Monday, September 19, 2016

10 YA Fantasy Books You should Read if You've Never Read YA

THE RAVEN BOYS by Maggie Stiefvater

Five young people in a contemporary rural town search for a legendary Welsh King. Even with bit parts, the adults are just as interesting as the young protagonists, who are beautifully rendered individuals. And there are some fabulous villains. Blue, the girl whose first kiss will lead to the death of the boy who kisses her, is a beguiling hero, and the four boys each have their own personal demons. The beginning of a four book series.


Set after the Civil War, this fantasy series is about a group of young women who have been targeted by the malevolent fairy folk. The fairy prince is seductive and terrifying, not the typical romantic villain. Each book in this series features a different heroine and her battle against some truly monstrous fairies.


Truly creepy. Set in contemporary Savannah after a hurricane--which turns out to be a horrifying entity in itself. The heroine, Dovey, tries to save a dead friend's soul while discovering an original world of demons and otherworldly creatures. When she meets the seductive trickster Isaac, she's drawn even deeper into this world.

THE GOLDEN COMPASS by Phillip Pullman

A race of good witches, martial and intelligent polar bears, animal familiars, and a tough young heroine and hero make this an original fairy tale for all ages. It's got a steampunk flare and wonderful villains.


A romance between an angel and a demon, but not what you think. The angels are a warrior race who have tried to conquer what they feel is the inferior race--the monstrous looking Chimerae. Karou is a young woman living in Prague, raised by benevolent Chimerae. When she meets Akiva, a fierce, winged, young man, an ancient romance is revealed between them.


Darker shades of 'Once' in this fantasy series about a friendship between a contemporary Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Snow White, in a future that has been transformed by the arrival of magic. Detailed, original worldbuilding and the genuine way in which the three girls care about each other make this series highly enjoyable for fairy tale lovers.

THE WINTER PRINCE by Elizabeth E. Wein

A different and disturbing take on King Arthur, centering around Medraut, King Artos's eldest, bastard son. His half-brother Lleu is their father's favorite. Medraut both loves and hates him. Artos's sister--Medraut's mother--is horrifying and bewitching. Themes of abuse and twisted family dynamics make this myth poignant and suspenseful.

THE DARKANGEL by Meredith Ann Pierce

Set in an alternative world on the moon, this strange and beautiful fantasy is about a girl named Aeriel who is stolen away, with her friend Eoduin, by one of the feared darkangels--a heartless and lovely creature who wants Eoduin as one of his wives and Aeriel as his servant. His wives are all phantoms because he's a vampire, and captive of an evil witch.

THE WHITE CAT by Holly Black

Cassel is a young man who lives, gypsy-like, in a secret world of almost gangster-like magic. Curse workers are a distrusted minority in this not-too-distant future. When he's betrayed by people he trusts, he must run a con of his own on the best magic-using con artists he knows. An urban fantasy with a dash of noir.

THE SILVER KISS by Annette Curtis Klause

Zoe is losing her mother to cancer. She's targeted by a feral and strange young man named Simon--whose enemy, a creature pretending to be an innocent little boy, stalks him. It's an exquisite tale of defeating monsters and accepting death. 

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Mythology of Briars, Nettles, and Thorns

Natural and beautiful, sharp and serpentine, usually found in the wild and unwanted in most tamed gardens, these plants have been used in folklore and witchcraft for centuries.

In the story of 'Sleeping Beauty,' the slumbering princess is surrounded by a wall of briars and brambles. (Brambles are also blackberry bushes and notorious faery fruit.) Briar Rose is another name for Sleeping Beauty, suggesting that her beauty might conceal prickles.

The nettle is known for its healing properties, despite being a stinging plant. Blind nettles are called Lamium album (A lamia is a female demon who kills babies.) The nettle plant wards off ghosts. It's the plant of the Noridic storm god Thor. In the fairy tale 'The Wild Swans,' a girl releases her brothers from their enchanted swan forms by placing nettle shirts over them.

Blackthorn and hawthorn are traditionally faery trees. Infamous for crowning sacrificial kings, thorns also blind the prince in the original 'Rapunzel.' Thorns pierce, shed blood. In 'Sleeping Beauty,' the princess punctures her finger on a spindle and falls under the spell. Snow White's real mother pricks her finger on a needle and uses that drop of blood to wish for a child. In 'Little Red Riding Hood,' Red Riding Hood is offered a choice by the wolf; the Path of Needles or the Path of Pins.

