GUEST POST: Ragnarok; It all begins with the end of the world

Guest post by W H H Baker

Norse mythology is unusual among the well-known sets of legends from antiquity in that it doesn’t have life carrying on as usual until the end of time. Instead, the world ends in a truly epic battle where the gods will descend from their lofty thrones and ultimately lose a bloody encounter with all the dark creatures which inhabit the world. The legend says that the world is then ravaged by natural disasters and reshaped.

Although a touch bleak, I found myself wondering what it would have been like to be left behind, after an event like that. I should probably explain why my mind was travelling in this direction. After university I spent a year in Beijing learning Mandarin. Through that time I could see photos of all of my friends moving forward with life on the other side of the world, which left me, perhaps understandably, feeling a little left behind myself. Given that the most significant characters meet famously bloody ends during Ragnarok, I decided that it would make more sense for the survivor to be someone a little lower down the divine scale.

Fortunately for me, Norse mythology has the Valkyries, shield-maidens who bring the souls of worthy warriors slain in battle to serve in Odin’s host. I imagined a battle hardened character cast adrift in an unfamiliar world, a cold and bitter heroine with unending ages ahead of her. The more I thought about it, the more I fell in love with the character; so much so that I was convinced that she needed her own suitably epic tale, a true Viking saga. That was how Skjarla was born.

Inspiration strikes in the strangest ways sometimes. I was listening to my music, when the KT Tunstall song ‘Invisible Empire’ shuffled on and sparked everything going. Within the song are the lines ‘I wear a rusting crown, and I know this dynasty is falling’. I imagined the lost heir to a long since shattered kingdom, bound by fate to resurrect the forgotten dynasty. Every piece needs a villain, so I borrowed from another of the Norse myths, that of the hero Sigurd and the dragon Fafnir, Sigurd’s bloodline also gave me the dynasty I was looking for.

One of my favourite things about writing fantasy is that you start with a completely blank slate; whatever you want in there in terms of cultures, magic or monsters is fair game. I have found that one of the best things to do when writing fantasy is to start with a map, no matter how crude the artwork. For me it has two main impacts: 

  • Firstly, as I lay out the world or region, it helps me to think what cultures live where and how they interact. In the Rusted Crown, I have borrowed liberally from various periods of history, sometime directly, sometimes more as a starting point for a more fantastical version of reality. I was particularly happy with Romans who I based on the ninth legion who famously disappeared into the mists of Britain, and emerged from the spell which had bound them there when it was shattered by the remaking of the world.
     
  • Secondly, I find that it helps hugely with the flow of the narrative, knowing where your characters are and where they are trying to get to. I find that it helps me think more logically from their point of view, rather than just having them go as the crow flies.

Before I started writing, I realised that there could be an inconsistency between Skjarla’s character and the nature of the quest I was about to send her on. Skjarla wouldn’t just end up helping some penniless heir out of the goodness of her heart, there needed to be more to it. I ended up circling back to Fafnir, the dragon slain by Sigurd. A dead dragon on its own is not much good as a villain, so his servants would be trying to recover the teeth taken as trophies from when the dragon fell. With the dragon reassembled it could be resurrected, with suitably unpleasant consequences for the world. I didn’t think it would unreasonable for Sigurd’s heir to have one of the Fangs, and for Skjarla to want to protect it.

One side effect of dragons having a fairly substantial number of teeth, and those teeth being scattered around the world, was that Skjarla and her companions were suddenly going to be doing a lot of travelling, trying to prevent the dragon from being resurrected. As I plotted out the skeleton of how the tale would unfold, I realised that with all of the plot threads it meant that there were almost five tales within the overarching story. So I made the decision to devote separate books to each, rather than having the climax of each section lost within the book. Fortunately I have read a fair few fantasy series, so I hope that I have got the right balance between leaving enough left unsaid to make it compelling to read the second book, without it being so much of a cliff-hanger as to be downright infuriating. I leave it to you to judge if I have been successful.

About W H H Baker

William grew up in Hong Kong and the UK, before studying Natural Sciences at Durham University. He currently lives in London with his fiancé, Emily, and is training to be an auditor. William is also mad about rugby and spends much of his time with his head buried in a book.

About The Ragnarok Saga: The Rusted Crown

Ragnarok. The Norse world is ending. The Valkyrie, Skjarla, is cursed to survive the remaking of the world by the Dark goddess Hel. For centuries Skjarla wanders Midgard: monster slayer and mercenary, buried in grief and rage.

Four hundred years later, Skjarla finds herself in the small town of Lonely Barrow. There, hidden in the northern forests at the edge of the Haemocracy, she takes on a contract which proves more complicated than she could possibly have imagined.

Joined by the exiled heir to the New Roman Empire, a crusading Loptalfar and mercenaries running from their pasts. The Ragnarok Saga is a captivating journey which will test the very limits of love, endurance and courage.

For more information about the book please visit: http://www.austinmacauley.com/book/ragnarok-saga-rusted-crown 

March Madness has ended in a TIE!

Four rounds, thousands of votes, and it came down to two: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin and A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab.

