The alternative title for this book is How the Spanish Inquisition Ruins Everything. I'm horribly undereducated about Muslim Spain, knowing only that it existed and practiced near unheard-of religious tolerance at the time before Isabelle and Ferdinad showed up. I'm pretty sure they didn't have magic mapmakers, but don't quote me on that.
Fatima is the sultan's concubine, and while she has every luxury imaginable at the start of the novel, she's still a slave. So trigger warnings for that, and an attempted rape later in the novel. She best friends with Hassan, the magic mapmaker who's also gay. They love and adore each other like siblings, so when the Inquisition comes knocking and decides Hassan needs to be tortured to death, Fatima doesn't hesitate to get him out of dodge at the risk of her own life. They then spend the rest of the novel being absolutely terrified, chased across the peninsula and seas by the Inquisitors, talking to jinns with ambiguous morals, and overall being in a hot mess.
Fatima herself is a complicated character. Yes, she loves Hassan and continuously pulls him out of danger at the risk of her own life. But she's also selfish, craving freedom and control over everything else. Not that anyone can blame her, seeing as she's spent the majority of her life as a sex slave. On top of that, her relationship with Hassan is somewhat toxic, especially as the novel progresses and they get more codependent. His friendship is the only thing she's been able to choose for herself, so when he starts flirting with other characters she gets jealous and possessive. Part of her arc is learning to let him be his own person separate from her.
She's also quite a badass. Sure, she has no combat training and zero idea what she's doing. That doesn't stop her from stabbing at various bad guys and jumping off of cliffs. She basically spends the entire story throwing herself into crazy, dangerous situations and hoping for the best, and she survives either because of the magical intervention of her jinn allies, luck, or her own stubbornness.
The magic system is extremely soft, in that there are no clear rules. Narratively it makes sense. Fatima is one of the few major characters with no magic, so it gives the story a very ethereal feel as she navigates both the regular world and magical world, neither of which she understands.
The soft magic system and somewhat cheesy, open ending both combine to keep this book off of my Favorites list. But that's pure personal preference. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes historical fantasy, power of friendship, and women of color being awesome.
Blogging is tough.
Well, that's not entirely true. Successful blogging is tough. You need to come up with, write, and edit at least one blog post a week. You have to promote on social media. Put together and send out a newsletter. Keep the rest of your website updated. Connect with guest bloggers, or other blogs where you can be the guest blogger. And this is in addition to the rest of your life: family, friends, hobbies, a "real" job (or two), maybe even school.
So how do bloggers stay on top of it all? The key is organization.
And I can hear my entire family laughing even as I write this. At first glance, I am one of the least organized people out there. But as I keep telling them, I'm just messy, not unorganized. All my crap gets everywhere, I never do chores, and I have a bad habit of procrastination.
But I love making calendars and schedules, and I've found ways to cheat my procrastination. This is mostly done by creating little deadlines. For example, I usually make one YouTube video/podcast episode a month. I break that entire process down: one week for making the script, one week for recording it, two weeks for editing. I tell myself "I have to have this part done by Saturday the 9th," which means it gets done on Saturday. But hey, it works, because I'm not rushing the entire process at the last minute.
Now, organization is a little different for everybody, and it can evolve over time. I wrote a post back in June 2019 about staying organized for bloggers, and I'm amazed at the differences that've appeared in myself since then. What works for me now may not work for you; everyone needs to experiment to see what works best for them. So I'm going to list some of the most useful ways I've found to stay organized for you to try. And let me know what ways you've found to stay organized in the comments so I can give them a shot!
#1: Bullet Journal
I would be totally lost without my bullet journal. For those of you who don't know, a bullet journal (or bujo) is basically a calendar/to-do list/planner/diary hybrid that you create yourself. Some people turn them into sketchbooks with monthly spreads. Others are bare-bones lists and dates.
I do the whole monthly/weekly/daily spreads to keep all areas of my life pinned down. But there are some spread specific to writers and bloggers that I have found particularly helpful.
My "Books of 2020" spread is a list of all the books I've read this year so far. Not just the ones I've reviewed, but all of them. This is useful for when I do lists (favorite/least favorite books), and when I do a "year in review" style post in December about the best books of 2020.
I have a page of general Writing Deadlines, where I write the due dates for Diary of the Green Snake and my BitchShelf articles. I also keep my yearly writing goals, like getting an agent for my scifi novel Citadel and getting beta reader feedback for my fantasy manuscript.