The spindle and the needle, symbolic thorns, set a story on its path.

Briars, nettles, and thorns symbolize barriers, pain, enchantment, but they also keep the vulnerable from being breached. In storytelling, they signify that life has teeth. And, like most faery things, they are beautiful, and something to be wary of.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Awesomeness of Home by Beth Cato

This week's 'The Awesomeness of . . .' post comes from Beth Cato, author of The Clockwork Dagger series from Harper Voyager, which includes her Nebula-nominated novella Wings of Sorrow and Bone. Her newest novel is Breath of Earth. She's a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cat. Follow her at and on Twitter at @BethCato.


I grew up near a naval air station in the smack dab middle of California. My mom told me, "Never date a sailor. If you marry him, you'll end up living far away." As it so happens, I met a man when I was just shy of turning nineteen; we fell in love; my parents approved of him; THEN he joined the United States Navy.

My mom's early warning was apt. During my husband's Navy years, we lived in South Carolina and Washington state, and we have now been civilians in Arizona for nine years. I have been away from my hometown of Hanford, California, for sixteen years, but a deep sense of homesickness has not abated.

Sure, there is a lot to complain about when it comes to California, especially my part of the state. I'm from the Great San Joaquin Valley, hundreds of miles of some of the richest, most diverse agricultural land in the world. It also ranks among the worst in the world as far as air pollution; in the summer, smog smothers the valley in murky brown. Many people are poor, working class. The racial divides are clear and tragic. Unemployment remains at a steady high.

But it's still home. My home. If my husband could find a job there, I'd move back in a heartbeat. As it is now, I'm lucky to make the long drive back once or twice a year. I delight in the faint yet bold wall of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the distance. I smile as we drive past row after row of walnut trees, orange groves, and raisin grape vineyards. I delight at the sight of lush fields of corn, and even the fragrant clusters of dairies.

I can't go back often. I can't live there. So I do what any writer does: I live vicariously. I write myself back home.

My new novel Breath of Earth isn't set in the San Joaquin Valley, but it's close: San Francisco. My version of 1906 features not-so-mythological creatures, geomancers who harvest the overflowing energy of the earth, and airships that traverse the skies. My heroine, Ingrid Carmichael, doesn't look like me in the slightest. We have different skin tones, cultures, and histories, but we do have a major thing in common: a fierce love and longing for our homes.

Home is awesome. A shared home in California, even more so. We both have roots in the central part of the state. We appreciate the diversity of our neighbors. Our home cities are a few hundred miles apart, but that's not far at all in the scheme of things.

The beauty of being a writer is that I can imagine myself into far away realms. Sure, I would love to see castles and moonscapes and alien civilizations, but when it comes down to it, most of all, I want to be home.

My house, husband, son, and cat may be in Arizona, but the home of my heart is some 500 miles northwest. For all its flaws, Hanford is an awesome place. No matter how many years I live away, it remains part of me, and will continue to inspire my writing . . . and a lot of homesickness, too.

You can find Beth's books here: Amazon:

And here:;jsessionid=890BB5DEF8138CDC71875B7AAF03D71E.prodny_store01-atgap02?ean=9780062422064

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Awesomeness of Steampunk in Film by Brooke Johnson

Today's 'The Awesomeness of . . . ' post comes from guest author Brooke Johnson, creator of the wonderfully imaginative The Brass Giant and The Guild Conspiracy (Harper Voyager). Brooke is a stay-at-home mom and tea-loving author. As the jack-of-all trades bard of the family, she journeys through life with her husband, daughter, and dog. She currently resides in Northwest Arkansas but hopes one day to live somewhere a bit more mountainous.

Brooke's blog:
Twitter: @brookenomicon


This might be blasphemy as a steampunk author and reader, but my favorite medium for the steampunk genre is film--hands down. There is nothing quite like seeing a beautiful mechanical sculpture come to life on the screen, whether it's the steam castle in Steamboy, or something as a close-up of the gear makeup within the Jaegers of Pacific Rim.

