Category Archives: Sword & Sorceress 25

Sword & Sorceress XXV – the implausibility of chicks with swords?

SFFPortal has a nice review of Sword & Sorceress XXV by Scooter Carlyle, in which, you might recall, I have a story.

Key quote:

In “Ghost Puppet” by Jonathan Moeller, Caina, one of the Emperor’s Ghosts, must protect the spoiled Lucan, son of the Lord Governor.  Disguised as a man, she must divine the both the reason for the price on Lucan’s head, and who’s paying it.

I found the main characters very likeable.  This was also one of the few stories that didn’t have the disconnect between women’s gender roles and the setting.  There was a nice twist with the necklace, and the protagonists have some cool tools.  I did find the bad guys a little cheesy, but not too bad, and I liked the resolution.

But a disconnect between gender roles and the setting? What does that mean?

Let’s let Ms. Carlyle herself explain:

I would like to offer one comment on the anthology as a whole that is not a criticism, just something to think on.  Sword and Sorceress features sword and sorcery stories with strong female protagonists.  Many of these women have some pretty mad skills, and a large number of them are mercenaries.  We love to read about chicks that kick metaphorical and literal butt.

There’s only one problem with that, sociologically speaking.  The idea that, “Women can do anything men can do, and do it with style,” is a very recent ideology that’s actually derived from technological advancements.  Traditional feminine gender roles are largely due to the biological necessity of needing to keep women home with babies, since, for thousands of years, breastmilk was the only source of nutrition for infants.

As a result, one did not historically see female sword fighters or warriors.  There were a few exceptions, like the female berdaches in the Native American tribes of the plains, but they rejected femininity altogether and became male.  Women as a whole were not able to embrace traditionally male roles until birth control, baby formula, and daycare were all invented, and then only after they became socially acceptable.

Please realize that I’m not claiming that Sword and Sorceress stories should all have contained women in traditional roles.  What I am saying is that throwing a chick a sword in a medieval-style setting and having everyone else think it’s normal makes no sense, sociologically speaking. Something needs to be present in the way in which the people, elves, dwarves, etc., live their lives that would make female warriors and mages being seen as normal make sense.

Actually, I have given this topic a lot of thought, so bear with me as I wax loquacious here for a moment.

See, the bald fact is that women have biological liabilities that men do not – menstruation, pregnancy, childbearing, lower muscle mass, lower skeletal density, and a greater need for iron. Yes, there are exceptions – undoubtedly this post will generate at least one angry commentator who will point out some WNBA athlete or another who, if she chose, could crush her enemies’ skulls like overripe grapes. But the WNBA is the exception. An average man will almost always be stronger than an average woman of the same age. (And even among the outliers, it is an exceedingly rare woman who can match the raw muscle power of, say, an NFL linebacker, or even a man accustomed to rigorous physical labor.)

The strength differential was especially important in preindustrial societies, when wars were not fought with guns, missiles, bombs, and motorized vehicles, but with muscle power, whether human or animal. A man could swing a melee weapon harder, draw a heavier bow, wear heavier armor, carry a heavier shield, and carry more gear. For that matter, women in preindustrial societies generally had more children and spent more time pregnant, since disease would carry off many of the children, and children were one’s security in old age (assuming one lived that long, of course). Not until the later 20th century, when wars became far more technologically dependent, were women in the military less of an outlier and more of a societal norm. Muscle power is irrelevant when flipping switches, after all, and a strong arm loses to a strong bomb every single time. (And in roles that do require muscle power, like front-line combat, there’s a strong resistance to putting women there.)

So in practical terms, to get effective military service from women, you need 1.) technology to compensate for the strength differential, 2.) technology to compensate for the problems of pregnancy, and 3.) tacit male acceptance of women taking up the roles of men.

And one of my pet peeves is fantasy fiction that ignores that. Shared-world fiction like the Forgotten Realms or World of Warcraft is particularly bad at this, with slender 110 pound elven women regularly overpowering muscle-bound orcs with their dazzling swordplay. Granted, I understand this is because of game dynamics; Hasbro and Blizzard want as many female customers as possible (and horny male customers who want to play as female Blood Elves), but it still rings artificial. But you also see this at play in works of fantasy that aren’t part of a shared game world. I’m not going to single any one book out, since I don’t want to start any flame wars with anyone, but the “implausibly skilled and socially accepted female fighter in a preindustrial society” trope turns up quite a bit, especially with no explanation for why the female fighter has implausible skills and equally implausible social acceptance.

