Do you like pirates? How about queer pirates? How about female protagonists of color? Sea monsters? Moral ambiguity that doesn’t create false equivalences and actually informs characters personalities and choices? Dynamite, page-turning action? What about slow burn, complicated romances with a healthy dose of fic tropes like bed sharing, enemies to friends to lovers, handcuffed together, matching tattoos, and clothes sharing? Then Emily Skrutskie’s The Abyss Surrounds Us and The Edge of the Abyss are the books for you!
To be frank, I’m impressed with how much character work happens in such a small amount of space. Don’t be fooled by the size! Coming in at around 280 pages each in paperback, they’re shorter than your average YA tome. But like the Tardis, they’re bigger on the inside and a doorway to epic adventures.
A Brief (Spoiler Free) Run Down
The Abyss Surrounds Us (2016): Cassandra Leung, or Cas, has fought pirates her whole life, training genetically engineered beasts called Reckoners to protect seafaring commercial vessels from pirate attacks in the NeoPacific. All that changes when she’s taken captive by pirates and forced to birth and train a black market Reckoner pup for her captors…or face death. Complicating it all is a pirate girl named Swift, whose life and future become bound up with Cas’s even as the former Reckoner trainer seeks to escape her floating prison and expose the black market Reckoner trade.
The Edge of the Abyss (2017): When Cas voluntarily joins the pirate crew that captured her, she and Swift find themselves fighting to move past their past hurts and ideological differences. Their own ship is a battleground, as their captain pits one against the other to see who will come out on top, as are the waters surrounding it. For outside, yet more rogue Reckoners—called Hellbeasts—have been set loose upon the NeoPacific by a scientist looking to turn a profit. With the ecosystem of the NeoPacific in peril, will the trainer-turned-pirate be able to fight against the creatures she once cared for and raised? Will she and her pirate girl be able to overcome their differences and save the seas they call home?
The Good Stuff
As those of you who have read my other YA trilogy reviews may recall, I’m not that big a fan of first person narration. Weak first person POV can ruin an otherwise compelling plot and characters, but that is decidedly not the case here. Quite the opposite. Skrutskie puts first person narration to its best use, providing a detailed, immediate view of the main protagonists emotions, perspectives, and thought processes.
It helps that I see bits of my own experience with ADHD in Cas. Whether its her need to fidget when she’s emotionally overwhelmed or how concrete tasks soothe her racing mind, I feel represented, even if it’s unintentional.
“I listen to the muffled rumblings of the ship’s motors, to the distant church of the waves against the island’s beaches, and let it drown out the constant noise inside my head.
But I can’t keep my thoughts down. Now that training is over, now that I’m no longer distracted by a simple task, my head runs wild with a constant chant—What next? What next? What next?
The future’s out to get me.”—The Edge of the Abyss, p. 180
Oh wow, yeah, that’s painfully accurate.
On a broader scale, though, Cas’s perspective is both engaging and necessary for the story to unfold as it does. Take the war of ideals between the perspective Cas was raised with and the one espoused by the pirates. This wouldn’t be half so compelling were it in third person. This is nowhere more poignant than in her relationship with the Reckoners. Her grief over Durga’s death, her private rebellion over training Bao, the hesitation to kill the frightened Hellbeast attacking the ferry and self-hatred over retraining Bao. As readers, we get to live in that headspace with Cas, and all while external circumstances and her relationship with Swift add their own pressures and urgency. It’s a potent cocktail for psychological interest.
The linkages to the overarching ideological differences between pirate and shore society—and how each views the other as murderous and cruel in their own way—enhance the conflict further. Only seeing Cas’s perspective, as opposed to seeing Swift’s as well, means we’re inclined to side with Cas, even when she’s wrong. Revelations of other character motivations are thus as complicated for us as they are for Cas. I love complicated when it’s done well, and Skrutskie does very, very well.
In the first book, Cas and Swift are both desperately trying to keep the both of them alive. The conflict derives from their different methods, which stem from their diverse backgrounds. The clash between commercial capitalism and survivalist piracy raises questions about death and exploitation. Is protecting a shipping vessel with a giant ship-smashing turtle murder or manslaughter? Justice or cruelty? And are the pirates any better for attacking said vessels in the first place? Does their desire to gain monsters of their own ‘even the scale’ or make them just as bad?
The books don’t provide definitive answers to these questions, because, there aren’t any. It’s a truly morally grey situation. No one’s going to come out of it with clean hands, and Cas must either adapt or drown (both metaphorically and quite literally).
Yet it’s more than social ideology; Cas comes from a place of cultural and economic privilege relative to Swift. One of the best parts of having a protagonist ‘in’ the system of privilege is getting to see how it works firsthand. Though we don’t get as much about the broader world (more on that below), we do see how working to raise Reckoners has shaped Cas to view pirates as collateral damage rather than human beings. We also get to witness the slow, painful deconstruction of her worldview from the inside.
The questions Cas’s experience unlearning her privilege and perspective raises are pressing both in a general sense and specifically given the state of our society: What causes people to rebel? What generates change? How do we move people from privilege to self-reflection?
The answer The Abyss Surrounds Us and The Edge of the Abyss offer is empathy. Seeing the lives of those she once discounted first hand—their struggles, their loves, their losses, their joys, and their sorrows—shifts Cas’s point of view. She can no longer justify destroying pirate vessels once she sees the innocent lives affected by such cold measures. Yet she brings the same empathy to the Reckoners, empathy the pirates themselves lack due to their experience on the receiving end of the beasts’ assaults. Through Cas, we see both that the pirates do not deserve to die at the hands of trained monsters, and that the monsters don’t deserve casual destruction.
The ‘sick pride’ some pirates take in Reckoner death cuts deep because we see firsthand Cas’s understanding of their biology and capacity for feeling. The fearful cephalapoid (a kraken-like Reckoner) broke my heart, and when Bao responds to Cas’s annoyed “you little shit” remark, I got a bit teary. Cas helps us see them for what they are: animals only doing as they’re trained to do. They’re not anthropomorphized or overly humanized. They’re…‘animalized’ for lack of a better phrase, given the dignity they deserve for what they are. It’s hard to explain without reading it yourself, but it’s well done.
