QUARRY’S BLOOD by Max Allan Collins

Quarry’s Blood
(Quarry Series #16)
(Hard Case Crime Series #151)
By Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 22nd February 2022
ISBN: 9781789096682
— Paperback — 224 pp.


Quarry’s Blood is a quick and satisfying pulp read, with Collins infusing his latest novel with fresh blood (yes, bad pun groan) to invigorate the aging Quarry series. I first saw this title in the Hard Case Crime catalog and thought, oh dear, another Quarry novel? And then I was even more confused to see that it was set in 2021, well after the events of The Last Quarry, which had been meant as the chronologically final story of the former contract killer’s life. I read how HCC editor Charles Ardai talked Collins into writing this entry, read the novel, and then was very glad that Ardai succeeded.

If, perchance, you haven’t read a Quarry novel, or if you haven’t seen any of the brief Cinemax series based on the series, here’s the gist of the character. A Vietnam veteran trained as a sniper, the man later dubbed Quarry returned home after the war to find his wife had been cheating on him with another man. Quarry killed that man, but circumstances led to him legally getting off from the crime, and to be recruited as a hitman for a powerful ‘Broker’ with mob connections, a man in charge of delegating regional contract killings. The Broker names his talented new recruit “Quarry” for the man’s rock solid appearance and hollow emotional core, and Quarry quickly becomes one of his best hitmen. Until the Broker begins to worry about Quarry and betrays him. Quarry goes rogue and takes care of the problem, procuring a list of jobs in the process. Quarry begins to go to people on the hit list and offer his services to get rid of the contract killers after them, and then also to try and find out who ordered that hit and take them out too. As he ages, he eventually settles for one last job with a big payout; he ends up with retirement with a woman he loves.

In Quarry’s Blood, the former hitman is still living the quiet, retired life, mourning the recent loss of his wife to COVID, but continuing his daily routine as he approaches seventy years old. This calm routine changes when a true crime writer, Susan Breedlove, arrives knocking at his door with questions. Susan has written a best-selling book that investigated and exposed many events from Quarry’s past, including what occurred with the Broker, and she is looking to write more, with more details and the hope of cooperation from Quarry, the man she knows far more about than anyone should. Even more disturbingly, soon after her visit, a contract killer and his backup make an attempt on Quarry’s life. It’s reasonable to Quarry to assume these two events are connected.

There are two things to the aptly titled Quarry’s Blood that make it succeed in terms of its plot. First, it is now a case where Quarry is the contract. He has to both protect himself from being killed, while also investigating to try and figure out who would want him dead and how it relates to Susan’s book/research. And, though he is in remarkable shape for his age, he is certainly not in top form for the kind of exertion that investigation might entail. Second, is the character of Susan: who she is and how that relates to Quarry and his past. The person who put out the hit on Quarry, and their secret reasons for doing so also pull from the core of Quarry’s past and nicely parallel his relation to Susan.

It probably wouldn’t be too much of a spoiler to be more detailed, but I’m going to opt for keeping it all a surprise. The novel begins with three chapters set in the 1980’s, so that by the time we get to the present and Susan arrives, things should already be clear to readers. Thankfully Collins doesn’t take too long to dance around things either, leaving the real mystery of the novel to who is targeting Quarry – and even moreover why.

Collins’ writing is exactly what one would expect from this master of neo-pulp. The text and dialogue flow crisply, with bits of playful trashiness one would expect from the genre. The novel is also preceded by some quotations, one of which is a definition for ‘meta’. Indeed, there are many self-referential nods in Quarry’s Blood, including mention of the TV series and the idea that Quarry himself writes the pulp Quarry series that everyone thinks is fiction.

Collins clearly has fun writing this unexpected chapter in Quarry’s story, and he succeeds in making it unique enough from previous entries to warrant its telling. Susan is an impressive addition to the series, and I could see things continuing in spin-off series featuring her. In fact, I hope Ardai pushes strongly for that.


THE HOUSE OF STYX by Derek Künsken

The House of Styx
(Venus Ascendant #1)
By Derek Künsken
Solaris (Rebellion Publishing) — August 2020
ISBN: 9781781088050
— Hardcover — 500 pp.


It’s approximately two hundred years in our future and the atmosphere of Venus has been settled by descendants of Québécois settlers. They subsist as a self-governed mining cooperative, but their political structure and livelihood are ultimately controlled by the bank that holds the economic strings. Families live in floating complexes, bio-engineered trawlers derived from native Venusian life that has evolved in the sulfuric acid-laden atmosphere. Active mining habitats circulate between atmospheric rangs to harvest elements and compounds that can be sold. It’s a dangerous life in environments inhospitable to human life, demanding bravery and advanced engineering skills.

The D’Aquillon family owns a habitat/vessel named Causapscal-des-Profondeurs, where patriarch George-Étienne leads their mining efforts in the lowest of Venusian rangs, isolated from the main colony, both its control and its support/aid. In part, the D’Aquillons are self-exiled to this most dangerous area of Venus, to an existence that has already claimed the lives of George-Étienne’s wife and one daughter. Jean-Eudes, the first-born son of the family was born with Trisomy 21, Down’s Syndrome, a condition the colonial authorities would not allow to exist, diverting precious resources to an individual who could not ‘contribute’. George-Étienne and his wife refused to give up their son, trading a life with the gentle and loving Jean-Eudes for medical services and colonial support, moving the Causapscal-des-Profondeurs to where no one else was willing to go.

With George-Étienne and eldest son Jean-Eudes are youngest son Pascal, a brilliant engineer of only sixteen years, and young grandson Alexis, the son of the daughter who was lost in a Venusian storm. While exploring the high pressure surfaces of Venus, George-Étienne and Pascal discover a cave where atmospheric currents oddly seem to be entering. Using a submersible probe and camera and they explore, bringing back rare metals and materials that should not be present on Venus, and machinery that appears to be alien. Pascal has the radical idea that they have just discovered something unfathomably priceless: a possible worm-hole to another part of the universe there within the Venusian cave. An opportunity for mining goods that no one else within the colony can get at, a possible way to get out from under the influence and power of Venus’ colonial system and the banks that enforce it.

The only person they are willing to trust with their discovery is Marthe, sister to Jean-Eudes and Pascal, who lives in a habitat with the main colony as a delegate to the ruling assembly, a leading minority voice against those in power. Marthe realizes that any move the D’Aquillon’s make to take advantage of Pascal’s discovery will need some support from other families, so she uses her diplomatic skills to pursue these. However, she is less certain whether to also bring her other brother in on the plan, Émile, the black sheep of the family, who left the Causapscal-des-Profondeurs after a bitter argument with his father, who now lives mostly in weak pursuit of women, Venusian religion, and an aspiration to writing poetry. This he fuels with self-destructive resentment and anger, mixed with alcohol and other drugs.

