Interview with ERIKA JOHANSEN & Giveaway!

JohansenE-AuthorPicErika Johansen’s The Queen of the Tearling has been getting some great press ever since WFC 2013 (at least, that’s when I heard of it). The novel finally hits shelves in the UK today, and to celebrate its release, not only do I offer the interview that follows (organised by Transworld), but I also have one copy of the novel to give away to a UK reader! Details at the end. But first, the interview…

Can you give us a brief introduction to The Queen of the Tearling?

A 19 year-old girl, Kelsea Glynn, is the heir to the throne of a degenerate kingdom. Having been raised far from the capital city, she’s not prepared to be the Queen, but she will need to learn quickly. Both the neighboring ruler and Kelsea’s own uncle would like to see her dead. Her kingdom is a mess, drowning in corruption and inequality. All Kelsea has are a strong moral compass, a lot of courage, an unwieldy temper and two hereditary sapphires which may or may not be magical in her hands.

Who are the main characters of the book?

The main characters include Kelsea, the Queen; Mace, her Captain of Guard; the Red Queen, who rules the neighboring kingdom; Javel, a guard in the Tear castle; and Father Tyler, a priest in the Tearling’s central church. Please don’t ask me to explain in a nutshell how they intersect.

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UK Cover

What is the one thing you hope the reader will take away after reading the novel?

This is fairly presumptuous of me, but ideally, I would hope to instill some sense of civics, of the social contract. I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but there is certainly a large and vocal contingent in my own country that believes it’s perfectly reasonable to grab whatever one can for oneself, and worry about the broader effects on society later, if at all. But I consider America’s subtle moral acceptance of this “I got mine” philosophy to be absolutely toxic to the creation of a healthy society. I’m no philosopher, and I certainly don’t have the intellectual depth to tackle this subject properly. Writing fiction is really the only way I can engage with ideas. At its most basic level, The Queen of the Tearling is about a young woman who has been raised to think about the impact of her actions, not just on herself and her nearest and dearest, but on everyone. Sometimes we simply have to take care of each other: neighbors, strangers, even enemies. This is the only way for a community to succeed. My heroine, Kelsea, is often confused about the “right” thing to do, but when she acts, she consistently tries to choose what’s right for her kingdom as a whole, rather than for herself. If even a tiny fraction of the energy that individuals currently expend on self could be redirected toward the community, I think it would be an extraordinary thing to see.

Kelsea Glynn is the novel’s protagonist – a strong, intelligent character with her own insecurities. Can you tell us a little bit more about the inspiration behind Kelsea, and what sets her aside from other protagonists in the genre?

I have grown extremely tired of reading books in which the female protagonist – even if she’s a strong character – is driven by her love life. I’m also tired of books in which the attractiveness of the heroine is a central plot point, a factor that changes the entire landscape of the novel. Such women can be good entertainment, but to my mind, many of them also make poor role models. I’ve been longing for a book in which a woman can be a strong central character without everything revolving around her looks or her romantic life. Kelsea Glynn is not good-looking, and like many teenage girls, she is tormented by all of the feelings of inadequacy that go with that realization, particularly since it seems to put the man she loves out of her reach. But Kelsea does not let her insecurities control her destiny, or even pay them much mind most of the time. She’s a Queen, and she has more important things to worry about than being pretty. This is not to say that Kelsea is unique; I’m sure there are plenty of similar heroines out there and I’ve simply been reaching for the wrong books. But many of the book’s early reviews have specifically referenced deep pleasure – not to mention surprise – that in a book with a female protagonist “there is no romance!” So I guess I’m not the only one fed up with the formula.

Who are your favourite authors? Were you inspired by them when writing The Queen of the Tearling?

My three favorite authors are Stephen King, William Faulkner and Sara Paretsky. Of the three, I can’t really say that any of them directly inspired this trilogy, except perhaps for Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon, a wonderfully plotted dark fantasy that I have always admired. The Tearling probably drew more inspiration from individual books that I love: Frank Herbert’s Dune; Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon; Richard Adams’s Watership Down; and Terry Brooks’s Heritage of Shannara series all spring to mind. And, of course, anyone who writes any fantasy, ever, should probably toss an amorphous thank-you in the direction of J.R.R. Tolkien, who showed us how it should be done.

