Enter the Dragon – Interview with Samantha Shannon

Priory of the Orange Tree might just be the most magically anticipated fantasy novel of this year. And we can say with absolute certainty that it is worth the hype. Magical women, brave warriors, powerful queens and, of course, dragons – what more could you want. We were lucky enough to chat to author, Samantha Shannon about the experience of writing Priory and her favourite fictional dragons!

1. Priory of the Orange Tree is home to epic queens, dragons and magic – there is so much to unpack with all of the glorious detail that flows through it – can you tell us where you got your first inspiration for the novel?

There was never a single eureka moment for this book, as there was with The Bone Season – it was a few different ideas coming together over twenty years. I can trace the thread of inspiration right the way back to my fifth birthday, when I first saw Dragonheart. That film sparked a lifelong love of all things fire-breathing and scaly, and once I knew I wanted to be an author, I also knew I wanted to write my own dragon book one day. In 2014, I decided to do that by contesting and re-imagining the legends surrounding Saint George and the Dragon from a modern feminist perspective. I also wanted to write a novel that explored the different ways in which dragons are imagined across the world, had religious (mis)interpretation as a prominent theme, and intertwined mythology with some fascinating periods of history.Priory hatched out of all of this and more.

2. How did you feel about writing Priory while also writing the Bone Season series – was it refreshing to work in a different genre of fantasy? 

It was, yes. I thought it was going to be impossible to divide my time between the two, as they’re so different – one set in Paris in the year 2060, the other a standalone in a fictional world inspired by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – but both projects ended up benefiting so much from my multi-tasking. Moving between them kept my inspiration for both alive. If I started to lose steam in one manuscript, I could switch to the other and recharge my creative batteries. I plan to always have at least two projects on the go from now on, as I find it so helpful to have that breathing space. 

3. Ead and Sabran and Tané are wonderful characters, made more wonderful by their differences, can you say which character’s story you felt you knew first? 

I’m so glad you like them! Tané was the first Priory character to walk into my head, and she’s also the character who’s most like me – an anxious workaholic – so she has a special place in my heart. Ead was probably my favourite to write out of the four narrators, though. Most of her story takes place in an Elizabethan-style court, and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed writing about the intrigue, opulence and pressure of life in the entourage of a queen. 

4. Was it exciting to be able to tell a story using dragons – one of the most loved fantasy tropes?

It really was! I loved being able to write my own take on the most beloved of mythical beasts and create a taxonomy of creatures related to them, from cockatrices to wyverns to dragons born of fire and starlight. I sense that dragons are about to make a huge resurgence in fiction, and I can’t wait to see new takes on them. 

5. What was it like to take the story of the dragon rider who revered dragons and contrast it with the characters who fear dragons more than anything? 

I knew from the beginning that I wanted dragons to form the basis of the main religions of the book, with some people viewing them as gods and others as purely evil. There are benevolent and unpleasant dragons in Priory– the former connected to one branch of magic, the latter to another – and that divergence is the source of an age-old misunderstanding between the two sides of the world. Writing creation myths for my dragons and turning them into opposing faith systems was such an enjoyable challenge. 

6. One of the most satisfying aspects of Priory of the Orange Tree is the wideness of the world and the richness of the detail of the court and its magic. How long did you spend building the world before you began writing? 

I don’t clearly remember this, as I started the book more than four years ago, but I think I spent a few weeks sketching the basics before I jumped in. I believe in worldbuilding on the go, allowing your character to guide you as they go about their life. You never know if a paracosm is going to hang together, what details you need to add, or what gaps there are to caulk, until you throw a character in there and let them start telling you. I essentially built a skeletal world and added flesh as I went along. 

7. Was it important to you to tell the stories of these diverse women? 

Epic fantasy has historically been a male domain. Fortunately, many authors have been working hard for many years to change that, and I hope Priory does its small part in pushing that change forward. There are two male narrators, and I loved writing their stories – but the women are the ones whose actions have the greatest impact on the narrative. I wanted to write a feminist tale that allowed women from many backgrounds to control the fate of nations, eviscerated the damsel in distress trope, and wasn’t set in a violently misogynistic world. 

