"Vigorously told deceptions and battle scenes." ~Publishers Weekly review of Eolyn

"The characters are at their best when the events engulfing them are at their worst." ~Publishers Weekly review of High Maga

Monday, July 26, 2010

Leaving Las Cruces

I'm just going to check in this week -- no particular reflections to offer on EOLYN this time around. I am wrapping up my field season at Las Cruces, so I'm busy with packing and such, taking that last hike through the woods, caught between the sadness of leaving and the wonderful anticipation of going home.

Some little news bits:

The Dead Horse Society will have a public reading at the Writer's Place in Kansas City on September 11, 2010, starting at 6:30pm. I'll be participating, along with nine other great speculative fiction writers from the Kansas City area. If you're in town, please stop by for a listen!

This year I'm attending World Fantasy Con for the first time. That will be in Columbus, OH, October 28-31. I've heard great things about this conference and am really looking forward to it. My editor Eric T. Reynolds is working to put together a reading table for Hadley Rille authors, so hopefully I'll have a chance to share some of EOLYN there as well.

At Las Cruces this summer, in addition to supervising three students who have completed very nice research projects, I finished up my own edits on the manuscript for EOLYN. Right now, it's in Eric's hands, and will also be read by author Terri-Lynne DeFino, before it comes back to me with some final suggestions for tweaks and changes.

Another gift of Las Cruces: I've penned about five chapters now of the sequel to EOLYN, some in better shape than others, but all very solid and exciting. I'm really looking forward to the adventure of this new novel. It's a great feeling to be working on another project with these characters whom I've come to know and love; and challenging to explore new characters or old characters with new stories to tell; and fun to see that Eolyn's story -- and my story with her -- is not over yet.

So, those are my news briefs. Tomorrow I travel all day from Las Cruces to San Jose, where I'll spend a day packing and saying goodbye to friends and family before I fly home to Kansas City on Thursday. Oh, I will miss this place. But it will also be good to be home.

Today's photo is one of my favorites from this summer. I can't tell you what this buttefly is, but we found it along the Rio Java during our last hike yesterday. It was very patient and cooperative while I took the photos. Butterflies area a great symbol of growth and transformation, and the stages of their lives -- egg, larvae, pupae, adult -- are often likened to the stages of the creative process. I'd say the novel EOLYN right now is in the pupal stage. The sequel has officially hatched and is now a (very hungry) first instar larvae. Me and my entomology geek metaphors...

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Restoration Ecology and EOLYN

We just got out from under a major tropical depression – that means lots and lots of rain – and the sun is out again, to the delight of all creatures great and small. I took a nice morning hike yesterday along the Wilson, Melissa and Water Trails, about a 3 hour loop through primary forest, secondary forest, and abandoned pasture.

The Water Trail cuts through land recently acquired by Las Cruces, about 40 hectares of mixed habitat, all in various stages of recuperation. Las Cruces is unique among tropical research stations in that it is not tucked away deep in the uncharted territory of primary forest. Las Cruces is a large forest fragment in a fragmented landscape, an area that was once covered in primary forest but is now primarily devoted to pasture and coffee cultivation, with a few patches of forest here and there. So research at Las Cruces is, for the most part, devoted to restoration ecology, the study of how to recuperate trashed habitats.

During the last 10-15 years, Las Cruces has grown, acquiring three adjacent properties. The first of these, Melissa’s Meadow, used to be pastureland and now supports a thriving secondary forest. The most recent property, where the Water Trail is found, still has large areas of abandoned pasture with tall grasses, but you can see the trees coming up here and there as the forest begins to reclaim its home.

I find it encouraging, in an era of so much destruction, that there are places in this world where restoration and recuperation has already begun. Close to my Kansas City home, we have Jerry Smith Park and other sites devoted to prairie restoration, such as the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. All over the world, places are being set aside – however small or humble - to bring back what we’ve lost, or almost lost.

Since all things in my life seem to relate back to my novel, I found myself thinking the other day as I hiked along the Water Trail, about Eolyn and how her story is also one of near extinction and restoration. Eolyn is the lone guardian of a rich cultural tradition that has almost been lost to her people, the tradition of the magas. Akmael shares this status, though it is rarely explicitly stated in the book. He is the only mage warrior of his generation, a man capable of integrating magic with warfare, the lone heir to a tradition once shared by thousands. Their forbearers were destroyed by war and intolerance, and now it is up to them – if they value these cultural traditions – to find a way to bring back what has been lost.

