The Mermaid, The Witch, and The Sea

An Interview with Maggie Tokuda-Hall

Dani Hedlund: What inspired The Mermaid, The Witch, and The Sea?

Maggie Tokuda-Hall: I was a children’s bookseller for a really long time and during that time, I met a nine year old named Clare. When she was eleven, her parents hired me to be her creative writing tutor and by the time she was twelve or thirteen, it was pretty clear that she was queer. She loved fantasy books with rules, magic, murder, and high stakes. All the good stuff.  But she couldn’t really find many that had that and also had queer romance. I wrote this book for her.

What I really love about this book is your unique way of world building with very defined magic and backgrounds in relation to recognizable genre tropes, all the while making those tropes your own. How did you go about developing so many elaborate backstories?

I wanted each of the nations that are in this world to be a blend of two to three countries and their histories as we know them. I’m mixed-race myself so it was fun for me to think of every single nation in this world as mixed. But that’s incredibly difficult to code when those nationalities don’t exist in the world that you’re creating. The imperial class is not just Japanese. I really intended for them to be a hybrid of British, American, and Japanese.

The other countries are based on hybrids of places I’ve traveled in and some histories I have some familiarity with. That was difficult because I wrote this for over eight years. I would leave and come back and leave and come back, and it would change so much between drafts, so keeping things straight was really difficult. Now I’ve learned, if you ever write a second world fantasy, keeping a style guide is a must. Just a second document where you’re like, here’s this rule. That rule may never actually make it into the story, but you need to know what all of the rules are for your magic, for your world, how a pecking order is established, and what country has a patriarchy or an anarchist quasi matriarchy. Ironically, I started it as historical fiction a very long time ago. I didn’t know if I could write a second world fantasy, so I started writing it as a historical story with magic in it.

Your story has this entire mythology built around how the sea interacts with everything else and the idea that the sea has memory stored in mermaids. Where did those ideas flow from?

My mom’s hobby is pulling non-native and invasive plants from California state parks because California has a climate that is really conducive to a lot of flora. It’s also a fire climate, so plants that are native to California have almost a proprietary memory of how to burn correctly. Because of human intervention, there are many non-native and invasive plants that were brought here, eucalyptus trees for example, that when lit on fire, they literally explode. They make the degree of violence that happens because of this completely natural phenomenon exponentially worse.

The idea of nature having a memory was so interesting to me. That’s the sea to me and what the sea represents. Nature as a sentient thing with a memory, but stored in the external hard drives that are these mermaids. That’s why, when they steal mermaids from the ocean, she becomes more violent. It’s a fair way to react if you think of it as an exercise in empathy. If someone keeps stealing your proprietary memory and the things that allow you to understand the world, you would probably get more volatile too.

The lore in your novel is woven in this way that no magic comes without a cost, while also maintaining the power of stories. Where did those themes originate?

It came from a couple of different places. I genuinely believe in narrative magic. I think that telling stories changes our reality in a way that isn’t quantifiable. Shortly after the 2016 election, I found the difference between the mythology of a person, a nation, and the reality of it in the places where they do and do not cross very interesting and of much consequence to me.

The idea of it all having a cost came from a lot of discussions with my husband. He was with me every day while I was drafting this, and we would talk about the magic we liked best in books. Something he came back to was the idea that magic always has a cost. That was just a cool idea because so much of this story is about power and how it’s stolen, and I thought that it never comes without a cost fit thematically. Especially since there’s so much meditation on violence, and violence is one of the other ways people assert power in this story.

You explore the fluidity of gender, identity, and how important it is to figure out who you are without those constrictions. How did you develop that line of thinking?

I always knew that Pirate Supreme was nonbinary. I felt foolish having somebody who represents the freedom and potential of the sea, that kind of adventure and that kind of power, exist in the gender binary as we know it. For Flora/Florian, who’s actually bi-gender, the question of their gender to me was a question I didn’t know the answer to. As I wrote it, I realized it didn’t require an answer, and allowing Flora/Florian to be fluid and not forced to choose was a possibility that I didn’t even consider when I first wrote this story. As I was writing it, I realized I was pushing them one way or the other in many drafts and it never felt right.

There are so many nonbinary authors who are writing amazing fantasy right now, like Annalee Newitz, Sarah Gailey, and JY Neon Yang. I would just be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are nonbinary voices and stories that are incredibly powerful and fun in second worlds as well.

What were you reading while writing The Mermaid, The Witch, and The Sea? Were their books that influenced how you brought this story to life?

I think the books that had the most effect were The Astonishing Life of Octavia Nothing by M.T. Anderson, which made me want to write young adult books; The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, which meditated on the long tale of violence in a way that I really appreciated. I promised myself if I ever wrote an adventure story, it would never forget the cost of violence the way that his characters never do. Graceling by Kristen Cashore was another important one because it had all the good stuff: magic, murder, rules, kissing. But in a world that was so particularly catered to the female gaze. It just was such a fresh breath of air after reading a million Tolkien-esque things that all kind of felt the same to me. Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer is a story about a girl stowing away as a pirate and pretending to be a boy on a pirate ship. Obviously, you can see why that might have had some influence. I also wanted to make that more complicated because I thought girls surviving in a violent male environment is something we have plenty of examples of.

Gun, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond helped the most for world building. So did 1491 by Charles C. Mann. While I was writing this, I was traveling through South America with my husband and we drove through Colombia, just down the west coast for basically the whole continent. I was seeing the long aftereffects of colonialism the entire time. I was also reading A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab and thought that was a really good magic system. I think she’s brilliant and did an amazing job making magic believable. Oh, and N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. Those were brilliant and gave me a real hankering for twists.

When looking at how your character construction is, most everybody—including the main characters—have flaws and prejudices that they’re overcoming. How did you balance characters having flaws with the reader still really liking them?

I think it would be really fair if someone read my book and was like, I don’t like these people. I think they all do bad things that are hard to forgive and have blind spots that are completely fair to be very angry about. Evelyn is so privileged, and her previous romantic entanglement comes from someone working with her family, which means that there was a very unhealthy power dynamic in play, which is not great. My only hope is for every person that hates every character, there’s also somebody who sees themselves in some part of the messiness that makes the humanity of these people. They feel seen in some way and are not necessarily chastised, but allow themselves to see that this kind of messier part of themselves can help them question the way it works in their own life.

Is there a character that you found most relatable and easiest to write?

Evelyn has my background in a lot of ways. I grew up rich, I grew up in a predominately white environment, and so even if I felt like an outsider for whatever reason, I had so much privilege. Although even Flora/Florian and the way that they can be very harsh is something I relate to.I relate to the way that they feel gender being contextual was present especially in my late teens and early twenties as I was trying to find myself. They’re definitely the two who have the most of my own imprint on them. I had a really hard time writing Rake until I started giving him ticks that I stole from my husband. He used to be so much meaner. I like to say now that Rake is like my husband if my husband couldn’t talk about feelings and murdered people. That allowed me to see him as a person worth loving as opposed to a bad guy who does a nice thing.

Talk to me about your aspirations as a writer. Did you always think you would end up being a novelist?