8. Priory reads like an homage to the wonderful epic fantasy of the 70s and 80s but with a thoroughly contemporary head on its shoulders – was it fun bringing this type of fantasy right up to date? 

It was great fun, and very liberating. I always meant for it to be a story that utilised many of the tropes of classic epic fantasy – an enemy returning from the dead, a hero with a magic sword, a hidden society of magic users – but left some of its more negative features behind. 

9. Would you say there were particular stories or myths that lent inspiration to Priory? 

Yes. The main one was the legend of Saint George and the Dragon – which isn’t a single legend, but a mythos. The one I most wanted to retell was a 1596 version of the story by Richard Johnson, a contemporary of Shakespeare, who turned Saint George into an Englishman from Coventry. I took several elements from that story and re-imagined them in a way that I hope challenges Johnson and his frankly disturbing ideas about what makes a hero. The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser and the Japanese tale of Hohodemi, which involves a magical fishhook and two jewels that control the tides, also had a significant impact on the story and worldbuilding. 

10. Can you name your favourite fictional dragons? 

Draco from Dragonheart was the first dragon I ever loved. I also love Rollo from Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho, Saphira from Eragon by Christopher Paolini, and Firedrake from Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke, which was my favourite childhood book. 

11. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 

Neil Gaiman once told me to enjoy myself. Not exactly writing advice, but excellent life advice. Sometimes I can get so anxious about my work as I strive to make it perfect, so this was a reminder to sometimes sit back and enjoy the ride. 

Priory of the Orange Tree will be released on February 26 and you won’t be able to put it down!

Autumn Books Preview: Outrun the Wind by Elizabeth Tammi

Do you like myths? Fantasy? Ancient Greeks? Love stories? Then Outrun the Wind is the book for you. Taking us on a breakneck tour of some of the most famous Greek gods and their domain Outrun the Wind tells the story of two girls who find themselves in debt to two of the most ruthless of the Greek gods – Artemis and Apollo. Kahina is expected to do nothing but serve the goddess Artemis – and never fall in love. However the minute she uses her power to help save legendary warrior Atalanta, she knows she is well on her way to breaking both of those rules.

When Atalanta is threatened with a marriage she doesn’t want she and Kahina come up with a plan that will allow her to fight for her own hand. If you’ve read the myth of Atalanta, then you will know she races her suitors and announces that only the man who beats her will win. Outrun the Wind takes a different direction from the myth – where Hippomenes is a much more dangerous figure than he is portrayed in the original story. The girls are given the love story instead and Outrun the Wind is much more compelling for it.

Sailing through the centre point of most Greek myths, author Elizabeth Tammi makes the story feel right at home. She captures the pettiness and power of the gods and the helplessness of the mortals in their service to them.

This is true of both Atalanta and Kahina, whom the narrative alternates between. Atalanta is a fearsome fighter whose speed makes her a valuable warrior. Kahina is a priestess of the goddess Artemis, who rescued her from service as an oracle in Apollo’s city of Delphi. If Greek literature is your thing, then you’ll enjoy the cameos that areas and people of significance in Greek mythology show up throughout the story.

The romance between Kahina and Atalanta is swoon-worthy, its need for secrecy placing extra tension and pressure on the girls. There is a chemistry between them that makes you wish as a reader, that the pair were brought together sooner, rather than drawing out their time apart.
That being said, Outrun the Wind is a swift and excitingly paced retelling, just like its main characters, Atalanta and Kahina, I can see many readers shipping them and their passion filled love story.

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Outrun the Wind will be available on November 27

Finding Friendship – An Interview with Chloe Seager

Friendship can be tough to navigate, especially online! That’s certainly something that Emma Nash can relate to. Emma is the main character in Chloe Seager’s new series. The second book in the series, Friendship Fails of Emma Nash is out soon and we got speaking to Chloe about friendship, the internet and empowering girls online!

