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Interview with Blake Charlton

Blake Charlton’s Spellbreaker came out last month, but the life of a doctor-and-writer is a busy one, so we just caught up with each other now! Here’s a Q&A with Blake.

1) Most classic fantasy is centered on an external conflict. Many of the best authors add an internal conflict. For triple backflip, you’ve added autoimmune to the other two layers of conflict in Spellbreaker. Is there any farther down the rabbit hole you can go? Can you talk about some of the difficulties of dramatizing conflict that isn’t just character vs. themself but character vs. their own body?

It’s intensely gratifying when a reader picks up on a personally important theme as you just did. So thank you kindly for this question.

Although the charters of Spellbreaker wouldn’t recognize the term ‘autoimmunity,’ they would recognize the disease that the protagonist, Leandra, contends with as one of the parts of her heritage at war with each other. They would also recognize the themes of self-hatred and self-attack as important to their lives and the story unfolding around them. Casual perusal of the internet suggests one of the more popular scenes in the book is Francesca’s emphatic, hopefully humorous declamation on why there is no hatred worse than self-hatred–which you can read here <>.

My interest in these themes comes from my own struggle with my disability. I was often frustrated by my limitations, would often disparage the part of me that made me different. When I was younger, this lead to flares of hating and attacking myself or hating and attacking ‘normal’ people and the insensitive society they created. Escaping these flares was central to my struggle to become an adult. Anecdotally, I have noticed other friends and patients with disability get caught within or escape such flares. So you see, the conflict between a person and their own body or brain and the resultant secondary conflict with a society built by convenience around the fiction of ‘normalcy’ has been dramatized throughout my life.

For those interested in such things, the different characters in this series explore different aspects of this theme. In the first two books, Nicodemus was struggling with his doubt and self-hatred. The danger he faces is that of becoming the bitter and angry disabled person, who lashed out at the world. His nemesis in those books, James Berr, represents a shadowy reflection of who Nicodemus has the potential to become. Francesca, on the other hand, is a character who in the second and third books contends with regret. She has had to make difficult decisions–many of them the right ones, some of them wrong. She is haunted by her past, though she is not completely aware of her past. In the third book, her relationship with her daughter, Leandra, is fraught with regret; mother and daughter find themselves in cyclic flares of blaming themselves and then blaming each other. Trying to find a way out of that cycle, if there is one, is the central issue of their development in the book. Finally, Leandra has the most immediate and visceral relationship with the theme since she has a chronic disease that induces periodic, unpredictable, and agonizing flares. She has grown up with the sense that her own body has betrayed her, expecting that she will die young. There is a strong anti-heroic streak in Leandra, and the capriciousness and injustice of the world weighs heavily on her, makes her ruthless. Her overarching passion is to effect justice in a chaotic and prejudiced world. It gets her into trouble. Big trouble.
2) Many doctors get accused of having a God complex. You have several. Were there any divine complexes that got left out in the editing stages? Any fun combos of gods you’d have loved to include?

Wow. This question is amazing. I should get my answers out of the way of your questions. Yes, several god complexes. No, no developed complex was left on the cutting room floor. But I did toy with the idea of showing the creation of a new divinity complex. Perhaps, I thought, it would be fun to show the southern war gods–who show up as reinforcements toward the end of the book–on ‘shore leave’ as it were in Chandralu. Deities from different cultures intermingling.  I had some vague idea of dramatizing a kinda paper-rock-scissors love-triangle between deities of incompatible elements and ideologies: Something like an angel of light falls for, but would erase, a goddess of shadow who’s obsessed with, but useless to, a demon of prisms, glass, and illusion, who would of course perforce be enamored with the angel of light. But that was going to be too involved, and the book was already too long. So I put it in my back pocket, where it will likely stay.
3) Lupus, teratomas, and instant cancer curses: there’s a lot of medicine in this book compared to most fantasy. How much does your own practice inspire your work? How hard is it to keep the lines in the right places?