Anyway, this is all what I had in mind when I wrote Caina for the “Sword & Sorceress” series. Here’s how it played out.

Caina is a spy and an occasional assassin, not a soldier. This means she will frequently disguise herself, whether as a commoner or a highborn noblewoman, and often disguises herself as a man for greater freedom of movement – a woman, whether rich or poor, would stand out in a dockside tavern, but not a  grubby mercenary in ill-kept armor. She is in very good physical condition, and skilled at unarmed combat and with knives, but she’s aware of her limitations as a fighter. She avoids straight fights whenever possible – she regards “fighting fairly” as suicidal folly. When she does fight, she prefers to take her opponents unaware, and win the fight as quickly as possible. I’m not an expert on martial arts by any means, but I based Caina’s fighting style around Krav Maga, the Israeli system that emphasizes disabling or killing one’s opponent as quickly as possible.

She also has one dark advantage – her inhibitions against violence are long gone. Most people have to work themselves up to violence, and most people, even most trained soldiers, would have a hard time simply walking up to someone and stabbing them without any warning. Not Caina. This troubles her a great deal – but that doesn’t stop her very often, though.

So I’ve given this topic a great deal of thought (as you’ve seen if you’ve read this far!), and I’m pleased the reviewer picked up on that.

-JM

PS – As an aside, I don’t think this is a problem in science fiction. A female protagonist like Ripley in the “Alien” movies is plausible because the alien xenomorphs have vastly more physical strength than any human, male or female, and the only way humans can fight them is through technology. And cunning, in Ripley’s case.

Granted, “plausible” is not a word often applied to James Cameron’s movies, but still.

Thursday of Sword & Sorceress XXV – the Steve Chapman interview

Today’s interview is with Steve Chapman, who wrote “Proving Grounds” for Sword & Sorceress XXV.

1.)Tell us about yourself.

I’m an engineer by training, a musician by habit, and a publisher and editor of technical nonfiction by profession. My wife, daughter, and I recently decamped from Manhattan to the relative wilds of the New Jersey shore, which has coincided with a sharp upswing in my fiction writing, an on-and-off thing for much of the past decade.

2.) How did you get started writing?

Writing followed directly from obsessive reading. I started with golden age SF and British mysteries, but eventually got around to at least trying to read most everything. Most of my writing has been fantasy, or at least fantastical, for the reasons in 3) below.

3.) Is writing fantasy fiction easier or harder than writing other genres?

I find fantasy easier, or maybe just more exciting, because you can craft the rules of the environment to suit the story you want to tell. (Though on the other hand, you then have the obligation to be absolutely rigorous about the rules you’ve created.) Creating a rich environment evocative of the protagonist’s struggles can be a lot of work, particularly in a short story, but I seem to prefer this to having to rigorously adhere to the rules of reality.

I find SF more difficult, because I’m a stickler for technical detail, to the point that it can get in the way of the story.

4.) Tell us about your S&S 25 story?

Suffering minor trauma from my three year-old daughter’s growing fascination with Disney princesses, I wanted to write a counterbalance. Proving Grounds was designed as a fun, pulpy story about a princess I could relate to, in an adventure context where you’d usually find a boy doing the heavy lifting, and where Prince Charming is just not an issue.

5.) Share a short excerpt from your story.

Shada found herself face to face with Eric Mulravey. A white bandage covered his nose. His blond whiskers and dress uniform were splattered with dried blood. She now found him vaguely attractive.

The two bodyguards behind him reached for their swords. Shada’s blade lay in her faraway rooms. She brought up the staff.

“Princess. I see you are practicing for the morning’s amusement.” Eric ran a finger along her weapon, to its sharp end. “I pray you are skilled with these exotic staves. It is said the sharpness of this steel causes terrible accidents.”

“Do I imagine your grace is planning such an accident for me?”

