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Eric Van Lustbader On Writing Thrillers and Fantasy

The Nemesis Manifesto is the start of Eric Van Lustbader’s newest action-packed series, but he hasn’t always been writing thrillers. Check out his guest post on starting his career writing fantasy novels, what it’s like to write both fantasies and thrillers!


By Eric Van Lustbader

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I am often asked how I can successfully write both thrillers and fantasy. Of course, any question about creating contains elements that are simply inexplicable – because creating in any form — art, music, or in my case, writing is by definition inexplicable. It’s a gift, and that’s as far as I can take it in explanation.

I grew up immersed in both spy novels and science-fiction/fantasy. The first series I wrote way back in the ‘70s, The Sunset Warrior, was fantasy. It seemed the easier route when starting out because I could create the world from the ground up. When you create your own rules, as long as you stick to them, all the details come straight from your mind.

By the time I’d finished the five Sunset Warrior novels, I had realized why I had been drawn to both genres. In other words, the similarities, rather than the differences, started to come into focus. The main undercurrents of loyalty, reason, humanity, courage, and sacrifice that drew me personally to write characters driven by those ideals were the core values of both genres. While on the surface it doesn’t seem these two genres are in any way compatible, the fact is they are. I guess that’s why so many SF/Fantasy readers like thrillers so much. They’re just like me!

I’m often asked how I got into thrillers when I started out so successfully in the Fantasy genre. The answer has nothing to do with genre or style. In college, I became fascinated by Japanese book-block prints. I learned about the Ronin Gallery in Manhattan, and became friendly with the couple who owned it. I hung out at the gallery in much of my spare time and would often listen to and learn from the conversations I heard. 

The time I spent at the gallery fired my writer’s imagination. I created a character for my next fantasy series called The Ninja based on what I learned. And yet, as successful as this series was, I did once again return to fantasy, which for me is a kind of sanctuary, a place of rest and repose that takes me back to my teenage years, when it was just about my only solace in a world I didn’t understand and which certainly didn’t understand me.

I had recently moved to a new publisher, which turned out to be such a big mistake I almost quit writing. One day, while I was cleaning out my office I came across a partial manuscript I had forgotten all about. It was the beginning of a fantasy novel, and I was so taken with it that I decided to finish it. Midway through that process I realized the story wouldn’t fit into one volume. My friend and publisher, Tom Doherty, bought The Pearl Saga series, saving my life and reigniting my belief in publishing. I’ve happily been with Tor/Forge ever since.

They’ve been with me through my many incarnations. Through the Jack McClure series, featuring a protagonist who, like me, is on the dyslexia spectrum, the quartet of The Testament novels, which straddled the line between thriller and literary horror, and now The Nemesis Manifesto, the first novel in a new series starring Evan Ryder, a field operative who is not superhuman, but lives by her wits and her instincts — relatable in every way to every kind of reader.

Once again, for me, a new beginning…

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Celebrating Black History Month with Rita Woods

In celebration of Black History Month, Rita Woods shared some of her favorite authors with us. Her debut novel, Remembrance, is available now wherever books are sold!


By Rita Woods

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Favorite poems are like favorite children. We definitely have them but we never tell, as the others would have their feelings hurt.

~ Nikki Giovanni.

Who is your favorite writer? What books have influenced you the most?

I am absolutely certain every single writer has been asked some variation of these questions at some point in their career. I’ve been asked this. . . more than once. And inevitably this seemingly simple inquiry, always manages to render me mute. I sit, blinking, my face frozen in an expression of vague terror, unable to answer the one question I knew was coming. Because the truth is, in that moment, each and every time, I am overwhelmed with images of the hundreds and hundreds of books I’ve disappeared into over the years, scenes from stories that have filled countless nights when I should have been asleep, lines uttered by favorite characters all those Saturdays I sat huddled in a cold car waiting for the boys to finish basketball practice or dance lessons.

