One of my favorite things about blogging is pushing myself into reading new things, and I could not have made a better choice for my first graphic novel than Mooncakes, written by Suzanne Walker and drawn by Wendy Xu. This book is a freaking delight, targeted to a YA audience and featuring a queer hard-of-hearing witch who lives with her grandmas and is delighted at the return of her old friend, a non-binary werewolf. Together, they fight a demon and celebrate Jewish and Chinese heritage and honestly it is all just glorious!
A story of love and demons, family and witchcraft.
Nova Huang knows more about magic than your average teen witch. She works at her grandmothers’ bookshop, where she helps them loan out spell books and investigate any supernatural occurrences in their New England town.
One fateful night, she follows reports of a white wolf into the woods, and she comes across the unexpected: her childhood crush, Tam Lang, battling a horse demon in the woods. As a werewolf, Tam has been wandering from place to place for years, unable to call any town home.
Pursued by dark forces eager to claim the magic of wolves and out of options, Tam turns to Nova for help. Their latent feelings are rekindled against the backdrop of witchcraft, untested magic, occult rituals, and family ties both new and old in this enchanting tale of self-discovery.
Today on the site we’re welcome back Ginn Hale, whose fantasy Master of Restless Shadows, part of the Cadeleonian world (but kicking off its own new series) releases today! It’s full of espionage and other courtly intrigue, not to mention magic, witches, and romance. Here are the details:
Freshly graduated Master Physician Narsi Lif-Tahm has left his home in Anacleto and journeyed to the imposing royal capitol of Cieloalta intent upon keeping the youthful oath he made to a troubled writer. But in the decade since Narsi gave his pledge, Atreau Vediya, has grown from an anonymous delinquent to a man renowned for penning bawdy operas and engaging in scandalous affairs.
What Narsi―and most of the larger world―cannot know is the secret role Atreau plays as spymaster for the Duke of Rauma.
After the Cadeleonian royal bishop launches an unprovoked attack against the witches in neighboring Labara, Atreau will require every resource he can lay his hands upon to avert a war. A physician is exactly what he needs. But with a relentless assassin hunting the city and ancient magic waking, Atreau fears that his actions could cost more than his own honor. The price of peace could be his friends’ lives.
And here’s the guest post on making choices in the world of weaponry in Epic Fantasy, complete with fabulous exclusive art from cover designer Zaya Feli!
Epic fantasy is full of weapons. Swords are particularly common. Some are imbued with specific and significant cultural meaning, such as Excalibur or Kusanagi-no-tsurugi. Others, like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gurthang or Sikanda from The Never Ending Story are magical to the point of sentience, while others are simply notable for their history, quality or the use they are put to, such as Mr. Smee’s Johnny Corkscrew in Peter Pan—so named because of the way the sailor twists the blade in the wound after stabbing his opponent.
But it’s not just magical, mythical, or infamous weapons that convey information about the their world and the person wielding them. After all swords, spears, bows, guns, etc. are real tools with real histories. Everything about them—from how they’re made, how they’re adorned and who can carry them—has been shaped by particular places and times in human history.
To me as an author, this means that who I arm and how I choose to arm them can serve the story. Even when the choice of weapon might seem little more than costume to a reader, often much more thought has gone into the matter.
Since the series begins inside a military academy, it only made sense to employ weapon preference and fighting styles to characterize the students and to add depth to their duels. (Not to mention the ambushes and battles they would later be involved in.)
Slim and smart, Kiram Kir-Zaki is far more interested in his mechanical studies than swordplay, so he relies on tactics more than strength. He also hails from a different culture than his sword-swinging Cadeleonian classmates, so his weapon of choice is a bow, which offers him the advantage of distance. Archery allows him to hunt birds, while his classmates gripe about winter rations of cabbage stew. His inventiveness also means that he eventually crafts his own unique weapons to defend himself and his family of choice.
