Conversations on Hope in the Fantastical Featuring Joanna Maciejewska

My blog has been focusing on the idea of hope in the fantastical lately. It’s a theme found over and over throughout fantasy and science fiction (as well as other genres) and I was curious what authors would have to say about it. Luckily, several authors were generous with their time and opinions.

Today, I’m excited to feature a guest post from Joanna Maciejewska, author of Pacts Arcane and Otherwise.

Hope, Friendship, and Epic Fantasy

Hope is one of those feelings that often keeps us going when things turn dire, and when the world becomes a shade too dark for us to cope, we escape into fiction. That escape might take different forms: to find comfort in learning that there are worlds more cruel and darker than ours, or to find comfort in exploring worlds full of wonder and magic.

Yet, it seems like there’s no middle ground, and our choices are limited to going “all grimdark” or “full high fantasy”, and it’s hard to find worlds that carry the realism of the world live in and at the same time can provide a genuine injection of hope.

When creating a world and a story, it felt like a hard balance to strike, and my solution was… friendship. In the real world, I’m lucky to have a handful of wonderful friends. Not only are they there for me when I need support, but they offer their companionship, experience, and time. Thanks to them, things rarely feel hopeless.

That’s why I wanted to preserve that feeling in my story. The world of Pacts Arcane and Otherwise is full of things we know too well: evil, cruelty, betrayal, lies, corruption, petty people… you name it. There are even otherworldly creatures who are more violent and brutal than humans meddling in human matters and manipulating their human pawns.

With all of that, my books could easily take the grimdark turn, but I think putting friendship in the focus of the story softened the hard edges of the unforgiving setting. Kamira and Veelk, the main characters and best friends for years, go through a lot, together and alone, facing dangers and difficult choices, but their friendship never comes into question. At any point, either would gladly give his or her life for the other, and they keep no secrets.

I think that promise of the friendship never broken is what helps my books to be hopeful while avoiding the feeling of sugarcoated issues or lack of realism. And thus it helps to carry hope, that feeling we often need to survive, off the pages of the series and into the real world, because most of us has at least one close friend we can confide in and who stays by our side through the worst storms. And if Kamira and Veelk, working together, can stand against anything, maybe we could as well. This kind of hope is what I want to bring to my readers.

About the author:

Joanna might be a bit too cautious to do anything even remotely daring or dangerous herself, so she writes about daring adventures and dangerous magic instead. Yet, she found enough courage to abandon her life in Poland and move to Ireland, and then some years later, she abandoned her life in Ireland to move over to the US. She’s determined to settle there, once she finally chooses which state to reside in.

When she’s not writing or thinking about writing, she plays video games or makes amateur art. She lives the happy life of a recluse, surrounded by her husband, a stuffed red monkey, and a small collection of books she insisted on hauling across two continents.

More about the series and purchase links: https://authorjm.com/books/pacts-arcane-and-otherwise-series 

Direct purchase link for By the Pact (first in series): https://books2read.com/ByThePact 

Website: https://authorjm.com/ 

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorJMac/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/authorjmac/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/AuthorJMac/

Mastodon: https://indiepocalypse.social/@AuthorJMac

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/authorjmac 

Bookbub: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/joanna-maciejewska 

Conversations on Hope in the Fantastical: An Interview with Beth Tabler

I’ve been focusing on the idea of hope in science fiction and fantasy lately. It’s been a common theme over the years, appearing in many forms. I wondered what hope looks like in grimdark: is it an important theme? How is it portrayed? Why does it matter? Of course, I needed to talk with someone knowledgeable about this subgenre.

Today I’m lucky to be chatting with the incredibly awesome Beth Tabler, head honcho of Before We Go Blog, and an expert in fantasy, particularly grimdark. Thanks for talking with me!

WS: You read a lot of grimdark. I know that people tend to view grimdark as the opposite of hopeful, but you have a different viewpoint. What does hope look like in grimdark?

BT: Hope is a shining light in the darkness. It can be a small flickering ray you see once, but that one time can sustain you throughout the story. Or, it can be a bright light. People view grimdark as lacking anything good, nihilism, and death. While yes, there is nihilism and often death in grimdark, those things are a part of life. What characters do or say, often in the form of gallows humor, shines a small ray of light on things. It is where we get the right choice for the wrong reasons or the wrong choice for the right ones.

WS: Why is it important?

BT: I’ll give you an example of a remarkable grimdark book with hope—The Gray Bastards by the brilliant Johnathan French. The blurb reads, “Jackal and his fellow half-orcs patrol the barren wastes of the Lot Lands, spilling their own damned blood to keep civilized folk safe. A rabble of hard-talking, hog-riding, whore-mongering brawlers they may be, but the Grey Bastards are Jackal’s sworn brothers, fighting at his side in a land where there’s no room for softness.” Except the best part of this series is the brotherhood, that is light. These are not nice “men and women,” they can’t be, or their world would eat them alive. However, even in the face of everything, they form a bond with each other. That is genuinely exceptional grimdark to me. That is the light that shines in this world. It doesn’t take the reader on a journey through the muck and mire and leave them to rot. There is a small thing to latch on to so that when you get done reading this book, you do not hate the world. Instead, you are clamoring for the next book in the series.