Good books, the best books, gift a permanent piece of themselves to the reader. Sometimes it’s a simple line that reverberates again and again. Sometimes it’s a longing for a place that exists only in the imagination of the writer. And sometimes, that gift is a complete shift in how one sees the world.

So many writers.

So many books.

But right now, in the pre-dawn quiet, as the winter wind rattles the windows, a few come into sharp focus, stories I still feel on my skin, despite having read some of them years ago.

One summer I decided to read everything I could by Alice Walker. One right after the other. Possessing the Secret of Joy, The Temple of My Familiar, Meridian.

The Color Purple is one of her most familiar novels. In it, there is a scene that gutted me, and to this day takes my breath away. It involves Sofia, a secondary character in the book; Harpo’s wife, the main character, Celie’s daughter-in-law. Sofia is open, honest, a character who is nearly child-like in her expression of emotion; joyful, with no pretense. But she is also fully aware of her own worth. There is no clearer demonstration of the kind of woman she is than when Harpo, in a misguided attempt to demonstrate his masculinity, tries to beat her and ends up getting the worst of it. I love you, she tells him, but I won’t be beaten. When later in the book she is confronted by the mayor’s wife and the white woman slaps her, you know immediately how this is going to play out.

As I read this scene, a part of me rooted for the strong, take no crap woman that Sofia was, while at the same time part cringed at the catastrophic chain of events I knew was coming. All these years later, it is that scene that I remember when I think of The Color Purple.

Sofia.

I wanted, still want, to be as brave, as uncompromising as Sofia.

While the books of Alice Walker often left me feeling conflicted, pained; angry (Just thinking of The Third Life of Grange Copeland brings tears to my eyes. I wanted so much for father and son to reconcile, to find some small bit of happiness), the books of J. California Cooper filled me with hope. Racism and brutality are ever present in her stories, informing the actions of her characters, yet in the foreground there is always family.

In Wake of the Wind, two young friends Suwaibu and Kola are snatched from their West African village and sold into slavery in America, never to see each other again. Through the years they make a life for themselves, swearing with their last breath to reunite, if not in life, then in death. Two hundred years later, their stories converge once again, when their descendents, Lifee and Mordecai are forced by their masters to marry but manage to build a life together for themselves and their children after the Civil War.

Some of the stories in Wake of the Wind read as fable, deceptively simple, yet suffused throughout with hope.

In J. California Cooper’s Some Soul to Keep, there is a quote: This is the kind of world, if you don’t die, you keep growing and living through everything that comes.

This seems as good an explanation of life as any.

Here, in the quiet, in the dark, I can answer the question: who are your favorite writers. It is a long list and I love each one for different reasons. Toni Morrison, Tanarive Due, Nikki Giovanni, Gloria Naylor, Ernest Gaines, Walter Mosely, Alex Haley, Edwidge Danticat. These and so many others. All my favorites.

But, ssshh! Don’t tell the others.

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Quantum Mechanics & Parallel Worlds: The Origin Story of Remembrance by Rita Woods

Rita Woods’ Remembrance is a genre-defying novel transcending time and place – jumping from modern day Ohio to Haiti in 1791 to New Orleans and the Underground Railroad in 1857. Read more to discover where the debut novelist found her inspiration.


By Rita Woods

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History has always been a bit of an obsession of mine. It is one reason I haunt old cemeteries and abandoned buildings, much to the dismay of my family.

But it is the history of my ancestors that resonates most strongly for me. In particular, those ancestors that spent their lives enslaved, and the Underground Railroad which became a path to freedom. How did these people, most of whom could not read or write make their way? How did they have the courage to leave behind siblings, children, and step into the unknown, trusting (hoping?) that something better would be there?

One weekend, at a friend’s house, I happened to pick up a book about quantum mechanics. Why this friend, who is an artist, had this book, and why I thought to begin thumbing through it, will remain a mystery, but I was quickly fascinated. I can’t recall the exact title of the book but it was essentially a sort of Quantum Mechanics for dummies.