His roommate Javier on the other hand is an excellent swordsman, but because his instructors believed he’s cursed he’s forced to undergo a regime of religious penance that leaves him physically weak. This leads to his decision to forgo both shields and longer, heavier swords, as just carrying them would exhaust him. Instead he relies on a light rapier—not unlike an early épée. Of course stepping into a dueling ring armed with such a fragile-looking sword broadcasts his vulnerability. Javier’s solution is to play up his weakness—expending the minimum of his strength to elude his opponents and hold them at bay all while lulling them into overconfidence. Then, having conserved his strength and lured his opponent into the range of his shorter, lighter weapon he strikes his winning blow.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is their friend Elezar, who possesses exceptional strength and reach. He comfortably wields a longer, much heavier sword; one that readily tears through the armored enemies he faces on the battlefield. Since the majority of his fighting is done while mounted I imagine him armed with something between an estoc and a broadsword. On foot, his weapon of choice is probably something like a bastard sword, (likely a hand-me-down and quite out of fashion, but comfortable to him and a reminder of the people he’s left behind when he journeys to other lands.) That said, Elezar has also won his way through couple predicaments by employing a woodcutter’s maul—ouch!—and his coin purse.
Master of Restless Shadows introduces a new character: Sabella, who is a professional fighter. But unlike the nobles who schooled at the Sagrada Academy, Sabella’s battles are fought in dueling rings of sword houses and serve as entertainment for gamblers and the general public. Her weapon is a civilian sword, a rapier. It’s easily sheathed and unsheathed in close quarters and meant for combat on city streets against unarmored opponents. Like Sabella herself, a rapier is agile and deadly. It’s also something a rarity for any woman to possess, as sumptuary laws would normally bar a Cadeleonian woman from wearing a sword. (Though my books are fantastical, sumptuary laws aren’t. They were and are still used to suppress gender and class freedom. Fascinating historical figures like as Mary Frith (aka Molly Cutpurse) and the extraordinary duelist, La Chevalier d’Eon number among the many people who struggled to live authentically under such laws.) But since I took my initial inspiration from the real life figure of duelist and opera singer Julie D’Aubigny in creating Sabella, I allowed her to win a special dispensation to dress in men’s clothes—which includes her beloved rapier.
Master of Restless Shadows also introduces Delfia who, like Sabella, has been expertly trained in combat since childhood. But since she and her brother are assassins, it would hardly do for her to flout sumptuary laws or strut through the capitol with a rapier at her hip. Instead she carries a fighting knife, which her decorative sheath and full skirt help to disguise as a mere belt knife. And, of course, she also employs poison. Being smaller and less menacing in demeanor doesn’t make her less deadly. It does however mean that her greatest weapon is the element of surprise. (As in, ‘Surprise! That tiny jab from a lace needle was loaded with poison!’)
And last but not (I hope) least is Delfia’s brother, Ariz. He puts me in mind of a quote attributed to Confucius: Never give a sword to a man who can’t dance. In his guise as an instructor of fencing and dance, Ariz often plays down his facility for swordplay. But his grace, balance and speed as a dancer really ought to betray him, particularly when it comes to sword dancing. (Most sword dances actually began as forms of military exercise and training, so that ought to be a give away right there.) However Ariz presents himself and his personal weapons in the most lackluster manner possible. Instead of using the eye-catching effect of bluing to bring out the splendor of his heavy rapier and dagger, Ariz’s weapons are russeted or browned. This chemical process renders the flats of the blades a dull black-brown. At a glance his drawn dagger can appear to still be sheathed.
This detail, is a small one but to me it is central to Ariz’s characterization. Not only does it display just how he fights and survives but it serves as a metaphor for the man himself. That’s not too shabby of a feat for a homely sword with a deadly point to pull off.