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US Cover (Harper Collins)

Setting is hugely important in The Queen of the Tearling, what’s most interesting is how the kingdom feels very ‘Medieval’ even though it’s set in the future. Could you talk a little more on why you chose this setting?

This kingdom is essentially medieval; no electricity, little technology, a lot of superstition. But I chose to set it in the distant future for a pretty prosaic reason: because I wanted my kingdom – and my heroine in particular – to have access to earth’s history, to past nations’ mistakes. The age-old wisdom that there’s nothing new under the sun is in heavy play in the Tearling; all of the mistakes my characters make have certainly been made before. I wanted the ability to shed historical perspective, particularly since my fictional Queen was raised by a historian.

You’ve described yourself as a “Horror reader, Fantasy writer” – can you expand a little on this, and why you chose to write Fantasy and not Horror?

I can’t write good horror. I’ve tried for years; horror is by far my favorite genre to read, and I would love to be able to give any reader the kind of joy I’ve received from King and Straub and Matheson and Lovecraft and the rest. I had youthful dreams of writing a great haunted house novel, of creating an utterly damned edifice to rival Hill House or the Overlook Hotel. But all of my attempts at writing horror have been uniformly terrible, and I finally had to admit to myself that I just don’t have any talent for it. But I wasn’t willing to return to writing about the real world, so next I tried fantasy. Interestingly enough, I’m not that much of a fantasy reader, at least in terms of breadth. I like several fantasy authors quite a bit, and The Lord of the Rings is my all-time favorite book, but the vast bulk of my reading material comes from other genres. So in writing this trilogy, I’m often flying blind, not always sure of the parameters of fantasy. There’s a point at which idea becomes trope, and sometimes I fail to recognize it. Thank god I have an attentive editor, though even she can’t always save me from myself.

How much involvement have you had thus far in the film adaptation of The Queen of the Tearling?

Very little, all on the writing end. The book has been given to a screenwriter who is not only talented but – as any reader will quickly see – extremely courageous in the undertaking. This book constantly refuses to answer the reader’s questions, because I wrote it specifically for readers like myself. I love a book that doesn’t tell me everything I want to know, one that gives me sufficient information to follow the plot but still keeps me constantly questioning. But one of my first thoughts when the word “film” came up was that the book would be a nightmare to adapt for screen, precisely because so many questions will not be answered until either the first or second sequel. Readers have far more patience with this sort of multiple-installment ambiguity than viewers do. So my involvement with the film thus far has consisted of trying to help the screenwriter maintain consistency in this incredibly secretive world, while not giving away anything I want to keep secret. It’s a rough balance to strike, and should the film ever come to fruition, the screenwriter will likely deserve a medal of some sort…perhaps for artistic bravery, certainly for saintly patience with the source.

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You can find an excerpt from The Queen of the Tearling over on Tor.com.

Giveaway Details: As I mentioned at the top, I have one copy of the novel to give away. I’ll leave this open for the weekend, and pick at random one commenter to receive the book. Just to repeat, the giveaway is UK only. (Sorry everyone else!)

Mini-Review: “The Seventh Miss Hatfield” by Anna Caltabiano (Gollancz)

Caltabiano-SeventhMissHatfieldUKA Most Anticipated of 2014, sadly fails to live up to expectations…

Rebecca, a 15-year-old American, isn’t entirely happy with her life, comfortable though it is. Still, even she knows that she shouldn’t talk to strangers. So when her mysterious neighbour Miss Hatfield asked her in for a chat and a drink, Rebecca wasn’t entirely sure why she said yes. It was a decision that was to change everything.

For Miss Hatfield is immortal. And now, thanks to a drop of water from the Fountain of Youth, Rebecca is as well. But this gift might be more of a curse, and it comes with a price. Rebecca is beginning to lose her personality, to take on the aspects of her neighbour. She is becoming the next Miss Hatfield.

