C. L. Polk
C. L. Polk is the author of Witchmark, which has been nominated for the Nebula, Lambda, Locus, and Aurora, and is the winner of the World Fantasy Award. You can read my review of this stunning debut novel here. Its sequel, Stormsong, came out on February 11th.
A huge "thank you" to Polk for taking the time out of her busy schedule to do an interview with me!
Interview with C. L. Polk
DZA: Witchmark and its sequel Stormsong take place in a sort of alternate universe where a land very similar to Victorian England has magic. Why did you decide on this particular aesthetic for your world, rather than the more standard settings like contemporary for urban fantasy or medieval for epic fantasy?
Polk: Honestly? It was the architecture. I am enamored with the aesthetic of city streets from the beginning of the 20th century. I was thinking about New York and Chicago streets - about how these buildings were getting taller, and the attention to the little details. I kept imagining a city with buildings like the Flatiron in New York - that look was what I wanted.
How long did it take you to write Witchmark, and what were the challenges you faced in getting it published?
I don’t really know how to begin counting. I had let the idea for the book percolate for a few months, and then I wrote a ragged, skeletal first draft in about six weeks in the late summer of 2014. I set it aside for a long while before I revised it, and I didn’t start looking for an agent to represent me until 2016. As for challenges, I think I had it pretty easy. I had to send out queries and wait, and that was all I had to do.
Witchmark’s main character, Dr. Miles Singer, made quite a mess at the end of the novel. The sequel Stormsong is going to be about his sister Grace dealing with the fallout. Why did you decide to change your POV character, and what unique challenges can we expect Grace to face?
Well, Miles was in no shape to run around and protag, and I couldn’t see myself skipping to a point where he had recovered sufficiently to run up four flights of stairs and get into bicycle chases. I had to pass the POV torch to someone else - and Grace was the person who made sense. There’s potential for a great deal of political upheaval, and this is what Grace was raised to do--she’s just doing it in the middle of a great disillusionment. She thought her efforts were protecting and enriching the people of Aeland, and now she has to figure out how to put out multiple fires while her worldview has been completely shaken.
I found Grace’s arc to be rather interesting in Witchmark. She starts the story thinking she’s an ally to people like her brother Miles, only to realize that she’s really not. Since throwing magic at the problem isn’t feasible in our world, how do you think we should handle fake allies like Grace in our lives?
It’s a difficult question, really. There is so much psychic shielding and base misinformation that people learn to swaddle themselves with that makes it so difficult to break out of. It’s a horrible thing to wonder, “Am I wrong? Am I not the good person I think I am?” What if you aren’t? Goodness, how wretched it would be if you weren’t. And so pointing out that an action or behavior is racist, or homophobic, or ableist is often taken at an insult that attacks a person’s core moral vision of themselves.
It’s genuinely frightening to consider, and so a lot of people will retreat back into that cocoon of ignorance and good intentions and flee the feelings (and the people) who upset them. It’s safe in there. It’s a hard prison to escape. I get it. But when it comes to dealing with people who are still centered on a fragile morality, I think that while everyone deserves your compassion, not everyone deserves your energy.
I’m more concerned with the people who are actually oppressed than I am the people who are simply scared of what they’ll see in the mirror. Would I like them to change? Yes. But I have to conserve my efforts. So I will spare what I have left over for the people who are fighting, and learning, and facing the mirror. Most of that is writing stories that I hope lead people to think about their own lives and their own struggles to put hope and justice into the world.
In Witchmark, you primarily go after two major themes: classism and mental health. In addition to The Kingston Cycle, you also have The Midnight Bargain coming out in Fall 2020, a fantasy novel that deals with reproductive rights, another major issue. Obviously these are very pressing and polarizing matters in the real world today. How do you use fantasy to contextualize these issues, and what are you hoping to communicate in these stories?
Really, I’m just angry about these issues. I cannot believe we still have to battle every day for the most basic right to control your own body just because it happens to have a uterus. But in 2019 I was thinking about some of the unspoken implications of a magic system where the ability is inborn and hereditary. I barely brushed on it in Witchmark, but I started seriously thinking about what happens to people who are equipped to carry children through a pregnancy in a world where magical ability is inherited from the parents - and it made the top of my head hot. How much autonomy, how much agency would child-bearing people have in that kind of world?
But I can’t just talk about that. I need a story. And so I took one of my favorite tropes, the springtime social season of London from regency and historical romance, and used that as the structural ticking clock that pushes Beatrice in her dilemma between choosing to scandalize society by becoming a magician, or denying her most heartfelt desire for magic by marrying the man she loves.