Medicine is the lens though which I see the world. As a physician in training, I don’t think I can escape it. When riding the muni around San Francisco, I can’t help but try to diagnose fellow passengers. When listening to the news, my mind jumps automatically to the implications on global or national health. And when I think about adventure, fantasy, magic that same lens stays with me. It may seem like a stretch to some. It certainly isn’t similar to the typical fantasy lens, which focuses on chainmail and horses and catapults and Feudal politics. I don’t know anything about chainmail. But maybe that’s okay. I think much of the innate human conception of health and sickness is connected to the spiritual and the magical. I would guess that many, if not most, of human prayers and rituals center around health and healing. So if magic were real and tied to manifestations of divinity, then maybe it isn’t so far a stretch to say that the world that created would be as much or more obsessed with medicine as with chainmail. I have wonderful beta-readers and editors who are good at slapping my hand when my medical speculations or technical language gets too far afield.

4) The islands involved in this book mean that sailing, kayaking, and other water transport take a major role in thisbook. What’s your favorite form of water transport, and do you get to take part in it, or is this all theory for you? What’s your personal favorite? (I have an ongoing love affair with Lake Superior and a recent fling with the Kemijoki in northern Finland, so I probably get more emotionally involved with water than most.)

Maybe it’s a little silly but each of the books in the Spellwright series are associated with an element, a phase of life, and a direction. Spellwright is a book rooted in the earth. It’s about digging down into one’s past, discovering all the things about one’s family and what lies underneath. The ghostly chthonic people are the best example of this. My hope was to convey a sense of mystery and exploration, something like discovering a magical cave. Its physical inspiration was all the pseudo-gothic buildings and libraries of Yale University, where I was a student when I first conceived of the idea for the series.

Spellbound is a book that’s oriented upwards, into the sky and air. The theme is romance and fluidity. This was, hopefully, manifested in all the airships and the mercurial evolution of Francesca’s understanding of herself and her feelings toward Nicodemus. It was a book that was supposed to capture a feeling of weightlessness, flight, possibility. Its physical inspiration were the windy mountains of savannahs of my native California with a splash of the majestic ridges and jewel-like cities of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains–where I was fortunate enough to travel as a young man.

Spellbreaker’s element is water; its direction neither up or down, but all the innumerable points of the compass that the horizon represents to the sailor. The physical inspiration for Ixos is the leaward side of Kaui and my current home of San Francisco Bay. During my intern year, the America’s Cup came to San Francisco and during some of the rare days off, I would go down to watch the catamarans sailing out on the bay; the way the sail caught the wind, jumped up on to their hydrofoils, seems so magical to me I couldn’t help writing it in to Spellbreaker. I’m sure I made many, many nautical mistakes when writing the books, and I’d like to beg for forgiveness from any sailors who read the books.

To answer your question, I would have to say I’m partial to the traditional American ‘holiday on a lake’ activities of swimming, fishing, waterskiing. My grandparents had a humble cabin on Lake Nacimiento in the Central Coast region of California, and I group up splashing around in its green waters and then reading 1990s classic fantasy in the cabin at night. I am, however, very jealous of your access to Lake Superior, and after googling “Kemijoki” I might have to add “float down a Finish river” to my wanderlust bucket list.
5) It says that Spellbreaker is the final installment in this trilogy. Can we expect more in this world that’s separate from this trilogy, or will your future work be something completely different?

The next book will be something wholly different, something placed in this world but still a fantasy, heavily influenced by my medical training. The elevator pitch so far is “Neil Gaiman’s American Gods goes to Medical School.” But it’s a work in progress so we’ll see. There may well be a return to the world of Spellwright. I tried to plan a few seeds at the end of Spellbreaker; I’ll have to wait to see if they grow into anything.

Thanks for joining us, Blake!

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Mighty Jack, by Ben Hatke

Review copy provided by First Second Books.

This is the first in a new Hatke series. For those who have enjoyed Zita the Spacegirl and stand-alone works like Little Robot and (my personal favorite) Julia’s House for Lost Creatures, a new Hatke book is reason to sit up and take notice–a new series perhaps doubly so.

Jack has a single mom struggling to make it all work and a sister–Maddy–who is substantially non-verbal. He wants to help more than he’s allowed to, and it’s all very frustrating. Until a bad trade at the flea market leaves him and Maddy with packets of fascinating alien seeds. Their new garden draws the attention of their sword-fighting neighbor, Lilly, who has ideas of her own about what to do with the creatures who come out of the ground.