Dumbed down or not, most of it just made my brain hurt. I mean does anyone REALLY know how a FAX machine works? Well, I mean someone must but . . .

In any case, my main take away from the book was that time and space are not fixed, and that reality is perspective. A few weeks later, while walking through a family graveyard on an abandoned farm in Ohio, I was struck by a ‘what if’ moment.

What if by altering time and space one could create a new world, a parallel world, a world that exists both within and apart from the world we experience? And what if that world was a stop on the Underground Railroad?

And thus, Remembrance was born, a sanctuary for runaway slaves created by Mother Abigail using her own innate powers and that of Vodun to manipulate space and time.

Remembrance is the story of four women across three centuries, linked by loss and courage who each have the power to bend the world.

I truly hope you enjoy it.

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The Evolution of Technology in The Guns Above

Place holder  of - 34Written by Robyn Bennis

The Guns Above has not always been the book it is now. The title alone has changed several times. Paul Lucas, my agent, sold it under Bring Down the Sky. I worked on it under the title Mistral, which is still the name of the airship at the center of the story. Just before I started writing, however, title and airship were both Zephyr. In the development stage, they were Esper—which I could have sworn was a weather phenomenon, but which turned out to be something I half-remembered from Final Fantasy VI.

Much as the title changed, the technology evolved over the course of development. In the earliest outlines, my protagonist had only recently invented dirigible airships, and the technology was firmly rooted in the story’s original inspiration, Poe’s “Great Balloon Hoax.” In that fabricated newspaper article, Poe describes a propeller-driven airship whose ballast is regulated by a long rope dragged behind.Poster Placeholder of - 94

I soon realized that Poe’s drag rope might also allow an otherwise unpowered airship to sail against the wind. You see, a sailing ship can make headway against the wind because it is rooted in a denser, resisting medium: water. An unpowered airship, with nothing to resist its leeward motion, cannot harness the power of the wind to travel in another direction, but can only drift on it.

However, if a drag rope could generate comparable resistance to a ship in water, a balloon could theoretically propel itself with sails and even tack into the wind. To make this a little more plausible, I made the setting an expansive archipelago, so that the line, and perhaps even a drogue anchor, could be dragged across water rather than land. This was all the better, because now my hero could use her new invention to out-sail the merchant ships that plied those waters, racing ahead of the news of shortages and surpluses, and so finance her inventions with commodities speculation.

Oddly enough, David D. Levine faced a similar problem (in regard to technology, not the commodities market) when designing his interplanetary sailing vessels for Arabella of Mars, and he solved it in much the same way. His ships employ a set of kite-like drag devices which are sent off into adjacent air currents of the interplanetary winds. The idea is quite plausible in that setting, because the difference in wind speed is said to be so great between currents, and the resistance is consequently high.

Placeholder of  -72My drag rope idea, though similar on the surface, would prove to be anything but plausible. It turned out that a drag rope had already been tried in S. A. Andrée’s Arctic Balloon Expedition of 1897. Far from out-sailing seagoing vessels, Andrée reported that his balloon could only steer ten degrees from the direction of the wind, and modern experts believe that even this meager claim was an absurd exaggeration. Worse, the failure of their sailing scheme was a contributing factor to the deaths of all three expedition members.

My drag rope scheme was a documented failure—the bane of all clever sf/f ideas—so I pushed the technology forward a hundred years or so, past the failures of the poor, doomed protagonist in the early concept. Sails became nacelle-mounted gas turbine engines, crude wicker gondolas became sturdy wooden decks, and—because the first thought of human society whenever presented with new technology is, “that’s great, but how do I kill people with it?”—my age of invention transformed into an age of grinding, brutal warfare.

To match the aesthetic, I imagined the crew of my airship fighting off their enemies with explosive and incendiary rockets. Due to the inaccuracy of such weapons, airships would engage envelope-to-envelope, much like the yardarm-to-yardarm battles of the age of sail. But, as cool as that sounds, it just didn’t play well on the page. Image Place holder  of - 83Broadsides of rocketry don’t have the satisfying thunder of cannons, and I could think of no plausible way of following my broadsides with a boarding action—and without a boarding action, a broadside just feels empty, doesn’t it?