 

1.Friendship Fails of Emma Nash is your second novel, was writing it a very different experience from the first? 

Totally different. With my first novel I was so unselfconscious. I wrote it giggling away in my room, not seriously thinking anyone would read it. With the second one you know people are going to read it, so you stop writing it just for you. As soon as you start thinking too much about what other people are going to think, it kills the creative process (or at least, it did for me). The first draft of book 2 was a longer, more painful process than for book 1. I then realised it was rubbish and rewrote most of the book in two months, trying to have fun again as I went. (Which was, obviously, the whole reason I started writing!) I’m so much happier with it now.

2.Where do you feel Emma is emotionally in this novel? Has she learned a lot since Editing Emma?

Emma made a lot of mistakes in the first novel, mainly to do with relationships. So she starts Friendship Fails in a much wiser and more secure place in terms of her romantic life… But then inadvertently starts making mistakes in her friendships! This is often how I felt as a teenager – as soon as I felt better about one thing, I’d start feeling insecure about something else.

 

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3.The internet and social media have a huge influence on how Emma lives her life- do you think that the pressures of social media can be a difficult path to navigate for young women?

Definitely. Emma’s a light book, so it barely scrapes the surface of some of the difficulties and mainly talks about them in a ‘funny’ way. (Subjects like revenge porn, not so much with the lolz!) But I did want to talk about some of the things I found difficult as a teenager. 

In book 1, Emma’s problem is very much about obsessing over her ex-boyfriend’s profiles, and the fact she can still see everything he’s doing makes her break up more difficult to move on from. In book 2 she starts obsessing over her own profiles and constantly comparing herself to other people. Worrying about how I was coming off, or whether other people were having better lives than me, was a big part of my growing up experience and 100% linked to social media. It must be a million times worse now. (Although, at least teenagers now don’t have to deal with the peril of Top Friends!)

4.How do you think the internet has changed our approach to friendships and relationships? Do you think it’s something that is important to be mindful of?

It’s opened up a whole new world of possibilities, hasn’t it? New relationships and friendships are so much more accessible, now. For friendships I think that’s great, for relationships it probably has encouraged more of a ‘disposable’ culture, but then again, depending how you use it it’s still a pretty incredible gift. Especially for teenagers, when you’re going through what’s quite an isolating period. Pre-internet, if you didn’t happen to make friends at your school that was it. Now instead of being stuck with it, you’re actually able to talk to other people all over the world!

There’s so much to say about this topic, but one thing that’s not been healthy for me is always seeing the best bits of everyone’s lives; sometimes it’s lovely but sometimes it’s quite damaging for my state of mind. I have to remind myself there’s a lot of people’s lives that you don’t see. I also find it makes me forget to actually talk to people, because I’ve already seen their updates… But just because I already know my friend just got married, or got a new job, doesn’t mean I don’t need to interact with them!

5. Do you get as annoyed as we do with phrases like ‘oh, she’s not like other girls’ or ‘well, I just find it hard to be friends with other girls, I’m just too competitive/nerdy’ or our personal favourite: ‘I just find boys easier to get along with, there isn’t as much drama.’? Why do you think girls are conditioned to believe that female friendship is not a desirable friendship to have?

I think there’s a lot of focus on romance, as if it’s more important than friendship. Even if in certain books there have been great friendships the whole way through, the end is often about a romance coming together. (Which is why I wanted to be sure that both Emma book 1 and 2 ended on a note about friendship.) This emphasis on romance is general, but I think it’s targeted more at girls. 

There’s also a lot of other stuff that discourages them from prioritising their female friendships, such as portrayals of – as you say – girls who are ‘cool’ because they ‘just find boys easier to get along with.’