As a teenager and even into college, I thought I was going to be either a visual artist or somebody who worked in galleries. I liked writing and considered it a thing that I do. Some people knit and I write sometimes. When I was in college, I took a creative writing class and I had a great professor and she was really encouraging. She pushed me really hard to be a better writer. She would give me shit about being a lazy writer in class and I still hear it in my mind when I’m writing. The greatest burn that she gave me, that I’m always thinking about, was “You write great dialogue, but it happens in outer space. It could literally be anywhere.” It was such a succinct, great way to put it and it’s something that I think about even now when I write dialogue.

It’s important because it doesn’t matter if you have good dialogue if your characters are just floating through the ether. She wanted me to apply to this creative writing program in upstate New York. She printed out the application and wrote my name on it and handed it to me after class like, “You should fill this out.” I don’t know why, but her writing my name on it was very meaningful to me and incredibly effective. I applied, I got in, and that’s when I realized, I liked writing a lot better than I like painting and seemed to be better at it too. That was when I came to a screeching halt and the visual arts stopped and I realized writing is what I’m most passionate about. My dearest and most goofy ambition is to write books across all genres, to never have a specific lane.

Did you follow the normal path everyone in publishing tells us to do, which is to publish a few short stories, leverage them to an agent, and then sell a book? Or did you just write this book and send it off?

I have a picture book that came out in 2016 called Also an Octopus. I had not published any short stories when I sold Also an Octopus to Candlewick. I got an agent, and in that week, she sold the book. Then I didn’t write for five years. I started writing some short stories now and again. I got like a couple of short stories published on small sites here and there. I feel like people give you the sequence of events that your writing career is supposed to take and the only one that I actually believe in is just get an agent. That’s the only sequence that I think is really important. Their job is to protect your career, to help you move forward effectively, and to help you direct your energies. So, write a book and get an agent. That’s a huge, long process in and of itself, and then after that, everyone’s career is totally different and takes completely different shapes. If anyone tries to tell people with a lot of earnestness that there’s a way to do it, they’re a huckster and they’re lying.

Did you query for your agent with Also an Octopus and then move this book through it or the other way around?

I queried with Also an Octopus. We knew each other because she had been a bookseller at the same company as me and told me, “When you’re ready to query for agents, if you don’t query me first, death will come for you.” I also love her and respect her and she’s one of my very good friends now. I queried her with Also an Octopus and she was like, “Great, do you have any more books?” She was not so hot on taking me necessarily with just that one, so I lied, and was like, “Totally!” She said, “Okay, send them to me.” I called out sick, went home, and jammed out two really shitty picture book scripts. She was like, “Well I’m not going to query with those. I do like the one well enough, I think it could sell.” Then she spent the next five years nagging me to write my young adult novel and six years later, I delivered.

If you were only going to say one thing with this book, what do you think it is?

It’s that only you can know your own truth. Every character in this story has had a story assigned to them and almost every single one of them has pushed it aside in one way or another. I hope that with that many different people, even the bad guys pushing away the story that they’re given and living their own truth, it is helpful to somebody who feels pigeonholed.

Magical Realism, Creatures, and Escapism: A Review of Animal Wife by Lara Ehrlich

The stories of Animal Wife all begin with a solid image or emotion.  “She will not be constrained by the word ‘Mom’…” or “Foresight arrives in an Amazon box.” All the stories in this collection feature women as the main character, and while reading each story, I found myself connecting with these women, even if their lives or the choices they made were drastically different from my own. Each story has a magical feel—most are steeped in magical realism. A woman might lose her feathers or choose to live in the forest as a deer. Each story flows from one to the next, connected by the unique lives of each protagonist, yet they each stand on their own.

What captivated me most of all was how Lara Ehrlich writes her characters. The stories feature women at different stages of life or different situations, and yet they feel familiar. This may be due to these women always being connected by their relationships with other characters. They are friends, mothers, daughters—sometimes all three at once—yet they remain their own person, first and foremost. These characters are women we know or women that we, ourselves, were at one point or another. One is a girl growing up and dealing with adolescent changes, while another is a woman wanting to escape from the pain of reality after losing her husband. One woman chooses to leave her family behind and ends up living in her car, becoming an outside observer of her daughter’s life. In another, a young girl grapples with the changes that come from growing up, begrudgingly sticking to a fairytale ideal of boys while trying to act the same way as other girls around her. Ehrlich gives us a cursory glance at these women’s lives, then dives deep into their inner selves, showing us the good and the bad.  By doing this, we get to see these women not just as characters, but as human beings, people we can relate to.

Beyond the relatability of these women, you’ll notice that animals appear in almost every story. The use of animals in Ehrlich’s stories help make her characters more fully rounded, rather than being a distraction or gimmick. Her characters deal with grief, trauma, and anxieties, some more intense than others, yet what exactly those same characters are dealing with isn’t immediately evident. In one story, a woman nervous about going to a writer’s retreat—after years of only taking care of her family—is frightened by the visage of a man with horns and fangs. Her fear is palpable because this creature gives her a way to reveal said fear. Ehrlich uses animals, mythical or real, to show their emotions at a much deeper level than if we were to have story after story of women living their lives with no magical realism involved.

Allowing animals to show what in a character’s life has gone wrong or gone right is the overarching thematic tool that ties the writing and the characters in this collection together. It’s not always a literal animal—sometimes it may just be a more animalistic side of a protagonist’s personality. For example, in one story, we meet a cage fighter who revels in the pain she inflicts on her opponents, fully embracing her role, even beyond the cage and in her own neighborhood. However, there is an amazing magical element that pervades the characters and their situations. A bear will be a stand-in for a husband or lover. A creature of legend becomes a threat or fear of the unknown. What would seem odd in our world today feels normal in each story. Of course you would be happy to give a reference for that bear so they could get their own apartment. Why not? They happen to be a very good bear.

It is the narrative itself that helps bring the characters to life. Moments of grief or confusion are heightened not just by what the protagonist is going through, but also by Ehrlich’s pointed descriptions and dialogue. The shortest stories hold my favorite lines, such as, “When my father called her Mama, I wished she’d say, ‘I have a name.’” These are scenes that cut to your core and made me think, This isn’t a happy ending, but I love it anyway. The writing shows not only the choices the women make but also the result of those choices. The cause and effect of these choices lend the pieces a semblance of reality, all while using animals or creatures to expand the story.

Lara Ehrlich has written a collection of stories that allow for escapism. None of the stories may have a perfectly happy ending—and a couple are quite bittersweet—but they take us to worlds where women make their own choices without caring or worrying about how society and others might judge them for it. They have to live with the result of these choices, good or bad, and the realizations about themselves that come with them. But their lives are their own and they will do as they please. They will live in a car and leave their responsibilities behind, or they will choose to wait for a fairytale love and not settle for the boys they grew up with. It’s emotional and honest, which is this collection’s greatest strength.

An Interview With John Scalzi

What was the inspiration for this trilogy?