He smiled beneath the bandage. “I’m going to remove one of your eyes. As I doubt your beauty will prove as robust as my own, your marriage prospects may suffer.” He brought her hand to his lips, planted a kiss upon it, and slipped past, studiously ignoring Sienna.

“I can see why you like him so much,” Shada said eventually.

6.) Recommend one fantasy book (other than your own.)

Iron Council by China Mieville is probably my favorite fantasy book of the last ten years. Outstanding monsters, images, and characters that resonate long after the book is done.

7.) Recommend one non-fantasy book

Red Square by Martin Cruz Smith. This is an absolutely engrossing mix of procedural and historical novel. Set just before the abortive 1991 Soviet coup, in Moscow and Munich, its vibrant characters, vivid world, and twisty plot make for an unforgettable story.

Thursdays of Sword & Sorceress XXV: the Michael H. Payne interview

Today we have an interview with Michael H. Payne, who wrote “Matriculation” for Sword & Sorceress XXV:

1.) Tell us about yourself.

I’m a guy who writes, draws, sings, plays guitars, works in libraries and does a radio program at the local university.  Not all at the same time, usually, though it can sometimes feel like it.  I also tend to be confused much of the time and to have few firmly held opinions.

2.) How did you get started writing?

With an older sister and two younger brothers, I grew up in a house full of stories, many of them told across darkened rooms after mom and dad had put us to bed.  I started writing them down when most everyone else had moved away and there wasn’t anyone left to tell them to.

3.) Is writing fantasy fiction easier or harder than writing other genres?

I’ve never written anything other than SF and fantasy, so I can’t really say.  Most of my stories involve talking animals, however, and I imagine it would be difficult to pull that off in any other genre.

4.) Tell us about your S&S 25 story.

This is the fourth story I’ve written about Cluny the sorceress squirrel and her various cohorts.  I suppose I just oughta bite the bullet and turn ‘em into a novel…

5.) Can you share a short excerpt from your story?

The flutter in Cluny’s chest grew when she saw Master Gollantz, Huxley’s magister magistrorum, among the faculty members seated on one side of the gallery, his big she-wolf familiar Raine curled up beside him.  Master Gollantz had insisted during their twice-weekly meetings this past term that no one must ever learn the unthinkable truth that Cluny was the wizard while Crocker and Shtasith were her familiars, but when she’d asked him how they could pass through the test chamber without alerting everyone, he would only say, ‘That will be your actual test.’

6.) Recommend one fantasy book (other than your own.)

With your indulgence, I’ll cheat and recommend four books that tell one story – the Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham: A Shadow in Summer, A Betrayal in Winter, A Summer War, and The Price of Spring.  The characters, the setting, the story, even the conceptual framework he sets up for magic: I’ve stolen a lotta bits and pieces from these books over the last year or two.

7.) Recommend one non-fantasy book.

I’ve been thinking about this and thinking about it, but most everything I’ve been reading of late has been some sort of fantasy.  So I’ll go way back in time and recommend Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, a thought-provoking exploration by a veteran comic book writer and artist of what comics is all about.

Thursdays of Sword & Sorceress XXV: the Jonathan Shipley interview

Today we have an interview with Jonathan Shipley, who wrote “Homecoming” for Sword & Sorceress XXV.

1.) Tell us about yourself.

I’m a speculative fiction writer in Fort Worth, Texas, who writes novels set in a vast story arc that includes fantasy, horror, and space opera. The same story arc is the setting for most of my short stories, which I’ve been writing and selling while waiting to that first novel to sell. I also teach creative writing, which eventually brought me face to face with the question that plagues all writers: How do I end my story?  I ended up inventing a formula for class to help my students convincingly land their stories.  I also play professionally as an orchestral musician, and music is thematic in many of my stories.

2.) How did you get started writing?

I’ve been a Darkover reader forever.  I was in college when Marion Zimmer Bradley began running the short story contests that later turned into the Friends of Darkover and Sword and Sorceress anthologies.  I failed miserably at the contests because back then I didn’t know how to write a short story (and got notes from MZB telling me so), but a few years later, she accepted one of my submissions for MARION ZIMMER BRADLEY’S FANTASY MAGAZINE and gave me my first short story sale.  I’ve been writing and selling ever since.  This appearance in Sword and Sorceress #25 brings me full circle.

