Ever since Star Wars: Ahsoka, I’ve been a big fan of E. K. Johnston’s. Needless to say, when I heard she was working on a Modern-Victorian alternate universe (trust me, it makes sense) with LGBT+ characters, I immediately put it on my ‘to read’ list. That book is That Inevitable Victorian Thing, and it’s already joined my list of favorite queer YA fiction. If you like the Victorian aesthetic minus all the icky colonialism, LGBT+ characters, multi-racial characters, secret identities, Significant Handholding™, debut balls, princesses in disguise, and Canada, you’ll like this book.
A Brief (Spoiler Free) Rundown
Victoria-Margaret is the crown princess of the empire, a direct descendant of Victoria I, the queen who changed the course of history. The imperial tradition of genetically arranged matchmaking will soon guide Margaret into a politically advantageous marriage. But before she does her duty, she’ll have one summer of freedom and privacy in a far corner of the empire. Posing as a commoner in Toronto, she meets Helena Marcus, daughter of one of the empire’s greatest placement geneticists, and August Callaghan, the heir to a powerful shipping firm currently besieged by American pirates.
In a summer of high-society debutante balls, politically charged tea parties, and romantic country dances, Margaret, Helena, and August discover they share an extraordinary bond and maybe a one-in-a-million chance to have what they want and to change the world in the process.
Set in a near-future world where the British empire was preserved not by the cost of blood and theft but by the effort of repatriation and promises kept, That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a surprising, romantic, and thought-provoking story of love, duty, and the small moments that can change people and the world.
The Good Stuff
While the story may start off a bit slow, the Victorian ambiance is present from the very beginning. As the book title says, this is Victorian. But probably not Victorian the way we’re used to seeing it; it’s not historical Victorian, nor is it steampunk. I don’t know what else to call it other than ‘Modern Victorian.’ Characters call their parents ‘mama’ and ‘papa’, drink tea, sit in parlors, and wear crinolines under their dresses to debut balls. But they also drive cars, use tablets and credit cards, and have something roughly equivalent to the internet. It’s at once British and Canadian in tone. It sounds like it wouldn’t work, but it does. All these facets fit neatly together to create an immersive and believable alternate universe (AU) where the British empire never fell.
Which brings me to worldbuilding. There are two basic tenants of worldbuiding in this novel, the first of which is that, as mentioned, the British empire never fell. Now, unlike something like the Confederacy, there’s nothing inherently troubling about an AU where the British empire continued. A lot depends on execution and how one handles the issues of colonialism, racism, and elitism associated with the Victorian era.
Johnston, to my mind, takes great care to correct many of the injustices of the British empire, which goes a long way in resolving any cognitive dissonance that may arise. In this universe, a successful slave revolt in the Caribbean led to the emancipation of the entire area. The revolt spread to the southern US as well, and the South became an independent nation of former slaves. Treaties with the First Nations were honored and the peoples never displaced. Even India seems to have independence and agency. “Empire” seems less a matter of oppressive colonization and more a united group of countries and cultures that all agreed to accept the British monarch as their ultimate, if distant, ruler.
Diversity of characters and culture arises from Queen Victoria I’s intentional choice to create a healthy and interconnected empire by marrying her children and grandchildren into international families rather than European ones. All three protagonists are multiracial, and one of the secondary characters, Elizabeth, marries into a family from Jamaica. Johnston also makes absolutely clear that the characters who enter into service, like maids and valets, do so by choice and that it’s a job like any other. It’s a small thing, but I appreciate the attention to detail here.
Besides creating greater racial diversity and the feel of an empire that actually cares about the cultures within it’s boundaries, Victoria I’s choice stands as a feminist one. She chose to be her own queen rather than be controlled, and urged her daughter and heir to do the same. This entire world is built upon powerful women using their privilege, position, and power to create a more inclusive, diverse, and healthy world.
This brings up the second major tenant, that of genetic matchmaking. When children turn 18, they come of age and can access the Computer. This gives them a readout of their genetic code, flags any potential health problems, and finds genetic matches for them, which can then be used as the basis for finding a spouse. Love matches still exist in this world—Helena’s parents were one, as is that between Helena’s maid Fanny and August’s valet Hiram. But there’s a distinctly Victorian flavor to the desire to put the health of one’s future children first through genetic matching, as a duty to both God and the Queen.
The matching never becomes as squicky as it might sound. This isn’t Gattaca. The Empire staunchly refuses to pursue genetic manipulation and eugenics, the former of which the US and other countries pursue. [Side note: there’s a lot of side-eyeing of the US and its many issues, including racism, piracy, and its failure to take care of the poorest and most marginalized of it’s citizens.
While it would be tempting to see this merely as Canadian smugness (and there may be some of that), Johnston does so while being aware of and correcting many of Canada’s and Britain’s own issues. I find it rather delightful; most YA books are set in the US, so a Canadian perspective is a nice change. And, unfortunately, the criticism is well deserved.] There are, however, some questions about just what Helena’s mother does with her ‘patients’ left unanswered in the book.
It’s not a perfect society, but it is intentionally inclusive and diverse. It’s clear Johnston wanted to keep the Victorian aesthetic and correct the injustices of the empire rather than ignore or erase them.
Now onto the characters! I’ll get to the main ones in a minute, but I have to say that Johnston has once again created an array of fascinating secondary characters. Elizabeth Highcastle is stunning; she’s like Emma Woodhouse, only less naïve and actually as smart as Emma thinks she is. Actually, she’s probably even smarter. Fanny has a hilarious moment near the end, and the friendship between her and Helena is very sweet. Even though he never physically appears on page, I adore the Archbishop of Canturbery. His meditations are so well done; you really get a sense for who he is as a person and how he could help shape the future into something even more inclusive.
Princess Victoria-Margaret, or Margaret as she’s called most of the book, is a delightfully thoughtful, down-to-earth, and intelligent character. Yes, she’s a Princess in Disguise (ngl, I love this trope with female characters), but she’s not doing so to be rebellious or even to go on a ‘spiritual journey’ to learn ‘what it’s like to be poor’.
There is no infantilizing noble poor trope here. She just wants to have a debut—a season lasting anywhere from a week to a month filled with parties, balls, and teas used to introduce and welcome 18-year-olds into adult society—something royal children don’t get to have. It’s depicted very much as a last chance for her to experience freedom and be herself before a lifetime of duty and service as the queen. She might be a dutiful princess, but I’ll leave it to Kylie and Julia to decide if they read this.
Helena Marcus, daughter of one of the premiere scientists of the entire Empire, has social anxiety. She prefers small groups of friends and family to large parties of strangers (I relate so hard), yet finds herself invited to debut with her cousin Elizabeth Highcastle in the major city of Toronto instead of her small, university town. She’s thrown into the big city scene and, like Margaret, discovers pieces of herself she didn’t realize existed. She’s introspective, intuitive, and self conscious. Nevertheless, she has a fun, carefree streak to her that’s enjoyable to see unfold.
August Callaghan, the third and least fleshed out of the protagonists (see below), is an old family friend of Helena’s. They’ve had an understanding that they’d get married when she debuted for years. Yet, in the midst of her debut season, he must wrestle with the consequences of a poor business choice he made that could disrupt an engagement and his place in the family business.
All of them grapple with the intersection of duty and desire. August wrestles with duty to his family business and a desire to protect himself and Helena from the aftermath of his choices. Margaret will be queen one day, her life is not her own. Her personal desires must always be sublimated to her role as heir. Helena finds that her heart is not as straightforward as she once thought; which has more weight, new love or old? Does a vision of the future cast as a child hold equal weight once you become an adult and find out that life’s more complicated than that? Must one accept the choices given to them, or are there other, unique and yet difficult, ways one can find to have both the life they want and fulfill their duties? How does one balance personal identity with obligation?
This latter question is especially poignant in our current society. Many from older generations see Millennials and Generation Z as prioritizing identity to the point of absurdity, while they would perceive Baby Boomers as overly relying upon obligation, to the detriment of their mental health and tolerance of others who differ from them. Johnston raises that intersection indirectly, and in a setting where the conflict would have been much more tangible in terms of life and family choices.
The result is a poignant story with a unique conclusion: sometimes the way through is to not accept either option. Making one’s own path within the strictures of society can then be used to open up new avenues for future generations. In short, it’s neither fuck the system nor embrace the system, but work within it and change it bit by bit.
First and foremost, there are some structural issues to the book. The first act is slow to begin, the third act rushed, and the second, middle act could use a stronger driving tension. The central core of the book’s tension derives from secrets. Each one of the protagonists has something they’re hiding, both from each other and the wider world. But not all secrets, and the act of keeping them, are created equal when it comes to narrative momentum.
Margaret’s fear of discovery crops up every now and again, but there’s no significant threat to her disguise until the final quarter of the book. There’s no sense of urgency to her being undercover, until there is, and then it’s almost instantly resolved. Helena’s internal conflict, while really well written and compelling, provides very little plot tension. It informs her interactions with others but does not move the plot forward other than to push August away and cause him to question her commitment to him. Yet even that takes place more in his head rather than between them.
August’s secret is the weakest link in the chain, in my opinion. His could very well have destroyed his family’s business and any prospects of a relationship with Helena, or anyone else for that matter. He broods about it quite a bit. But, other than a single scene (the one that leads to the resolution), we don’t see it manifested in plot tension other than to provide a reason for him putting off an official engagement to Helena. I wish we could have seen more real world effects to his choices. His delay in seeking out the Admiral’s help could have been played up. The pirates could threaten to expose him, or come demand payment in person. More than one scene of sneaking around could have enhanced the tension between him, Helena, and his family.
In fact, August could have been rounded out much more overall. I’m not always entirely certain what Helena sees in him other than that they’re old family friends and ‘had an understanding’. That she does love him is clear on page, but not always why. He’s a nice person, don’t get me wrong, but he’s fairly flat. A bit more showcasing of that mischievous streak we hear about would have been nice. Getting to see him relax and unwind like Margaret and Helena—maybe a false hope of a resolution to his business problems then dashed—would have gone a long way toward fleshing him out.
I also would have liked to see more of Helena’s feelings about…well, that gets into spoilers, so I’ll save that for my next, spoilery section.
The only other drawback for me was Johnston’s habit of jumping character perspective without warning and for only a paragraph or two. I noted this in my review of Star Wars: Ahsoka, so it seems to be a regular feature of her writing. Most of the time, it wasn’t as pronounced in this novel as it was in Ahsoka, and it didn’t ruin my overall enjoyment. However, it can still be slightly disorienting.
A Spoilery Discussion of Representation
This book is good enough that I don’t want to spoil the entire plot or ending for those who like to go in blind. Read at your own risk (of spoilers)!
OH MY GOD YOU GUYS, IT’S POLY.
Ahem. I’ve been holding that in this whole review. As many of you know, I despise love triangles in YA lit. Well, all love triangles that don’t end up as either queer or poly. The former hardly ever happens and the latter pretty much never (except in my headcanons), so I’m usually out of luck. But this. THIS. As I read the book, I kept wondering, hoping that it would turn out this way. When I first read the book description I even told fellow editors and Fandomentalist hosts Kylie and Julia of my hopes for a poly resolution.
And I got it.
It’s the kind of ending you get once in a blue moon for a novel in traditional publishing. It never feels forced or like pandering; it actually makes sense in universe due to the Victorian setting. “Beards”—the term for an opposite gender marriage partner used as a shield to protect queer folk from recognition and persecution—are not solely a 20th century phenomenon. The importance of bearing children to carry on the family name, especially for royals, meant that non-straight men and women in Victorian England would often marry for children and have a lover on the side of their preferred gender. Although you’re more likely to hear about this set up with gay males, given sexism and patriarchy, it wasn’t exclusive to men. Nor was it exclusive to royals, though they would have had extra pressure to produce heirs with an opposite gender spouse.
Thus, the arrangement Margaret, Helena, and August come to makes a lot of sense both historically in our world and in Johnston’s Victorian AU. I was even more pleased to see a bisexual woman at the center of the polyamorous triangle and with zero animosity on either side from her two romantic partners. Neither Margaret nor August act possessive of her or her affection. And, while they all admit their ‘situation’ will require hard work and commitment, none of them express any modicum of regret, hesitation, or bitterness. In fact, everyone seems quite happy. Picturing a loving, happy future for these three isn’t difficult; somehow, we know they’ll make it work.
Helena’s bisexuality never becoming a source of conflict means so much to me, as a bisexual woman myself. Too often, bi women become the object of suspicion, anxiety, and fear of betrayal from one (or multiple) romantic partners of either gender. The “cheating/untrustworthy bisexual” never comes into play even in subtext. Helena isn’t being insincere for pursuing romantic and sexual contact with both Margaret and August; she’s just being herself. She loves both of them.
Nor is Margaret made into a suspicious, predatory lesbian or August a jealous straight boyfriend. They’re people who love who they love and pursue an amicable, healthy, fulfilling polyamorous relationship with clear boundaries and a dedication to make it work.
However, I do think that her feelings for Margaret could have been more explicit, sooner. We see quite a bit of Margaret’s growing feelings for Helena. But, the bulk of Helena’s romantic self-talk focuses on August rather than Margaret. Both sexual encounters between the girls take place mostly from Margaret’s perspective, and I would have liked one from Helena’s, or at least more from Helena’s. It’s eventually clear that Helena loves them both, but I would have liked more with Margaret earlier on to balance out the repeated, explicit exploration of her romantic feelings for August throughout.
That one of these characters is intersex adds more layers of complexity, and beauty, to the story. As with Mask of Shadows’ portrayal of a genderfluid protagonist, I don’t feel qualified to speak to Helena as a representative character for intersex experience. I’ve been digging around for a review from an actual intersex person, and have yet to find one.
All I can say is, I appreciate that her genetics never became a source of persecution or rejection. Both Margaret and August accept her as she is, even if August is a bit befuddled at first. As with sexual orientation and polyamory, Helena being intersex is written as normal and not as rare as one might think. She isn’t ostracized or rejected, nor is being intersex a ‘genetic imperfection’ in need of fixing, as it could have become in a setting utilizing genetic matching as a key premise.
Johnston’s goal seems to be normalization and acceptance. Helena’s identity contributes to her character’s development and inner struggles in a significant but not reductive way. Her mom’s pet name for her—bright and beautiful, from the hymn “All Creatures Great and Small”—points to the possibility that she knew her daughter’s genetic identity all along and did her best to remind her daily that no matter what, she was created by God and beautiful just as she was. She isn’t a mistake.
Still, despite my positive impression, mine can’t be the final voice on this. If any of you know of reviews from an intersex author, I, please let me know! I really want to hear how Helena landed from an intersex perspective.
Final Score: 9/10
Maybe it’s just because I read this right before National Coming Out Day, but it resonated deeply with me. The intersection between identity and obligation and the full weight of trying to make a life for yourself with the one(s) you love while hiding who you are hit me hard, probably because I’m still not out to my family. Regardless, it’s a fun story with diverse, interesting characters in a rich world that I wouldn’t turn down getting deeper explorations of. I’m so grateful it exists.
If my drawback section sounded a bit too overly critical, believe me when I say that I thoroughly enjoyed the book. More than anything, it’s a situation where the value gained in the representation of marginalized communities and the surprising resolution at the end more than make up for the structural flaws. Given the fascination with grimdark societies and oppressive AUs, it’s nice to see an alternate universe that’s more inclusive, not less.
This book proves that alternate history doesn’t have to be darker to be entertaining, nor does drama have to come at the expense of already marginalized communities to be meaningful. We need more books like this that value intersectionality, diversity, and positive representation; that’s how we normalize underrepresented and oppressed communities.
Images Courtesy of Dutton 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.
Images Courtesy of Linsey Miller and Sourcebooks Fire
Scourge of the Seas A Treasury of Seafaring Adventure and Diversity
Ahoy, mateys! Time for something a little different in the book review department. For all my focus on fantasy and science fiction, I have a deep-seated affection for pirate stories. Well, a certain kind of pirate story. A lot of pirate-themed media leans toward the, ah, shall we say, non-diverse spectrum. Surprise! I like my pirate stories inclusive. Enter Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space), (Scourge), a collection short stories by multiple authors with well-written female characters, various cultural and historical settings, and characters from a wide array of cultures, backgrounds, ages, and marginalizations. Scourge even has non-human pirates as well as inter-dimensional and spacefaring ones.
So, avast ye landlubbers and prepare to be boarded by the most diverse cast of pirates you’ve ever read.
A Brief (Spoiler Free) Rundown
An anthology of pirate stories from the historical to the fantastical and beyond!
From the Introduction:
“I wanted an anthology with some of that diversity and range, so when I put out a call for pirate stories, I encouraged international contributors and made it an “open to all orientations and sexualities” call. I was very pleased to get nearly 100 submissions, from a total of fourteen countries. I read about lesbian pirates, gay pirates, bi pirates, transgender pirates and heterosexual pirates, as well as a number of tales in which sexual orientation wasn’t specified. I got stories set in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and outer space, amongst other locations. Stories were set in ancient Greece, in Viking-era Scandinavia and in the Golden Age of Piracy, along with many other time periods. It made for some terrific reading.”—Catherine Lundoff, Editor
The Good Stuff
From the hundred submissions received, Catherine Lundoff chose fifteen, and as she said, they make for terrific reading. Lundoff did her selection process well. Scourge has a strong sense of cohesion to it despite fifteen different authors, each with their own tone, style, themes, and primary characters. Some stories are stronger than others, but that’s to be expected in my experience.
As a whole, I appreciated the prevalence of unique, fleshed out female characters. It’s rare to have so many women playing so many different roles in pirate stories. Not all of the stories are about women, though, yet that doesn’t mean that the other characters don’t also break the mold of what one normally sees in pirate-themed media. One of my favorite stories features a gay man who is the opposite of toxically masculine. The final story basically gives us a chinchilla version of Steven from Steven Universe (trust me, it’s delightful).
Scourge for the most part avoids a lot of the nastier elements of pirate stories. While it’s often romanticized, pirate stories can also be a genre dominated by whiteness, toxic masculinity, homophobia, and graphic violence (often directed at women). Scourge flat out rejects whiteness and Euro-centrism. Where the rest are concerned, any toxic masculinity, misogyny, or homophobia is depicted as negative and harmful. Something to be fought against rather than accepted as ‘the way things are/were’. Many of the stories go out of their way to avoid violence from the protagonist unless provoked, highlighting that even piracy doesn’t have to be grimdark and brutal.
Moreover, as with most, if not all, short story collections with multiple authors, every reader is going to have their own specific tastes. A story I couldn’t put down might be less compelling to another. And short stories in themselves have their own unique kind of structure different from long-form fiction. Which, again, lends itself to readers having various preferences in what they want or enjoy. While I can’t say for certain which stories you might love most, I can pretty much definitively say that you will find something to love.
Personally, I like short stories that have a bit of a haunting quality to them, ones that leave me wanting more but still satisfied with what I got. I prefer having a sense of projected direction for where the story/characters could go but without complete resolution. Of the fifteen, four left me breathless, wanting more, and eagerly looking up other works by their authors.
Ginn Hale’s “Treasured Island,” the first story in the collection, captured my imagination with its worldbuilding, dreamy tone, and lyrical prose. The living island she maroons her protagonist on is lush and vivid. The protagonist himself is meditative, deep, and alluring in his narration.
“The memories were like a treasure of beautiful glass that cut too deeply.”—Ginn Hale, “Treasured Island”
Ed Grabianowski’s fantasy horror “The Doomed Amulet of Erum Vahl” borders on the Lovecraftian with its haunted black temple surrounded by a barren wasteland and nightly battles with a shadowy demon. Yet he brings a sense of courage and bittersweet hope Lovecraft lacks that nonetheless doesn’t detract from the terror. Plus, I adore snarky queer pirate ladies, so Jagga had me from the get go.
On the other end of the “women characters I cannot resist” is Andromache of Elliot Dunstan’s “Andromache’s War.” In the aftermath of the Trojan War, Andromache resists becoming a prize of war and instead carves out her own place in a patriarchal culture and narrative. Using the system against itself, she nevertheless avoids becoming that which had dominated her. It’s a tale of grief, resistance, revenge, and breaking the cycle. Plus, Greek mythology. I would die for Andromache.
Last in this list and in the collection, but certainly not least in my estimation is A. J. Fitzwater’s “The Search for the Heart of the Ocean.” I have never read any of A. J.’s other works, but damn if I need to get my hands on the rest of their ‘dapper lesbian capybara pirate sage.’ I’m not kidding, the protagonist is literally a capybara (this is the story with the chinchilla Steven Universe). With breathtaking worldbuilding, a healthy dose of internet meme references, and stunningly rich lore, these are the queer rodent pirates I didn’t know I needed.
“Falling forever, into a silence so profound it could write its own epic.”—A. J. Fitzwater, “The Search for the Heart of the Ocean”
While not my top-tier standouts, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a few of my second favorites: Joyce Chng’s “Saints and Bodhisattvas,” Geonn Cannon’s “Rib of Man,” Su Haddrell’s “A Smuggler’s Pact,” Matisse Mozier’s “Rosa, the Dimension Pirate,” and Megan Arkenberg’s “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” All of these fall broadly into the category of, “enjoyable adventure stories from authors I’d read more of.” But again, you might think differently, so you’ll have to read them all to find out.
My first note isn’t so much a drawback as a clarification to set proper expectations. Scourge features a ton of queer female characters, which is a welcome addition to a straight, male dominated genre like pirate stories. As a queer woman myself, I love me some queer lady pirates. The first episode of my queer history podcast was about Anne Bonny and Mary Read, after all, and Max and Anne from Black Sails are in my top five list of queer lady ships. I am here for all the queer pirate ladies, full stop.
At the same time, based on what I read, and quoted, in the introduction, I expected more trans pirates, gay pirates, and (explicitly) bi pirates of all genders. (None of the queer female characters are explicitly bi and most were likely written to be viewed as lesbian.) I assumed that, “there are stories with these characters” meant, “there is a roughly equal (or at least a more even distribution) of stories with these characters.” My assumption isn’t the fault of the collection or the editor, though. However, I did want to make readers aware that Scourge skews strongly wlw. because the last thing I want is people disappointed in the book for making that same assumption.
As implied above, there’s some unevenness to the collection, but that’s to be expected when you have multiple authors. Not all of the stories have the same level of skill or precision with pacing, characterization, or worldbuilding. Nevertheless, even the ones I thought ‘weaker’ contained an element I liked and appreciated. For example, one story had great worldbuilding and setting, but the pacing of the denouement felt rushed. Another had an compelling thematic arc and interesting characters, but confusing worldbuilding that wasn’t fully explained until halfway through the narrative. At which point, I had to go back and reread the first half to make sense of it.
Certain stories in Scourge contain dark or difficult content, which may or may not be a drawback but is worth pointing out. One tale uses homophobia as a framing device, which bothered me both for its lack of historical accuracy to the culture and because stories with homophobia as worldbuilding are not to my taste. However, this particular story features a bisexual, poly dynamic, which was truly refreshing, and many will likely find the inclusion of homophobia to be compelling and validating to their experiences. Another tale includes implied pedophilia, domestic violence, and fridging, yet it also includes one of the most poignant journeys of a heart in conflict in the whole collection. For some, the content itself might be enough of a turn off, but for others, the compelling character work just might make this one of your favorites.
Final Score: 8/10
Scourge is treasure trove of diverse stories in multiple ways: diversity of characters with regard to race, orientation, and gender identity; diversity of setting and cultural background; and diversity of style, tone, and themes. Most fall into the bracket of delighted enjoyment that I was glad I read. A handful rose above that to become favorites whose authors I will be looking up and left me wanting whole books about. Nothing is actively bad or poorly written, and your tastes will likely vary from mine so you might even adore some of the ones I found less engaging. All that to say, if you like pirates and have been wanting more than the standard white, male, straight, and Euro-centric tales that dominate the genre, I recommend giving up some doubloons in exchange for Scourge. It’s a prize worth having.
Scourge of the Seas of Time (And Space) is available today from Queen of Swords Press and can be purchased on their website. Don’t forget to check out other titles from Queen of Swords press to read over the holidays while avoiding unwanted conversations with family.
Editor’s Note: the author of this review received an advanced reader copy of this collection in exchange for a fair and honest review.