Restoration is not an easy task for Eolyn and Akmael, just as it is not an easy task for us. There are countless forces that work against them as they try to forge a friendship - and a future for their magic - against seemingly impossible odds. I'd love to go on and talk a little about whether they succeed, and why or why not, but of course I'd just be giving the plot away if I did!

Today's photo is a view of Melissa's Meadow, surrounded by primary forest. The "meadow" is no longer a meadow, but a stand of secondary forest that, at only 10 years of age, is nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding stand of primary forest. Melissa's Meadow is in the center of the photo, a triangular patch of forest that is somewhat lighter in color than the surrounding canopy. (If you click on the photo, you should be able to see a larger version to pick out the details.) It is also shorter - you can just barely see the line that marks the border between the two forests. Of course, if you hike through these habitats, you will see they are very different. Melissa's is packed with small fast-growing tree species, with an open canopy and dense undergrowth, while the adjacent primary forest has very large trees, a closed canopy and very few plants on the forest floor.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Okay, time to toot my own horn.

This week I had one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever lived. I read EOLYN from start to finish, "cover to cover", in a handful of sittings. No longer do I have a chapter 1 that has yet to read smoothly, a chapter 8 that needs to be rewritten in another pov, a chapter 12 that has 1000 words too many, or a battle sequence that stands like an insurmountable wall between me and the end of my novel. It’s done. It’s done, and it’s beautiful – the end of each chapter urging me forward with the desire to read more, even though I know what’s going to happen. The story makes me laugh, cry, love and fear. But mostly, it just fills me with awe.

I’m the one who wrote this. Not George RR Martin or JRR Tolkien or Ursula LeGuin or Kage Baker. I wrote this, and it’s one of the most wonderful stories I’ve ever read.

Where did it come from? To what do I owe this miracle of the mind? Can it even be called a miracle? After all, it's not like I snapped my fingers and it suddenly appeared. Nearly four years of hard work, possibly twenty years of imagination, and shaping and molding and countless obsessive moments with my journal or in front of the computer, the thoughts and ideas and feedback of so many friends and fellow authors feeding into my creative journey. All of it to weave 119,000 words into a novel only I could write. Pure magic. EOLYN.

I am awed and humbled and deeply grateful for whatever forces brought this story to me, for whatever power it was that gave me the talent and the perseverance and the resources to write it. Gracias a la vida, que me ha dado tanto! Thank you, life, for giving me so much!

Today's photo is from "Rio Rita", a 1920's production by the Albertina Rasch Dancers in New York City. My grandmother, Rita Gastreich (then Rita Pueschel) was a soloist with this company. She's the second dancer on the right. Her life story inspired some of the characters, scenes and situations in EOLYN, a fact I've come to fully appreciate only recently. But more on that in another post...

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

On Mages and Magas

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that while writing EOLYN, I’ve had feedback and comments on various drafts from a wide variety of readers – friends and family, friends of friends, and many very gifted authors & critics from two writer’s groups, The Dead Horse Society and TNBW. One aspect of EOLYN that occasionally trips readers up is my use of the terms ‘maga’ and ‘mage’. The distinction is simple, really: A maga is a female practitioner of magic, and a mage is a male practitioner.

I took the word ‘maga’ from the feminine form of the Spanish word for magician (also maga). What I wanted for my novel was a gendered term for a woman who practices magic, a fresh word that implied a unique tradition and did not carry the potentially negative connotations of 'witch'.

In Spanish, the masculine form of the word 'magician' is ‘mago’. I suppose I could have adopted mago as well, but we already have ‘mage’ in English – which in my limited experience with the genre of fantasy seems to refer most often to a man anyway. And besides, the "Mago King Akmael" just didn't sound right.