One of the things that I promised my publisher was a new space opera series, which is what The Interdependency eventually became. In a larger sense, I was thinking about ocean currents in the European Age of Exploration. Because of trade winds and currents, they were able to cross the Atlantic and then come back and I wondered, what would have happened if they disappeared? I was imagining that in a casual sense and then I extended it forward and was thinking about it in terms of how something like that would function in a space opera context. From there I thought about the flow, which is the way that starships get from one system to another in a faster-than-light sort of way. Like the ocean currents, it’s something that the people who are using them don’t necessarily understand all that well. What if this natural resource that we didn’t particularly understand all that well, just happened to go away? How would it affect the empire, economy, and the people that had come to rely on it and assumed it would always be a static resource instead of something that ended up being, in fact, fluid and contingent on forces they didn’t understand?

How much world building and plot did you have worked out before you put pen to the page for the very first book?

I knew that I actually had to follow through on the premise of the series. You can’t call the first book The Collapsing Empire and not actually have the empire collapse. So, I knew that the empire would collapse, and I knew that certain things would and would not happen. With the trilogy, I loaded up the first book with a whole bunch of stuff, without necessarily knowing how I was going to pay it off in book two and three. But having those resources there, I could then go back and be like, “Ah, this is a tool I can use to do this.” I throw a whole bunch of stuff in the beginning and in the end, if it’s useful, that’s great, and if it turns out that it’s not useful, I will edit it out before anyone even sees it. The final book is something that has been edited and processed as opposed to coming directly out of one’s brain at one time. The secret is to make it look like it was cleverly planned for all along, when in fact that’s not the way I work.

What is it like to trust yourself that much? You’re simultaneously the writer and the reader. Do you feel you have written and read enough to know when to lay down the right breadcrumbs?

I don’t really think about it in terms of trusting. There have been times where I’ve been writing and I’ll get to about twenty thousand words and think, “Well, that’s twenty thousand words that I’m absolutely not going to use.” It’s not that the writing has been a waste, because it’s the world building and everything else I needed to do so I could move forward. I don’t really think about it as having faith. The only thing I basically do have faith in is that I’m going to hit my deadline. Sometimes I will hit my deadline at 7 a.m. on the morning that book absolutely positively has to been in. It’s not a question of faith, it’s just a question of sitting down and doing it.

You have an incredible ability to build entirely different worlds, introduce unique, beautiful characters I care about, and very rarely manage to put out a book that’s over four hundred pages. How in the world do you do that?

All my books are contractually obliged to be about one hundred thousand words, give or take. Knowing that I’m going to have to come in somewhere between ninety and one hundred andten thousand words means that I’m already thinking about delivering to that particular length. As a practical matter, I think some of the reason I can accomplish what I can do, in the length that I do it, comes down to my particular style of writing. For example, I don’t write a whole lot of description in my books. Description-wise, I usually write only what is absolutely needed for the story and nothing more. If you’re not writing a lot of description, you’re not writing a lot of particular words and all of a sudden, the amount of verbiage you need to get to your story is a lot less. Another thing that I do is I write a lot of dialogue and I have a lot of the story carried in dialogue, which is a very compact way of storytelling. That sort of lends itself to a shorter length rather than a longer one.

Have you always had an instinctual ability to use dialogue to explain complicated concepts or is it something you learned over the course of fifteen books?

The answer to that is, one, I am in fact really good at dialogue. But the second thing is that my first professional job out of college was as a film critic. Which meant that I watched six or seven movies a week for five and a half years. A lot of my story schooling came through film dialogue where so much gets explained. Before I wrote novels, I wrote a lot of nonfiction relating to science, so I have always been someone whose job has been to explain obtuse concepts in as few sentences as possible. I explain just enough that the story can move forward and then after that, have characters say, “I could explain it further, but you don’t have the math for it.” Which is my way of saying I don’t have the math for it, but I’m going to have this character say it instead. The secret is to explain just enough that 80 percent of the people go, “Okay fine, let’s go on to the story,” and 20 percent will fill in the blanks for themselves to make it work in their own heads.

What is it like to create characters that are three-dimensional, where there’s always a bit of good and a bit of bad working against each other?

I don’t believe in the theory that everyone is the hero of their own story. I think some people are really happy being the bad person. I do believe that everybody has a construct that allows them to get through their day. In my books, most people have a rational basis for what they’re doing, and you can like them or not, or understand them or not. But I think that is the secret. Nobody does things that are good or bad without reason. There is a reason they got up that morning to be a hero, there is a reason they got up that morning to do crimes, and my job is to make sure that I understand the reason they get up in the morning to do crimes. If you can make motivations understandable—even though those motivations are not your motivations—then that goes a long way towards making characters interesting and quote, unquote, “three-dimensional.” For me, it would feel inauthentic to not do that.

Some of your books have a consistent narrative throughout the entire story while others, like this trilogy, jump between different characters and perspectives. Do you have a preference, or does it depend on what the book needs?

I think it really does depend on the book. Old Man’s War is a first-person story, so it does need to stick with that. I’ve written first person numerous times, most recently with the Lock In series. Then there are other times where I’m writing in close third which follows the same character all the way through. My first two books were first person simply because that’s how I started writing. It was easier to do first person for me than it was third person. When I got to The Ghost Brigades, I intentionally wrote it from a third-person point of view because I wanted to learn how to write third person. By the time that I got to The Interdependency, I’d become proficient enough that switching point of view was not difficult for me. It really does depend on the book. The next book I’m writing I think is going to be one where the narrative tone is going to be less flamboyant because it’s going to be a somewhat more serious story than The Interdependency. In terms of the tone I’m going for, it’s going to be a little more tense and unhappy.

Was there a voice in The Interdependency series that was easiest for you to write?

When I started writing The Interdependency–which has Dune as one of my narrative influences for it—I was trying to write something that had some of the grandeur of the original book in that series. People walking around Castle Caladan, the walls are sweating, all that sort of stuff. There’s a sort of stately-ness to the narrative and I wanted to try it. Then I wrote it and thought, “I have tried that, and it is horrible.” It was not the correct narrative tone. For me, part of the writing is to understand what tone the particular book needs and how to dress it. I find that the tone of the story and a lot of the components of the characters and stuff will reveal themselves in the process of writing itself. While I will start off with a particular tone that I’m trying for, a particular feel that I’m trying to have, it’s not necessarily the tone that I will end up with. I will find that through the process of writing the book itself.

One thing that I love about your books is what is not said. Often you will lead us in the narrative up to a big moment and then you’ll skip a good amount of time and just drop us directly back into the action. How do you figure out what needs to be said and what can be pushed to the side?

If I’m bored writing it. Honestly, that’s the answer. There’s a bit of oft quoted writing advice that states, “Stuff the story as late as possible.” A common rookie error is to have the first six chapters of your book be all set up, and then in chapter seven, the story actually starts. The advice is no, don’t start with chapter one. Start at chapter seven where you are already in the thick of it. That’s a good way to engage people, because rhetorically speaking, you’re not giving them time to think or to poke holes in the situation. The other thing (and this may be by Raymond Chandler) is “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had somebody enter the room with a gun and metaphorically speaking, it’s not always a gun. In the second novella, I literally didn’t know how to get from one scene to another scene, so I wrote a starship exploding. Because the starship is exploding, there’s stuff going on and I can put in more information. Both of those things are just examples of “get to the point.” Keep your people engaged and entertained.