That ratchet and clank, the hiss of steam, the grungy aesthetic of greased up gears and tarnished boilers, paraded across the screen in gorgeous cinematic CG glory. In my opinion, nothing brings steampunk to life better than film.

But the absolute pinnacle of steampunk in film has to be the 1999 film version of Wild Wild West. That movie holds a very special place in my heart, whatever that may say about my taste in cinema.

I think that film was my first real glimpse at the steampunk genre, and I probably owe much of my fascination with the genre to it. I was ten years old when it came out and absolutely mesmerized by all the machines and inventions. And as absurd as many of the gadgets in the film are--the dead-man's-last-vision projector, the locomotive steam tank, the giant mechanical spider, the rocket-powered flying bicycle, and the mustache-twirling villain Dr. Loveless's multifunctional wheelchair--these weird and marvelous inventions embody such creativity, exploring every avenue of what if. It was that unabashed sense of "Why not?" with regard to the technology that made me love it so much. To this day, it's my favorite steampunk-inspired film (and yes, I even re-watched it recently to make sure. Its pinnacle status still stands. Haters keep hatin'. I don't care).

Other films have successfully incorporated steampunk elements as well, and many of them have offered varying levels of inspiration to my steampunk novels. The steam castle in Steamboy lends its enormous engine chamber, with its gargantuan gears and colossal pistons, to the subcity beneath Chroniker City, and the mechanical soldiers in both that film and movies like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Hellboy II, and even Sucker Punch had an impact on my automaton design in The Brass Giant, and the designs of the mechs and war machines I wrote into The Guild Conspiracy.

But Wild Wild West probably offered the most inspiration, with its widespread integration of all things mechanical into every possible gadget. It gave me the courage to delve deeper into my steampunk world, to think beyond the more obvious and exciting applications of mechanical technology and dare to build even the most mundane machine out of clockwork and steam engines.

Chroniker City has steam rickshaws instead of automobiles or carriages, automated venting systems along the city streets, a cross between a trolley and a vertical lift combined into one multidirectional mode of city transport, and a mechanical theater that employs an orchestra of musical automatons instead of musicians. These things are unimportant to the larger plot, but I feel like they bring the steampunk element to life, just as important to the steampunk aesthetic as the war machine the main character designs and builds over the course of the story.

I only hope that my words bring these machines to life with the same visual wonder and imaginative creativity as the best computer-generated graphics of the big screen. If not? Well . . . get on that, Hollywood. It's high time for a steampunk blockbuster.

You can find Brooke's novels here:

Friday, August 5, 2016

How To Create A Girl

Have the heroines of YA fantasy overtaken the heroes? I began reading fantasy when there was a true Renaissance of female protagonists: The artistic young women of Charles de Lint's Newford series; Neil Gaiman's Goth girl Death; the sword-wielding heroines of Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword, C.J. Cherryh's Gates of Ivrel series, and Barbara Hambly's Time of the Dark; P.C. Hodgell's trickster Jame in Godstalk.

I also read about the bad-ass girls of myth and folklore: Tokoyo, daughter of a Samurai, who took the place of a sacrifice and killed a dragon; Janet of the Scottish ballad 'Tam Lin,' who defied a faery queen to save her lover; the heroine of the fairy tale 'The Robber Bridegroom,' who outwits murderous thugs; the Russian Vassilisa, who escapes the terrifying witch Baba Yaga; Maeve, the Irish warrior queen, who is somewhat of an anti-hero; the Australian Wawilak sisters, hunters and keepers of wisdom; and clever Scheherazade, who convinced a mad sultan not to kill her by telling him stories.

The idea of writing a YA heroine as a blank slate so that readers might place their own personas upon her is no longer the standard. YA books are filled with young women who have distinct personalities. The steampunk tough girls of Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles and Kady Cross's The Girl in the Steel Corset. The cutthroat trickster girls in A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab and Leigh Bardugo's Six of Crows. The inquisitive and introspective Blue of Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys, and Karou in Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone. The rebels Katniss Everdeen in Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, and Lada in Kiersten White's And I Darken.

When creating a young female protagonist, an archetype is a helpful way to lay the groundwork. Archetypes are not stereotypes, but traditional roles in storytelling throughout time. Beginning with an archetype helps understand a character's function, what part they'll play, and how they'll change throughout the story. Books explaining the meaning of Tarot cards are a fantastic way to find an archetype for a heroine, as well as lists of attributes.