In a scene that was cut from the final version of the novel, Eolyn’s tutor, the Doyenne Ghemena, discusses the division that existed between ‘male’ and ‘female’ magic. The separation arose because the women of Moisehen expressed an instinct for certain magical arts, while the men tended to take an interest in others. This is what Ghemena tells Eolyn regarding the division between male and female magic:

“Granted the boundaries were not always clear - and there existed exceptions to every pattern - but nonetheless practitioners lined up along axes of gender. In time they formalized these barriers and began writing rules about them. Thus the Great Orders of magic came into being: the Order of Magas, which recruited girls and trained them in the ways of women’s magic, and the Order of Mages, which trained boys in the ways of men’s magic.”

Ghemena occasionally questions this and other divisions that existed in the magical traditions of Moisehen, but on the whole she tends to see them as positive and necessary:

“For centuries, the two Orders practiced side by side, their rivalry constant but on the whole well-intentioned and very productive. Discourse flourished over the interpretation of the old legends, the limits of magic, definitions of ‘male’ versus ‘female’ energy, and the boundaries between the different levels of magic. At the High Holidays, collaborators from both Orders organized the great festivals. These served as playing fields for magas and mages who tried to outdo each other at every turn, unveiling new and exciting discoveries in the process. It was all very entertaining, even in my time, when tensions had begun to run quite high…”

But is there a real difference between male and female magic? And if yes, can that difference ever be clearly captured or defined?

These questions are left open during the novel, and as you can see from Ghemena’s words, were actually a point of debate during the entire thousand year history of magic in Moisehen. It is true that the principle practitioners in the novel – the High Maga Eolyn and the Mage King Akmael – have some powers that overlap, but they have many others that do not. Also, their greatest strengths are in decidedly different areas of magic. But is that because Eolyn is a woman and Akmael a man? Or is it simply a reflection of the very different circumstances under which they were trained, and the very different tutors to whom they had access?

You’ll have to read the book and decide for yourself…

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Animal Imagery in EOLYN

Meet my students: Audrianna, Brittany and Danielle. We are all part of the Native American and Pacific Islander Research Experience (NAPIRE) Program here at Las Cruces Biological Station in Costa Rica. Audrianna and Danielle are doing projects with Piper ant-plants, a group of pepper plants that provide food and shelter to ants in exchange for protection against herbivores (insects that eat the plants). Brittany is looking at the effects of land use on Tanagers, a beautiful group neotropical birds with stunning colors.

Yesterday as we were hiking into the forest preserve, we had a momentary snake encounter. The creature slipped away so fast I wasn't able to identify it. Snakes are a charismatic group that inspire awe, horror and everything in between. They play central roles in myth and legend for pretty much every culture I've interacted with. In Costa Rica, the campesinos (farmers) say that every time you encounter a viper you are born again, because you have looked into the face of death and survived. I like to tell my students that story, whenever they are frightened by a snake.

Our snake encounter got us talking about animals and what they symbolize. Audrianna and Danielle were curious to know whether I use animals my novel EOLYN. (Everyone on NAPIRE knows about my novel by now, because I've been making cheap plugs for it all summer.) And yes, I do. My interest in animal behavior has always run parallel with my interest in animals and animal symbolism. I've read countless legends about animals from many different cultures, to the point that often I don't remember anymore where the different stories came from. But they turn up in EOLYN in subtle ways, such that every animal that appears in the book (and there are a lot of them!) carries a meaning or message, no matter how small.

In Eolyn's world, one of the gifts of Middle Magic is the ability to communicate with animals. Now, my novel does not have talking animals as you might find in a children's book where, say, a lion is fluent in English. Mages and magas do not 'hear' animals speak as you and I can hear each other. But they learn to read the ways in which animals communicate: their calls, their gestures, their responses to certain situations, and so forth. Magas and mages also interpret the appearance of certain animals as having special meaning. Very little of this is explicit in my novel, but it forms part of the underlying fabric of magical knowledge that makes up Eolyn's world.

Seeing a snake in the forest always makes my heart skip a beat, but I've never had a snake encounter that does not inspire avid conversation afterwards, both in the retelling of the event, and in all the ideas that retelling generates. So while I have an instinctive fear of snakes, I respect them, and I think they give something to us in their own way. A rush of adrenaline, if nothing else, that spurs us to embrace life anew.

In honor of yesterday's snake encounter, I'm posting a short scene I wrote once that features a bushmaster. You can read it by clicking Works in Progress. Warning - this scene is not for the faint of heart!