3.) Is writing fantasy fiction easier or harder than writing other genres?

The list of things to avoid is extensive in fantasy, especially in High Fantasy, where bringing new life to the basic quest story can be a challenge.  Fantasy also has the challenge of magical systems, which have to be coherent for the story to work.  Coherent means rules and patterns and lack of contradictions.  The best way to check the validity of a created magical system would be to actually try out the magic, but for some reason, that’s never actually worked for me.  Overcoming the obstacles built into the genre is rewarding in its own right, so fantasy is both harder to write than other genres and more fulfilling.

4.) Tell us about your S&S 25 story.

One summer in Germany, I visited the Externsteine, the German Stonehenge, during the solstice and was amazed at the disconnect in reality between the night of the solstice with its bonfires and rituals and the next morning with its mundane tourist tours.  My story “Homecoming” is a tale of that sort of disconnect on the night of the Winter Solstice when time stands still.   The protagonist Kathryn finds herself drawn back to her ancestral home after centuries of being dead and doesn’t know why.  But she has one night to walk among her descendants in order to find the problem and fix it, just as she used to do when she was the ruling Mistress of the Hall.  I call this my “dance story” because the central scene is derived from my own experiences with Scottish Country Dancing.

5.) Can you share a short excerpt from your story?

A fanfare from the instruments interrupted her musings.  The Great Hall took on a different character as people cleared the center of the room to provide dancing space.  Two lines, male and female were already forming there.  By default, she and Bren were joining the dancers without moving a step.

‘It appears we’ve been coupled,’ he said with a lift of one eyebrow.  ‘I hope you can dance, Cousin.’  He made it into a challenge.

Kathryn replied with an ironic curtsy.  If he wanted to shift the challenge to the dance floor, she would follow that lead and dance him under the table.  ‘The Captain’s Reel,’ she said, recognizing the pattern.

The music picked up tempo as the fiddles and flutes joined in.  The lines of dancers whirled, crossed, and formed a corridor for the first couple to pass between.  Bren had been right, she noted.  The steps of the solo couple were much simplified from what she remembered.  The object in her day grace and complexity of movement.

The first pair reached the end of their solo and faded back into their respective rows.  The lines took up the beat, swaying and whirling in unison before settling to frame the progress of the second couple. Again Kathryn was disappointed.  She caught Bren’s eye across the corridor and wordlessly offered a temporary truce.  He took it.  They’d be at each other throats again later, but for now they would show the clan a true Captain’s Reel.

6.) Recommend one fantasy book (other than your own.)

I am a fan of the wonderful world-building that Robin Hobb brings to her novels, in particular ASSASSIN’S QUEST, the third book in the Farseer Trilogy.  In this book, she re-creates dragons, which are such a stock element of the fantasy genre that they tend to be clichés.  Hobb, however, sidesteps the reader’s expectations and presents an alternative rationale for the existence of dragons within the culture she has created.  I enjoyed being surprised.  Fantasy done well is rewarding for both the reader and the writer, and ASSASSIN’s QUEST is a great example of the craft.

7.) Recommend one non-fantasy book.

This had me completely stumped for a while, since I seldom read outside the genre, so I am going to the opposite extreme and citing John Obbard’s EARLY AMERICAN FURNITURE: A GUIDE TO WHO, WHEN, AND WHERE, a reference for deciphering antiques.  I am restoring a historic home and filling it with a collection of antiques assembled from serendipitous sources.  Last weekend, for example, I went to an estate sale and bought a very old wing chair.  By hitting the reference book, I found that the chair is not English as I’d assumed, but actually an 18th century Boston piece and therefore a very nice find.  The house restoration and collecting sometimes intersects my writing in unexpected ways, as in a recent humorous story about cursed antiques, entitled “Something Wicker This Way Comes.”

Thursdays of Sword & Sorceress XXV – the Lauren Moody interview

Today we have an interview with Lauren Moody, whose story “Well Enough” appears in Sword & Sorceress XXV.

1.) Tell us about yourself.