Ginn Hale lives with her lovely wife in the Pacific Northwest. She spends the many cloudy days observing plants and fungi. She whiles away the rainy evenings writing fantasy and science-fiction featuring LGBTQ protagonists. Her first novel, Wicked Gentlemen, won the Spectrum Award for best novel. She is also a Lambda Literary Award finalist and Rainbow Award winner.
Her most recent publications include the Lord of the White Hell, Champion of the Scarlet Wolf and The Rifter Trilogy: The Shattered Gates, The Holy Road, His Sacred Bones.
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 Audrey Coulthurst’s Inkmistress, a companion novel to her debut Of Fire and Stars that includes a queer angry shapeshifting dragon girl. Yes, you read that right.
Of course, Inkmistress includes other things—a queer girl demi-god, who explores her own bisexuality throughout the narrative; a discussion of what it means to be angry, and what it means to pursue doing good; and, of course, some beautiful worldbuilding.
Take a peek at the beginning of chapter one—and a little snippet of chapter three!—below and keep reading to see Audrey and I chatting about Inkmistress, bisexual representation, and whether Audrey is secretly a Lannister.
When our story began, I thought I knew love.
Love was a mind that moved quickly from one thought to the next, eyes an inimitable blue that lay somewhere between morning glories and glaciers, and a hand that tugged me along as we raced laughing through the woods. Love was the way she buried her hands in my hair and I lost mine in the dark waves of hers, and how she kissed me until we fell in a hot tangle atop the blankets in the back of the cave I called home. Love was the warmth kindled by her touch, lingering in me long after the first snow fell and she had gone for the winter.
Love was what would bring her back to me in spring—and spring had finally begun to wake.
[And later, a peek into chapter three…]
We’d never really talked about boys. Before Ina had entered my life, I’d nursed a hopeless crush or two on handsome hunters who had come to me and Miriel for tinctures—but ever since Ina I’d had no desire for anyone else.
Nicole: We’re gonna do a deep dive on fantasy worldbuilding today. Are you ready to talk about dragons and gods and dragons and magic and dragons?
Audrey: Of course!
Nicole: Incredibly, I will be well-behaved and will not start the conversation with a ramble about how dragons are the best. I want to talk about the idea of demigods in your world without spoiling anything too majorly. Think we can manage?
Audrey: Yes. For a minute there I thought you were going to ask me to run a foot race. That would be very ill-behaved. And if we are being honest, dragons ARE the best.
Nicole: Where I am in New York, it is far too hot for foot races! For those who haven’t read the book yet, can you explain a little bit about how religion and gods work in your world?
Audrey: Sure. Inkmistress takes place approximately 200 years before Of Fire and Stars. In the world of Inkmistress, gods and demigods are much more a part of daily life than they are in the later book. Mortals in Zumorda worship the gods, but only demigods (the half-human offspring of a god and a mortal) and the monarch are able to use magic. The only magical ability most humans have is to take a manifest (an animal form) when they come of age, and they do this by pledging themselves to a certain god.
Nicole: And we learn what magic Asra can do very early on: writing in her blood can dictate the future. Which is both terrifying and badass.
Audrey: Yes, Asra is a demigod. The main problem is that Asra’s gift tends to have repercussions she can’t predict, and it also takes years off her life every time she uses it. So the costs are high and the benefits questionable, which makes her a bit afraid of her own power.
Nicole: But she risks using it for her girlfriend–you don’t use the word explicitly, if I remember, but I’m pretty confident in it–and it utterly backfires. Asra’s power, and her use of it for Ina, brought up feelings for me that I didn’t realize I had: how infrequently we see characters with ties to the gods identifying as queer.
Audrey: Interesting! You’re right–and I wonder if it has to do with the challenges some people have reconciling faith and sexuality. The prejudices and/or social structures we are faced with in the real world tend to bleed over into fiction, even unintentionally. I set out specifically to write a world in which queerness was a non-issue (both in Inkmistress and the Of Fire and Stars series), so that may have made for some unusual twists with regard to the interplay between faith, gods, and sexuality.