I therefore retreated a bit, moving the setting from dieselpunk to steampunk, and splitting the difference between my first two concepts. My gas turbines became a crude steam turbine and my decks returned to wicker. My ship became dramatically more fragile for the change, but it also became lighter. What, you think I wasn’t estimating the ship’s weight through all this? Please. My rough calculations indicated that, if my envelope were as large as my dieselpunk concept, but my decks were as light as my sailing concept, I had about a ton and a half of weight to spare.

Image Placeholder of - 12And you know what weighs about a ton and a half? Two twelve-pounder carronades, plus ammunition and minimum gun crews. I decided not to waste time or risk disappointment by rechecking my math, but proceeded straight to sketching out the placement and capabilities of what would become Mistral’s light cannons, or “bref guns.” Now, bref guns are still implausible for other reasons—we won’t even contemplate the real-world effect of their recoil on Mistral’s airframe—but let’s be frank here; if you can find the merest excuse to put cannons on your steampunk airship, you put cannons on your steampunk airship, or you’re a damn fool.

Which brings us to His Majesty’s Signal Airship Mistral, as she stands in The Guns Above. Story and technology evolved together over the course of development, laying the groundwork to make the unbelievable into the believable. That, plus the trivial matter of actually writing it, produced a book that ought to satisfy all but the hardest of hard-steampunk aficionados.

Just don’t double-check my math, or we might have to change the title to The Gun Above, and that would just be unfortunate.

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Find Robyn Bennis online on Twitter (@According2Robyn), Facebook, or visit her website.

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My Big Bad Theory

Last Song Before Night by Ilana C. Myer
Written by Ilana C. Myer

Recently at Bookcon I participated in a panel about villains in science fiction and fantasy, and it got me thinking. I have some pretty strong ideas about villains in fiction, which panel moderator Charlie Jane Anders’ incisive questions forced me to re-examine. And having these ideas clarified in one’s mind is invaluable for a writer’s toolbox.

I thought about how dissatisfied I often am with commentary on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. One of the most common criticisms of Tolkien is that his characterization is “Manichean” (the critics’ word, not mine)—the good guys are very good, the bad guys very bad, and there’s no nuance. I’m done wondering if we read the same book. I’ll just lay out what I think, in the context of what it means to create an effective villain.

It’s true Sauron is not a multi-dimensional villain (despite Elrond’s assertion that he was once good, that “nothing is evil in the beginning”). If you want a complex villain in Tolkien you have to look to Gollum, Saruman, or even Denethor. A villain like Sauron is more of a dark force than a character. He has a different narrative purpose—to galvanize the protagonists, though not just to action. Sauron forces the heroes of Lord of the Rings onto the battleground of the psyche.

Through the Ring—an extension of Sauron—the protagonists contend with their own temptations, weaknesses, and most denied impulses. We see this most clearly in Gollum, who is corrupted by the Ring and presented as a mirror image of Frodo—the person Frodo is in danger of becoming. But we see it with other characters, too, such as Galadriel, whose secret desire for power is laid bare by the Ring. Far from consisting of bland, benign, cloyingly nice good guys, Lord of the Rings depicts characters struggling with what is most alluringly dark within themselves. Each character’s internal battle is unique, depending on the temptation that lies nearest his or her heart.

In my view, a good epic fantasy will usually have more than one kind of villain, or flawed hero. In George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire we have outright monsters like Gregor Clegane and Joffrey Baratheon, but also Jaime Lannister whom you might actually want to have a beer with. And then there are the White Walkers, unambiguously evil, the threat everyone will be forced to stand against. The complexity introduced by a variety of antagonists enriches the story.

