Excited to introduce a brand new monthly feature on LGBTQReads today called Spec Shelf, where Nicole Brinkley of the former Queership blog chats with authors about their queer SFF titles! Take it away, Nicole!
Welcome to Spec Shelf, the little corner of LGBTQ Reads where I talk to authors about their queer science-fiction and fantasy books. Today, we’re peeking into Ashley Poston’s Heart of Iron, one of my favorite books to release so far this year.
Described as “Anastasia in space,” Heart of Iron follows a ragtag group aboard the spaceship the Dossier: Ana, found floating in space as a child; Di, the glitching android found with her; Jax, the pilot from an unknown planet; and Robb, a royal who needs their help.
Together, they’re crossing the galaxy to try to find a spaceship that might not exist—Robb to find his long-lost father and Ana to save Di from his glitches. Ashley’s writing reads like a movie script, as fast-paced and clear as your favorite sci-fi flick. And much like your favorite sci-fi flick, there is undoubtedly a character you will fall in love with. Favorites as a whole seem to be Jax and Di, but the character that earned my heart? The indomitable Captain Siege, pirate leader of the Dossier.
Learn a little bit about Captain Siege and her wife Talle in the excerpt below—and keep reading for an interview between Ashley and me, where we chat about Heart of Iron, asexual representation, queer pirate girls and Hogwarts houses.
At the head of the table, beside the captain, Talle—short and thin, with black hair in a pixie cut and hands so steady she could slit a throat clean while navigating the skyways of Nevaeh—sliced a piece of bread in half with one of the dozen knives from her belt, and buttered it. Siege leaned forward and ate it out of her hand. “Sunshine! That was mine.”
“Ours,” Siege replied, kissing her, and played her hand— three twos. No one called Wicked against the captain. No one ever did. Except Talle.
Talle and Siege had been married longer than Ana had been part of the Dossier. She always wondered how they’d met, but it was a secret—like Siege’s last name.
Di once said that it seemed surprising that two people who were so opposite could fall in love, but he didn’t see that while Siege was the flame, Talle was the shadow. One could not exist without the other.
Ana wished she could explain it. She wondered, often, if he would feel the same about her if he was programmed to have emotions.
Now here’s the interview!
Nicole: Let’s skip the whole shebang about “what is your book about” and “tell me about your characters” and dive straight into the fun stuff.
Ashley: Ugh, do I have to?
Nicole: You knew what you signed up for.
Ashley: Fine, fine, LET’S SKIP ALL THE GOOD PARTS AND GO STRAIGHT TO THE SPOILERS. SO, THE FIRST PERSON TO DIE IS—
Nicole: If you touch my favorite can-opener robot E0S, I’ll never forgive you.
Ashley: I can live with that.
Nicole: There are many incredible characters in Heart of Iron—though our resident tiny robot is likely my favorite—and many incredible character dynamics. Watching relationships shift and grow as the book goes on was one of my favorite bits, especially between Jax and Robb. I know Jax wasn’t even supposed to be a POV character, originally. What was creating their dynamic like?
Ashley: I love character interactions. I think I love writing it because of fanfiction, to be honest. Character studies and all. And I knew going into Heart of Iron, a good chunk of the story would be unremarkable (it’s a “lost royal” trope—we all know how those go), so I wanted to make the characters the story, not the trope itself. And to do that I wanted to make engaging characters. Robb was one of those characters who was an antagonist in one draft, and then a martyr in the next, but he never quite fit very well in any of those roles. He didn’t really come into himself until he met this snarky starship pilot, and then I kind of realized—oh, he’s not any of those things. He’d been screaming at me for so long that I kind of tuned him out, and then when I finally let him go he became this multifaceted character who had lost his father, and who was unsure of his future, and who wanted to do good, but he always seemed to do it wrong.
Nicole: I feel like a lot of modern media—even with all of the steps we’ve made in positive queer representation—still tend to box queer characters into this corner if being That One Thing and not a multifaceted character, especially when written by straight authors. It’s one of the things I love about reading queer SFF—and, of course, fanfiction, which fixes many of the limitations of traditional media.
Ashley: That is really true—and even as a queer woman myself I started to box my characters into one archetype or another. I think, to be honest, it’s a lazy way to earn cookie points. You can have queer rep! But they’re only ONE thing! And it’s fine. I mean, it’s fine. But there came a point in writing Heart of Iron where it wasn’t fine anymore for me. I’ve been writing this book for six years, and during those six years I grew as a person and came into myself, and you can see that through the drafts. Also, I have to add that while I’m a queer woman, I don’t assume to know the trials and tribulations of gay male characters. I had sensitivity readers on Robb and Jax, and their story isn’t about their gayness. That isn’t my story to write. They’re characters who are gay in Heart of Iron—and definitely not the only ones—but their story isn’t about their gayness.
Nicole: And the world of Heart of Iron isn’t one that fixates on their gayness, either. It’s populated by queer characters. Which brings me to my non-robotic favorite character. You know her. You love her. Captain Siege.
Ashley: THE CAPTAIN’S IN THE HOUSSSEEE. I love Captain Siege. And her wife.
Nicole: And her wife Talle! They both play hugely important roles in Heart of Iron, both as Ana’s family unit and as rational heads in a time where all of our POV characters are under extreme emotional duress. How much can you talk about them without completely spoiling your (just-announced!) second book?
Ashley: Well, I can definitely say they’ve seen their fair share of OH MY GODDESS THE WORLD IS ENDING moments, so nothing really surprises them anymore. There will be a lot more about Siege and Talle’s past, how they met, and how that factors into some of the bigger revelations in Heart of Iron.
