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Putting the Historical in Historical Fantasy

Putting the Historical in Historical Fantasy

We love a good fantasy story, and sometimes the best fantasies are the ones rooted in fact. Jo Walton’s new novel Lent is a fantastical reimagining of the life of Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican friar and political leader of late 15th century Florence. Jo joins us below to talk about the advantages and drawbacks of writing fiction based on historical characters.

By Jo Walton

My new novel Lent is about Savonarola, it’s set in Florence and Hell during the Renaissance, in fact very specifically between the years 1492 and 1498. It was immense fun to write, and part of that was doing all the research and making it historically accurate in a way a fantasy novel can be and a historical novel can’t. When a diary written in the 1490s says that Savonarola was casting out demons in a nunnery, a fantasy novel can have real demons showing up.

There’s an advantage and a disadvantage to using real history in fiction and they’re both the same thing: the history is real. That’s great, because you can research it and lean on it. The real world is fractally weird, and you can get things from it you’d never be able to make up. Who could imagine that Renaissance Florence was ruled by eight men chosen by lot and then locked at the top of a tower for three months?

When you make things up, they have to make rational sense, but reality doesn’t have those restrictions. There were sumptuary laws controlling how much jewelry people could wear, and even how many buttons their clothes could have. That’s very weird, but weirder was that they didn’t apply to women about to be married or in the first year of their marriage. There’s no end to wonderful real-world details you can work into your story.

If you want to know how people did something, you don’t have to make it consistent with everything else – you can just look it up. But you have to get it right. And, of course, you have to make sure not to overwhelm the reader with details and explanations of nifty historical curiosities (the “I’ve suffered for my research and now so will you” syndrome).

There’s also what I call the Tiffany Problem — your readers are modern people and know what they know, which is fine except when what they know isn’t actually right. For instance, the name Tiffany sounds extremely modern to us. It feels jarring when we read it as a character name in a historical setting, where we’d be quite happy with names like Anna and Jane. But our instinct is wrong, because Tiffany is a form of Theophania, and it was fairly common in medieval England and France. It went out of fashion later, and it’s because we don’t have seventeenth to nineteenth century examples that it feels modern. But you still can’t use it in a fantasy novel set in the exact time and place when the name would have been historically accurate, because it will jerk the reader out of their reading trance. They know it’s wrong and you can’t tell them that what they know is wrong.

There’s also another problem with things being real. When you’re writing about real historical characters, there’s an obligation to be true to them. In writing about the Italian Renaissance, I had a lot of letters and diaries and portraits that helped me get inside the heads of people of the period. But I also had to change things to make them work for the modern reader, and there comes a point when you’re in danger of changing so much that you’re betraying the character — who was a real person, just like we are, and deserves the respect due to a real person, even though they’re dead. I do think this is important.

There’s a weird Renaissance belief that surfaces in Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso and in a painting in the Pitti Palace in Florence which goes: when somebody dies, a swan carries a medal bearing their name to a pool of forgetfulness, and when people on Earth stop repeating the name, the swan opens their beak and drops it in, to sink to oblivion. Most people get dropped by the swan quite rapidly, but others have their swan still hovering hundreds and even thousands of years in the future. When I use real historical people in fiction, even if I’m at risk of misrepresenting them, I can comfort myself that as long as we keep repeating their names, their swans will keep circling.


Ghost Talkers Deleted Scene

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Ghost TalkersWritten by Mary Robinette Kowal

When planning a book, a lot of times you wind up with scenes that don’t make it into the finished novel. In the case of Ghost Talkers, I wrote the entire book from the point of view of Ginger Stuyvesant, one of the mediums in the British Intelligence department’s Spirit Corps. In my fictional version of WWI, this group communicates with the ghosts of soldiers to get instant updates on battlefield conditions.

My plan had been to go back and add scenes from the point of view of Helen, a West Indian medium, who created the protocol for conditioning soldiers to report in upon death. These scenes were intended to be flashbacks to show the creation of the Spirit Corps. I wrote the first one, and then realized that the flashbacks destroyed the forward momentum of the novel.

I still like the scene though. In a way, it’s a ghost in its own right.

Helen knew the soldier in bed seven had died because his soul sat up and said, “Fuck. I’m dead.”