What is also compelling about grimdark is to read about characters that have choices. Grimdark gives characters autonomy in their character arcs. They are not bogged down in “the hero’s journey” or “good versus evil.” Instead, we have no idea what the hell they are going to do. Evil is just a matter of perspective. No one thinks of themselves as the bad guy, as they are all just folks making choices.

WS: Where do you think the idea of grimdark being the opposite of hopeful comes from?

BT: Its origins. Grimdark became popular with Warhammer 40k. Warhammer is not known for its gentleness. It did not originate there; you can go back to the 80s and find books that fill the grimdark definition. But it became popular with Warhammer and widespread with GRRM, Abercrombie, and Mark Lawrence. 

WS: For me personally, the subgenre of fantasy I find myself reading kind of correlates with *gestures at everything*. I’ve been reading more cozy fantasy lately, and I think some of that comes from burnout with the negativity in the real world. Does your subgenre of choice ebb and flow with current events? 

BT:

Absolutely. During the lockdown, I was surrounded by ARCs of plague and end-of-the-world novels and almost had a heart attack. I had to nope out for my mental well-being. I flow back and forth between how stressed I am. For instance: 

Youtube videos = Someone pass me a medicinal kitten.

Romance = super stressed 

urban fantasy = nail-biting 

grimdark = Bring it 

WS: Okay, when it comes to reading grimdark with themes of hope throughout, what are some books to pick up?

BT: OOhhh, I do love a good list.

The Gray Bastards by Johnathan French

The Maleficent Seven – Cameron Johnston

The Dark Tower – Stephen King (debatable if grimdark)

The Builders – Daniel Polanksy

The Silent Gods series by Justin Call

About Beth Tabler:

Elizabeth Tabler runs Beforewegoblog and is a lead on Grimdark Magazine. She was at one time an architect but now lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, and as many book worlds as she can get her hands on. She is also a huge fan of Self Published fantasy and was on Team Qwillery as a judge for SPFBO5, and is a judge for SPFBO7.

You will find her with a coffee in one hand and her iPad in the other.

WHERE TO FIND HER

Twitter

Goodreads

Facebook

Pinterest

Grimdark Magazine

Conversations on Hope in the Fantastical: An Interview with Michael Lortz

Lately, my blog has been focusing on the idea of hope in literature, particularly in fantasy and science fiction. Hope is something that can be found in many fantasy and sci-fi books in one shape or another.

I’m happy to be able to discuss the theme of hope in the fantastical with Michael Lortz, author of Curveball at the Crossroads.

WS: Hi Michael. Thank you for agreeing to talk with me about hope in the fantastical.

ML: Thank you for having me. Always a pleasure to talk about what inspires us.

WS: Curveball at the Crossroads is described as being about second chances.  What led you to write a book with such strong themes of hope and second chances?

ML: Good question. Let me talk about second chances first. I read several real-life stories of sports injuries and being a big fan of blues music and the crossroads folklore, I wondered what would happen if I put the two stories together. If someone’s dreams were ripped from them, what extent would they go to get those dreams back?

Now to the hope part. What if a deal you made cost you everything you grew to love? My main character makes a deal with the Devil. As he matures, he doesn’t want to lose his soul. That’s the main conflict. The Devil is possibly the most powerful antagonist in all of fiction. It would be very easy for the character to give up and the Devil to win and the book is over. I did think about that ending as I wrote. The challenge for me as a writer was to figure out how the main character could defeat the Devil.

This might sound weird, but I took a lot of influence from professional wrestling in writing the conflict. In professional wrestling, the bad guy always commits a moral violation. He might cheat or hit the good guy when he is not looking. He is a rule breaker. The crowd cheers for the good guy to reset the moral balance. If the bad guy was weak or beatable, resetting the moral balance would be easy. There would be no challenge. The goal is to make the bad guy as strong as possible, but still beatable. This gives the audience – in our case, the readers – hope that the good will win out. Pro wrestling fans, like many readers, believe in comeuppance. 

WS: That is an interesting comparison. It seems like, in your book, you have obstacles to hope that are both internal (JaMark’s emotional state) and external (the deal with the Devil). Was one struggle more difficult to write than the other and why?

ML: Wow. I never thought of one conflict as harder to write. But the more I think about it, the internal obstacle was probably the harder of the two to write. The reason for this is because as a writer, you put yourself in the character’s mind state. JaMark is lost before he makes a deal with the Devil. He knows it and his family sees it. In order to write that and make it believable, I had to put myself into the mind of my own struggles. That realism is important, especially in regards to dialogue. There are parts of the story where he talks with other characters about his struggles. That has to be as real as possible in order to bring in the reader.