And then they tied

Supreme Laser explains:
There appears to be white smoke emanating from the chamber.... wait no I see black smoke too... and pink... and what is that? Violet? And fuschia? Oh that is definitely ultramarine. And now some russet... and hmm how did they nail burnt sienna smoke. Well it is burnt. I suppose that was easy. And forest green. Beautiful. OK so it's basically a unicorn farting a rainbow.

I'm consulting the great book of Empressal Emanations and Statistical Manual V and it says here......Both.

I guess we're doing both.

Veronica and I will start reading A Darker Shade of Magic since we've never done a book from Ms. Schwab before. And The Fifth Season will be the ALT read and our second Ms. Jemisin pick! We'll both make our best effort to read it as well and it will have its own discussion section for those who'd like to make it their primary book.

So there you go. Who could have predicted???

Thanks everybody for participating. This was a lot of fun and I'm glad most of you had fun with us. We'll definitely do it again! 

Thanks for playing, everyone! 

GUEST POST: From dark matter to Dark Matters -- Wandering to a Not-So-Distant Future

By Michael Dow

In early 2016, I released my debut novel, Dark Matters, a science fiction/thriller set in the not-so-distant future of 2075. The story line for the book had simmered in the recesses of my mind for more than a decade, as I toiled from the bowels to the board rooms of corporate America. When I finally broke free, and began writing in earnest, I soon realized that those frayed tendrils of a story–unraveling the mystery of dark matter, and the implications for humanity–were going to require serious scientific research. 

So I dug in, trying (often with limited success) to better understand the science of dark matter, dark energy, multi-verses, and quantum theory. And that’s when things got interesting. As it turns out, I liked the research. An article on dark matter is just a click away from stories about cosmic rays, which then leads to cosmological inflation, the big bang theory, and a host of other fascinating sitcoms. 

But I digress…

In the end, what I discovered was not just the science of dark matter, but the foundation for future world where this discovery could take place. I wanted the story to take place in a future near enough to be easily recognizable, but far enough that I could take some creative license with the current state of affairs on Earth. This led me to a timeframe that was fifty to sixty years in the future, where futurist “experts” predict several interesting events will converge:

  • A world population of ten billion;
  • Computers more powerful than the human brain, at a fraction of today’s cost;
  • Full-scale space exploration, to include a moon base, space hotels, and asteroid mining;
  • The availability of fusion power; and,
  • The world’s first trillionaire.

Just to name a few.

It was this last one that caught my eye – a trillion dollars. Like they say in Congress, now we’re talking real money. What could a trillion dollars buy you? And not today–but fifty years from now, when technology is several orders of magnitude less expensive? That kind of money, with that level of technology… it sent chills down my spine. And it was hard to read about that kind of wealth, without plunging into the current debate surrounding income inequality, and the widening wealth gap. It was an intriguing hook for a book. Before I knew it, my story about dark matter had become a story about Dark Matters–a handful of trillionaires, playing benevolent dictator in a world where income inequality had truly run amok.

This was an area where my background and experience could be put to good use. During my time as a management consultant and CEO, I’ve seen some of the best–and unfortunately, some of the worst–that corporate America has to offer. And through my research, I discovered that the world’s 1,500+ billionaires are growing their wealth much faster than the richest one percent; they are doing to the one percent, what the one percent is doing to the ninety-nine percent. On top of that, over the past several years, 95% of all new wealth has gone to the richest one percent. If we stay on this path for fifty more years, a handful of the über-elite, in the right positions, and with the latest technology, really could have an iron grip on world events. I had stumbled onto an ideal combination–the story of a world-changing scientific discovery, set in a world where a few of the elite could very well prevent that kind of change.

Before I knew it, I had a finished manuscript. Or at least, I thought I did. My editor gave me one final task. He saw the dystopian world of 2075 as a leading character in the story, and critical to conveying the magnitude of the dark matter discovery. He asked me to do more research–and to identify fifty additional “fascinating facts” about the world of 2075. Then, he challenged me to insert them into the story–in as few words as possible. It was a remarkable exercise, to see how much world-building, character development, and storytelling could be done in just a few words. And it led to some of my favorite moments in the book–for instance, when the female lead comments, “It’s an oxymoron, like Glacier National Park.” Or when a couple of teenage girls prank their mother with a dead rat, created from dad’s nano-technology printer. I didn’t quite manage to insert all fifty (there are only forty-five chapters, after all), but the attentive reader should find dozens, addressing topics from climate change to robotics, space exploration, and the future of the Internet.

Did it all come together, in the end? That’s for the reader to decide, I suppose. But it worked for me–not just in writing the story, but in the process that got me there. Now I let myself wander (a little…) when I’m doing research, and I don’t carry (as much…) guilt when I do. And though I’m still a neophyte at this whole writing thing, I know I’ve found a great tool for my own arsenal.

Back to my research; I hear they’re now blaming dark matter for wiping out the dinosaurs. Thanks for listening!

ABOUT MICHAEL DOW

Michael Dow spent 25+ years in corporate America, in roles running the gamut from management consultant to CEO. He has worked at companies ranging in size from start-up to over one billion dollars in revenue, and in locations across the globe, from Washington DC to Saudi Arabia. Dark Matters is his first work of fiction (though his competitors have accused him of writing fiction for decades). Mike lives in Traverse City, Michigan, with his wife and two teenage daughters.