Mighty Jack ends on a cliffhanger, and a lot of how I feel about the series will depend on how it’s resolved. So far everybody is doing their best, and everybody has sensible motivations that don’t always work well together. But it’s Jack’s story. How will Hatke keep that balance going? The cliffhanger has me in genuine suspense–how will he resolve it and how soon? It’s pretty rare that I’m not sure. But this time I really don’t know. I’m eager for the next volume, to find out.

Please consider using our link to buy Mighty Jack from Amazon.

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Everfair, by Nisi Shawl

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

The cover to this novel screams steampunk. The image, the articulated mechanical hand, the human hand, the globe: if you go into Nisi Shawl’s debut not expecting steampunk, you are just not paying attention. And yet it’s quite unexpected steampunk. It’s steampunk that has thought about where rubber comes from, who builds the steam-powered devices, who has access to them and who doesn’t. Who makes things work, who runs things, the dissatisfactions that arise when the two are not the same. This is steampunk with not just a thorough understanding of colonialism but a deep desire to engage with that colonialism.

Its African setting is perfect for that. If you’ve read things about Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries–about World War I in Africa, for example–you’ll be able to see the places where Shawl’s worldbuilding research really shines. The vast variability of Shawl’s characters’ backgrounds and beliefs is completely natural. It would–should–be utterly unremarkable–but instead, it’s ground-breaking. This book is fiercely tender with its history, unflinching and understanding with its characters’ contexts. The parts of the premise that are not literally true are emotionally true–of course utopianists of the late 19th century would behave exactly like that, look at how they did elsewhere and how fascinating to watch it play out in fiction in a different setting.

Does that mean it’s written like a treatise? Nope. It’s written like a thriller novel: short chapters, lots of action, lots of POV switching to cover the most perspective. With a plot that covers thirty years and people from four different continents, it takes a breakneck pace to get through everything that happens. There is no time to stop and lecture. Everything has to be folded into actual story or there will not be enough room for all the story there is here.

Everfair has all sorts of tags you can put on it that will sound like other things, but it is fundamentally not a heck of a lot like the other things with those tags. Steampunk, fantasy, sure, yes, yes it is. But even more its own thing on its own terms.

Please consider using our link to buy Everfair from Amazon.

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Books read, late August

Renee Ahdieh, The Rose and the Dagger. This is the sequel to a 1001 Nights retelling, and while the first book (The Wrath and the Dawn) was vivid and fun to read, I like this better because it’s a more interesting question to me: what next? What did they do when the known story reaches its borders? The writing is just as vivid, and favorite characters return to develop complexity. You could maybe just start with this one, but I think getting the emotional backstory from the first volume is better. This is a definitive ending, in case you’re worried about series that go on indefinitely. (There’s also a free-on-Kindle bonus story, The Crown and the Arrow. -ed This is not a good way to find out if you like this series, it’s only good if you already know you like it and want bonus content. -M)

C.J. Cherryh, Visitor. Annnnd speaking of series that go on indefinitely. This is volume 17, and she’s showing no signs of stopping. The plot threads that started 10+  books ago are being picked up. You already know if you like this series, and look! here’s another! that’s about more than Bren’s apartment! My main complaint in this book was too many hoomans. I do not read this series for the hoomans. Too many hoomans, not enough Jago-ji, but I have hopes for future volumes. And the hoomans were surprisingly interesting for hoomans, it’s just that I can read about them anywhere.

Eric H. Cline, 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed. Now that I know more nonfiction writers, I’m aware that they don’t often get to choose their title. This one is hideously ill-suited for the book, which should actually be called something like What Do We Know About the Sea People Anyway: Several Centuries of the Southeast Mediterranean. But it was aces at doing that.

Christopher Hodson, The Acadian Diaspora: An Eighteenth-Century History. This, on the other hand, does what it says on the tin. If you’re really interested in the Acadians, I wouldn’t recommend starting here, but it does talk extensively about the diaspora and is worth including in a larger-than-one-volume Acadian history collection for that reason. (What would I recommend starting with? Probably Farrager’s A Great and Noble Scheme.)