To say I don’t see competition in certain friendships would be a lie – there are all kinds of different friendships out there. But there are so many healthy, supportive female friendships, and it does aggravate me not to see them being sufficiently represented and valued. Why this is I’m not sure… just more of the same sexism that’s there throughout all of society, I guess?! Why is it that we assume boys won’t want to read books with girl protagonists? Why is it that a girl having lots of sexual partners means she’s a slag but it’s ok for a boy? I wish I knew…

6. Can you tell us about some of your favourite female friendships throughout history? 

SO MANY. I want to be part of Taylor Swift and her crew, obvs. I adore Jennifer Aniston and Courtney Cox.

Two of my personal faves are the Edies – Edith ‘Big Edie’ Bouvier Beale and Edith ‘Little Edie’ Bouvier Beale. It’s an unconventional one as they were mother and daughter, totally codependent and totally bizarre, but I’m not sure anyone who’s watched Grey Gardens could deny their deep, unbreakable connection to one another…or that, despite their differences, they gave each other a hell of a lot of support and had tons of fun.

Recently, I was surprised to read about Ella Fitzgerald thanking Marilyn Monroe for her big break. Ella was turned away from playing in a club because of the colour of her skin, which Marilyn protested, and said if they gave Ella the gig she’d sit in the front seat every night to make sure the press and the crowds turned up. 

I’ve also always found Jane Austen and her governess Anne Sharp’s relationship really touching. It was frowned upon as her governess wasn’t deemed Jane’s equal, but Jane trusted Anne to read her stories to give critiques and was apparently the last person Jane wrote to on her deathbed.

7.What have been some of the best things you have learned from your own friends? 

Be yourself. ‘Not everyone’s going to like you, but we do.’ (Haha!) They let me know when I step too far, when I’m being unreasonable, or when I need to stand up for myself; I need them for their sound advice. Also important life skills like how to make jelly shots and skittles vodka.

8.What advice would you give to other aspiring authors?

Finish the book (simple but true!) Take advice – editorial input from others is crucial – but make sure the book doesn’t lose your own voice. At the end of the day it’s got to be your book – the book that only you could write.

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Autumn Books Preview: Cathedral of Myth and Bone

If you haven’t read Kat Howard’s Roses and Rot yet you are missing out. Especially if dark, drifting, fantasy is your thing. Her stories are never saccharine and always pack a punch. That’s why we were overjoyed with A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, a series of short stories dealing with the weird and wonderful in the most magical way. With stories dealing with enchantment, joy and magic that you never have seen before.

In these stories, which are equally as beguiling and spellbinding as her novels, Howard expands into the enchanted territory of myths and saints, as well as an Arthurian novella set upon a college campus, “Once, Future,” which retells the story of King Arthur—through the eyes of the women who influenced him. This was our favourite story in the collection and we would be telling you to read it just for this!

Captivating and engrossing, and adorned in gorgeous lyrical writing, Kat Howard’s stories are a fresh and stylish take on fantasy. It is beautiful and will keep you hooked for every minute, every moment that you are reading. The best stories will take you beyond this world and right into the next. Enjoy every single second.

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A Cathedral of Myth and Bone is out on November 6

 

Autumn Books Preview :#Fashion Victim by Amina Akhtar

Fashion Victim is like fashion itself, cut throat, vicious and murderous… Because that’s exactly what working in the fashion industry is like. Anya St Clair is a girl with a mission. She has worked incredibly hard throughout her career to make it to the top. To work at exclusive fashion magazine La Vie, she has to be at the top of her game all of the time. And she is – but whenever she looks at her life, she feels like something is missing. Something that her fabulous colleague Sarah has to be precise – the perfect look, perfect job, and the perfect clothes. The perfect everything. But when Anya has to go up against her for a promotion, things venture from being competitive to violent and Anya has a whole lot of bigger problems on her mind.

Fashion victim is a hilariously fun story that looks at when fashion goes too far. When stillettos are more than shoes and cutting edge becomes dangerous. It’s all the better when you take into account that Amina Akhtar has worked for countless  fashion magazines and publications. This is someone with insider information. And that makes her imaginary venture into that world so much better. You’ll love every minute of it.