One of the important parts of the book (no spoilers!) is that a deal with the Devil can impact both your external and internal state. Do you keep it a secret? Do you tell people all of your interactions with the Devil? The Devil is a cunning, devious antagonist who will make life nearly impossible if you go it alone. 

WS: Your main character, JaMark, loses something incredibly important to him and it changes the trajectory of his life. Was it difficult to write a character who faces such big setbacks while keeping a hopeful tone?

ML: In my book, JaMark loses his ability to play baseball and with that loss, he loses his hopes for a better future. I set the story in rural Mississippi, the poorest part of the United States. JaMark has pinned his dreams on his left arm. When his arm breaks in his final amateur game, his life spirals downward. He eventually makes a deal with Devil to return to his dreams of playing professional baseball.

I wanted that strong ebb and flow of hope and setback. There are a lot of ups for JaMark, but there are also a lot of downs. At one point, he takes to alcohol and pills to ease the pain. But he realizes, through the help of key side characters, that there are no shortcuts in life. With their help, he is able to gather the strength, courage, and hope needed to face the Devil.

WS: Do you feel that themes of hope are important in the fantastical?

ML: Definitely. In the fantastical, authors can create evils of unlimited power. With a strong antagonist, the only way good can prevail is through hope. I mentioned the Devil as a strong antagonist. I am also a fan of the Star Wars Universe and that was definitely an indirect influence. When you look at Darth Vader, he looks unstoppable. But the main characters never lose hope. The challenge as writers is creating a situation for the protagonist so all they have left is hope.

WS: How do you define subgenres such as noblebright (or hopeful fantasy) or “cozy” books? Is it possible to have strong themes of hope in darker books?

ML: Honestly, I had to look up noblebright. Very interesting. From noblebright.org, “The world of a noblebright story is not perfect, and indeed can sometimes be quite dark. Actions have consequences, and even good characters can make terrible mistakes. But a noblebright story is generally hopeful in tone, even if there are plenty of bad, grim, dark things going on in the world.”

I think that is a really good definition of Curveball at the Crossroads.

I think there is a lot of darkness in our own world, where sometimes hope is all we have. Take world hunger, for example. I hope we can solve that one day. It helps to be positive. As a big music fan as well, I believe dark music, like dark novels, is for us to relate to, and eventually rise above. Curveball at the Crossroads has a lot of blues music influence. The blues is a music heavily based on relatability through bad times. If you have no money, you have the blues. At one point or another, many of us can relate to having no money.

But in relating to others, we are able to dissipate our pain or find someone who has gone on the same journey. And that’s where we find hope. Sometimes the hope is obvious. Sometimes hope is in the understanding that we are not alone in dark times. In Curveball at the Crossroads, the main character definitely finds that out along the way. 

WS: I like what you mentioned about sometimes hope is the understanding that we are not alone during dark times. Do you think that a side character is often the more hopeful one in books? Why or why not?

ML: Yes. Definitely. A perfect example in fantasy is Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Rings. As the Sparknotes.com page on Lord of the Rings states, “If Frodo’s burden is to carry the ring, Sam’s is to carry Frodo.” That’s perfect.

The side characters in Curveball at the Crossroads were often the most fun to write because of their interactions with JaMark. Not all had to be as directly involved as Sam to Frodo, but I like when side characters help guide the journey. If they care about the main character, they probably see the conflict. Some might even have seen the conflict occur in unwritten backstories. Maybe it becomes a Wizard of Oz scenario where they form a group and strength in numbers to solve all of their problems. Whatever their involvement, their energy can be vital to the main character.

WS: Do you gravitate toward books with a hopeful tone?

ML: In the books I read, I think I do prefer those with a hopeful tone. As I mentioned, there is too much darkness in the real world for me to read books with a bleak worldview. Although I do appreciate stories or sections of stories that leave me worried about how or if our hero will save the day. As a Star Wars fan, I call those “Empire Strikes Back” endings.

WS: That makes perfect sense! I think you need those moments of uncertainty to really appreciate the themes of hope.

About the author:

Michael Lortz received his BA in Creative Writing from Florida State University. After getting a day job in the defense industry, he started writing about sports and music in his spare time on his personal blog. He has now written for many of the most popular baseball sites and covered music for local news media. His baseball writing and research has been quoted in USAToday, on ESPN.com, and at local county commissioner meetings. Michael lives in Tampa, Florida and Curveball at the Crossroads is his first novel.

Purchase Link:

Curveball at the Crossroads

Conversations on Hope in the Fantastical: An Interview with Joyce Reynolds-Ward

Recently, my blog has been focusing on the idea of hope in the fantastical. Themes of hope lost and found are found in many fantasy and science fiction books, so I went to the experts to ask about their thoughts about hope in the fantastical: authors themselves.

I’m happy to have had the chance to interview Joyce Reynolds-Ward, author of many book series including The Netwalk Sequence.

WS: Hi, Joyce! Thank you for taking the time to talk with me about hope in the fantastical. You have many books under your belt! Do they all feature themes of hope in some way?

