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Author: Sarah Avery

Sarah Avery's short story "The War of the Wheat Berry Year" appeared in the last print issue of Black Gate. A related novella, "The Imlen Bastard," is slated to appear in BG's new online incarnation. Her contemporary fantasy novella collection, Tales from Rugosa Coven, follows the adventures of some very modern Pagans in a supernatural version of New Jersey even weirder than the one you think you know. A related short story, "New Jersey's Top Ghost Tours Reviewed and Rated," appeared in Jim Baen's Universe. For two years, she blogged a regular column on teaching and fantasy literature for Black Gate, where now she reviews new fantasy series. You can keep up with her at her website, sarahavery.com, and follow her on Twitter @SarahAveryBooks.
Meet Me through the Black Gate, Then Two Blocks down Great Jones Street

Meet Me through the Black Gate, Then Two Blocks down Great Jones Street

the-war-of-the-wheat-berry-year-sarah-avery-smallTonight Great Jones Street, the new magazine that brought back my old Black Gate story “The War of the Wheat Berry Year,” is hosting an author chat, and you would all be very welcome. We’ll be talking about fantasy stories of all kinds, particularly epic, heroic, and sword and sorcery. I expect we’ll also be talking about issues of revision and representation, because of my essay, “Conscientious Turncoats,” at GJS about how the story needed to change to come back into the world. Feel free to bring your readerly fixations and preoccupations with you, too. I would love to have some familiar Black Gate voices in this new space.

Great Jones Street is a peculiar hybrid creature, a magazine that’s also an app. They started with a love of short stories and a realization that the short story may be the perfect form for reading on phones. I almost said I got unintentionally hooked on their app, but it would be more accurate to say they filled it up with so many great stories by top SFF writers that I forgot I was reading through an app. It feels more like the kind of anthology you might find in Jorge Luis Borges’s interdimensional library, or the best bookshop in Diagon Alley — endlessly growing new stories as you read it. Seeing my name among the other authorial names gathered there is a bit dizzying, and I’m not quite sure how I landed the first spot for their inaugural author chat.

The chat will run from 8pm to 11pm EST. Instructions on how to join the conversation are here.

The Series Series: The Ever-Expanding Universe by Martin Leicht and Isla Neal

The Series Series: The Ever-Expanding Universe by Martin Leicht and Isla Neal

Mothership-small A Stranger Thing-small The World Forgot-small

Two publishers asked if we’d try something unusual. It was the same unusual thing — reviewing an entire trilogy in one go — for two different series and two different reasons.

One series, Brian Stavely’s The Emperor’s Blades, was about to conclude. The other, Martin Leicht and Isla Neal’s The Ever-Expanding Universe, had been published by one imprint as YA, and was being given a second chance as a series for adults by another imprint of the same house. Though I knew reviewing two trilogies in this way would reduce the number of posts I made to BG this year considerably, I was curious. So here we are.

The Ever-Expanding Universe follows the adventures of a daring young engineer whose dreams of interplanetary exploration and college, not necessarily in that order, seem at first to be dashed by a bout of teen pregnancy. Thanks to the cover copy, it’s no spoiler to tell you that the young engineer’s baby daddy and not-quite-boyfriend turns out to be of extraterrestrial ancestry, and the most contested commodities in a resource war between two alien species are the bodies of the girls at the near-earth-orbit boarding school for unwed mothers where Elvie Nara has gone to hide from her high school nemesis.

Is it worse when Cole Archer, the sort-of-boyfriend, turns out to be an alien commando, or when Cole’s definitely-girlfriend and Elvie’s aforementioned cheerleader nemesis Britta McVicker turns out to be one of Elvie’s classmates for prenatal yoga? The three of them, and an impressively varied passel of other gravid girls seriously irked at having been tricked by alien boyfriends, spend the first volume of the series, Mothership, dodging ruthless alien attackers and fleeing through a booby-trapped and sabotaged space cruise ship refitted as a high school.

It’s a delightful mix of suspense, fight scenes, engineering puzzles involving transitions from one gravity or atmospheric environment to another, slapstick comedy, social satire, secret history, and stuff blowing up real good, all delivered by a hilariously smart first-person-smartass narrator you want to see triumph. How could any SFF reader resist? How did we miss this series when it first came out? Why is it not already a classic of humorous science fiction?

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The Series Series: Guile by Constance Cooper

The Series Series: Guile by Constance Cooper

Guille with Constance CooperGuile begins with the girl, but here we must begin with the town.