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Autumn Books Preview: The Distance Between me and the Cherry Tree by Paola Peretti

The Distance Between Me and The Cherry Tree by Paola Peretti is a story told
with such honesty and matter-of-fact bravery that it will stick with you long
after you leave its pages.

It tells the story of 9 year old Mafalda, who is slowly losing
her sight due to a genetic disorder known as Stargadt Disease which causes
progressive vision loss, and eventual blindness. It is a disease the author Paola
Peretti shares, after discovering she possesses it fifteen years ago. Mafalda’s
world is defined by her slowly disintegrating sight, the way her family
treats her, the things she is allowed to do – and not supposed to do. Her best friend
is her cat and she confides in the main character of her favourite book about her
fears and worries. It is telling that she admires and loves a character who goes
on grand adventures and has freedom to do what he wants.

Mafalda’s frank sincerity is a stand out feature of the novel. She measures her sight from how many steps she can see herself in the mirror and thinks often about the things
she can still see and worries about the day she will not be able to see them
anymore.

She has to discover the things that will bring her joy and will give her power without her sight. The book becomes an even more powerful statement when you realise the words that Mafalda is speaking are likely thoughts that Peretti has had herself.
Mafalda’s voice is that of a child, so she can examine her world and how her disease afects her through a more innocent perspective than that of an adult.

Her story is a from an angle that isn’t usually one given to young readers and they will be all the better for it. Because of the voice of the story, Mafalda’s tale may appeal more to younger readers, but personally, I spent a beautiful lyrical afternoon in her company and would heartily recommend it to lovers of novels such as Anne of Green Gables and Little Women.

Those wonderful stories of strong girls who are determined to tell their stories and share them with the world, just like Mafalda.

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Autumn Books Preview: Girls Resist by Kaelyn Rich

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Girls resist is the guide book we all needed as teenagers – and perhaps still need in our lives. Released by Quirk Books Girls Resist is a guide for every activist girl out there. It would be the perfect gift for any girl, deftly explaining terms like privilege and the glass ceiling and micro aggressions at the beginning of each chapter and also giving a clear idea on how to combat those through activism at the close. It is a book that doesn’t talk down to the reader instead treats them as an equal and takes their hand to try and help build a better world together. It’s also an extremely entertaining read, with contributions from the author including her own experiences and her activism tips. It’s accompanied by some lovely illustrations that really set the tone for the book, making it an object that you would want to have around your house as well as read. No other publisher operating right now seems to understand the delight of beautiful packaging quite like Quirk books. And long may they last. So says Girls Resist and so say I. 

 

Autumn books preview: Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor

Just out this week, Laini Taylor’s Muse of Nightmares is one of our most anticipated YA reads of this year and it did not disappoint!

I cannot fully express just how much I have been looking forward to reading the Muse of Nightmares. Along with being a massive Laini Taylor fan, I’ve been desperately dying to read Muse of Nightmares since about the minute I finished its predecessor Strange the Dreamer in 2016. It has the (dubious) honour of being one of the first books we featured in Cinders, I raved about it then and I’ll rave about it now. Strange the Dreamer created a beautifully lush and detailed fantasy world in the way that only Laini Taylor can – with true originality and inspiration. And after reading the conclusion, Muse of Nightmares, I’ve come to a realisation: Laini Taylor doesn’t write books, she weaves tapestries. Tapestries filled with stories upon stories, details that are so delicious you want to eat them whole. She weaves treasured items and should be lauded as one of the best fantasists working today because to my mind, she’s incomparable. Muse of Nightmares takes us to a new state of living, literally. Sarai – having fallen to her death at the close of Strange the Dreamer, now must live with a new reality, that of being a ghost and being under her foster sister – and fellow godspawn’s – Minya’s total control. She and Lazlo have to tread carefully and treat their budding romance with caution. Lazlo has to deal with his own discovery of power over the godsmetal citadel that has haunted the city of Weep and figure out what it means to finally have answers about where he came from. 