I’m a speculative fiction writer who reads and watches as much spec-fic, in as many media, as I can.  I graduated from Knox College not too long ago and have just started my first job.

Requisite plug: I can be found online at http://anthimeria.dreamwidth.org.

2.) How did you get started writing?

My family got a computer when I was twelve, and suddenly my hands could keep up with the stories in my brain!  I’ve been writing ever since.

3.) Is writing fantasy fiction easier or harder than writing other genres?

Fantasy fiction is definitely harder to write than mainstream/realistic fiction, since there’s so much more to do! However, I find writing mystery fiction much more difficult than any kind of spec-fic.  Mystery writers have to think in very twisty ways, and my brain does not work like that.

4.) Tell us about your S&S 25 story?

It’s my first sale!  I’m really excited.

As for “Well Enough” itself, my two main characters are fairly antagonistic toward each other until they find themselves in a situation where they have to work together to survive.

The story is set in a place called Jhasa, which I based on the ancient Mali Empire–I’ve wanted to set a story in one of the West African civilizations for years, and these characters fit the place entirely.  I’m always interested in fantasy set in non-Western worlds.

5.) Can you share a short excerpt from your story?

Sure!

Two loud thumps made me open my eyes.  Niani stood in front of me, leaning on her walking stick and, surprise!  Glaring.

“Ready to go?” I asked, smiling.  I’d never been able to adopt the blank-faced stoicism of most bodyguards.  Besides, my consistently polite manner confused and annoyed Niani, a worthy accomplishment as far as I was concerned.  Guardmaster Suliam assigned me to her; it’s not as though I chose to follow her around.  I would protect her whether she liked me or not.

6.) Recommend one fantasy book.

One is such a small number!  Well, then I have to recommend Rosemary Clement-Moore’s Highway to Hell.  It’s the third and latest in her YA urban fantasy series Maggie Quinn: Girl vs Evil, which I love.  The books make me laugh and keep me on the edge of my seat, and Highway to Hell is the best yet.  I can’t wait for the next one!

7.) Recommend one non-fantasy book.

If we can count non-fantasy speculative fiction, I have to rec Mira Grant’s brand new book Feed–zombies, blogging, conspiracies and snark, wrapped in a fantastically written story.

If we’re sticking with purely non-speculative fiction, I must go with Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.  It’s a hard story but a triumphant one.

Thursdays of Sword & Sorceress XXV – the Amy Griswold interview

Today we have an interview with Amy Griswold, who wrote “Caden’s Death” for Sword & Sorceress XXV.

1.) Tell us about yourself.

I’m a writer and editor living in North Carolina, where I share a house with my partner, our daughter, and a demanding Siamese cat.  I garden, which largely entails planting things so that they can be eaten by deer, and read omnivorously.

2.) How did you get started writing?

I’ve always written, although I’m grateful now that my teenage efforts aren’t preserved for all time on the Internet.  The first novel I ever wrote involved a dragon-slaying magician and her swordsman companion, who kept producing an unbelievable number of fabulous outfits from his saddlebags.  I’d like to think that I intended the saddlebags to be magical, but I think in retrospect I just got a bit carried away in the costume department.

My first professional sale was a Stargate Atlantis tie-in novel, Stargate Atlantis: The Lost, which is scheduled for release in February 2011.

3.) Is writing fantasy fiction easier or harder than writing other genres?

I think it has different challenges.  Magic and the supernatural can work however you’d like them to, but you’d better know how you think they work, or magic becomes deus ex machina.  Anything you make up had better make sense.

4.) Tell us about your S&S 25 story?

“Caden’s Death” is the story of a retired mercenary turned blacksmith who’s waiting for the return of a deadly enemy she made in her soldiering days.  Caden doesn’t expect she’ll survive the reunion, but a runaway girl who’s determined to be her next apprentice has other ideas.

5.) Can you share a short excerpt from your story?

“Sold your shoes, did you?” Caden said.  “You’d better go on home.  You’ll get the beating you probably deserve, but you won’t starve.”

“Can’t,” the girl said.  “My Ma’s new man turned me out.  He said I’d best find work at the hiring fair, but by the time I got there, it was over.”