JRW: Most of my books have some sort of hopeful element. Darkness might creep in, the characters go through a lot (and may lose something dear to them), but in the long run, what I am very much into doing is writing some sort of uplifting ending. I have a couple of dark short stories under my belt, but it’s not what I usually write.

WS: Knowing that you have written a couple of darker stories, how did the writing process differ when writing darker plotlines or worlds as opposed to writing those more hopeful in tone? 

JRW: I don’t think there’s a difference in process.

Well, perhaps I might be listening to darker music. The last one—which is being circulated right now in hopes of finding a market—was explicitly written while listening to Neil Young’s “Powderfinger,” but it was also somewhat inspired by that song. My newest release, A Different Life: Now. Always. Forever. was clearly shaped by the Supreme Court striking down Roe v. Wade. The darker elements in that story definitely come from that real-life happening.

Generally, though, if I swing dark, it’s because of a prompt or something happening in the real world that swings me in that direction. Some of my darker short stories were written during a time when I was struggling to keep my day job as a teacher because I had been targeted by an administrator.

WS: What draws you to writing hopeful books?

JRW: I just can’t stand to write books that don’t offer some sort of positive hope at some point in the story. I’ve never been able to really enjoy the endings where everyone suffers and/or dies when I’m reading or watching a story, so I don’t enjoy writing those books either. Not that my work is all sweetness and light! Far from it. My characters undergo a lot—divorce, past trauma, loss of what they love best—but they find a means to overcome it. We have enough despair and darkness in real life. I’d like to point the way to hopeful alternatives.

Though I will admit, some of the books that I thought would be all sweetness and light started turning on me. Oh, they still have the positive endings…but some darkness (primarily political) keeps creeping in.

WS: Do you think fantasy and science-fiction are uniquely placed to function as a safe space for discussing real-life struggles or fears? Why or why not?

JRW: Fantasy and science fiction offer the opportunity to discuss real-life issues out of the immediately emotional context of contemporary life. SFF allows us to strip away superficial matters that might obstruct looking at a particular struggle or fear, and postulate a different path than the one we may be currently taking, for example. This is especially important when looking at political struggles and fears. I will be honest. All of my work has some sort of political element—whether I’m making a statement about feminism (all of it), or commenting on other political trends I see happening.

Look. I’m a former political activist with a degree in political science. If I were to really double down and start focusing on current events, I’d probably be a decent pundit, because to date the projections I’ve made for my science fiction work have for the most part played out. Back in the ‘90s, when I was doing the worldbuilding for my Netwalk Sequence series, I honestly saw the ‘20s and ‘30s as being a very rough time on the political front, with the rise of growing repression, reversion, and fascism. I wish I could find those notes because, well, then I could pinpoint just how accurate my forecasting was. At the time, I was writing book reviews for a Portland alternative magazine, and most of the books I got were political analyses.

All the same, now that we’re here—I can also look at the work where I started projecting more positive outcomes by the ‘40s and ‘50s. I still believe that. But I now feel that many of us need to be projecting what that positive future is, and how we get there. Without the endless pronouncements of doom that far too many folx are into writing.

WS: Do you think that hopeful stories are important and if so, why?

JRW: I touched a little bit on that in an earlier question, but yes. I do think that hopeful stories are important. Even in The Lord of the Rings, which has some very dark pieces to it, there’s still a hopeful ending. I think we as humans need to be aware that there is more to life than pain, brutality, and suffering. That things can be better. That things should be better.

Without the awareness of possible positive outcomes, how can we otherwise make the choices for a better world? How can we strive to better outcomes for all if we can’t visualize what that will look like? Being able to see what positive alternatives look like is important.

WS: I agree and my first thought regarding hope in fantasy was, in fact, Samwise. What you said about humans needing to be aware that things should be better but also needing to be aware of possible positive outcomes is very interesting. Do your characters ever struggle with having differing ideas regarding how to reach a more positive outcome?

JRW: Not really because that’s generally not the story I’m trying to write. My characters tend to try to grasp for the best positive outcomes. 

Well, wait. There are some differing ideas in the Goddess’s Honor series, but those choices also get narrowed down by events. 

In the Netwalk Sequence, Diana Landreth and her daughter Melanie Fielding have some very different ideas about how to best deal with the dangerous alien artifact they call the Gizmo—and that leads to the conflict in the final book of the series, where the Gizmo manipulates Diana until it’s almost too late (I ended up using second person POV for Diana in that book, and it was chilling to see the degree to which second person present can depict someone slowly sliding into delusional thinking).

In the Martiniere books, one of the big twists (that gets explored in several alternative universes) is just when Gabe tells Ruby who he really is. Gabe struggles with that disclosure (except in the A Different Life series, where things are really different from the original series). I’m currently serializing a story where disclosure happens much earlier in their relationship before Gabe is silenced by mind control programming for twenty-one years. At this point, the story is as much for me working on plot possibilities as it is anything else (the book, working title The Cost of Power, is currently serializing on my Martiniere Stories Substack for free. You can find the first episode at https://joycef1d.substack.com/p/no-good-choices-part-one). Call it a writing exercise.