Can the D’Aquillon’s come together again, putting family first for their future, and the colony’s? Will the bank and the leaders of the colonial governing council discover what they are up to and put a stop to things? Might their efforts and diplomatic outreach to other families be the start of something much larger?

The House of Styx originally appeared in serialized form as three parts published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact Magazine back in 2020. Solaris (Rebellion Publishing) subsequently put out the complete version, and I recommend readers check it out. If you happen to have read other novels by Künsken, The House of Styx does exist in the same ‘universe’ as his “Quantum Evolution” series. My understanding as the “Venus Ascendant” series serves as a prequel detailing the establishment of things in the other. The House of Styx is similarly built on ‘hard’ science fiction and a focus on things physical and technological. I do wish Künsken had devoted as much to his exploration of the Venusian biology. The hard science of the House of Styx gave it a home in Analog, but really its all built on core themes of the novel dealing with familial interaction and identity politics. It is a space opera amalgam of hard SF and soap opera. And, as I detail below, that’s not a bad thing at all.

Given its original serialized format, the has an organization into thirds. The first establishes the setting and the personality/relationship between the D’Aquillon family members up to Pascal’s discovery. The second details the family’s process of making a decision of what to do regarding their discovery, and reaching out to potential allies. And the concluding third unveils the fruition of those plans and how that impacts the various family members.

A lot happens, therefore, in The House of Styx. Yet, it also reads as relatively incomplete. As the first part of a series, it is largely setting things up for the future, and the novel ends with a lot being unresolved. Sure, some things wrap up, and there are certainly character arcs/growth going on. I’m just not convinced that there’s enough for the novel to satisfyingly work as a stand-alone. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the novel, and I’m looking forward to reading more. But, I don’t think I’d recommend it to someone who was only willing to commit to reading just this first book. If you read this, you’re setting yourself up to need to read the future books of the series to fully appreciate things.

Here’s why The House of Styx and beyond is worth investment: the setting and its characters work phenomenally well to explore both concepts of science and of humanity. The Québécois culture and argot that peppers the novel give it a unique and personalized tone from Künsken that provides an interesting and new perspective to what might be expected of future colonists of a world like Venus. The pride, daring, and loyalty of the D’Aquillon’s shines to overcome their sins, failings, or ‘imperfections’ for their environment.

Of all the characters, Pascal is most frequently central, with events going through his point of view, with Marthe and Émile being close seconds. For each of these siblings (and to some extent other characters who don’t really have POVs), the plot of the novel is really a vehicle for them to fully work out who they each are as individuals. Are they just a D’Aquillon, or are they also Venusian? Can they be different from their father, yet still be loyal to the family? What are they meant to do with their life? Who are they really meant to be, at their core?

These dilemmas become most perceptible in Pascal, who from early in the novel voices feelings of discomfort with his body and self image. Gradually, he begins to wonder whether the alienation he feels within himself between mind and the physical may come down to discord between biological sex and gender. Through conversations with his sister and his brother Jean-Eudes, coupled with self-reflection, Pascal decides that he is perhaps really a girl. In a very moving and well-rendered passage, an instant of a few words, Pascal become Pascale. She is more confident, but still confused on how to tell all her family, or the man she has fallen in love with (and he with her.)

Just as the novel centers of the themes of personal discovery of identity, so too does it work on the larger scale of political identity: self-sufficiency versus shared governance, a part of the colony or separate, beholden to a repressive economic condition or economically fully independent of such powers?

The House of Styx ends in a somewhat heartbreaking and cliff-hanger fashion, yet I suspect the follow up novel will have resolutions that make the ending happier, or offer return of characters long-thought lost. Regardless, I’m invested in seeing where things go for this planet, for this new partnership of families, for these people. Just, please, some more hard biology to go with the engineering stuff?


MIDNIGHT HORIZON by Daniel José Older

Midnight Horizon
(Star Wars — The High Republic)
By Daniel José Older
Disney-Lucasfilm Press — February 2022
ISBN: 9781368057288
— Hardcover — 496 pp.


Set two centuries before the events of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, The High Republic media series has depicted the Republic and the Jedi try to deal with fighting off a mysterious new enemy called the Nihil amid their attempted expansion of Republican ideals toward the Outer Rim.

Within the different types of media, I only care about the novels, and I expected the series to simply consist of a trilogy of adult novels and a trilogy of young adult novels, but apparently this is only the start of an ongoing thing. This third young adult novel Midnight Horizon takes place roughly concurrently with the events of the third adult novel The Fallen Star (which I’m reading now.)

[As an aside, I don’t understand the whole young adult marketing at all, particularly for media tie-ins like this. They don’t seem very distinguishable from an adult novel to me – having more teen Padawans appearing as the protagonists does not inherently make something ‘young adult’. And I wonder how much the readership really divides along age lines between the two types of novel – if at all?]

If you haven’t read the previous novels yet, you should start there. While the specifics of Midnight Horizon are a self-contained story, the broader strokes of galactic conflict and history between many characters can only be appreciated or followed with the context of previous stories.

Two Jedi Masters, Cohmac Vitus and Kantam Sy travel to Corellia to investigate mysterious attacks on the planet’s upper class that may be linked to the Nihil, as part of the new active efforts of the Jedi to try and stamp out the terrorist raider threat. With them in Coronet City are Padawans Reath Silas and Ram Jomaram, and local help in the form of a young woman named Crash who leads a gang of bodyguards for the Corellian elite.

The High Republic has been a series of ups and downs for me, sometimes being riveting thrills and other times a stew pot of mediocrity. Midnight Horizon felt similar, compressed into one story. The start of the novel begins with an attack and mystery that feels promising, but soon the story languishes in slow build up that focuses more on interactions between the Jedis. The end finally picks up, considerably bolstered by the appearance (finally) of Yoda, whose name has been merely teased throughout earlier novels. Flashback scenes with Yoda earlier in the novel are also bright spots.

This overall arch of Midnight Horizon is actually not any different from all the other Star Wars novels, the middle portions are built on slower moments of character interactions, their emotions and their growth. So why was I bored so much by it here, while I enjoyed it elsewhere? I think the answer simply comes down to my appreciation of the writing style of the author. Older’s style is just not for me.

I previously read Older’s Star Wars novel that coincided with that terrible Solo: A Star Wars Adventure film. I chalked up my disinterest in that novel to the fact that I really couldn’t stand Solo or its characters. I now see it’s not just that. Older returns in Midnight Horizon to that world of Solo by setting this novel on Corellia, and I won’t deny his strengths at working in that world – or in serving as an overall story architect for The High Republic. But, both novels also have a distinctive voice that feels extremely off for the setting, too emulative of modern English, particularly with phrasing or adding slang that make it more like teenagers are speaking. There are moments where it feels cutesy, and cutesy is not something that for me fits with Star Wars.