“They’ll be another in a month’s time,” Caden said.  She reached for the bellows, hooking the left handle as easily by now as she gripped the right.

“I’m hungry,” the girl said.

Caden shook her head.  “There’s cold porridge,” she said.

She sliced it and laid a tin plate in front of the girl against her better judgment.  There wasn’t time now to be bothered with this sort of thing.  She ate standing up herself, quickly and efficiently, old soldier’s habits she’d never bothered to break.

“I can’t keep you,” she said.

“They say you haven’t got a prentice,” the girl said.

Caden shook her head.  “As little a thing as you are?  This isn’t carding wool I do here.”

“I can chop and carry wood,” the girl said.  “And I’ve seen the smith in our village work the bellows.”

“I’ve seen the king on his fine horse, but that doesn’t make me king,” Caden said.

“They say you had a prentice boy who ran off.”

“I turned him off,” Caden said.  “And I can’t take you on.  My death is coming back for me.”

“You don’t look sick,” the girl said.

“I’m not,” Caden said.  She wiped her plate and stacked it neatly back on the shelf, old habit still.  “There was a dragon.”

6.) Recommend one fantasy book (other than your own.)

Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.  Probably the best comedy about the Apocalypse ever written.  I envy the way this book manages to be hilariously funny while maintaining a genuine sense of affection for its characters, whether angels, demons, or (generally misguided) humans.

7.) Recommend one non-fantasy book.

Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer.  The story of a disastrous 1996 expedition to climb Mount Everest, I found the explanation of the complex logistics required to climb in such harsh conditions fascinating.  The real meat of the book, though, is in its exploration of why people make the decisions they make under pressure, and how those choices played out in a life-or-death situation.

Thursdays of Sword & Sorceress XXV – the Helen E. Davis interview

This week’s interview is with Helen E. Davis, who wrote “A Wall To Keep The World Out”.

1.) Tell us about yourself.

That’s a hard one.  It’s the one question I dread most in ice breaker activities.  There is so much I can say about myself — but how much of it is interesting? I was born in a small city in Louisiana in the year 1962.  Spent some years in the Panama Canal Zone.  I went to Oberlin college. I got married, and had twins.  They are now at college.  Pretty normal stuff.  And all the abnormal stuff is personal.

2.) How did you get started writing?

I started writing down the stories that were playing in my head.   The real challenge, however, was learning how to tell them as effective stories, and not as episodes of bad TV shows.

3.) Is writing fantasy fiction easier or harder than writing other genres?

The same.  Fantasy has more exotic settings, and magic allows me to do things that our world’s physical laws do not allow, but I still have to build and maintain an inner consistency.  No matter what I write, however, the Characters are people — people who love, hate, want, and deny themselves.  People with issues.

4.) Tell us about your S&S 25 story.

Danger.  Romance.  Wizards.  Autism.  And breaking through those walls that we surround ourselves with.

5.) Can you share a short excerpt from your story?

His eyes were blue, the deep, clear blue of a cool pond on a hot day, Kyrlia noted above their crossed weapons.  Raccan’s long face was smooth, not wrinkled with age, and the hands that wielded the staff were strong.  His hair, pulled back into a long, white ponytail, had fooled her – but now she saw that it was not the brittle white hair of old age, but that rare fine hair of blonde beyond blonde.

“What do you want?” he asked as he thrust her back several steps.

Her breath caught – wizards and their damn spells!  “I’m supposed to kill you.”

6.) Recommend one fantasy book (other than your own.)

The Pinhoe Egg, by Diana Wynne Jones

7.) Recommend one non-fantasy book.

The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar For The Innocent, The Eager, and The Doomed.

Thursdays of Sword & Sorceress XXV – the Robin Wayne Bailey interview

Today we have an interview with Robin Wayne Bailey, who wrote “Killing Stars” for Sword & Sorceress XXV, and has written quite a lot of other stuff.

1.) Tell us about yourself.

