. Her hand trembles around the wooden cross she's holding.

    "It's not enough just to hold it," he says. "You have to be vehement."

    She plunges the sharpened end of the cross into his chest.

  3. No wonder magic was so difficult, she thought. The spells were all horribly vague, completely unlike the clear scientific language she was used to. Twelve cattails? She squinted. The tails of actual cats, or the water plants? No way to tell. She sighed.

  4. The veil parted to reveal his new-bought bride, still inactivated. He lifted her hand and pressed the button beneath her knuckle to enter the code. Her eyes began to flutter, and he leaned in to give her a kiss.

    "Husband?" she asked. "

    “Yes, something like that."

  5. He eyed her food, his lip curled. "Are you actually eating that?"

    She smiled and licked the juices off her lips.

    "I thought you were a vegan."

    "Most of the time. But tonight is a full moon."

    "Well, I'm leaving."

    "If you were smarter," she said, "you'd run."

Neil Gaiman: One of My Favorite Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors

I've love reading Neil Gaiman's books since I discovered Sandman. I listened to The Ocean at the End of the Road on audible last year, and enjoyed his short stories in several different anthologies. So I listened closely on my way to work when I heard Gaiman giving an interview on NPR. As part of the interview, he read aloud part of The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains, and I was entranced. I found the book on one of my trips to the library I could read it.

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains

The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains is a graphic novel with haunting illustrations by Eddie Campbell. It feels shorter than a typical novel--more like a novella or a short story in terms of word count. Yet each scene has an intensity and dread that builds to a harrowing climax. The  main character is a man the size of a dwarf, but he reveals that he can run faster and longer than a normal man, and he's far stronger than he looks. He opens the story with a heart-rending monologue about whether he can forgive himself for the things he's done, and he can, except for the year he spent hating his daughter. The mystery of the man's daughter and her cruel fate hang over him as he journeys to a cave filled with cursed gold. His guide, a wolfish man, is a former reaver with dark secrets of his own. He warns the dwarf about the curse, which made life seem duller, colder, and less beautiful after he took the gold.

This book is excellent for anyone who enjoys dark fantasy or graphic novels. It's creepy psychological horror at its best--a treat for all Neil's fans.

Smoke and Mirrors

After reading The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, I decided I'd like to read more of Neil Gaiman's short fiction. On my next visit to the library, I found a copy of his short story collection Smoke and Mirrors, so I decided to check it out. While a few of the stories fell flat for me, most were creepy and brilliant, and one or two stand out as incredible works of art. 

In particular, I loved Gaiman's "Snow, Glass, and Apples," a memorable and terrifying retelling of "Snow White" from the point of view of her perhaps-not wicked stepmother. Likewise, though I originally avoided reading "Murder Mysteries" (I'm not a fan of the mystery genre), once I read it, it became one of my favorite stories in the book. The story within a story is deeply compelling, and once it starts to fit within the larger picture and the two stories merge, it becomes a haunting tale of love, death, and regret. Gaiman has a gift for drawing a reader into a story only to reveal that the true story is far deeper than the one you originally thought you were reading.

The only stories that didn't work for me seemed ones with a strong masculine point of view. For example, while I appreciated the writing and the story from "Looking for the Girl," it didn't move me all the much, perhaps because I just don't relate to the male gaze it depicts. Still, several stories did give me a interesting glimpse into a man's POV, including "Foreign Parts" and "Mouse." This last story is another great example of the true story not being what you think it is. The main character agonizes over killing a mouse, yet is coldly unsympathetic to his wife after she has an abortion at his behest. It takes talent to make such a selfish and unlikable character conflicted and sympathetic, suggesting that he's buried his emotions so much that he uses symbolic acts to express what he can't even allow himself to consciously think.

Overall, I'd recommend this book to anyone who likes dark, yet whimsical fantasy or horror with a touch of comedy. 

Fragile Things

This is another short story collection that I checked out from my local library. I'm a fan of Neil Gaiman, and I really enjoyed reading Smoke and Mirrors, so I figured I'd read another of his short story collections, Fragile Things. Besides, I've been writing a lot of short stories lately, so I thought Gaiman's stories would be a good inspiration. 