This negative becomes augmented by the molding of Midnight Horizon to a “young adult” market (so I guess that wasn’t totally an aside above.) Older’s style that grated at me felt worst with scenes and points of view of the Padawans or Crash. The parts more focused on the Jedi Masters simply felt better, not drawing me out of the story and universe.

If you’re reading The High Republic series, this is certainly enjoyable enough to warrant reading, even if Older’s style doesn’t match your tastes. If you have no qualms with his style, you’ll probably love this novel. If you haven’t read The High Republic, but are a Star Wars fan, it’s a series worth looking into, better than most of the novels that were released alongside the latest film trilogy, with a large cast of new, interesting characters. Just start with the first books that set it up so well.


FIVE DECEMBERS by James Kestrel

Five Decembers
(Hard Case Crime Series #150)
By James Kestrel
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 20th April 2021
ISBN: 9781789096118
— Hardcover — 432 pp.


This is perhaps the best Hard Case Crime novel I’ve yet read, and it is among the best novels in general that I’ve read in the past year. I don’t seem to be alone in this assessment, as the Mystery Writers of America just announced Five Decembers as the winner of the 2022 Edgar Award for best novel a few days ago. James Kestrel is a pseudonym for Jonathan Moore, whose previous novels are now going onto my to-read list with that priority of engaged excitement. Here’s why you might enjoy this novel as well, even if you are not a regular reader of the Hard Case Crime imprint.

Five Decembers opens with a set-up of plot and atmosphere that smolders with a familiar intensity of pulpish noir suspense. Former Army officer Joe McGrady now works as a Honolulu city police detective, perceptive and dedicated, though resented and unappreciated by many of his colleagues, particularly his boss. But, as Europe and the rest of the world beyond begin to churn into global conflict, he lives content on the island with his job and a woman he loves.

The trajectory of Joe’s life change when he is assigned a gruesome double homicide that ends up having links to the family of the Admiral who heads the Naval base at Pearl Harbor, and to Japan. After a shootout near the scene of the murder with one of the killers, McGrady ends up on the trail of a professional killer across the Pacific, eventually reaching British Hong Kong. The chaos of World War II and an attack by Japan on Hong Kong make tracking a dangerous killer the least of McGrady’s worries, as his investigation and pursuit quickly turn into becoming a prisoner of war.

The adventure of Five Decembers stretches across five years (hence the title), in an epic story that combines elements of crime fiction, historical war drama, romance, and conventional literary explorations of cross-cultural contact. Clandestinely freed from execution within a Japanese prisoner camp by one of his captors, Joe McGrady must spend most of the war in hiding within a Japanese home. The war’s end finally gives him the freedom to leave and resume the hunt for the killer that began his journey. But how have the secluded years living with a Japanese family changed him, and what is left for him to return to?

Five Decembers starts as hard boiled crime, and eventually returns to it. But the majority of it serves as something much more profound and heartbreaking, yet just as entertaining, just as fluid with dialogue that pops and grittiness that touches the soul. Even in the moments of the novel without ‘crime’ and the mystery plot, the tone of the novel stays consistent with the genre.

The hard boiled or film noir style is largely defined by the cynicism in its characters, brought on by cycles of violence and despair. Bright rays of hope that appear, and dreams of a happy future, become clouded over by gruesome reality. War does this as well, as it overturns the lives of ordinary people, people who may even be the enemy, but who are at their heart still good. Systems destroy even the good, particularly the good.

McGrady finds himself prisoner to a life he never intended, could not have chosen. Yet somehow it becomes a life of beauty and tranquil peace. Of happiness. Just as the outbreak of war causes chaos and disruption, so too does the end of these conflicts, as others coming into power and enemies are not just defeated, but also punished. The end of war is not a new peace. It’s a return to the same cycles of violence, with different players and stages. McGrady’s life is again disrupted and he’s forced to again find his place in the world.

Five Decembers is a cinematic novel, one that I could easily seen adapted into a movie that was on one hand action/suspense, but also art house, using the familiarity and entertainment of genre conventions to probe the human condition in one common man across a swath of time. It’s a complex novel that I would enjoy reading again, and I believe that a lot of people across reading interests would find rewarding.


DOUBLE DOWN by Max Allan Collins

Double Down
(Hard Case Crime Series #149; Nolan Series #s 3 – 4)
By Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 20th April 2021
ISBN: 9781789091410
— Paperback — 352 pp.


Even mediocre Max Allan Collins provides more entertainment value than much of the crime fiction that is out there, and with this volume one gets two episodes from the neo-noir series featuring the professional thief Nolan for the price of one. Double Down is a recent Hard Case Crime reissue of the third and fourth novels of Collins’ Nolan series, Fly Paper and Hush Money. Originally written back in the ’70’s, but not published until 1981, these novels have since been often out-of-print. This release by Hard Case Crime follows their publication of the final Nolan novel (#9, Skim Deep) a few months prior, which I reviewed here previously.

In Fly Paper, Nolan has settled into retirement from pulling jobs for the Detroit mob, surviving old enemies to manage one of organized crime’s legitimate businesses, the Tropicana hotel and nightclub outside Chicago. But Nolan receives a call from his protégé Jon that sets the pair up for a heist of some easy money from a member of the Comfort family, a crime clan who continue as a principal antagonist to Nolan in the series. Meanwhile, a man plots the daring hijacking of a flight for some ransom money. Unfortunately for this man, he has chosen the flight that Jon and Nolan are taking after netting their easy score.

Fly Paper is an odd entry to the Nolan series compared to the others I’ve read. The heists and crimes come down entirely to happenstance, showcasing the Pasteur quote “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” It all ends up feeling like a cakewalk, with Nolan and Jon barely breaking any sweat. Additionally, the novel has the feel of being two stories set in one (compounded here with Fly Paper being paired with another novel.) There is the one plot with the Comfort family, which easily resolves, and then there is the plot inspired by the real history of “D.B. Cooper” and his hijacking of Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305. I imagine Collins read the news stories about this stunning event back in the early 1970’s and thought, hmm, I wonder how that would’ve gone down if a real bad ass were on board at the time to steal from the thief? Beef that concept up with a set-up to get Nolan on the plane, and print it.

Hush Money takes place concurrently with Fly Paper, and immediately following. Someone in Des Moines is killing business associates of organized crime, and the Mob thinks that Nolan may be the best person out there to find who is responsible and cleanly make it end. With the amount they offer him, how could Nolan turn it down, especially with Jon eager to help? It takes a good third of the short novel for Nolan and Jon to even appear, so a good chunk of Hush Money involves the killer, the targets, and their families during the time when Jon & Nolan are making bank off the Comforts and an odd plane trip home. Again, this gives Hush Money the feel of being two stories that merge into one. The plot feels superior to that in Fly Paper, though, with less of a reliance on happenstance, and without the DB Cooper gimmick going on. It’s also interesting to see Nolan work in a role of mediator where he ends up not ever having an ‘enemy’ or ‘evil person’ who he has to go up against for survival.