ABOUT DARK MATTERS

Rudolph "Rudy" Dersch is the newly minted CEO of the world's largest, multi-trillion-dollar corporate conglomerate. But the job comes with an unexpected twist–an invitation to join the Consortium, a small, secretive group of global elites who effectively decide what's best for the rest of humanity. How does Rudy's struggle to reconcile business and family impact the world's future? And who, if anyone, can break the Consortium's iron grip on the status quo?

The answer may lie with a renegade physicist, close to unraveling one of the universe's greatest mysteries. And a headstrong art curator, driven to find the meaning behind her increasingly compelling visions. From a life-changing moment in a crowded Singapore marketplace, to the business end of an assassin's gun, they face a power beyond any the world has ever seen. To survive, they'll have to decipher the truth about dark matter–before the Consortium can achieve its ruinous end game.

S&L Podcast - #237 - Charles E. Gannon and Big Idea Books

Author Chuck Gannon joins us on the show this week to talk about his most recent work in the Caine Riordan series (Raising Caine), as well as helping the government figure out the future as part of SIGMA. This is one busy guy, let me tell you.

Download direct link here and subscribe in iTunes!

The Sword & Laser Collection Contest: The Sequel

The rumors are true! (Were there rumors? There may have been rumors). Along with Inkshares, we're running another Collection Contest to find the next great science fiction and fantasy novels. We are so thrilled with our current (in-production) collection, and we can't wait to see what else is out there!

Head over to Inkshares to get the whole scoop, and to learn how you can submit your idea!

"An Unattractive Vampire" joins the S&L Inkshares Collection!

Back when we launched the S&L Inkshares Collection, we were thrilled with the quantity and quality of the entries we received. For that first contest, we decided to pick two books that epitomized the concepts of "sword" and "laser" to us, and The Life Engineered and Asteroid Made of Dragons were those selections.

All the while, another book was flying up the contest charts, and capturing our hearts (and blood). An Unattractive Vampire by Jim McDoniel:

After three centuries trapped underground, Yulric Bile—the Curséd One, the Devil’s Apprentice, the Thousand Year Old Vampyr—has risen only to find that no one in this time believes he is a vampire. Werewolf, they call him. Zombie. Mummy. Lich. Vampires, he discovers, have become very pretty, very weak, and most disturbing of all, very good. He resolves to correct this disgusting turn of events, or at the very least, murder the person responsible. Aided by a vampire wannabe, the eight-year-old reincarnation of his greatest foe, and a host of ancient horrors as far from sexy as it is possible to be, Yulric journeys from lost subterranean cities to pink suburban houses, battling undead TV stars and his fear of cars, for the right to determine, once and for all, what it truly means to be a vampire.

I'm very happy to announce that An Unattractive Vampire is officially joining the S&L Collection on Inkshares! Jim is also a S&L listener, so we're extra excited to welcome him to the family. 

S&L Podcast Rewind: 'The Martian Influx' Redux

With the huge success of the film adaptation this month, we thought it would be fun to travel back in time to our interview with The Martian author Andy Weir and Influx author Daniel Suarez

If you're interested in picking up where that episode left off, you can follow this link to the Soundcloud page (audio should start at the 45:05 mark).

As noted, Patrons will receive this episode at no charge. Enjoy!

Download episode directly here.

FEATURED REVIEW: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Welcome to our Featured Reviews! In this series, we'll be highlighting book reviews by the S&L audience. If you want to submit a review, please check out the guidelines here! -Veronica

Review by Bryan S. Glosemeyer, original on Goodreads here.

"The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason."

The opening line of Neal Stephenson's new 'hard SF' thriller, Seveneves, is bound to go down as one of the great opening lines in science fiction. I'm sure it will soon be mentioned in the same breath as William Gibson's opening line to Neuromancer. "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."

Seveneves: A Novel
By Neal Stephenson

So as you can see, the very first sentence packs quite a punch and the punches keep on coming. The clock is ticking till the sky itself burns for five thousand years. Will science and reason save humanity in the harshness of space? Or will politics and greed be our final undoing? Well, I won't spoil it for you, but if you are familiar at all with Stephenson's books, you'll expect very smart and very brave people try to save the world with their smarts and bravery.

Overall, I enjoyed this book quite a bit. The premise is exciting and fun and the tension keeps ratcheting up and up. While this is most definitely 'speculative' fiction, he keeps the science grounded, yet fascinating. No artificial gravity, no warp drives, no energy shields. As usual, Stephenson does a great job of helping to make sense of the science for the average reader. But to do so means he does a lot of 'infodumps.' His books have always been high on the infodump quotient, Seveneves is even more so.

The book is divided into three parts, and I have to say I found the second act the most compelling, fast paced, edge of your seat reading. While there are smart people being heroic throughout the book, this is by far the most adventurous and heroic section.

I do have a few criticisms, and most of that has to do with character. Stephenson has never been one to dive too deep into his characters's inner worlds, but even so he could craft fleshed out, compelling and fun characters like Raz, Hiro, Jack Shaftoe. To be honest, I have to say that most of the characters fell pretty flat for me in Seveneves. I understand that the majority of them are scientists and engineers and they're not going to be the type to fall apart int an emotional mess when the shit hits the fan. But this is some pretty goddamn apocalyptic shit hitting the fan and I would expect even the coolest, logical engineer to have their emotions get hotter and go deeper than what we get here.

