Upcoming: THE THORN OF DENTONHILL by Marshall Ryan Maresca (DAW)

MarescaMR-1-ThornOfDentonhillUSMarshall Ryan Maresca‘s The Thorn of Dentonhill is the first novel in the Maradaine fantasy series. Due to be published on February 3rd, 2015, by DAW Books, it sounds pretty interesting:

Veranix Calbert leads a double life. By day, he’s a struggling magic student at the University of Maradaine. At night, he spoils the drug trade of Willem Fenmere, crime boss of Dentonhill and murderer of Veranix’s father. He’s determined to shut Fenmere down.

With that goal in mind, Veranix disrupts the delivery of two magical artifacts meant for Fenmere’s clients, the mages of the Blue Hand Circle.  Using these power-filled objects in his fight, he quickly becomes a real thorn in Fenmere’s side.

So much so that soon not only Fenmere, but powerful mages, assassins, and street gangs all want a piece of “The Thorn.” And with professors and prefects on the verge of discovering his secrets, Veranix’s double life might just fall apart. Unless, of course, Fenmere puts an end to it first.

I hope to have more about this author and novel in the near future. Watch this space…

Upcoming: BELZHAR by Meg Wolitzer (Dutton)

WolitzerM-BelzharUSI’ve only read a little bit of Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings. While I thought it was very well written, it just wasn’t for me. Then I spotted this novel, which I thought sounded interesting. Here’s the synopsis:

If life were fair, Jam Gallahue would still be  at home in New Jersey with her sweet British  boyfriend, Reeve Maxfield. She’d be watching  old comedy sketches with him. She’d be kissing  him in the library stacks.

She certainly wouldn’t be at The Wooden Barn, a therapeutic boarding school in rural Vermont, living with a weird roommate, and signed up for an exclusive, mysterious class called Special Topics in English.

But life isn’t fair, and Reeve Maxfield is dead.

Until a journal-writing assignment leads Jam to Belzhar, where the untainted past is restored, and Jam can feel Reeve’s arms around her once again. But there are hidden truths on Jam’s path to reclaim her loss.

Belzhar is due to be published in the US by Dutton (Penguin), on September 30th, 2014; and in the UK by Simon & Schuster, on October 9th (for some reason, I could not find a UK cover for the novel – given how close it is to publication, this is rather baffling).

Review: THE MAGICIAN KING by Lev Grossman (Plume/Arrow)

GrossmanL-M2-MagicianKingUSA superb follow-up to The Magicians

Quentin and his friends are now the kings and queens of Fillory, but the days and nights of royal luxury are starting to pall. After a morning hunt takes a sinister turn, Quentin and his old friend Julia charter a magical sailing ship and set out on an errand to the wild outer reaches of their kingdom.

Their pleasure cruise becomes an adventure when the two are unceremoniously dumped back into the last place Quentin ever wants to see: his parent’s house in Chesterton, Massachusetts. And only the black, twisted magic that Julia learned on the streets can save them.

In an effort to catch up for the third volume in Lev Grossman’s Magicians series, here’s my very quick review of The Magician King: it’s an excellent follow-up to a brilliant first installment. If you haven’t read this series yet, I strongly urge you do so. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Continue reading


Recently, Penguin Books organised a Q&A with Elizabeth Gilbert, the mega-selling author of Eat, Pray, Love. With the recent publication of her latest book, the novel The Signature of Things, I’m sharing some excerpts from that long Q&A…

GilbertE-AuthorPic (JenniferBailey)After the incredible dual successes of your memoirs Eat, Pray, Love and Committed, the safer, more obvious choice for you would have been to continue in nonfiction. What was it that prompted you to return to writing novels with THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS?

I needed to come home to my roots as a writer. Fiction is where I began my writing journey, and all I ever wanted to be was a pure novelist. Fate intervened and led me into the world of memoir (and believe me, I am grateful for my success there!) but the next thing I knew, a dozen years had passed since I’d written a word of fiction. I simply couldn’t let another year go by, so I embarked on this novel.

How difficult is it for you to shift gears between genres?