Both Witchmark and Stormsong feature LGBTQ+ characters and same-sex relationships as their romantic subplots. What do you say to critics who argue that incorporating same-sex romance limits your audience, and/or alienates the conservative half of your readership?
That criticism assumes a lot. In truth, I don’t have a conservative readership. They don’t want to read what I’m doing, so why exactly should I give a moment’s thought to people who aren’t going to like my stories anyway? And why should I shelve the things that I care about and want to express in my writing to pander to people who don’t like me regardless?
People who don’t want to read queer feminist SFF are not on my list of people who need my labor. I like my limited audience. My energy is for them. And some of them might like one book I write, but not another, and that is fine. I know some people aren’t going to be as jazzed about The Midnight Bargain because the romance is cishet. That’s okay. Catch the next one if you feel like it; I’ll have more soon.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in writing a sequel, and are you planning on writing any more books in The Kingston Cycle?
Writing Stormsong was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done (please remember that I don’t have kids and I never went to grad school, so those might be harder, I don’t know.) When I was writing my fanfics and Witchmark, I was just me: some woman with a copy of Scrivener and a complex, all-consuming vision in her head. There wasn’t anyone checking for me. I was nobody. I had perfect freedom.
And then suddenly, there I am, trying to write a book to follow the surprising reaction people had to Witchmark, and suddenly I’m thinking about audience. About critics. About how I was writing a character some people loathed from Witchmark as the protagonist of Stormsong, and how that was going to be a hard sell. Those thoughts took up room in my head that I really needed for storytelling, distracted me from the art to yell about the commerce, and I had to do it all on a deadline.
I cried a lot. I went to therapy and cried. I went to my writer’s group and cried. I managed to write the book, though. And I don’t think any other book is going to be such a perfect storm of stress and anxiety. I got through the ordeal, and no other book is going to be a stress-fest like that again. but I wrote The Midnight Bargain because I really wanted to return to that feeling of just being a writer with an idea that was without any expectations or pressure or deadlines. It rejuvenated me. I will probably sneak around on my obligations with a secret book idea again.
As for Kingston, there is one more book. I passed the POV torch again, and Robin Thorpe is the protagonist who wraps up the series in Soulstar.
In addition to Witchmark, you also have a blog to help other writers with their projects. Can you tell us how that got started?
Oh, I should really update that! I started writing blog posts on writing craft because I’m a craft nerd. I like to talk about the craft of writing just as much as I like writing, and sometimes when I get going, I wind up with a gigantic essay and I take the answer and put it on my blog. I haven’t done it in a while, though.
You live in Canada. As someone who lives in Minnesota, I must ask: why?
I live in an area of Canada that doesn’t get the kind of winter Minnesota gets. I don’t know if they call it an Alberta Clipper down there like they do in Manitoba, but that bone-chilling, nostril-freezing cold wind from the west? It starts as a warm wind here. Yeah. Sorry.
And the geese? Yeah. Sorry about those too.
You can find C. L. Polk on her website, and on Twitter.
Headshot credited to Diane and Mike Photography.
Witchmark (The Kingston Cycle Book 1) by C. L. Polk
(Spoiler-Free) Book Review
TW for Witchmark: violence, murder, mentions of suicide and drug/alcohol abuse
All right, I'll admit it: I judged the book by its cover.
In my defense, the info on the back cover of my copy is very different from what I just copied and pasted from Amazon. It led me to believe that this would be a charming British tale with whimsy and a cute heteronormative romance. A nice break from Black Leopard Red Wolf, and ultimately forgettable.
This book is officially on my Favorites page. We have a murder mystery, gay fae romance, in-depth themes of classism and mental health, and an adorable cinnamon roll of a protagonist who is also a badass. Five stars. Love it. Pre-ordered the sequel as soon as I could.
The world is basically Victorian England ("Aeland") with magic. The only acceptable form of mage are the Storm-Singers, hiding in plain sight and exclusively upper class. They control the weather. Everyone else, that is, anyone whose magical ability is not in league with X-Men's Storm...well, if you're upper class, you get to be a Secondary, paired with a Storm-Singer as their personal battery pack. Any mage who isn't upper class is called a witch and sent off to an asylum because "witches" go crazy, but "mages" are totally fine.
(There's literally no difference. Except the difference in paycheck. I wasn't kidding when I said this book tackles classism like whoa.)