But a hero is a person, not an archetype. And building on this is where the real work begins. Finding a face and a personality for the female protagonist can be done by leafing through magazines, checking out Pinterest, watching movies or TV. It helps to visualize her as flesh and blood. Adding a quirk, habits, and hobbies makes her memorable. These must be important to her character. Listing her likes and dislikes and any daily rituals also helps give her an identity--sometimes these won't even be seen by the reader, but kept in a character journal. And what kind of upbringing has she had? What sort of culture was she raised in? Fantasy opens up doors to imaginative alternatives in diversity. A family and choice memories create a rich background from which to extract emotional information.

Remember she's a teen. Remember what it was like to be a teenager, with all those passions and insecurities. This is a part of who she is. Add some heroic or anti-heroic qualities--a negative trait makes her easy to relate to (temper, pride, selfishness) and a fault she aspires to conquer. This fault can also get her into trouble and ratchet up the tension. Rational contradictions and unexpected attributes also add depth.

Think of the heroines that came before. The adventurers, Nancy Drew and Alice in Wonderland. The survivors--the true life pioneer Laura Ingalls Wilder and Frances Hodgson Burnett's Little Princess. And real life girls who have overcome great odds.

Romance or not? It depends on the story. If it's a fairy-tale like narrative, a heroine can be the adventurer and still find true love. Romance doesn't have to be the major focus, but it can be a development that complicates matters. It should be organic, something that helps grow the story.

People are complex, but a character full of foibles and personality traits is weird. Just a few distinguishing characteristics will create a protagonist whose emotional and physical journey is unforgettable. Overcoming stereotypes, even fun ones (such as the kick-ass heroine), to create a girl who is on her way to becoming a unique young woman, is a challenge, but results in a fascinating hero readers will adore and follow anywhere.

So, who are some of your favorite heroines and why?

Monday, August 1, 2016

Summer Giveaway #3 Thorn Jack

For the third Night & Nothing giveaway this summer, the prize is listed below:

A signed trade paperback of Thorn Jack
The Spring edition of Faerie Magazine
A journal
A one-of-a-kind, hand-crafted Fata journal

A flower fairy bookmark

There will be one winner. All you have to do is answer a question and leave a comment here, Tweet about the contest or follow me on Twitter, or visit my author page (where you can get news of upcoming projects).


a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, July 25, 2016

Tim Lees, Author of The God Hunter

Welcome back, Tim Lees, author of The God Hunter and Devil in the Wires (Harper Voyager) to It's All About Story. Tim's blog can be found here:

1) Describe your latest book.

It's called Steal the Lightning. It's the third in the Field Ops series (following the two mentioned above), and it's a sort of road trip around the US, looking at some of the consequences of having a bunch of "gods" (for want of a better term) on the loose. The previous books jumped about a bit, globally, but this takes place in a much shorter time-frame and a much smaller area. Like the other books, it's self-contained; they follow an overall development, but I try to make sure new readers can pick up any one of the series and still enjoy it.

2) What do you like about speculative fiction as a genre?

You can tackle big issues in a light, even frivolous way. I tend to mix up genres--thriller, SF, comedy, fantasy--and the Field Ops novels touch on some serious matters, including religion and politics, but do so playfully, I hope. It's not like writing an essay. You don't have to produce the final word. You can even have a situation that goes against your general beliefs, though I don't know that I've actually done that. I like messing around with big concepts, and sometimes just being surreal and silly--and wondering how relatively ordinary people would react if such things actually happened. Plus, I suppose, like anyone in this field, I'm temperamentally attracted to the weird and bizarre. Always was, even as a kid.

3) Name three of your favorite writers.

J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Alan Moore.

4) What books do you feel have influenced you as a writer?

Everything I've ever read. But the period when I really learned to write was when I lived in Scotland, and there were a few authors who influenced me strongly then. One was William Burroughs--not the cut-ups, but the little short stories in between, especially in Soft Machine and The Wild Boys. I still think "The Mayan Caper" is a great time travel piece, so unconventional. I should go back and re-read those books. I liked Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, his bitchy account of '20s Paris, and Angela Carter's short stories in Fireworks (overshadowed by her later work, but to my mind much more interesting), and Christopher Isherwood, who taught me how to use autobiographical material in an "English" way, as opposed to the "American" style of Jack Kerouac. Isherwood was a perfect antidote to the other authors, with his deceptively simple, "transparent" writing. It took me a very long time to recognise the value of simple, straightforward prose.