I thought it would be more difficult than it was. I feared I had lost the skill of fiction entirely (almost the way you can lose a foreign language if you don’t practice it often) and so I was intimidated by the prospect of returning to the form of a novel. As a result of my fear, I over-prepared for this book ridiculously. I did ten times the research I actually needed, just to feel covered and safe. Up till the very day I put down the research and began actually writing the novel, I honestly wasn’t sure if I could do it. But as soon as I began, the moment Alma was born, I realized, “Oh! I was so wrong! Fiction isn’t a foreign language; it’s my mother tongue!” I had forgotten nothing, except the joy of it. It felt like a homecoming.


THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS opens in 1800 and spans much of the 19th century as its heroine Alma Whittaker comes into her own as an accomplished botanist. Why did you choose to set your novel during this particular time? And what aspects of this era are important for us to remember in modern times?

The nineteenth century fascinated me because of its intellectual accessibility. I could never write a story about modern science, because the comprehension of modern science is far out of reach to anyone except modern scientists (and each of them can only understand the specifics of their own narrow fields). The nineteenth century was the last moment in history when a relatively educated layperson could follow what was going on in the world of science and invention to a wide degree. Also, there were no “professionals”, such as we know them today. This was a time when amateur explorers, naturalists and enthusiasts were are still making major contributions to progress. Alma is a woman who would have been up-to-date on all the latest thinking in the world, across many different fields of study. With her own well-tended library, her private offices, and her brilliantly cultivated mind, she could easily have come up with botanical theories to rival those of any man. This idea of such open access to history-changing ideas fascinated me more than anything. That, and an inherent attraction to the gorgeous language of the day. With apologies to the Elizabethans, I think nobody ever wrote or spoke better English than during the nineteenth century. We could use a little more of that.


Eat, Pray, Love and Committed – US Covers

The novel’s story soars across the globe – from London, to Peru, to Philadelphia, to Tahiti, to Amsterdam and beyond. You are famous for being an ardent traveler – from Italy, India and Indonesia in Eat, Pray, Love; to Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia in Committed – so readers will surely be looking forward to the armchair travel of THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS. Can you discuss why you chose any of these particular settings for the story?

I think of this story in some respects as a mystery novel (in that everyone is seeking to solve or find something of great importance to their fates) so I felt the need to follow the mystery wherever it led me, anywhere on the planet, as long as the search remained historically accurate. For Henry to have made his fortune in the quinine trade, for instance, I needed him to explore Peru and then set up business in the Dutch East Indies, before settling down in Philadelphia, which was in fact the birthplace of the American pharmaceutical industry. Ambrose’s search for rare orchids would naturally have led him to the jungles of South America. As for the section of the novel that takes place in the South Seas, well… no self-respecting nineteenth century adventure story would be complete without a journey to the South Seas! That was just a nod to Kipling, Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson – as well as a nod to Captain Cook himself. Finally, Alma’s search for an independent and dignified life could only have brought her back to Amsterdam, which has always been a progressive and intellectually welcoming city. As somebody who herself has found great answers to life through travel, I wanted my characters (especially Alma) to be afforded the same privilege. (And if researching this novel forced me to travel to places like London, Amsterdam and Tahiti in order to get my facts straight… well, that is simply the sacrifice I am willing to make for my work!)


Eat, Pray, Love and Committed – UK Covers (Bloomsbury)

The title of your novel alludes to a theory set forth by a sort of scientific mystic from the 1500s, Jacob Boehme, who argued that the entire natural world is a divine code, crafted and encrypted by God for the betterment of humankind. Boehme was a pretty weak scientist but a highly inspirational thinker. Why did you choose his phrase “the signature of all things” as the name of your novel?

First of all, the phrase itself is simply beautiful. But I also felt that Boehme’s theory speaks to a common longing which unites scientists, the religious and the artistic – namely an urge to break the code, to look behind the veil, to be shown the secret answers. I feel as though all the main characters in the novel are, in their own ways, searching for the Signature of All Things. They don’t merely want some of the answers: they want the answer.

Your book has much of the feel of a novel written in the nineteenth century. How, as a writer, did you go about establishing the authenticity of your novel’s mood?