Nicole: That’s one of the things I love about your books. Queerness is normal and just comes with the same falling-in-love problems of any YA book regardless of sexual or romantic identity: it’s highly inconvenient and causes extreme angst, not because of the gender of the person you love, but because love is complicated and messy.
Audrey: Yeah, exactly. It’s a mirror of real-life experience as far as I’m concerned. Several bits and pieces of this story are sourced from people I knew and things that happened in my past (minus bloodthirsty dragons).
Nicole: Since you did not explicitly say that you don’t have the power to change the future by writing with your blood, I’m going to assume that’s based on your real-life experiences as well and fear you as the god-creature you are.
Audrey: Ha! Most of the people at my day job would be swift to confirm your fears. *smiles innocently*
Nicole: But one of the things that’s so realistic about the relationships between Ina and Asra, especially at the beginning of the book, is the fear that comes with keeping secrets. Ina from Asra, Asra from Ina–it creates a kind of tumbling, self-fulfilled prophecy situation. What do you think the appeal is, in fiction, of characters keeping secrets from each other–especially when it comes to romantic queer relationships? Do you think it allows us, as writers and readers, to explore the limits we’re willing to go… or is it just really good fodder for Emotional Feels™?
Audrey: Both, I think. And again, it’s true to life. Even when we love someone with our whole hearts, as Asra does Ina, there are pieces of ourselves that we have to keep close or choose to keep secret for various reasons. Sometimes it’s because we don’t understand those pieces completely (as Asra is unsure of the origins of her powers). Other times it is because we need to keep those secrets to get what we want (like Ina choosing not to tell Asra certain things until she feels like it might help her case).
Also, it might be worth noting that part of what inspired Inkmistress was a desire to write about a flawed relationship, one that is fundamentally lopsided, and how a character is able to come to terms with that and move on. It’s something I haven’t seen explored as often in fiction–that sometimes we love people without seeing them clearly, or without understanding that they will never return our feelings in equal measure.
Nicole: With the calls for more queer fiction prevalent in the push for diverse books, do you think that the push for Good and Happy relationships, especially in fantasy stories where anything is possible, can be detrimental to the portrayal of relationships that are more real for queer teens? I see a lot of frustration when representation isn’t Perfect, despite the fact that people–and characters–never are.
Audrey: Ooh, this is such a tricky question, and I might answer it differently as a writer than a reader. Especially when I was a teen reader, I was happy to read books where there were even secondary queer characters regardless of whether they had happy endings or not. Any representation at all was better than none. Now, as the amount of available queer literature grows, I think it’s important for readers of all ages to see that queer people can have happy, fulfilling lives and be the heroes of any story. At the same time, as a writer, writing about happy people is very, very boring. Sorry! Murder and angst is more fun.
As an aside, I do think that it’s also helpful to see toxic relationships in fiction, especially if they are adequately unpacked as such. It might help a reader recognize red flags in their own relationship and get out of a situation before their partner turns into a murderous dragon hell-bent on killing the king.
Nicole: Even though we all love murder dragons. With murder on the mind–as it always is–Inkmistress seems a much angrier story than Of Fire and Stars. I love angry girls in fiction. Is that a side-effect of the characters and time period of the world that you’re writing about? Did the real world influence that writing and worldbuilding?
Audrey: I think it was some of both. At the outset, I knew I wanted to tell a story about a character who was fundamentally kind and empathetic, and truly wanted the best for her people and her world. Asra starts out the story rather naive and once she gets out into her kingdom beyond the mountain where she grew up, the world starts kicking her in the face without mercy. To me, the story is about how she managed to take ownership of her powers and stay true to her own beliefs in kindness and goodness in spite of everything that is taken from her.
As far as the real world, I wrote Inkmistress when I had moved to Los Angeles after ten years in Austin, TX. It was a hard, lonely transition, as I’d left behind all my closest friends. So every time I was grumpy or sad, I just murdered more people in the book to cheer myself up.