Neither Fly Paper or Hush Money are ground-breaking or remotely compare to the best noir that Collins has produced. But, regardless, he can write. Nolan shines with style, wit, and a charming elegance that imparts that compulsively readable pulp crime vibe. Jon has more naiveté, but an earnest drive to learn and find success. The stories and dialogue smoothly flow to give a simply entertaining diversion of crime fiction, bread-and-butter of the Hard Case Crime line that doesn’t demand much, but also doesn’t insult or fail.

Hard Case Crime is in the process of publishing additional works by Max Allan Collins, including titles featuring his character Quarry and volumes from the Nolan series that follow this one. The character of Nolan is inspired (at least in part) on a thief from Donald E. Westlake’s oeuvre writing as Richard Stark, and Hard Case Crime is likewise amid several Westlake releases. Look for reviews of those releases coming ahead, and check the novels out if you’re a fan of this pulp crime gold.


ENGINES OF OBLIVION by Karen Osborne

Engines of Oblivion
(The Memory War Book II)
By Karen Osborne
Tor Books — February 2021
ISBN: 9781250215505
— Paperback — 416 pp.


Trilogies and beyond are certainly the norm for genre fiction. Many stand-alones exist. But, seem to be pretty rare. If writing two distinct chapters, how easy it much be to stretch things for more. If they aren’t so distinct, couldn’t they simply fit together into just one longer volume? Karen Osborne does something unique and remarkable with her “The Memory War” duology. Engines of Oblivion, the second book of the series feels even more successful than the first.

The two novels are flip-sides of the same coin, or the same vinyl record, bearing different surface characteristics but forged from the same core elemental materials. Both of them enrich one another: the first is necessary to grasp the sequel, but the sequel makes the reader appreciate its predecessor more deeply. The duology actually becomes a whole. Though Engines of Oblivion may feel better, it’s mostly because the reader can now fully connect with what came before, realizing this is a story of two distinct protagonists faced with the same economical and political exploitation/control.

The first novel of “The Memory War”, Architects of Memory, follows corporately indentured salvage pilot Ash Jackson, who (with the crew she works with) discovers a weapon of mass destruction that might be useful in a war between humanity and the alien Vai. I wrote more on that novel in an earlier review, and I also had the opportunity to interview author Karen Osborne on the series.

Engines of Oblivion continues following the events that close Architects of Memory, but now following protagonist Natalie Chan, a war veteran who served with Ash on the crew of the Twenty-Five. Chan has barely survived the battle of Tribulation at the climax of the first book, but has gained her corporate citizenship as a result. However, it still comes with additional price. The Board of the Aurora Corporation doesn’t believe Ash and her partner Kate (the former captain of the Twenty-Five) are dead, and they suspect Chan may have even had a hand in letting them escape with the secrets of the alien technology that could be used to defeat the Vai. Chan is sent along with other former crew member Dr. Reva Sharma to find Ash and Kate. There is a significant complication, however. Natalie Chan has lost pockets of her memory, and she is beginning to doubt many things she took for granted.

Like its predecessor, Engines of Oblivion has rapid pacing, but familiarity with the characters makes it far easier to jump into. The first book showed how a tight-knit group of people who professionally relied on each other for their lives turned to mistrust, betrayal, and some signs of hopeful empathy/solidarity. The sequel explores these character connections more deeply, in satisfying ways that enrich the characterization from the first novel.

Some readers may find it jarring for the story to turn towards the point-of-view of Natalie Chan. Readers become very accustomed to Ash in the first novel, and invested in rooting for her success. We see Chan in that novel only through Ash’s interpretative mind, and not as a particularly relatable person to empathize with. However, Osborne does fabulously well from the start putting readers into Chan’s confused mind to get another perspective on things and generate reader sympathy for someone who may have been more disliked prior.

Chan has bought into the power structure and narratives of the Corporatocracy that runs things in “The Memory War”. But she slowly begins to see things that Ash had long known and appreciated. Through Natalie Chan’s initial complicity, and gradual awakening, Engines of Oblivion is able to dramatically expand the themes of corporate power and personal freedom that the first novel touched upon.

As with the first novel, Engines of Oblivion provides some twists and surprising turns to end up in a satisfying conclusion that draws both the heart of this novel, and the overall series plot, into effective close. I would have enjoyed more background detail and exploration of the Vai over other elemental foci of the novel, but that is the biologist in me, I understand that not everything can fit.

If you are a fan of space opera and still haven’t checked this pair of books out, go get Architects of Memory now, it ranks among the best in the current sub-genre and would give any of the ‘classics’ a run for their money.


THE GODMOTHERS by Camille Aubray

The Godmothers
By Camille Aubray
HarperLuxe — June 2021
ISBN: 9780063090279
— Paperback — 592 pp.


Greenwich Village, New York City, the 1930s. As war breaks out in distant Europe, a wealthy family of Italian Americans with business ties to the mafia works hard to ensure their continued success for themselves, and even more for their children. Gianni and Tessa have one daughter, Petrina, and three sons, Johnny, Frankie, and Mario; partnering them each with the right spouse becomes the immediate parental priority to facilitate their continued familial prosperity. However, the fashionable and intelligent Petrina has a marriage on the rocks, and she still hasn’t fully recovered from a potential scandal in her past that threatened the family’s stability.

Considerate and responsible eldest son Johnny has married naive Amie, a young French widow from upstate New York, who he helps after she has used a gun to end her abusive marriage to a bar owner. Fiery middle son Frankie marries the equally spirited Lucy, an Irish nurse who has prior experience standing up to members of organized crime. But for quiet and cerebral Mario, the doted-upon baby boy of the family, Tessa decides that he needs a good Italian woman from the old country, a woman who has not grown up with the influences of American culture. Tessa and Gianni arrange to bring a young woman named Filomena over for marriage to Mario. Outbreak of WWII in Italy and tragedy leads another girl to seize the opportunity to secretly come in her friend’s place, adopting Filomena’s name and identity.

The bulk of the novel deals with the history of this family from the 1930s through the 1950s. Chapters set in the 1980s frame each side of this story, featuring Nicole, who is learning all these hidden secrets of her family’s past from one of the four Godmothers. Aubray follows the opening bookend with chapters that separately introduce the pasts of each of the four women, with particular focus on Filomena. By the point of Filomena’s marriage to Mario, the singular path of the woman as part of the familial is followed. Their generation takes over more business operations with the death of Gianni and Tessa.

The gradual departure or loss of the men to illness or war gradually allow the women to take leadership more fully, making use of the survival skills they have each learned from their pasts, and their keen intellect. With strengths to complement one another, and ferociously protective of each other’s secrets, these Godmothers work together to separate their lives from dependence on crime and keep their children safe.