I completely immersed myself in nineteenth-century prose and ideas. Fortunately this was fun for me; I have always had a particular love for writers like Dickens, Trollope, Eliot, Austen, and James. I went back and re-read many of those great novels, and, of course, I also sought out as much information as I could on the botanical exploration and history of the day. But mostly I read letters – not only letters of great naturalists, but also the letters of common people. Those unguarded everyday letters are where I could best hear people’s common speech, and that helped me fall down the rabbit hole of time and language.

Henry Whittaker, your heroine’s father, dominates the first fifty pages of the book, and he rules much of his daughter Alma’s life thereafter. He’s a bit like a pre-modern Gatsby: an uncultured roughneck who parlays his I’ll-show-them attitude into an incredible fortune. Do you see his story as a commentary on the temptations and pitfalls of the American Dream?

I didn’t intended for Henry to be a commentary on the American Dream, to be honest… partially because I don’t totally see Henry as American, and partially because I don’t see his trajectory as being tragic in the manner of Gatsby. Henry doesn’t have enough self-doubt or self-awareness to be a tragedy, and he never really fails, either. There is nothing he longs for that he does not achieve – except immortality, of course. I see Henry more as a countryless force of nature, as a creature who is, from birth to death, comprised of pure and unstoppable will.  It was exhilarating for me to write Henry Whittaker, because he is so huge and relentless and shameless. It was so fun to write of his galloping ascent and his stubborn endurance. He’s the power source whose energy fuels the whole first half of the book. I think of him like the booster rocket who eventually thrusts Alma out into the stratosphere. Yes, he is domineering, but he also loves and challenges his daughter, and without the example of his ruthless might, Alma could never have been the force that she turns out to be.

Your heroine, Alma Whittaker, may be one of the most fully developed characters in all of American fiction. Were there real-life nineteenth-century women to whom you referred in creating her?

I looked closely at the lives of such women as Mrs. Mary Treat (a New Jersey-based expert on carnivorous plants who was a correspondent of Darwin’s), and Elizabeth Knight Britton (a respected moss expert who founded the New York Botanical Gardens along with her husband), and Marianne North (a wonderful and fearless botanical illustrator who, like Alma, set out alone to explore the world quite late in life)… And many more besides! In the nineteenth-century, botany was considered the only science that was truly open to women (flowers and gardens being “feminine” topics, you know) so I found no shortage of brilliant and tireless female researchers from whom to draw inspiration for Alma’s work. Emotionally, though, Alma is my own creation. From the very first page, I simply felt that I knew her in my bones, and that I had an obligation to tell her story as honorably and thoroughly as I could.

For each of the friends, marriage turns out to be, to one degree or another, a catastrophe. You have reflected a great deal about marriage in your other writings, especially in the memoir Committed. What do you think your characters’ errors might teach us about the rather tricky business of matrimony?

I think, to be honest, the depiction of their marriages is a bit more realistic and accurate than the model that most romantic novels would have us believe! I didn’t intentionally set out to make these women suffer, but I wanted to show what would really and truly have happened in these mismatched unions. None of their husbands are bad men (in fact, there is not a villain of any kind in the entire novel) but they are simply not the right fit. We all know that this can happen. Poor Retta Snow is the only one who is really undone by matrimony (though I suspect her mind would have unraveled over time anyhow, no matter whom she had married.) Prudence and Alma both survive their marriages with dignity. As their mother teaches them early on, dignity is the only thing that matters, and time will reveal who has it. I feel proud that, by the end of the novel, they both have earned their dignified lives.

The mass popularity you achieved with Eat, Pray, Love has probably changed your definition of success. As you go forward, what does it mean to you now to succeed as a writer?

I’m lucky in that pressure for success is completely off for me – at least as far as I’m concerned. Fortunately, there’s no way to match the phenomenon of Eat, Pray, Love, so I don’t even have to attempt it! What Eat, Pray, Love did for me was to give me the liberty (both artistically and financially) to pursue my own private literary passions in whatever direction I wanted. There could be no The Signature of All Things without the beneficence of Eat, Pray, Love. That book has been my great enabler, my great patron. My notion of success now is simply to keep following my interests, wherever they may take me.

What are you working on now?

Absolutely nothing! I am resting. I am deeply at rest. This book was a long journey and I think I may have to catch my breath a bit before launching into another.


The paperback edition of The Signature of All Things was published by Penguin in the US last week, and will be published in the UK by Bloomsbury tomorrow.