A page that is quickly running out of room is my Idea Page, specific to blog and YouTube ideas. I saw a vlogger use post-it notes, so that whenever she ditched or did an idea on her page, she just had to remove the post-it note, and that would give her room to replace it with a new idea. But I'm always afraid of the post-it notes falling, so I just write it down traditionally and cross it off when I do it, trying to find little bits of space to cram more in the corner. There's also a section within this page for TV shows and movies I want to watch and review, which should probably be a spread all on its own.
And of course, there's my blog schedule. I tend to plan all of my blog posts out at least a month in advance, which saves me a lot of time and headache. As you can see in the picture above (which was taken in mid-April), I have columns for each month and the post date, with plenty of room to write. If I have to reschedule something, I black it out with marker and use a white gel pen to fix it. (Using a pencil and eraser poses the very real risk of creating a hole in the page, which is why I prefer the pen.)
#2: Story Journals
I am a journal hoarder. Every journal I have has a specific purpose. There's the obvious "dump journal," the ones full of random story ideas and shoved on my bookshelf for when I need inspiration.
But specific to organization, there's an even crazier method. Every book/series I'm working on has its own journal that includes character sheets, overly-detailed histories of the world, and notes on plot and narrative arcs. Diary of the Green Snake has one. Earth's Final Chapter has one. Citadel--my sci-fi work in progress--has a whole binder.
Wasteful? Probably. I've started digitizing this. (Thank you, Scrivener.) But few things beat old fashioned paper and pen.
Point being, everything that I need to know about any project--the religious practices of Citadel, historical notes of the Old West for Green Snake, character sheets for Earth's Final Chapter--are all in their own notebook. Other authors call this "the book bible" or "series bible," a single place for all the necessary notes of a story. I'm not flipping through a dozen dump journals trying to find a minor character's backstory or re-researching something I already looked up. I'm not skimming hundreds of pages of random story ideas to find the one note I need to confirm before I resume writing an important scene. Each story/series has its own book.
For the Citadel binder, I went further and added dividers for characters and cultures. It makes locating key facts much easier.
I don't know about you guys, but unless I have someone or something holding me accountable, the thing I want to do almost never gets done.
Accountability has many different forms. For most writers, it's a terrifying creature known as the editor. Editors give hard deadlines, and if writers don't meet them, it's a shit storm.
Bloggers, on the other hand, don't usually have editors. Most of us are solo. There is no one person, no authority figure, holding us accountable if we post a day late, or even skip the whole week.
Except your readers.
Once your readers get used to a certain pattern from you (in my case, a blog post every Sunday and podcast every month), they will wonder if you don't stick to it. One of the biggest "secrets" to a successful blog is consistency. If you're not consistent, you will lose readers.
This way, if I fail to post on time, my readers--especially the ones who financially support me on Patreon--will know. And that's an excellent kick in the pants.
What are some ways you stay organized? Let me know in the comments so I can give it a shot!
This Mothers' Day, here's something that has absolutely nothing to do with mothers!
Ice Massacre, Ice Crypt, and Ice Kingdom by Tiana Warner
A long, long time ago, I reviewed the first book of this amazing trilogy, Ice Massacre. I even interviewed the author, Tiana Warner.
Then I got distracted by other shiny books for three years until quarantine forced me to face my ever-growing reading pile. Now I'm reviewing the entire trilogy at once.
Mermaids of Eriana Kwai is a "What if flesh-eating mermaids existed in the modern day" story, complete with a forbidden romance, violent war, and a taste of political intrigue. Mermaids exist peacefully all over the world, but for some reason they're targeting this one island--Eriana Kwai--in a ruthless war of extermination. They're overfishing the waters so the humans starve, destroying any and all boats that leave shore, even going onto the beach to kill people who stray too close to the water. In response, the people of Eriana Kwai do the yearly Massacres, where twenty men go out on a war ship to kill as many mermaids as possible. This hasn't had much luck, given that mermaids have a siren-like ability called the lure that hypnotizes men. So, at the start of book one, the island gets over its sexism, wises up, and sends out women.
This is a problem for a variety of reasons, the largest being that Meela--the main character--has a mermaid friend named Lysi who eventually becomes her girlfriend.
As it turns out, the mermaids are being ordered to Eriana Kwai by their tyrant king, Adaro. Lysi and several rebel groups don't want any part in this war and are trying to overthrow Adaro. So after the first book, which is focused on Meela trying to survive the Massacre, she and Lysi try to kill Adaro through a variety of assassination attempts, including unearthing a horrifying living weapon of mass destruction: the Host of Eriana Kwai.