The basic feminist story in The Godmothers is solid. It’s a story of divestment from situations they have been born or married into while maintaining loyalty to ‘blood’. Establishing social independence alongside separation from criminal business ties that leave them vulnerable and at the mercy to immoral powers that they’ve all had personal prior experience with in some way.

Aubray’s construction of the novel is less perfect. The bookends to the story set in the 1980s are unnecessary, and even detrimental. The opening sets up expectations of really dark secrets and mystery that will have big implications for Nicole. There are some dark secrets and mysteries revealed in those days of the 1930s – 1950s. But from the point of view of decades later, they are all pretty unsurprising, and hardly scandalous to warrant panic for Nicole. If framed solely as learning more about her family it may have worked better at least (even if not needed). Instead it sets the novel up to be far more of a thriller and mystery than it ever is.

The other major issue with The Godmothers is that it becomes progressively less compelling as the read continues. The first half or so was engaging, but the plot soon settles into a lull of predictability, and the character developments among the women and their relationship stagnates into repetition of themes. Coupled with an anticlimactic end to the 1950s era story of the Godmothers gaining criminal independence, the fizzling of any story on the 1980s side of the history makes the final chapters of the novel more skippable than engaging.

Though Aubray writes well – if a bit melodramatically – and crafts interesting characters with a meaningful history, the structure of the novel and a second half of smooth-sailing against any remotely rough waters ends up dampening the initial joys of reading The Godmothers. Given the numerous mentions of the novel on “Best of the year/summer” lists and many enthusiastic reader responses, there are certainly readers out there who will enjoy this and not mind structural elements I found to not work.

For those who are interested in looking into The Godmothers further, there is currently a new Goodreads Giveaway running until April 26, 2022 to win a copy of the novel.


VOROSHILOVGRAD by Serhiy Zhadan, translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Wheeler

Voroshilovgrad
By Serhiy Zhadan
Translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Wheeler
Deep Vellum Publishing — April 2016
ISBN: 9781941920305
— Paperback — 445 pp.


A review from the backlist. I’ve had a copy of Voroshilovgrad in my to-read pile for years now, and I’ve picked it up to start numerous times only to put it aside to get to an immediate priority in my reading triage. With the horrific escalation in conflict and Russian aggression that has gone on in Ukraine since then, I finally decided I needed to get to this, to help balance the despair I would get from reading the current news.

Zhadan’s voice, and this novel, was just what I needed to be reminded of the humanity behind the politics going on in this region, and of the hope that still remains possible even amid the destruction of place and life. Well-respected as a talented and vital voice in contemporary Ukrainian literature, Zhadan is equally (if not more?) known for his poetry as his prose. Poetry is not my bag, but the poetics of his fiction resonate strongly.

Voroshilovgrad takes its name from the Russian name for the current Ukrainian city of Luhansk, and it is the original home of the novel’s protagonist Herman. Herman now lives in another city, where he holds an ‘executive’ business position with responsibilities as ill-defined as his aspirations and engagement in life. But, he is content and happy, abiding with his friends.

Until Herman receives a call telling him that his brother Yura has mysteriously left the country, seemingly abandoning the gas station that he ran for good. Herman decides to return to his hometown to find out more; to temporarily help its remaining employees, Injured and Kocha, take care of the business. Herman arrives to find that Injured and Kocha, while dedicated, are like fish-out-of-water in running things, uncertain of how their boss managed the business, or how he had dealt with a gang of local business leaders who had been pressuring him to sell the station.

Intending to stay only a day – or a few – Herman finds his loyalty and pride pulling him into staying in Luhansk, taking over the responsibilities, and the stresses, that his brother Yura has apparently fled. In addition to his two new friends/coworkers and the politically-tied thugs, Herman meets some of the local women, illegal migrants, wistful travelers, Romani families (referred to as Gypsies in the text), and ghosts of the past. Though he stays in one relative place (Luhansk and its environs) for the majority of the novel, Herman’s story is one of a journey, often traversing the wasted landscape on foot, by bus, or by rail. The landscape is almost like a character, but also a means for his encounters with the varied human characters along a personal journey of his soul, in this vibe of magic realism that even directly references The Wizard of Oz.

The environments and physical objects of Voroshilovgrad are barren and bleak, worn-out and used, abused. Including the people. But only in the physical sense. Zhadan imbues the souls of his characters, and their mind, with refreshing joy, camaraderie, optimism. As beaten as they all are, as decrepit as their city and possessions seem to be, they are fiercely loyal and hopeful. This resounds in the text, and the characters even help the environment display a simplicity of uncomplicated beauty without things like the latest fashions or technology.

Zhadan’s prose is also as comical as it is serious. The humor in the character’s lives, and even their most mundane interactions shines through, almost absurdly against that dark, bleak backdrop of a setting. This appeared most obviously to me in a section that features a football match (and its aftermath) among Herman and his coworkers, and the ghosts of players Herman knew in his past. Literally haunting, yet also absurdly comical and jubilant amid their rough-and-tumble personalities. Dead, but full of life.

Other reviews of the novel I have come across mention one downside to the novel being the female characters, who are all written distinctly from the male point-of-view and are not given much depth beyond serving the needs of Herman (both physically and metaphorically in terms of the journey of his spirit and life). I would agree with this, but also feel this applies equally to all of the male characters. Herman is the heart of the novel and all others really exist more in relation to his growth than any of their own.

Voroshilovgrad is a monumental work of beauty and passionate feeling, rendered all the more bittersweet by the current realities facing Ukraine. I look forward to reading more of Zhadan’s fiction, and I hope that more authors will exist there in the future to continue writing so truthfully. In terms of the plot of the novel, the threats to Herman and his friends (while serious) ultimately give way to hope of a better future, and reduced threats. I pray the same goes for reality.


SAINT DEATH’S DAUGHTER by C.S.E. Cooney

Saint Death’s Daughter
By C.S.E. Cooney
Solaris (Rebellion Publishing) — April 2022
ISBN: 9781786184702
— Hardcover — 480 pp.


Not every story with a young adult protagonist is a young adult story. Though marketed as an adult fantasy, Saint Death’s Daughter features a set-up that is easy for prospective readers to gloss over and make a wrong assumption regarding target audience.

Teenage Miscellaneous (Lanie) Stones has lost both her parents within a month, the latest in an ancient family line serving the Royalty of Liriat as Assassin and Executioner. With her sister Amanita (Nita) Muscaria Stones away studying magic in Quadiib for the past four years, Lanie is left to face the family’s debts and future as the sole living soul within Stones Manor. However, though destined to be the next great necromancer from the Stone family line, Lanie has suffered from birth with an intense allergy to bloodshed, and violence in general, that manifests as physical trauma to her own body. How can she possibly be a powerful and successful necromancer with this disability?