Author Photo Credit: Jennifer Bailey

This Urban Fantasy Hero is Not Impressed…

SinghN-ShieldOfWinterUSI received the UK edition of Nalini Singh’s Shield of Winter from Gollancz, today. While looking up information and getting cover images for my next “Books Received” post, I found the US cover (right). I thought the fella’s pose just looked so… unimpressed with the situation, that I had to share it here.

Assassin. Soldier. Arrow. That is who Vasic is, who he will always be. His soul drenched in blood, his conscience heavy with the weight of all he’s done, he exists in the shadows, far from the hope his people can almost touch – if only they do not first drown in the murderous insanity of a lethal contagion. To stop the wave of death, Vasic must complete the simplest and most difficult mission of his life.

For if the Psy race is to survive, the empaths must wake…

Having rebuilt her life after medical ‘treatment’ that violated her mind and sought to stifle her abilities, Ivy should have run from the black-clad Arrow with eyes of winter frost. But Ivy Jane has never done what she should. Now, she’ll fight for her people, and for this Arrow who stands as her living shield, yet believes he is beyond redemption.

But as the world turns to screaming crimson, even Ivy’s fierce will may not be enough to save Vasic from the cold darkness…

Shield of Winter will be published in the UK by Gollancz and Berkley in the US, at the beginning of June 2014. Here’s the UK cover…


US/Canada Giveaway: SWORN IN STEEL by Doug Hulick (Ace)

Hulick-SwornInSteelUSOne of the most-anticipated follow-up fantasy novels of the year, Ace Books has provided three copies of Doug Hulick’s SWORN IN STEEL! All you have to do to enter the competition is leave a comment or email me (at the address at the bottom of the page), and I’ll randomly select three winners on Friday evening. Competition is open to US and Canadian residents only, I’m afraid.

In case you haven’t heard of the series (shame on you!), here is the synopsis for Sworn in Steel

It’s been three months since Drothe killed a legend, burned down a portion of the imperial capital, and unexpectedly elevated himself into the ranks of the criminal elite.

Now, as the newest Gray Prince in the underworld, he’s learning just how good he used to have it. With barely the beginnings of an organization to his name, Drothe is already being called out by other Gray Princes. And to make matters worse, when one dies, all signs point to Drothe as wielding the knife. As members of the Kin begin choosing sides – mostly against him – for what looks to be another impending war, Drothe is approached by a man who not only has the solution to Drothe’s most pressing problem, but an offer of redemption.

The only problem is the offer isn’t for him. Now Drothe finds himself on the way to the Despotate of Djan, the empire’s long-standing enemy, with an offer to make and a price on his head. And the grains of sand in the hour glass are running out, fast…

Both Among Thieves and Sworn in Steel are out now in the US, published by Ace Books (Penguin). The novels are published in the UK by Tor, and Sworn in Steel is out tomorrow! Among Thieves was published in 2011. You can find my review here, and an interview with the author here.

Joël Dicker introduces THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIRS (Penguin US, MacLehose Press UK)

Last week, I published my review of Joël Dicker’s debut novel and international sensation, THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR. A thoroughly enjoyable read, the novel was provided for review by Dicker’s UK publisher, MacLehose Press (an imprint of Quercus). This week, I have a video interview with the author to share, provided by his American publisher, Penguin:

Q&A with Meg Howrey, one half of MAGNUS FLYTE


Meg Howrey is one half of the writing team that goes by the name “Magnus Flyte” – Christina Lynch forms the other half. Their second novel, City of Lost Dreams, was released in the US yesterday by Penguin (it is also available in the UK). Penguin US organised a Q&A, which is reproduced below, in which Howrey discusses writing as a partnership, cake (such good cake…), and the two novels (of course).

FlyteM-1-CityOfDarkMagicHow did your collaboration under the name Magnus Flyte come about?

We met at a writers’ retreat on an island off Cape Cod and became fans of each other’s work. When we got back to California, we started getting together for mini writers’ retreats at Chris’s house near Sequoia National Park. The plot for our first novel, City of Dark Magic was hatched on a walk with Chris’s dog Max. The name “Magnus Flyte” is a hybrid (much like our novel). “Magnus” was a usurping Roman senator (not so different from City of Dark Magic’s villain, Charlotte Yates) and “Flyte” is for Sebastian Flyte, Evelyn Waugh’s wonderful lush who, like Max in our novel, has a difficult relationship with his highborn family and the house they live in.