Most authors would struggle with tying up the loose ends of a story like this but Laini Taylor is not most authors. She deals with all of the stories, from the godspawn in the citadel, to the citizens of Weep with care and passion. Her characterisation is sympathetic and nuanced, there isn’t a single one dimensional player to be found. The only question over the story is whether perhaps the eventual antagonist ought to have been introduced in Strange the Dreamer? However Taylor weaves them into the story deftly in Muse of Nightmares and I was just left wishing I could have more time with them. Laini Taylor has gifted the fantasy world with another gem of a series and I for one could not be more grateful. These will be stories you’ll want and need to read again and again. 

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Three fantasy novels you don’t want to miss: Albert, Cogman, and Mostyn

 

The Hazel Wood By Melissa Albert 

Was the original Alice in Wonderland a little too tame for your taste? Are the Grimm Brothers not dark enough for you? Are you hungering for something a little creepier in your childhood fantasy heroines? Then by all means pick up a copy of The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert. Ever since she can remember, 17 year old Alice has been on the move, living a nomadic lifestyle with her mother.  All that time she has longed for a true connection with her grandmother, the mysterious author of fairytale stories, Tales of the Hinterland. Alice’s life is confined to glimpses of this world until she comes home one day to find her mother gone and all hints point to characters from the Hinterland come to life. The story is dark, complex and will draw you in and set your imagination on fire.

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

Libraries, spies, Victorians – what more could you ask for? Genevieve Cogman’s The Invisible Library has all of that and more. Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, which harvests fiction from different realities. Along with her enigmatic assistant Kai, she’s posted to an alternative London. Their mission is to retrieve a dangerous book. And any more information will spoil your experience! There are few things that attract avid book lovers more than libraries – but book thieves and spies are among those topics. The characters blaze through the novel and the joy of The Invisible Library is that it’s just the first in a series of four. So you can indulge in your book thief librarian spies for three more volumes!

The Gods of Love by Nicola Mostyn

Are you a fan of the Greek gods? Well, even if you aren’t, we think you’ll be a fan of Frida, divorce lawyer and all around expert on love. Mostly because she’s a secret descendant of Eros, the greek god of love. So when a handsome but clearly delusional man named Dan bursts into Frida’s office and insists that she is fated to save the world, she has him ejected. But a creepy meeting, a demon or three and one attempted kidnapping later, Frida is beginning to face the inconvenient truth: Dan is actuallyThe Oracle, the gods of Greek mythology are real and Frida herself appears to be everyone’s only hope.The world is doomed. A little. This novel is so, so much fun! It is non-stop enjoyment from start to finish and we guarantee you won’t be able to put it down!

Book Review: The Transfigured Hart by Jane Yolen

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Originally released in 1975, The Transfigured Hart is a beautiful, sweet novella by Jane Yolen. Proving that the world-renowned fantasy author has nigh universal appeal, the digital re-release by Tachyon Books reads as though the book was released a week ago, sans the presence of smart phones or computer technology. 

The story centers around two young teenagers, Richard and Heather who separately come upon a unicorn, and have to decide how to work together, in order to see the unicorn once again. 

Both Heather and Richard, despite having different interests are presented as being intellectual equals, with Heather depicted as the more emotionally mature of the pair, which – for anyone who has known a thirteen year old boy – is highly accurate. 

The writing is beautifully lyrical, as we have come to expect from Yolen, but also has the refreshing rhythm of argumentative teens thrown in amid the dialogue. 

The story is a grounded and entertaining depiction of a well-worn fantasy trope, but is handled with care and finesse by Yolen. It is fascinating to see how she integrates teenagers into the magic of the Hart’s domain, and how the real magic that occurs is between two very different people solidifying an enduring friendship. 

And isn’t that the joy of fantasy? Of seeing traits you wish you had and traits you wish you didn’t reflected in people who witness magical scenes?  Jane Yolen will always be a lyrical superstar and a moment spent reading her stories is never a moment wasted.