Nicole: Murder solves all problems–well, fictional murder, at any rate. I think people–fictional or real–choosing to be kind and care in a world that doesn’t want them to is the bravest thing they can do. Is that an ideology you carry next to your own heart?
Audrey: Right now it’s an especially timely ideology to share and promote, I think. Some hard things are happening in the real world that are forcing people to take stock of who they are, who they support, and how they work to influence change. I thought about that a lot while writing the book, and how important it was to share the message that the cruelty of the world doesn’t have to defeat us, even when it seems like everything is impossible.
Nicole: Speaking of impossible things: there’s no way to please every reader. There have been a couple books that come under fire in the past year for portraying bisexual ladies ending up in relationships with dudes. Without spoiling too much of the book, Inkmistress is one of the titles. Bisexuality seems to be a difficult line to walk in fiction: ladies ending up with ladies is blanketed as lesbian, while ladies ending up with dudes is considered queer erasure. What do you think of the situation? How can we improve the discussion of bisexuality in fiction?
Audrey: I think you nailed it with “there’s no way to please every reader.” That’s so true on so many levels and for so many reasons. Even very beloved books have readers who didn’t enjoy them or weren’t able to connect with the characters. I am a passionate believer that we need to see a lot of different kinds of bisexual representation to start breaking down the negative stereotypes and/or erasure that are so common in both the queer community and more broadly.
At the same time, I recognize that there are a lot of readers out there who really want f/f content because they can find m/f content so much more easily. It’s a tough line to walk between accurate representation, because bisexuals do sometimes end up with male-identifying people and it doesn’t invalidate their sexuality, and helping expand the kinds of stories available to readers. It has meant a lot to me to hear from the bi readers who were so enthusiastic to read Inkmistress and who wrote to tell me that they finally felt seen and validated. To improve the discussion of bisexuality in fiction, I think we just need to see more and more stories. The conversation will keep growing and expanding as the diversity of bisexual representation increases. I’d love to live in a world where the gender of one’s partner isn’t taken as an indication of a person’s sexuality, so I strive to create that world in fiction and hope that open-mindedness slowly makes its way into reality.
Nicole: Before we go, I want to talk about manifests! We learn what they are really in the book: they’re animals that bond with humans in a way that allows the human to take their form. That’s why Ina is a murder dragon: her manifest was a dragon. We obviously know my manifest would be a kind, plant-loving dragon. It definitely exists. Somewhere. What do you think yours would be?
Audrey: Honestly, probably a cat. Much like my feline friends, I’m fundamentally lazy, aloof with strangers, and bitey-scratchy if touched without permission.
Nicole: Fundamentally lazy, says the writer of three incredible queer fantasies with more on the horizon. Maybe you’re a mountain lion: totally adorable, bitey-scratchy, able to take on way more than you think and destroy your enemies in the process.
Audrey: Ha, at my day job I have been known to use Cersei gifs to represent myself once in a while. And mountain lions are awesome. I’m down with that.
Nicole: If I’m a dragon and you’re a lion… what an unexpected Targaryen / Lannister alliance for this interview! Thank you so much for chatting with me, Audrey. Is there anything else you want people to know about Inkmistress and your work generally?
Audrey: Haha! I’m pretty sure if I lived in the world of Game of Thrones, I’d be the fantasy equivalent of a Red Shirt–doomed to an unceremonious death. As for my own books, readers might be comforted to know that while I’m always going to include queer female characters in my work, they will be free from my murderous tendencies. ‘Bury your gays’ and ‘the promiscuous bisexual’ are two tropes I’d like to see as infrequently as possible, so I do my best to avoid them in my work. Thank you so much for interviewing me today and for your wonderful questions!
Inkmistress is available now. Buy the book from Indiebound, Barnes & Noble, Amazon or Book Depository. To learn more about the book, visit Audrey’s website or follow her on Twitter or Instagram.