Nicole: I love nothing more than queer pirate girls.
Ashley: Me, too. I love stories with kickass queer female role models for the main characters. I think that’s important—especially in YA where parents are either dead, MIA, or just not written on the page.
Nicole: That age-old trope—in both anime and YA—really open up the opportunity for teens to explore. It’s much easier without formal adult supervision around. Though Siege does try to reign Ana’s overzealous nature in where she can.
Ashley: Note: she tries. Ana’s like a bottle rocket—she’s going to fly off somewhere, it’s just a matter of where, and there’s no stopping her. I did an event the other day where I had to sort Ana into a Hogwarts House, and I instantly said Gryffindor, but then a friend shouted Slytherin and I was like… OH. She kind of embodies both? She turns, really, from one to the other.
Nicole: Her loyalty to Di could be argued as either a Gryffindor or Slytherin trait—though I think she reveals her true colors as to which House she would belong to as Heart of Iron comes to a close.
Ashley: Yeah, she goes full Hufflepuff—JUST KIDDING. Di’s the only Hufflepuff. Bless him.
Nicole: You mentioned at your launch party that Di is the character you found easiest to write, and I know you put a bit of yourself in Ana as well, though it’s not officially canon in Heart of Iron, in terms of your own queer identity.
Ashley: Well, if we’re talking about things not “officially being canon” then neither Siege nor Talle nor Robb nor Jax are “canon” because they don’t officially state, “HEY, I’M GAY!”
Nicole: Though I would love to see a rainbow flag flown outside the spaceship.
Ashley: HA! Jax would be in charge of the glitter because he’d just like to ruin everyone else’s day. But yeah, the terms for gay/straight/ace don’t exist in the world of Heart of Iron, because there was never a need to put a word to it. I wanted to imagine a world where that was never an issue, where religious reasons didn’t dictate whether you could marry or love someone of the same sex. I guess that’s wish fulfillment on my end, but I think that’s why I love fiction. You can always write the what-ifs, and impossible things are no longer really that impossible.
Nicole: I think that, when using labels in speculative fiction, it can become complicated. You don’t want sexualities to be erased, which is one of my biggest fears when it comes to aces in fantasy—it’s so easy to ignore a character coded as ace as a “shy straight person,” whatever that means—but that wish fulfillment can be incredibly satisfying and allow further headcanons to be developed, especially when you’re like me and think romantic identity is just a series of question marks because gender and sexuality have no impact on who I fall for.
Ashley: Exactly, and one thing I had to wrestle with in writing Heart of Iron. If you don’t say it, or explicitly talk about it, does it exist in speculative fiction? And then there is author intention vs. execution, and I think this is a good place to segue back to Ana’s identity. I, for the most part, fall somewhere on the asexual spectrum. And I wrote Ana to fall somewhere on there, too. (“But Ashley!” someone is bound to say—and this isn’t a spoiler—“There’s kissing!” to which I want to remind everyone that just because you identify as asexual doesn’t mean you are banned from kissing people.)
Nicole: I’m on the ace spectrum and I love kissing and cuddling.
Ashley: Same! I love kissing, and I love holding hands, and being close to someone, and Ana does that a lot. And for me, that was the only way I knew how to put a little of myself into Ana. How I could show her sexuality like I did for Robb and Jax, Siege and Talle. For me, at least, just to see a character love someone so deeply, without some of the more sexual attractions, was important. That was really, really important to me.
Nicole: All of these relationships—Ana and Di, Jax and Robb, Siege and Talle, me and resident can-opener robot E0S—shape the world of Heart of Iron. What fictional relationships shaped your own writing? Oh, yes. We’re talking ships.
Ashley: THERE ARE A LOT OF SHIPS. I am from the land of fandom and fanfics. I love characters with interesting dynamics—I think they make the strongest OTPs, to be honest. And most of my strongest OTPs are not sexually-charged in nature, but come from a place of snarky quips and electric conversation. (Oh hi baby queer Ash, here’s your clue.) Artemis Fowl and Holly Short, for instance, and Howl and Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle. I also really love some non-canon OTPs, too. Yuugi and Yami Yuugi from Yu-Gi-Oh!; Hermione and her own ambition, because we know she wouldn’t settle; Rei and Makoto in Sailor Moon—
Nicole: Oh, Artemis and Holly! One of our first bonding moments as friends was our mutual love of those two—and you and I have similar preferences with romantic non-sexually-charged ships. Let’s wrap this interview up before we write an entire essay: is there anything else you want folks to know about Heart of Iron?
Ashley: Ha! Hmmm, well, let’s see. Heart of Iron is a story about a lost royal princess—yes, that’s true. There’s no disguising that, really (ha!). I never went into Heart of Iron hoping to rewrite the trope. Some people will like it, and some people won’t, and that’s with anything you read, you know? I guess what I’m saying is, I wrote Heart of Iron to explore the characters within the story—Ana and Di and Robb and Jax—and how they interact. I wanted to tell a story of characters coming together, of their complex relationships, of being the good you wish to see in the world, and of being frightened to be that good sometimes. I wanted to write a story about home—about the people that make it, and the people you have to leave behind to find it, and I hope you find your home, too, in the Iron Kingdom.
Nicole Brinkley has short hair and loves dragons. The rest changes without notice. She is an independent bookseller and blogger found most often at YA Interrobang and the Barnes & Noble Teen Blog. Like what she does? Follow her on Twitter or Instagram and support her on Patreon.