WS: Who are some of your favorite authors?

JRW: Oh, I’m always adding favorites to my lists! Often I’ll go on a reading binge of an author whose stories I like. Right now I’m reading a lot of library e-books. I read widely, not so heavily in some genres as I used to do, but still….Some of my long-term favorites are:

John Steinbeck

Ursula K. Le Guin

Beverly Jenkins

Luis Alberto Urrea

Jamie Ford

Craig Johnson

Laura Pritchett

Kate Elliott

Rebecca Roanhorse

N.K. Jemisin

And a lot, lot more….

About the author:

Joyce Reynolds-Ward has been called “the best writer I’ve never heard of” by one reviewer. Her work includes themes of high-stakes family and political conflict, digital sentience, personal agency and control, realistic strong women, and (whenever possible) horses, frequently in Pacific Northwest settings.

She is the author of The Netwalk Sequence series, the Goddess’s Honor series, The Martiniere Legacy series, The People of the Martiniere Legacy series, and The Martiniere Multiverse series as well as standalones Beating the Apocalypse, Klone’s Stronghold and Alien Savvy. 

Samples of her Martiniere short stories/novel in progress and her nonfiction can be found on Substack at either Speculations from the Wide Open Spaces (writing), Speculations on Politics and Political History (politics), or Martiniere Stories (fiction).

Joyce is a Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off Semifinalist, a Writers of the Future SemiFinalist, and an Anthology Builder Finalist. She is the Secretary of the Northwest Independent Writers Association, a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association, and a member of Soroptimists International.

Find out more about Joyce at her website, http://www.joycereynoldsward.com. Joyce is @JoyceReynoldsW1 on Twitter, jreynoldsward on Tumblr, joycereynoldsward on Counter.Social, and jreynoldsward on Dreamwidth.

Purchase links:

The Netwalk Sequence
Goddess’s Honor
The Martiniere Legacy
The People of the Martiniere Legacy
Martiniere Multiverse

Conversations on Hope in the Fantastical: An Interview Featuring Raina Nightingale

My blog is focusing on the idea of hope in the fantastical: what it means, why it matters, and why it will never go out of style. Today I’m pleased to welcome Raina Nightingale. Raina is the author of several fantasy books including Heart of Fire, which is available for preorder now.

WS: Welcome, Raina! Thank you for joining my blog to talk about hope in the fantastical.

RN: It is a pleasure! When I saw you were asking, I thought, “Oh my stars, this is exactly what I am interested in! Exactly what my books are about, and what I look for when reading, too!” So I could not be more pleased to be here!

WS: I know your latest book, Heart of Fire, is available to preorder right now. Will you talk a little bit about it? 

RN: So Heart of Fire is, in some ways, my oldest work. I first got the basic idea for it when I was eight or nine. So it’s been around for a while, and it’s the only thing I’ve rewritten half a dozen times without it changing so much in the rewrites that it’s not recognizably the same thing. It’s probably my most epic, and maybe my most high, fantasy book/series to date, and the dragons in it are everywhere! It began with the image of Camilla and Radiance’s personalities and bond, and it’s really always been the story of who Camilla thinks she is and her determination to fight evil – and win. It’s definitely a lot more developed now than it was when I first tried to write the whole story out at eleven though! I just wasn’t ready then, and I knew it on some level, though I didn’t know that was what it was about.

WS: The blurb mentions that the main character has been brought up to think that her race is inferior, but she never believed that. What gives her hope and confidence despite everyone’s attempt to crush her down?

RN: What does she think gives her that hope and confidence, or what’s the reality? Camilla is not … terribly introspective in certain ways (she is thoughtful in others), and she likes to believe that all her virtues are solely due to herself and how awesome she is. It’s too dangerous, it makes her feel too vulnerable, to consider otherwise. In reality? Who she is is definitely important, but her mother – and perhaps her father, though he died a long time ago – is a big influence on where she is in life. It also helps that she has had some solid evidence for a while now that some of what she was told is nothing but lies.

WS: How important is it to have hope in fantasy and do you think all fantasy books include these themes to a greater or lesser degree?

RN: I think it is very important, but I can’t speak to whether all fantasy books include these themes without reading them all! I think I’ve seen one or two that I couldn’t see the hope in, but that does not mean someone else would not.

WS: Why do you feel hopeful books will always have an important place in the genre?

