Conversations on Hope in the Fantastical: An Interview with DH Willison

Over the next week and a half, I’ll be focusing on the idea of hope in the fantastical, how it’s used, and why it’s a common theme throughout the history of science fiction or fantasy. I’m excited to be joined by DH Willison, author of the Tales of Arvia.

WS: Thanks for joining me, DH!

DH: Hi Jodie, thanks for inviting me. The subject means a lot to me, because I’ve had ups and downs in my life, and while I don’t ever remember thinking, “You must now be like [favorite heroic character] and carry on when all seems lost,” There were times positive self-talk helped me get through some difficult times.

But let’s start with the basics—I’ve heard terms like noblebright and hopepunk, with some asserting they are wildly different from each other, distinctly different from more classic heroic tales, etc. But honestly, like so many genre ‘definitions’ much is in the eye of the beholder (as an aside, one of my favorite D&D creatures). 

My personal opinion: ‘hope’ is a character attribute, not one of setting. And the world/setting has to have some darkness in it for the value of said hope to shine through. After all, if you live in a paradise, you don’t need hope.

How about you? Since you suggested this as a topic, it must have personal meaning to you.

WS: It has a personal meaning in that I have depression and there have been times when fantasy books really were sort of a way to experience a happy ending or that thread line of hope when my own mental well-being wasn’t great. Hope in fantasy, for me, is all about balance. I like stories where there is something to strive for. And of course, you can find hope in all sorts of places, even in grimdark. As you pointed out, the world/setting has to have some darkness for the value of hope to really show. That being said, I’ve always been drawn to books where I know that “good” will, if not win per se, at least survive in some form even though I don’t yet know how.

DH: I know! And to me, that’s what can make a story even more interesting—there might not be a total victory, a happily ever after, but there is hope. The hero survives, some things get better, and there is hope for even more in the future. And on a related note, that’s kind of a big theme for my coming novel—the idea that in life you will never have a perfect resolution to everything. But if you’ve tried your best, you should take the time to appreciate the successes you have, while at the same time acknowledging the future may bring more challenges your way.

WS: Ooh, tell me more! Is it a character that carries that theme of hope or is it the tone of the book? Both?

DH: Hmm. Kind of both. I think it’s the characters that drive the tone. Let me start with a question I get asked a lot—why harpies? In mythology they’re often portrayed as dangerous, evil creatures. And sometimes a punishment from the gods for deceitful or unfaithful characters. I take this to the extreme: on Arvia they are giant, with an appetite for human flesh—essentially a bad-tempered dragon with feathers. Yet the series revolves around a friendship between a human and a harpy—about him seeing the good in her, and her eventually seeing it for herself. In Arvia: Heart of the Sky I’ve really leaned into this, with the villagers learning to see the flip side of the harpies’ personalities. And what would the positive side of a bad-tempered creature that despises deceitful or unfaithful characters be? Exceptional loyalty toward those who display honesty, courage, and compassion.

In an era where we are ever more pushed into camps of extreme positions, where everyone is either ‘with us’ or ‘against us,’ the ultimate expression of hopefulness for me lies in being able to bridge great chasms, to understand those different than ourselves rather than defeating them in some epic battle. So I suppose it’s no surprise that every book I’ve ever written features a mix of human and non-human characters. Or in some cases human and true monster characters. Who usually have some very positive attributes for those who take the time to look for them.

WS: I think it’s interesting in that what with *gestures at everything over the last few years,* there seems to be a rise in popularity for books that are either in the cozy fantasy subgenre or have strong themes of hope. Have you noticed that and do you think the last few years actually have anything to do with it?

DH: I don’t know. I mean, yes, it would seem to make sense. But in my opinion, it’s also generally easier for more dramatic, epic, and gritty stories to get people’s attention, especially given the way things spread on social media. Basically, anger sells. So I think there’s a pent-up desire for more hopeful stories that’s been hidden beneath the angry surface for a while. But while we’re on the subject of ‘cozy,’ this may be a new term, but it seems to mean different things to different people. Some think in terms of slice of life or low stakes. For me it’s more about tone—there are relatively fast-paced stories that feel cozy (e.g. The Princess Bride). How do you see it?