But before the process goes too far, Rebecca must travel back in time to turn-of-the-century New York and steal a painting, a picture which might provide a clue to the whereabouts of the source of immortality. A clue which must remain hidden from the world. In order to retrieve the painting, Rebecca must infiltrate a wealthy household, learn more about the head of the family, and find an opportunity to escape. Before her journey is through, she will also have – rather reluctantly – fallen in love. But how can she stay with the boy she cares for, when she must return to her own time before her time-travelling has a fatal effect on her body? And would she rather stay and die in love, or leave and live alone?

And who is the mysterious stranger who shadows her from place to place? A hunter for the secret of immortality – or someone who has already found it?

There is nothing more disappointing than high expectations that are so utterly dashed. There is much to recommend in the synopsis for this novel: immortality, time travel, a bit of romance, and what does appear like a pretty interesting and original premise. Sadly, however, it just failed to engage me at all. I really struggled to get through this.

I’ve been struggling with how best to write the review. I don’t want to just lay into it, as that is completely unconstructive. Too long a review will look like hedging or dissembling. Too short a review will look too dismissive. So, here are three(-ish) paragraphs of my thoughts…

There really wasn’t much in The Seventh Miss Hatfield that I particularly liked. The writing is mostly fine, but rather lacking in flair, and few phrases stood out as noteworthy – and those that did in the moment faded almost immediately. The characters, which should have been pretty interesting and complex, were simplistic and shallow. I did not buy first that the protagonist was from the 1950s, and then none of them felt like they were of the early 1900s (and Caltabiano’s momentary joke of having Rebecca go too far with her vocal affectation was of extremely fleeting amusement). The emotional reactions of the characters are bland or cliché. A lot of the novel seemed to draw heavily on a number of influences, and therefore felt like an amorphous chunk of déjà vu.

The way in which Rebecca is turned immortal by the sixth Miss Hatfield is clunky and all-too-easily accepted by the character. The main thrust of the plot is buried in a rather dull, all-too-familiar unrequited (for no reason that I could tell) romance. Henley’s acceptance of Rebecca’s appearance in his home, claiming to be his cousin, was stunningly easy and implausible. He sees through her ruse immediately, and yet still welcomes her with open arms and no questions asked. The real identity of one off-screen character was transparent from the start – the eventual reveal at the end left me muttering, “Do catch up, won’t you?” (Sorry to be so vague, there.)

I did like this bit, though, as I think it was the only bit in the book that came close to resonating:

“I used to love stories of adventure and books about regular people like me waking up one day and deciding to seek treasure, find their fortune.” Henley’s eyes crinkled in a smile. “I suppose I was like every boy in that way. I wanted adventure.”

“What happened?” I asked.

Henley looked confused.

“You said you used to love stories of adventure. What happened?”

“I grew up.” Henley’s words were hard, but he still had a smile on his face. “I put away the copy of Treasure Island I’d kept on my dresser for years. I knew I had to put my childhood away and become an adult.”

I’m sure there are plenty of people who believe the same. People reading this blog, though, are probably not among them. Holding on to a taste in adventure or fantasy fiction (and TV, movies, comics) is a healthy thing, I believe.

At first glance, this novel held a lot of promise. And yet, reading it, one gets the sense that it is unfinished. Despite its slim length, it wasn’t particularly focused. It was predictable, and lacked any particular depth. Maybe it could have been 50-100 pages longer, with more attention paid to making the characters more three-dimensional?

I don’t think I could recommend The Seventh Miss Hatfield without also heaping on plenty of caveats. The time-travel and immortality aspects of the story held huge potential – for excitement, adventure, and surprises. Sadly, none of this potential was realised.

Rat Queens, Vol.1 – “Sass & Sorcery” (Image Comics)

Writer: Kurtis J. Wiebe | Artist: Roc Upchurch

Who are the Rat Queens?

A pack of booze-guzzling, death-dealing battle maidens-for-hire, and they’re in the business of killing all god’s creatures for profit.

It’s also a darkly comedic sass-and-sorcery series starring Hannah the Rockabilly Elven Mage, Violet the Hipster Dwarven Fighter, Dee the Atheist Human Cleric and Betty the Hippy Smidgen Thief. This modern spin on an old school genre is a violent monster-killing epic that is like Buffy meets Tank Girl in a Lord of the Rings world on crack!

Collects: Rat Queens #1-5

In the tradition of Skullkickers (also published by Image) and Princeless, Rat Queens is a tongue-in-cheeky, funny take on traditional sword-and-sorcery tropes. We have the classic fantasy band of adventurers, with an amusing dynamic. That they happen to all be women is a nice touch, too, and Wiebe clearly shows (without any type of preaching) that there’s no reason why only big, hulking male barbarians or wizened, white-bearded sages have to be at the centre of fantasy adventures. Someone in the Rat Queen’s home town is setting up the local mercenary bands – engineering deadly assignments intended to eradicate them entirely. Unfortunately for the conspiracists, the Rat Queens won’t go down without a fight, a lot of killing and plenty of raucous fun.

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As the first volume, we’re still only just getting to know the characters by the end, but I am very eager to read more of their adventures. There is a perfect balance between action, story, and just plain fun in this first volume. At the same time, Wiebe does not ignore the importance of character development, and we start to see them develop a good deal over the course of this collection – there’s still plenty of scope for expansion, which I have no doubt the creative team will firmly exploit in the future.

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There were so many great touches throughout that just made me like the characters more – the unusual, perhaps conflicting character traits and mannerisms they have round them out wonderfully (one, for example, has extreme social anxiety, despite being able to throw down with a troll – below), and even after this short introduction to them, we start to see them as fully-rounded, three-dimensional characters. The dialogue and interaction between the cast is sharp and funny. There are a fair few background gags and asides that a quick read might miss (poor, put upon Dave, for example).

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The artwork is clear, if slightly cartoony. This does not detract from the story, rather it enhances and complements it perfectly – Upchurch realises the action and visual gags extremely well. Like my other favourite artists, Upchurch has a gift for drawing and presenting facial expressions, and conveying so much with a simply smirk, raised eyebrow, or knowing glance. It really adds an excellent, bonus nuance to how the characters interact with each other.

A must-read for fantasy and comics fans. Long live the Rat Queens! Can’t wait to read book two.

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Upcoming: “The Relic Guild” by Edward Cox (Gollancz)

CoxE-RG1-RelicGuild2014I’ve been lucky enough to read a (very) early draft of this, about a year and a half ago, before it was submitted to publishers for consideration. I can’t wait to see the final version. This cover, unveiled earlier this week, is awesome. The Relic Guild is, in my opinion, a must-read of 2014.

Here’s the synopsis:

Magic caused the war. Magic is forbidden. Magic will save us.

It was said the Labyrinth had once been the great meeting place, a sprawling city at the heart of an endless maze where a million humans hosted the Houses of the Aelfir. The Aelfir who had brought trade and riches, and a future full of promise. But when the Thaumaturgists, overlords of human and Aelfir alike, went to war, everything was ruined and the Labyrinth became an abandoned forbidden zone, where humans were trapped behind boundary walls a hundred feet high.

Now the Aelfir are a distant memory and the Thaumaturgists have faded into myth. Young Clara struggles to survive in a dangerous and dysfunctional city, where eyes are keen, nights are long, and the use of magic is punishable by death. She hides in the shadows, fearful that someone will discover she is touched by magic. She knows her days are numbered. But when a strange man named Fabian Moor returns to the Labyrinth, Clara learns that magic serves a higher purpose and that some myths are much more deadly in the flesh.

The only people Clara can trust are the Relic Guild, a secret band of magickers sworn to protect the Labyrinth. But the Relic Guild are now too few. To truly defeat their old nemesis Moor, mightier help will be required. To save the Labyrinth – and the lives of one million humans – Clara and the Relic Guild must find a way to contact the worlds beyond their walls.

Be sure to check out Edward Cox’s Tumblr and Twitter for more on his writing and exuberant personality (directly inverse to just how awesomely dark, atmospheric and Peake-ian his novel is). The Relic Guild is due to be published by Gollancz, on September 18th, 2014. It is also part of the publisher’s £1.99 Debut eBook promotion – which means there is no excuse for you to not check out this great new author. (At the time of writing, there weren’t yet any retail links to pre-order the novel, but I’ll be sure to share it ASAP.)