My debut novel about poetry and enchantments, Last Song Before Night, is layered around several antagonists. One of these is a Court Poet who becomes twisted by dark magic. Others act from impulses painfully human, or as a result of irreparable hurt. Along the way they hold a dark mirror to the protagonists, revealing who they might become as a consequence of even one misstep—a wrong turn in the road.

The humanizing of an antagonist hinges on what they want—what we desire is where we are most vulnerable. A sympathetic antagonist challenges the reader, makes the reader conflicted about the outcome of the story. I’m of the mind that a conflicted reader is generally a good thing. So perhaps the compassionate author, who secretly loves all the characters, even the bad ones, is in truth the cruelest villain of all.

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Follow Ilana C. Myer on Twitter at @IlanaCT and on her website.

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Torpedia.org Entry: Skymouth

Copyright Fran Wilde 2013(Last Modified: 11 August, 2015 at 16:43:24 by Fran Wilde, skymouth historian)

I set out to write a straightforward explanation of the monsters in Updraft—honest. But (as my dear and patient editor knows far too well), straight isn’t always one of my primary directions. I love to tell things slant. So instead, I give you a first-ever (but hopefully not last) entry in The Torpedia—a collaborative cataloging of flora and fauna particular to Tor Books.

SKYMOUTH

For other uses, see skymouth (disambiguation).

[Image File 1: carving: city scene featuring stylized skymouth tentacles, or clouds. In style of mid-Rise era. Artist: post author. [1]]

[Image File 2: carving: skymouth attacking tower, in style of the late Rise era. Medium: bone. Attributed to legendary artist Jainiat Lith*, or possibly a conglomeration of individuals. [Torpedia note: file missing or corrupted.]]

The skymouth (/sky*mouth/ or /skaɪ-mauʊð/)[2] is a creature of traditional song and legend featuring unusually large proportions and appetite. Skymouths travel in packs within and above the clouds. Their passage through a city quadrant is known as a migration. Reports of individual skymouths plucking fliers unsuspecting from the skies without warning have been received. [Torpedia Warning to post author: preceding claim not verified by a secondary source. Please verify or remove. Second notice.]

A skymouth—as opposed to any other airborne predator within and around the bone towers—is first distinguished by one or more of the following:

  • A distinct lack of birds in the area.
  • An oily roil to air currents.
  • A pronounced turmoil within and around gardens and terraces.
  • Screaming from nearby towers.
  • The sounding of bone horns to warn citizens to take cover.

Species classification: nominally cephalopod, with pronounced skin abnormalities (camouflaging behaviors, repelling surfaces), unceasing hunger, and a giant oral cavity lined with glass teeth. Omnivore.

[Torpedia Editor Note: we believe “cephalopod” is a term of art in this instance. Our copy editor has suggested “highly aggressive tentacular creature of size”. Review of this term is underway by committee.]

Few reports from survivors exist. One record from a tower observer indicates:

“A squall broke hard against the tower, threatening a loose shutter. Then the balcony’s planters toppled and the circling guards scattered. One guard, the slowest, jerked to a halt in the air and flew, impossibly, backwards. His leg yanked high, flipping his body as it went, until he hung upside down in the air. He flailed for his quiver, spilling arrows, as the sky opened below him, red and wet and filled with glass teeth. The air blurred as slick, invisible limbs tore away his brown silk wings, then lowered what the monster wanted into its mouth.

By the time his scream reached us, the guard had disappeared from the sky.” ~ Kirit Densira, Densira Tower[3]

Updraft by Fran Wilde
History and appearance in culture: Skymouths appear in songs and carvings across history, including—it is believed—the Ginth Panorama from the mid-Rise period. [Torpedia Warning to Post Author: as the Ginth Panorama is currently being reassembled by scholars, this claim requires verification. First warning.]

Cultural impact: Skymouths have been associated with bad luck by many citizens, including all hunters, city councilmen, and most tower residents. Actions taken to ward off skymouths include symbolic gestures, the closing of shutters, and—in rare cases—the expulsion of extremely unlucky or unsafe citizens, lest they attract a skymouth to the vicinity.