RN: Hope is an essential part of being human. We might not call it that, and we might not represent it in the same way, always. For example, hope is often associated with a future state where everything we hope for is realized, but I don’t think that works as well for all people. But that sense that what’s good, what we value, whether we call that love or beauty or something else, is real, that it has meaning and substance no matter much horrible things appear to crush it at the moment, I think that is something everyone craves. That belief that something is worthwhile, worthy of everything we are, and victorious in some sense simply because it is, I think that’s something we all resonate with, even if we’re sometimes afraid to think about it. I think it’s what gives us the strength to survive, to more than that, live, in a world where there is so much fear clamoring to get our attention, and the dread that unthinkable things might happen or be able to happen. And I think it’s what gives us the strength to have compassion, too, instead of being crushed by the fear and believing in evil.

So I think humans will always return to using fantasy to think about hope, what it means to them and what it means in their world, or what they perceive their world to be.

WS: Are there any authors that influence your writing? And who are some of your
favorites?

RN: I think the main influences in a lot of ways have been Anne MacCaffrey and George MacDonald. I read The Harper Hall trilogy by the former and The Princess & The Goblin by the latter quite early on, and stylistically –and in other ways as well – I think both have left a mark in how I write. George MacDonald is definitely one of my favorite authors. Perhaps the only author where, if he were alive and writing today, I would buy whatever he wrote without feeling the need to check it out first … as it is, he’s written so much I haven’t got around to all of it yet! One of the cases where I over-binged on someone’s writing …. Anne MacCaffrey occupies a sort of odd slot, where her writing and books are really special to me, in a way nothing else is, but not really a favorite! Other favorites include Mercedes Lackey, and so far (at least right now) S. Kaeth and JCM Berne! I came across all of these much more recently and in the order in which they are listed.

About the author:

 I (Raina Nightingale) have been writing fantasy since I could write stories with the words I could read (the same time that I started devouring books, too). I now write “slice of life” and epic dawndark fantasy, for fiction lovers interested in rich world-building, characters who feel like real people, and spiritual experiences. I think giant balls floating in space can have the same magic that fairytales teach us to look for in oak trees and stars. I have a lot of universes and while not all of them have giant balls floating in space, most of them have dragons of one sort or another!

Author Website: https://enthralledbylove.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Areaer_Novels

Preorder Heart of Fire: https://books2read.com/raina-heart-of-fire

All My Books  Here: https://books2read.com/raina_books

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).

An Author’s Monster Manual: Table of Contents

I’m a big fan of TTRPGs. I love the imagination involved in creating a story with friends and I love the memories that are made. I often find myself thinking about how cool it would be to include a creature I’ve loved in a fantasy book in a TTRPG setting. I’ve been lucky to have some amazing authors and bloggers share hypothetical Monster Manual additions over the last two weeks.

Here is a list of the awesome guest posts, in case you missed any.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the writers who helped make my idea an awesome reality! The amount of talent gathered here is incredible.

Table of Contents:

An Author’s Monster Manual

An Author’s Monster Manual Featuring Andi Ewington

An Author’s Monster Featuring J.E. Hannaford

An Author’s Monster Manual Featuring Geoff Habiger

An Author’s Monster Manual Featuring Rowena at Beneath a Thousand Skies

An Author’s Monster Manual Featuring Jonathan Nevair

An Author’s Monster Manual Featuring Dan Fitzgerald

An Author’s Monster Manual Featuring Rob Edwards

An Author’s Monster Manual Featuring Ryan Howse

An Author’s Monster Manual Featuring Sean Gibson

An Author’s Monster Manual Featuring Ricardo Victoria

An Author’s Monster Manual Featuring Jeffrey Speight

An Author’s Monster Manual Featuring Joshua Gillingham

An Author’s Monster Manual Featuring Luke Winch

An Author’s Monster Manual Featuring Virgina McClain

An Author’s Monster Manual Featuring Dorian Hart

An Author’s Monster Manual Featuring Dorian Hart

Dorian Hart is an excellent addition to a hypothetical Author’s Monster Manual. His series, The Heroes of Spira (which is phenomenal, by the way) features many unique creatures. All of them would be great additions to any TTRPG.

First, a thank you to Jodie for including me in this most excellent feature!

I make no secret that my Heroes of Spira series uses  a long-running RPG campaign as its source material. I’ve written at length about the perils and pitfalls of that approach, and about the fundamental differences between novels and  campaigns. That said, like many a good RPG,  my epic quest fantasy books sure do feature a wide variety of nonhuman creatures!

In no particular order, the Heroes of Spira includes, among other things:

  • One-eyed gopher bugs
  • A misanthropic living storm
  • A dangerous turtle
  • A cadre of evil, mathematically-inclined cultists 
  • A dragon
  • Intelligent giant ants AND intelligent giant spiders
  • A tentacled blob-monster
  • A bat-winged marble statue that’s deadly when animated
  • Joyously violent goblins
  • A powerful demon lord whose fortress hangs above a lake of boiling pus
  • A 9’ tall oracular toad
  • A snarky telepathic cat
  • A multi-legged but otherwise featureless ball of insect chitin.
  • Massively powerful talking gemstones
  • A giant acidic slug that, let’s be honest, is more-or-less a reskinned Gelatinous Cube, because those things are great
  • Avatars of multiple gods
  • Some good old-fashioned mummies

There’s more, but that should be enough to let you know what kind of series I’m writing.