There have been a lot of news stories lately about women who use male pen names, especially when writing genre fiction. Do you think it’s helpful?

Possibly helpful to the author, who may have any number of reasons to use a pen name – a desire to escape gender stereotyping, anonymity, sheer whimsy. One can only imagine how delighted J.K. Rowling was to watch her book get wonderful reviews without any references to Voldemort! Since we had heard that men avoid books by women, we decided to choose a male pseudonym to reach both genders. But then our identities were made public from the beginning, so we didn’t get a chance to see if “Magnus Flyte” would fool anyone. No matter, we love him anyway.

In City of Dark Magic, Prague was very much its own character as well as the setting for the novel. Why did you choose Vienna to be the setting of City of Lost Dreams?

Vienna was the adopted home of Beethoven and we had grown so fond of old LVB in the first novel that we were curious about visiting at least one of the 60 apartments he lived in there as, reportedly, the worst tenant ever. Also, neither of us had ever been to Vienna. And finally, we highly recommend all writers setting a novel in a beautiful European city so that one is forced to travel there and do research (eat sachertorte, visit castles) in a manner that is tax deductible. (Note to I.R.S: don’t even think about it, we have all our receipts.)


You did quite a lot of research for City of Dark Magic – visited Prague, had a great deal of notes and researched music as well. How much research did you do for City of Lost Dreams?

Binders! Color-coded binders! In the first novel we had briefly touched upon the life of poet Elizabeth Weston, her stepfather Edward Kelley, and Kelley’s partner in magic, Dr. John Dee. These were all characters we wanted to explore a bit more, particularly Elizabeth, about whom not very much is known. (A fact that we believe she would find completely unacceptable – the woman was more famous than Shakespeare in her time.) Along the way we got interested in Franz Anton Mesmer (who gave us the word “mesmerized” and the phrase “animal magnetism”). Not everything makes it in. Well, everything makes it in on the first draft, because Magnus is a terrible pack rat for obscure history, but then we prune him down a bit.


As a heroine, Sarah Weston is particularly memorable. How did her character evolve in your second novel?

Sarah still isn’t terribly interested in winning prizes for decorum, though perhaps in the second book she is not quite as guided by certain… compulsions. In the sequel she is fighting to save the life of someone she loves, so she’s more focused. The challenges she faces are personal, and she’s questioning herself a lot more: what she believes, what she wants. But as Sarah herself says, she’s no princess. And she’s not one to look a gifted horseman in the mouth.

In City of Dark Magic, the science angle had a lot to do with perception and time travel. You continue those themes in the sequel, and also mix in some ideas about healing and medicine.

We’ve both been interested in the brain’s influence on disease for a while, but in August 2012 when we returned from our research trip to Vienna, Chris’s dog Max was deathly ill. It turned out to be an autoimmune disease with no known cause. With great treatment at U.C. Davis Max went into remission and is now very healthy, but the episode raised a lot of interesting questions about what medicine is and isn’t able to do, and how ultimately mysterious our immune systems are. Why does a healthy body turn on itself? How can that process be reversed? What power does the mind have? And is Chris’s dog Max really – as we suspect – the reincarnation of the 6th Duke of Devonshire?

Your writing is loaded with references from the arts, history and politics. What sort of reader did you envision for this series?

Perhaps we think more of where our potential readers might be when they read rather than what their expectations might be. We think of what we would ourselves enjoy reading on a long plane flight, a weekend with challenging relatives, just after a bout of concentrated study, or feeling mentally frisky. We’re eccentric readers and lovers of long dinner parties where the talk ranges from travel to science to gossip to art, to dreams and dogs and music and philosophy and sex. Our ideal reader takes something away from the books that starts a conversation or a burst of laughter among friends. We’ve loved hearing from readers that were inspired to check out Prague, or listen to Beethoven, or find out more about certain historical characters. And of course we’re deeply indebted to booksellers for knowing whose hands to put the book in. Booksellers are the real celebrities.