My name is Robin Wayne Bailey.  I’m the author of numerous fantasy novels, including the FROST series, the DRAGONKIN trilogy, and SHADOWDANCE, among others.  I’ve written over 150 stories now and edited two collections.  My novelette, “The Children’s Crusade,” was a 2008 Nebula nominee.  A collection of my own short science fiction, TURN LEFT TO TOMORROW, was published by Yard Dog Press.  YDP also recently published my poetry collection, ZOMBIES IN OZ AND OTHER UNDEAD MUSINGS.  I’m one of the founders of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, now based in Seattle, and a former president of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.

2.) How did you get started writing?

I’ve been writing since I was a kid.  I sold my first short story, “The Silver Dolphin,” when I was eighteen years old.  Writing was cheap therapy, and in those days I needed lots of therapy.  That probably hasn’t changed.  In 1982, David Hartwell bought my first novel, FROST, and a few days later, Marion Zimmer Bradley bought my first fantasy story, “Child of Orcus,” for the very first volume of SWORD AND SORCERESS.  I’ve always been grateful to both of them.

3.) Is writing fantasy fiction easier or harder than writing other genres.

I primarily write fantasy and science fiction, but I’ve dabbled in other genres, such as mystery, romance, and western fiction.  They have different protocols, but the truth is they’re all hard.  Some writers make it look easy, but if the work is any good at all and the writer is diligent, its never easy.

4.)  Tell us about your S&S story.

“Killing Stars” harkens back to my first three novels, FROST, SKULL GATE and BLOODSONGS.  In those books, I introduced a character called “Frost,” a warrior and a witch with a tragic and violent past.  At the end of the third book, however, thinking that I was done with her story, I allowed her to die.

Jump forward almost fourteen years.  I was battling a grim form of cancer, and my prognosis was not good.  I could not focus at all on novel-writing at the time, but Marty Greenberg, bless his heart, kept me busy with short stories for his anthologies.  I was invited to write a story for an fantasy anthology called SPELL FANTASTIC and, without quite realizing it at first, I began to write a brand new “Frost” story, which became “The Woman Who Loved Death.”  If I was going to die, I suddenly wanted her to live.  Is that too bleak?

The story was a hit with my readers.  Still, I didn’t know if I’d ever write another one.  Now, another ten years have passed since that story.  When someone mentioned that SWORD AND SORCERESS 25 was open for submissions, I decided to take a chance.  I haven’t submitted anything “on spec” in years.  But I had an idea for another “Frost” story, one that would stand completely alone, and SWORD AND SORCERESS nd Marion Zimmer Bradley hold a special places in my heart.  Marion bought early stories from me for that series, and she blurbed some of my earliest novels.

5.) Can you share an excerpt from your story?

Dagoth stepped closer and leaned just into her field of vision. Scernica also stepped forward at Frost’s other side. The copper-haired witch raised her hands, and the immense windows began slowly to swing closed.

The moonlight struck the colored panes with a startling intensity. The scarlet glass caught the rays and filled the room with strange geometries of blood red. The green panes cast a diseased pallor that crawled fungus-like up the walls and across
the floor. As the windows continued to close, the light that fell through the blue and yellow panes lent an arctic rime toeverything it touched.

The great windows settled into place, and the moonlight stabbed through the tinted glass to full effect. The colors mingled and shifted, producing a panoply of fantastic shadows and shapes as the guests moved about. Twisted ghost-figures and demonic silhouettes stretched upon the walls, and as the dancers swayed across the floor, so did the figures on the wall, but with an impossible independence.

Yet the most chilling effect was on the faces of the guests. Under such poisoned moonlight all semblance of humanity melted away, and each stood revealed as some animalistic avatar, a spitting imp, or a growling devil.

Frost put a surreptitious hand to the dagger on her belt, but it neither purred nor jangled. There was no magic here, only some trick of architecture, some sleight-of-hand on a grand scale.

A great bell, the same one she had heard before, struck a single tone.

“Here is the true corruption in my city,” Dagoth whispered in a scornful voice, indicating the crowded room. With a cold eye he observed the laughter, the teasing and gropings as his guests reveled in the effects and discovered obscene ways to manipulate their shadows. “Without qualm or compunction, they eagerly offer their children as sacrifices. This is all great entertainment to them, but if there is no magic in the windows, still the light reveals them for what they are.” He led the way to the side of the hall and to a stone staircase that ascended to another level.