WS: Oh, that’s a tough question! I think that’s where terms like “noblebright” and “hopepunk” come in, that idea of tone vs. lower stakes or slice of life. I would probably put Legends and Lattes or Miss Percy’s Pocket Guide to the Care and Feeding of British Dragons in the cozy fantasy category (both wonderful books, by the way) but it is entirely possible that I’m missing the definition of cozy fantasy completely. I see books like The Princess Bride or the Redwall series as hopeful but not necessarily cozy. And, again, what I view as cozy fantasy might not be the textbook definition or even what other people would call it.

You mentioned the pent-up desire for more hopeful stories and I can definitely see what you mean! I love the way fantasy and science fiction can fill so many roles, including adding themes of hope. Are there books you’ve read that really have that great hopeful tone? 

DH: I’ve always been a fan of the Discworld novels, and I think most of them qualify. I would also add the underrated Myth series by Robert Asprin, which may not have the sophistication of Discworld but makes up for it with a lot of heart. Oh! And a more recent one was called Cinnamon Bun. A cute litRPG.

WS: I’m sold on Cinnamon Bun already, based solely on the title. Thank you so much for unpacking the idea of hope in the fantastical with me! 

Author bio:

D.H. Willison is a reader, writer, game enthusiast and developer, engineer, and history buff. He’s lived or worked in over a dozen countries, learning different cultures, viewpoints, and attitudes, which have influenced his writing, contributing to one of his major themes: alternate and creative conflict resolution. The same situations can be viewed by different cultures quite differently. Sometimes it leads to conflict, sometimes to hilarity. Both make for a great story.

He’s also never missed a chance to visit historic sites, from castle dungeons, to catacombs, to the holds of tall ships, to the tunnels of the Maginot Line. It might be considered research, except for the minor fact that his tales are all set on the whimsical and terrifying world of Arvia. Where giant mythic monsters are often more easily overcome with empathy than explosions.

Subscribe to his newsletter for art, stories, and humorous articles (some of which are actually intended to be humorous).

Conversations on Hope in the Fantastical Featuring Author Dorian Hart

Lately, I’ve been thinking about hope, specifically in science fiction and fantasy books. It’s a common theme, although how it’s presented and what’s done with it changes with each book, of course. Sometimes it’s hope dashed, other times hope is the thing that keeps characters going, the drive that keeps readers reading. However it shows up, hope is an important theme. So naturally, I wanted to get the expert’s opinion on hope in the fantastical: the authors themselves.

I am thrilled to share a guest piece written by Dorian Hart, author of the Heroes of Spira series. The Heroes of Spira is one of my absolute favorite fantasy series and the final book, The Adversary’s Hand, has just been released. It’s the perfect time to start reading the series if you haven’t already.

Hope by Dorian Hart

There’s a scene in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels where the incarnation of Dream does metaphysical battle against a demon. The contest is structured so that each combatant becomes a new entity meant to defeat their opponent’s previous one. So, first, the demon becomes a dire wolf, which Dream counters by becoming a mounted hunter, prompting the demon to change to a biting horse-fly, and so on. Near the end, the demon escalates to the effective death of the universe, a seemingly unbeatable move.

Dream replies:  “I am hope.”

Game over.

The fantasy genre is a big tent, and its works vary in innumerable ways. We’ve got urban and epic, historic and cozy, high, low, sword-and-sorcery, magical realism, fairy-tale—something for everyone! But there’s another spectrum that’s gained more visibility in the last decade: grim vs. hopeful. At one end of that spectrum is Grimdark, generally defined by its morally dubious characters, a strong lean to brutality and violence, and an atmosphere of hopelessness and fear. And there’s nothing wrong with Grimdark! I promise I love Joe Abercrombie’s books at least as much as you do.