First, posit a dream-logic variation on Louisiana, a region of lovely old towns sinking inexorably into swamp, linked along their river by villages of stilted cabins. People here live by their river, inevitably — subsistence fishing is the most common livelihood — but the river can’t be trusted. Not just because it floods, but because of the mysteries it carries from dangerous lands upstream.

Because this is a dream-logic Louisiana, the pollution the river carries is not a thousand miles of industrial effluent, but the residual magic of a civilization that collapsed long ago. It’s a pervasive, contaminating magic, full of advantages for those who understand it — but it also breaks down the dividing lines between humans, beasts, and objects. People cope poorly when such boundaries get blurred, so even though the effort to police them is futile, policing them nonetheless is one of the principal priorities of this world’s customs. The heroine’s high town relatives are what you might get if H.P. Lovecraft and his prissy Providence aunts had made their respectable home just a mile from a slumful of Deep Ones.

The river might make a tool so intent on the task it was cast for that anyone who touches it can do nothing else. It might warp the bodies of divers who gather old artifacts to sell, webbing their fingers and gilling their throats. Animals who narrowly avoid drowning in the river emerge in a new kind of danger, endowed with human intelligence and speech, to the sometimes violent horror of actual humans. And minds contaminated by the magic can detect the magic, come to recognize its forms and functions, and use it where they find it, while those who’ve kept clean remain magic-blind.

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The Series Series: The Pagan Night by Tim Akers

The Series Series: The Pagan Night by Tim Akers

The Pagan Night-small

It’s a tempting mistake to see The Pagan Night as an attempt to pare George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series down to a more manageable scale. At first glance, the setting appears to be an old-school medieval European fantasy world with knights, peasants, heraldry, tournaments, and dark forests full of monsters.

Those dark forests are where Akers gets up to some impressive hijinks.

You may know the old saw about how a conquered people’s gods will become their conquerors’ demons. Akers takes that mythological observation and gives it a literal, visceral physicality that owes more to Miyazaki’s brilliant Princess Mononoke than to anything out of European myth or folklore. The novel’s conquered Tenerrans are animists — their customs look like those of European tribes, but their worldview seems to owe its greatest debt to Shinto.

But here’s a divergence: what happens to the gods who arise on their own from the natural world, now that the human rites that managed relations with them are outlawed? The gods go feral, mad, destructive. They must be killed again and again, only to come back again and again, always less like their old selves… until maybe they don’t anymore, and the land begins to die. Unless they can be protected in secret by the faithful.

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The Series Series: Shards of Heaven by Michael Livingston

The Series Series: Shards of Heaven by Michael Livingston

The Shards of Heaven-small[This review may contain trace amounts of David Bowie.]

The jacket copy for Michael Livingtson’s Shards of Heaven sounded promising. I asked for the ARC immediately, and bounced with joy when I found it in my mailbox. Alas, the press release tucked into the book described it as Dan Brown meets Indiana Jones.

Who am I to say Dan Brown is unreadable? Clearly millions of people find him otherwise. To me, though, Brown’s sentences and paragraphs are so relentlessly clunky, ugly, and boring, I am unable to care what happens to any of Brown’s characters. My one attempt to read The Da Vinci Code found me fighting the urge to throw the book across the room, several times on every page.

So the press release made me fear for the well-being of Michael Livingston’s novel. I also feared for my own domestic tranquility: Now that I have children, my household’s penalty for throwing books is a five-minute time-out.

Which was I to believe? The blockbuster-bluster elevator pitch, or the cover copy?

[A]s civil war rages from Rome to Alexandria, and vast armies and navies battle for supremacy, a secret conflict may truly shape the course of history: two sons of Caesar have set out on a ruthless quest to find and control the Shards of Heaven, legendary artifacts said to possess the very power of the gods — or of the one God. Caught up in these cataclysmic events, and the hunt for the Shards, are a pair of exiled Roman legionnaires, a Greek librarian of uncertain loyalties, assassins, spies, slaves . . . and the ten-year-old daughter of Cleopatra herself.

Shards of Heaven has so many of the things Black Gate readers love — epic sweep, battle and brawl, ancient secrets, women one underestimates at one’s peril, and world-shaking magic. Michael Livingston has some nice writing chops. The secret history clearly has a mountain of real historical research to give it depth. How can such a book go wrong?