For a stat block, I’ve chosen from that list the marble statue, whose informal name is a Blood Gargoyle, and whose official name is a [SPOILER REDACTED].  At the risk of some minor spoilers:

In The Ventifact Colossus, the first book in the series, one of the protagonists (named Dranko) meets a Blood Gargoyle in its inanimate form. Even as an inert statue, it scares the living daylights out of Dranko, instilling an unreasoning fear in the man despite not even twitching a wingtip. Here’s the passage where he first beholds the thing:

* * *

Dranko wasn’t sure what he was looking at. 

No, that wasn’t entirely true. He knew it was a statue, half again as tall as he was. He knew that while it was humanoid, it wasn’t human; no man or woman or goblin-touched had fangs that long, or claws that sharp, or eyes that far apart, or a chin that long and pointed, or wings neatly folded behind its back. And he knew that it was made of rock, some kind of striated marble as orange and luminous as a harvest moon.

But he also knew that this thing was more, and that it was worse, and that he wanted as little to do with it as possible. Its deep-socketed eyes, two blood-colored marbles with cat-slit pupils, were like windows into the Hells, and something looked out of them, eager, hungry. Though it was just an inert stone sculpture, inanimate, incapable of causing him harm unless it fell on him, Dranko had to fight down his flight reflex from the moment he laid his eyes upon it.

* * *

Later in book 1, we learn that (off camera) the Blood Gargoyle attacked  and nearly killed the heroes’ ancient and powerful wizardly patron, Abernathy. But while the reader still has not seen one in action by the end of The Ventifact Colossus, if you think I’m going to let a perfectly good Chekov’s Gargoyle sit around on the mantelpiece for a full five books without it going off, I can assure you that [MORE SPOILERS REDACTED].

It’s one of the more fearsome members of my novels’ bestiary, so I don’t recommend throwing it against low-level adventurers unless you’re itching for a TPK.  If you want to use it in a campaign, I suggest first letting your characters encounter it in its inanimate form, and then springing the “live” version on them many sessions later, once they’re powerful enough to (maybe) handle it. Ideally, your PCs will burst into the villain’s sanctum just as they’re finishing up the animating ritual, and the blood gargoyle will fight your heroes  while the villain escapes via secret tunnel, teleportation circle, enchanted flying contraption, or a similar contrivance.

Here’s a stat block for it:

C:\Users\Dorian\Desktop\blood gargoyle 2.jpg

Regretfully, I cannot supply you with art for the Blood Gargoyle, as my abilities in the visual arts can only be measured using an electron microscope. I hope the above description is sufficient for you to imagine one.

About the author:

Dorian Hart is the author of the Heroes of Spira epic fantasy series, which currently includes The Ventifact Colossus, The Crosser’s Maze, and The Greatwood Portal. He also wrote the interactive science fiction novella Choice of the Star Captain for Choice of Games.

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

An Author’s Monster Manual Featuring Virginia McClain

No Monster’s Manual would be complete with a creature that is at least a little draconic, although once again my guest author pulled out all the stops. Virginia McClain,author of both the Gensokai series and the Victoria Marmot series, puts a new- and incredible- spin on a massive serpent, showcasing a creature from her next book,  Eredi’s Gambit!

Twisted Monsters or Twisted Tropes?

As much as I enjoy “proper monsters” (killing machines that don’t have much motivation beyond wanting to eat the hapless adventurers unfortunate enough to cross their paths) one of my all-time favorite tropes is the monster that secretly, well, isn’t

Even going back to when I first started playing D&D (around age 8—which was…a long time ago…shhh) I preferred it when our party ran afoul of creatures who had some motive for wanting us dead besides hunger/unexplained hatred of everything around them. Whether it was accidental, “You idiotic humans just got between me and my babies! Perish, foolish mortals!” Or intentional, “I may look like an average bugbear, but I am actually a minion of this super sneaky mindflayer that lives just around the next bend, so why don’t you chase me and see what happens?”

I was fortunate to have a DM (my big brother) who also liked giving motivations to his monsters, so we had some delightfully interesting campaigns even when we were at the age where cannon fodder monsters would have been perfectly standard. Perhaps that’s why I have always leaned into the fantasy books that question the existence of monsters that it’s always morally unobjectionable to kill. 

As a kid and into my teens R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt books were some of my favorites for precisely that reason. Despite the constraining rules of writing within the Forgotten Realms, Salvatore did his level best to question how an entire group of people could be any one thing, especially if that thing was “evil.” I loved that. I loved it so much that the first novel I ever finished a complete draft of was a pretty solid Drizzt knock off, set in the Forgotten Realms, and with my own original characters, but… let’s just say it was derivative enough that I don’t have any plans to publish it. (Though if Wizards of the Coast ever comes knocking I’d be willing to dust off that old manuscript and see what’s salvageable — just sayin’.)