Unlike other books that pull this type of worldbuilding stunt, the copy-and-paste history is very limited. Our setting is the very British-like city of Kingston (London), in Aeland. There's a queen who bears a strong resemblance to Queen Victoria. Aeland is a new imperial power, just about to colonize Laneer. And...that's about it. There are strong elements of British history, but it's not cut straight from a textbook, especially since most of the focus is on magic and its impact on the country.
We're told the story through the first person POV of our protagonist, Dr. Miles Singer, who was born a mage into an upper class family. But, since his magical ability is healing rather than Storm-Singing, he is condemned to be a Secondary, basically slavery with golden chains. So, he ran away. We meet him after he's been "dead" for about a decade and acting as a psychiatrist in a veterans' hospital, trying to find out why so many vets suddenly snap and murder their whole families, then themselves. And since this is pseudo-Victorian England, he's not getting a whole lot of help.
Miles is a self-sacrificing, overly-polite gentleman whose biggest fear is being bound as a Secondary, a possibility that becomes more and more likely when he suddenly runs into his sister Grace, who is a Storm-Singer. Grace is an interesting character, because while she wants to help Miles and all the other Secondaries, she still wants Miles bound to her. She thinks the only way to help them is her way, that is having Miles bound to her but with a loose chain so he can continue being a doctor and living his own life.
Basically, Grace is toxic. But because she has good intentions and genuinely cares about Miles, nobody thinks she's toxic. She's just looking after her brother. What's wrong with that?
(Many things. There are many things wrong with it.)
There are several other characters--Miles's asshole father, the love interest Tristan, the patients and medical staff at the hospital--and they all feel real and distinct. The book itself is relatively short (300 pages) and very fast-paced. I finished the whole thing in about four days, and that was only because I had to work.
Overall, this is an excellent read, and I really hope the sequel lives up to it.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
(mostly) Spoiler-free Review
Where to start.
You know when you read a book that you don't particularly like, but it's still a really good book that needs to be talked about and read? That's the category I would put Black Leopard, Red Wolf.
This story has been called "the African Game of Thrones," and since I love GoT (before HBO ruined the last season, anyway), I picked it up. What followed was a harsh yet engrossing read, and I think what's got me so put-off about this story is that it doesn't have a happy ending. Matter of fact, it gives our lead character--Tracker--a happy ending, and then takes it away so he can spend the last two chapters on a vengeance quest. Because Marlon James is a very talented asshole.
Since we're told at the very beginning that the boy he's searching for is dead, and that Tracker is in a prison cell (he's the narrator, telling the story to a priest), we know that something bad happens. I was expecting him to fail his quest and then get betrayed, but as Bruce Banner so wisely said, "No, this is much worse."
Sue me: I want my happy ending. Doesn't matter how dark the beginning or middle of a story is, there should at least be a bittersweet tone in the end. And believe me, the middle of the story is very dark. We're talking torture and gang rape of the main character, frequent cannibalism by a variety of terrifying monsters, and the death of children. There are about eighty trigger warnings that should be put on this thing.
The worldbuilding is absolutely incredible. Each city and landscape has its own distinct culture and dangers. I am sorely lacking in education when it comes to the hundreds of cultures, mythologies, and histories of Africa, so I don't know how much of it is pulled from real life, how much is mythology, and how much is just James messing around, but it works, and all fantasy authors should take note.
The characterization is on point. Tracker is our main character and narrator, so everything we see is seen through his eyes (first person POV), and that man is a hot gay mess. Matter of fact, all of the major characters are hot gay messes. The Leopard, Tracker, Tracker's first boyfriend, Tracker's second boyfriend, they've each got a bouquet of issues. Mossi is the only one with any sense of emotional stability, and he doesn't show up until halfway through the story.
The pacing is slow. Though it's an intense read from beginning to end, Tracker doesn't even hear about the boy he's supposed to find until over a hundred pages in. This works, because there's a lot of information that needs to be given and processed concerning the world and Tracker himself. There are also frequent time skips and flashbacks, which can get confusing, but it also presents the story in a way to maximize the tension.
One of the most unique aspects of the story is the prose. If you've ever read Nnedi Okorafor (Who Fears Death), it's similar to that, except with a lot more swearing. It's difficult to understand at some points, especially to a pasty-White reader like myself. But once you get the hang of it, it makes the story flow like melted butter.
So, yeah. African-based grimdark novel with excellent characterization and worldbuilding, with a ton of gay and a sharp, memorable story. It'd be one of my favorite books if James would just let Tracker have his happy ending, for fuck's sake.
I ask for so little, James. Christ.
New Dragons, Zombies & Aliens Podcast
The Hero's Journey
This month's podcast is all about story structure. Specifically, the Hero's Journey.
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!