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The Series Series: The Girl with Ghost Eyes by M.H. Boroson

The Series Series: The Girl with Ghost Eyes by M.H. Boroson

The Girl with Ghost Eyes-smallHere’s a great problem to have:

Your first novel just appeared in bookstores a couple weeks ago, and you’re getting ready to host an author event. It’ll be a night of martial arts movies that inspired your story of a Daoist exorcist priestess battling malevolent ghosts in 1890’s San Francisco Chinatown. You’ll have a full house. You’re all set to give opening remarks, to field questions, and to sign autographs. Lots and lots of autographs. There’s just one problem.

The book has sold out.

Not just at all your local bookstores. Not just at the local warehouses of the big distributors. At the offices of the press that published you, and at all of Amazon, too.

Your word of mouth is so strong, an entire print run’s worth of readers couldn’t wait for author events or the holidays. They had to have your book right now. Your publisher is scrambling to print a second run to satisfy all that glorious demand, but it won’t come in time for this night’s autographing.

Man, I would love to have a problem like that. But if it couldn’t happen to me, I’m delighted that it did happen to my longtime friend M.H. Boroson.

I want to tell everybody at Black Gate how awesome The Girl with Ghost Eyes is, but I can’t pretend to objectivity about this book or its author. How can I be objective about a friend who’s been important to me since we met at 14 in a writing summer camp? I’ll have to let Publishers Weekly, and all those other review outlets that are notoriously stingy with starred reviews, do that whole objectivity thing in my stead. Brilliant, dazzling, wonderful, thrilling, say various objective reviewers who haven’t known Matthew for two-thirds of their lives. Glad they got that all those adjectives checked off for me, because really, those words do belong in any review of The Girl with Ghost Eyes.

What I can do is tell the readers who gather here why this book they might not immediately realize is for them is exactly the kind of book Black Gate readers love.

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World Fantasy 2015: It’s the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead of Convention Reports

World Fantasy 2015: It’s the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead of Convention Reports

The Saratoga Hilton

The Saratoga Hilton, site of the 2015 World Fantasy Convention

Ask a literary agent how writers should pursue representation, and they almost always say, “Go to any convention, and we’ll all be in the hotel bar.”

In years past, I’ve tried agent/author speed dating at the Nebulas weekend, pitch sessions with agents at writing conferences, commenting on agents’ manuscript-wish-list blog posts — all the in-person variations but the bar, because the bar is not my natural habitat. Then again, in years past, I didn’t have an award in my pocket. Lots of people may be ambivalent about awards, but agents like them. This year I figured I might be out of my element, but I would no longer have that aura of desperation that surrounds unpublished novelists with no specific prospects. I finally had something an agent might want.

So I set my sights on the World Fantasy Convention, a con known for a base of attendees consisting almost entirely of professionals in the field. I love a good panel, I love a good reading, I love a good casual schmooze, but I had a mission. One that was certain to throw me into a wide variety of interactions that would range from the awkward to the absurd, with perhaps a little sweet spot of productivity in the middle.

When John O’Neill asked me to write a con report, I told him I had none of the kinds of impressions people record in them. What I had instead was my misadventures in agent hunting. John was laughing already, and urged me to post it.

If you want to know about the World Fantasy Awards and their banquet, memorable quotes from notable figures, the controversy over the toothless harassment policy, I’m not your girl. Not this time, anyway.

But you can time-travel back to the start of my most recent unfinished agent hunt and watch me indulge my hubris.

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The Series Series: Why Do We Do This To Ourselves? I Can Explain!

The Series Series: Why Do We Do This To Ourselves? I Can Explain!

The Wheel of Time-small

What’s up with the Big Fat Fantasy books? Books that crest a thousand pages, books that fell forests, books that travel in savage packs of series. We wait three years, five years, ten years for the next volume. Meanwhile, the scope of what the author must remind readers about between installments expands (a storytelling problem anatomized over here by Edward Carmien). We click over to the fan-run online encyclopedia to remind ourselves who the characters are, both because it’s been so long since the last volume, and because the cast size is just that large.

Yet many of us love such books. In my case — and maybe yours, too — not just a few odd specimens of the type, but the type itself.

Thomas Parker laid out all the objections that can be leveled against the sprawl of our genre’s most popular novels, not as an outsider but precisely as an insider shocked at what has become normal to him. (Embrace the tongue-in-cheek hyperbole and just go with it — the main point’s still sincere.)

Someone please tell me. Why? Why do we do this to ourselves, we devotees of science fiction, horror, and (especially) fantasy? What did we do to deserve this? What crime did we commit in some previous existence that we now have to expiate with such bitter tears? Judge, I deserve to know! I demand answers!

If readers are asking themselves that question in that way, even in jest, you can bet the authors are, too, often with a greater level of frustration.