The trilogy is mostly first person POV, but it gets complicated after Ice Massacre. In the first book, it's exclusively Meela's point of view. In Ice Crypt and Ice Kingdom, the POV flips from Meela to Lysi. Then we get a third person POV, an American soldier named Ben, in Ice Kingdom to get the broader, global perspective of the mermaids' actions. It gets a little confusing at times, and I wish Warner--and every other writer who had multiple POV characters--would just stick with third person POV so we know whose head we're in.
Because the POV is also limited to these characters, we miss some of the action in the final book, Ice Kingdom. There are several political factions working to get rid of Adaro and bring peace to the oceans for their own reasons. While Meela and Lysi are doing their mission, these factions are doing their own thing, but we don't actually see it. Which is a small problem, because it's vital to the plot. I'd have liked to see all these interesting, intense scenes myself rather than hearing about it second-hand. But while those scenes are important to the plot, they're not important to the story, so I can see why Warner elected to cut them out.
The emotional center of the story is, of course, Lysi and Meela's relationship, as well as Meela's character development. Lysi doesn't change much over the course of the trilogy, but Meela does. She has to reconcile her people's hatred of and hurt from mermaids with not only her personal feelings for Lysi, but also the fact that mermaids are people, too. Then, when Adaro starts acting more dickish than usual, she struggles between her desire for revenge and what's best for the world, both human and mermaid.
While I have my complaints about this trilogy, I will never complain about Warner's characters or her writing. These books are intense, and as Warner is very liberal with the character deaths, you're very quickly worried about the fate of major characters. She also throws in some excellent plot twists in Ice Crypt and Ice Kingdom, so I'm always kept on my toes.
This is technically a YA novel, but it can be read by anyone ready to see blood, gore, and tyranny overthrown by more than a band of plucky eighteen-year-olds. And it's landing solidly on my Favorite page.
May 4th is the third anniversary of the Dragons, Zombies & Aliens blog. I have been truly privileged to be able to share my passion with the world, and I want to thank everyone who's been with me on this journey with free ebooks!
Through May 30th, everyone who enters the giveaway will have the chance to win four of my digital stories:
The Minnesotan Witch: a novella
"Tower of Dragons"
Diary of the Green Snake: "Tithes and Offerings"
How to Enter
To enter, all you have to do is sign up for the weekly Dragons, Zombies & Aliens newsletter. That's it! If you're already subscribed to my newsletter, then you're already entered to win!
Ten winners will be randomly selected from my newsletter list, and they will be contacted and announced on May 31st, the day after the giveaway closes. So make sure the email you enter is one you check.
C.T. Phipps is a lifelong student of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. An avid tabletop gamer, he discovered this passion led him to write and turned him into a lifelong geek. He is a regular reviewer at The United Federation of Charles and the author of Agent G, Cthulhu Armageddon, The Red Room series, Lucifer’s Star, Straight Outta Fangton, and The Supervillainy Saga.
DZA: You’ve dabbled in almost every speculative fiction genre: horror, urban fantasy, post-apocalyptic, cyberpunk, superhero, etc. Is there any genre that’s your favorite?
C. T. Phipps: I love coloring outside the lines and it's been one of the keys to my success, I think. If you throw enough darts at the wall then you're bound to hit the bullseye eventually. You're also likely to develop a fanbase who is willing to follow you round from multiple fandoms.
If I had to say what my favorite genre is, though, I'd probably say humor. No matter which universe I play in, I tend to have a lot of fun making fun of their conventions as well as history. I may not be the Mel Brooks or Terry Pratchett of genre fiction but I do consistently tell a funny yarn. Yes, even my horror novels are funny (See Straight Outta Fangton, Cthulhu Armageddon). I once referred to Cthulhu Armageddon as my “serious” novel and David Niall Wilson (my publisher) said, “It’s one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read.”
What have been some of the greatest inspirations for your work, and why?
I have to say the biggest influence to my writing is Joss Whedon, but also Terry Pratchett, Stephen King (his On Writing is something every aspiring writer should check out), George Lucas, H.P. Lovecraft, and plenty of comic book creators. Really, my influences are expansive and myriad like all writers.
I think the best influences on my writing are closer to home, though. The first was Jim Bernheimer, indie author of Confessions of a D-List Supervillain, who advocated that I try to write the kind of books I wanted to read versus what I felt would succeed. The second was David Niall Wilson; he introduced me to a lot of tricks that raised the quality of my books considerably. He also showed me how to reach a much larger audience. I credit him with helping turn me from someone dabbling in writing to a writer.
Much of your work is indie-published, and all of them digital and audio. Why did you choose to go this route instead of traditional publishing?