Overall, this collection is even stronger than Smoke and Mirrors. Every story hooked me, and many of them left a lasting impression. I loved "October in the Chair" which had all the ethereal beauty of Gaiman's best stories, yet with a creepy, unsettling note that felt more terrifying for being understated. Likewise, the bizarre, surreal world of "A Study in Emerald" left me deeply uneasy (in the best kind of way), all the more so for the main character's placid acceptance of a horrifying status quo. Other stories, like "Feeders and Eaters" or "Bitter Grounds" had more overt horror.

Not all the stories were creepy, however. "The Problem of Susan" addresses the casual cruelty of C.S. Lewis' dismissal of Susan at "The Last Battle." It's a thoughtful story that manages to call into question the entire "Narnia" series, or at least C.S. Lewis' intentions with it, while telling a haunting story of survival. Fragile Things finishes with a novella featuring Shadow, the hero of Gaiman's American Gods. The novella is easy to follow even if you haven't read American Gods, though it definitely leaves the reader wanting to know more about Shadow and his past. 

I'd definitely recommend this books to anyone who enjoys dark fantasy and science fiction. As I've mentioned before, short stories can be great to read if you feel you don't have the mental endurance to dig into a novel, and this book has a wide variety of fascinating tales.

Three Nonfiction Books Fantasy Writers Should Read

  1. The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England

I love reading about Medieval history, so when I found this book on audible, I was very interested. The book isn't a novel, so much as a popular history based on what it would be like to travel through England between the years of 1300 and 1400 AD. What would you see, smell, and hear? Who would you meet? What would it be like to live there? It's a fascinating concept, one that treats the past more like a living, breathing place than a remote, long dead era.

The author, Ian Mortimer, makes some starling observations. For example, how young everyone is. Because so many people don't live to old age, nearly everyone is under the age of twenty five. At 16, a boy is considered a grown man, one who can lead troops into battle or become a king in his own right. The youthful society goes a long way towards explaining the lack of education and the sometimes fanciful beliefs many people have. Likewise, the catastrophic effects of the Black Death are hard for modern people to comprehend. By the end of the 14th century, England has half the population it had in the beginning. The population didn't recover until the 1600s. Entire villages would be wiped out, so that walking around the countryside might be like being the survivor of a zombie apocalypse (especially since contracting the plague likely meant certain death).


The author also rightly points out that while they may not have bathed as often as modern people, people in the 14th century made an effort to keep clean, despite our beliefs to the contrary. Cleanliness was a sign of good manners, and so prized that people in particularly filthy occupations bathed every day, and soap was a valued commodity. Almost everyone would have washed their faces and hands every morning, and manners required you to wash your hands before every meal. It's true they might not have been clean by modern standards, that doesn't mean they didn't value cleanliness and try to achieve it.

While this book does have a few slow chapters--I found the section on money a bit tedious--overall, it was a fascinating exploration about what it was like to live in a different time. As a writer, I found it an invaluable resource. It gave me great ideas for stories and intriguing details for Medieval settings. I'd recommend it to fantasy/historical fiction writers, as well as anyone interested in Medieval history.

2. The Plantagenets by Dan Jones


I love reading history, and The Plantagenets covers a particularly fascinating and eventful era in English history. It opens with the tragedy of the White Ship, a pivotal moment when the heir to the throne, only legitimate son of Henry I, died in a shipwreck. Without a male heir, Henry I decides to leave the throne to his only remaining legitimate child, the Empress Matilda. From Matilda's line came some of England's best and worst kings (and queens). Kings like Henry II or Edward III are remembered as powerful rulers who dominated their enemies and expanded their territories and influence. Yet, the Plantagenet kings like Edward II, John Lackland (the notorious Prince John of the Robin Hood legends), and Richard II endangered the monarchy and the country with their incompetence, arrogance, and savagery. Their stories are exciting to listen to, and give the listener a great insight into the Medieval world. Although it's a history book, it's almost as exciting as Game of Thrones. All in all, The Plantagenets is an excellent book, and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in history, or any fans of Medieval fantasy.