I have to marshal all my hubris to say this in public, but guys, I think I might have the answer. Seriously, not just an answer, but maybe the central answer.

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Kickstarting a Belated Black Gate Story: The Imlen Bastard

Kickstarting a Belated Black Gate Story: The Imlen Bastard

"Aliosha Popovich" by Kate Baylay, from a collection of Russian Fairy Tales. Used by kind permission of the artist.
“Aliosha Popovich” by Kate Baylay, from a collection of Russian Fairy Tales. Used by kind permission of the artist.

Back in the age of print magazines, I made my first professional sale to a fellow named John O’Neill who published a gorgeous quarterly called Black Gate. We went through three deep revisions on that manuscript, a process we both enjoyed enough that, after I finally produced a version of “The War of the Wheat Berry Year” good enough for John to buy, he asked if I had anything else featuring that heroine. And I did. To our surprise, my novella “The Imlen Bastard” needed only a little polish to be ready for print. And so it took its place in the publication queue. Forthcoming from Black Gate, I said of it in my author bio all over the internet, for a few years.

Those years were hard on print magazines, and they weren’t much kinder to online fiction markets. “The War of the Wheat Berry Year” appeared in BG‘s last print issue. Ultimately, John stopped publishing fiction online before “The Imlen Bastard” could make its debut here.

But to me it’ll always be a Black Gate story.

So when I found an artist, Kate Baylay, whose work felt like my favorite old BG print covers — luscious, menacing, full of subtle story implications — I knew I’d found the right cover artist for “The Imlen Bastard.” Everything else I wanted to do with the self-publishing project that has grown up around the novella came together for me quickly after that. Best of all, Kate Baylay embraced the manuscript, and we’ve had so much fun going over the story together to find the most iconic moments for interior illustrations.

Then I enlisted superstar editor Betsy Mitchell — now retired from Del Rey after a career of editing people like Naomi Novik, Michael Chabon, William Gibson, and Octavia Butler — to give the novella an editorial boost. I figured, there’s a difference between standing as the longest piece in a magazine issue and standing alone as a book. I’m still kind of amazed that she took me on as a freelance client, when she’s in a position to work only on manuscripts she really enjoys. So that boded well.

At first, we all agreed that I’d launch a Kickstarter campaign over the summer, but then I got shortlisted for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award. I held off on self-publishing for a few months so I’d know whether to say Finalist or Winner in my promotional material. After the award, I needed to readjust my hubris levels — a story that’s done me the kindness of coming to me to be written deserves the best promotion I can give it, and now I had to work up more brazenness than ever before on my stories’ behalf. Brazenness is harder than it looks. This month, with the thank-you notes for the award all written and sent out, and a trophy to feature in my Kickstarter video, it was finally time.

I clicked on the launch button at noon. You can find the campaign here.

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How One Award-Winning Author Thinks About Awards

How One Award-Winning Author Thinks About Awards

Sarah L. Avery (photo by Theodora Goss)
Sarah L. Avery (photo by Theodora Goss)

A funny thing happened on my way to lifelong obscurity. I accidentally won a book award.

The award didn’t quite fall out of the sky and land on my head. After all, I had put the best I had to give, day after day, for many years, into the book’s drafts. Then I’d sent it to the most exacting readers I knew, and put the absolute best I had to give into revising it. Tales from Rugosa Coven was worthy. I had just stopped expecting anyone who didn’t already know me to notice.

And that was all right. I had other projects in process, and I when I sat down to work at them, I put the best I had to give into them, too. It’s joyful work. Universe willing, I’ll get to do it for the rest of my life.

Well, someone noticed. When the Mythopoeic Society shortlisted me for their award, it was such good news I was sure it had to be an error. The award may not be widely known in mainstream literary circles, but in the world of fantasy literature, it’s a big deal. I traveled to Mythcon to meet my unexpected readers, who were excited to see me. People who’d never met me had actually read my book and wanted to talk about it. I’m not being facetious when I say it was an utterly disorienting experience. The strength of the rest of the shortlist was such that, every time I sat down to write acceptance remarks just in case I won, I found myself drafting congratulatory emails and rehearsing what I’d say to my hotel roommate, a fellow nominee. If she hadn’t insisted that I must at least prepare a few notes, I have no idea what I’d have said at the podium when my hosts put the Aslan in my hand.

Even now, a month later, it’s hard to believe it really happened. Now I know what trophies are for. They’re how dark horse candidates who win things confirm for themselves that it wasn’t all a dream.

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