These days I make my own worlds, and I delight in creating characters that look like traditional monsters but who are in fact quite pleasant once you get to know them. Meanwhile, certain perfectly average looking humans (along with the systems they create/sustain) are the true monsters. I like to keep my readers guessing.

Take, for example, this big ol’ sea serpent. 

She looks intimidating. You probably would be pretty freaked out if you were on the deck of that ship she’s in front of. And, as she can’t speak any of the human languages, most of the humans she encounters take her vocalizations for the rage filled cry of a monster hellbent on destruction. 

Mostly she’s just shouting out questions to try to figure out why the pesky humans are approaching her territory. Why she bothers she isn’t sure. The humans seem far too stupid to answer her, and always attack her rather than engaging in a simple conversation. Lately though, one of those pesky spirits has been convincing her friends to attack humans that aren’t even in their territory. Horribly rude.

Needless to say, when these misunderstandings lead to humans attacking her, she’s forced to defend herself. To say it doesn’t generally go well for the humans or their ships is… a bit of an understatement.

I suppose you probably want some stats for this monster who isn’t a monster though, eh? I mean, I don’t generally roll up characters sheets for anyone in my books because as deep as my D&D roots go, I prefer the freedom of creating people and worlds outside of those rule sets. That said, if this sea serpent were going to show up in a D&D campaign, she’d have stats similar to a dragon. Sea serpents in this world are essentially water dragons anyway. So very high hit points, a water breath attack, a crushing attack, a bite attack, and a tail lash. All of those would deal massive damage, but a human would have a decent chance at saving against said damage by using evasion. Bryllth (that’s her name for the purposes of this sheet) is very large, but not so fast that you wouldn’t be able to dodge if you could see her clearly. Of course, she can hide underwater, so you won’t generally see her coming unless she wants you to. 

In other words, she’s bad news for the people who try to fight her. Still, she’s very much misunderstood by most humans, and certainly her first appearance in Sairō’s Claw doesn’t make her seem like the calm welcoming creature she *can* be. 

But I’m delighted to report that we’ll learn more about her, her motives, and the people who are actually able to communicate with her (and thus clear up a few misunderstandings) in the next book – Eredi’s Gambit. 

Here’s the character sheet I worked up for her pretending that she was a very high level dragonborn ranger. 

I went with a character sheet rather than monster stats as Bryllth is one of the protectors of her people and absolutely has a life of her own beyond sinking ships that show up uninvited and start attacking her without any explanation. That said, a lot of this character info is slightly off, because she’s much larger than any dragonborn, and she’s a natural swimmer with a water attack rather than a cold attack. But it was the best I could do with a free digital sheet from D&D Beyond.

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning a bit about Bryllth, and if you’d like to see her in action, you can find her first appearance in the very final pages of Sairō’s Claw. Bryllth is just one example of the way I enjoy twisting monster tropes; you can find more in pretty much all of my books.

About the Author:
Virginia McClain is an author who masqueraded as a language teacher for a decade or so. When she’s not reading or writing she can generally be found playing outside with her four-legged adventure buddy and the tiny human she helped to build from scratch. She enjoys climbing to the top of tall rocks, running through deserts, mountains, and woodlands, and carrying a foldable home on her back whenever she gets a chance. She’s also fond of word games and writing descriptions of herself that are needlessly vague.

To Purchase:

Chronicles of Gensokai
Sairō’s Claw: Gensokai Kaigai Book One 
Victoria Marmot and the Meddling Goddess

An Author’s Monster Manual Featuring Joshua Gillingham

My Author’s Monster Manual series continues with an awesome addition from author Joshua Gillingham. His books, The Gatewatch and The Everspring, are epic fantasies inspired by Norse myth. Joshua’s addition of the Norosi Troll is hardcore!

The Norosi Troll:

Artist Credit: Antonio J. Manzenedo

About the author:

Joshua Gillingham is an author, game designer, and editor from Vancouver Island, Canada. His fantasy trilogy The Saga of Torin Ten-Trees (Crowsnest Books) is a rollicking, riddling, troll-hunting adventure inspired by the Norse myths and the Icelandic Sagas; it now available in paperback, ebook, and as an audiobook narrated by Alex C. Stewart. Joshua is also the co-author of Old Norse for Modern Times alongside Ian Stuart Sharpe (Vikingverse Books & Comics) and Dr. Arngrimur Vidalin (University of Iceland).

In partnership with Outland Entertainment, Joshua is the founding Worldsmith of the trans-media Outland ‘Althingi’ World set in Viking Age Iceland, featuring his original card game Althingi: One Will Rise and the groundbreaking anthology Althingi: The Crescent & the Northern Star, co-edited with Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad (A Mosque Among the Stars) which explores the under-examined historical connections between Vikings and Muslims.The latest project in the Althingi universe is Althingi: Saga Heroes, the first expansion to the base game, and it is live on Kickstarter now!

To Purchase:

The Gatewatch
The Gatewatch Audiobook
The Everspring