But, I think it’s important that the fantasy genre also gives readers works that embrace hope and optimism, where good ultimately triumphs over evil—where the ring goes in the fire, the demons are banished, the tyrant is overthrown. It can be easy to assume that in the real world, the good and the just will always win out, but that doesn’t happen by default. The great Dr. King said that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, but in practice, that requires good people grabbing it and bending it themselves. When books show readers examples of that—of effort and sacrifice and kindness leading to victory—it makes it easier to imagine doing it in our own lives.

Certainly, happy and positive books don’t have to be nothing but roses and sunshine, with gleaming champions effortlessly severing orc necks and rescuing adorable orphans from incompetent villains. Hope is needed most when life is bleak and despair threatens to overwhelm the heroic. Fantasy literature will always need its moments of fear, of loss, of beloved characters teetering on the brink of defeat. But there’s something comforting in a book that carries a feeling that hope will be rewarded. That reader will turn the pages because they want to know how the heroes win—even if it’s a bittersweet victory—more than if they’ll win. I personally place a high value on that experience. For every volume of Game of Thrones, First Law, or Mike Shel’s Iconoclasts—all of which are brilliant—I like to have something like Quenby Olsen’s Miss Percy’s Pocket Guide, or a trip to Narnia, Prydain, or Middle Earth, to balance it out. 

I’m about to finish writing an epic fantasy series—The Heroes of Spira—where the idea of hope has always lived near the front of my mind. The characters are flawed but likable, the world is a generally friendly place, and there’s a constant thread of evil carrying the seeds of its own destruction. I want readers to come away not only having been entertained but with a strong sense of optimism, of knowing that good can triumph no matter the odds. If these imperfect and often-ridiculous characters can make their world better, then maybe so can we.

Author bio:

Dorian Hart is the author of the Heroes of Spira epic fantasy series, which consists of The Ventifact Colossus, The Crosser’s Maze, The Greatwood Portal, The Infinite Tower, and The Adversary’s Hand.

In a bygone century, Dorian graduated from Wesleyan University with a degree in creative writing. This led circuitously to a 20-year career as a video game designer, where he contributed to many award-winning titles including Thief, System Shock, System Shock 2, and BioShock.

Now he writes books in his Boston-area study, serves as the stay-at-home dad for his two teenage daughters, and happily allows his wife to drag him off on various wilderness adventures.

Amazon links:
The Ventifact Colossus
The Crosser’s Maze
The Greatwood Portal
The Infinite Tower

Giveaway: Pick One of My Recent Favorites

I feel like doing a giveaway! I read an amazing bunch of books in 2022, so I’m going to give one lucky winner their choice of a book from my favorite reads from 2022. All you need to do is take a look at my 12 favorites below and comment with which book you’d like to win. I’ll announce a winner Sunday the 26th.

You can find out more about each book, from description to reviews, here: Operation 2022: Success (Or Favorite Books From this Year)

This giveaway is U.S. only due to shipping costs.

Good luck!

The Shadow Glass by Josh Winning

Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons and Dragons by Ben Riggs

Dragons of Deceit (Dragonlance Destinies book 1) by Margaret Weist and Tracy Hickman

The Hero Interviews by Andi Ewington (This one is only available as a Kindle book)

Empire of Exiles by Erin M. Evans

One Foot in the Fade by Luke Arnold (You can choose one of the previous books in this series instead, if you prefer)

Legends and Lattes by Travis Baldree

The Oleander Sword (Burning Kingdoms book 2) by Tasha Suri (you can choose book 1 instead, if you prefer)

Small Angels by Laura Owen

The Hummingbird’s Tear by C.M. Kerley

Dragons of a Different Tail Edited by Marx Pyle

Strange Cargo (A Mennik Thorn Short Novel) by Patrick Samphire

The Golden Spoon by Jessa Maxwell

Every summer for the past ten years, six awe-struck bakers have descended on the grounds of Grafton, the leafy and imposing Vermont estate that is not only the filming site for “Bake Week” but also the childhood home of the show’s famous host, celebrated baker Betsy Martin.

The author of numerous bestselling cookbooks and hailed as “America’s Grandmother,” Betsy Martin isn’t as warm off-screen as on, though no one needs to know that but her. She has always demanded perfection, and gotten it with a smile, but this year something is off. As the baking competition commences, things begin to go awry. At first, it’s merely sabotage—sugar replaced with salt, a burner turned to high—but when a body is discovered, everyone is a suspect.