Complicating Lanie’s situation further, Sari Scratch, the matriarch of a rival family, and the Stones’ creditor, is pressuring Lanie for payment, or marriage to one of her sons. In this time of fearful uncertainty, Lanie has precious few for company or solace: the Stones’ long-dead and magically bound servant Goody Graves, and the ghost of Irradiant Stones (Grandpa Rad) the previous family necromancer whose spirit is now trapped in the lock of a sarcophagus in the family ossuary (and longs to be free, restored to corporeal power).

The first part of Saint Death’s Daughter builds from this coming-of-age setup that is familiar from young adult literature. But Cooney’s novel approaches those themes with a dark complexity that combines playfulness with moments of uncompromising brutality.

Lanie’s maturation becomes tied with her elder sister, who returns home upon receiving the news from Lanie. Nita resolves to take over the position of Royal Assassin for Liriat to earn money that can keep Scratch creditors at bay. She is soon tasked in this with taking out powerfully dangerous enemies of Liriat: the four-and-twenty membered Court of wizards serving the Blackbird Queen Bran Fiakhna. With her from Quadiib, Nita has brought a man she has magically Fascinated and bonded, who she calls Mak. Able to transform between man and falcon, Mak’s abilities are completely under control of Nita’s call and whim.

The plot quickly goes beyond the set up and young-adult-novel trappings with intricate developments that I wouldn’t want to spoil. After its first part the novel jumps ahead seven years, continuing focus on Lanie’s struggles to develop as a necromancer, but now also as aunt to her fiery niece Sacred Datura Stones, daughter of Nita and Mak.

I immediately became enraptured by the gothic tones, sophisticated language, and compelling characters of Saint Death’s Daughter. It’s a large novel; it could have been conceivably split into two separate publications, but I think it works well as the single epic work it is. Cooney drops readers right into the story and world of the Stoneses, with its unique vocabulary, naming conventions, and societal structure. It requires some reader patience and attention to detail, but Cooney does a great job at introducing the essential elements to her characters and their world in a logical way that never feels like info-dump for its own sake, and permits the thrill of discovery. A brief glossary before the novel on names for time and deities in the novel seems unnecessary as most of these are not major or essential details in the novel, and may needlessly dissuade some readers.

The language is on one hand ornate, yet with Lanie’s point of view also alternates formality and intricacy with blunt flippancy and wit. This parallels the rigid social stratifications and traditions of Lariat and Quadiib and the contrasting youthful yearning of characters (like Lanie and Datu) to forge their own new way of doing things.

There is a gothic eccentricity to Saint Death’s Daughter that many others have likened to The Addams Family, and I wouldn’t disagree. Even with its dark themes, moments of despair, and unflinching violence/trauma, the novel still manages to be humorous and endearing. This is in no small part to how well Cooney writes the characters and their relationships with one another. Family is all. This is something many (if not all) can relate to – even when family members/ancestors may be horrific, selfish, or damaging. The next generation always represents hope.

Cooney’s world building is excellent in this fantasy, though not without limitations that some readers might criticize. The magic systems are fleshed out well, particularly the necromancy of Lanie. Cooney slowly introduces others as the novel progresses, particularly during the action sequences, culminating in a fantastic battle scene. The other strength lies in the characters, compelling in both the protagonists and antagonists, with even sympathies for enemies to be felt. However, most all of these characters come from the upper rungs of societies, readers never really get a sense of what the ‘regular world’ is like, or the lives of the common population. This is surprising given how class distinctions seem significant to the societies. I’m hoping we’ll see more of that in future volumes of the story. The glossary also hints to a pantheon of deities and complexity that even this long novel really doesn’t explore too much.

Ultimately, what Saint Death’s Daughter is all about – and what gives it meaning beyond sheer entertainment – is ways in which people use one another, how they let themselves be used, and what they sacrifice. This general theme plays out in all the relationships, both individuals with society and individual with individual: Lanie and Nita, Nita and Mak, Lanie and Mak, Datu and Lanie, Datu and Mak, Lanie and Grandpa Rad. Cooney uses these to explore power differentials in relationships, both healthy and unhealthy ways in which they manifest.

There are two relationships that particular stand out as fascinating and timely. First is the close friendship and building romance between Lanie and Canon Lir, the non-binary priest, and sibling in Liriat’s ruling family. Touching and painful, it will pull at heartstrings. Second is Lanie’s relationship to the family’s indentured undead servant Goody Graves. Lanie’s realization of the injustices that her family did to the woman who became Goody – and the continued exploitation of her becomes a major plot of the novel, as Lanie fights not just for her security and the safety of her family, but also liberation and reparations for Goody.

Saint Death’s Daughter succeeds in many ways, most basically as an exciting story filled with atmospheric text, rich characterization, and subtle depth. For as long as the novel is – and even with the amount of closure as a self-contained story that it does offer – I finished the book and was fully ready to start reading what comes next.


Interview with Karen Osborne (Author of The Memory War Duology)

I had the opportunity to review the first book in Karen Osborne’s excellent space opera duology, Architects of Memory, here back in March. I have my review of the sequel, Engines of Oblivion scheduled to post here next. But in the meantime, you can read Karen’s thoughtful answers to my questions regarding the duology and her writing experience. Whether you’ve finished the books already, started them, or haven’t started them yet, read on. And those are your only acceptable options if you are a space opera fan.

This is actually the debut interview for my site Reading 1000 Lives, though I have done some before as part of Skiffy & Fanty. More should be coming soon, so I hope you do enjoy.

Thank you again Karen! Onto the Q&As:

At least in part, the writing and marketing of Architects of Memory and Engines of Oblivion took place amid a pandemic that upended all sorts of interactions, including retail and publishing. How was that experience for you? Were there any surprising silver linings that came out of the bad situation of the pandemic for your novels? 

This year was an emotional rollercoaster. I felt a little like Schrödinger’s Author sometimes—alive or dead, who knows? My family locked down early and hard, so—no live events, no bookstore trips, no live signings, no childcare, no gatherings, no conventions, none of the stuff I’d been looking forward to since I was 12 and gawking at the sci-fi section in the Mohawk Mall Waldenbooks… well, we all know the drill by now.

I’m a gigantic extrovert, so the isolation has been hard to bear. That’s why I love online events. They are easy to attend, are no longer limited to a purely local audience, and make accessible conversations that would have been limited to expensive conventions in The Before Times. I even put together some events myself just because I felt like doing them—for example, a March series I ran with authors talking about how to write when you’re buried with pandemic sorrow and stress. It was quite cathartic for everyone involved.

My book launches were attended by people from literally everywhere, and I got to reconnect with friends from a theater group I was in back in the aughts, the writing group that kept me sane when I lived in Florida, my team from Tor, even relations from California. I also had a Nebula nomination in 2020, and SFWA ran an online awards show that felt like the real thing. It was all a real blessing in an otherwise dispiriting time. I’m sick of Zoom like the rest of the universe, but I’m also hoping that the online events don’t fade into the ether when everything opens up.

As for the rest of it? All I can do in a once-in-a-hundred-years situation like this is my best, and I just have to keep moving forward, writing new stories, and staying positive. That’s really the only way to g 

Engines of Oblivion necessitated a change in point-of-view protagonist from Ashlan Jackson in Architects of Memory to Natalie Chan. Did the returning focus on Natalie in more detail require any rewrites or expansions of her story? Was there anything you missed being unable to do with Ash in the sequel? 

Engines of Oblivion was always Natalie’s story. Ash’s intent to become a citizen began in a fairly utilitarian way—she wanted to find a cure for her disease and to be with Kate, to earn a centered kind of happiness in a life that hadn’t had a lot of it. But Natalie is a true believer. She’s paid into the massive sunk cost fallacy that is Aurora with her blood and her bone. She’s broken from the war, she’s lost people to the cause, she’s unmoored from her roots. To turn back on her investment at this point, Natalie would have to confront her own complicity in the system and navigate through coming to terms with that. I can’t ignore a story like that. It’s the kind of meaty, significant story I love to grapple with as a writer.

But not everything in the sequel was always set in stone from the beginning. I did pretty extensive rewrites to the second half of Engines—writing a book when you’re taking care of a newborn on two hours of sleep a night will do a number on your logic—and some of my favorite plot developments in the book came in that insomniac revision, because, it turns out, I needed to be a mother to write them properly. Architects of Memory was in final edits at Tor by that point, and my production team generously let me go back and support that revelation by making some changes in the first book. I’m immensely grateful.

The path not taken would have been delightful, too. The Ash-directed sequel idea had her and Kate on Tribulation, navigating their increasing illnesses while holding off rival companies like they were starring in Die Hard. It lost out to the fact that the Vai weren’t involved, and they needed to be involved. I might still write it. I think it’d make a good novella.

Most of the characters from the first novel return in the second, in one form or another. But their relationships have mostly turned opposite: complete trust in the team to thorough mistrust of everyone. Did you approach these two states in a different way or have more of a challenge writing the characters in one? 

I see them as the same state. The illusion here is that while the crew of Twenty-Five appears to be a found family at the beginning of the book, it’s really more of a pseudocommunity—a house built on sand, so to speak. I love found family stories as much as the next fan, but I’m also highly suspicious of them. Stories where found families fail are worth telling, too, for the same reason we write dystopias—to figure out how to keep that sort of thing from happening.

We use the word “community” interchangeably these days, from churches to Discords to lists of people on Twitter who like the same video game, and I’m not sure we should. Everyone on Earth has a story or two where we thought we were pretty tight with a group of people only to have the entire thing fall apart over a secret. And then we feel stupid and silly because, hey! We trusted those people with our very hearts! But when you haven’t done the very real, very tough emotional labor to create foundational bonds that last, that’s always what happens. And it becomes hard to for you to trust again in the same way, and it starts to feed into a cycle where trust becomes impossible.

In a way, the entire duology is about Natalie’s experience with that cycle and how she gets out of it. When you meet her, she’s traumatized, but she’s started to really explore the feeling of trust, with Ash and with Len and Keller, and when her world is upended, the cycle begins—and, of course, in Architects, her inability to trust Ash ends in some truly tragic circumstances.

But in Engines, she has to learn to trust again, to do the real emotional work that brings her through the hard times to develop a true community, a true found family, one that lasts through earthquakes and fires and secrets and aliens. Of course, this being a book I wrote, it doesn’t end up exactly like that…

Speaking of thorough mistrust, characters can’t even trust themselves fully due to memory issues. How did you try to balance (or play) with confusion for the characters, and reader’s memories, between books? 

Our memories are really the substance that drives our behavior as humans, right? More than beliefs, more than dreams, more than cash or status. We seek out situations that we remember as beautiful, and avoid situations that we remember as traumatic, from hot stoves to crucial relationships.

The problem is—with memory loss, you often don’t know what you don’t know. You don’t truly understand what you’ve lost unless there’s somebody there to guide you and help you. You think your mind is set in stone, that you are who you are and that it won’t change, but all you have to do is look at a person who has received a brain injury or developed Alzheimer’s or dementia to know that isn’t exactly true (ask me about the time I was driving around with a bad concussion and hit Annapolis before I realized I was supposed to be driving to Baltimore). The memories that remain write your behavior going forward, and the choices you make might not be the same. This happens a lot in the duology. Keep watching as to when the London weapon is activated in the duology, who is present, and what changes…

The book would have been easier to write if I hadn’t chosen close third person, where the narrator doesn’t know anything more than the character. So what I did was drop hints that the characters can’t pick up on but the reader would—for example, Keller looks at a picture of Sharma’s granddaughter while the doctor is on-planet, and after Sharma turns on the London weapon there, she mentions that she doesn’t have one, and the lack of that family information in turn informs Sharma’s decisions going forward. I wonder—would she have made different choices if she’d remembered? I had a whole spreadsheet for each character logging what they knew, what they didn’t know, and how their behavior would change when they found out. The books are littered with little clues like these for the reader. It was a really intricate juggling act and the result is decidedly not a beach read. I’m very proud.

Like many great space operas, your novels touch on multiple themes, including memory, friendship/trust, corporate politics, alien biology, war, oppression… Where did it begin/evolve for you? Did separate stories become one? 

It’s a big katamari ball. The crew has been around for nearly twenty years. I wrote little short stories about them in college, but never really hit on anything that fit, so into the round file they went. Ash’s disease came from my own experience dealing with blood clots—we both have timebombs in our blood. There’s becoming an adult in the wake of 9/11 in there, of watching everything we grew up believing fall apart in greed and violence. There’s my fascination with how space travel is developing, going private, run by corporations, who don’t have workers’ rights in focus and who are already planning de facto indenture/work-repayment programs (which Elon Musk has alluded to on Twitter). And my obsession with writing really alien aliens is in there, too. That’s from the ‘90s, too—the only aliens you got back then were the ones with the bumpy noses and I always wanted to go just a little bit further than that.

It all just kind of came together when started writing. I wish I could say something more interesting than that! That’s why I keep on reading widely, writing about my own experiences, and trying to have new experiences. Whatever you’re doing or going through, remember it all, write about it all, shove it all into the dusty recesses of your brain and don’t forget, because you honestly never know what you’re going to need. The tiniest things may become the most important.

Central to the novels, for me, is the issue of people from all walks of life (or species) just trying to survive. That simple survival often makes it hard for anyone to really change things. Do you feel that’s accurate, and how far did you want to delve into the possibilities of changing power structures?  

I think we as a society often forget that the working conditions modern folks consider bog-standard and normal today—the 40-hour work week, minimum wage, health benefits—were actually paid for in blood. People died. A lot of people. Every inch of it was a battle. It has never been in the interest of corporations and employers to pay a living wage or co-exist with worker movements.

I think corporations often do this because people who are expending their energies keeping a roof over their head or paying for the doctor or figuring out where the next meal comes from have much less time to take to the streets, form a union, or travel to Washington to lobby for change. But they do. They always do. Look at the fast food fight for $15 right now. They’re not stopping because they’re getting political pushback. The Amazon union movement isn’t stopping. Change always comes when the people push for it, and push the people do. It may take years, it may take decades, but it comes, and imagining change often starts in art, music and writing. It’s important for writers to embrace that, especially in science fiction.

The Memory War books as they exist right now concentrate on how Ash, Kate, and Natalie navigate the world they’re in, rather than a bigger-picture view of how the corporate universe they live in could fall or change. That’s partially because I spent most of my thirties in survival mode; I was still caught up in all of that when I wrote Architects. But by the time you get to the end of the duology, you know the days of the Joseph Solanos of this world are numbered. Their days are always numbered, honestly. And it’s part of our job as science fiction authors to imagine how that fall might go down, and what will take its place.

You’ve spoken elsewhere of a longstanding love of space opera, including classic works that were early influences for you, but now are problematic in some ways. There are so many newer choices now that you’ve also cited as influences. However, are there any older works that you think do still hold up relatively well and should be revisited? 

The first one I can recommend is C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen. What a book. I think I get a lot of my obsession with identity and memory from that book, from watching the Ari clone figure out how close she is to the Ariane original. Cyteen is dense, and is definitely the origin of my obsession with the scientific/political science fiction novel. It has everything—great characters, lots of intrigue, a writing style that keeps you guessing. Reading it as a teen was a big influence, and it’s one of the books where I learned just as much about craft reading it as an adult, too.

I’d also put Iain Banks’ Culture series in this category, too. These blew my mind as a kid. They came out in the late eighties when I was absolutely obsessed with Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I read them around the time I read Cyteen, and it was like taking Trek’s Federation to a new level and exploding it with a literary bomb. They made me think about my own culture. They made me work to bend my mind around new ideas. I haven’t read them in a while, but I’m right now talking myself into giving them a second look.

And, of course, pretty much anything by Octavia Butler is on this list. A third look, a fourth look, a hundredth look. She was brilliant. She was the best of us. I was older—in senior year of high school!—before I even knew Butler and her work existed, which is a crime of my early education I might still be recovering from. It’s tough to admit, but I look back at those early trips to the library and realize just how white and male the shelves were, and how that affected me as a very young writer and a human being. We have to do better—for ourselves, and for our kids.

What is the most unexpected skill or revelation that you’ve gotten from participation in writing workshops? 

This is something to which I’ve given a lot of thought. When I went to Viable Paradise and Clarion, I’d come off a decade of extremely hard work running my own wedding videography business, averaging eighty hours a week. The business failed, as did the two jobs that came after it, and my health and self-esteem was in the gutter. The absolute gutter. I felt wretched. People would tell me “write what you know,” but I couldn’t write, because every single time I tried, I’d look inward and see an ugly failure. I told myself that I wasn’t interesting, that nobody cared about what came out of my head, that nobody would want to read anything I wrote.

The workshops helped to change that, especially Clarion, where I was given the time and space to grapple with it all, both personally and on the page. All I had to do for six weeks was write. I didn’t even have to cook or make my own coffee. And when people that have wildly different experiences than you—workshopmates and instructors—tell you that your work is valid and beautiful, over and over again, and the reasons why are the things that you thought were broken, you start to maybe change the stories you’re telling about yourself. And when that door opens, the rest of it is just practice.

Time and space to figure out what I did best as a writer—that’s what did it. Twenty years of writing and flailing and trying, and I’d never let myself breathe or think of myself as good enough. The workshops changed that. Now everything goes down the gullet when I’m writing—everything I learned so far as a journalist and filmmaker and human being. Some of it’s a little weird, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Do you still have interest in writing any kind of media-tie-in novel? If so, which series/character attracts you most? 

I’d love to write for Star Trek—a Romulan novel, specifically. I love the Romulans—the backstabbing, the passionately stiff upper lip, the cool swords, the political intrigue, the layers upon layers of duplicities… I’d just have a great time.

I’d also like to write Captain Janeway—specifically, how she exists in my head. I was fourteen when Voyager came out, and Janeway was just this massively outsized cultural figure in my world, incredibly important to me and to every teenage lady nerd at the time. I don’t think the creators really knew what to do with her—it felt like they thought she couldn’t be a truly complicated figure, like they fell into the same fallacy a lot of ‘90s media did when writing “strong female characters.” She had to pick love or duty, she was either caring or a bitch but not both, she leaves her salamander children behind on a planet to die

Ahem. I would love to get into her head and figure out what makes her tick, take away all her shuttles, and actually do something with the Maquis storyline. I mean, wasn’t it suspicious that Chakotay put on the uniform that fast…? I think it’s suspicious.

Can you say any more regarding the climate change related novel you are/were working on? And/or other future stories? 

Gosh, I wish I could. That’s the thing about publishing—the sheer amount of time you spend not being able to talk about the things you’re currently doing. I am still writing the climate change novel, and it’s going well. It’s a space opera of sorts, based off a short story that was published a couple years ago at Escape Pod, and it uses a lot of the feelings I’ve been having as the mother of a toddler who will be facing a changed world in forty years. I’ve been extremely emotional writing it, and it’s probably going to show. It needs to show. We’re not getting out of this situation with a stiff upper lip.

And then, after that, I’m going to tackle my Great American Novel! With exclamation points! I’ve had this massive idea percolating in my head for over twenty years, eating up my braincycles, but up until now I haven’t felt quite ready to tackle it. I’m still not “ready,” per se, but living through the pandemic changed me. I never want to write anything I’m not completely thrilled about ever again, and this idea thrills me. I’m really excited. There are aliens. (There are always aliens.)  It might burn some bridges. It might make some people mad. We’ll find out. I can’t wait.

And, I can’t believe that no one has asked you this yet from what I can tell: What are the chances of you writing an Alien Attack Squad episode/story?

Chances are 100% with added fairy dust and nuclear fallout. And it’s going to be weird. When I first put Alien Attack Squad into the book, it was just this funny little throwaway line, and then I started to wonder what aspects of the show that Leonard liked so much, what aspects of the show would have appealed to Natalie and brought both of them together initially, and then I was inventing characters and sketching aliens and doing a lot of worldbuilding. What kind of show would a traumatized, highly structured capitalist society like Aurora Company make? How much was entertainment and how much was propaganda? Were there spangles? What is the role of an entertainment, when you’re weeks away from port? I imagine it’s one third Thundercats or Jem, one third prestige Netflix murder show, and one third The Wellerman. It’s going to be bloody and delightful.