You have described yourself as a gateway to science fiction for Tor. Does it allow you room to experiment? Or do you think you always need to be that gateway?

Yes, is the answer to that. The reason I have a ridiculously long contract is, bluntly, there’s an understanding between me and Tor. That understanding is Tor gives me money and I give them reliably competent and engaging science fiction that they can sell to tried-and-true science fiction fans, but will also bring in people who don’t normally read science fiction at all. I’m not going to write an epic fantasy that is written in sestinas. I’m going to write entertaining, accessible, mostly science fiction. If you look at any one of my books, the thing that comes across is that they’re easy to read, they’re generally entertaining, and they’re full of characters that hopefully you will engage with. Within that, you can find that I’m doing a bunch of stuff. I wrote a New York Times Bestselling novel with a disabled gender non-specified character. I wrote a trilogy of books that is discussing politics, power, who matters in society, and  wrenching natural change and how a culture deals with it.

Are you going into a project thinking “I want to do a commentary on gender or imperialism,” or is it something that you decide on later?

A lot of it depends. When I started writing The Interdependency, I wasn’t thinking about commentary on climate change and/or how people use power. I was thinking about sixteenth century trading vessels. A lot of these issues come up as a consequence of the narrative, and they also come up as a consequence of the world in which we live. A lot of times I don’t come in with any specific agenda, and the world and my own particular personal concerns will show up in the books. It would be ignorant and wrong to say that science fiction in general doesn’t talk about the world in which the creators live. Some of the best science fiction has been a bleak commentary on what’s going on in the world. It’s a question of do you use artifice to talk about it, or are you just pretending that your space marines from the year 3200 are talking about the politics that are going on right now?

You currently have a huge impact on science fiction, but also the publishing industry in general. Thirty or forty years from now, what do you hope we can look back on and think about regarding what your legacy was?

One of the things that I do every year is I look at a list of the bestselling books of one hundred years prior. I will look at the list for the top ten bestsellers in the United States in 1920 and I recognize none of the titles. This is my way of sort of whispering into my own ear, “Remember that thou art mortal.” Regardless of who you are and how popular or significant you are or are not for your time, history has its own way of deciding what is significant and what is not. The thing I worry about and the thing I think about most is, who am I in terms of being a member of my community now? Am I supporting other authors? Am I supporting the expansion of science fiction? Not in a colonial sort of way, but in the sense of making sure that science fiction is not just the literature of well-off white engineers. Those are the things that I know I have some influence on now. If I’m helping to convince Tor to buy more and different stuff by being their safe and reliable backbone of sales, then I feel pretty good about that. I try not to get caught up in the issues of legacy. What I try to get caught up in is, am I writing something that’s fun and that people will want to read? Am I writing something that lets me do what I want to do and say what I want to say? And am I being a person that is of value in my community? These are the things that I’m interested in.

All Fairytales Are About Longing

If Um Ali’s house was any taller, she might almost see the ocean. She knows it only from pictures, which she is assured cannot express its majesty. To see it even from a distance would be enough. She was told such things by Um Hassan, a dear friend, and always honest. Um Ali believes this with all her heart.

Um Ali must climb two flights of bare stairs, exposed to the world, to reach her house. This, of course, is perfectly natural. Whenever they begin building, the money runs out, or concrete is no longer allowed past the checkpoint, or the architect is jailed for incitement. All around, skeletons of houses open their ribs to the sky. Um Ali’s house was built in reverse. Its third floor is completed, but not the second or first. Since houses built from the ground up are never completed, it was reasoned that a house built from the air down might be more fortunate. This was not so. The building balances on spindly threads of cinder block and rebar like the legs of a hen. It stands almost flush to the barrier wall. Um Ali has received multiple injunctions that her house poses a security threat and must be torn down. At least three times the bulldozers have rolled through the streets, only to become trapped in a narrow alley or lost in the tangle of roads. The man tasked with the demolition swears to his foreman it is as if the house moves.

Um Ali does not think so.

She descends the same concrete stairs every morning. Walks the same winding path through streets, past the same scorch marks left by the tear gas can. She hurries from storefront to storefront, wading through clouds of cigarette smoke and inquiring: Does Abu Taha require any bookkeeping done? Does Um Musa wish for any help cleaning her house? Do any of her relations or neighbors?

When she walks home—always more slowly than when she set out—she accepts an invitation to drink tea with Um Hassan. They sit together on the balcony, behind the privacy of sea-colored curtains, unwrapping their hijabs and letting their henna-dyed braids hang down the cushions and stretch on for miles. This is the only meal she will have. She sips slowly, only once every half hour. She holds words in her mouth like a feast. How the air this spring is colder than the air last spring. How Um Hassan’s underwear was blown from her clothesline by a strong wind, and how she leaned down in time to see some pervert running off with it. How her cousin has sent her pictures. These Um Ali looks over lovingly. The ocean is in every one.

The soldiers at the checkpoint let the winter in without asking for its papers. It creeps through the crooked streets, invading Um Ali’s joints. They ache and swell. They throb through the night. They shriek at every tortured step Um Ali takes down the stairs. She goes to the pharmacy to beg for medicine. The pharmacist is being detained by security forces. They accuse him of smuggling cinnamon and hairbrushes in aid bags from the UN. His assistant works the counter and gives Um Ali the wrong bottle by mistake, and wrong instructions besides.

Returning to her house-on-legs, Um Ali drinks the bottle and lays down to sleep for a thousand and one nights. She misses the return of the pharmacist, who slaps his assistant for his error. She misses Um Hassan, who shouts that her niece is in need of a mathematics tutor in Bayt Fajar. She misses the tourists who wear Che Guevara t-shirts and stare at everything around them with a mixture of horror and pity.

She does not wake when the barrier wall slithers around the legs of her house, enclosing it on all sides. If she woke, she would not care. Every night that she sleeps, she dreams. Every night she dreams, she dreams of the ocean.

Writing Workshops Are Like Relationships

Finding a writing group is a little like finding someone to fall in love with. Maybe you ask around, maybe you spend days or weeks researching online, or maybe you’re adventurous and—like agreeing to a blind date—you sign up on a whim, jump right in.

And like at the end of a string of vapid or uninspiring relationships, you might feel frustrated. That growing frustration turns into resentment: No one understands you or your writing, so you shut your laptop in despair (or slam your notebook shut, if you’re a bit more old-fashioned), and storm off, swearing to never attend another writing workshop.

“Never. Again.” you say, bursting through a revolving door in anger.

Then some time passes. You write here and there, sometimes in bursts of enthusiasm enveloped in joy, and other times, you struggle to get words on the page. After some of this tug-of-war, you finish a piece. You look back at it and ask, “How do I know if this is any good?” And then, when you’re least expecting it, you say, “You know what? I think I’m going to give a workshop another chance.”