Population impact: the number of skymouth-related deaths in the bone towers is unknown.

Notes & Research Used:

  1. Source: Author’s private journal. All rights reserved.
  2. Pronunciation guide as told to author by aural experts, known as Singers.
  3. Source: Updraft (Tor 2015), by Fran Wilde. ISBN: 0765377837

About the author: Noted skymouth historian Fran Wilde’s short stories have appeared in publications including Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Nature, and Tor.com. Fran’s debut novel Updraft is out now. Fran lives in Philadelphia and can be found on Twitter, Facebook, and on her website.

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Book Trailer: Solstice by P. J. Hoover

Book Trailer: Solstice by P. J. Hoover

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Solstice by P. J. Hoover

Piper’s world is dying. Each day brings hotter temperatures and heat bubbles which threaten to destroy the Earth. Amid this Global Heating Crisis, Piper lives under the oppressive rule of her mother, who suffocates her even more than the weather does. Everything changes on her eighteenth birthday, when her mother is called away on a mysterious errand and Piper seizes her first opportunity for freedom.

Piper discovers a universe she never knew existed—a sphere of gods and monsters—and realizes that her world is not the only one in crisis. While gods battle for control of the Underworld, Piper’s life spirals out of control as she struggles to find the answer to the secret that has been kept from her since birth—her very identity….

An imaginative melding of mythology and dystopia, Solstice is the first YA novel by talented newcomer P. J. Hoover.

Solstice, by P. J. Hoover, releases June 18th!

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Book Trailer: Sea Change by S. M. Wheeler

Book Trailer: Sea Change by S. M. Wheeler

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Sea Change by S. M. Wheeler

The unhappy child of two powerful parents who despise each other, young Lilly turns to the ocean to find solace, which she finds in the form of the eloquent and intelligent sea monster Octavius, a kraken. In Octavius’s many arms, Lilly learns of friendship, loyalty, and family. When Octavius, forbidden by Lilly to harm humans, is captured by seafaring traders and sold to a circus, Lilly becomes his only hope for salvation. Desperate to find him, she strikes a bargain with a witch that carries a shocking price.

Her journey to win Octavius’s freedom is difficult. The circus master wants a Coat of Illusions; the Coat tailor wants her undead husband back from a witch; the witch wants her skin back from two bandits; the bandits just want some company, but they might kill her first. Lilly’s quest tests her resolve, tries her patience, and leaves her transformed in every way.

A powerfully written debut from a young fantasy author, Sea Change is an exhilarating tale of adventure, resilience, and selflessness in the name of friendship.

Sea Change, by S. M. Wheeler, releases June 18th!

Book Trailer: Last Call for the Living

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Last Call for the Living by Peter Farris

For bank teller Charlie Colquitt, it was just another Saturday. For Hobe Hicklin, an ex-con with nothing to lose, it was just another score. For Hobe’s drug-addled, sex-crazed girlfriend, it was just more lust, violence, and drugs. But in this gripping narrative, nothing is as it seems.

Hicklin’s first mistake was double-crossing his partners in the Aryan Brotherhood. His second mistake was taking a hostage. But he and Charlie can only hide out for so long in the mountains of north Georgia before the sins of Hicklin’s past catch up to them.

Hot on Hicklin’s trail are a pair of ruthless Brotherhood soldiers, ready to burn a path of murder and mayhem to get their revenge. GBI Special Agent Sallie Crews and Sheriff Tommy Lang catch the case, themselves no strangers to the evil men are capable of. Soon Crews is making some dangerous connections while for the hard-drinking, despondent Lang, rescuing Charlie Colquitt might be the key to personal salvation.

Prodigious talent Peter Farris has written a backwoods fairy tale of fate and flight that is also a dark, modern thriller. Like the bastard child of Stephen Hunter’s Dirty White Boys and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, Last Call for the Living is a smashing debut from a writer whose unique and disturbing vision of the world cannot be ignored.

Releasing May 22, 2012.

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