Part of the GRRM Reading Project.
First published in Fantastic in 1976, The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr is considered by George R. R. Martin (GRRM) as his first pure fantasy story as a professional writer.
“Keen-eyed readers will notice certain names and motifs that go all the way back to ‘Only Kids Are Afraid of the Dark,’ and other names and motifs that I would pick up and use again in later works.” (GRRM in Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective)
Sharra and her powers were originally meant for the Doctor Weird mythos, but by the late ‘70s Martin had moved away from his fanfiction days. He eventually moved away from Sharra as well; his plans to create more stories for her never came to fruition.
Not that it matters: the beauty of The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr is precisely how it values the transitory, and how something doesn’t need to last to be touching.
The girl who goes between the worlds
Sharra knows the gates between worlds, and traverses them in her quest. Little we know of how her journey begun or how it will end, only of the brief time she paused in the world of the lonely singer Laren Dorr.
She arrives wounded and weak, after a conflict with one of the guardians that watch the gates. Laren Dorr, the only person living in this world, finds and heals her. Long ago the Seven told him of Sharra and that he would love her. She has to go, to continue her search, but Laren asks her to stay with him for just a month. In exchange, he can show her where the next gate is. Sharra agrees.
Soon we learn of their origin stories: Sharra had a man she loved, one with powers like hers, that was taken away by the Seven. She’s been searching for him from world to world over centuries. Laren scarcely remembers his story: in some memories he was a god, in others he was a king. Whatever he was, he bothered the Seven and they took him away from all those he knew and loved. He’s been in this world for centuries, unable to leave.
They spend their days together, and at night Laren sings about them, who they might have been and who they were, with songs that come to life in beautiful visions. They explore the world together, and talk, and walk, and eat, and make love. But nothing has changed, and eventually it is time for Sharra to go.
The farewell is hard, and Sharra’s story is now lost in legend. All we know is that in an empty castle below a purple sun, Laren Dorr still sings of her.
A month, a moment; much the same
One of the points of the GRRM Reading Project is to identify patterns. Stylistic choices, recurrent themes, preferred tropes, character types, you name it. Being a non-native English reader hampers my understanding of linguistic subtleties, and the lack of a bigger background with genre fiction means that several references will be lost to me. Themes, however, are for eighth-grade book reports, so hopefully I can handle those.
If you’ve been following this project for a while, you know I’ve been pointing out the repetition of certain themes in Martin’s stories. Here we see them again: loneliness, love, loss, the brevity and importance of human connections.
Now, I may have a biased interpretation since I’m only reading the stories collected in Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective. If so, it’s at least telling that so many of the tales selected for a career-spanning retrospective approach similar topics. These are supposed to represent Martin’s body of work, after all.
Repeated as the themes may be, each story shines over them a new light. Sometimes it doesn’t quite work with me, sometimes it works like a charm. The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr falls into the same group as A Song for Lya, where I find the story touching and effective. This is entirely subjective, and I can see different readers having different responses.
So what makes some of these narratives work better than others?
In part it’s because stories like A Song for Lya and The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr have two lovers who are more or less equally important to the story. This creates a balance of perspectives, and we can see how they interact with and affect each other. In stories like The Second Kind of Loneliness, This Tower of Ashes, or Meathouse Man, we follow mainly a male perspective over a lost love, but little we know of the love itself. We have the aftermath of the connection and its mainly negative impact, but we see little of why it mattered in first place.
Furthermore, romances focusing on a male perspective risk having two-dimensional or idealized female characters, which is a pet peeve of mine and one that can still be found in Martin’s writing to this day. Lya or Laren Dorr may not be perfect in that regard, but they at least give you a sense of who these characters are and why we should care about their relationship.
Finally, both A Song for Lya and The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr are not negative stories. I’m not fond of grimdark, so of course I tend to appreciate that. But I would like to elaborate on this aspect.
How they briefly touched
Don’t get me wrong, we’re not talking about happy stories here. A Song for Lya is a romance that ends in suicide by being eaten alive for one of the parties and presumably perpetual emotional scars for the other. The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr also doesn’t strike me as particularly cheerful. Neither characters may ever achieve the goal they spent their immortal lives pursuing, both are profoundly lonely and literally damned by the gods, and their presence in each other’s lives is explicitly meant not to last.
And yet. Yet. The emphasis is not on loneliness and the weight of loss, but on the human connections that mitigates these feelings even if just a bit. The emphasis is that these connections matter.
When we talk about Martin’s approach to fantasy in A Song of Ice and Fire, we often praise his deconstruction of fantasy tropes. More than that, I would say that he denies the easy answers that such tropes often provide. Lesser stories will give you social rewards just because you are the hero, but Martin argues that it’s not so simple. The same happens when he writes romantic relationships: there are no easy answers, love does not last forever nor does it magically solve all problems.
A Song for Lya argues that even when two humans are as together as humans can be, they still can’t complete each other. They can’t eliminate the negative feelings, the loneliness, the emptiness, at least not entirely:
“I didn’t want to be here anymore, ever, in this place, this awful place. I would have been, Robb. Men are always here, but for brief moments.
A touch and a voice?
Yes, Robb. Then darkness again, and a silence. And the darkling plain.”
In The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr, love motivates both characters to a god-defying point. But there’s also a recognition of its limitations, even when the relationship has the possibility of literally lasting forever:
“I remember love vaguely, I think I can recall what it was like, and I remember that it never lasts. Here, with both of us unchanging and immortal, how could we help but to grow bored? Would we hate each other then? I’d not want that.’ He looked at her then, and smiled an aching, melancholy smile. ‘I think that you had known Kaydar for only a short time, to be so in love with him. Perhaps I’m being devious after all. For in finding Kaydar, you may lose him. The fire will go out some day, my love, and the magic will die. And then you may remember Laren Dorr.’”
(that was a dick move, Laren!)
I’m not as cynical as to think all love stories end up in boredom, but the main problem with the concept of “happily ever after” is that all love stories do end—even if it’s till death do us part. And what matters is not that the relationship ended, but that it existed. Even a brief encounter is worth cherishing, remembering, celebrating. Not because it fixes everything or completes us, but because it makes the night less dark and less lonely.
The relationship between Sharra and Laren has its problems, and the above quote illustrates that well. However, its power resides in its impact for both characters. From the beginning we are warned this is just a brief moment in Sharra’s journey, but it’s no less real or important because of that. It’s still a story deemed worth telling.
In contrast to Meathouse Man’s conclusion that love is a lie, what strikes me as positive in stories like A Song for Lya and The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr is that human connections are worth celebrating even if they’re not perfect, even if they don’t last. Lasting forever is not the point.
Martin here doesn’t just celebrate imperfect human connections, he values them for what they are. Imperfect as they are, they matter. They still have the power to change us, to comfort us, to make us better or happier. We celebrate these connections because they make us stronger, because when the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies but the pack survives.
Maybe I’m giving Martin too much credit or reading too much into his stories. But his most sublime writing happens when he finds beauty even through painful experiences. Folks that stick to a grimdark reading of his works are missing something precious.
- Talking about loneliness and human connections in Martin’s work always brings me to A Song of Ice and Fire, specifically in how isolated the characters are. I don’t think that’s an accident. In fact, I can’t wait for 2050, when we finally have The Winds of Winter and those characters find each other.
- I’ve talked about Martin’s approach to genre fiction before. Here, again, he uses a genre background to explore universal experiences and existential questions, something he continues to do.
- The ending heavily implies that Laren Dorr was the guardian of his world. It’s established that all worlds have a guardian, and “There are some who hold you with weapons, some with chains, some with lies. And there is one, at least, who tried to stop you with love. Yet he was true for all that, and he never sang you false.” Anyone else shares this impression?
- The idea of songs bringing visions to life reminds me of the elvish songs in The Lord of the Rings. Martin is a Tolkien fanboy, so I wonder if this was actually an influence for him.
- Martin is notorious for his food descriptions, dividing readers between those who like them and those who don’t. I’m not particularly fond of them, but it amuses me to see how far in his bibliography we can trace them. So many interactions between Sharra and Laren happen during meals!
Next time: the much awaited moment when we’ll tackle “Dying of the Light”, Martin’s first novel.
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.