6.) Recommend one fantasy book.

Robert E. Howard’s HOUR OF THE DRAGON.  Say what you will about the Conan stories – and they have many detractors – they have a power and a magic that has endured for decades through reprint after reprint, in paperback and deluxe designer editions.  Howard may not have been a literary stylist, but he was a master story-teller.

7.) Recommend one non-fantasy book.

My single favorite novel is John Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH. It’s a “comfort read” for me, and I dip into pieces of it again and again. The characters are rich, fully realized and moving.  I love Steinbeck’s stark descriptions of depression-era landscapes.  As a reader, I consider it indispensable.  As a writer, it is all by itself a master-class in composing great fiction.

Thursdays of Sword & Sorceress XXV: the Kate Coombs interview

Today we have an interview with Kate Coombs, who wrote “Impossible Quests” for Sword & Sorceress XXV.

1.) Tell us about yourself.

I write for children and teens, mostly fantasy, but also poetry and picture books. The three books I have out so far are a picture book called The Secret-Keeper and two comic fantasies for middle grades on up called The Runaway Princess and The Runaway Dragon. (I have three other books in the pipeline.) My day job is teaching sick kids in their homes for the Los Angeles Unified School District. Besides reading and writing a lot, I like to garden. I’m fluent in Spanish, though I don’t look like I would be, and I’m one of seven adopted children.

2.) How did you get started writing?

I was a classic bookworm as a child, reading every second I possibly could. I started retelling the fairy tales I was reading to my younger sister in our bunkbeds at night when we were supposed to be asleep. I remember writing little plays, too–naturally, I would cast myself as the Beautiful Queen and my sister as the Helpful Servant Girl. I went through a poetry phase in my teens and early twenties, then started writing short stories and novels. So for most of my life, I’ve been tinkering around writing something-or-other. Since I fell madly in love with books as a child, being a writer was the best thing I could possibly imagine!

3.) Is writing fantasy fiction easier or harder than writing other genres?

When I try to write in other genres, the magic creeps back in. For me, writing contemporary realism without a shred of fantasy is hard! Fairy tales, with their strength of symbolism, speak to the hidden meanings in everyday life in a way I find endlessly appealing.

4.) Tell us about your S&S 25 story.

My story, “Impossible Quests,” is about a princess sent on a quest by her evil regent aunt and a prince sent on a quest by his father, a king jealous of his son’s popularity. We’re talking attempted murder by quest! But the two quests bump up against each other, and the prince and the princess pool their cynicism, coming up with a nice new plan.

5.) Can you share a short excerpt from your story?

Lady Frances lifted her rose-patterned teacup to her lips and took a sip before she said, “I have postponed this day for as long as I could, but I see I can put it off no more.”

Gilly waited.

The regent sighed beautifully. “Every true ruler of the Kingdom of Minark has begun his reign by secretly going in search of a great talisman.”

“What kind of talisman?”

“Why, the tongue of a dragon.”

“Fresh?” asked the princess.

“Fresh,” her aunt confirmed. “And it is a quest of such import that it must be undertaken without any artificial aid.”

“Like a troop of seasoned soldiers?” Gilly asked, catching on fast.

6.) Recommend one fantasy book (other than your own.)

My current favorites are Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief books, but almost anything by Diana Wynne Jones or Terry Pratchett would run a close second. (Just ONE book? Surely you jest!)

7.) Recommend one non-fantasy book.

The funniest thing I’ve read in recent years is Lisa Lutz’s The Spellman Files (plus sequels). And I finally discovered Dorothy L. Sayers.

Thursdays of Sword & Sorceress XXV

So I’ve got this story “Ghost Puppet”, which will be in the Sword & Sorceress XXV anthology next month, and I thought to myself: “Self, you know what I should do?”

“Have a roast beef sub with extra onions for lunch”, my self answered.

So I did.

After eating the roast beef sub with extra onions (it was delicious), I thought to myself : “Self, perhaps I should interview the other contributors to Sword & Sorceress XXV, as I have done in years past.”

So I did. And I’ll be posting the interviews, one a week, on Thursdays, until I run out of interviews. Tune in on Thursday for the first one.

-JM