There’s a common refrain that a person won’t find love until they’re ready for it. I don’t really know where this saying comes from, but it’s the kind of thing you hear enough that it’s hard to argue with.

I think it’s the same with writing workshops. You’ll suffer through The Bad Kind and The Okay Kind until you’ve found The Good Kind. And like bad, okay, and good relationships, they each have their own peculiarities.

The Bad Workshop (a.k.a The Abusive One)

The Bad Kind looks good at first glance. It’s got a group of writers ready to go, ready to give you criticism, ready to tear your writing apart and make it better. Because feedback builds character, makes you better, and so on. That’s what you asked for, right?

In these workshops, the other writers pull no punches. After tossing invectives about how flat your characters are, they’ll also tell you how your plot is total trash because it’s just a South Asian version of Star Wars. They might even foam at the mouth to point out your supposed continuity errors: “India doesn’t even have lightsabers, right?” (I mean, for those who aren’t aware, lightsabers aren’t real. They’re not in India, America, or anywhere else, they’re simply part of our collective imagination. And for the record, they weren’t lightsabers, they were bamboo sticks that had energy blades, okay? But I digress.)

They will tell you that your favorite sentence that you spent hours honing and tightening is drivel and that you should really look into Hemingway (he is very efficient with words). They’ll tell you that while they appreciate your diverse background, you’ll need to tone down the cultural aspects of your writing or Western readers won’t get it.

They may even ask you to rename a character that has too many syllables in their name.

At the end of this barrage, the literary pugilist in you will feel shell-shocked, like a nascent fighter who went into their first sparring session and didn’t expect it to be full contact. You’ll shrug it off and say to yourself, “Well, I guess I have a lot to work on.”

The next time you present your work, it will be more of the same.

In The Bad Workshop, you can’t get anything right. None of the words you’ve strung together on the page will be good enough.

You’re nothing. Worthless. Undeserved.

The Okay Workshop (a.k.a The One That Was Fine)

There’s nothing wrong with The Okay Kind. It lacks the antagonism, but also the energy of The Bad Workshop. You get along fine with everyone. In fact, they call your work good. They have few real complaints. There may be a few milquetoast responses like, “I just wanted to read more,” or the more infuriating, “I skimmed it and really liked it. Keep it up!”

After a session, you feel pretty good. You might say to yourself, “Wow, I wrote something that other people liked.” But some time passes and when you get home, you take a look at your comments and realize they offer little in the way of helping you get better.

It doesn’t feel right. You need guidance, criticism, to know how you can improve.

You need more.

The Good Workshop (a.k.a The One Where You Find True Love)

There’s a magic to The Good Kind. When you first sit down with the writers, there’s a bit of uncertainty that grouses at you, but you’re an optimist so you ignore it.

In a good workshop, everyone’s approach is empathetic. They understand that you’re ready to leave a little bit of yourself at the table, that your work is a reflection of you (especially those parts you don’t openly share with others).

Just like them.

They are craftspeople ready to write stories that others love, that they feel proud of. Feedback is essential for them as much as it is for you.

Members try to bring out the best in each other’s pieces. There’s no petty sniping of trivial errata, no name-calling, no cultural assumptions. They spend time with your work, think about it, read it again, and even maybe a third time. You do the same for them.

Their kind and thoughtful words help you excavate the gems that litter your prose, giving you ideas on how to polish them, allow them to gleam. They love one of your characters, how she comes to life on the page. You learn why that character works so well and they give you ideas about how to use that technique for other characters.

They might not pull punches—in fact, they rarely do—but their words are meant to guide you to a better place.

They want you to bring out the best in your writing.

And—like in any good relationship—they try to bring out the best in you.

The Silence of Bones by June Hur

Published by Feiwel and Friends (A MacMillan imprint) in April 2020.

As a lover of murder mysteries, The Silence of Bones by June Hur immediately captured my attention simply by existing in a space that hasn’t been utilized before—that space being Korea in the year 1800. Seol is an indentured servant of the police bureau, assisting a highly respected young inspector with a case steeped in political intrigue. A noblewoman has been murdered, her nose cut off and throat slit. As Seol works with the inspector, they form an unlikely friendship, one that is tested as the evidence begins to point towards the inspector being the killer. Seol is determined to find the truth and might be the only one able to. The Silence of Bones not only weaves together a mystery filled with history, mistaken identities, and political drama, it discusses how familial bonds can affect us in a myriad of ways.

I particularly admired June Hur’s ability to seamlessly weave history and mystery together, thereby building a world that not only became the framework for the plot, but was crucial for the plot to even exist. There have been historical mysteries before, but they always seemed to be set in the Western world (Victorian England comes to mind most readily) and were always based on Western ideals. The Silence of Bones provides a breath of fresh air by transporting us to Joseon (Korea) in the nineteenth century, a time where Confucian beliefs ruled the classes and Catholics were deemed heretics and sentenced to death. Each character is defined not just by their actions or their voice, but by their standing in the world. To understand a character’s motivations (or to try and figure out who the killer is), the reader must take their social standing—and, therefore, how that character views other individuals—into consideration.

The plot itself constantly changes between high and low moments, catapulting you through a narrative that utilizes relationships as a means of finding the killer. As we move from suspect to suspect, Seol and Inspector Han focus on family, servants, and lovers, all of whom lead one down a winding tunnel of deception. Each possible scenario seems far more plausible than the last, making the reader question whether Seol will find the true criminal in time. We ride along with Seol, feeling the same need to seek out the truth, even hesitating when the evidence goes in a direction that wasn’t expected. Seol’s personal search for her brother’s grave is intertwined throughout, weaving together themes of family and duty.

Another strength of the novel is having more than one strong female character, even though the story set during a time when women were supposed to be unseen. Seol’s character growth propels the reader through the story, especially as she tackles her own personal concerns rather than simply doing what others expect of her. Through her own efforts, she gains the respect of those in the Police Bureau, pushing back against the rigid social structure of the time, but without breaking it completely. Seol makes her own space in the world in spite of her past and the prejudices against her. We are also given the real-life characters of Queen Regent Jeongsung and Lady Kang, women who defied their gender roles during the Joseon Period. They both help to frame the historical narrative, showing the divide between political party affiliations. While the story is Seol’s, her narrative wouldn’t have played out as it did without the actions of these two women.

The Silence of Bones is a mystery steeped in history that will ­keep you intrigued from start to finish. While it doesn’t feel fast-paced, it is by no means a leisurely read. Each scene leads into the next with such ease, holding your attention and immersing you in a world where women and men led lives that were divided, with warring political factions using religion as a means of gaining power. June Hur has an amazing ability to connect readers with another time and culture, so with this as her debut novel, it will be interesting to see what else she gives us in the future.

A Day in the Life of a Brink Intern

Hello, lovely readers! My name is Ally, and I was one of Brink’s Fall 2019 interns—and I loved every minute of it!