Speaking of Cas, another strength of her as a protagonist is how well we get to know her, warts and all. Skrutskie doesn’t shy away from giving Cas honest and relatable flaws, and then allowing us to truly see them working in Cas’s mind and behavior. Cas is not a paragon of virtue by any means, though that’s not to say she’s a horrible person either. She’s just the right mix of positive and negative traits. She’s funny, intelligent, quick-thinking, and resourceful. She can be a bit broody, a bit selfish, and a bit of a dick, and I like it. Rarely do we get to see female protagonists get to be viciously acerbic and kind of petty without being condemned for it.
This isn’t ‘good, virtuous shoregirl’ meets ‘broody, edgy pirate girl’. Both Swift and Cas are little shits to each other, but without being catty. It’s just two people who are kind of assholes taking turns pissing each other off, then becoming friends and falling in love. It all feels so, well, so human. We don’t get this degree of honesty out of female protagonists often, much less queer female protagonists. It’s so refreshing I want to cry.
And their relationship flips so many tropes of YA romance that I consider hackneyed at best, toxic at worst. There’s no instant physical attraction that blinds the protagonist to her love interest’s flaws, no starry eyed declaration of this being ‘the one’ the moment she spots some specific physical feature. Theirs is a relationship built on trust, at first forced due to Santa Elena’s linking of their fates. But it grows beyond that, and not all at once. They put the slow in slow burn, and it works well to develop not only their romance, but their friendship and working partnership.
That there is no ‘instant spark’ actually forces the narrative to build their relationship in other ways. Instead of giving herself the easy out, Emily Skrutskie took the harder road of carefully building a believable frenemy-turned-lovers arc, and it pays off big time.
Likewise, Swift isn’t the pretty asshole whose closed off from everyone but Cas. Yes, there’s a layer of vulnerability that Swift lets Cas in on that she doesn’t share with others. But to me, it’s less a matter of “dude not in touch with his feelings who needs a woman to open him up” and more a matter of believable characterization given Swift’s circumstances and life history. And it may be that it’s just because two women have a different dynamic than a male and female character would. Broody and Emotionally Closed Off isn’t a trope strongly associated with female characters, so Swift doesn’t feel that way to me.
I can’t deny that a big piece of it is Skrutskie’s skill with writing characters. I actually didn’t realize how trope-y Swift and Cas’s dynamic sounded until I started writing it down. She’s just that good at writing people rather than trope-clad paper dolls.
This skill works to her benefit both in the first novel with the slow burn, and in the second with ratcheting up the—to borrow a phrase from Emily Andras—‘sexy, sexy drama’. Skrutskie takes her time establishing Cas and Swift’s personalities, motivations, and characters before beginning to edge them toward a romance. She’s patient, and boy does that first kiss scene in The Abyss Surrounds Us pay off because of it. Then when she finally gets to the steamy bits in The Edge of the Abyss, it hurts so good.
Although there’s one aspect to the conflict in The Edge of the Abyss that didn’t quite work as well for me, the rest of their ideological and culture clash works so well that in the end, that one plot point is a blip on the radar. Their romance is deliciously, believably complicated. I honestly couldn’t put it down. Good work, Skrutskie.
What I appreciate most about their dynamic is Skrutskie hammering on equality and consent. Time and again, Cas insists that she and Swift can only have a relationship on equal footing, and Swift agrees. It builds up the slow burn while at the same time thumbing it’s nose at those YA stories that perpetuate imbalanced, unequal relationships between the protagonist and love interest, even unwittingly. Power imbalances—like that between a captive and one of the crew who captured her—are neither healthy nor sexy.
“But even though I want to, even though there’s energy crackling between us right now that’s almost impossible to deny, I know we can’d do anything about this. I know how that would look. No matter how you swing it, I’m still a prisoner on this ship, and Swift is still one of my jailers. We go this far, no further…And until we stand on the same level, absolutely nothing can happen between us.”—The Abyss Surrounds Us, p. 238
Their first sexual encounter further drives the point home with its depiction of healthy consent and communication. It’s a bit awkward, a bit goofy, but honestly, what sex isn’t? I’ve been having sex for a couple decades, and I still bang my head on my partner’s nose or accidentally elbow them in the face. Two bodies that close together? It’s bound to happen, and that doesn’t detract from how enjoyable sex can be. It’s just real life.
Everything about their relationship feels so intentionally written. I deeply appreciate the realness of it all, and that makes it far sexier than some of the explicit smut I’ve read. It doesn’t eroticize innocence or shame past experience. They’ve both been with other people, yet that doesn’t take away from the beauty of what they have together. It’s special because of what they feel for each other, not because it’s a ‘first time’ or ‘magically better than every other sex’. Yet Skrutskie also takes the time to zero in on them asking each other what they like, what’s okay, and how they’re feeling. I haven’t seen that anywhere outside of fanfic, especially not for teens.
Normalizing multiple partners while not denying the specialness of sex with someone you love is impressive. But also normalizing the normalness of sex while still managing to make it sexy and enjoyable to read and normalizing communication? That’s a goddamn miracle.
If you’re a fan of expansive worldbuilding with meticulous attention to detail for the setting leading up to the current conflict, this may not be the book series for you. While the immediate conflict is well situated within it’s own time, there’s little in the way of backstory for how the world got to its current dystopian framework.
We know “the Schism” happened, for example, but not why or what that entailed. We know how the Reckoner breeding system functions and it’s role in protecting commercial interests in the NeoPacific, but not why such drastic measures were necessary in the first place. Neither is it explained just how commercial interests play into the larger socio-political structure of the Southern Republic of California (or the other states), or even how the different republics and nations that make up what used to be the United States relate to each other.
In one sense, this isn’t all that surprising. Almost the entirety of the story takes place out on the open sea. Pirates typically represent a more anarchist position in stories and operate on the fringes of society. These pirates in particular seem more concerned with eking out an existence (and sticking it to the privileged ‘shorefolk’) rather than starting a revolution to upend the current social system. Their lack of interest in the political minutiae of the landed states can be excused on that grounds.
The ocean is kind of a liminal space anyway, a microcosm to itself. The every day details of shore life in this universe impact seafaring life very little, and what does affect the pirates is dealt with on a case by case basis. It’s a struggle over resources, not politics, and it works in this context. Even the drive to save the NeoPacific biosystem from the Hellbeasts’ invasive predation revolves around resource management and survival rather than a political clash between pirate and shorefolk. Within that struggle, do the ins and outs of post-Schism society truly matter a great deal? Probably not.
At the same time, the lack of worldbuilding does weaken a bit of the immediacy of the struggle in both books. Or, rather, the struggle for power in the NeoPacific could have been even more evocative if situated by a greater knowledge of just how the landed states have fucked over the marginalized who end up becoming pirates. How awful is the world on land that a floating city where a good half of the people live in shipping containers is a viable option? Are they just that committed to freedom? Or is there truly no place for them on land?
And if the latter, why? Swift is convinced that there’s no place for her on land, but we don’t know enough about the society on land to contextualize her conviction. And is there truly no way for Cas to return to shore in some capacity? How powerful is the Reckoner trade? How much influence does it have on the government? Why do fishing and ocean-going trade have central places in the economy anyway?
Moreover, without a deeper knowledge of the society from which both Cas and the antagonist Fabian Murphy hail from, it’s difficult to understand his actions. The choice to so thoroughly screw over the NeoPacific by releasing unregulated sea monsters to those with neither the training nor skill to control them is a bit opaque. Especially when such a choice has the potential to utterly destroy the biosystem of an entire ocean. Are we to believe that Fabian Murphy is just that much of a shortsighted asshole that money was enough for him to say, “eh, fuck the ocean”? As he is a scientist, I find that hard to swallow without greater insight into the society he inhabits.
It is possible for this motivation to work, with the right context. Is the world now so thoroughly capitalistic that human and animal lives truly are only measured by the dollar sign? If so, I want to know more about that. It could explain Cas’s ruthless streak and ability to sublimate her feelings for Swift for her own advancement. The way in which interacting with Reckoners on a personal level would mitigate such a perspective could have been powerful as well. All of society wants to treat animate beings as objects sacrificed to the almighty dollar, but sows the seeds of its own destruction because human beings cannot live with their animals without bonding to them in some way. In the end, empathy finds a way.
All of this is making it sound like I didn’t enjoy the books or that these issues overcame my suspension of disbelief. They didn’t and I did enjoy them. I’m the kind of person for whom compelling characters can make up for weak or fuzzy worldbuilding, and the Abyss series overwhelmingly does. While I think the story could be even stronger had we gotten a bit more from the worldbuilding—e.g., greater context for how the Schism came about, what society looks like now, and how that plays into Murphy’s motivations for selling pirates black market sea monsters—they’re still strong books as is.
I’m just a greedy bastard and want even more. Instead of leaving me cold, the dearth of worldbuilding only makes me want to beg Emily Skrutskie to write another book in this universe to flesh it out. I’d read the hell out of a Santa Elena prequel. Or a prequel set just as the Reckoner business is forming that grapples with the ethical questions of breeding and training genetically engineered monstrosities to attack ships filled with innocent human beings. (God, I want that book so badly now.)
Skrutskie has such a gift for characterization and balancing fic tropes with upending toxic ones, that I’d honestly read anything she wrote, in this universe or out of it. There’s so much good about this duology that I don’t want to put people off just because I’m being nitpicky about worldbuilding. In this case, I pick out of love. And the desire to see something truly great be goddamn fantastic.
Final Score: 9.5/10
Thoroughly enjoyable, fast paced, action packed story with fleshed out, interesting characters and an eye to undermining toxic tropes and exploiting harmless fanfic conventions to their best use. It could have been a 10 with some additional worldbuilding content, but I’d still read it again in a heartbeat and heartily recommend it to my friends.
It’s queer, there are pirates; there are queer pirates. And sea monsters. And actually nuanced moral ambiguity. The protagonist is a a queer woman of color. Honestly, what’s not to love?
Images Courtesy of Flux
Creator Corner: Interview with Fantasy Author K Arsenault Rivera
I’ve said so before, and I’ll say it again: talking with artists and content creators about their work is one of my favorite things. That’s why I do this interview series in the first place. Plus, there are so many artists from marginalized communities writing for their own communities that get overlooked in our major-franchise-oriented media landscape. Books especially seem to fall by the wayside. Since I grew up reading fantasy, getting to talk with an author of queer high fantasy is a treat. K Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter captured my attention from the start, with its unique epistolary format, non-Western medieval setting, and pair of women-loving-women protagonists. Wives who are gods that fight demons? Yes please!
Needless to say, getting to interview K was a pleasure I couldn’t pass up. So join me as she talks her inspiration, writing queer fantasy, representation, and fan-made metal albums inspired by her book series.
Gretchen: Let’s start at the beginning. How long have you been writing? Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
K Arsenault Rivera: Well, I’ve basically been writing since I was in elementary school. Writing was a big part of how I learned English. When I came to the US from Puerto Rico, I was very young and spoke mostly Spanish at the time, so learning how to speak English was of course a gigantic hurdle. My mother would read to me very often when I was a kid, from picture books and stuff like that, to try and make sure that I was more fluent in the language. But it wasn’t really until I started writing my own stories that everything began to sink in.
I mean, it was a lot of fun doing so. All those assignment in class that were things like making up your own nursery rhyme—those were great for me. The very first story I wrote was about a spider named Joaquin who was trying to escape the rain that I wrote when I was maybe five, and even then I knew that was what I wanted to do. Of course as time goes on, you stop writing about cute spiders and you start writing Devil May Cry fanfiction and passing it out to your classmates. They think it’s mildly amusing, and you think, “Hey, maybe I really can do this whole writing thing.” That’s basically it for me.
G: This is a two parter, but they’re related: First, who are your top three influences as a writer? Second, are there any stories or authors that inspire you when the creative juices aren’t flowing?
KAR: So I think that when it comes to authors and things that influence you, it’s easier for me to speak about what influences a particular work. Especially because a lot of the research I did for Tiger was so specialized. A lot of this was stuff I really didn’t know about beforehand. When it comes to Tiger’s Daughter, certainly, my biggest influences there would be poets. Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu being two of the major ones. But also I’ve always been a huge fan of Greek myth, and I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shoutout to my boy Homer—also a big influence in the big, romantic, mythic tone of Tiger.
But if I’m talking about things that influenced me when I was younger, Tamora Pierce is one. I’ve always really loved Malinda Lo’s novels, too; Huntress and Ash had me shook when I was a kid. Oh god, they were so good.
In terms of things that I read in order to get my juices flowing, I do read an awful lot of Han court poetry. A lot of tanka and a lot of haiku, mostly tanka though. I’ve got two books right here on my desk and one is a collected compendium of Izumi Shikibu’s poetry that I read usually before I start writing every day. It’s good to remind yourself of the tone you’re trying to hit.
G: With so many people watching movies and TV shows, do you think reading books still has a strong place in queer storytelling?
KAR: Absolutely I do. The main reason for this is kind of a simple and practical one. When I was a kid and I wanted to consume queer media, it was easiest to do so in book form because if my mother saw me holding it I could like about what it was about. The same is not necessarily true for movies, games, and stuff like that. I’ve definitely had the experience where I was playing Mass Effect and you go to kiss the cute blue alien and you’re playing a girl and you’re terrified that your parents are going to walk in and you’ll have to explain some things. But that’s not really the case with a book. With a book, there’s no real way of knowing immediately what it’s about. You can discuss a bit more freely the details that you want your parents to know.
But even more than that, I feel like while media like tv and movies are very important in terms of visual representation, there are still certain things that are very difficult to do in movies. We get more leeway with the types of representation that we can promote in books and literature. For instance, poly relationships come up way more in literature than they do in movies or games or anything like that. That’s something that we’ve been talking about in genre circles for years now. There are lots of different poly relationships that come up in fantasy and genre fiction. That’s not really discussed in any other forms of media. So yeah, there’s definitely still a place for books.
G: I was just trying to come up with poly relationships recently in visual media, especially queer and poly, and the only one I could think of off the top of my head was in Black Sails.
KAR: Right, it’s not discussed, or if it is, it’s a one-off joke. You see that a lot in sitcoms; Broad City had a throuple show up but they were the butt of the joke for being ‘weird.’ But if you ask any allocishet white dude what his favorite fantasy series is, he’s probably going to get to Wheel of Time eventually. As normative as Wheel of Time is, it does feature a polyamorous relationship at the core of these twelve, thirteen books, and that’s not really something you would normally get in a visual medium. I feel like genre fiction gets a reputation for being more conservative but we are experimenting more than visual media is.
G: On a related note, what do you think fantasy as a genre or genre fiction more broadly can do uniquely well when it comes to the creation of queer protagonists and telling of queer stories?
KAR: I think that a lot of it lies in the control we have over the worlds we build. The job of fiction and the job of genre fiction especially is to hold up a mirror to things that we experience. The job of all fiction is to build empathy in one direction or another; all art is propaganda, it just depends on what sort of propaganda it is.
In terms of genre fiction, there are times when we don’t think that something would be possible in our day-to-day lives. However, we’re able to create worlds in fantasy settings and scifi settings where being queer isn’t necessarily a problem. Where we can see these big, huge heroes and having people like that having people with these larger-than-life abilities is very important in terms of inspiration.
There’s a reason that Orwell—who is best known for dystopias like Animal Farm and 1984 —even though he firsthand witnessed the rise of fascism and went to go fight in the Spanish civil war, he chose genre fiction in order to combat those things. There’s a reason for that and it’s because sometimes it’s easier to construct these enemies and know why they need to be defeated when you have more control over the world. It’s also easier to be more in control of the message that you’re trying to send, as I said, all art is propaganda.
It’s important to have these queer heroes triumph in ways that they haven’t necessarily in history so far so that we can enable another generation down the line to triumph in those ways. Nobody is every going to think that they’re impervious to arrows until they read a cool story about somebody who is. Nobody is going to think that they can slay a giant until they read a story about this kind of nerdy dude who did with just a sling. Once that idea is in your head, it’s a lot easier to reach for it in your own life.
G: Tell me about your books, The Tiger’s Daughter and Phoenix Empress; what inspired you to write this story? Why did you choose the epistolary format?
KAR: The simple answer for this is that I read an awful lot of Victorian fiction between the ages of fifteen to twenty-two. Even when I dropped out of college, I was reading a lot of Victorian literature, and boy, did they love epistolary format! So a lot of the stuff I was reading was epistolary and it became this kind of natural thing for me to have in my head. The reason that I chose epistolary for Tiger’s Daughter in particular is that Shefali is a very quiet character. She doesn’t actually say more than four words to anyone who isn’t directly related to her or her wife at a time. I try to keep track of that; it’s like a rule I have when I’m writing: how can I get Shefali to say what she needs to say in four words or less.
In order to get to know her and simultaneously to get to know Shizuka, who is kind of…difficult, it’s easiest if we’re in Shefali’s head and if she’s talking to Shizuka. If we have this idea of a gift that she’s giving her, this attention that she’s lavishing on her wife who she misses so dearly—I needed that level of intimacy for Tiger because this trilogy is about gods. It’s about the people who become gods and what they give up. Because of that, it’s very important to have a personal stake in these matters. I needed a lot of buy-in into their relationship. Plus, there’s a bit of a girlfriend experience thing, to, and that’s not something that you really see in queer fiction. You don’t have these big gay love stories. How dreamy is it to be reading one that’s 500 pages long and the subject is you. You get to, at some level, transfer yourself onto that. I thought that was very dreamy, very romantic sigh inducing. It was just what I wanted to read so I wrote it.
G: That’s one of those pieces of advice you hear a lot when you want to be a writer: write what you want to read because someone is going to want to read it to.
KAR: I definitely agree that if you write something you want to read, there’s at least five other people who want to read it. You need to keep in mind those five people when you’re writing. Not everything you write is going to appeal to everyone, but if you can appeal to those five people who need what you’re doing, you’re golden.
G: I asked you this at the panel where we met, but I loved your answer so much I want to ask it again for our readers: what is your favorite thing about your two protagonists?
KAR: Shefali, as I mentioned, is very quiet. She doesn’t really talk much to anybody, she’s very withdrawn. But, she’s probably the most reliable character in the series. She’s very sturdy, very loyal, very dedicated, and doesn’t really let anything get in her way once she decides that she’s going to do something. It just get’s done. But she’s not very loud or very brash about it like Shizuka is. She’s just…solid and fair and it’s so comforting to be able to write someone like that. I feel like it kind of imbues me with those qualities slightly as I’m writing her.
Which brings me to my second point about Shizuka: Shizuka is a wreck. She’s so…oh god, she’s trying her best. She’s got this brash exterior where she’s always bragging about everything and talking about how great she is and secretly, she’s afraid of everything. I have really severe anxiety. It keeps me home sometimes or keeps me from doing things that I want to do. Shizuka has determined that she’s got to make decisions quickly before the fear sets in. That’s her main thing. I very much admire that about her. I admire her dedication to doing things in spite of how afraid she is, and the way that she endures everything just because she knows it’s the right thing to do. The way that Shizuka deals with her fears is very inspirational to me. I sort of feel bad for making her afraid of so many things.
G: Given your personal experiences as a queer woman of color, talk to me about the importance of representation of marginalized communities. How did that shape the stories you tell?
KAR: It’s something that I think you have to be hyper aware of as a queer creator, especially in my case being a queer creator of color. I was born in Puerto Rico, both of my parents are Latinx, my mother is also Black. There’s a lot of intersection that goes on there and there are a lot of things I was aware of growing up that maybe other kids were not so aware of. To that extent, when it comes to Tiger, the Qhorin aren’t just a different ethnic group, they’re also markedly darker than Hokkarans. There’s also the Xianese to the south, the Doanese, and the Jeon—they’re all different groups, and all of that interacts very differently within the work.
I think that a lot of the time there’s a tendency to use a checklist with diversity. Like, “Here’s this one character with three different marginalizations, but we’re not really going to touch upon that at all in the work.” In some cases that can be, though I’m not saying it always is, but it can be a bit lazy. We really need to examine how those intersections would affect the people that have them. As a queer woman, I’m not just a queer woman, I’m also a queer woman of color. I have to deal with coming out to my extended family when machismo is such a huge thing in Latinx culture. I have to contend with traditional portrayals of Latinx masculinity and hyper masculinity and how those interact with, well I don’t want to say white ideas, but I guess ‘traditional’ ideas of masculinity.
And in writing something like The Tiger’s Daughter, I have to understand East Asian ideas of what masculinity and femininity are. This wide array of different gender identities and different approaches to gender and sexuality and romance that are portrayed across cultures. Something that was very important to me when I was writing Tiger’s Daughter is that Shefali, who is my main character, and her brother are both bi-racial like I am. And they both take more after their mother than they do after their father. There are a few scenes where Shefali is minding her own business and people are like, “Oh, you should get out of the sun, you’ll get so dark.” It’s things like that. It’s not just a queer story, it’s also a story about people of color, and it would be egregiously wrong of me not to address all of those concerns.
In terms of marginalization and representation, I just think that it’s important that we’re not just writing queer stories. That we’re writing queer stories about women, or writing queer stories about trans and gender non-conforming people. That we’re writing queer stories about people of color and that we’re addressing the concerns that these people might have growing up in their lives. These are things that I had to be aware of when I was a young queer person considering whether or not to come out. We need to see more of that in fiction because as I said, it makes us stronger.
G: Right, and you mentioned anxiety; mental illness, disability, and neurodiversity are other aspects of that as well. All of it intersects with each other.
KAR: It definitely does.
G: As a younger author (and a queer woman!), I’m sure you’re aware of fanfic and fanart. Do you have a lot of fan engagement with your book? Any favorites?
KAR: First of all, I do not read fanfiction, I haven’t actually looked for any either, in terms of my books specifically. However, I have gotten some fanart that is quite lovely, and I always do appreciate when people tag me in fanart. A lot of people seem to enjoy drawing Shizuka, and I think it’s because she’s extra as fuck, and I’m here for it.
That is, of course, a wonderful part about being an author, that people will occasionally draw characters from your book and you’ll get to see your children in a visual way. That’s so nice.
A totally sick, rad thing that is happening in my life is that there is, in fact, a 42 minute long metal album that is actually just one song, and it is also called “The Tiger’s Daughter.” It is based on my book The Tiger’s Daughter and it is so cool! It is the coolest thing that has ever happened to me. My fifteen-year-old self is just about shitting herself. It’s great. I love it so much. I have only heard the snippet because only a snippet has been posted so far—it’s by Lascaille’s Shroud. It’s awesome. Sometimes I listen to it when I need to get hyped up to write.
G: That’s awesome, and so unique too!
KAR: It really is!
G: I don’t know a lot of authors who could say they have a metal album based on their story.
KAR: Yeah, I mean, Nightwish has a song that they wrote that takes it’s name from the Kingkiller Chronicles, but that’s all I can think of. The funny thing is, I remember distinctly about two days before I heard about “The Tiger’s Daughter” metal album that I was listening to that Nightwish song about the Edema Ruh. I remember thinking nobody was ever going to write a metal song about my book…
Welp, that’s where you’re wrong, bucko.
G: That’s perfect! So, what’s coming up next for you? Any other projects you’re working on that you can tell us about?
KAR: I do have the sequel to The Tiger’s Daughter and The Phoenix Empress coming out soon, called The Warrior Moon. I’m putting the finishing touches on that now. We also have a short story coming out in the same universe called “Sixteen Swords.” That’s probably going to be early next year in terms of release. It’s about the mothers of the two protagonists in The Tiger’s Daughter and this mission that they go on in the demon realm. I like to describe it as Seven Samurai meets Blair Witch.
G: Oh my gooood. That sounds amazing!
KAR: Right? I’m really happy with it. It’s actually probably one of the things I’m proudest of writing; I think I did some pretty good work. Beyond that, not much that I can talk about now.
G: That’s fair. But that right there sounds so exciting! I loved the mothers of the protagonists when I read the first book; the story that you gave them is so compelling and I want more of it. I will consume everything that you make about that.
KAR: My editor had an offhand comment along the lines of, “I would really like to see what happened to these women when they were over the wall.” And I was like, “Oh, ha ha, my hand slipped and I wrote 45,000 words. Ha ha ha!” She was very gracious about it, and we are figuring out how to bring that to people because it is a pretty great story.
G: Anything else you want to share with us before we go?
KAR: Nothing immediately comes to mind except, you know, comments about the political hellscape that we are in but that’s not quite relevant.
G: But in that vein, reading a lovely story about divine wives who fight demons is a really great way to spend some time and think about what could happen if they existed in our world.
KAR: Oh god, if they lived in our world they would just be sick of everything.
G: They would be so done.
KAR: Oh, so done. So completely done, but I feel like Shefali would have a couple of very straightforward solutions to everything and would be able to talk Shizuka through actually implementing them. Eventually they’d work it out and they’d be fine. As long as Shizuka didn’t start drinking again…
G: Absolutely. So, that’s all I have. Thank you so much for talking; this was lovely!
KAR: Yeah, thank you for having me!
About K Arsenault Rivera
K and her family moved to New York City from Puerto Rico when she was three. They landed in the middle of a blizzard, and K’s been complaining about the snow ever since.
At a compact four foot nine, K is a concentrated dose of geekery. She’s happy to ramble about everything from Gothic Literature to Revolutionary Girl Utena, with detours into Magic the Gathering and Star Wars. Her two best friend groups are her coven and her tabletop gaming group.
She is almost too queer to function.
She lives in Brooklyn with her hipster photographer partner, their robot queen roommate, and a two foot tall statue of Wonder Woman.
The Tiger’s Daughter and The Phoenix Empress are available for purchase online or in any major brick-and-mortar bookstore. Make sure you check out K Arsenault Rivera on Twitter or her website to stay up to date on her, her work, and forthcoming stories in the Ascendant universe.
Images courtesy of K Arsenault Rivera and Tor Books
Conclusion to Stumbling Beginnings in Summer Knight
It had to happen sometime. I talked last book about how much Butcher had improved on his shaky start. Published in 2002, Summer Knight brings the shaky opening to a conclusion. It also opens up a new phase of storytelling for the series as a whole. In case you couldn’t tell, I really like this book. It brings so much to the series, and features one of the more iconic moments of the series for Murphy. Let’s get into it.
Spoilers for Summer Knight and all previous books in the series.
So, What Happened?
Summer Knight opens with Harry and Billy investigating a rain of toads. Harry grumps around and alienates all his friends because of his grief over Susan. Afterwards, he goes to a meeting Billy orchestrated, which turns out to be with Mab, Queen of the Winter Fae. She bought his debt from the Leanansidhe, and wants him to clear her name for a murder. Harry refuses and goes to the White Council meeting. We meet several other wizards, and a vampire offers peace between the White Council and Red Court if they turn over Harry. At the conclusion of the meeting, the wizards agree not to sacrifice Harry if he makes Mab cooperate with the Wizards.
Harry discovers that the murdered man, Ronald Reuel, was the Summer Knight, the human intermediary for the Summer Court. The power he wielded disappeared, destroying the balance. Which, eventually, leads to war between the Courts. Elaine, shows up as the Summer Emissary. Harry attends Reuels funeral, and runs into several teenage, changeling acquaintances of the knight who are concerned over the disappearance of Lily. He visits the Winter Lady, then contacts Murphy. They fight several monsters in a Wal-Mart. He goes to the Summer Lady after finding Elaine beaten by his car.
Harry visits the Summer and Winter Mothers in the Nevernever. The Winter Mother gives him an Unraveling. Aurora, the Summer Lady steals it from him and reveals she orchestrated everything to remake the seasons in her own image. She trapped the power inside Lily. Harry objects to this. Harry, the Alphas, and two of the teenage changelings go to the Stone Table. They interrupt the fight between seasons, steal back the Unraveling, and kill Aurora, saving Lily, the one holding the mantle. In the conclusion, Lily becomes the new Summer Lady.
Best Moment – The Wal-Mart Fight, Organization to Conclusion
There are so many good things about this scene. There’s finally communication, Murphy’s first moment of awesome, and plot hooks perfectly combined with character catharsis. Over the course of this unlikely placed scene, Butcher manages to bring several elements of the early series to a conclusion.
The first, of course, is that Harry finally tells Murphy everything about the supernatural. She even gets in one last one-liner about being kept out, a start to their banter for the rest of the series. “‘I know I’ve kept things from you.’ … ‘Yeah’, she said, ‘I know. It’s annoying as hell.’”(299). He tells her everything. About the Red Court, the White Council, the Fae, and Chicago Supernatural Politics. Now, we won’t have the cheap conflict from Storm Front where they work at cross-purposes again.
Immediately afterwards, we have the fight with the chlorofiend, the Tigress, and the mind fog. At the conclusion of that fight, we also have Murphy’s first major impact since the Loup-Garou. “Murphy tore through them with the chain saw, … then drove the blade directly between the chlorofiend’s glowing green eyes.” (345). Chainsaw with cold iron, vs Fae Creature. Murphy wins.
The way that the plot interacts shows improvement from the previous book. There, Butcher attempted to tie together the antagonists with the chain spells. Here, we see the ghoul, the summoned monster, and the mind fog from two different people. The Tigress also capitalizes on Murphy’s trauma from the previous book. But everything makes sense, and the conclusion of the fight ties together various plot threads, since Ace sent the Tigress, Aurora the fog and fiend, and Murphy starts to recover from Kravos’s attack.
Most Improved – Harry’s Attitude
While some of the previous books focused more on the change to other people, here we have Harry change. He has a character arc that comes to a satisfying conclusion by the end. Harry starts the book depressed over Susan, and he alienates everyone. Billy points it out. “I don’t need to be a wizard to see when someone’s in a downward spiral. You’re hurting. You need help.” (25). Given that Billy previously espoused the theme of the series, his reintroduction here is significant. Eventually, Harry accepts the help Billy offers, both in scheduling meetings, and with the fight at the end. After the fight, Harry even goes over to hang out with the Alphas, and plays a barbarian in a Dungeons & Dragons spin-off game. He quotes William Shakespeare jokingly, and says, “Meep, Meep” to a deranged Faerie Queen. (489).
It is not only the Alphas that help change Harry’s mood. His reunion with Eileen, his teenage flame, who he thought he killed alongside Justin also helps. Finding out he didn’t kill her brings him closure. But through the book, when she nominally serves as an opponent, the Summer Emissary to his Winter, her presence reassures him. Even when she ‘betrays’ him to Aurora, and binds him, she still helps him. “I’d been right. It was the same binding she’d used when we were kids.” (433). Her meddling enables him to escape Aurora’s death trap, by using their childhood bond.
At the conclusion of the book, she gives him advice regarding Susan that builds to the catharsis detailed above. “Stop thinking about how bad you feel—because if she cares about you at all, it would tear her up to see you like I saw you a few days ago.” (510). That help sends him in a new direction.
Best Worldbuilding – The Fae Courts
While the information on the White Council is delightful, the Fae Court proves more valuable to the main plot. And we learn a lot about the Courts here. Lea makes an appearance, where she ‘helps’ Harry by distracting him and a Fae from fighting and guiding him to the Stone Table. She mentions again how she believes her actions last book only helped him as well. It gives insight to the alien nature of Fae morals.
We also can draw conclusions about the structure of the Courts given all the information on how they organize themselves. Through the book, we learn about the Winter and Summer Courts, each with three Queens. The Mothers, the retired queens. The Queens, the current ruler. And the Ladies, the heir for the future. Their Knights that do their will in the mortal world, and the Emissaries chosen on special occasions.
Also informative is the phrase, “If Winter came here, Summer had to come too, didn’t it?” (219). It implies certain checks and balances on each other’s behavior. That only highlights how serious a problem it is that the Summer Knight is dead, and the mantle gone. Lea’s information about the Stone Table reinforces that. Beyond being a reference to Narnia, it also guarantees great power to whoever holds the table, and whoever sheds blood on it. So, the peaceful transfer of the table from Summer to Winter and back with the seasons preserves their equality. Aurora’s plan only serves to show how important it is to keep that balance, less there be another Ice Age, or worse.
In showing us all this, Butcher expands his universe so much further, and sets the ‘table’ for future stories. Ones that will lead to the eventual conclusion of the series, yet to come.
Worst Worldbuilding – The Conclusion of Meryl’s Story
Given all that we know now about the Fae, it comes as no surprise that the worst worldbuilding also comes from that section of the story. Butcher’s take on Changelings is innovative, being half-human, half-Fae rather than the traditional version. The problems arise from how the narrative treats her, and the results of her half-Fae heritage.
The problem with Meryl is that Meryl dies at the end of the story. She is the first person explicitly allied with Harry to die. The only previous person that was not an antagonist that died was MacFinn, and he attempted to murder them all because of an uncontrollable curse. Meryl dying in and of itself is not the entire problem. Butcher directs the series in a darker direction, so deaths will come eventually. The issue that I have with the conclusion of Meryl’s story is that Butcher could have done so many things with her. As a Changeling aligned with Winter, dearest friend of the new Summer Lady and Knight, the possibility of an inter-Fae alliance or Court would develop.
She even said, “[Winter] Calls,’ Meryl said. ‘ But I’m not answering.’” (459). The Changelings provide a glimpse of the Fae outside of the manipulation, outside of Court politics. Meryl could have been symbolic of that. But no. Meryl Chooses to save Lily. She Chooses and she dies and all that hope with her. It’s a story brought too soon to a conclusion, one that broke off threads that could have continued.
Moment of Regression – Ye Old Wandering Eyes
I will admit, this is a sticking point for me. I talked about my dislike of Harry’s voyeurism in Storm Front. I brought it up again in Fool Moon. Thankfully, it didn’t appear too often in the following books, but here we see this again with a vengeance. And it doesn’t even make sense in character this time.
After a Susan-vampire nightmare, Harry thinks.
“But I had been used to a certain amount of friendly tension relieving with Susan. Her absence had killed that for me, completely—except for rare moments during the damned dreams when my hormones came raging back up to the front of my thoughts again as though making up for lost time.” (176).
So, theoretically at least Harry’s libido takes a break. I understand that part of this nightmare and Harry’s symptoms comes from the dangerous way he’s punishing himself for Susan’s condition. But, still. Even before this dream we have moments where he stares at Mab’s ass. He knows she’s the Winter Queen, and he still ogles her when she leaves. At Maeve’s court, Butcher spends a good deal of time describing Jenny Greenteeth, a Fae seductress. He could have emphasized the alien way she moves, the details that make her decidedly not human, and dropped a one-liner about her being naked at the end. It would have been in character for Harry’s blasé kind of humor. Instead, Butcher flips that script, focusing on the nakedness, with the inhumanity coming as an aside.
Call it my own personal soapbox, if you will, but that doesn’t sit well with me, especially when the last book did so much better with Harry’s gaze. (Not perfect, of course, but better. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just needs to keep improving.)
Overall, Summer Knight showcases the best of Butcher’s work so far. While the choices were somewhat limited compared to last book, the plot hangs together much better. That cohesive plot lent its voice to each category, and the worst moments were nitpicks and could-have-beens.
The way that Butcher brought this story arc, and Harry’s character arc to a conclusion proved satisfying. His mastery of plot improved, with the motivations of the antagonists and the number being reasonable, instead of overwhelming. The knowledge about the Fae, about the Council, and about Elaine all help set up this next phase of the series. I’m looking forward to the next book.
Am I being too nit-picky in the ‘bad’ categories, or is it just proof of concept that the problems can be reduced to nitpicks? Was the White Council more fascinating than the Fae, or was Harry’s arc disjointed? Let me know if I’m being too harsh on the series, if you had a different idea for a category, or if you have any comments about the arc of the series as a whole. I look forward to hearing from you.
Creator Corner: Interview with YA Author Linsey Miller
Every now and again an opportunity falls into your lap to have a conversation with someone you never dreamed you’d get to. When Dan asked me if I might want to interview Linsey Miller, author of Mask of Shadows and its sequel Ruin of Stars, I fangirl screamed politely accepted the invitation to make contact. As a fan of queer YA, masked assassins, and page-turning action, I couldn’t pass up the possibility of talking with her. She said yes, and here we are.
So come join me as Linsey talks writing, representation, and what’s coming up next for her.
Gretchen: Let’s start at the beginning, what got you into writing? Are you one of those life-long storytellers or did something specific inspire you to want to become a published author? Or both?
Linsey Miller: I wrote a lot as a child. I was lucky—my parents liked reading and we had a library that wasn’t too far away. However, I didn’t really grow up thinking it was a thing that a person could do (even though my kid brain knew people did write books, the idea that I could didn’t really click). Years later, I ended up completely blowing my medical school applications and one of the interviewers said, “Sounds like you want to write books.” I started researching, reading, and writing more after that.
So thank you doctor who saw through my terrible application.
G: What makes books a compelling format for telling stories for YA audiences? Is there something you think books can do that say, a visual medium like film or television can’t?
LM: I think a lot of what makes them compelling will vary greatly from reader to reader (and they might never be as compelling as a film to some), but I know for me it was how immersive they were. With books, you have to directly interact with the prose in a way you can’t sometimes with visual mediums—the cadence and pacing of the reading, while it can be set by the narrative, is partly dependent on the reader. It’s easier to put yourself into the narrative and see yourself as a part of the story and world when you’re reading. I don’t think there’s something books can do that visual mediums can’t so much as that the interaction between reader and book is different than viewer and medium.
G: Speaking of your writing, what inspired you to write Mask of Shadows? What was it about the story itself or the characters that really drew you?
LM: There were a lot of small things. I like assassins, and I wanted to explore how difficult moral choices affect people, especially as a kid when you’re realizing that morality is not as solidly set as you thought. But at the same time, I really want to write a fantasy novel that let people be the rogue with a heart of gold and grapple with how difficult some parts of life are without sacrificing one for the other.
And then, there was this driving urge to explore a fantasy world that felt like it was a few years past when a book would normally be set so that I could see how the grown up heroes of a plot might cope with what happened and how that affects the young adults around them. Growing up after something huge happened and with the people who were directly involved was something I wanted to write about.
Also, I love Sal. Writing their story was a dream come true.
G: Your primary protagonist in the duology, Sal, is genderfluid; what led you in that direction and why do you think it’s important to have gender non-conforming characters in media for young adults?
LM: Before writing the book, there was a lot of talking about how Sal approached gender, navigated the world, and how the plot would and wouldn’t approach gender. I wouldn’t say anything led me in that direction specifically.
However, especially now that I know more, I think it’s important to have non-binary and gender non-conforming characters in media for young adults who are written by non-binary and gender non-conforming authors. People need to see themselves in media—especially young adults who are still figuring themselves and the world out—and they deserve to see themselves represented in all the nuanced ways that exists by people who know what it’s like.
So I go back and forth now on if it was my place to have written Sal, but I don’t want that to detract from how vitally important it is that kids see themselves in literature AND in the population creating that literature.
G: You also include a queer romance in the story and have multiple characters of color; why was it important to you to include so many layers of diverse representation?
LM: It was really important to me that the world was actually a world. I decided early on that if I wrote young adult that I had to take how and what I wrote very seriously, so the goal was to make sure that the world didn’t erase people or leave room to default characters to what is generally expected. I didn’t want the main characters to be token people. That felt unfair to them and to readers.
G: Tell me more about your characters: What is your favorite thing (or things) about Sal? Is there anything that makes them especially challenging and/or exciting to write?
LM: I love that Sal knows who they are. They’re confident and a little bit on the arrogant side, and they start Mask of Shadows knowing what they want. They do change over the course of the book, but I liked writing a character who knew themselves and didn’t feel guilty about it. Sal was just Sal. They enjoyed being Sal! That was exciting to write.
G: If you could write a book or short story highlighting one of your secondary characters, which one or ones would you choose and why?
LM: Ruby or Maud. Writing something for Ruby would give the added benefit of including a bunch of other characters, and I would love to explore the siege of the school ten years prior to Mask of Shadows. Nearly every character in the book would have been involved, and many would have been Sal’s age when it occurred.
As for Maud, she’s simply the best.
G: If you could give one piece of advice to other aspiring writers who want to write original fiction that you don’t think others are saying, what would it be?
LM: The advice to “write” is out there, but what happens emotionally during isn’t always talked about. Writing is a largely internal process—you spend a lot of time alone thinking about things that you can’t talk about. That loneliness can be draining, so make sure you take care of yourself if you can. Find out what helps you, find your people, and take care. A book is all well and good, but you’re important too.
G: What’s coming up next for you? Any other projects you’re working on that you can tell us or hint to us about?
LM: Yes! I have two new fantasy books coming out in 2020 and 2021. By Grace & Blood is a standalone young adult fantasy about two young women who must work together to stop a war waged by the powerful and greedy in a French-inspired fantasy world. I should have more information about it soon.
G: Anything else you want to share with us before we go?
LM: Save your work in multiples places as you go.
Don’t be me.
Whether you write by processor or by hand, make sure your work is copied and safe in at least 2 or 3 places.
G: That’s excellent advice. Thanks for chatting with me!
LM: You’re welcome!
About Linsey Miller
Originally from Arkansas, Linsey has previously worked as a crime lab intern, lab assistant, and pharmacy technician. She is currently an MFA candidate at Wichita State University and represented by Rachel Brooks of Bookends Literary. Her debut novel Mask of Shadows was the first in a young adult fantasy duology, which was completed with Ruin of Stars this year. Her next novel, a standalone French-inspired fantasy titled By Grace and Blood, will come out in 2020 with another standalone fantasy to follow in 2021. She can be found writing about science and magic anywhere there is coffee.