A sharp and suspenseful thriller for mystery buffs and avid bakers alike, The Golden Spoon is a brilliant puzzle filled with shocking twists and turns that will keep you reading late into the night until you turn the very last page of this incredible debut. (Taken from Amazon)

Thank you to Atria Books and Netgalley for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. The Golden Spoon will be available on March seventh, 2023.

The Golden Spoon was advertised as a mix of Clue and The Great British Bakeoff. That sounded delicious to me (pun intended) and I couldn’t wait to pick it up. While there was a lot to like, there were also some things that just didn’t work for me.

The story features a group of contestants joining their hosts on a large estate to film a baking competition. Each has their own reason to be there and some have nothing to do with baking. Secrets abound. When a body is discovered, the secrets begin to unravel leaving the reader trying to follow the clues and solve the murder.

The book opened with a press introduction of the contestants on the show, a great way to quickly introduce a group of characters without taking a lot of time to break down each one in exacting detail. This lets the author slowly add details throughout the book which gave me the chance to guess at connections and motivations. It was a clever idea and worked very well.

Once the book itself got going, though, I found myself alternately drawn in and knocked out of the narrative. See, the book is told in first person present tense throughout, which tends to keep me from being too sucked in. I don’t know why it irritates me, but it does. At times this choice added tension, but in other instances, it was distracting. Doubly so because the book also switches back and forth between different points of view. It was never confusing, but it was jarring.

Despite this, the story was engaging and the characters were interesting. I was bummed that the first contestant to get booted from the show left so quickly that they weren’t fully explored but they served brilliantly to drop hints that would otherwise have been given awkwardly. Author Jessa Maxwell was incredibly smart in how she revealed her information. Going back, clues were there but she made the reader hunt to find them. I love being able to go back through a story and see the logic that leads to the conclusion.

The characters were all interesting. I had my favorites, of course. I liked Gerald with his logic and intelligence. I also liked his addition to the story. I also really enjoyed Pradyumna’s character. His reason for being there and his involvement was different from things I’ve found in other mysteries and his reasoning was intriguing. It explained his actions and choices well. There were even a couple of characters that I loved to hate.

The ending felt a little rushed which was a bummer because the author put so much care into building up tension. I did see the whodunnit coming, but I have a knack for doing that. It was in no way broadly broadcast. In fact, it’s that fun combination of a quick, fun read that also requires you to pay attention so you don’t miss something. It was an entertaining read.

I do want to say that there is reference to sexual assault. I only mention this because it is something that I struggle with as a reader. That being said, it isn’t spoken of in extreme detail. It is, however, something that I wish I had been aware of ahead of time. That goes back to the “trigger warning” argument: are they useful and do they take away from the book’s content. This isn’t the right place to discuss my thoughts on that. Suffice it to say, the author was delicate and respectful in her use of that subject.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. The Golden Spoon is a fun, creative mystery. Jessa Maxwell is an author to watch.

Messengers of the Macabre: Halloween Poems by LindaAnn LoSchiavo and David Davies

All Hallows’ Eve, Samhain, Day of the Dead… during this interval, the barriers between the two realms are thinnest. Normal turns paranormal; what’s natural becomes the supernatural. That’s when the messengers of the macabre are in their rightful element. Step inside this collaborative chapbook and embrace a haunted harvest of verses embracing bewitchment, boneyards, and all things that go… Boo! (Taken from Amazon)

Thank you to author LindaAnn LoSchiavo for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. Messengers of the Macabre: Halloween Poems is available now.

While I love poetry, I’m also picky about it. Not for me is the cutesy rhyme (although I don’t mind rhyming if there is substance to the poem). Poems need to have purpose, whether it is to entertain, scare, communicate, or say those things that otherwise stick in the throat. Messengers of the Macabre is a solid collection of well-written poems, but there were a few that stood out to me.