She paused, in the process of tucking the sheets in on bed five, and glanced across the ward. The sisters on duty had not noticed the new ghost, which wasn’t surprising.

Towards the front lines, an explosion lit the top of the hospital tent. The concussion reached Helen a second later. She waited until it rolled past, and checked the soldier in bed five. Still asleep on morphine.

She walked over to bed seven. The soldier’s body was limp and even with the bandage wrapped around his head, it was obvious that most of his jaw was missing. She put a hand on the bed to steady herself and pushed her soul a little out of her body. The ward fluctuated with remnants of souls, but not as badly as it had yesterday.

“Your work is done.”

The soldier’s ghost spotted her and his aura went bright red with excitement. “Hey! Hey, you can hear me.”

“Yes. I am so very sorry that you have passed over.”

He shook his head. “I need to talk to the captain.”

She sighed. This was so common in the recently deceased. She had seen some ghosts rise from their bodies and head straight back to the front lines. “Please. Be at peace.”

“Fuck that. My buddies are pinned down. You gotta send someone to help them.”

“Do you really think they survived when you did not?”

“Hell, yes.” He swept a hand through his hair. “Collins was hit in the leg, so I volunteered to crawl to get help. Fat lot of good I did. Point is, though, they’re still there.”

“If you tell—”

“Pardon me.” The red-headed nurse stood at the end of the bed.

Helen jumped and turned. “Sorry, ma’am. I think this man has died.”

The other woman tilted her head and her eyes unfocused. “And… am I mistaken, or were you speaking with him?”

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Follow Mary Robinette Kowal on Twitter, on Facebook, and on her website.


Sneak Peek: Everfair by Nisi Shawl

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Everfair by Nisi ShawlEverfair is a wonderful Neo-Victorian alternate history novel that explores the question of what might have come of Belgium’s disastrous colonization of the Congo if the native populations had learned about steam technology a bit earlier. Fabian Socialists from Great Britain join forces with African-American missionaries to purchase land from the Belgian Congo’s “owner,” King Leopold II. This land, named Everfair, is set aside as a safe haven, an imaginary Utopia for native populations of the Congo as well as escaped slaves returning from America and other places where African natives were being mistreated.

Nisi Shawl’s speculative masterpiece manages to turn one of the worst human rights disasters on record into a marvelous and exciting exploration of the possibilities inherent in a turn of history. Everfair is told from a multiplicity of voices: Africans, Europeans, East Asians, and African Americans in complex relationships with one another, in a compelling range of voices that have historically been silenced. Everfair is not only a beautiful book but an educational and inspiring one that will give the reader new insight into an often ignored period of history.

Everfair will be available on September 6th. Please enjoy this excerpt.

Burgundy, France, July 1889

Lisette Toutournier sighed. She breathed in again, out, in, the marvelous air smelling of crushed stems, green blood bruised and roused by her progress along this narrow forest path. Her progress, and that of her new mechanical friend. Commencing to walk again, she pushed it along through underbrush and creepers, woodbine and fern giving way before its wheels. Oh, how the insects buzzed about her exposed skin, her face and hands and wrists and ankles, waiting to bite. And the vexing heat bid fair to stifle her as she climbed the hillside slowly—but the scent—intoxicating! And soon, so soon, all this effort would be repaid.

There! The crest came in sight, the washed-out summer sky showing itself through the beech trees’ old silver trunks. Now her path connected with the road, stony, rutted, but still better suited for riding. She stood a moment admiring the view: the valley, the blurred rows of cultivation curving away smaller and smaller in the bluing distance, the sky pale overhead, the perfect foil for the dark-leaved woods behind her and by her sides. Not far off a redwing sang, cold water trickling uphill.

She had the way of it now: gripping the rubber molded around the machine’s metal handlebars, she leaned it toward her and swung one skirted leg over the drop frame. Upright again, she walked it a few more steps forward, aiming straight along the lane, the yellow-brown dust bright in the sun. The machine’s glossy paint shone. Within the wheel’s front rim its spokes were a revolving web of intricacy, shadows and light chasing one another. Tiny puffs of dust spurted from beneath the black rubber tires.

She raised her eyes. The vista opened wider, wider. The road laid itself down before her.

Up on the creaking leather seat. Legs drawn high, boots searching, scraping, finding their places . . . and pedal! Push! Feet turning circles like her machine’s wheels, with those wheels. It was, at first, work. She pedaled and steered, wobbling just once and catching herself. Then going faster, faster! Flying! Freedom!

Saplings, walls, and vines whipped by, flashes of greenbrowngreengrey as Lisette on her machine sped down the road, down the hill. Wind rushed into her face, whistled in her ears, filled her nose, her lungs, tore her hair loose of its pins to stream behind her. She was a wild thing, laughing, jouncing over dry watercourses, hanging on for dear, dear life. Lower, now, and some few trees arched above, alternately blocking the hot glare and exposing her to it coolwarmcoolwarm, currents of sun and shade splashing over her as she careened by. Coasting, at last, spilling all velocity till she and the machine came to rest beside the river.

The river. The comforting smell and sound of it rushing away. Out on the Yonne’s broad darkness a barge sailed, bound perhaps for Paris, the Seine, the sea beyond, carrying casks of wine and other valuables. Flushed from her ride, Lisette blushed yet more deeply, suddenly conscious of the curious stares of those around her: Ma de moi selle Carduner, the schoolmistress; and Monsieur Lutterayne, the chemist, out for a promenade during his dinner hour or on some errand, seizing a chance to vacate his stuffy shop. Flustered, she attempted to restrain her hair into a proper chignon, but at only sixteen and with many pins missing, this was beyond her skill. She began furiously to plait her thick blond curls, and the others moved away.

At last she was alone on the riverbank with her mechanical friend. She tied her plaits together, though she knew that momentarily they would slither apart. She stroked the machine’s stillgleaming handlebars, then leaned to fi t her forehead at their center, so. “Dear one,” whispered Lisette. “How can you ever know how much you mean to me? Who would not give all they could, everything they had, in exchange for such happiness as I have found with you?”

Sans words, the front tire’s black arc responded to her whispers with visions. It preached to her of motion, of travel, of the mysteries dwelling beyond this sleepy, provincial village.

“Ah, yes, and one day, my dear, one day . . .” She raised her head and gazed out again at the river, at the barge now nearly gone from view. “One day we shall venture out and see for ourselves what it is the world holds for us.”

Boma, Congo, December 1889


The Reverend Lieutenant Thomas Jefferson Wilson could think of no other word to sum up what he had experienced on this trip. Even now, alone in the quiet, white- walled room provided him by his host, he heard their cries, he saw their wasted bodies, their eyes bulging large in their thin faces, pulsing with defeat, hopeless as marine creatures stranded on a desolate beach. He smelled them, their sores running with blood and infected matter where chafed by their chains at neck and wrist and waist and ankle. Smelled the sweat of their fear, the fear that made them lift up and carry burdens half their malnourished weight till released by death. Smelled their abundant corpses rotting by the trail in the tropic heat.

This land was to have been Heaven.

Restless as ever, he abandoned his seat on the narrow cot to unshutter the room’s one window. A breeze brought some relief from the day’s fierce temperatures. Even up here, on the capital’s plateau, a Pennsylvanian such as himself found the Congo “ Free” State’s equatorial climate hard to withstand. But he should not complain.

Or not on his own behalf.

A tapping at the door. He opened it on a child of eleven, the house hold’s primary servant— a boy named Mola, he recalled. “ ’Soir,” the boy slurred in French. He entered, bearing with him

a tray, the meal his master offered in lieu of the repast shared by Boma’s white residents at the hotel near the river below.

The Reverend Lieutenant Thomas Jefferson Wilson would not be welcome at that hotel, for he was not white.

The dishes on the tray held vegetables, the ever-present manioc, and stewed meat of some sort—probably from a fowl or goat. No doubt this was what Mola himself would sup upon, and Thomas made sure to tender the boy his thanks as effusively as his limited French allowed. When he was alone again he placed the tray beneath his cot, the food untouched. His journey upriver to Stanley Falls and then back here to the port of Boma had entirely wrecked his appetite.

The wine he also set aside, to aid him later in seeking sleep. He drank instead a gobletful of water from a crystal decanter, then set that on the sill to cool and turned again to his work.

To the horror.

At forty a veteran of three wars, Thomas had seen and survived much. Though no more than a child at the American Civil War’s onset, as soon as blacks were allowed to fight he had enlisted and seen action. That must be why his sojourn here in the Congo was affecting him so adversely, he told himself sternly. His reaction was not illness, not pain and anguish, but anger: righteous indignation that the evils of slavery, which he had staked his life to eradicate from the face of the Earth, had sprung up once again. Unprotested and, what was worse, unremarked, they had met him everywhere he journeyed in this supposed Utopia.

A pair of thin pillows lay over his traveling desk, incompletely concealing it. He retrieved it and drew forth the manuscript of his open letter to King Leopold, monarch of this realm and soi-disant benefactor of its benighted native population.

“Good and great friend,” the salutation read. “I have the honor to submit for your Majesty’s consideration some reflections respecting the Independent State of Congo, based upon a careful study and inspection of the country. . . .” So far, he had written five pages and not yet named a third of the atrocities he had been forced to witness. The whippings, the murders committed so casually as if a form of sport, innocents dismembered—Thomas’s gorge rose, but he settled nonetheless to his self- appointed task.

Keeping his intended audience in mind, he aimed for a tone of forthrightness that yet maintained discreet silence on the more repulsive details of what he had discovered. The open letter would

be published in his paper, The Commoner, and also as a standalone pamphlet; perhaps in boards as a small book, on the Continent. There he would find support for such an enterprise, translators. . .

The light dimmed rapidly, but not till he heard the clattering ratchet of the steam- driven trolley climbing Boma’s cliffs did Thomas cease his efforts. That noise, he knew, presaged the arrival of his host, the Anglo- Flemish trader Roger Morel. Thomas didn’t trust him, didn’t trust anyone who profited from Leopold’s reign. He packed away his open letter and went to meet the trolley at the platform mere yards from Morel’s villa.

Four cars comprised the steam train’s entire length. Their iron fuselages had been painted a brilliant yellow with gaudy red, blue, and green trim. This jaunty coloring and the fortuitous semblance of a face in the alignment of their doors and windows lent the cars a charming air much like the illustration in a children’s book. Thomas at first had succumbed to this charm and to the undeniable romance of such a small machine so beautifully built—until his peregrinations brought home to him the human cost involved.

Beneath the leafy serrations of a grove of palms the cars disgorged themselves of their riders, black- clad white men replacing their hats and stepping carefully down the platform’s wooden stairway. Morel bared his head again in salute to his visitor. Exchanging meaningless pleasantries, the two returned to Morel’s home.

Mola took his master’s hat and gloves at the door, handing him a glass half- filled with a greenish liquid. Thomas made as if to return to his room, considering his social obligations for the evening met, but Morel would have none of it. “No, no, my friend, I insist,” he said, indicating with his drink the sitting room’s best chair.

Ensconced perforce on its cushioned mahogany, Thomas accepted from Mola a second glass. He sipped the unknown beverage with his customary suspicion as the boy slipped from the room. It was faintly bitter and contained no alcohol he could detect.

“So.” His host had assumed a seat on the divan. He crossed his legs and clasped his hands over one knee. “You leave the day after the morrow?”

“Yes.” There were other colonies to explore, perhaps more truly paradisiacal, more suited to providing his colored brethren a new home. The ship would stop for Accra and Dakar, and he intended to travel from there to Tunis, Cairo—“That is my plan.”

“I advise you to change it.”

Thomas looked at Morel inquiringly. His eyes held a warning gleam that overrode Thomas’s mistrust of him. Thomas set the harmless glass down on the side table with a steady enough hand and spoke: “I fail to take your meaning, sir.”

“Ah. You have no confidence in me. That is well.” Morel nodded as if confirming a pet theory to himself, his chin doubling. “You are being watched. You must leave to night and go—elsewhere. A different route, more direct.”

A different route? “To where?” No use attempting any further to dissemble.

“To England.”

Not home. “Not to America?”

“In England you will be safe—enough. But this continent—there are large stakes, and the holders of those stakes are at every hand. During supper this evening I overheard enough, my English being supposed more imperfect than it is, to warrant giving you this warning.”

Morel stood. “As well, I have a— a commission of sorts—If you will allow me to retrieve certain papers I wish you to convey—” He left and returned with a sheaf of documents—bills of lading, figures in long columns, maps. Thomas read them in growing dismay. Here was proof, if such would be needed, of what he had witnessed. Proof and beyond proof . . . The scope of the problem far exceeded what he had seen with his own eyes. Not thousands but tens of thousands were doomed unless the abominations practiced so freely in the Congo Free State were to cease, and cease now.

Copyright © 2016 by Nisi Shawl

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Sneak Peek: Strangely Beautiful by Leanna Renee Hieber

Strangely Beautiful by Leanna Renee HieberIn Strangely Beautiful by Leanna Renee Hieber, Miss Persephone Parker—known as Percy—is different, with her lustrous, snow-white hair, pearlescent pale skin, and uncanny ability to see and communicate with ghosts. Seeking to continue her education, Percy has come to Queen Victoria’s London, to the Athens Academy. What she will learn there will change her life forever.


London, England, 1888

A young woman, the likes of which London had never seen, alighted from a carriage near Bloomsbury and gazed at the grand facade before her. Breathless at the sight of the Romanesque fortress of red sandstone that was to be her new home, she ascended the front steps beneath the portico, with carpetbag in tow. One slender, gloved hand heaved open the great arched door; Miss Percy Parker paused, then stepped inside.

The foyer of Athens Academy held a few milling young men, papers and books in hand. Their jaws fell as each caught sight of the newcomer. In the diffuse light cast by a single chandelier they saw a petite, unmistakable apparition. Dark blue glasses kept eerie, ice blue eyes from unsettling those whose stares she nervously returned. Much of her snow-white skin was hidden from view by a scarf draped around her head and bosom, but only a mask could have hidden the ghostly pallor of her fine-featured face.

The sudden tinkling of a chandelier crystal broke the thick silence. Percy’s gaze flickered up to behold a young man, pale as herself, floating amid the gas flames. The transparent spirit wafted down to meet her. It was clear from the stares of the young men of solid mass, rudely focused on Percy, that they were oblivious to the phantasm. She acknowledged the ghost only subtly, lest she be thought distracted as well as deformed.

The spectral schoolboy spoke in a soft Scots brogue. “You’d best give up your pretensions, miss. You’ll never be one of them. And you’re certainly not one of us. What the devil are you?”

Percy met the spirit’s hollow gaze. Behind her glasses, her opalescent eyes flared with defiance as she asked the room, her voice sweet and timid, “Could someone be so kind as to direct me to the headmistress’s office?” A gaping, living individual pointed to a hallway on her left, so she offered him a “Thank you, sir,” and fled, eager to escape all curiosity. The only sounds that followed were the rustling layers of her sky-blue taffeta skirts and the echo of her booted footfalls down the hall.

HEADMISTRESS THOMPSON was scribed boldly across a large wooden door. Percy took a moment to catch her breath before knocking.

She soon found herself in an office filled to overflowing with books. A sharp voice bade her sit, and she was promptly engulfed in a leather armchair. Across the desk sat a severe woman dressed primly in gray wool. Middle-aged and thin, she had a pinched nose and high cheekbones that gave her a birdlike quality; her tight lips were twisted in a half frown. Brown hair was piled atop her head, save one misbehaving lock at her temple.

Blue-gray eyes pierced Percy’s obscuring glasses. “Miss Parker, we’ve received word that you’re an uncommonly bright girl. I’m sure you’re well aware that your previous governance, unsure what to do with you, supposed you’d best be sent somewhere else. Becoming a sister did not suit you?”

Percy had no time to wonder if this was sardonic or understanding, for the headmistress continued: “Your reverend mother made many inquiries before stumbling across our quiet little bastion. Considering your particular circumstances, I accepted you despite your age of eighteen. You’re older than many who attend here. I’m sure I needn’t tell you, Miss Parker, that at your age most women do not think it advantageous to remain … academic. I hope you know enough of the world outside convent walls to understand.” Headmistress Thompson’s sharp eyes suddenly softened and something mysterious twinkled there. “We must acknowledge the limitations of our world, Miss Parker. I, as you can see, chose to run an institution rather than a household.”

Percy couldn’t help but smile, drawn in by the headmistress’s conspiratorial turn, as if the woman considered herself unique by lifestyle inasmuch as Percy was unique by fate.

Miss Thompson’s amiability abruptly vanished. “We expect academic excellence in all subjects, Miss Parker. Your reverend mother proclaimed you proficient in several languages, with particularly keen knowledge of Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. Would you consider yourself proficient?”

“I have no wish to flatter myself—”

“Honesty will suffice.”

“I’m f-fluent in several tongues,” Percy stammered. “I’m fondest of Greek. I know French, German, Spanish, and Italian well. I dabble in Russian, Arabic, Gaelic … as well as a few ancient and obscure dialects.”

“Interesting.” The headmistress absently tapped the desk with her pen. “Do you attribute your affinity for foreign tongues to mere interest and diligence?”

Percy thought a moment. “This may sound very strange…”

“It may shock you how little I find strange, Miss Parker,” the headmistress replied. “Go on.”

Percy was emboldened. “Since childhood, certain things were innate. The moment I could read, I read in several languages as if they were native to me.” She bit her lip. “I suppose that sounds rather mad.”

There was a pause, yet to Percy’s relief the headmistress appeared unmoved. “Should you indeed prove such a linguist, and a well-rounded student, Athens may have ongoing work for you next year as an apprentice, Miss Parker.”

“Oh!” Percy’s face lit like a sunbeam. “I’d relish the opportunity! Thank you for your generous consideration, Headmistress.”

“You were raised in the abbey?”

“Yes, Headmistress.”

“No immediate family?”

“None, Headmistress.”

“Do you know anything of them? Is there a reason…?”

Percy knew it was her skin that gave the woman pause. “I wish I could offer you an answer regarding my color, Headmistress. It’s always been a mystery. I know nothing of my father. I was told my mother was Irish.”

“That is all you know?”

Percy shifted in her seat. “She died within the hour she brought me to the sisters. Perhaps I was a traumatic birth. She told Reverend Mother that she brought me to the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary because the Blessed Virgin herself had come proclaiming the child she bore must be an educated woman. And so she left them with that dying wish…” Percy looked away, pained. “My mother said her purpose had been fulfilled, and, as if she were simply used up, she died.”

“I see.” Miss Thompson made a few notes. It was well that Percy did not expect pity or sentiment, for she was given neither. “Miss Parker, Athens is unique in that we recognize all qualities in our students. We’ve a Quaker model here at Athens. We champion the equality of the sexes and I happen to believe that learning is not bound in books alone. It is my personal practice to ask our students if they believe they possess a gift. Other than your multiple languages, do you have any other particular talents?”

Percy swallowed hard. She was unprepared for this question. For anyone else it might have been a perfectly normal inquiry, but Percy knew she was far from average. “I have a rather strange manner of dreams.”

The headmistress blinked. “We all dream, Miss Parker. That is nothing extraordinary.”

“No. Of course not, Headmistress.”

“Unless these dreams come more in the manner of visions?”

Percy hoped the flash of panic in her eyes remained hidden behind her tinted glasses. Years ago, when Reverend Mother had found out about the visions and ghosts, she’d put aside her shock to caution Percy about speaking of such things. Neither was something the science-mad, rational world would celebrate. It was lonely to look—and be—so strange, and Percy wanted to confess everything she felt was wrong with her and have the headmistress accept her. But she also recalled the horrible day when unburdening her soul had caused a priest to try to exorcise her best friend, a ghost named Gregory, from the convent courtyard. She knew she’d never find anyone who could truly understand. Thus, she would not associate herself with the word “vision,” and she would never again admit to seeing ghosts.

She cleared her throat. “Those who claim to have visions are either holy or madmen.”

The headmistress was clearly taken aback, as much as her patrician façade might indicate: She arched an eyebrow. “As a girl raised in a convent, do you not consider yourself a woman of religion?”

Percy shifted again. Miss Thompson had unwittingly touched upon a troubling topic. Percy could not help but wonder about her faith. Those in her abbey’s order, the oldest of its kind in England, had withstood innumerable trials. Every novice and sister took fierce pride in her resilience and that of their elders. But Percy, a girl who kept and was left to herself, felt out of place. The colorless curiosity of her skin notwithstanding, her restless disposition had difficulty acquiescing to the rigors of the cloth. Only the presence of a spirit out of its time—such as her Elizabethan-era Gregory—had made her feel at home. No, doctrine could not explain the world as Percy knew it. An unsettling sense of fate made her ache in ways prayer could not wholly relieve.

But none of this was appropriate to discuss in present circumstances. “I am a woman of … spirit, Headmistress. By no means would I commend myself holy. And I’d like to think I’m not mad.”

The raucous shriek of a bird outside Miss Thompson’s window made Percy jump. A raven settled on the ledge beyond the glass. Percy couldn’t help but notice an odd-colored patch on the large black bird’s breast. Percy didn’t stare further, lest she seem easily distracted. She waited for Headmistress Thompson’s gaze to pin her again, which it soon did.

“Dreams then, Miss Parker?”

“Yes, Headmistress. Just dreams.”

The headmistress scribbled a note and frowned curiously at an unopened envelope in Percy’s file before placing it carefully at the back of the folder. Before Percy could wonder, the headmistress continued. “We have no dream study, Miss Parker. It seems fitting your focus should be languages; however you must maintain high marks in all courses in order to continue at the academy. Do you have other interests, Miss Parker?”

“Art has always been a great love of mine,” Percy stated. “I used to paint watercolors for the parish. I also adore Shakespeare.”

A scrawl into the file. “Dislikes?”

“I’m afraid the sciences and mathematics are beyond me. Neither were subjects the convent felt necessary for young ladies.”

The headmistress loosed a dry chuckle that made Percy uneasy. “There is no escaping at least one mathematics or science sequence. I am placing you in our Mathematics and Alchemical Study.”

Percy held back a grimace. “Certainly, Headmistress.”

Miss Thompson cleared her throat and leveled a stern gaze at her. “And now, Miss Parker, I must warn you of the dangers of our unique, coeducational institution. There is to be no—I repeat, no—contact between members of the opposite sex. Not of your peer group, and most certainly not with your teachers. The least infraction, however innocent it may seem—the holding of a hand, a kiss on a cheek—requires immediate dismissal. You must understand our position: Any word of fraternization or scandal will doom our revolutionary program. And while I hardly think any of this will be an issue for you in particular, Miss Parker, I must say it nonetheless.”

Percy nodded, at first proud the headmistress should think so highly of her virtue; then came the sting as she realized the headmistress meant her looks would garner no such furtive conduct. Worse, Percy felt sure she was right.

“Classes begin Monday. Here is a schedule and key for your quarters: Athene Hall, room seven.”

As Percy took the papers and key, she was gripped by a thrill. “Thank you so very much, Miss Thompson! I cannot thank you enough for the opportunity to be here.”

The headmistress maintained a blank, severe stare. “Do not thank me. Do not fail.”

“I promise to do my best, Headmistress!”

“If it be of any interest to you, a meditative Quaker service is held Sundays. You’ll find none of your Catholic frills here. But indeed, Miss Parker, the school keeps quiet about all of that, as I am sure you may well do yourself, living in intolerant times.”

“Yes, Headmistress.”

“Good day, Miss Parker—and welcome to Athens.”

“Thank you, Headmistress. Good day!” Percy beamed and darted out the door to explore her new home.


Rebecca Thompson stared at the door after Miss Parker left, feeling the strange murmur in her veins that was part of her intuitive gift. Her instincts were never clarion, but they alerted her to things of import. Miss Parker, her gentle nature evident in the sweet timbre of her voice, had set off a signal.

Rebecca considered the envelope in the girl’s file. Please open upon Miss Parker’s graduation—or when she has been provided for, it read. “I daresay she won’t find herself ‘provided for,’” Rebecca muttered.

Turning to the window, she opened the casement. The raven hopped in and strutted over the wooden file cabinets, occasionally stopping to preen the bright blue breast feather that indicated his service to the Guard.

“It’s odd, Frederic,” Rebecca remarked, “I can’t imagine that awkward, unfortunate girl has anything to do with us; it doesn’t follow. It shouldn’t follow.”

Growing up, as the Guard chose their mortal professions, it was agreed that a few of them should remain near the chapel and portal of the Grand Work, on the fortresslike grounds of Athens. Rebecca and Alexi were the perfect candidates for academia, and for twenty years now had followed that path. At Athens, Alexi and Rebecca were known as nothing other than upstanding Victorian citizens, providing for the intellectual improvement of the young. The two had agreed to never bring the Grand Work upon their students. The school was the one place where it seemed they controlled destiny rather than destiny controlling them—and they had fought to keep it that way.

Yes, the secrets of the Grand Work were matters for the world beyond the school walls. Their prophetic seventh had been named a peer, and thus students were not subjects of scrutiny. No, while Miss Parker did not appear a “normal” girl, and though she happened to spark interest, she was likely nothing more than a child deserving a solid education.

Rebecca sighed, easing into her chair as Frederic hopped onto her shoulder. She considered inviting Alexi to tea, then allowed he would prefer to be steeped as usual in solitude. As predicted, their personalities and desires had not changed when the six great spirits entered them. Still, Rebecca and her friends’ lives revolved around duty, a reality that Rebecca resented more with each passing year. Privately she wished those spirits had taken her heart when they arrived, for it was a terribly lonely destiny, and even the Grand Work couldn’t change that.

Copyright © 2016 by Leanna Renee Hieber

Strangely Beautiful comes out April 26th. Pre-order it today: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | iBooks | Indiebound | Powell’s


Sneak Peek: The House of Daniel by Harry Turtledove

The House of Daniel by Harry TurtledoveIn Harry Turtledove‘s The House of Daniel, Jack Spivey’s just another down-and-out trying to stay alive in a world of hotshot wizards in Enid, Oklahoma. Sometimes he makes a few bucks playing ball with the Enid Eagles, against teams from as many as two counties away.

Then the House of Daniel comes to town—a brash band of barnstormers who’ll take on any team, and whose antics never fail to entertain. Against the odds Jack secures a berth with them. Now they’re off to tour an America that’s as shot through with magic as it is dead broke. Jack will never be the same—nor will baseball.

Chapter One

It would’ve been the first part of May. I remember that mighty well. Spring has a special magic to it. Or spring did once upon a time, anyway. I remember that mighty well, too. But when the Big Bubble busted back in ’29, seems like it took half the magic in the world with it when it went. More than half, maybe. In the five years after that, we tried to get by on what was left. We didn’t do such a great job of it, either.

Other thing the Big Bubble took with it when it busted was half the work in the world. People who had things to sell all of a sudden had more of ’em than they knew what to do with. They tried to unload ’em on the other people, the ones who all of a sudden didn’t have the money to buy ’em. They couldn’t hardly hire those people to make more things, not when nobody could afford the stuff they already had clogging their warehouses.


Starred Review: Delia’s Shadow by Jaime Lee Moyer

Poster Placeholder of - 30“Both major and minor characters spring to life in this polished historical fantasy/mystery that should appeal to a wide variety of readers and could cross over to mainstream readers as well.”

Jaime Lee Moyer’s Delia’s Shadow got a starred review in Library Journal!

Here’s the full review, from the August issue:

starred-review-gif Since the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 that killed her parents, Delia Martin has been able to see ghosts. Accepting a teaching job in New York City helped keep the spirits at bay for a few years, but now one persistent presence, a young woman Delia calls Shadow, is demanding that she return to San Francisco to bring the spirit — and, perhaps, Delia herself — the peace she seeks. The city Delia finds upon her return, though, is a more sinister one in which a killer who stalks the streets may, in fact, be the same person who murdered the young woman who is now Delia’s ghostly companion. Moyer’s first novel captures the feel of San Francisco in 1915, with its genteel upper class and ambitious working class, as well as the excitement for the future brought about by the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. VERDICT Both major and minor characters spring to life in this polished historical fantasy/mystery that should appeal to a wide variety of readers and could cross over to mainstream readers as well.

Delia’s Shadow published on September 17th.

The Faerie Ring Sweepstakes


Image Placeholder of - 86The Faerie Ring by Kiki Hamilton releases next week, and we’re offering a chance for 15 lucky winners get a copy.

The Faerie Ring is a historical fantasy set in Victorian London.

To enter for the chance to win, comment below us and tell us what time period in history you’d like to visit.

(Ends September 23rd)

Follow along with The Faerie Ring blog tours lead by The Teen Book Scene and Mundie Moms as we gear up for this exciting release.

NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. You must be 18 or older and a legal resident of the 50 United States or D.C. to enter. Promotion begins September 20, 2011 at 10 a.m. ET. and ends September 23, 2011, 12:00 p.m. ET. Void in Puerto Rico and wherever prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules go here. Sponsor: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.

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