The market is not what it was twenty years ago and the entire way we interact with books has changed. Amazon and other online booksellers mean that the "shelf life" for books no longer has a set limit as long as you're able to keep it in the public consciousness. Books that went out of print decades ago can stay "in print" on Kindle and in warehouses forever. This has been a big boon to independents, self-published authors, and small presses. Audiobooks have also gone from a joke about "something blind people read" to the preferred method of reading for large chunks of the reading audience.
Given the difficulties of making a living as a writer at the best of times, seriously don't quit your day job. Even awesome heroes of mine like Tracy Hickman have struggled to make ends meet. Still, independent publishing is a big chance to take control of your literary financial destiny. I especially got good results working with Crossroad Press. I feel audiobooks, especially, reach an entirely different audience from traditional publishing.
A lot of your books are collaborative, working with one or more authors on the same story. What are some of the challenges and benefits of working with another author, and how did you choose who to work with?
My experience with co-authors has been mostly positive, but the two I primarily work with--Michael Suttkus and Frank Martin--are both seasoned professionals who have done a great job balancing the workload with me. The trick is to be very clear about what you're going to do and carefully planning each chapter ahead of time. Usually, I alternate with them on the writing while also brainstorming the concepts. If you’re not clear about matters then you can easily run into differences in style, characterization, plot, and ideas.
One of the biggest issues I’ve also run into is that it can be very easy to prioritize your own work over collaborations, and that’s unfair to everyone involved. Don’t do that if you decide to collaborate on a book.
Let’s talk about your Supervillainy Saga. Most writers, when working in a superhero world, obviously choose a hero or anti-hero as their protagonist. But your main character decides to be a supervillain. How did that happen?
I felt like I was competing against the past hundred years or so of superhero storytelling. Despite doing this in novel form, I was still competing against the well-trodden storytelling history of comic book history. Instead, I looked for a new angle to explore the superhero-supervillain dichotomy, and it occurred to me that the origin of a supervillain might be an interesting one. I also liked the idea that Gary had a very romantic and idealized idea of what being an superpowered outlaw was in his world--an idea I gradually peeled back. Also, I think having a character gain great powers and deciding to abuse them for his own gain is something that automatically puts the audience in a somewhat sillier mood, which is great for a comedy like the Supervillainy Saga is.
I’ve also discovered that I prefer writing antiheroes to straight up good guy characters. Agent G, Cthulhu Armageddon, Lucifer’s Star, and Wraith Knight all star protagonists who lean on the gray side of morality at best. I think it’s a great idea to use characters with extreme emotions and backstories to press the limit of what the audience is comfortable with. I think a lot of us are perfectly willing to go along with heroes who are not lily white and may even do the wrong thing when push comes to shove.
You’ve done some editing, too, including the Blackest Spells anthology. What are some of the challenges of editing versus writing? Which do you enjoy more?
Editing is my personal bugbear when writing as it's the least creative part of the creative process. However, every author needs to be able to do their own editing if they want to succeed in this business. As much as I advise every author to get a second, third, and fourth pair of eyes for their work--it is something that is fundamentally necessary. But editing anthologies is a different sort of beast. Maybe even fun. I love gathering together people's stories and choosing which ones to publish in things like the Blackest Knights and Blackest Spells books.
Of all of your books, which has been the most fun to write?
That's a very tough call, as all of my books are fun to write in different ways. If I had to choose I'd have to say The Rules of Supervillainy, I was a Teenage Weredeer, and my upcoming Psycho Killers in Love were my three favorites.
The Rules of Supervillainy because it's a zany deconstruction of superhero tropes ranging from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the so-called Dark Age of Comics. I was a Teenage Weredeer because it's a work that lets me talk about rural America, coming of age drama, and being a misfit in a small community that hits close to home. Psycho Killers in Love just because I'm a huge fan of 80s slashers and I enjoyed deconstructing horror tropes as much as I did superheroes.
What can we expect in the future from you?
As stated, I have an upcoming book called Psycho Killers in Love which is a loving homage to 80s slashers and horror movies in general. It's the story of the son of an immortal murderer who feels the same compulsion to kill, except he's decided to use it on other slashers because why not. He runs into a lovely Final Girl survivor of another killer's murder spree, now out for revenge. Such a fun pairing.
I'll also be releasing The Horror of Supervillainy, which is the last of my "crossover" books for The Supervillainy Saga. Gary Karkofsky has decided to become a superhero and he's terrible at it. However, he gets the chance to prove himself by investigating the kidnapping of a prominent politician's daughter that takes him into a region full of cults, summer camps, mad swamp monsters, and more. It's an homage to 70s horror comics, meaning I'm in a bit of a mood.