“A Sleepy Hollow Halloween” is a fun homage to Washinton Irving’s spooky tale. I loved seeing it make an appearance and the cliffhanger ending left my imagination happy.

“Emily Post’s Etiquette Book for Ghosts” is a clever tongue-in-cheek poem that leans toward the fun side. Every person who encounters a specter or unruly poltergeist could benefit from Post’s Etiquette Book for Ghosts. After all, it must be tough to know how to properly host a ghost.

“Elizabeth Siddal Rossetti, Cemetary Superstar” is fascinating. This one is about a woman’s body exhumed (along with her ghost) to retrieve poetry buried with her. Reading it, I thought, “What a clever idea for a poem” and then I saw the note at the bottom. It’s based on something that really happened! It was morbid but so interesting. I won’t forget this poem anytime soon.

The weather didn’t particularly cooperate for me,being warm and sunny when I read this collection. However, Messengers of the Macabre: Halloween Poems would make an enjoyable colder weather read.

Fantasy Series That Should Be Animated

When I saw this idea over at Peat Long’s blog, I knew I wanted to take a crack at it myself. The credit for this one goes to Birdie’s Book Nook. Definitely follow these two blogs if you aren’t already. They have the coolest content!

The idea is pretty self-explanatory. So, without further ado, here are ten series that I think would make excellent animated shows (if they were faithful to the series, of course)!

The Hero Interviews by Andi Ewington

The interviews themselves would work well being shown on a weekly basis, with the pop culture references and fantastic humor drawing viewers in. The awesome throughline ties the plot together wonderfully and would leave people desperate to see the next episode.

Book Review here.

The Oddmire series by William Ritter

There is so much wonder and adventure in this series, I think it would be awesome to see animated. I feel like it would have the same feel as Hilda or Over the Garden Wall, just brimming with imagination.

Book review here.

The Tempest Blades by Ricardo Victoria

This series would make for an excellent anime. I feel like some anime has deep themes tucked away and explored alongside stunning, brightly colored art. The Tempest Blades would be in this same vein. I think it would really appeal to fans of My Hero Academia.

Book review here.

Dragons of a Different Tail Edited by Marx Pyle

How cool would it be to have seventeen different movie-length episodes, each featuring a different story from this book? A different artist could animate each different story, making sure each animated dragon is as unique as the dragons in this book are.

Book review here.

The Coldfire Trilogy by C.S. Friedman

I don’t really know why, but I always think of the Coldire trilogy as appealing to fans of Castlevania. It really doesn’t make much sense, but either way, I think this would be a cool animated show.

Supernatural Investigations by B.B. Alston

The creativity of this series is begging to be adapted to the screen, I just go back and forth between whether I’d like it better animated or live-action. Maybe try both? What do you think?

Book review here.

Mouse Guard by David Petersen

I’ve heard rumblings of a show possibly being in the works, but I’m not sure. Either way, this rather bloody series would be an awesome animated series.

Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

This series has some majorly creepy elements that are just begging to be animated in an unsettling, offbeat style.

Book review here.

Justice Academy by Rob Edwards

The creativity and originality of this series would make for a vastly entertaining animated series, as long as absolutely nothing is changed. The dynamic characters and clever storyline would definitely keep viewers interested.

Book review here.

The Queens of Renthia by Sarah Beth Durst

Every living thing in this series has a spirit, and every spirit hates humans. The world this series is set in is breathtaking and would look gorgeous animated. The characters are fantastic and the pacing is perfect. This would transfer mediums so very well.

Book review here.

What about you? What fantasy series would make for awesome animated shows?

The Sapphire Altar by David Dalglish

In this epic fantasy from a bestselling author, a usurped prince must master the magic of shadows in order to reclaim his kingdom and his people.

Cyrus wants out. Trained to be an assassin in order to oust the invading Empire from his kingdom, Cyrus is now worried the price of his vengeance is too high. His old master has been keeping too many secrets to be trusted. And the mask he wears to hide his true identity and become the legendary “Vagrant” has started whispering to him in the dark. But the fight isn’t over and the Empire has sent its full force to bear upon Cyrus’s floundering revolution. He’ll have to decide once and for all whether to become the thing he fears or lose the country he loves.(Taken from Amazon)

Thank you to Orbit Books and Angela Man for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. The Sapphire Altar is available now.

The Sapphire Altar is the second book in the Vagrant Gods series. So much happened in book one, The Bladed Faith, that I was supremely grateful for the summary provided at the beginning of book two. It helped ensure that nothing was forgotten.

Wow! I was absolutely floored by the brilliance of the writing and the complexity of the plot. Religious fanaticism and rebellion interacted in ways that went far beyond “good vs bad”, instead exposing motives that were surprisingly nuanced. Themes of faith and redemption once again drove the book. This is a complicated story, one that asks for and deserves the reader’s full attention. Honestly, though, it was hard to put The Sapphire Altar down once I picked it up.

The Sapphire Altar serves to open the series up even more, focusing on characters other than just Cyrus (although I still find him fascinating). Reading more about what made the different characters tick made them all the more believable. Keles, in particular, stood out to me. There’s always something risky about writing a character who is dealing with a crisis of faith. If you are too heavy-handed, it loses its importance. If you don’t stress it enough, the emotional impact is lost. Holy moly, Dalglish nailed it. Faith can be tied to a person’s sense of self, so reading about someone’s struggle with it should feel raw and vulnerable. I was uncomfortable at times, reading about the shifts and loss of belief in different characters, but it was the sort of uncomfortable that comes from incredible writing and character development. These characters jump off the page.

The pacing was good, although it felt a little different this time around. I think that was simply because of the amount of emotional baggage that these characters were carting around. I’m sure it was heavy! There was a lot going on, but it was balanced with a large dose of introspection. I am a fan of characters who have to come to grips with their pasts and make decisions that reflect who they’ve become, so I was completely on board with this. The pace picked up at the end, galloping with almost reckless abandon into a conclusion that left me reeling.

The world is fantastic and continues to become more fleshed out. It is one that feels very well thought-out to me. I like that it seemed to grow as we see it in regard to what is happening. The fight scenes were killer (pun intended) and kept me on the edge of my seat.

I was left waiting desperately to see what happens next. In the words of the evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz, “Curse you and thank you”, author David Dalglish. Thank you for an incredible book. And curses that I have to wait until 2024 for the next one in the series. Make sure to pick this one up, folks!

The Scarlet Circus by Jane Yolen

Release Day Reblog

Witty and Sarcastic Bookclub

A rakish fairy meets the real Juliet behind Shakespeare’s famous tragedy. A jewelry artist travels to the past to meet a successful silver-smith. The addled crew of a ship at sea discovers a mysterious merman. More than one ignored princess finds her match in the most unlikely men.

From ecstasy to tragedy, with love blossoming shyly, love at first sight, and even love borne of practical necessity―beloved fantasist Jane Yolen’s newest collection celebrates romance in all its glory. (Taken from Amazon)

Thank you to Tachyon Publications for providing me this book in exchange for my honest opinion. The Scarlet Circus will be available on February 14th.

Jane Yolen is a name that most readers know. Not only has she written an extensive list of fantasy books, but children’s books, historical fiction, and poetry are among the genres of books she has penned. I have loved many of her books and…

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A Class Above: D&D Classes in Books-Rogues and Rangers (Repost)

Witty and Sarcastic Bookclub

This is a repost, because I loved this series so much. This was originally published in February of 2021.

I’ve been talking about roleplaying classes in books. A “class” is a set of criteria that sort of shows what type of character someone is playing. For example, boiled down, a paladin is a holy warrior. Examples of different Dungeons and Dragons character classes can be found all throughout literature.

When I decided to tackle this subject, I knew that I wouldn’t do it well on my own. Some amazing bloggers and authors offered their expertise as well! Today, I’m talking about rogues and rangers. You can find my posts about fighters and barbarians here, and my post about paladins, clerics, and druids here. Now, on to today’s post!

Rogue: Rogues use stealth, and cunning to defeat their foes or prevail in a situation. Rather than rushing straight into…

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