If you have stumbled upon our little corner of the internet for the first time, you might not know that F(r)iction is a part of a larger organization called Brink Literacy Project. Brink is devoted to “utilizing the power of storytelling to positively affect the lives of people on the brink. Through our education, community, and publishing divisions, our nonprofit works worldwide to foster a love of literature, increase literacy rates, and use storytelling to empower underserved communities.” As part of an education-oriented organization, we have two remote internship cycles each year! Seeing as our Fall intern applications are now open, I thought I would walk you through a day in the life as an intern at this quirky little publication.

Starting the Day

I check my email and Slack messages every morning. Slack is the platform that all Brink employees use to communicate with each other. It makes everything a lot easier, since we are in all corners of the globe! On Mondays, I open a new email from Kaley (our intern coordinator), read through our assignments for the week, and take a quick look at her feedback from the week before. This helps me mentally plan how I’m going to spend my time for the rest of the week. I have three to four projects on my plate at any given time, and a few different people to send assignments off to, so it definitely requires some organization! I usually check in once or twice a day with the other interns, bounce ideas off of them, ask any questions I need to, and just generally talk to them—we’ve become friends over these past few weeks!

Outreach

After breakfast, I’ll usually spend an hour or so on outreach projects, whether that’s looking for a great new author to interview, requesting an advanced review copy from a publisher, looking for places to post about Brink’s and F(r)iction’s overall awesomeness (including any current contests), or just finding generally cool humans who might have something to add to Brink. I’m currently working on tidying up a Q&A with an impressive emerging Canadian author! 

Departmental Project

The internship is essentially divided up into two six-week sections. For the first six weeks, all of the interns have pretty much the same tasks. We learn the same things, get the same editorial training, go to the same meetings—it’s lots of fun! It’s nice to have your own little group of people to take your first timid intern steps with. In week seven, we all start to do our own tasks. We still have the same core responsibilities, but we take on departmental projects that are aligned with our particular interests. This helps us leave the internship with new skills that are the most important to us. Because I’m passionate about editing and author outreach, I decided to focus on writing blog posts and finding authors who might want to collaborate with us. Other interns have chosen to do an accessibility review of our publication’s website, whereas others have focused on reaching out to people who may be interested in writing blog posts, creating a sampler of our publication, fine-tuning editorial descriptions to send to F(r)iction artists, and more. The options are pretty well endless, and it’s been amazing to dive deeper into our passions.

Meetings

Throughout our internship, we typically have one meeting every one to two weeks. For the first six weeks, we met with a couple of different senior staffers, including Mia, who deals with our creative nonfiction submissions. We had the opportunity to ask her any questions we had about Brink and her approach to editing. We also had a meeting with Andrew, who handles most of our F(r)iction submissions and passes them along to editors each week. We got to learn more about their roles and what the publishing world really looks like.

Editorial

We have various editorial tasks throughout the internship. Editorial differs from Editing in that editing involves line/stylistic/copyediting and grading slush pile submissions, whereas editorial work involves creating online content for F(r)iction. All interns write book reviews for F(r)iction Log, and we craft Q&As for two to three emerging authors as well. Because of the nature of my departmental project, I’ve been engaging in a lot of editorial work, and have written several articles for F(r)iction Log.

Editing

Editing tasks vary depending on what stage of the internship we’re at. The internship really trains us to be quality editors, so it’s a gradual learning curve.

At the beginning of our internship, Kaley would send us a few pieces of writing at the beginning of the week. We read through them, suggested edits, drafted letters to the authors. We sent all these edits back to Kaley, and she gave us super helpful feedback to help us hone our editing skills. In week seven, we were officially given the title of Junior Editors (and I only fangirled a little over it…). As Junior Editors, we read a few stories per week, sent to us by the fabulous Evan, Brink’s Editorial Director. He passes along stories from general submissions for us to review and grade, and we draft letters with feedback so that the authors and senior staffers can know what stage the story is at.

Final Thoughts

The internship teaches you so much about many different aspects of the publishing industry. I definitely feel like a more well-rounded editor than I was at the beginning of the internship, and I feel more prepared to communicate with a variety of different authors and publishers. Each week—each day!—is different, which makes this job all the more fun. 

Thinking about applying? Keep in mind that you’ll need to have some pretty good communication and time-management skills, since this internship is remote. If you are only interested in books or genre fiction, then likely this internship isn’t quite the right fit for you. But if you are passionate about stories, getting underrepresented voices out there, publishing quirky pieces, and learning more about how the publishing world works, then APPLY APPLY APPLY

I can honestly say this internship has been one of the best parts of my year. Launching that publishing career? Check! 

If you have any questions about the internship, feel free to message us! Our team would love to chat.

What Exactly Is Editing?

So you want to be an editor? Decided to wade through the sea of someone else’s words to find the “point” of the story? Are you that friend who corrects other people’s grammar as they speak, or text, or write?

I feel you.

Something that I didn’t learn until publishing school, though, was how many different types of editing there are.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the different types of editing, according to Editors Canada:

1) Structural Editing (aka Substantive Editing)

Structural editing, also known as substantive or content editing, includes assessing and shaping the overall arc of a draft or story in order to achieve an organized and consistent piece. Structural edits may be presented to the writer as suggestions or as drafted edits. This type of editing can also include revising, cutting, or expanding material, clarifying plot points or characterization, and determining whether permissions are necessary if external material is used or quoted from.

2) Stylistic Editing (aka Line Editing)

Stylistic editing includes editing for clarity and ensuring that a piece flows well and has a consistent voice. It can also include refining language, eliminating jargon and clichés, etc. Stylistic editors also often make sure that the language level is appropriate for the piece’s intended audience.

3) Copyediting

Copyediting is often what people think of when they think of “proofreading” or “can you look over my essay for me?” It includes editing for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. It also includes checking for consistency and continuity, and editing tables, figures, and lists. Copyeditors do basic fact-checking and query any general information that needs to be confirmed. They develop a style sheet, which they and other editors, proofreaders, and production people refer to later on to resolve any questions about language usage. Copyeditors also edit citations as needed.

4) Proofreading

Proofreading is that final check after copyediting is done—pretty much right when a work is about to go to the printer. Proofreaders check material after it has been designed and typeset to correct errors in textual and visual elements. They check for consistent design, minor errors such as spelling mistakes or inconsistencies, captions, hyperlinks, metadata, page numbers, etc. They often perform the final check before a work is published.

5) Acquisitions Editing

Acquisitions editing involves evaluating book/story proposals to make sure that they fit within a specific publisher’s catalog or mandate. Acquisitions editors assess the saleability of a book as well. AEs look out for “diamonds in the rough,” and are often looking for works with a certain spark or potential to them. Here at F(r)iction, we call this the “spiciness factor.” If an AE is particularly fond of a proposal or submission, they will pitch it up to the publisher or editorial committee. AEs often develop relationships with agents, liaise with writers, research underserved topics and trends and solicit manuscripts in those areas, and identify promising writers from whom they can solicit manuscripts.

6) Production Editing

Production editors do a lot of coordinating. They supervise different stages of publication after initial manuscript development, including design, formatting, proofreading, and integrating design and content. They also create production schedules to make sure that everything is delivered on time and that the finished work is high quality.

Lots to choose from, huh? There are so many different ways you can work with words, depending on your skillset. Whether your passions lie in copyediting, substantive editing, fact-checking, or acquisitions, there is so much out there for you! If you’re interested in honing your editorial skills or learning more about a career in publishing, you can always apply to our internship program.

Deep Space Necromancy, the Sequel: A Review of Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

“But Harrowhark––Harrow, who was two hundred dead children; Harrow, who loved something that had not been alive for ten thousand years––Harrowhark Nonagesimus had always so badly wanted to live. She had cost too much to die.”

Harrow the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

Harrow the Ninth is a necromantic space opera featuring only the most mouth-watering of clavicles. Get ready to experience ten thousand years of sexual tension among saints on a deep space station. Be swallowed by a semi-corporeal river of Eldritch terrors. Witness a murder plot that starts and ends with a thin broth. And the memes––oh, the memes. Tamsyn Muir has undoubtedly spun one of the most unique science fiction horror sagas to ever exist. Her prose––for better or for worse––feels like an ornate candelabra, heavy in my grip. Muir has committed to her aesthetic and it is an aesthetic that I can sink into like a velvet-lined coffin.

Unfortunately, while I loved certain aspects of the novel (aesthetic included), it was a letdown compared to its predecessor, Gideon the Ninth. I can forgive a debut novel for iffy pacing and overly dense backstory. Going into a space saga sequel, I expect the author to have learned from the pitfalls of the debut. I’m disappointed to report that much of the problems present in Gideon the Ninth were only exacerbated in Harrow the Ninth. Muir had my jaw dropping, she had me laughing, but I was also incredibly frustrated because the novel was asking too much of me as a reader (which is saying something, because I read the entire A Song of Ice and Fire saga in two months). There is enjoyment to be wrought from Harrow the Ninth, but it’s up to the reader to weigh the pros and cons before deciding to commit.

Tamsyn Muir is the Necrolord Prime of details and characters. Of viscera. Of drama. Of Harrow’s deep, sensual love for a corpse. This is where her work shines––beautiful and grotesque imagery, witty dialogue, the essence of fully humanized characters. Muir fully taps into Harrowhark Nongesimus’s character potential. She scours Harrow’s childhood trauma for internal conflicts and believably terrible decisions. The idea of putting Harrow on an isolated space station with God the King Undying and His Saints, each with their own millennia of trauma and intricate social dynamics? Absolute ecstasy for readers who thrive on interpersonal relationships between characters.

In fact, Muir does a highly entertaining job of humanizing God, but also raising many questions about how he came to be God. The King Undying––or John, on the space station––is evidently from our own bygone era. I’m fascinated by a character who is both incredibly fallible and very nearly all powerful. One who struggles with the dynamics between his Saints Undying, loves to cook, tries to be a father-figure to Harrow, all while yeeting us back to the present with one-liners like, “to prevent the Nine Houses [from] becoming none House, with left grief.” I did say there would be memes. I fully enjoyed the banter and piecing together the timeline of necromancy over John’s ten thousand years; however, this is where the plot and world building started to get wobbly.

Many readers I spoke to about Gideon the Ninth agreed that it was a book that made you work. I didn’t feel like I fully knew what was going on until one hundred pages in. The world building is almost excessively immersive, not explaining, but constantly referring to past events and religious rites and incredibly important plot points that don’t yet make sense. My hope was that this would become easier to navigate in Harrow the Ninth. Instead, I felt like it got more tedious.

For example, there was a highly enjoyable murder plot in the middle of the book. Yes, the thin broth that I mentioned in the beginning of the review. Truly an ingenious murder attempt, worthy of Agatha Christie herself. I won’t spoil anything else, because everyone deserves to be fully surprised by that scene. However, then that scene sort of just… ends. That conflict ends for another two hundred pages, before being (sort of) reconnected to the ending.

And I really struggled with the ending of Harrow the Ninth. I cannot remember the last book where I genuinely closed it and thought Do I… know how this book ended? No??? The last one hundred pages feel like a surreal info-dump of ten different characters’ secret plans, which they’ve been plotting for one hundred years. And while the narrators are in the dark about these plans, so it makes sense that the reader might be confused, too, it was just too overwhelming. There were confusing, unsatisfying plot twists. Too many circumstances didn’t make sense. And oh, I wanted them to. I wanted them to make sense so badly. I love a good, unreliable narrator. But this was just taking it too far.

What makes a good ending? While many might disagree, I liked the ending of Gideon the Ninth, because it crushed my heart into dust. It felt like everything was leading up to that inevitable end, and yet it still caught me completely off guard. The ending of Harrow made me feel like nothing was resolved, but without the adrenaline rush of a cliffhanger. For a cliffhanger to work, you need to be invested in what’s happening to the characters. Unfortunately, the titular character of book three was introduced in the very last act as more of a legend than a person.

I’ve had a lot of complaints, yes. They’re made out of love. Tamsyn Muir is talented. Her sentences make me want to cry tears of joy because of how lovely they are. The King Undying’s war cries made me want to raise a rapier in my gilded-bone hand. Her settings are ruin porn (like those Instagram accounts full of dilapidated buildings). Her characters can be making oatmeal on a space station and I will be entertained. But a science fiction saga needs strong foundations as much as horror needs impeccable pacing. I loved Gideon the Ninth. I can be on the fence about Harrow the Ninth. But for this saga to be worth it, I’ll have to wait for Alecto the Ninth, before deciding if Tamsyn Muir’s lesbian necromancers have it in them to be regaled by the King Undying Himself.

Translating Wordless Longing: A Review of The Magical Language of Others by E.J. Koh

Published January 7, 2020 by Tin House Books

This stunning foray into memoir by poet E.J. Koh provides a glimpse of the intimacy between the strokes of her mother’s handwriting and within the author’s own diasporic family relationships.  Eun Ji’s parents move back to Korea for work when she is fifteen, leaving her and her brother in California. As contracts are renewed and three years stretch into many more, Eun Ji navigates her mother’s absence and her own growing up; years later she discovers a box with some of the letters her mother wrote her during that time, all left unanswered. The memoir is structured around these letters, forty-nine of them—which, in Buddhist tradition, is the same number of days a soul remains on Earth to seek answers after death.

There’s so much emotional resonance in this book that will appeal to all sorts of people, but for me, as an Asian American, Koh creates out of her own story something I didn’t know I needed. Her mother’s handwritten pages are scanned into the book following their translations, and holding them in my hands provided a strange familiarity; I can’t read Korean, but seeing where the letters switch into English and how Eun Ji’s mother writes to her daughter reminds me so much of how my grandmother speaks to my mother and how my mother speaks to me.

The first page of the book is a translator’s note, but it’s more than a note on the way she translates her mother’s letters—it’s a note on how she translates life to the page. Koh’s writing doesn’t scaffold itself with whiteness; instead she grounds herself in her own lineage and shines through an exquisite command of language and deep love. She holds each person in the memoir with grace and attention to detail, and she permits them to retain their own complexities while acknowledging the privilege of reflection in allowing it.

There’s a remarkable balance of lightheartedness and contemplation in this book, and Koh doesn’t pit them against one another. Every section is carefully chosen and masterfully told; her stints on a hip-hop dance crew and as a student in Japan tell us as much of her story as her first poetry class and her journey to becoming a translator. Koh shows us Eun Ji in all of her different lives, and understands that a story about her would be incomplete without including them, even the parts lived by other people.

Koh not only writes her own life, but also traces her histories and the sites of generational trauma, including the experiences of both her grandmothers; she handles their stories with such delicacy, eliding neither atrocity nor joy. To me, she built a bridge. The Magical Language of Others creates indescribable connection, like I felt first reading Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, and helped me cradle my own wordless longing to piece together knowledge of my own family’s fractured lives during and after the Vietnam War. Over the course of the book, Koh deftly weaves her own story of survival with her mother’s and her grandmothers’; I ached alongside her, reflecting on how much of our family history lives on in us.

Smart, Rough, and Adrenaline-Packed: A Review of The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S. Villoso

Published February 18, 2020 by Orbit

“They called me the Bitch Queen, the she-wolf, because I murdered a man and exiled my king the night before they crowned me,” are the first words that catapult readers into the world of The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S. Villoso. It opens on coronation day for Queen Talyien, a woman who must maintain peace in her divided country of Jin-Sayeng, in spite of Warlords questioning her every move and the fact that her husband has left her to rule alone. Once she receives a message that sends her across the sea with hopes of reconciliation, Talyien finds herself in a foreign land dodging assassination attempts. As she tries to find her husband, Talyien travels through this unknown country and must decide what is truly necessary for her to lead Jin-Sayeng, whether it is what she wants or what her country needs. This is a novel brimming with tension and, in my completely biased opinion, a wonderfully detailed fantasy world.

From start to end, The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is fast-paced, jumping from one moment to the next. Villoso’s writing keeps the reader off-balance, much like Talyien is throughout the story, never really sure where she is heading next. That’s not to say the story doesn’t have a solid plotline. We wonder alongside Talyien: Is the person next to her trustworthy? How can she possibly get out of this? And is it really possible to travel any backroads without running into bandits?

Beyond the action is the character of Talyien herself. Ever constant, Talyien drives the story forward, hoping to find her husband and reunite their lands to stop future bloodshed. She has a single goal, one that changes only in how she will achieve it. But it is her growth that is the most impressive. She manages to reconcile duty to her role and people with her own personal longing to have both husband and son at her side. We see her recognize not only the faults in her own desires, but also her struggle to balance them with what she knows must happen in the end.

Villoso does a fantastic job of putting together a strong fantasy epic that seemingly winds characters and situations around one another without purpose, only to bring all the threads deftly together by the end. From betrayals to nonstop action, the story keeps you on edge most of the time, but there are many moments of introspection that allow the reader a chance to catch their breath and appreciate the world before them.

If you’re looking for a new fantasy novel to read, The Wolf of Oren-Yaro should definitely be your next choice. With a smart, rough narrator, willing do what it takes to unite her country, this novel is full of intrigue that will keep you hooked. K. S. Villoso is a strong new voice in the fantasy genre and it will be exciting to see what this author gives us next.

Some Kind of Truth: A Review of Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang

Published March 31, 2020 by Ecco

In Days of Distraction, an unnamed narrator leaves behind her family and California job as a tech journalist to follow her boyfriend to upstate New York—a gesture grand enough, she believes, to wipe away her misgivings about their differences as a Chinese American woman and a white American man. I read the first pages of this book in a coffee shop, nursing a long-empty, grande chai while two young women at a neighboring table discussed one’s recent engagement. Days of Distraction’s jacket copy activated the same fight-or-flight instinct as hearing the phrase “ring before spring” float among the industrial-chic hanging lamps and the chalkboard menus. In short, I expected a train wreck. What I found instead in Alexandra Chang’s debutwas an incisive classification of loneliness, a critical look at the model minority myth, and a surprising answer to the question: Should I leave?

Days of Distraction unfolds in a tapestry of millennial uncertainty and complicated loves, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Weike Wang’s Chemistry and Rachel Khong’s Goodbye Vitamin. The narrator’s father ends every phone call with a list of what she should bring from America when she visits him in China, requests that the narrator has never fulfilled. The boyfriend, named J, is at times endearing and at others frustratingly oblivious to the narrator’s experiences in a mostly white town. The prose occasionally wobbles between explaining the basics of critical race theory and assuming the audience is already on the same page. Chang’s strongest moments are the quietly devastating ones, where navigating microaggressions becomes “a sort of dance, the steps for which I cannot and do not want to master,” and gatekeeping strikes mercilessly from within one’s own community.

Chang concentrates vastness into the shockingly momentary. Boots at Nordstrom Rack become a surprisingly apt metaphor for the millennial experience, while tea bag aphorisms echo with a crisp, chiming loneliness. At one point, the narrator finds herself alone in the foyer during a house party, ankle-deep in a sea of other people’s shoes. Chang shines in this liminal moment: “Carrying this sadness, which feels both delicate and heavy, like a big glass mirror, I decide it’s time for me to go.” Restlessness is a texture that Chang weaves with breathless dexterity into every page.

While Days of Distraction is described as a novel, it reads like a combination of literary journalism and lyric essay. The narrator’s research on interracial relationships—everything from Yahoo! Answers to historical documents to Pew statistics—pulls taut the gleaming thread of her anxieties amid a weft of loneliness and limbo. The woman’s uncertainty about her authority over her own narrative paints a vivid portrait of what it means to navigate race, transnationality, and gender in multicultural America. Beneath it all beats a dark, youthful anxiety: Who do you become when you’re jobless? What remains when you stop moving, and others leave you behind? Time stretches and stutters in these days of accumulation.

Our narrator is far from reliable, though this is one of the most striking aspects of the novel. The boyfriend becomes an increasingly complicated source of conflict—he drives for hours through the snow to her, he mispronounces her name—it’s hard to tell how starkly the narrator’s loneliness distorts her description. Halfway through the novel, she admits to the reader that she altered the details of the last time she asked her boss for a raise: “I was not stoic or firm. I cried, and not a few elegant tears. I shook, had a hard time breathing. I told him I’d been waiting for so long […] All the effort to hold it inside, wasted.” In an era of social media and online personas, I felt unmoored by the lie as I read, even more so by the narrator’s sudden vulnerability. Storytelling becomes a malleable thing; reality, a question mark. Days of Distraction is, in the narrator’s words, “some made up stories and some real, but they all come from the same person, and they will, I hope, add up to some kind of truth.”

Chang’s debut is at once both a quandary and a comfort—I couldn’t help but glimpse myself in that big glass mirror, a biracial undergraduate senior with one foot in adulthood and the other in deep burnout. While Days of Distraction depicts several kinds of leaving, it is the choice to return that allows our narrator to reckon with life’s “sort of devastation[s].” Chang lets you exist in irresolution, her narrative still unwinding long after the pages have folded closed. Her lyrical prose won’t steer you away from the turbulences of reality, but it will stand in kinship with you as you weather them.