One character standout, though still lacking in the emotional depth I just mentioned, is the African American scientist/celebrity Doc Dubois. Any fan of Neil Degrasse Tyson won't be able to help but picture Dubois as Tyson. Even the speech cadences are there.

Again, without going into spoiler territory, the third act of this book was very reminiscent of Raz's quest in Anathem.

All criticisms taken into account, this is still a damn fun and exciting read. Fans of hard sci fi and doomsday thrillers are going to dig this a lot, I think.

Also, when I was reading it, I kept envisioning it not as a movie, but as a miniseries. With the right budget and enough hours to tell the story (5-6 hours I'd say) this would be awesome to see come to life on the screen.

BTW, I also made an online mixtape inspired by the book, especially parts one and two. You can check it out here!

FEATURED REVIEW: The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

Welcome to our Featured Reviews! In this series, we'll be highlighting book reviews by the S&L audience. If you want to submit a review, please check out the guidelines here! -Veronica

Review by Emily Carlson

The Low-Down:    

In a multiverse where magic is the product of the rise and fall of three celestial bodies, things can get a little complicated. Characters’ power waxes and wanes with the movement of these satellites, but the world seems to have reached a balance. However, that balance is shattered when the fourth, dark satellite – Oma – begins ascending. Oma, the Worldbreaker. Last time Oma rose, continents were literally torn in half by its power, and it seems that this generation will be no different. 

The Mirror Empire follows Lilia, a girl from a dying universe with an amber sky, as she is hurled into a new and thriving universe in escape from the dark forces gathering in her amber world. But Lilia is far from safe in her new blue-skied universe because the armies she fled haven’t given up the chase.


Key Themes:

Genocide, multiverses, TRULY NOXIOUS WEEDS, gender and sexuality, mystical orphans, THE DOPPLEGANGER, celestial bodies (wink, wink), BLOOD


What’s Good:

Hurley has bitten off an awful lot with her ambitious Mirror Empire. And for those of us who are bored with a linear and predictable narrative, this is a very good thing. Hurley seems determined to supplant nearly every fantasy troupe, even down to her five-gendered social structure with group marriage and funerary cannibalism. These bold rejections of what we take for granted in our own society are illuminating in Hurley’s hands. 

Take for example the thirty-something, war-hardened general returning home from her tour abroad to her teenaged, undereducated, ornamental husband. On one hand, this seems very familiar to fantasy fans (Drogo and Daenerys, anyone?). But on the other, it is completely unexpected and frankly, appalling. Readers might swoon at the scenes of Drogo and Dany together, might even excuse the some of the harsh treatment that Dany receives from Drogo. However, when the general dominates her husband and when we see how isolated he truly is, it’s harder to wear those same rose-colored glasses. 

The result is a novel that is challenging, though inducing, and at times shocking. But very much worth the time of any fantasy reader ready for something different. 

What’s Less Than Good:

Hurley has bitten off an awful lot with her ambitious Mirror Empire. What is this novel’s greatest strength can be its most frustrating weakness. Switching characters, universes, and social structures can be very confusing. Hurley pulls it off with a surprising amount of ease, but readers can still get lost easily. 

Furthermore, although Hurley is making wonderful strides towards fulfilling the potential of the unique world she created, only time (and more novels) will tell if Hurley is able to pull this off with the finesse demanded when an author deviates this much from reality. In my mind, the farther an author strays from reality, the heavier the burden is to make all of that mental strain worth our while.  


The Final Verdict: 

Maintain focus. If you can do that, The Mirror Empire is definitely worth the read. But for those of us who don’t want to leave a book with a pounding headache (I mean… not really, but you get it) this may not be the novel for you. The world Hurley creates is rich, engaging, and completely surprising. It is worth the effort the novel will require from you, but know that this is not a mindless read. So much of the world in this book is utterly new that it is bound to leave most people feeling a little star-struck. 

The world Hurley builds takes on a personality of itself, much like another character you are getting to know. It would be easy for the human characters to fade into the background of the novel and let the newness of the world stun readers. However, the characters in the novel are utterly profound. They are likable and revolting in turn, but in a way which reminds us of our own little green planet with a blue sky. The true wonder of this book is not the differences Hurley creates between her worlds and ours, but the similarities. Somehow, Hurley has managed to create a story where even with a radically different reality to ours, we are able to relate to and care about her characters. 

If you’re willing to go the extra literary mile, Hurley promises to deliver even more mind-blowing confusion in the upcoming Empire Ascendant dropping in October 2015. 

FEATURED REVIEW: Nemesis Games (Expanse #5) by James S.A. Corey

Welcome to our Featured Reviews! In this series, we'll be highlighting book reviews by the S&L audience. If you want to submit a review, please check out the guidelines here! -Veronica

Review by Robert Zak
Ed note: Review is mostly spoiler free, but reader beware!

Nemesis Games (The Expanse)
By James S.A. Corey

Executive Summary: Best one yet! I've always enjoyed this series, but I really loved this book. My only complaint would I don't have more to read! I can't wait for book 6.

Audiobook: Jefferson Mays is back! Huzzah! Don't get me wrong, he's not one of my favorite narrators or anything, but he is good. And the guy they got to replace him for book 4 was not. I was considering switching to text for this book if that narrator was used again. Thankfully I didn't have to. 

His accents for Avasarala and Alex are excellent as always. Everyone else isn't really anything special. He has good inflection and reads in a nice and clear voice. Hopefully they'll be able to get him for all the future books.

Full Review
The Expanse books have been a lot of fun since I finally picked them up last year. However I was starting to feel like maybe it was running out of steam.

I liked Leviathan Wakes and thought Caliban's War was even better. However I felt Abaddon's Gate and especially Cibola Burn weren't as good.

I've grown tired of the rotating POV's with new characters to follow around. Part of the problem is that Avasarala and Bobbie were so great in Caliban's War, everyone that followed was a disappointment.

Not only that, but they didn't really feature in books 3 and 4 and I think that's a waste. Thankfully that's been remedied in this book. While they aren't POV characters again, they do feature fairly heavily in the plot, albeit Bobbie moreso than Avasarala.

The other problem was I always found at least 1 or 2 of the POV to be less interesting than the others. The best part is that instead of forcing the readers to deal with some new characters they won't like as much, they chose to make the other 3 POVs the remaining members of the Rocinante. Not only do we finally get in the heads of characters I've come to love in the last 4 books, but we get more of their backstories as well, especially Naomi and Amos. 

In fact if you haven't read The Churn previously, I'd highly recommend doing so before this novel. I think you'll get a lot more out of Amos's storyline if you do. I'm hard pressed to pick a favorite plotline. They were all just so good.

So apart from excellent choice for POVs what really makes this book so great is the focus of the story. The stuff with the protomolecule in the last four books has been interesting, but this book mostly takes a break from that.

The tensions have long been bubbling between the three human factions of Earth, Mars and The Belt/OPA have finally come to a head. And just when I thought I was enjoying this book, BAM! It somehow got even better.

This is a very different story than last four. That may upset some fans, but for me it breathed new life into a series that seemed in danger of losing its way.

Some characters in this book made me so mad! Others made me scared or nervous. Just seeing Bobbie and Avasarala made me happy. I hated having to stop listening each day, and I couldn't wait to start listening again. 

To me that's the sort of thing that pushes something from a 4-star rating into the vary rare company of a 5-star rating. It also put it solidly on my favorites shelf. I will definitely be listening to this one again.

If I had one complaint it's that it's over! I can't wait for book 6! If you found yourself not as happy with the last book or two, I highly recommend giving this one a shot, I really think it's best one yet!

Vaginal Fantasy x Sword & Laser!

This month, both of my nerdy online book clubs combined forces and chose the same book: Uprooted by Naomi Novik! You've already heard our wrap-up on S&L, but make sure you watch the slightly more unhinged episode of VF. We cover sexy times, casting, magical systems, and otter relations.

More of Vaginal Fantasy at our website!

The debut of the Sword & Laser Collection

As you may have heard on the podcast, we launched a contest on Inkshares last month to find the debut novel for the Sword & Laser Collection. This novel would be published by Inkshares with the S&L imprint, the author would get an interview on the show, as well as writing advice from Gary Whitta!

Well, the time has come, and the news is out!

Congrats to both of our winners, JF Dubeau and G. Derek Adams! You can pre-order and follow their books, and stay tuned for their interviews on the show!

Of course, a huge congrats to ALL of the top six finalists, who will also have their books published. 

Get published with Sword & Laser on Inkshares!

Good news, everyone! You know we love Inkshares, and now we've partnered with them to kick off their Collections. What does this mean?

To debut the Sword & Laser Collection on Inkshares, we will publish the five science fiction and fantasy projects with the most pre-orders by May 31st, 2015. Sword & Laser will choose their personal favorite from the top five and make it the debut book in their Collection.

The debut Sword & Laser Collection author will receive an interview on the Sword & Laser podcast. All five winners will receive a coaching session from Gary Whitta, Star Wars: Rogue One co-writer and author of Abomination, in addition to having their book published and distributed into independent bookstores, Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble.

You can read all about the content over on Inkshares. Can't wait to see what you guys are working on!

William Gibson on VR: "They did it!"

William Gibson, author of seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, tries out a virtual reality headset and deems this iteration of cyberspace up to snuff. Hey, if he's happy, we're happy!

Alpha SF/F/H Workshop Scholarship Drive

Here at Sword & Laser, we love encouraging people to try writing for themselves, even if it's just during NaNoWriMo! But the Alpha SF/F/H Workshop is helping many young writers, ages 14-19, learn their trade with the help of volunteers at their yearly workshop in Pittsburg. But they need our help!
 


Writing genre fiction can be a lonely business for teens. The Alpha SF/F/H Workshop brings together young writers, aged 14 to 19, for ten days of creation and peer review critiques. At the end of the workshop, students leave with new skills and a vibrant network of support.

Alphans have published in dozens of markets, including Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Analog and Strange Horizons. Many of them have placed and won in contests such as The Dell Magazine Award, Writers of the Future, and the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.

Tamora Pierce, author of young adult series such as Protector of the Small and The Provost's Dog, has instructed at the workshop every year since its inception. This year, instructors include Ellen Kushner, author of the beloved Riverside books recently adapted into an award winning Audible series, Delia Sherman of Freedom Maze fame, and Andre Norton-award nominee Alaya Dawn Johnson.

Alpha works hard to keep costs low--every staff member is a volunteer, and the tuition is kept at the lowest possible level--but prospective students often require financial aid. This year--as they have for the past several--alumni have contributed writing and art to an illustrated flash fiction anthology and offered it as a donor reward in the entirely alumni-organized scholarship fund drive.

The Alpha alumni fundraiser will run March 17-26. Would you consider giving us a signal boost? Donations really do change the course of our young writers' lives.

To learn more about the Alpha SF/F/H Young Writers' Workshop, please visit the Alpha website, and check out our latest video, featuring interviews with Bruce Coville and Tamora Pierce.

FEATURED REVIEW: Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb

Welcome to our Featured Reviews! In this series, we'll be highlighting book reviews by the S&L audience. If you want to submit a review, please check out the guidelines here! -Veronica

Review by Emily Carlson

The Low-Down:
Robin Hobb is back, my friends. And for devotees of her epic fantasy series, Realm of the Elderlings, this is a very good thing. Fool’s Assassin is the much-anticipated continuation of the story of Fitz and the Fool, a pair of outcasts who struggle to save their beloved Six Duchies from near disaster. 

Fool’s Assassin opens while Fitz is enjoying his well-earned retirement. Things are finally peaceful and although he cherishes the quiet contentment of his life, Fitz struggles to accept that the need for violence is completely over. He still sequesters himself away from his loved ones, still keeps secrets like a compulsion, still can’t seem to let go of the intrigue - no matter how much he might like to. 

But when some suspicious coincidences start hinting of danger lurking outside Fitz’s rural, idyllic life, it seems it might be a good thing that Fitz has had trouble letting go of his past, because it certainly hasn’t let go of him. 

Key Themes
Country life, paranoia, fatherhood, A MURDER MOST FOUL, prophesy, creepy-crawlies, class, secret passageways, THE ULTIMATE DRAMA QUEEN

What’s Good 
Hobb is a master storyteller. Over the course of the last nine books, Hobb has honed her characters into realistically flawed, frustrating, and oh-so-lovable men and women.  Though the over ten-year gap between Fool’s Fate and Fool’s Assassin gnawed at many fans, the gap was deliberate. With such beloved characters and intricate plot, Hobb has been careful not to exploit them. That is the true triumph of this novel. Nothing here feels forced, nothing feels like Hobb simply wanted to capitalize off of her most recognized and well-loved series. Instead, Hobb has crafted a story that leaves you thinking, Of course! How could I have thought Fitz would fade into quiet retirement?? 

Hobb’s strength has always been her ability to make us care about her characters, and Fool’s Assassin fits right in with her previous books. Some of them have us tearing our hair and shaking the book in frustration, some have us cheering into the pages, but all of them feel fully realized. 

Furthermore, in a marked departure from her previous books staring Fitz, we are finally privy to more than one first-person narrator! Though I won’t reveal who this narrator is, I will say that it was a refreshing and exciting change that is probably going to prove necessary in her next novels. Hobb also builds on our feelings of dramatic irony in this book (everyone remember those high school English classes??) – the characters are intentionally a few steps behind the reader, creating delicious tension to put us all on the edge of our seats.

As another tasty tidbit, it seems that we may finally get a glimpse into the mysterious southern country The Fool hails from!

What’s Less Than Good
Though Hobb springs into action with hints of doom left and right, make no mistake – Fool’s Assassin falls victim to first-volume-in-a-trilogy-syndrome. Odd ends from the previous series and wrapped up. We build a detailed picture of Fitz’s current life. New threads of intrigue are introduced. But, just when the action is starting to get really exciting, we break for the new book. Fool’s Assassin is crucial to move the plot along, and that’s not all that it does, but it can feel frustrating to have so many questions by the end of the book. 

Furthermore, though Hobb always strives to have her novels and trilogies as self-contained as possible, readers with no experience in Realm of the Elderlings will be shortchanged by starting with this novel. Tearful reunions will make no sense, bittersweet partings won’t have their full effect. But that doesn’t mean this series isn’t worth it, it means those readers should look forward to this book at the end of finishing the previous nine books - because it is totally worth it. 

The Final Verdict
Hobb had a lot of expectations to live up to when she decided to continue the story of Fitz and the Fool. Such a beloved series is both a blessing and a curse to an author. However, Hobb rises to the challenge admirably. Although only time will tell if this series can capture the grandeur of her previous novels, Fool’s Assassin has all the hallmarks of a great new series. 

More than anything, Fool’s Assassin promises to capture our attention for her next novel in the series, and leaves us all slobbering for more. 

2014 Nebula nominees announced!

Congrats to all the nominees! Lots of Sword & Laser reads and authors in the list, which is always exciting. The winners will be announced during Nebula Awards Weekend June 4th-7th, 2015 at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago, Illinois.

Novel

The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison (Tor)

Trial by Fire, Charles E. Gannon (Baen)

Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)

The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu ( ), translated by Ken Liu (Tor)

Coming Home, Jack McDevitt (Ace)

Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer (FSG Originals; Fourth Estate; HarperCollins Canada)


Novella

We Are All Completely Fine, Daryl Gregory (Tachyon)

Yesterday’s Kin, Nancy Kress (Tachyon)

“The Regular,” Ken Liu (Upgraded)

“The Mothers of Voorhisville,” Mary Rickert (Tor.com 4/30/14)

Calendrical Regression, Lawrence M. Schoen (NobleFusion)

“Grand Jeté (The Great Leap),” Rachel Swirsky (Subterranean Summer ’14)


Novelette

“Sleep Walking Now and Then,” Richard Bowes (Tor.com 7/9/14)

“The Magician and Laplace’s Demon,” Tom Crosshill (Clarkesworld 12/14)

“A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i,” Alaya Dawn Johnson (F&SF 7-8/14)

“The Husband Stitch,” Carmen Maria Machado (Granta #129)

“We Are the Cloud,” Sam J. Miller (Lightspeed 9/14)

“The Devil in America,” Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor.com 4/2/14)


Short Story

“The Breath of War,” Aliette de Bodard (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 3/6/14)

“When It Ends, He Catches Her,” Eugie Foster (Daily Science Fiction 9/26/14)

“The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye,” Matthew Kressel (Clarkesworld 5/14)

“The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family,” Usman T. Malik (Qualia Nous)

“A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide,” Sarah Pinsker (F&SF 3-4/14)

“Jackalope Wives,” Ursula Vernon (Apex 1/7/14)

“The Fisher Queen,” Alyssa Wong (F&SF 5/14)


Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Screenplay by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Edge of Tomorrow, Screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Guardians of the Galaxy, Written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Interstellar, Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan (Paramount Pictures)

The Lego Movie, Screenplay by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller  (Warner Bros. Pictures)


Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy

Unmade, Sarah Rees Brennan (Random House)

Salvage, Alexandra Duncan (Greenwillow)

Love Is the Drug, Alaya Dawn Johnson (Levine)

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, A.S. King (Little, Brown)

Dirty Wings, Sarah McCarry (St. Martin’s Griffin)

Greenglass House, Kate Milford (Clarion)

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, Leslye Walton (Candlewick)

GUEST POST: Matt Fuchs on Writing a Female Robot

When I drafted my new novella, Rise of Hypnodrome, which takes place in 2039, I couldn’t decide whether the main character, Grady Tenderbath, should order a male or female robot from Amazon.

Mired in a slump at work, Grady is impressed by online reviews about personal robots. They’re praised for their ability to help humans grow as professionals and realize their potential. His robot can be programmed as a man or woman, depending on which gender he thinks he’ll work better with.

Grady’s feelings of self-worth are riding on this robot. The job at his publishing house is the central focus of his life, yet he can’t seem to unlock his creative potential. He is plagued by the sense that he’s underachieving.  

I wanted to make things right for my fictional main character. But I have to admit, I wasn’t only thinking about Grady’s creative potential. I was thinking about myself as a male writer. Did I have it in me to create a compelling character out of a female robot?

It’s hard enough to succeed at writing a human of the opposite gender. I know all about this. Before Hypnodrome, I wrote a novel from a woman’s perspective. According to my writer’s workshop, I missed the mark. When my female character had casual sex and said “dude,” she was too bold and assertive – “not believable.” When she cried, she was too meek – “not likeable.” Ultimately her character wasn’t “rounded enough.”  

I defended my writer ego by imagining my readers were biased. They simply refused to believe a guy could sufficiently understand women to write from the female perspective. Unfortunately for my writer ego, other male authors have succeeded where I failed, and the folks in my writer’s workshops were more than happy to point them out.  

Concluding that writing female characters wasn’t a strength of mine, I decided that Grady would ask for his robot to be programmed as a male. This robot, named Andy, was going to be a very helpful colleague and nurturer of Grady’s talent.

At least, that’s what I planned to have happen in my story outline. The funny thing is, when I actually wrote the scenes, I immediately sabotaged their relationship. Andy lasts only about a week in the Tenderbath household. He’s too aggressive. He thinks in terms of short-term rewards at the expense of strategic, long-term benefits. He’s a male robot in a China shop.  

What happened? Looking back, I think Grady’s frustration with Andy had as much to do with me trying to fulfill my own creative potential, as it did with Grady fulfilling his. I knew it was relatively easy for me to make the robot believable and entertaining if the character was male instead of female.  

Too easy. I sabotaged Andy because, deep-down, I wanted to push myself.

Luckily there was a quick fix, one that didn’t require Grady to mail back his robot in exchange for another, and didn’t require me to go back and rewrite the whole story.

Andy would have a sex change.  

Andy the robot becomes Ashley the robot – no surgery is required, you just press a few buttons. Ashley is more intuitive and strategic than her male predecessor. She could be considered Grady’s “office wife,” a term that carries a connotation of subordinance. But Ashley knows she’s not subordinate as a female, and she doesn’t believe she’s inferior as a robot, either.  

She supports Grady and is vulnerable with him, but she’s also incredibly ambitious. Ashley is no one’s office wife.

When I returned to the same workshop, my readers thought I struck a nice balance of traits with my robot, crafting a more believable portrayal of a female than the one from my previous novel. Not only did Ashley help Grady at his publishing company, she helped me as a writer.

But for my next novel, do I dare take another shot at telling a story from the perspective of a human female? Was there something about Ashley being a robot, some extra margin of error that freed me and my readers to connect with her as a character?  

Perhaps, in the sequel, Ashley becomes a woman.

ABOUT MATT FUCHS
att Fuchs grew up in Nashville, TN, lived in Baltimore and currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife, Marcy. He majored in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins. Matt has been a freelance food writer; co-founded H&H Creative Ventures, the entertainment production company; and serves on the leadership team at CREATE Arts Center in Silver Spring. "Rise of Hypnodrome" is his first novella.

ABOUT RISE OF HYPNODROME
It’s 2039, and a political faction called the Lifestyle Party has risen to power under the Presidency of Deepak Chopra. The new government bans scientific innovation and introduces a set of policies focused entirely on maximizing personal happiness. So why is Grady Tenderbath so unhappy? Believing that he’s fallen short of his professional potential, he buys a personal robot muse to nurture his talent and ego, while his wife Karen, a genetic scientist, becomes more entrenched in her lab. But just when Grady seems on track to solve his career crisis, he discovers a new problem: he’s swooning for the empathetic yet artificial Ashley. Not only that, he’s distracted by haunting visions of Karen transforming into...something else. "Rise of Hypnodrome" explores how future generations might draw from the realm of epigenetic engineering to eventually control their own biology. Whether human or robot, the characters in this cutting-edge science-fiction novella have one thing in common: an irrepressible desire to evolve.

BLOG INTERVIEW: Nalo Hopkinson releases two e-books with Open Road Media

Recently we were introduced to author Nalo Hopkinson, who was kind enough to answer some questions for us here on the blog. Two of her books, The Salt Roads and short story collection Skin Folk, are being published as e-books for the first time through Open Road Media. Editor Betsy Mitchell tells us, "I had the pleasure of introducing Nalo's wondrously imaginative work to the world when her Brown Girl in the Ring won the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest. It's a delight to be able to bring out the first-ever ebook editions of The Salt Roads and Skin Folk.”

Thanks for taking the time to do this interview, Nalo! When did you start writing?

NH: You're most welcome. Thanks for asking me. I believe I began writing in my mid-30s. But I'd been an avid reader since I was three years old. Author Samuel R. Delany has said that one learns more about how to write by reading a lot and internalizing models for good writing. I agree. I always have a book or seven on the go. I also watch a lot of fantasy and science fiction media, and read comics, graphic novels, and literary criticism in science fiction and fantasy.

Was fantasy always a genre you were interested in writing in? Who were some early favorites for you?

NH: Yes, fantasy and science fiction about equally. Early favourites (I'm Jamaican-Canadian; I use British spelling conventions) include Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, Theodore Sturgeon, Terri Windling, Emma Bull.

Tell us about your book, The Salt Roads! What are some of the themes you explore? How would you classify the novel?

NH: In some ways, it's a time travel novel. It's written in four voices in three different times and locations and one timeless place. In some ways, it's the coming-of-age story of an Afro-Caribbean goddess. An exploration of the challenges faced by mixed race Black women throughout history. An honouring of women and men who do sex work, whether by choice or through lack of it. A thank you to the queers and transfolk of colour who fought for freedom during Stonewall. A praise song to Black people's survival despite, oh, everything.

It's really refreshing to hear about something outside the box of typical fantasy. Do you feel like genre fiction is beginning to move away from the Eurocentric, male point of view?

NH: I don't. And it needn't. I lurves me some Neil Gaiman, some China Mieville, some Ian Macdonald. Orson Scott Card should by all means keep writing fiction about smart, misunderstood white boys. He writes them well. (Though I fervently wish he would stop writing irrational and inaccurate hate screeds against queer folk. It's both bad science and a poor way to profess love for one's neighbour.) I don't want fewer white, male voices in the genre. I do want more centrisms, greater inclusion, a larger world view. Fantasy and science fiction are full of good stories. I want more.

Another book of yours coming out on ebook via Open Road is Skin Folk. What are some of your personal favorite short stories from this collection?

NH: You know how many parents don't like to tell you which is their favourite amongst their children? That's how I feel about my stories.

Hah, fair enough! What are you working on these days?

NH: Working on a new novel that my agent is currently shopping around. Collaborating on a short story with Nisi Shawl. If all goes well, it'll appear in a tribute anthology for Samuel R. Delany. Making Black mermaids, boudoir and fantasy dolls in various media: stuffed and painted fabric; plaster; and fabric design. Trying to perfect my skills at macaron-making and baking gluten-free bread. Teaching Creative Writing at the University of California Riverside, which has perhaps the most lovable student body in the world.

Where can people follow you online?

NH: I'm most frequently on Twitter, where my handle is nalo_hopkinson. My website is nalohopkinson.com.