Finally, there's A Nightmare on Elk Street that is the third and final Bright Falls Mystery book. Jane Doe the Weredeer is invited to provide security on a movie set when the Boogeyman starts menacing her dreams. Is it just a lone monster or is she the center of a plot to take out Bright Falls, Michigan's only protection?
A huge thank you to C. T. Phipps for taking the time to come to my blog! You can find him on his website here.
The damsel in distress is not a bad trope. It's just written badly. This month's podcast is how to do it right.
This is what happens when I watch too much Disney: I watch Cinderella (again) and wonder, "What if the Fairy Godmother said 'Fuck it' and just murdered the entire evil stepfamily?"
This is the result of that psychotic brain child. Cinderella has been officially welcomed into my ongoing collection of short stories: Twisted Tales. Enjoy!
"The Black Slipper" by Christina "DZA" Marie
Editor's Note: This story is longer than our usual fare, contains mild violence, and addresses some adult themes. It's worth every juicy minute for readers 11+.
The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders
The City in the Middle of the Night is a book that needs to be digested after reading it. It covers a lot of ground with a lot of different themes, bad guys and good guys swap roles so often it's like they're playing hop-scotch, and it pulls directly from real-world issues and re-examines them through a science fiction lens.
What I'm trying to say is, it's awesome.
First, a crash course on astronomy. Not all planets rotate. Earth rotates, allowing almost every part of our planet to be warmed by the sun and then cool off. This allows us to survive, not being burned alive or frozen to death. But when a planet is tidally locked, only one side of the planet ever faces the sun. That side of the planet is literally on fire, as the surface temperature is hot enough to cook anything less sturdy than a rock. The side of the planet facing away from the sun, meanwhile, is a total frozen wasteland. The only way human life could survive is by staying in that thin habitable layer between the two extremes, and that's where the people of January make their homes.
The story is told through two different perspectives: Sophie and Mouth. Sophie's chapters are all first person POV while Mouth's are third person POV, and I have no idea why Anders did it this way. (Honestly, it's my only real complaint. Just use third person POV for both so we don't get confused and move on.) Sophie's a student who is executed for stealing a few dollars, the police tossing her out into the night. Luckily, she runs into a "crocodile"--a creature of the night a lot more intelligent than people assume--who saves her and takes her back. Sophie is traumatized by her execution and spends the book trying to heal and move past it. Problem is she can't, because she keeps getting dragged into social uprisings and revolutions. (Damn politics.)
Mouth is a smuggler, and the last survivor of a race of nomadic people called the Citizens. When she's not moving questionable goods and people between the cities in the habitable zone, she's working through a whole cocktail of issues centered around the ghosts of her past. One of the other characters accuses her of valuing the ghosts of the dead more than people who are alive, and that sums her up pretty well.
The emotional core of the story is the relationship between Sophie, Mouth, Bianca, and Alyssa. Sophie has a huge crush on Bianca, who is a radical revolutionary roping Mouth and Alyssa into her schemes, while Mouth is trying to use Bianca to get a lost artifact from the Citizens even though she knows it'll get Bianca killed, and Alyssa just wants to retire but she's Mouth's best friend and also really believes that Bianca can make positive change, and it's all a big, beautiful mess.
Despite the fact that it opens with Sophie's execution, the story itself is relatively slow. Act One is spent in Xiosphant, Bianca and Sophie's home city. Tidally locked planets don't have sunrise, noon, sunset, midnight, etc. So Xiosphant created their own time system and makes everyone stick to it religiously. It's so strongly enforced that even uttering the phrase, "Sleep when you're tired, play when you want" is enough to get you executed. Through various shenanigans, all four characters get kicked out and go to the city of Argelo, which is the exact opposite. There is no time measuring, and there is no authoritarian government, so the entire city is run by crime families.
While the characters are running around from various authorities, building and re-building their lives as fugitives, Anders also has them deal with really harsh themes of grief, trauma, extremism, authoritarianism, poverty, hope, environmentalism, and our responsibility to other people. It's not a happy story, but it's not a tragedy, either. It's a bittersweet tale with the moral of the story being, Horrible things happen, and they will continue to happen unless you break the cycle.
Welcome to the Favorites List, City in the Middle of the Night!
The Star Wars franchise evokes a lot of emotions from its fan base, so making an episode about it is tricky. This is my (probably unsuccessful) attempt at an unbiased approach.
The winners from the F*ck COVID Giveaway are:
Kelly Danielle Houk
Congratulations, guys! If you haven't yet been contacted by me regarding the details of shipping you your goodies, contact me right away!
The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!