3. Mindset by Carol Dweck

I've been fascinated by Carol Dweck's research into the psychology of success since I first read about her work in NurtureShock. It reinforced some of what I'd read about in Alfie Kohn's Punished by Rewards, another excellent book that challenges plenty of received wisdom on using praise to control children's behavior. Still I had yet to read Dweck's magnum opus Mindset, so on a trip to the library I decided to reserve a copy. It's been such an amazing and helpful book, I intend to buy a copy to keep around when I have to return it to the library. While I'd previously though of Dweck's research as primarily relating to teaching and parenting, this book goes much deeper into how our mindset effects our relationships, our careers, and our ability to lead a fulfilling life. 

After reading Dweck's book, I started thinking about how our mindset effects writers. Writing carries with it an enormous amount of rejection and criticism, and requires an intense, sustained effort for any amount of success. How many people want to write a novel but never finish even a rough draft? Or more likely, how many have a good story idea but never sit down to write it at all? So what does it take to withstand all this adversity and keep writing? A "growth" mindset.

In her book, Dweck shows that some people embrace challenges as learning opportunities. They see failure and rejection as valuable lessons, and learn to accept feedback without allowing the criticism to sap their self-worth. These people have a growth mindset--they believe they can grow their talents and improve themselves with plenty of hard work and effort. Other people have a fixed mindset--they believe that success is dependent on talent and luck alone. They're reluctant to take risks and hate failure, because it's a sign that they're not talented enough to be successful. The fixed mindset discourages effort, because if you have enough talent, everything should be easy for you. 

It's easy to slip into a fixed mindset when you've gotten another rejection. It's easy to say, "I'm not good enough, I might as well give up." But it's so much more satisfying and exciting to say, I'll try again. I'll write more stories. I'll write another novel. I'll listen to feedback from my writing group, my beta readers, and anyone else who'll give it to me. I've gotten helpful feedback from editors who rejected me, and I'm so glad they took the time to send more than a form letter. A growth mindset encourages me to take risks with my writing. I'll try a different genre, or try writing short stories in addition to working on a novel, or query for non-fiction articles. Quitting guarantees failure, but if we keep going, if we work hard enough, we just might make it. 

An Endless Bookshelf

I love books. I probably love them a little too much, because there’s so many in my home that Marie Kondo would have to devote a very special episode to sorting through them with me. Just kidding! I’d never let her near my books. Seriously, if she showed up at my door I’d drive her away with the power of salt and burning sage. I love books!

I may not ever read through all the books I own (though I’ve read most of them, and I certainly intend to try). But I love having enough books that I will always have one available to read or reread, and enough variety to suit my mood at any given moment. I particularly love science fiction and fantasy, but at any given time I’m also drawn to literary classics, nonfiction books about history, science, politics, and folklore, and even occasional thrillers. As a parent and a teacher, I also read lots of picture books, middle grade, and young adult fiction.    

My bookshelf seems even more endless when I consider the different formats of books that I enjoy. I love traditional reading, but I love listening to audiobooks on my commute or other long drives, and while I primarily like physical books, I also get eBooks from time to time. I’ve discovered many comic books and graphic novels I love as well.

Given my love of books, perhaps it was inevitable that I’d try to write a few. I started out writing short readers’ theater plays for my 8th grade students to read out loud in class (a great way to encourage them to read and develop their fluency, and an eye-opening exposure to very ruthless and honest critiques for me). Then I wrote my first novel, tried to pitch it, and went...nowhere. But I didn’t give up. I went on to write a ton of short stories, and I started having much more success and interest in those. After a while, I decided to compile my science fiction stories into a book, which become Sapience.

I’m continuing to read and write as much as I can, and my next book, Saints and Curses, should be available later this spring. My current work in progress is a middle grade science fiction/fantasy novel that I’m very excited about. I hope to finish a first draft by the end of the summer. In the meantime, I’m hoping to focus this blog on the books that I’ve discovered and read, with occasional updates about author events I’m attending and other book stuff. I hope you enjoy reading!