Jed Horne, Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City. This is a fascinating book, and I’ve had several stories that are not about Hurricane Katrina directly (that’s not mine to tell, I don’t think) leap out at me since reading it. Very little will be surprising if you’ve paid attention to the news (and possibly watched Treme), but having it all marshaled into one place is very useful. Seeing it all laid out like that, what happened, who did what, what do we know. A really diverse set of viewpoints went into Horne’s research for this book. Recommended if your blood pressure can stand it.

Guy Gavriel Kay, Children of Earth and Sky. Kay tends to mostly write books that are set in thinly veiled versions of our own history, in various locations. This one is in the same universe as The Lions of Al-Rassan (one of my favorites of his books) and the Sarantium duology, much later in time. It’s basically the Balkan coast and Venice, in fantasy form. The fantasy conceit is somewhat more present than in some other works of this type that he’s done. I don’t think this is his masterwork, but if you enjoy this sort of thing from Kay–and I do–it’s definitely worth the time.

Ken Liu, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. I came into this volume having read the title story and one other story in it. Those two were my least favorite out of the whole volume–and I wanted the collection on the strength of them. “State Change” was an utterly fresh premise, for example, and there were many stories that had depth of research that’s often either not attempted or not visible in short fiction. I read every story. Very much recommended.

Michael A. McDonnell, Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America. This book performs the kind of recentering that resets your brain, akin to being taught when Rome fell and then having the epiphany that the Byzantines considered themselves Romans for centuries thereafter. If your point of view on Native American/First Nations/Indian people is centered on the east coast of the US and Canada, then the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries look like a steady decline, caused by invasion and disease. McDonnell centers his thinking on Michilimackinac, what is now Mackinaw City, the center of a powerful meta-kin network and series of alliances that was in some ways highly successful in this period. Fascinating stuff.

Thomas Michael Power, The Economic Role of Metal Mining in Minnesota: Past, Present, and Future. Really really what it says on the tin. I was hoping there was more “past” involved. Nope. This is an environmental and economic assessment of these industries in Minnesota’s north–interesting, though not useful for the story I was hoping it would be useful for.

Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement. A solid biography of an important and little-sung figure in the Civil Rights Movement and adjacent social movements. If you’ve ever wondered who did the caregiving in that era of fighting for racial justice, read this book–it gets quite specific in spots about what unheralded labor was necessary for the famous events to go off as well as they did. Baker was a firebrand. Awesome stuff.

Tsuruta Kenji, Wandering Island Volume 1. This is a manga whose main appeal is its setting: not any of Japan’s cities, but the outer small islands. The speculative conceit is moderately interesting. If you’re thoroughly habituated to ubiquitous bikini pictures, bath pictures, panty shots, etc. in this genre/set of genres, the fact that it’s utterly idiotic to have a pilot flying around in a bikini top (IT GETS COLD UP THERE) may not bother you (nor is that the only stupid excuse for scantily clad heroine). The plot did not advance very quickly, and I’m going to stop at just this one volume.

Django Wexler, The Mad Apprentice and The Palace of Glass. Second two books in a middle-grade series. (The first of which is The Forbidden Library. -ed) Much darker than books for that age often are, with cruelty and death foregrounded in the fantasy–foregrounded but not triumphant. I found both of these fast and smoothly written, and I think you could start with either if you were doing the fairly typical grade school kid thing of grabbing whatever was in front of you that looked cool regardless of series placement.

Dorothy Dora Whipple, Chi-mewinzha: Ojibwe Stories from Leech Lake. This book is laid out with the Ojibwe text on one page and the English translation on the facing page. It’s thoroughly illustrated, so between those two factors it ends up being quite a quick read (unless you’re an expert in Ojibwe or other Algonquian family languages and are doing complicated comparisons with the translation. Some are “traditional” stories, a lot are family stories, personal stories. It’s well-done and interesting, and if you’re trying to do research on another culture you shouldn’t stop at one book anyway, so it doesn’t matter that this can’t be the one. And if this is your culture, you can tell me, but it looks from here like Whipple did a really great job of providing this as a resource for both insiders and outsiders.