Prague Castle at night

What is your process for co-writing? What are some of the challenges and benefits of writing with a partner? How has that process come to change now that you have completed two novels?

Both books were written in the same way, according to the rules laid down by Magnus Flyte. We alternate chapters, relay style, responding to whatever you were just sent. No rewriting until we get to the end. Trying our best to inspire, amuse, and surprise each other.

Some chapters get sent to the other person with the heading: “You might want to kill me for this one.” (Inevitably, this chapter will be received rapturously.) In the revision process there is a lot more discussion but we give each other a free hand, no “this is my chapter and you can’t touch it.” The best sentence wins, the egos are parked outside. By the end we have trouble remembering who wrote what, and in fact a great many paragraphs and even single sentences are a combination of both writers. People always ask us “what happens when you disagree?” and we have only the dull answer that when we disagree we just talk and listen until we come up with something that we both can live with.

You have developed quite a backstory for Magnus Flyte, who “may have ties to one or more intelligence organizations, including a radical group of Antarctic separatists” and “may be the author of a monograph on carnivorous butterflies.” How did Magnus Flyte, the author, become such a colorful character?

Constructing Magnus’s biography (and extensive bibliography) is actually the only time we have ever written together in the same room. It was a bit like improv…or an accelerated version of our writing process.

Author A: I think Magnus wrote a bibliography of a 14th century warrior…

Author B: A warrior priest. A warrior priest named Clement. Clement something…

Author A: Clement the Bald.

Author B: Perfect.

The legend of Magnus continues to grow. He just accidentally became king of an island nation. He’s taken up smelting. He’s writing a treatise on the best way to make love in the outdoors.

These books sit in an unusual space, crossing multiple genres. What are some of your individual and collective literary influences?

We both emerged from the womb with books in our hands and haven’t stopped reading since then, omnivorously and eccentrically. We have a lot of shared enthusiasms – from Nancy Mitford to neuroscience. Chris has always had a twisted passion for Nabokov and S.J. Perelman, Meg loves Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley. We both love mysteries: Simenon, Sayers, Marsh. The list is long and genres be damned.

Can you give us any hints about your next novel or where the series is going?

Only Magnus knows…


Magnus Flyte’s City of Dark Magic and City of Lost Dreams are both out now in the US and UK, published by Penguin. Be sure to follow the author(s) on Facebook and Twitter for more news and updates.

Cover Reveal: “The Invention of Wings” by Sue Monk Kidd (Viking)


THE INVENTION OF WINGS is the next novel by Sue Monk Kidd, whose debut novel was the mega-selling The Secret Life of Bees. The reason I’m sharing the image, despite being a rather nice cover, is because my eye was caught by the data on the aforementioned debut:

The Secret Life of Bees spent 175 weeks on the New York Times trade paperback bestseller list; it has sold more than six million copies in the United States alone; it has been translated into 36 languages. And it was turned into an award-winning movie. That’s incredible. Now, all I have to do is write one similarly excellent, and I can stop worrying about making enough money to buy food… [Only half kidding…] Incidentally, Kidd’s second novel also landed on the New York Times bestseller list at number one.*

The Invention of Wings has been described as “a sweeping novel of hope, daring, the quest for freedom, and the desire to have a voice in the world.” The novel is due to be published in January 2014 in the US by Viking (Penguin). With my new plans to start featuring more non-speculative, non-SFF novels on the blog, I think I may just have to get my hands on a copy of this. Here is a sort-of-synopsis, from the publisher:

The Invention of Wings tells the entwined stories of Hetty “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early 19th century Charleston, who yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls of the wealthy Grimke household and the Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, a real-life historical figure, who grows up to become a leading abolitionist and women’s rights pioneer. Kidd goes beyond the record to flesh out the rich interior lives of all of her characters, both real and invented.

* After working in and around the publishing industry for almost a year, I am finding numbers like these increasingly impressive, now that I’ve discovered just how nuts the industry actually is…

Guest Post: “Language and World-Building” by Emily Croy Barker

CroyBarkerE-ThinkingWomansGuideToRealMagicWhat sort of languages do they speak in other worlds? I gave some serious thought to this matter in writing my novel, The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic — and was intrigued and inspired to discover, in reading about the life of J.R.R. Tolkien, that the same question had helped spark the creation of Middle-earth itself.