5) What was the first book in your childhood that you loved?

The Lost World, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was the first book I read on my own. I've been asked this question before and it made me think about the book a little more deeply. On the one hand, it's an adventure story with dinosaurs--who could resist?--but on another level, there's a rather poignant frame-plot to it. The narrator, Edward Malone, joins Professor Challenger's expedition in an attempt to impress the girl he loves, who mocks him for his supposed lack of heroism. He even names the plateau's central lake after her, Lake Gladys. Then he returns to England, and she marries someone else. You can't make people love you, even when they let you think you can.

6) What is your favorite book on writing, the one that helped you the most?

Death is no Obstacle, a long interview with Michael Moorcock by Colin Greenland. In fact, Moorcock is a huge source of inspiration to me and, I think, many British writers of my generation. He's done it all--literary fiction, potboilers, fantasy, historical, contemporary--but always, you imagine, with the rent collector tapping his foot on the other side of the door. (I'm joking--I trust he's made a decent living, but his work is certainly haunted by the need to put food on the table.) He's a professional in the truest sense of the word, even a hack, and has rushed books that might well have benefited from a few more days' consideration. At the same time, he has produced work of astonishing artistic achievement, and even now, in his late seventies, remains a great innovator. He talks articulately about writing, both the tricks which get him through a book and the commercial environment in which such books are written. His approach is very nuts-and-bolts and therefore accessible to anyone. What he doesn't talk about is his talent, the mysterious miracle ingredient which makes it all actually work.

7) When you need inspiration, where do you find it?

Long ago, when I'd produce only a few short stories a year, ideas would come to me while I was out walking, or sometimes as spin-offs from my reading of other authors (a favorite trick was to take a non-genre story and then create a fantasy or SF "version" of it). Nowadays it's not like that. The germ of a story may come, often during a bout of insomnia, or while I'm doing something unrelated to writing, and I'll be hugely enthusiastic about it. But it takes more than that, say, to bring it to novel-length. Structural problems can take a lot of sorting out. Smaller problems often solve themselves in the act of writing itself. There's nothing more inspirational than having a pen in your hand!

8) Do you feel your work is plot-driven or character-driven?

I'm more interested in character than plot. Unless I come up with a really good plot.

Plots are great for a writer, because they tell you where the story's going. Than can be handy for a reader, too. But nobody's going to read a book where the characters don't engage them.

That said, I like characters who are flawed, quirky, and not always admirable. They remind me of my friends.

9) What process do you find most challenging as a published writer? Outlining? Editing? Promoting?

Promoting. It's not that the job is hard--I've really enjoyed appearances at comics conventions and bookstore readings, and it's always a pleasure to be invited to appear on somebody's blog. But does any of it actually sell books? Social media was recently touted as the great marketing tool, and it certainly has provided some enjoyable moments--through Twitter, I've been able to have conversations with a wide range of people, including a number of much-admired authors. I didn't buy their books because they talked to me on Twitter, though--and I doubt they bought my books at all!

A former bookshop manager once told me that, despite all the advertising hype, the only thing that really sells a book is word of mouth. Of course, to get word of mouth, people have to know about your book to start with. You're up against the same problem you'd have marketing any product. There are a huge number of books out there. Why should anyone pay attention to yours? (If there's a good answer to this, please let me know.)

10) What's the most surprising thing you've learned about being published?

That I am not world famous and driving around in a gold-plated Rolls Royce. Yet.

11) Are there any upcoming books, novellas, short stories?

Only if someone publishes them. "If a tree falls in a forest . . ." I have a couple of short stories doing the rounds, and a novel set in the aftermath of World War II which needs finishing, and a hundred other ideas and half-finished manuscripts. Years ago, I taught a creative writing class, and was always astonished when people told me they didn't know what to write about. To me, there's far too much to write about. I'm looking forward to getting my current jobs out of the way so I can work on something new.

Thank you, Tim!
You can find all of Tim's books here: