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The cover of "The Winged Histories", showing a dark-skinned woman riding a large bird.

The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar

The cover of "The Winged Histories", showing a dark-skinned woman riding a large bird.Title: The Winged Histories
Author: Sofia Samatar
Publisher: Small Beer Press
Format: eBook
Rating: 5 out of 5 total
How I got this book: eBook purchased from Weightless Books

What does history mean? Whose stories get written down and treated as the truth? Most importantly, how do we know what the truth actually is? Is a usurper to the throne doing so out of a desire for power, or to topple a corrupt regime? And what if the reason for waging a war is neither of those things?

Questions about power and the purpose of stories were central to Sofia Samatar’s debut novel A Stranger in Olondria, which won the World Fantasy Award. I read it way back in 2014 and swooned over it. Almost everything about Olondria displayed deliberation and care — the prose, the worldbuilding, the themes, and the characterization.

I was expecting something similar in The Winged Histories, Samatar’s follow-up novel set in the same world. It shares certain elements with its predecessor, like its gorgeous, crystalline prose, as well as its focus on the power of narrative as a political force. However, it blindsided me with this particular truth: The Winged Histories is not a story about war and the crumbling of empire — it’s a story about love. And this truth is fully revealed only during the precisely-calibrated pages of the final few chapters.

But let me back up. Enough with this talk of love and empire and truth. What this book actually about?

The Winged Histories is split into four sections, each with a different first-person narrator telling the reader their perspective on the collapse of the Olondrian empire due to war, colonial expansion, and religious upheaval.

Tavis is a soldier, the niece of the current king of Olondria, and the granddaughter of a traitor. Hoping to restore independence to her ancestral homeland of Kestenya and atone for her grandfather’s sins, she and her cousin Andasya, the heir to the throne, instigate a war for Kestenya’s independence. In her attempts to do so, she travels to Kestenya to spend time with the nomadic herders there, and falls in love with Seren, a gifted singer.

Tialon is the daughter of the Priest of the Stone, and now the high priestess after her father Ivrom’s death. Ivrom was an ambitious man who managed to make great strides in supplanting Olondria’s ancient fertility-based religion with a new, austere one heavily influenced by his own thinking. His growing power over the king spurred Prince Andasya to free Kestenya from his influence and to usurp the throne. Tialon is held captive in the palace during the aftermath of Andasya’s successful coup, and reckons with how her father forced her to live a small, caged, miserable life.

Seren is a poet and nomad who reflects on the role her lover, Tavis, played in Kestenya’s war for independence. She thinks about the ironies of gendered roles within Kestenyi culture. Women like her are singers, but their songs focus on the vendettas and deaths of Kestenyi men.

Finally, there is Siski. Initially introduced as Tavis’s docile sister who pretends to be a social butterfly at court, she uses a veneer of innocence and superficiality to conceal the truth: Andasya didn’t wage war and overthrow his father to gain power or restore a faltering religion. He did it for reasons that are best left to the reader to discover.

When Siski learns the terrible secret that Andasya carries, she runs from him in fear, oblivious that doing so makes the rest of her family — and onlookers like the Priest of the Stone — assume an entirely different (and more salacious) reason for her actions. And this wrong interpretation is one that the reader is encouraged to believe until nearly the end of the book, until Siski’s perspective shows the secret history the rest of the world doesn’t see.

This lesson about mistaken assumptions is one that is core to the ethos of The Winged Histories. Like its predecessor, this book is tricky and evaded my expectations. In Olondria, I was expecting fantasy battles and political intrigue, but instead got a moving story about the power of words and what it means to create a legacy. In Histories, I was expecting similar deconstruction of the value of literature, but instead I got a series of tightly-controlled memoirs where war happens just beyond the scope of the text.  At the heart of it all, I found an achingly beautiful and sad story about young lovers and the slow, tortured crumbling of an ambitious family.

Samatar’s prose is spare and elegant, and one that rewards reading between the lines. It often forsakes being prose entirely and instead turns to poetry, such as when Seren sings the songs of her homeland. At other times, the reader is exposed to excerpts from historical works written about Olondria, or to letters written by secondary characters.

The ultimate effect is that the reader knows more about the fall of Olondria, and about how Andasya’s actions ruin his family, than the family members do themselves. And thus, the reader is in on the most important secrets of this world in a way that the characters aren’t.

Books I Read in January

It’s funny — now that I’ve given myself permission not to review every single book I read in-depth, I have a whole lot more I want to say about what I’m reading, and why. So here are some capsule reviews about what I read in January 2019.

The Hacking of the American Mind by Robert Lustig

I think I was first turned on to this book by YouTuber Hannah Louise Poston, who in 2018 examined her relationship to beauty products and consumerism by doing a “no-buy” year. In one video, she talked about how she was learning about neuroscience, dopamine vs serotonin, and the difference between pleasure and happiness as a result of this book.

I was intrigued, because I know my own habits need to change. I spend way too much time online, and this book seemed like a handy way to help me understand my habits/addictions (Twitter, Reddit, staying up too late reading the same).

And….oof. Lustig may be a talented endocrinologist, and he may have done the world a service by being a whistleblower about the sugar industry, but The Hacking of the American Mind feels like a classic example of a book’s thesis being undone by poor presentation.

Lustig has A Lot to Talk About, and he does so with the fervour of a zealot. His understanding of brain chemistry is obvious, but his understanding of social issues is not. His thesis is that the American business, politics, and legal apparatus  has been systematically encouraging the American populace to seek short-term pleasure (aka: dopamine, sugar, and consumerism) over long-term happiness (aka: serotonin, healthy foods, and personal development).

The argument itself is sound. But his solutions for undoing the damage this confluence of political and economic interests has caused is not. His solutions? Cook healthy food! Meditate and develop mindfulness! Volunteer in your community!

These are all valuable things, but these are individualistic solutions to society-wide problems. Does he advocate for tax reform and reducing income inequality? No. Does he say that the labour movement needs widescale restoration to regain lost rights? Not really. For all his emphasis on how politics and money corrupt society, he seems surprisingly ignorant about the whole concept of social determinants of health.

Oh, and also Lustig engages in a lot of fat-shaming and neurotypical bias. No thanks.

Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment by Gregory Berns

In some ways, this book was the polar opposite to The Hacking of the American Mind. Both talk about neuroscience, pleasure, and how the brain responds to stimuli, but they do so in very different ways. When I opened Satisfaction, the straightforwardness of the prose in the opening first few pages made me feel like I had just put a cool, soothing cloth to my forehead.

Because of this immediate reaction of “Ah, finally, this author is so decorous!”, it took me a while to feel underwhelmed. In Hacking, Lustig Has A Point, and attempts to prove  it in a frenzied, impassioned, and clumsy way. Satisfaction, however, despite its fine prose, just kinda… sits there. Despite Berns’ discussion of dopamine and brain structures, his book’s thesis — that satisfaction/happiness lies in constantly exposing the brain to new experiences — is boring.

What’s more, the narrative throughline is clunky. There are interesting chapters, like the ones about sensory experiences during a fine meal and travelling to Iceland. However, they are intermingled with so-so ones about topics like BDSM. The final chapter, in particular, contains a lot of woo-sounding advice about long-term relationships, as well as some cringe-inducing passages discussing the author’s own sexual relationship with his wife.

Brother by David Chariandy

Hands down the best book of the month. Growing up, Michael and his brother Francis knew that despite how hard their mother worked to support them and give them a chance to succeed in life, they had few options. Constrained by intersecting issues of race and class, suspicion falls upon them and their peers in the wake of a shooting in their housing complex. Michael finds ways to cope, but Francis’ trajectory is much more tragic. Brother is an exploration of growing up as a marginalized youth of colour in the early 90s, and the prose is spare and haunting.

However, what really made me connect with it is that it’s set very close to where I live. When the opening pages talk about a bridge on Lawrence Avenue in Scarborough, I know that bridge because it’s within walking distance of my house. When Michael recollects escaping into the Rouge Valley, I know where and what he’s escaping to. When Michael talks about the buses and commuter trains and the “good” neighbourhood of “Port Junction”, I know exactly who and what he is describing, because that infrastructure has been with me my whole life.

Perhaps, when the snow melts and the sun comes back, I’ll share some pictures of the Rouge here, so you can conjure them in your minds eye when you decide to read this magnificent book.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 9: Squirrels Fall Like Dominoes

As I have mentioned previously, I love Squirrel Girl. So any time a new volume comes out, it’s a delight. This time, the crux of the story involves her friendship with Kraven, a Marvel villain, and how she encourages him to turn a new leaf. Kraven is always a delight whenever he pops up in the SG universe, so it’s nice to see him get an extended plot arc here.

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

I read Hacking and Satisfaction at the beginning of the month because I wanted to understand my own brain, and to see if these books would give me some insight into how to “rewire” myself away from constantly needing to be connected to the internet. I should have just ignored both of these and read The Shallows instead.

In this book, Nicholas Carr manages to find the happy medium between the other two. It contains both the literary quality of Satisfaction and the hefty neurological exploration of Hacking. More importantly, The Shallows goes into detail about how exactly technology changes our brains without sounding alarmist — even when those details themselves are, in fact, alarming.

What’s also surprising is that although this book was written 8 years ago, and thus discusses the technology of 8 years ago, it doesn’t feel dated. The trends he identified have only become amplified since then – the chapter on Google’s quest for “content” in order to develop truly functional AI  is particularly relevant.

January’s reads were kind of a mix, but in a good way.  In February, I hope to continue this mix of fiction and non-fiction, while also focusing on Black authors for Black History Month.

A Look at The Quantum Magician with Derek Künsken

Derek Künsken writes science fiction, fantasy, and, sometimes accidentally, horror. After publishing shorter works in many different markets, this month marks his novel-length debut with The Quantum Magician, a sci-fi heist story set in the far future involving time travel, wormholes, space battles, political intrigue, and even a little bit of romance.

Derek was kind enough to send me a copy of his book before its release this month and let me pick his brain after reading it. Here’s a brief look at the wider world in which his novel is set. Thanks for your great answers, Derek!

Note: The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Me: The Quantum Magician takes part in the same universe as stories you’ve published previously. For those who aren’t familiar with them, what stories are they, and where can people read them? How does the book tie into this shared universe?

Derek Künsken: I’m a big fan of the way many of the stories of Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter are parts of the same world, allowing those authors to explore a much larger cut of time and space. I modelled my universe after theirs. In chronological order, here are most of the stories:

  • 2100: Events introducing the vacuum-living skates living around a pulsar in the novelette Schools of Clay, Asimov’s Magazine, February 2014, also available in Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2015 Edition, and in audio at Starship Sofa
  • 2215: Events on Venus in the novelette Persephone Descending, from Analog Magazine, Nov, 2014, available in The Year’s Best Military SF and Space Opera from Baen, or in audio at Starship Sofa
  • 2255: Events on Venus  and the formation of the Congregate in the novel The House of Styx, in press, Oct, 2020 [projected publication date]
  • 2325: Events introducing the Homo eridanus in the short story Beneath Sunlit Shallows, from Asimov’s Magazine, Jun, 2008
  • 2350: Events at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom in the novelette Water and Diamond, in Asimov’s Magazine, Nov/Dec 2018
  • 2475: Events introducing the Sub-Saharan Union in the novella Pollen from a Future Harvest, in Asimov’s Magazine, July, 2015
  • 2515: Events of the novel The Quantum Magician, from Solaris Books and soon in audio from Recorded Books and previously available in Analog issues Jan/Feb – May/Jun 2018
  • 2515: Events of the novel The Quantum Garden, from Solaris Books, Oct 2019
  • 2720: Events of the far future of the Congregate and the Anglo-Spanish Plutocracy in the novelette Flight From the Ages, from Asimov’s Magazine Apr/May 2016

One of the things I find really interesting about the setting is how the conglomerates that control policy and trade have relationships that are roughly analogous to colonial periods, and how the whole motivation behind the heist – for the Sub Saharan Union to end its client/patron relationship with the francophone Conglomerate — is pretty explicitly a decolonization story. Is that something you were hoping to tie into the work when you started writing it?

DK: Yes, but perhaps my thinking wasn’t so explicitly reflective of history. I wasn’t so much thinking of the international power and wealth imbalances of the past, but of the ones we will make in the future. Regardless of what current international law says, the first nations into space will get first pick of space resources, and the second nations into space will get second pick, etc. The solar system is big, but there are strategic positions and monopolies to be had that will magnify imbalances. The rich and technologically advanced countries will be first and become richer, and poorer nations will, if they are lucky, be allowed into the solar system by the rich nations.

The patronage relationships I showed in The Quantum Magician are one way these imbalances may play out, and resentments they might generate aren’t hard to imagine. History has some repeating themes, even future histories, unfortunately.

The Puppets in your story are a group of people who have been genetically engineered to feel subservient towards another particular group of people, and to feel religious awe in their presence. Where did that idea come from? The way that their culture plays out, and how the Puppets rationalize a relationship that, to outside observers, seems incredibly abusive and warped, is really unusual. (And frankly, also somewhat unsettling.)

DK: Haha. Sorry. I keep apologizing to readers for the Puppets! The name “the Puppets” was kicking around my head for a long time with no definition and no place in any narrative. When I started pulling together the elements of The Quantum Magician (a con, a quantum man, the deep divers, the Congregate and the Sub-Saharan Union, the stable wormholes), I had room to create more, and so the Puppets started coming into focus, partly with my reading on microbiomes, on some research on the neurology of religious experience and on religious cults.

Thinking as a former biologist, I thought of what would be needed to make a slave species, and what kind of people would commit that crime against humanity. We have cults and extreme religions in the present day, where a ruling class oppresses an underclass and I wanted to explore that dynamic. The Rise of the Puppets was an important part though, so that the Puppets would be protagonists in the story, morally compromised, but morally complex.

Let’s talk Easter eggs! I noticed a few, like the fact that one of Belisarius’s aliases is Juan Caceres, and the fact that Trenholm disease, a fictional malady in the story, shares a name with Hayden Trenholm. But what others are there?

DK: Easter eggs! I’m surprised you found Juan Caceres! I occasionally used the name Juan Caceres myself when I was living in Bogotá. He was the trickster hero of my fantasy story “Juan Caceres in the Zapatero’s Workshop” and there’s a con man called Juan Caceres in the 2200s of my universe who was edited out, but I’ll add him back somewhere because tricksters always come back!

Some Ottawa readers may know the Westbook in Westbrook Station, and the relationship to the Trenholm virus. Will Gander also assumes the name Geoff Kaltwasser as part of the con. If you have the occasion, you might want to ask Geoff Gander where the name Kaltwasser comes from.

Close readers will also notice that Vincent Stills, the Homo eridanus has the same name as Vincent, the protagonist of “Beneath Sunlit Shallows”. That’s deliberate and I can’t wait for readers to notice in later novels and stories that the mongrels have really peculiar naming customs, very much related to their history and the middle finger they give the world. More than a few of the Anglo-Spanish names are from places I’ve visited in Colombia and Honduras, and the Congregate names are often from Gaspésie in eastern Québec, although those get foregrounded a lot more in The House of Styx. There are other Easter eggs too, but they take more digging 🙂

The Homo quantus are an unusual creation – a group of people who have been genetically modified to go into a savant-like state conducive to observing quantum events and identifying unusual patterns. Where did this idea come from? I especially love the idea of the electroplaques!

DK: Thank you! I’ve wondered about what quantum perceptions and thinking might be, as long as I’ve understood the basics of quantum theory. In 2013 or 2014, I was reading Stephen Baxter’s collection Vacuum Diagrams and it contained a short story about a quantum man. I was impressed, but also inspired to do my own take on it.

In designing someone who might be able to have quantum perceptions though, the biggest challenge was figuring out how to avoid quantum collapse due to human or conscious observation. One interpretation of quantum theory (not a dominant one) contends that consciousness itself is partly responsible for the collapse of quantum phenomena into what we see and experience. So I felt that in science fictional terms, trying to knock out consciousness might be a way to explore this kind of world, to have the Homo quantus offshoot of humanity to be truly alien, moreso even that the Puppets who are behaviorally and morally alien, or the mongrels who are physically and environmentally alien.

Will there be sequels to The Quantum Magician, or future books set in the same universe?

DK: Yes! They haven’t been publicized yet, but I’ve already delivered The Quantum Garden to Solaris Books, which stars most of the characters from the first book. And we’re negotiating on the sale of The House of Styx, the first novel in a duology that is set about 250 years before the events in The Quantum Magician, and is set in the clouds of Venus and details the very humble beginnings of the interstellar post-Québécois empire that we see as the Congregate in The Quantum Magician and The Quantum Garden. I have some thoughts on one or two novels after The Quantum Garden, but haven’t started outlining yet.

And that’s that!

The Quantum Magician is published by Solaris books and is available for sale online and at major book retailers like Amazon and Chapters.

A Walk Through the World of Graveyard Mind with Chadwick Ginther

The cover of Graveyard Mind, by Chadwick Ginther, shows a graveyard and tombstones silhouetted by a cloudy horizon.Chadwick Ginther is the Prix-Aurora-Award-nominated author of the Thunder Road Trilogy and has just released Graveyard Mind, his first book with noted Canadian spec-fic publisher ChiZine Publications. His short fiction has appeared recently in Tesseracts, Those Who Make Us and Grimdark Magazine. With Samantha Beiko he is the co-creator and writer of the comic series, Mythfits. He lives and writes in Winnipeg, Canada, spinning sagas set in the wild spaces of Canada’s western wilderness where surely monsters must exist.

Chadwick was kind enough to answer questions I had about Graveyard Mind earlier this summer while he was on the road promoting it. Talk about dedication and stamina! I hope you like this brief glimpse into a new and eerie fictional world.


For the uninitiated, what is Graveyard Mind about? Not just from a plot perspective, but what themes were you aiming to work into your story?

Graveyard Mind is an urban fantasy novel featuring Winter Murray, a necromancer of the Compact. Winter’s job is to keep Winnipeg’s dead in their tombs no matter what laws of gods and men she must break to do so. She’s been doing the work solo since her mentor’s death  when a past she thought buried comes back to haunt her when a death cult moves on her turf.

As for themes, redemption was definitely one I wanted to explore. Winter is hunting for a redemption she doesn’t believe she really deserves—being a necromancer isn’t a job that lends itself to above the board actions, and she’s done a lot of dirty deeds in her time. Another theme was family. I didn’t think about this one so much during the writing, but I realized it was important to me when I decided upon the dedication; the person this book is dedicated to isn’t here to read it. The found family theme tends to turn up a lot in my writing; Ted accretes a new family during his adventures—Winter struggles to maintain hers. I also enjoy writing about people who think they are monsters and people who definitely are.

Your book contains many elements found in urban fantasy books, but your choice of setting, Winnipeg, is pretty unusual. Aside from it being your hometown, what drew you towards setting Graveyard Mind here? What possibilities do you see in Winnipeg as a setting that other places lack?

I don’t see it as Winnipeg as a setting having something that other cities lack, really, other than exposure. But since my Toronto or New York will never be as evocative as one written by someone who lives there, why not capitalize on the hometown advantage and give readers not familiar with my home something they haven’t seen before?

Mostly, though, I love writing about Winnipeg and Manitoba. While it’s not a location that’s usually thought of when one thinks of fantasy, I see endless story potential here. While a small city, Winnipeg is a multicultural one, and with the surrounding farmland and nearby lakes and wild spaces, there are lots of places for monsters to hide.

Winnipeg’s reputed hauntings definitely played a role in choosing to set Graveyard Mind here. I have a travel guide to supernatural Winnipeg, and like to give out of town friends my own custom haunted tour of the city. But everyone who lives in Winnipeg can list a few of these supposedly haunted landmarks.

In your Thunder Road books, your protagonists have to deal with the mundane reality of their world being stripped away to reveal the supernatural, and they balance walking that line throughout. Graveyard Mind‘s protagonist, Winter Murray, has to deal with the same thing – trying, and failing, to present a facade to the normal world. Is this a common thread throughout your work? What about this idea is so attractive to you?

One of the things that drew me to urban fantasy as a genre was that intersection of the supernatural and the mundane. Writing Thunder Road was transformative in that regard, as until I drafted that book, most of my early writing was second world sword and sorcery. I still write some secondary world fiction, but the majority of my published work has taken place in a fantastically skewed version of our world.

Stories are how we deal with things we don’t understand, or want to understand better. Using a lens of the fantastic to examine issues from our world is something I find very rewarding. I also really enjoy wrecking up my favourite landmarks.

Your main character, Winter Murray, has unusual abilities because she’s actually a chimera – she absorbed her unborn twin sister in the womb.  What was the inspiration for this?

An episode of CSI and reading Stephen King’s The Dark Half were probably my introduction to the idea of a human chimera. Dungeons and Dragons is where I honed my love of undead as monsters and antagonists. It just felt natural that someone with a bit of dead tissue in them would be a necromantic natural. That idea was one of the first things that got me excited to start writing Graveyard Mind.

What is your favourite moment in the book, or what scene/element/quote is your favourite?

My favourite extended sequence is the first introduction of the Kingdom—the Land of the Dead—leading up to Winter’s duel with her old mentor. But any time Frank was on the page was a lot of fun, as was writing Winter’s friendship with Lyssa.

You’ve put a lot of work into imagining a wider world in Graveyard Mind, from the Compact, to various types of death-magic, to how various mythologies got things about the afterlife right or wrong. Will there be a sequel, or related short stories? It feels like there’s a lot left to explore.

I’d love for the world of Graveyard Mind to take off and become a more open ended series. Works like Seanan McGuire’s InCryptid and October Daye series, Patricia Briggs’ Mercedes Thompson books, Kelley Armstrong’s Otherworld, and Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville novels are the reasons I love urban fantasy.

I am working on a sequel now, and am roughly half way through my discovery draft. The second book seems to be featuring more of the inner workings of the Compact, but that’s all I can say of it for sure right now. I’ve published two short stories set loosely in the world of Graveyard Mind. Both of those stories star a costumed adventurer in the mold of the Shadow and Batman, named Midnight Man who hunts necromancers because of what they did to his family. There are definitely more stories set in the world of Graveyard Mind on deck. Whether those stories will feature Midnight Man, Winter and Frank in haunted Winnipeg, or bits of Winter’s world outside of Manitoba that were only briefly mentioned in the novel, I can’t say yet.

And that’s that! You can buy Graveyard Mind online or in major bookstores.

The cover for Baker Thief by Claudie Arsenault

Unconventional Romance: a Chat with Claudie Arsenault about Baker Thief

The cover for Baker Thief by Claudie ArsenaultClaudie Arsenault is an asexual and aromantic-spectrum writer hailing from the very-French Quebec City. A founding member of The Kraken Collective, she’s well-known for her involvement in solarpunk, her database of aro and ace characters, and her unending love of squids. Claudie’s latest release is Baker Thief, the start of a new series that examines and reframes various tropes of romantic fiction using aromantic characters.

I took some time to chat with her about Baker Thief, her focus on aro/ace characters in romantic fiction, worldbuilding, and more. Let’s take a look!

Note: The interview below has been lightly edited for length, flow, and clarity.

So, for those who are unfamiliar with Baker Thief or with your work in general, can you describe what it’s about?

I am a fantasy writer who sometimes dabbles in science-fiction and is particularly fond of platonic relationships —family, friendships, and queerplatonic partnerships. Baker Thief is an example of this. It’s fantasy that directly interrogates romantic tropes (enemies-to-lovers in this case) by reframing them around non-romantic relationships. I tend to write stories with hard moments but hopeful vibes and endings, and a lot of more fun, quirky things (croissants, hot air balloons, etc.).

I don’t read much romance myself, so it’s interesting to hear you talk about deconstructing the friends-to-lovers trope in a non-romantic context. Was that one of your main goals when you started writing?

Not quite. I started writing an actual romance! Aromantic characters tend to sneak back into my work on their own now, and I had only a fraction of my draft written when I decided I wanted to do something that could read like a romance, but wasn’t one. Romance does amazing things, but most of them could totally translate to so many other relationships, and I really needed to explore other ways to that HEA (Happily Ever After).

So Claude/Claire snuck in of their own accord? How very appropriate! What was that like?

I guess… kind of natural? This happens a lot with my first drafts. I plot some very basic plot points and character traits, but so much of it emerges naturally over the course of writing. I’m very much of a “first draft is telling yourself the story” kind of person, so I expect things like that.

At the time I hadn’t written a lot of aromantic characters yet, either, but I was questioning the label for myself, and writing an out and proud aro MC was such a great way to explore and affirm myself.

What was the inspiration behind making Claude/Claire genderfluid? Is this idea in conversation with certain other works or characters you’re familiar with?

It stems from several elements at once: a general desire to write several enby characters, a lack of bi-gender characters in stories I was picking up, and a random encounter of a gifset of Cybersix, a show I’d watched quite a lot as a kid, in which a masked woman passes as a male literature teacher during the day, and it kinda gets gay with his male chemist teacher friend? It’s an awesome show, but Cybersix doesn’t directly define its MC as genderfluid, so I thought… why not? It’s an interesting reversal of superhero tropes and trans-as-liars narratives that both of Claire’s identities are real.

In Baker Thief, many characters to state what pronouns they use when they introduce themselves to each other. I think the fact that it’s such a common social convention in your story says a lot about your setting. Can you talk about that aspect from a worldbuilding perspective?

When I build new worlds, one of my first question is often how accepted several queer identities are, and in what state the related normative systems (heteronormativity, cisnormativity, allonormativity, etc.) were. I wanted Baker Thief’s world to be one where various queer identities are well known and accepted, because I really wanted stories where those wouldn’t be the source of their problems. Yet I was also aiming to remodel romance tropes on platonic relationships, and that was easier without disassembling these normative structures, since many only exist within their boundaries. So that’s how I have a world in which people regularly introduce themselves with their pronouns, yet most narrators clearly gender those they encounter unless the presentation is erroneous. Similarly, monogamous romantic partners are still people’s first expectations. I’ve mostly erased the pushback against deviations, not the norm itself, but it’s been very interesting to note how big a difference that already makes for people.

I get the sense that your book was affirming to a lot of other people, judging by the acknowledgements section at the end.

I have received a lot of DMs, e-mails, and other messages of people who’d never felt that represented by an aromantic character before. So yeah, I think it resonated in others too, and that’s one of my favourite reader reactions. 🙂

What would you say were some of the challenges of writing a book that examines a lot of romance fiction tropes through the lens of an aromantic character?

The biggest challenge comes from choosing a queerplatonic relationship. People immediately think of it as “romance lite” and reviewers have called Baker Thief a romance. Making it clear that these characters were both deeply connected and yet *not* in a romantic relationship was … difficult, and I think somewhat impossible.

The other interesting challenge is that you cannot rely on romantic shortcuts. Your readers will follow them to their romantic conclusion.

There is a lot of unsaid things in relationships that need to become explicit when you write this kind of closeness with aromantic characters.

Speaking as someone who is allocishet, yeah, I found I had to consciously reprogram my brain in some parts. Because physical attraction, romantic attraction, and taking comfort in another person’s presence are all different things. Did you find that mixing in SF/F elements, like the witches and the exocores, was another way to indicate that your book’s goals were different?

There’s the taking comfort and all that, but also all the domestic aspects? Romantic relationships in romance novels often have very specific shape — living together, having sex, etc. With Claude/Claire and Adèle, I was pushed into reviewing all the assumptions we make about what the relationship will look like, and that was really interesting. And, in general, no, I don’t think the mixing does any of that. The romance I do read tends to be science-fiction and fantasy too.

So in my mind romance and fantasy overlap a lot. It’s just the focus that slides depending on the “main” genre.

Yeah. Do you have any recommendations for such overlapping works that you like?

Moon-Bright Tides by RoAnna Sylver is a fantasy novelette with an F/F witch/mermaid romance that I adore. Cheerleaders from Planet X by Lyssa Chiavari is a new-adult alien invasion story that centers the relationship between two girls. Help Wanted by J. Emery is a magical college romance novella with a gender-questioning protagonist.

Oh, and In Memoriam by ‘Nathan Burgoine was an amazing M/M story with second chances, time travel, and really dark but perfect humour. There’s just… a lot of them out there!

Also, full disclosure I guess, but two of these (the two first) are part of the Kraken Collective, my little alliance of indie authors. 🙂

One of the things I want to explore more in discussing Baker Thief is the idea of witches. They’re an underclass hated and feared for their abilities, yet also ruthlessly exploited because of them. Was that an element you included in your story from the beginning?

Yeah, right from the start. I rather love Soylent-Green-like tropes, and I think we collectively do not pay enough attention to whose labour and exploitation is needed for our society to function. We just prefer not to know, not to see, not to care.

When I think of contemporary SF/F examining those ideas, the one I think of right away is N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, especially the final volume.

Oh yeah, definitely! It’s much more central to Jemisin’s work than it is in mine, which makes a lot of sense. As a black woman she’s much better placed to speak of this cycle of exploitation than I could ever be, and did so masterfully. The Broken Earth series is just so powerful in that regard.

Is the exploitation of witches something that happens mostly in the home setting of Baker Thief, or does it happen elsewhere in the world the story is set in?

It’s happening in Val-de-mer and the country as a whole, but hasn’t spread everywhere. A lot of it stems from the fear-mongering that followed Val-de-mer’s magic-powered reactor and the destruction it caused, so it’s more powerful in this city than elsewhere.

What parts of Val-de-mer’s worldbuilding are you fondest of? Are there any secrets or Easter eggs that you know about that new readers don’t?

I love the way the city is split into quartiers and am really looking forward to the day I can make their yearly snow race tournament a part of a story. These are directly inspired from Siena in Italy, which I was lucky enough to visit.

Some of the streets and quartiers are directly inspired from Quebec City locations, too, and the way the different populations distributed themselves when the British conquered the territories.

Yes, one of the things I liked was that it wasn’t your typical pseudo-British fantasy setting.

Yeah, I tend to try and avoid going too close to that? Because then people expect a lot more … “accuracy”. (I put quotes around that word because somehow racial diversity is supposed to be inaccurate.) So you’ll catch flack for having potatoes, never mind that you’re in a completely different universe.

It was also just plain fun to have so much of my hometown in there.

I got a real sense of home-longing in your descriptions.

I’m glad! I love my city. Val-de-mer is a sort of magical, improved version of it. I would live there, for sure!

There’s a lot of joy built into certain descriptions/actions in the story, especially when it comes to food or other indicators of home/comfort. Is baking/cooking something you like to do personally? If not, are there other pastimes that have made their imprint on your work?

I love baking. It’s worth noting that I started after writing my first Baker Thief draft, but I sure haven’t been able to stop since. It’s an incredibly simple process, yet the slightest change in it has huge impact on your final bread, so it’s also incredibly hard to master. I have a lot of great memories of comfort around bread from my grandfather’s, but also in general with food and family. It shows in Adèle most of all, and everything that surrounds the Duclos family and their tourtière.

Do you think there will be any other stories set in the same universe?

Absolutely. I have the big lines of Baker Thief 2 planned already, and couldn’t resist writing 900 words of it. The next story will focus on Emmanuelle and Livia, friendship, science and magic. I love this universe and can’t see myself setting it aside anytime soon, but I do have a few other WIPs I want to finish before I seriously dive back into it. So, one day, yes, but it’s hard to know exactly when. In the meantime, though, there’s my Patreon where patrons get to vote on which short fiction they want to read, and Baker Thief is in the options on a regular basis.

And that’s that! I hope you enjoyed this taste of Arsenault’s work. You can check out her official website to learn more.

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