Tolkien was 22 years old and a philology student at Oxford University when he encountered the eighth-century Old English poem Crist by Cynewulf. As Colin Duriez writes in J.R.R. Tolkien: The Making of a Legend, the poem included a couple of lines that Tolkien found intensely evocative:

Eala Earendel engla beorhtast

Ofer middangeard monnum sended.

“Hail, Earendel, of angels the brightest,

Sent over middle-earth to mankind.”

Tolkien was struck particularly by the name “Earendel,” which has roots in older, Germanic languages and which he called “euphonic to a peculiar degree.” It inspired him to write his own poem about a hero’s quest.

Instead of just borrowing the name “Earendel,” however, as a good philologist Tolkien worked out an equivalent in Elvish, the private language that he had been developing from Norse and Germanic roots. Earendel becomes “Eärendil” in Tolkien’s poem – and in the sprawling mythology that would eventually underlie The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.

“…The name could not be adopted just like that,” Tolkien later wrote. “It had to be accommodated to the Elvish linguistic situation, at the same time as a place for this person was made in legend.” Elvish, he went on to say, “was beginning, after many tentative starts in boyhood, to take definite shape at the time of the name’s adoption….” In a foreword to The Lord of the Rings, he wrote that the legends and myths of Middle-Earth were “primarily linguistic in inspiration and was begun in order to provide the necessary background of ‘history’ for Elvish tongues.” For Tolkien, the creation of a fantasy world, its history, and its language were inextricably intertwined.

CroyBarkerE-AuthorPicCreating my own fantasy world, I kept that lesson in mind. In my novel, Nora, a graduate student in literature, wanders into an entirely different world, where she ultimately begins the study of magic. Before that, however, she has to learn the language.

Luckily, she’s able to pick up the basics of the common tongue, Ors, while under a translation spell. But it still takes her a while to grasp the nuances of the language and to develop real fluency, not to mention to lose the unfortunate accent that she accidently acquired while under the spell. As she masters Ors, she also learns more about the strange, often frustrating new world in which she finds herself. There are 12 different words for sheep. Given names in the ruling class are all patronymics. Women are supposed to speak slightly differently—more hesitantly—than men. Nora learns just what some of her new friends think of her when she overhears them referring to her with a pronoun used for inanimate objects, animals, or servants.

I want to be perfectly clear: In inventing a language, I was nowhere near as rigorous, analytical, or sophisticated as Tolkien was. There’s no Ors dictionary or grammar. But including just a few details of how the language worked added interesting texture to the world that I’d imagined.

It also helped me show how foreign this place initially seems to Nora. More than once, she’s frustrated because there’s no Ors equivalent for the English word she has in mind. For an academic like Nora, being suddenly illiterate is quietly terrifying. The first time that she even begins to feel at home in this alien world is when she picks up a child’s lesson book in Ors and realizes that she can teach herself to read.

Language is what we build stories out of. We can also use it to build worlds.


Emily Croy Barker is the author of THE THINKING WOMAN’S GUIDE TO REAL MAGIC, published by Penguin US this month. To find out more, be sure to follow Emily on Facebook and Twitter.

An imaginative story of a woman caught in an alternate world—where she will need to learn the skills of magic to survive

Nora Fischer’s dissertation is stalled and her boyfriend is about to marry another woman.  During a miserable weekend at a friend’s wedding, Nora wanders off and walks through a portal into a different world where she’s transformed from a drab grad student into a stunning beauty.  Before long, she has a set of glamorous new friends and her romance with gorgeous, masterful Raclin is heating up. It’s almost too good to be true.

Then the elegant veneer shatters. Nora’s new fantasy world turns darker, a fairy tale gone incredibly wrong. Making it here will take skills Nora never learned in graduate school. Her only real ally—and a reluctant one at that—is the magician Aruendiel, a grim, reclusive figure with a biting tongue and a shrouded past. And it will take her becoming Aruendiel’s student—and learning magic herself—to survive. When a passage home finally opens, Nora must weigh her “real life” against the dangerous power of love and magic.

The novel has been described as perfect for fans of Lev Grossman’s Magicians and Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches.