The Life and Times of Angel Evans: Behind the Scenes

Welcome back! This month, I’m exploring Dragonboats, Featherboats and worldbuilding.

Dragonboat sketch by Meredith Debonnaire

Art by Meredith Debonnaire

So, dragonboats. They are, as you will (I hope) know, mentioned in the story. As are featherboats. And they’re one of those things that’s actually quite important to Angel Evans’ world. As you can see from the sketches above, I imagine dragonboats to resemble viking longships with figureheads. They’re mainly made out of wood, with the scales being added on later (if you imagined them differently, I would love to know how). And it’s the scales that allow them to travel the way that they do. Angel Evans’ native world has a lot of natural magic, including really big currents of it that are known as marivers. Dragonboats travel by tapping into the magic of the marivers and using it to float. They are fast, reliable transport. They tend to be used more for cargo and trade than transport, although there are people willing and able to pay to travel quickly, as well as stowaways, and others who do things like join a dragonboat crew and conveniently hop out at the place they wanted to go.

Now the scales, as I have said, are the things that allow them to tap into the marivers. Dragonboats are covered in them (which makes them a bit painful to look at if the sun hits at the right angle), and not many people are sure how they work: something to do with absorbing and refracting the magic in a particular way. As you may remember, the scales for the dragonboats are made by Dwarfs. It’s one of their biggest exports. And the Dwarfs have¬†never shared the secrets of how the scales are made (in fact, no single Dwarf knows the whole process – the scales are made from a rare raw material that is mined by the women, then forged by men, enchanted by grafs and sold by kleed), meaning that the main method that Humans have for transporting cargo is dependent on trade with Dwarfs (who don’t often use dragonboats themselves). This makes for an interesting relationship, as the dynamic between Dwarf nations and Human nations is often fraught with cultural misunderstandings (and battles). However, the Humans like fast, convenient transport, and the Dwarfs (who do not have a very agrarian culture) like the variation in diet afforded them by this trade, so the dragonboats are one of the main reasons why battles between Human and Dwarf nations do not tend to last, although they are often bloody.

The next best thing are featherboats. No-one’s quite sure who came up with featherboats: some people say it was a Human, some that it was a renegade Grem with poor Phasing skills. What is certain is that, although featherboats are the next best thing, they are not actually good. They are smaller, they are riskier, they sometimes explode. Or stop floating. Or decide to go somewhere else entirely. They are the cheap option, and unfortunately, as in so many places, this means the dangerous option. As the name suggests, they substitute feathers for scales, with very very mixed results. Some feathers are good at channeling magic, and some are not. About the only advantage is that featherboats can travel along weaker marivers than dragonboats, but considering the possible exploding this is not a great advantage…

Join me for Behind the Scenes next month for some thoughts on the elusive Yumiko.

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Book Review: The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

the invasion of the tearling erika johansen

The second Mort invasion had all the makings of a slaughter.

BEWARE SPOILERS!

This, you may have guessed, is the sequel to¬†The Queen of the Tearling. And it is amazing! One of the main points about the fantasy world that has been created here is that, although it looks pretty typical human high fantasy at first glance, it is revealed throughout the first book that actually, these people are descended from fugitives from our world. Or our world some years forward with horribly believable dystopian trappings. A revolutionary called William Tear led the Crossing (what they were crossing is a reveal in this book, so I’m not telling).

This means that the Tearling (and presumably other kingdoms and queendoms) has this interesting juxtaposition of technologically being about able to make a basic cannon, but having historical records of x-ray machines. I love it. This book really deals with that part of the story, as Kelsea starts having visions of a woman who is somehow connected to the Crossing. At first, I was a little impatient with these flashbacks as I just wanted to know what was going to happen: Mortmesne is invading! We’re getting clues about who the Red Queen is! Please just tell me what’s happening! However, after a slightly awkward section I quickly became hooked, and it started becoming clear that the flashbacks were important and also forwarding the plot.

Kelsea herself I found challenging in this instalment, but nowhere near as challenging as a lot of teenage sovereigns in fantasy can be. And I think I was meant to find her challenging, and to question her judgement and her decisions. Other characters certainly did. I loved the intrigue, the back and forth between church and crown intensifying, the preparations for this totally hopeless invasion, Kelsea’s weird magical powers starting to make more sense…

The end was, well, I had a hunch about the ending. And I was half-right. And it was a massive cliffhanger (Kelsea you redeemed yourself bigtime) and I have been waiting on tenterhooks for the final book to come into the library (which it finally has). So, if you are interested in some slightly brutal, fast-paced, interestingly-built fantasy with WOMEN, I recommend this series.

And if you have read it, I would love to chat about it with you! I have so many feelings about this series!

Rating: read this book – do not make deals with the demon in the fire.

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Book Review: The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, cover design Helen Crawford White, images by Buffy Cooper, Trevillon images, Miloje, Shuttershock, Vertyr, pavila

They say the day the Governor arrived, the ravens did too.

This is a stunning book. Bittersweet and wonderful. Set in a historical not-quite-here world that reminded me a bit of¬†His Dark Materials in atmosphere, this is the story of Isabella, her father, her best friend Lupe, and the island of Joya. It’s ferocious and beautiful and strange. The story is fantastic – the plot is a bit chaotic at times, but to me that felt realistic and I liked it.I also really enjoy stories that have friendships between women or girls front and centre, which this did: Isabella’s main motivation is to find her best friend, Lupe, who has gone missing. Seeing as Lupe is the Governor’s daughter, she is generally unpopular with the rest of the islanders.

And that was another thing: I don’t think there is a single white character in this book. Not one. And it is a story that manages to be about (among other things) colonialism without that being the sole focus. Quite the feat. In this sense, it reminded me (odd as it may seem) of¬†The God of Small Things, in that the politics were simply there and happening and impacting on people’s lives without being shoved into your face.¬†The Girl of Ink and Stars is meant for middle grade readers, which is reflected in the writing style (although Kiran Millwood Hargrave is also a poet and it shows in a good way). I found this to be a genuine emotional journey, with touches of myth and magic and a lovely voice. But definitely have tissues on hand.

Also, for those of you who enjoy that kind of thing, the inside covers (I know that I know what these pages are called, just can’t remember) have beautiful colour illustrations, and there are map motifs on the edges of all the inner pages.

Rating: read this book: journey to a volcano, cry.

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Book Review: Mother of the Sea by Zetta Elliott

Mother of the Sea, Zetta Elliott, art by Christina Myrvold, image shows black woman holding a child surrounded by ocean

When the skinless men leave, the taste of salt lingers on her lips.

So this is a tiny book ‚Äď forty-six pages in fact. And it kicked its way through my ribs, grabbed my heart and¬†held. Mother of the Sea is not a¬†history book, (I’d say fantasy/speculative fiction probably) but it is set in one of those places during history that my (school) education never adequately reached, and that is the slave trade.

It’s a story about a girl, waiting in the dark and fearing what will happen. It’s a story about holding on; to hope, maybe, to one’s sense of self. It’s fantastical, slightly, but that doesn’t mean that everything works out. In all honesty, I don’t quite feel qualified to review this book. But it’s amazing, and it made me question things and it made me cry and it’s a good story so I wanted to give it a signal-boost (as they say). Read this: the writing is sharp, the characters are sharper, and there’s a mysterious fish-child onboard the slave ship…

Rating: heart-stompingly good, bring tissues…

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Book Review: Dragon Haven by Robin Hobb (book two of the Rain Wilds Chronicles)

Dragon Haven by Robin Hobb art by Jackie Kay

Day the 5th of the Prayer Moon

I previously reviewed Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb, and I advise you to read that one first! There are some spoilers in this review.

Well, I said I wanted to see what Robin Hobb was going to do, and I have¬†not been disappointed! Having warmed up to the characters during the first book, with this one I was able to dive right in. I was again struck by the richness of Robin Hobb’s worldbuilding. Her descriptive writing is skilled, nuanced and wonderful (I did have to do a bit of looking things up in the dictionary). Relationships and tensions that were laid out in the first book simmer, boil over, transform and deepen: Alise finally finds out that her husband (Hest Finbok, who is referred to in my head as idiot-man) was in fact having an affair with Sedric Melden, who was her best friend and Hest’s sort-of secretary…

What’s wonderful about this whole progression is that, although the feelings between Alise and Sedric are understandably complicated, they are able to salvage their friendship and somewhat bond over the fact that Hest has behaved manipulatively and awfully towards both of them. Watching these two characters heal from their treatment at the hands of idiot-man, and figure out how to do so while remaining friends, was wonderful. They also have both found lovers who treat them with the love and respect that they deserve, which lead to me yelling happily while I read.

Meanwhile, the dragons continue to be difficult, mysterious and joyful by turns. Thymara’s stubborn back wound persists, and Thymara persists in refusing to be part of the toxic machinations of Greft (idiot-man mark two). One of my favourite characters vanished really early on (swept away by a flood), which was rather upsetting. And everyone keeps heading up the river, slowly and laboriously and being changed by it…

Also, the letters between Detozi and Erek, the pigeonkeepers, start betraying something more than a professional relationship, and give us a glimpse into the havoc being caused by this expedition back in civilisation. A brilliantly engaging read.

Rating: read this book, curl up in the warmth and feel your wings grow and grow and grow…

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The Life and Times of Angel Evans: Behind the Scenes

Welcome! This is a new monthly thing that I will be doing, taking you behind the scenes of¬†The Life and Times of Angel Evans. It’s going to vary as to what exactly that means; I might take you behind the scenes to the process of writing, worldbuilding and editing, or I might take you to bits of the world that didn’t make it into the story and characters who I would have loved to give more page space. If there’s anything specific that you’d be interested in seeing, do ask! Also, if you’re reading this and wondering ‘how do I get my hands on this story?’, you can buy¬†The Life and Times of Angel Evans through Amazon or directly from the Booksmugglers (it will cost you about ¬£1.50 or $1.99 USD). You can get it as a Mobi or an Epub file.

Now, onwards! Let’s start by taking a look at the eponymous character herself…

Angel Evans concept art

Art by Meredith Debonnaire

I’ve talked a bit about the creation of Angel Evans as a character in both the essay and the interview that are included with the eBook; those of you who’ve read that will know that, originally, Angel Evans was meant to be a background character. I don’t remember quite how I created her – she started life as an OC in a fanfiction that never got written, grew a bit in my head, and made it into a larger project that I was planning at the time. The planned story was a really big, portal-hopping kind of thing, and Angel Evans was meant to be a background character. She was just a cleaner, working in this awful pub which, for whatever reason, was where the main characters always went for drinks while trying to figure out how they were going to save the world. They’d be getting drunk, having these very intense conversations about magic and sorcery and¬†oh shit how do we fix this now and in the background was this ginger cleaner who always stank of tobacco. The idea I had was that, eventually, there would be this big revelation that the cleaner was actually super powerful and had saved the multiverse already (at a very high cost) and was intrinsic to doing so again, but very reluctant indeed.

That story didn’t work out. Mainly because Angel Evans just kept stealing the show – I’d try to write the story that I had planned, and all the time in the corner of my mind was this angrysad ginger cleaner, smoking cigarettes and glaring and being¬†really really intriguing. So that project got jettisoned. And I didn’t write anything involving Angel Evans for quite a while, although she continued to hang out in the back of my mind and grow. She acquired a girlfriend, Yumiko, and a backstory and more and more of a personality. Angel Evans is one of those rare characters who seemed to write herself.

There are a lot of things that I really like about Angel Evans (sense of humour, ridiculous flirting, absolute disregard for rules concerning magic, relationship with Yumiko); the thing that I think¬†interests¬†and¬†challenges me most about her is the contradiction between her selfishness and her altruism. She’s definitely selfish in a lot of ways, and she will literally climb over other people’s bodies to survive if she has to. But she doesn’t necessarily want to do that, or to have to make that choice. She has a lot of kindness, but it’s hidden beneath layers and layers of learning to survive. I think that, a lot of the time, women in fiction are not allowed to be selfish¬†and ¬†sympathetic: if they are selfish, we are supposed to dislike them. And I wanted to play with that.

Angel Evans is someone who, when she was pushed to absolute breaking point, did the right thing. The altruistic thing. She herself did not even consider that she had a choice in the matter, not really. But that supposedly altruistic thing is the thing she’s struggling to live with,¬†not the things that some readers may view as selfish.

So some of the questions I was asking while writing her were: does this one, really really big act of altruism cancel out the rest of her selfish acts? And should it even matter that she can be selfish, when it was the selfishness that allowed her to survive and gain the skills she needed in order to save the worlds? Would we, the readers, view her behaviour as selfish if she had had a different gender? (it’s worth noting that she does have a different gender for a while when she’s living with Dwarfs – I’m using she pronouns because Angel Evans is ‘she’ for most of the story.) And, of course, what motivates her?

I still think about most of those, despite the story being done and written. Angel Evans is probably one of my favourite creations, precisely because she’s a flawed ball of contradictions with the potential to be absolutely monstrous. She also grew very organically, rather than being planned out in advance as some characters were, and I think this gave her the rough edges that she needed.

Join me next month for more Behind the Scenes – I’ll be talking about Dragonboats and why they’re important in Angel’s world.

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Book Review: A Tyranny of Queens by Foz Meadows

A Tyranny of Queens by Foz Meadows

“It’s all right,” said Ruby, squeezing Saffron’s hand.

This is the sequel to An Accident of Stars, which you definitely need to read before reading this one. You can read my (very)short review of that book here.

A Tyranny of Queens is breathtaking. It takes everything that was built and set up in An Accident of Stars, and runs away with it in unexpected directions. I could probably write a great deal of essays about the world that Foz Meadows has created, about what has been done with gender and sex and religion and race, how they relate to where we are now. About polyamorous marriages and matriarchy and family. About how we treat victims.

And the wonderful thing is that all of those things above¬†are in the book without making one feel as though one is reading a book that wants you to think certain things. They just exist, in the world, and the plot roars along like a steam engine on the boil, veering sharply enough that I thought, several times, it had gone off the rails and there was no possible way that this new development could make sense¬†and then it did! The cast is, as in¬†An Accident of Stars, fantastic. Primarily women, and primarily not white women, and with a big mix of ages and origins and wellness – how often do we get main characters with chronic illnesses? Facial scarring? Partial paralysis? Neurodiversity? The answer is¬†not often enough – it’s hard to find even one, and in this book we get¬†all of those things in a fantasy setting, as well as most of the fantasy settings (this is a portal fantasy, so we get more than one world) being extremely queer-friendly.

It is, of course, not perfect. But it’s damn good, and having only finished it a few hours ago I am still emotionally entangled with it all, and more than a bit breathless from the way it ended. I realise I’ve barely mentioned the characters or the plot; in this instance it’s really hard to do without MAHOUSIVE spoilers… So, yanno, go read it ūüôā

Rating: Read this book, phone all your friends and make them read it…

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